Knitting the yarn

Stuart Pfeifer scores and gets credit for an accidental assist

The first thing I feel when I see a HONOLULU dateline is envy. There it is, on the front page of the L.A. Times. Then the self-absorbedness wears off because the story is moving like a bat out of hell. It’s what, in the earlier days of journalism, was called a “yarn”–no particular significance, just something you can’t stop reading. The kind of story that gives you something to talk about. The kind of story that goes up on high school bulletin boards, that makes the reader put himself in the shoes of the protagonist.

Read the first 14 grafs and see what you think.

By Stuart Pfeifer
July 19, 2005

HONOLULU — His living room opens onto a dazzling white beach and a panoramic ocean view. At night, he falls asleep listening to the crashing surf.

DeWayne McKinney has made a fortune selling convenience. He owns cash machines at nightclubs, pedestrian malls and other busy locations across the island of Oahu. Whenever a tourist withdraws cash, McKinney takes a cut.

 Knitting the yarn

Knitting the yarn

He spends his days traversing the island in his black Mercedes-Benz, checking on his ATMs. Sometimes, he’ll stop at Pipeline, the legendary surf spot, sip coffee and watch the waves glide to shore.

McKinney could be forgiven for wondering if this could possibly be happening to him. Until 5 1/2 years ago, he was in a California prison, serving a life sentence for murder.

“Sometimes I pinch myself. I’m living here? I know I’ve come a long way from there,” McKinney, 44, said recently. “I’m at peace. In there, there’s no peace. Every day is a day of worry and fear. Here, that doesn’t exist.”

* * *

The gunman entered the Burger King in the city of Orange near closing time Dec. 11, 1980. He leaped over the front counter and forced three employees into a walk-in cooler.

In the back of the restaurant, Walter Horace Bell Jr., the 19-year-old night manager, was counting the evening’s receipts. The gunman forced Bell to open the safe, then shot him in the back of the head.

Six days later, police arrested McKinney, then 20, and charged him with the killing. McKinney grew up in South Los Angeles and Ontario, lost his mother when he was 12 and spent his teenage years running with a gang.

Once, he cut a woman with a knife. A few years later, he and some friends were arrested with a gun outside a jewelry store. For attempted robbery, he was sent to the California Youth Authority.

He became a suspect in the Burger King slaying after detectives collected dozens of gang members’ mug shots from the Los Angeles Police Department. One of the Burger King employees saw McKinney’s photo and thought he looked like the gunman. McKinney was several inches shorter than the man described by witnesses. He walked with a limp; the shooter did not. But at McKinney’s trial in 1982, four witnesses identified him as the killer.

“About the only way to bring in better evidence is if we had a movie of it,” said Tony Rackauckas, then a deputy Orange County district attorney.

McKinney was convicted of first-degree murder and robbery. Rackauckas asked for the death penalty, but the jury deadlocked and McKinney was sentenced to life in prison without parole.



He spent the next 18 years in five California prisons, including Folsom and San Quentin. He attempted suicide, contracted tuberculosis and twice was stabbed by fellow inmates.

He passed the time reading western novels by Louis L’Amour. He found religion and earned his high school equivalency degree. In 1999, two inmates gave statements admitting that they were involved in the Burger King robbery and asserting that McKinney had been wrongly convicted. They identified another man, a career criminal, as the killer.

Investigators with the public defender’s office contacted two of the trial witnesses whose testimony had helped put McKinney behind bars. Shown a photo of the man implicated by the prisoners, the witnesses said that he — not McKinney — was the gunman. After an investigation, Rackauckas, by then Orange County district attorney, agreed that McKinney should be freed. A judge threw out the conviction.

On Jan. 28, 2000, McKinney walked out of the state prison in Lancaster without a driver’s license, a Social Security number, a change of clothes or a toothbrush.

Because he had been serving a life term, the state did nothing to prepare him for freedom. Job training would have been considered a waste of money.

McKinney said he would have been happy to work as a janitor and live in a cheap motel. He had no expectations. But he was not a broken man. In prison, he had made a promise to himself.

“I always said if I was given an opportunity, I’d take advantage,” he said.

