‘How we wrote the story’: You can do a lot in a day

Judy Pasternak and Stephen Braun bring extra dimensions to a tough murder story

The least likeable editor I worked for was the same guy who muttered one of my favorite lines about this business: “You can get a lot done in a day.” He was trying to remind us that real pros have tricks to make time slow down, grabbing extra details and perspective that enrich the everyday deadline piece. I thought of him when I was combing through my computer files of old “How-I-Wrote-the-Story” essays and found this one by Stephen Braun and Judy Pasternak, who at the time were our co-bureau chiefs in Chicago.

'How we wrote the story': You can do a lot in a day

'How we wrote the story': You can do a lot in a day

What you’re about to read is a 1,000-word story about the murder of a child-murdering child, and a 1,800-word explanation of how the story got done. The story and (more importantly) the essay are submitted as reminders of the extra steps you can take in the course of a daily story. Clearly, it helps to have a partner, like Steve and Judy did, let alone a bureau researcher. (It probably also helps to be married to your bureau partner, as Steve and Judy are, if quick division-of-labor calculations have to be made.) But focus on the efficiency and the extra steps that went into this effort. Imagine what you would have done in Steve and Judy’s shoes. Imagine what you’ll do next time:

September 2, 1994

CHICAGO–In a city that, like Los Angeles, is so often numbed by the exploits of ruthless gang murderers, the saga of Robert Sandifer was sadly familiar–except for his tender age.

The object of a three-day police hunt, Robert was the suspect in the shooting death of one teen-ager and the wounding of two others. He was found early Thursday, a murder victim himself. His body lay face down under a viaduct, shot in the back of the head.

Robert Sandifer was 11 years old.

He was sought for the slaying Sunday of Shavon Dean, 14, who was struck by a bullet apparently meant for a member of a gang. She wanted to be a beautician and had slipped out of her house that night, despite her mother’s urgings that she stay inside, to visit a candy store and practice her skills on a neighbor’s hair.

Robert was nicknamed “Yummy” for his love of cookies, and he stood less than five feet tall. He was also a member of the Black Disciples, a street gang whose ranks number in the hundreds and are alleged to be involved in the drug trade, car thefts, extortion, prostitution and credit card fraud. Police theorize that his own gang, seeing him as a liability, executed him.

He was a “tough shorty,” the name gang members here give to their baby-faced members. His personal rap sheet listed eight arrests in connection with crimes ranging from armed robbery to auto theft.

Illinois children’s services authorities were searching for a facility for him outside the state after 13 local agencies turned him down because of his age. Robert, said Cook County Public Guardian Patrick Murphy, “was in trouble from the moment he was conceived. His family made him a sociopath.”

Robert came from a disturbing background, but, Murphy added, it was far from unique. “Believe me,” he said, “we see this 100 times a week.”

Nationwide, the most recent FBI statistics show, 267 children under the age of 14 were charged with murder in 1992, up 50% from the decade before. “It’s not a diminishing problem. It’s going to get worse,” said George Knox, director of the National Gang Crime Research Center at Chicago State University.

Robert was the second of seven siblings. When he was 3, the state took Robert, who was covered with cigarette burns and bruises that appeared to be caused by an extension cord, out of his mother’s custody. He was turned over to his grandmother, who raised him with little discipline in the house that at various times contained as many as 19 other children, Murphy said.

“If this child was protected five years ago, you save two people,” Mayor Richard M. Daley said on Wednesday, before Robert’s corpse was located. “You save the young woman who was killed and you save the young offender.”

The two children lived a block apart in the Roseland section on the far South Side and had what one relative called “a hi-bye relationship.” On Thursday, neighbors drifted back and forth between their homes, where makeshift shrines to each had been fashioned.

“I love you, Shavon,” a cousin had scrawled on a banner hanging from a cyclone fence at the dead girl’s frame house. “Heaven is the place for angels like you.” Bouquets of sunflowers and carnations were already wilting. On the sidewalk, candles burned inside rose-tinted vases.

At Robert’s house, five boys stepped up to write their names with a blue marker on a piece of cardboard affixed to the wrought-iron railing of a porch where his grandmother, Janet, was sitting. She leaped out of her chair.

“Why’d y’all let my baby go like that?” she bellowed at them. “Why’d y’all leave Yummy shot?”

Mute, jaws grinding beneath clamped teeth, they finished signing. Then they retreated down the alley while two men grabbed the distraught grandmother tightly around her arms and forced her inside the house.

