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True Crime

An Interview With Buffalo News Crime Reporter Lou Michel

At 8:15am on a rainy, windswept fall morning, I enter the reception area of Buffalo police headquarters. The woman behind the bulletproof glass is busy sifting through some papers, while a young man waits in a chair. Nobody makes eye contact. In the silence, I kill a couple minutes browsing the selection of snacks in the vending machine. As the woman behind the glass looks up, a middle-aged guy in khakis and a light green dress shirt with short brown hair strides into the lobby and extends a friendly handshake. He motions for the receptionist to buzz us in, and he leads me to the staff elevator that takes us up to his narrow, second floor office, which is strewn with newspapers and notes. A large map of the city hangs on one wall, next to a tiny fridge, microwave, and coffee maker, across from a cluttered desk with an old corded telephone. There’s a copier tucked against the wall behind the small desk where his computer sits. An air conditioner is whirring in the window. Despite the fact that it’s chilly outside, you need the air conditioner because the office gets too hot, I’m told.

It’s in this tiny crucible of an office that Buffalo News crime reporter Lou Michel composes stories that would be the envy of any hard-boiled detective writer—tales of murders, robberies, assaults, and mayhem of all kinds. The difference is that the characters in Michel’s stories weren’t formed in the imagination of the author, but rather on the cold, hard streets and backroads of our community. He’s been turning them out prolifically for about 20 years, and unfortunately for society he is never at a loss for new material.

He hands me a cup of strong coffee, and begins telling me the stories behind all the photographs that hang in small frames on the wall next to his desk. They all hold special meaning for him, these pictures of siblings, kids, and other relatives, sometimes posed with heroes like Jimmy Breslin or celebrities like Robert DeNiro and Martin Sheen. He beams with pride, showing them off and telling the stories behind them.

I’ve come to ask him to share with Artvoice what it’s like to have to pry into the horrible sorts of events that the rest of us hope and pray never touch our own lives, or the lives of our loved ones—and to do that as part of one’s daily routine. What kind of a toll does that take on a person? He takes a sip of coffee, and begins.

A Higher Power

This is a very spiritual job, because you encounter people at their most vulnerable point. Either they’re the survivors and they’re just hurting, or they’re the deceased. You have to have a spiritual undergirding. I’m not a Bible banger, but I would go insane if I didn’t believe that there was a higher power, you know, and that goodness wins out. Because it’s just heartbreaking, and every now and then in this job you hit the wall. That happened to me this past spring.

There were two police scandals. One where the officer got fired for beating up a kid who was already handcuffed—who had a lengthy police record. Two, there was the thing at Molly’s, with the two off-duty cops. We were breaking stories on that regularly. I worked on that along with two other great reporters—Matt Spina and Susan Schulman—a ten-day stretch. Then, in the middle of that, this poor little boy—Jacob Noe, eight years old I believe he was—gets murdered by his mentally disturbed mother. I got a tip through another series of stories that I was following that Child Protective Services was supposed to come and see that family within a matter of 24 hours because Jacob and his mother had been on CPS’s radar for months. Family members were complaining, but they never took the kid away, and she killed him. It’s hard to predict when a parent is going to become homicidal—but that was heartbreaking to cover.

I’ve covered a whole series of those stories. They all spring off of the police beat. Abdifatah Mohamud, who was beaten 70 times with a rolling pin. Eain Clayton Brooks, the five-year-old boy. So, you know, I had to take a few days off after that. In a nod to my two editors—Stan Evans, you know, he’s always making sure I’m getting my time off and rest. Because you just need that. You need to give your brain a break. And Mike Connolly, the new editor, who took me aside and said ‘Lou, we are running a race in this business—for those of us who take it to heart—and you’ve really got to pace yourself.’ It’s simple advice, but it’s great advice.

The Bloody Halo

So I come into people’s lives at vulnerable times. The hardest are the innocent victims—the young people that get killed or wounded by a stray bullet. Then there are cases like the first homicide that I covered for the Buffalo News when I took over this beat about twenty years ago. It involved a robbery at Wegman’s right near Walden. There was a Wegman’s in the area at the time. I get there and there’s this man about six foot five, lying on the ground. It’s all snowy out, and around his head is like this halo of blood. I’m just standing there, staring at it, you know, trying to get the story of what had happened. What happened was that he and his partner, as they were running out of the supermarket with their loot, he slipped in the snow and ice and fell and knocked himself unconscious. His partner went up and shot him and killed him. I worked on the story with Dan Herbeck. Dan got some comments from police sources and the lede of the story was that one of the bandits was so bad he shot his own partner. It turns out they were from Erie, PA, right next to the Thruway. The surviving partner jumped back on the Thruway and drove south to Erie where the police caught him.