He moved into a Costa Mesa apartment provided by the owner of a drug counseling center who had been touched by his story. New friends from the public defender’s office helped him get a job operating audio-visual equipment at a UC Irvine lecture hall. McKinney became a celebrity on the Christian lecture circuit, holding audiences spellbound with his story of how faith sustained him during his years of confinement.

He praised Rackauckas for admitting that a wrong had been done, and even endorsed the district attorney’s reelection bid in 2002. He accepted a tearful apology from the judge who sent him to prison for life. He reconnected with a son born shortly after he went to prison. He became a grandfather. He fell in love and got married.

In the summer of 2002, the city of Orange paid $1.7 million to settle McKinney’s lawsuit against its Police Department and the detective who built the case against him.

When he collected his check, about $1 million after attorneys’ fees and expenses, McKinney gave no thought to an expensive vacation or a new car. He’d heard stories about lottery winners and others who squandered unexpected riches.

“If I wasn’t careful, it would be gone and it wouldn’t benefit anyone,” McKinney said of the money. “I just put it in the bank and tried to find the best interest I could.”

So far the story has run 919 words, and only 96 of them have been quotes. The writer knows that his distillation of the events is compelling and doesn’t require much reflection. This will help not only his storytelling, but– a month later– will also help another reporter, who Stuart doesn’t know, solve a writing problem. Details will follow. First though, let’s bring Stuart aboard to tell us how this story evolved. I, like most readers, had forgotten there was a history here between the reporter and the subject–another example of how, so often, these stories are a hell of a lot harder than they look.

Here’s Stuart:

“The story began for me in 1999, when McKinney was still in prison. I wrote a series of stories–for the Orange County Register–that addressed questions about McKinney’s guilt. I’ve followed his story ever since, reporting on his eventual exoneration and his transition back into the free world.

“In 2002, while at The Times, I wrote a Column One about McKinney’s first two years of freedom; that story looked at how McKinney became a sought-after public speaker following his release and how he had accepted apologies from the judge who sentenced him and from others in Orange County, where he had been wrongly convicted.

“McKinney and I kept in touch, speaking at least once every month or two after that Column One. When I heard about his success in Hawaii, I thought it might be time for another story. Fortunately, the editors in the Orange County edition agreed that it was a good idea and they signed off on a three-day reporting trip to Honolulu.

“It wasn’t a vacation, but rather three long days of reporting. ( I swear. ) Photographer Allen Schaben and I tagged along while McKinney withdrew tens of thousands of dollars from the bank to fill his machines and accompanied him on such routine things as a trip to shop for a new granite counter and a snorkeling trip with his stepson and wife. We also watched him interact with merchants who have allowed him to install machines and learned how he has a surprising knack for networking.

“Once I returned to L.A. and tried to write the story, I realized how much I still didn’t know about McKinney’s life in Hawaii. Many of the details in the story came from the dozen or so follow-up interviews by telephone. Each time we spoke, I learned knew things about McKinney’s experiences in prison and his life today. For example, it was probably in my 10th interview for this story that DeWayne explained how he used a former inmate friend to help him land his first contracts to install ATMs in Los Angeles before the move to Hawaii.

“Much of the credit for the writing of the story should go to [Times project editor] Marc Duvoisin. He came up with idea for the lead and suggested I get McKinney to explain in more detail how he first decided to invest in ATMs, including the nugget about a meeting with a church group when he first heard about investing in ATMs.

“Still, there was one piece of the story missing. The city of Orange refused to comply with our Public Records Act request and would not tell us how much they paid to settle a lawsuit McKinney filed after his release. McKinney was bound by a confidentiality agreement and could not tell me how much he was paid. That’s where Times’ lawyer Karlene Goller stepped in. The city eventually disclosed to us there was a $1.7 million settlement and McKinney finally conceded that his share of that was $1 million, with the lawyers getting the rest. That put into context how he was able to do what he did. Without that figure, there would have been a gaping hole in the story.”

I asked Stuart about the dearth of quotes. He said:

“One benefit of these Col One stories is we often spend considerable time reporting them, allowing us to dig up detail that would not make it into daily stories. As a result, we’re able to write them in a narrative style where our words tell the story, without relying on quotes. I find that quotes can needlessly bog down a narrative story. And when I’m comfortable and confident in the subject, then I don’t need to use someone else’s quotes to explain things.”