“Robert’s no symbol,” said his aunt, Bay Sandifer. “They’ll probably be shooting tonight.”

There was certainly shooting on Sunday.

In the afternoon, a 16-year-old gang member was shot with a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun. Robert was wanted for questioning in the attack.

At 8:30 p.m., the same weapon was firing away at a group of teen-agers playing football; police say they may have also been gang members. Another 16-year-old boy was wounded in the leg and Shavon Dean, who had sneaked away from home minutes before, was killed.

Just looking at Robert’s file, Murphy said, he could have predicted “it was only a matter of time before he would be dead or killed someone. It just happened sooner, not later.”

The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services first made contact with Robert’s mother in 1984, when he was not yet a year old. The situation was investigated again in 1985 and 1986 before five children were removed from the home because of “inadequate supervision and a risk of harm,” said department spokeswoman Martha Allen. Robert’s mother, Murphy said, was addicted to crack cocaine.

“As time passed,” Allen said, “it became apparent to us that the grandmother was not supervising the children adequately either.”

His first arrest, at age 8, was for shoplifting. Then, in rapid succession, came arrests for criminal damage to property, robbery, attempted armed robbery. He bragged about his standing in the Black Disciples.

He and an older brother ran away from their grandmother’s home frequently. Late last year, they were made wards of the state. Robert was placed in a diagnostic center for evaluation. He got into a fight with a teacher there, and ran away in March.

He was picked up in April in a stolen car.

Authorities placed him in a juvenile-detention center. Shortly after his release in July, he was tormenting the neighborhood again. Eli Roberts, 17, said “Yummy” smashed a window in his white Oldsmobile 88. He retaliated by heaving the younger boy’s dirt bike into the street.

Several days later, “Yummy” grabbed a gasoline can from the back seat of the Olds, poured it over the seats and lit a match.

“He took off, like he always does when he knows he’s in trouble,” Eli Roberts said. “We didn’t see him ’round here for a week.”

Within weeks, Juvenile Court Judge Thomas R. Sumner ordered the state to find a home for Robert outside the Illinois boundary. In the meantime, he decided over the state’s objection, to return Robert to his grandmother’s care.

By the end of the month, Robert had been arrested twice more–for burglary and for armed robbery.

Then came the spate of shootingsfor which Robert was in turn killed by his own, police speculate.

“These organizations are very selfish,” said Police Supt. Matt Rodriguez at a press conference. “And he was a perfect example of someone who was apparently doing the bidding of gangs and is dead because he was expendable.”

Authorities are pursuing what they call “good leads” and say they think they know where Robert was during the days he dropped from the scene.

Shavon Dean’s mother, Debra, took no comfort in the fate of the alleged murderer. “I’m just sorry it happened to the boy,” she said.

As she spoke, she noticed a woman in a black leather jacket signing Shavon’s banner. It was Robert’s aunt.

In a moment, the two women were sighing together.

“We got to do something about these gangbangers,” Sandifer said. “It’s terrible, it don’t make no sense.”

“It’s got to start now,” Dean said.

Here are Steve and Judy (who now work in the Times’ Washington, D.C., bureau) in a single voice:

A child’s death trumps all else for sadness. It is every parent’s nightmare, the fear of a life unlived, a new generation plowed under. But what of the child killed by a child? Or, in the ultimate closing of the circle of American juvenile violence, what of the child who kills another child, only to himself be executed by children?

When Shavon Dean was cut down by a bullet during a gang-related drive-by fusillade on a Sunday night on Chicago’s South Side, it was one more heartbreak in a town accustomed to losing its children. Chicago, like Los Angeles, had been riven by street gang culture since the 1960s, and has seen more than its share of younger and younger victims and younger and younger assailants.

For several days, we had been reading in the Chicago newspapers and watching on television about the police hunt for an 11-year-old suspect in Shavon Dean’s murder. This development, unfortunately, was not shocking. Both of us had spent a fair amount of time with gang members during our years on the Metro staff. We had seen 6th-graders show off .22s and brag about how they used them.

But when 11-year-old Robert Sandifer Jr. was discovered, face down under a viaduct, shot to death himself in an apparent execution, this became more than a sorrowful local story. Combining his background, his alleged crime and his violent fate, Robert’s tale was a miniature morality play, which taught this lesson: Brutality begets brutality begets brutality.

Presented right, this series of events could crystallize something we all know instinctively and have heard often enough in cold bureaucratic language from many different agencies.