The Fish Fry

There have been other times where I’ve gone up to houses in the city. One time I was about to put my hand on the door to go inside to the inner door and knock and there was blood all over the door. This was like seven in the morning. It was a story about an older brother living with his sister, and he murdered her. He wound up being convicted. So, I interviewed this police detective, Mark Stambach—he’s now an investigator for the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, retired from Buffalo Police Homicide—and I mentioned the case to him. That got him on a roll. Cops tell the best stories. He said ‘You know, he was in the middle of confessing to me, and he didn’t hold off.’ This was right on the third floor of Buffalo Police Headquarters in the homicide squad. At the end of the confession he asked the guy, conversationally, what he was going to miss most about being on the outside. The guy said ‘Friday night fish fries.’ The interview wasn’t quite done, and he was making good ground gaining the confidence of this older brother, and he said ‘Stop right there.’ He called a uniformed police officer and had him bring up two fish fries. They stopped, they ate their fish fries, and then carried on with the interview. You know, they put the guy away, ostensibly for the rest of his life. It was like his last meal as a free man. You can’t make that up.

Breakfast With Sister Karen

On April 14, 2006, Sister Karen Klimczak was murdered in the Bissonette House after returning from Good Friday services. She was beloved in the community for her nonviolence campaign and the ubiquitous “I Leave Peaceprints” signs. Here’s what Michel has to say about that:

The guy who killed Sister Karen Klimczak— it had come out that he was a crackhead and he’d murdered the nun to get money from her at this halfway house where she had taken him in, over on Grider. So I went over to talk about his addictions, and, you know, what they had done to him. He had told the police that he had killed her, but he hadn’t publicly confessed it yet. He’d been charged with second-degree murder. I went over to the Erie County Holding Center because we were doing a big series on drug addiction. So he was talking about his addiction and how it had turned him into a monster. Then he said ‘You know, I had no plans to really kill her. In fact, the day before, I was making my favorite breakfast.’ I think it was French toast or pancakes. She came into the kitchen and said ‘What are you cooking?’ And he said ‘Oh, Sister Karen, I’m cooking my favorite breakfast. Would you like to have breakfast with me?’ So he made more and they sat down and had breakfast—24 hours before he murdered this religious woman and then buried her body in a shallow grave.”

The Anti-Abortion Assassin

On October 23, 1998, Dr. Barnett Slepian—a gynecologist who performed abortions at Buffalo GYN Womenservices—was shot and killed in the kitchen of his home by a gunman hiding in the trees behind his house. Michel interviewed the shooter:

You never know where a story is going to take you. James Kopp, he’s the guy that was the assassin of Dr. James Slepian. Dan Herbeck and I managed to get an interview with him. The first words out of his mouth were ‘That darned bullet ricocheted.’ He’s expressing remorse. He hadn’t meant to kill Dr. Slepian. He just wanted to wound him so he couldn’t perform any more abortions. He had succeeded with a doctor up in St. Catherines, where he wounded him. I actually interviewed that doctor briefly, and his arm was withered—because Kopp got a clear shot from that doctor’s back yard, which was against a woods. I think most people, when all hope of regaining their freedom through lies and through the sin of omission is lost, they want to tell what really happened.

The Terrorist Next Door

Michel and Dan Herbeck became the only journalists to be granted unequalled access to Pendleton native Timothy McVeigh, who was then on death row for blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, resulting in the deaths of 168 people. Their book, American Terrorist: Timothy McVeigh & The Oklahoma City Bombing was based on 75 hours of exclusive interviews with McVeigh. I asked him what it was like to talk to a man whose name is synonymous with evil.

Timothy McVeigh is like the grandfather of examples. He told his story. He wanted to tell it from the beginning to the end. I wrote him letters. I knew that other newspaper reporters were sending letters on their fancy stationery from the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times. I just wrote him hand-written letters on a yellow legal pad. He had given me a couple interviews, and I told him that whenever he was ready to tell his story, to let me know. He says ‘I’m never gonna tell my story.’ But for some reason, over a year after he’d been convicted, he wrote to me and said ‘I’m ready to talk.’