Let’s return to the story, which we left as McKinney was receiving his settlement money.

He tapped everyone he met for investment ideas. Some computer science students at UC Irvine suggested he fund a start-up company for which they would design computer games. Too risky, he decided.

An investment advisor said he should consider a diversified portfolio of stocks and bonds. McKinney didn’t like that idea, either. “I didn’t really want to gamble,” he said. “To me, that’s what it was: a gamble.”

The first idea he liked came from his mother-in-law, a real estate agent. She suggested he buy rental properties. He snapped up half a dozen condominiums in La Mirada.

Then, something clicked at a men’s group meeting at Zoe Christian Fellowship in Whittier. The participants included a Walt Disney Co. executive, the owner of an advertising firm and the head of a construction company.

The ad man mentioned that deregulation had made it possible for individuals to buy and operate automated teller machines.

“The other guys, they were so successful, they weren’t really paying attention,” McKinney recalled. “I said, ‘Hey, that sounds interesting.’ ”

At a political fundraiser a month later, he heard about a businessman who sold cash machines to private investors. They, in turn, found busy locations for the machines and profited from the fees customers paid to withdraw cash. ATMs cost about $5,000 apiece, McKinney learned, but can pay for themselves within a few months.

The business has been growing since surcharges were first allowed in 1996. Today, there are about 400,000 machines in the United States, many of them owned by individuals.

McKinney called a contact he had made at the fundraiser and was soon introduced to Carl Stein, whose company, Automated Cash Management Systems of Mira Loma, sells and installs ATMs in several Western states.

Stein encouraged him to find business owners willing to have the machines on their premises.

McKinney rounded up two buddies: a former car salesman he had met at church, and a parolee from the Lancaster prison. Together, they hit the streets.

The ex-salesman negotiated the first deal, with the owner of a Unocal station in Santa Ana. McKinney put up the money for the machine. Stein installed it in an exterior wall so customers could use it 24 hours a day. McKinney and his friends drove the streets of Los Angeles and Orange counties, looking for other locations. Each time one of his buddies sealed a deal, McKinney paid him $250.

Within a few months, McKinney had 20 machines in operation. In a good month, they generated more than $10,000 in fees. Still, McKinney was restless. Life in Southern California was fast-paced and stressful. His wife, Jeanine, talked constantly about moving back to her hometown, Honolulu.

“In California, it was a nervous feeling. L.A. to me is almost like being in prison. The nervous energy, it never ceased,” McKinney said.

A year earlier, he and Jeanine had used cash from wedding gifts to travel to Hawaii. They snorkeled at Hanauma Bay, relaxed on the sand at Waikiki.

He told Jeanine that he’d move from Southern California, as long as they could find a place on the beach. In 2003, she found a fixer-upper in Laie, near Oahu’s North Shore, and jump-started her husband’s business on the island by signing deals with businesses that wanted ATMs.

McKinney, meantime, sold his California cash machines. On Oahu, he found that business conditions were almost as perfect as the weather. There were lots of tourists and relatively few ATMs.

Prison didn’t teach McKinney much, but it did teach him to make the most of his connections. He used cigarettes to bribe fellow inmates for help landing a job, getting his toilet fixed or obtaining some homemade wine.

In the business world, it’s called networking, and McKinney was good at it. Every acquaintance became a possible lead, like the auto detailer who introduced McKinney to a market owner who agreed to house a cash machine. McKinney tipped the detailer $500 for the lead. Now, all the workers at Island Auto Detail have his business card and are keeping their eyes peeled for ATM locations.

A meeting with his insurance broker led to another deal. The agent’s brother, it turned out, operated the snack shop at the Honolulu Zoo. McKinney soon had an ATM there. It brings in about $1,250 a month.

“Right off the bat, within the first few months, we had the best accounts on the island,” McKinney said. One day, he stopped at the International Marketplace, a shopping plaza where he has two machines. After a couple of smoothies, he had another tip: Duke’s Lane, an adjacent shopping area, didn’t have an ATM. After a year of negotiations, McKinney had a machine there too.

Last year, he and his wife divorced and divided the machines. McKinney said that his years behind bars had left him ill-equipped for marriage.