Our editor, Roger Smith, called from Los Angeles. He wanted the story for the next day’s paper. He left it up to us who would be responsible for it. We quickly agreed that both of us should jump on it. There was far too much information to gather, from too many far-flung places, for either of us to attempt this alone as a daily.

We needed to get out on the streets, getting a sense of both Robert and Shavon, and of the neighborhood they shared, as well as the reaction to both killings. We needed to traverse the many government offices and courtrooms where Robert–known as Yummy among friends–had made his presence known.

And we had to put this story in perspective, to explain that this particular drama was hardly unique.

All by 7 p.m., Central Daylight Time–deadline for the next day’s first edition back at the Mother Ship.

Steve, we decided, would go out to the South Side and Judy would try to piece together the official view of Robert.

Steve’s timing turned out to be fortuitous. TV reporters had swarmed over the area all morning long, breaking into breakfast programming with fevered accounts of Robert’s grim demise inside a graffiti-scarred pedestrian tunnel.

But by 11, the streets were the neighbors’ again. They were paying their respects to Shavon at a local funeral home, signing their names to makeshift memorials in front of her mother’s house and mingling outside, stunned at the horror of it all.

Finally, people relaxed and started interacting again, providing grist for the type of playlet that so often tells more than an interview can. Steve asked questions of the neighbors, but also gathered plenty of touching material by knowing when to simply observe the ebb and flow of events.

Back at the bureau, Judy was touching base by phone with every agency she could think of that might have had contact with Robert. She was able to start sketching out a troubling biography of the boy. It was clear, though, that nailing down the accuracy of many tidbits was going to be difficult. His height was variously reported as 4 foot 8, 48 inches, 4 foot 6. His weight was, depending on the source, 66 pounds or 68 pounds.

For a frame of reference. Judy asked the bureau researcher, John Beckham, to contact the FBI for statistics on the ages of murder suspects. And she asked him to call various local universities and ask if any faculty members had studied local gangs. John’s list in hand, Judy hit the phones again. One of the professors was a gold mine. He knew the name of Robert’s gang “set” (which we confirmed with police), its name and main activities. He explained how young many gang members are and mentioned the memorable slang term for kids like Robert: ”tough shorty.”

Time was passing, and Los Angeles needed the standard budget summary, a sked line of perhaps 200 words that usually began with the story’s first two grafs. Steve, realizing this, called in to the office and gave Judy a quick rundown of his best quotes and some color from the neighborhood. Judy put the sked together, taking the task seriously.

A sked is a wonderful laboratory. In particular, it’s a great way to gauge if your intended lede takes too long to get to the point . The sked can make the writing of the full story incredibly easy come deadline. Best of all, it’s merely a trial balloon, so if reaction from the desk is sour or additional information shifts the emphasis, change is no problem.

This story was breaking news, but also a parable. A hard lede was never even considered. There were still plenty of possibilities: A description of Robert’s childish traits contrasted with his ferocity? A scene from the neighborhood mourning the short-circuiting of two lives? Neither would cut to the heart of the story quickly enough.

Judy typed in the information she thought a reader needed to know fast: Robert was only 11 years old. He was in a gang. He had apparently killed someone young. He had been killed himself.

She pondered the list. His age was the reason for the story, really. If he’d been 18, or even 13, it would not have the same resonance, certainly not in Los Angeles, where the audience we write for had read about and experienced gang horrors for years. That we had come to this point–that gang murders were actually routine–was in itself extraordinary. She wanted to address that up front.

But she also wanted to make sure that the number 11 didn’t get lost in the middle of a sentence.

So she decided to allude to his youthfulness in the beginning, explaining that this is why we were writing yet another gang shooting story–from Chicago, yet. Then she’d quickly set the scene in the second graph, giving readers some feel for the young man’s last exploits. The third graph would contain the punch: Robert Sandifer was 11 years old.

She vowed not to use the cliched ”tragic” or ”senseless.” The drama, she hoped, would flow from the structure and details.

Roger phoned. He liked the sked. But, he noted, though Judy had written about Robert being shot in the back of the head, the fact that he had not committed suicide needed to be more clear. Judy added the phrase ”a murder victim himself” to sharpen the point. A simple change, a major improvement.

When Steve returned, deadline loomed just a few hours away. We would not be able to sit side by side, taking turns at the keyboard to write (as we did for this essay). We had to move. Steve pointed out that Judy knew the overall framework of the story better than he did. He approved of the sked and suggested she take on the role of assembler.

With the sked as guide, Judy again typed in important points and moved them around to try to establish their order in the story. From the time Steve had phoned in and described the encounter between Robert’s aunt and Shavon’s mother, Judy had been thinking of that as the ending. It was a strong, vivid image of how both families recognized both children as victims.