I immediately recruited Dan Herbeck, who’s my mentor. Dan agreed. It was a wonderful collaboration with Dan. I interviewed Tim face-to-face, six times, and I gave Dan one of the final interviews for historical purposes so that both journalists, both of us, in case one of us goes, someone will be around a little longer.

It’s a scary thing, going into death row. You have to go through so many security hoops. I picked Dan up outside the prison in Indianapolis. I’m a real Beatles fan, and I had this real sort of sinister song by John Lennon on the CD player—“Come Together.” Dan just looked at me and said ‘Lou, please, not that.’ You know, because he’d just been with Tim for seven hours. He’s hearing about—nonchalantly—how those people had to die for his cause. 168 people. 500 more injured. Over a billion dollars damage to buildings.

He [McVeigh] was a split personality. I met his Dad through covering the story. He’s the salt of the earth. He became the spokesman for the family, to spare his daughters and his former wife who was mentally ill. He became the media’s go-to person. I think that was the ultimate act of compassion, because Bill McVeigh is a very shy man. He just doesn’t want to be in the limelight. It goes against his grain. He certainly didn’t want the attention under the circumstances—God no. He told me that every day of his life he thinks of Tim. You know, wondering… why? Why?

Tim is synonymous with evil, but there was a good side to him. I really believe as long as we are here on earth taking breath, there is goodness in everybody. It’s just that sometimes we smother it with obsessions to do bad things in the name of good. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. And that was so much the case. It was the same with Kropp. You become God with a small ‘g.’ And you can’t do that. But they pass that Rubicon because a lot of times they’re loners. They don’t have a lot of close friends that they can bounce these ideas off of. Or they’re bouncing their ideas off of other loners and other people who are, you know, mentally deformed in their social skills. The biggest thing is they lack empathy. I sat across from Tim, and I received hundreds of phone calls from him, too. We sent hundreds of letters back and forth. The clearest thing was that he didn’t have empathy. He had a split personality. If you want to call that mental illness you can, but I don’t know what it is. Dan Herbeck and I are not psychologists. Tim said he had his B.O.P. face—his Bureau of Prisons face—where it gets real stern and hard and you can’t make a connection with him. Then he’d talk about the Buffalo Bills and the Sabres, and he’d be the boy next door. The terrorist next door.

He had goodness in him, but he let his anger overrule him. You’re sitting there and you realize that this man...psychologists would say he lacked empathy. He was missing the empathy gene. He could just get around that. Empathy is when you’re able to feel your own feelings and thoughts, and then sense another person’s feelings or thoughts and how they might feel if you say or do something to them. He was devoid of that when he let the dark side take over. And yet, you know, he came back from the first Gulf War with a bronze star—considered a top-notch soldier. He took up hunting because he had a lot of spare time because he couldn’t get a regular job. He shot a groundhog, and he started weeping for the groundhog because he felt bad.

I definitely thought he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There’s no doubt about it. After he came back from the military he went over to his grandfather’s house. His grandfather lived along the Erie Canal where the McVeighs had lived for at least two or three generations. After his parents had broken up, the paternal grandfather helped raise the McVeigh children. When Tim got home from the Army, at one point he was feeling all uptight and didn’t know what was going on. So he drove a couple miles over to his grandpa’s house, and he’s knocking on the door. He’s just in a pair of sweatpants. No shirt, no socks. His Grandpa asks: ‘Timmy, Timmy, what’s the matter?’ ‘I don’t know, Grandpa.’

His grandfather let him in the house. Tim had his own bedroom there. He went up and said he was going to lie down and sleep, but he was all at sixes and sevens—at loose ends. His grandfather never asked him what was going on. Tim said when he woke up later his grandfather was gone. ‘I respected him for that because he didn’t pry into my personal business,’ Tim said.

Now, under normal circumstances you might, as a grandparent, or as a parent, ask—but Tim came from this family where emotions were not shown. Bill is a very shy man. His wife had left. She’d cheated on her husband. She moved to Florida. She took the two daughters with her. Out of compassion, Tim stayed with his father. And Bill, answering the call of fatherhood, sold the house. He hired a contractor and built a small ranch house so his son could stay in the Starpoint school district. Bill went to the night shift so he could get Tim up in the morning for breakfast. He worked at Harrison Radiator for 30-plus years. He was there when Tim got home. He’d have dinner for him, and then at 10 o’clock he’d go off to work. He tried to be the best parent he could.

