November 27-December 3, 2002
The Fugitive Fumble
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
The story behind the Daily News' infamous “Fugitives” cover.
During the early evening hours of Feb. 10, 2002, Malcolm Stevenson was shot to death on a crowded street in Southwest Philadelphia. He was hit with five .357 magnum bullets, fired at close range. Police were called to the scene at 7:49 p.m. Seventeen minutes later, Stevenson, 28, was pronounced dead on arrival at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. The shooter disappeared long before cops showed up, but several eyewitnesses fingered a neighborhood guy named Azairah Padgett.
Despite the loss of Stevenson's life and the violent nature of the crime, the story didn't appear in the daily papers. Perhaps, because the case appeared to involve one black man shooting another, it seemed run-of-the-mill: According to the Philadelphia District Attorney's office, there were 309 homicides in the city last year, of which an estimated 90 percent were black-on-black. Maybe such a mundane story didn't rise to the level of true newsworthiness.
At the time, no one would have guessed that Azairah Padgett would soon find himself in the crosshairs of controversy. From behind prison bars, he would go from total anonymity to one of many faces carelessly splashed across the cover of a newspaper. The result would trip a series of errors and miscues that raised uncomfortable questions about race, crime and the media.
On Aug. 22, 2002, Etta Fabian received a phone call from her first-born son. Azairah Padgett, 28, was calling from the Philadelphia Industrial Corrections Center, where he had been held since his arrest 36 days earlier on an outstanding murder warrant. He said he had some interesting news to share.
Photo By: Michael T. Regan
"Azairah told me that one of his friends had told him about the cover of the Daily News," Fabian explains. "He told me to go out and buy the paper. He said his friend thought it was real funny that Azairah was there on the cover, being called a fugitive, since he was already in jail. But I didn't think it was funny at all."
That day, Padgett's face, along with 16 others, had appeared on the cover as part of a controversial story in the Philadelphia Daily News. The headline, bold in red and white, read "Fugitives Among Us." The cover, which carried the images of only men of color, was accompanied by a four-page story that included a rogues' gallery of 27 suspects wanted for murder and currently on the lam. Although Philadelphia police statistics point to the frequency of intra-racial crimes, DN staff writer Mark Angeles focused his story on the killing of Christian Ludwig, a 68-year-old white man, by Lester Lambert, who is black.
Right away, members of the black community were up in arms. "Why is it always us?" was heard over and over again on AM talk radio throughout the day. "Where are the white murderers?" many listeners demanded to know. Angry African-American civic leaders demanded the immediate resignations of the tabloid's editor and managing editor. In addition, they asked the community at large to boycott the newspaper, characterizing it as "offensive, racist and anti-Philadelphia."
The next day, the DN followed up with another story by Angeles offering an explanation from police as to why no white fugitives had been profiled. In addition to having no such fugitives on the rolls, Sgt. Bill Britt of the homicide unit's fugitive squad suggested that the white community is more trusting of police, and therefore more cooperative about turning in their suspects.
Fabian, 48, the single mother of six, ages 7 to 30, says seeing her incarcerated son pictured as a fugitive angered her. He was already in there, she says. Why'd they have to put him on that cover? Fabian says her son is a good kid. He really didn't get into much trouble while he was growing up. That changed, she says, when a drug dealer moved into the neighborhood.
Fabian, a security guard who works nights part-time, says she hears from her son almost daily. She points out that her son's only other brush with the law was a non-violent drug offense. (Earlier this year, Padgett skipped town when police were looking for him on that charge.) She worries that having his picture on the front page could taint the jury pool. And it adds insult to injury that, although her son's photo appeared on the front page, there were no additional references to him anywhere in the text of the article. After sharing the story of her son's errant identification with a number of friends, Fabian decided to call a lawyer.
"I signed up with a service, where they charged me $26 a month for access to their lawyers," Fabian says, displaying a "Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc." laminated card.
"I called them, but they told me the Daily News was too big to sue. They said that even though they were wrong and they'd made a mistake, I'd never be able to win the case."
While Fabian continued to seek remedies for what she viewed as "injustice," a stream of letters to the editor appeared in the Daily News, some supporting and some condemning the story. Despite heated demands from the black community, neither Editor Zack Stalberg nor Managing Editor Ellen Foley resigned. However, on Aug. 30, Foley issued a carefully worded apology in the newspaper directed to the tabloid's readership -- and to black Philadelphians in particular.
"One unintended outcome of our coverage was a week's worth of staff conversations, media interviews, phone calls and criticism," the apology read. "Through it all, Daily News staff members thoughtfully absorbed complaints from some African Americans in Philadelphia who believe that our journalism was motivated by racial prejudice....
"The cover of our paper last Thursday carried mugshots of 15 of 41 suspects. They were African-American, Hispanic or Asian. These 41 were identified by the Police Department's Homicide Unit as suspects for whom murder warrants have been issued. There were no white people who were being sought for murder....
"The front page photos from last Thursday sent the message to some readers that only black men commit murder. That was a mistake," it continued.