In prison, “you’ve got to stand your ground. I started to realize that’s how I responded to my marriage,” McKinney said. “I don’t know how to give in, whether I’m right or wrong. I don’t know how to say, ‘OK, you’re right.’ ” After the divorce, McKinney retained nine ATMS on Oahu. He built his holdings back up to 20 machines, including two in Kona on the Big Island.

Some of his ATMs handle hundreds of transactions per day, charging customers $1.75 to $2.50 for each one. McKinney gives a cut of the fees to store owners. He said his machines are on pace to bring in $30,000 this month alone. ATM owners typically fill their machines with money borrowed from a bank. They recoup the funds electronically from customers’ accounts and repay the bank with interest. McKinney, in contrast, stocks his machines with money from his nest egg, thereby avoiding borrowing costs.

It’s a low-overhead business. McKinney has no employees. He tracks his machines via the Internet on his home computer. He can tell which need service, which are performing well and how much money has been withdrawn that day.

If a bill jams or an ATM runs out of cash, McKinney doesn’t get paid. So he befriends employees at the stores, shopping centers and bars where he has machines. They have McKinney’s cellphone number and call him if there’s a problem.

Other than the flashy car, McKinney hardly looks the part of a successful entrepreneur. He wears shorts, sandals and a T-shirt most days. He’s quick to flash a “hang loose” sign, and he calls his friends “brudda,” the Hawaiian equivalent of “dude.”

Stein, who helped McKinney launch the business, says the former inmate’s business acumen is astonishing. “How many people could go to prison two years and do as well as DeWayne has? He was in prison 20 years, and now he’s on his way to being a millionaire.” McKinney says he’s always had a head for business.

“I was working and selling since I was a kid. Selling papers. Washing dishes. Bagging groceries. Selling candy. Cut people’s grass. Everything I wanted, I worked and saved for all my life.”

McKinney used to leaf through travel magazines in the prison library and dream about places like the Hawaiian Islands. Now, he lives there.

In 2003, he paid $740,000 for a beachfront compound in Laie with five units. He lived in one and rented out the others. He built his living room around a plasma screen television — a symbolic centerpiece for a man who saved $10 a month from his prison job for two years to buy a TV for his cell.

McKinney recently sold the property — for $2.7 million, he said — and invested in more real estate on Oahu, including a beachfront home in Honolulu, where he now lives. He estimates his net worth at more than $3 million.

“I’ve just been lucky. I rely on my intuition a lot. I don’t have a [college] degree. The way I look at it, God is still watching out for his boy. What else could it be?” he said.

In January, he marked the fifth anniversary of his release from prison. It was like any other day in paradise.

“I finally found my place,” McKinney said. “I enjoy being able to breathe the fresh air, feel the wind on my face and know I’m free. I enjoy watching the sun set and the sun rise. I lay in my house with the doors open, feeling the breeze.”


Coda: I was raving about Stuart’s story to Sue Doyle, a former L.A. Times staffer who was wrting for the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin and has since moved to the Los Angeles Daily News. Mostly I was raving about the flow of the story, created by the elimination of many quotes. A few weeks later Sue sent me an e-mail:

“I thought of you on Friday when I was writing a story about an unbelievable situation…a mother and father are raising the children of two of their adult dead children. (the brother and sister died about 4 months apart..he was murdered. she was found face down dead in the rain from an overdose….to top it off, someone stole their dead daughter’s credit card! So they just finished that fraud trial and now their son’s murder trial is set to start)…The situation is really traumatic for the grandparents who suddenly find themselves raising these kids and grieving their own kids…but none of their quotes were anything very remarkable. After all, what more could they say?

“So I was stuck when I sat down to write it….but then I heard you in my head talking about how swiftly a story moved without quotes (you had been talking about a front page piece from July about a guy who went from prison to millionaire owning ATMS in Hawaii. I read that piece after you talked about it). So anyway — my very long story ended up having just two quotes…one from each parent. And I think that worked out well, because it was their story — their situation — was the most compelling part of the whole thing and not anything that they could say about it.

“It helped me think of the story in a different way…and made the piece work!”

Goal by Doyle. Assist from Pfeifer.

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