By: Joe Strupp
As with nearly every suicide, there is far more to the death of Gary Webb than meets the eye. Although his downward spiral following his departure from the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News provides a pat story line, the devil is really in the details — and extends to a wide range of family and health issues, as well as a stolen motorcycle.
In fact, after spending several years away from full-time journalism, Webb was beginning to stage a comeback in late 2004. But then a series of personal setbacks pushed his longtime depression over the edge, resulting in his suicide in December, friends and relatives say.
Webb, 49, had not been on staff at a daily newspaper since he agreed to leave the Mercury News in late 1997 after his 1996 “Dark Alliance” series, which detailed a CIA link to crack-dealing gangs in Los Angeles. The series sparked harsh criticism from several major newspapers, some of which questioned whether Webb had the facts to support his stories. Mercury News editors reassigned him from his state capital beat to a suburban night cops post, which he eventually quit — and the paper all but disavowed the series in an editor’s note.
After years of non-daily newspaper work, which included a “Dark Alliance” book, several freelance pieces, and a six-year stint as a legislative consultant to the California Assembly, Webb gained a staff job at the alternative Sacramento News & Review last August. “He told us that he wanted to get back to journalism and he wanted to stay in Sacramento because of his kids,” said the paper’s editor, Tom Walsh. “He obviously had a world of knowledge, and we were lucky to have him.” Walsh admits being concerned that Webb might not “fit in” at a smaller weekly after a 19-year career at the Mercury News and, prior to that, The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.
Still, Walsh had no concerns about Webb’s abilities, describing the “Dark Alliance” project as “thoughtful and interesting” and later determining Webb to be “a meticulous reporter who had his facts backed up.” During his time at the News & Review, Webb penned five articles, including two lengthy cover stories on traffic light cameras and the U.S. Army’s use of computerized combat games to entice youngsters. “He did a lot of reporting and went over and above,” Walsh recalled. “He seemed to be enjoying journalism.”
Beneath the surface, however, Webb’s long-brewing depression was gaining strength, say relatives. His ex-wife Susan Bell, who divorced him in 2000 after 21 years but remained friendly, says the trouble began about a year ago after Webb lost his legislative consulting job. He called her late on Feb. 10, 2004, the 25th anniversary of their wedding. “He was very distraught and actually cried. He was scared and discouraged,” Bell told E&P, adding that a friend later told her Webb was talking about suicide even then. “He stopped taking antidepressants and he could not get a job, for the first time in his life.”
Bell claims she stopped receiving child support shortly after that, and eventually took legal action to garnishee Webb’s wages in October after he’d been working for several months. “I don’t think that helped [his depression] any,” she said. Webb’s brother, Kurt, who lives in San Jose, said the Sacramento job had given his brother new hope, but it later faded when money troubles set in last fall.
Gary Webb had shown some signs of positive behavior, such as helping research information on melanoma for his brother’s 10-year-old son and bringing his family to his brother’s home for Thanksgiving. But at the same time, he slowly appeared to be giving up, relatives say. In addition to child support depleting his paycheck, mounting debt forced Webb to sell his suburban Sacramento home in December and arrange to move in with his mother. “He asked me if he could move in with me three days before he died,” Bell says. “I told him no, and I have to live with that.”
Webb also named Bell as his beneficiary earlier in the year and in October pre-arranged cremation services for himself.
As December arrived, he began to exhibit several other telltale signs of impending suicide. Webb gave one of his sons an expensive watch as a birthday gift one week before his death, even though the boy’s birthday was two weeks away. He also donated two of his favorite dirt bikes to local motorcycle enthusiasts around the same time. His brother says he now believes Webb “gave up and set forth a planned course for his suicide.”
Walsh of the News & Review said Webb’s professional behavior changed shortly after his last cover story ran on Nov. 25, 2004. After calling in sick for four days, Webb asked Walsh if he could take a weeklong unpaid leave of absence, ostensibly to finish selling his house and moving in with his mother. “He had no outward signs of depression, he just said he had a lot to do,” Walsh says, adding that Webb even mentioned some future story ideas.
By the week of Dec. 6, Webb’s depression had worsened as his home had been sold and he was trying to decide where to live. (He had to be out of the house by Dec. 10.) On Dec. 9, he had dinner with his mother and began moving in with her. But, the same day, someone stole his favorite motorcycle. “That put him over the edge,” Bell contends. “He went back to his mother’s and said he didn’t feel like he had anything to live for.”
Webb left four suicide letters, including one to his mother in which he mentioned the stolen motorcycle as a “final straw,” Bell says. His body was found, with two gunshot wounds to the head, in his house the next day, Dec. 10, by movers. Bell said one of her son’s told her that Webb had been keeping a gun by his nightstand for more than a year.
While Bell and Kurt Webb realized that Gary Webb’s death stemmed, in part, from his own depression problems, both strongly believe that he could not get over the “Dark Alliance” backlash. “If they had stood behind him, there is no doubt in my mind he’d still be alive,” Bell said.
Jerry Ceppos, who served as Mercury News editor when “Dark Alliance” ran and is currently vice president/news for parent company Knight Ridder, declined to comment on the series or Webb’s death, saying, “I was saddened to read about it.”