Up high came the spot for contrasts–Robert was at once a child and a menace. Picking details to support each picture, Judy wished she’d been able to confirm one she’d included in the sked, lifted from a Chicago paper–that Robert had a tattoo reading, ”I Love Mommy.” With no corroboration, it could not go into the story and good thing it didn’t. Days later, authorities announced that Robert’s tattoo actually said BDN, for Black Disciple Nation.

Also high up, Judy wanted readers to understand that Robert was more than likely a portent of things to come. So the stats and expert quotes were placed next. John had also gathered clips about other child killers, but Judy opted not to use them, for reasons relating to both space and pace.

Now it was time for color from the neighborhood to keep the reader going. The reaction would make help make the point that these were real people, not poster children.

So Judy turned to notes that Steve had provided. He’d thoughtfully typed them up in sentence form. He’d given Judy both a printout and an electronic copy. He’d included just about everything he had.

Judy dropped in many of his paragraphs whole, streamlined others and infused some of his details into the official sections to enliven the drier parts. She shifted into narrative for the story of Robert’s life, placing some of Steve’s interviews into the chronology of the boy’s arrests. Then she slipped naturally into Robert’s last days and the closing anecdote. She intentionally referred to Robert once or twice as ”Yumm y,” a reminder that this was a mere kid.

Then she showed what she’d done to Steve. He suggested moving up a paragraph about Shavon Dean. We shouldn’t downplay the girl who was murdered, who by all accounts was law-abiding and decent, he said. He was right.

We discussed a few more wording changes and shipped it off.

Roger called us at home later and said he was also moving up the police theory that Robert’s murder came at the hands of his own Black Disciples. We had hesitated to make too much of it, given how much inaccurate information was floating around and knowing that police sources can mislead. But we had quoted the Chicago Police Superintendent on the record further down, Roger countered. That was as official as it gets. Point well taken, we agreed.

The next day, police made two arrests in Robert’s murder case. One suspect was 16. The other was 14.

RECOMMENDED READING: The news cycle makes us tight-assed. It robs us of some of our most noble and creative qualities. We forget how to take chances. We forget how playfulness helps us discover ways of getting better. I was reminded of this the other day when I was listening to a local public radio station and heard L.A. Times science writer K.C. Cole give this commentary on the importance of play:

Once again, Los Angeles County students have done poorly on state-wide tests. This suggests to many that it’s time to get serious about the business of preparing for examinations.

I beg to differ.

Tests, after all, measure progress on well-defined goals. No room for aimless wandering.

In science, however, not knowing where you’re going is critical to progress. As physicist I.I. Rabi put it: “The only interesting fields in science are the ones where you still don’t know what you’re talking about.”

In fact, most scientists have serious respect for play.

Einstein was a day-dreamer. Perhaps his most famous photograph shows him sticking out his tongue.

Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin while doodling pictures in petri dishes with prettily colored germs. “I was just playing” he later told a biographer.

The late Caltech physicist Richard Feynman was notorious for playing practical jokes. During the atom bomb project, he broke into safes, leaving “ha ha, gotcha!” notes inside. He peed standing on his head to study the interplay of gravity and urine.

There’s a good reason why so many great scientists are players: Play is the only activity that encourages us to try things for the heck of it, to take stupid risks, and laugh if we fall flat on our faces, to, well, play our hunches.

Some scientists play with formulas; others ride their imaginations on wild flights of fancy: Barbara McClintock discovered that genes could trade places while imagine what it would be like to be a gene.

Play strikes some people as idleness. But there’s nothing like an idle brain to provide fertile ground for new ideas. To a scientist, idle curiosity is as important as a telescope or particle accelerator.

And it’s not only science.

Playing with paints and phrases is how art and poetry is made.

In politics, play can be the only way to try out potentially unpleasant ideas—-which may explain why one of the most controversial statements during the aftermath of Sept. 11 was by the host of a comedy show—-Bill Maher on “Politically Incorrect.”

Trial balloons float. If they were weighted down with seriousness, they’d never get off the ground.

Democracy, after all, is a very playing form of government—-with making mistakes built into the system.

So, to be sure, the first thing Los Angeles County students need to succeed is classrooms with air conditioning, chairs and books, better-paid teachers, smaller classes.

But they also need a little less pressure to do well on tests, a little more freedom to get good at creative goofing off.

A talent for playing is for keeps.

No fooling.

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