Tim received his bronze star in Operation Desert Storm for killing two Iraqis from his Bradley fighting vehicle. The way he described it was there was this padded viewfinder inside the Bradley and there is this huge caliber gun outside. And he sees the Iraqi from more than a mile away. He said he pulled the trigger and the next thing you know there’s just a mist of red. I think he was upset at that killing, but more, seeing families when they were in the desert in Iraq—families starving, children on the roadside—he’d throw them MREs, meals ready-to-eat. Dead bodies of Iraqi soldiers swollen in the sun, and dead dogs and things like that. All of that carnage. Some of his letters home said ‘I hate Saddam Hussein for what he made me do.’ He was so upset about that.

Going back to all the fancy letters from all the media typed on embossed stationery—Tim had gotten over 1,500 letters from admirers, from media wanting interviews, from people who hated him—but they were few and far between, the hate letters. There were a lot of admirers. Whackos.


On Capital Punishment

I witnessed McVeigh’s execution in Terre Haute, Indiana. It was horrible. I have dreams about McVeigh to this day, at least two or three a year. It’s bizarre. In the dreams, he’s alive. I’m going to see him at the prison, just before he’s going to be executed. And I’m wondering if he’s going to grant me another interview—because he was a finicky guy.

I’m against the death penalty, but McVeigh often told me that he looked forward to dying. He was getting sick of being confined. He was a boy that wanted to race his car around—go from one end of the country to the other. He loved to drive. He loved freedom. I said I wanted to be there [at his execution] and he said I was a morbid son of a bitch. I said ‘Really, it isn’t that. It’s that Dan and I are telling your story from the day you were born, even before, until your death.’ From the womb to the tomb.

I know McVeigh relished his freedom, and it was hard for him to be behind bars. He called his execution the deluxe suicide by cop package. He was being murdered, in his mind, by the Federal Government. They were killing him because he had killed people and he wanted to point out a contradiction there. He thought he was exposing the government for its own ruthlessness. In his heart I think he thought of himself as a patriotic martyr. He believed he was being patriotic. There’s no question about that. When he was picked up in Oklahoma by a State Trooper, he was wearing a T-shirt. On one side was a quote from Thomas Jefferson, that the tree of liberty must be nourished by the blood of patriots from time to time. On the other side was a Latin quote uttered by John Wilkes Booth after he shot Lincoln: Sic Semper Tyrannis. Thus always to tyrants. And he left a stack of patriotic literature in his getaway car. He was very frustrated that other people didn’t follow his lead and start shooting at Federal agents after he had blown up the building. He said they had a perfect opportunity at the Murrah Building site because they were all wearing windbreakers that had identified them as law enforcement. He said he was disappointed over that.

It would have been a much greater punishment—he was only 33 when he was executed—if he’d had to spend the next fifty years in prison, maybe with a picture on the wall of the 168 victims. And it would have given him a chance at redemption, too. A coming around to a full realization that these were human lives he took. So we, as a society, cut off a couple of possibilities. One, a much greater punishment for a guy like Tim McVeigh who loved his freedom. Two, a chance for him to perhaps come to a realization that he had killed people who were loved, and had families, children, co-workers. He may then have made a true, heartfelt apology—rather than just the cursory apology from his shallow perspective.

Back Home on the Street

There are about 50 homicides on average, per year here. I try to treat every one with dignity. The gang bangers—going to their homes and talking to their parents because they were somebody’s child. This is an awesome responsibility I have. If it bleeds, it leads, they say in this business. But the lesson is that these are always human beings. At the end of the day, they were human beings and they had aspirations. For some of them it was to get money, power, lead a street gang—but like the guy sharing breakfast with Sister Klimczak, they have a good side to them, too. Some of them totally surrender to a life of crime. You can make all kinds of excuses that it’s the economy, or that they didn’t have two parents in the home, and it all plays in. But I really think that at some point in your life with your consciousness you get to make a decision: Do I want to go this way, or do I want to go that way? And I think it happens more than once, too. I remember when I was a boy, I was three or four years old laying down on the ground playing with this friend of mine, looking up at this tree and the sky. I realized: I’m alive. I’m somebody. It was such a strange feeling. I think we have those moments of clarity throughout our life. And we can change.

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