"In addition, the stories didn't address a key question: Why are there no white suspects on the loose? That also was a mistake.
She said, he said: Daily News Managing Editor Ellen Foley.
Photo By Michael T. Regan
"Our first story should have looked harder at this question. The Daily News apologizes for the error."
Foley also pointed out that publication of the story had already yielded the arrests of two suspected killers among those profiled.
The next day, the story gained national attention when the photos and ensuing apology were reported in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Fresno Bee, in California.
On Sept. 9, a sizable crowd of mostly African Americans, led by Philadelphia businessman A. Bruce Crawley, assembled outside the main offices of the Daily News. Crawley, chairman of the African-American Chamber of Commerce and president of his own public relations and advertising firm, had helped organize a diverse group of civic, religious and business organizations called the Coalition for Fair News Coverage. The consortium, which includes NAACP Greater Philadelphia President J. Whyatt Mondesire and high-profile African-American attorney Charles Bowser, railed against the 76-year-old “People Paper.” They complained the DN had a long, ugly history of biased and racist portrayals of black men.
"We need to show people who disrespect us that we can re-focus the money we spend on newspapers," Crawley told those who attended the rally. "There are all types of papers that we can read that don't insult us. Don't buy the Daily News. Shut it down!"
His allies echoed his sentiments.
"They've been castigating black men as the enemy for far too long," Mondesire told the crowd of about 100 or so. "But we can make a difference. We need to shut them down."
For decades, the Daily News has gained an unsavory reputation among some blacks for what they view as the tabloid's flawed news coverage. Many can recall stories through the years that they found insensitive, uncaring and, at times, inaccurate. Former DN reporter and Temple University journalism professor, Linn Washington Jr., a columnist at the Philadelphia Tribune, says that the most recent boycott is a cumulative response. He points to a number of examples, ranging from the insensitive use of photography -- as in a February 2000 story about white cyber-hackers accompanied by a photo of a young black man at his computer -- to what he sees as the disproportionate concentration on crime at the expense of other kinds of coverage of the black community.
“Since the paper’s inception, there have been concerns about the insensitivity of the paper,” he says. “And, despite internal efforts to do better, there seems to be an inability to express this with more fair and balanced coverage.”
Responding to the boycott in September, DN Editor Stalberg told City Paper, “We think the charges are unfair and wrong.... But we’ve been through [boycotts] a few times before and we’ll weather the storm. The readers know if we’re racist, and if they thought we were racist they wouldn’t read the paper. But 40 percent of our readership is comprised of African Americans, and that’s a larger percentage than any other mainstream paper in the country.”
Fabian says that although she was growing more and more frustrated, she never called the DN to demand a recant or an apology. She didn't think they'd listen. Someone recommended, instead, that she telephone Crawley. Fabian says, at that time, she didn't know anything about the boycott against the Daily News. But she was told that Crawley had spearheaded the protest.
Reporter Mark Angeles.
"I called Mr. Crawley on a Friday and the woman who answered the phone told me he wouldn't be back until Monday," Fabian recalls. "That next week, I called back at least two or three more times and I always had to leave a message. I left all the details, because my friend told me he could help me. But he never called me back."
Reached at the offices of his public relations firm in Old City, Crawley says he never got the message.
"I don't know Etta Fabian. I've never heard of that woman in my life," Crawley says. "I keep a daily log of all the calls I receive here, at this office, but I don't remember having ever heard her name. Maybe she called the African-American Chamber of Commerce."
Fabian says she called the number that had been advertised on radio as the headquarters of the Coalition for Fair News Coverage. That number, according to Philadelphia directory assistance, is the same as that for the African-American Chamber of Commerce. Crawley says that at the Chamber, there are no paid staff members; everyone working there is a volunteer. He attributes the lost message to faulty communication, something that, he admits, needs to be addressed. Fabian should have called him at his public relations firm, he says.
"If she had talked to me, she would've gotten a response," he says. "We would've asked her to join the coalition."
Fabian says she also attempted to reach J. Whyatt Mondesire, placing a call to the Philadelphia NAACP. An assistant who answered the phone at the organization's headquarters told Fabian, "We don't handle that type of thing."
When reached at his offices at the Philadelphia Sunday Sun newspaper, where Mondesire says he spends most of the week as publisher and editor, he said that he was unaware that Fabian had called. But even so, he points out, she may not have tried hard enough to locate him.
"On any given day, we get a dozen calls from people with serious problems. Could this have been the one that fell through the cracks? Absolutely," Mondesire says. "But the other reality is that if you believe in your case you'll find us. If she was deadly serious, she would've tracked me down. If you really want to find Jerry Mondesire, it's not too hard."
Records from the Philadelphia office of Prison Public Affairs reveal other errors in the Daily News’ Aug. 22 cover story. Not only was Padgett behind bars on Aug. 22, but so were three other “fugitives” who had been cited in the story. Michael Dezmond Savior (whose face is partially obscured on the cover), Gregory Evans and Alex Branch (who don’t appear on the cover) all had been apprehended by police sometime between July 24 and Aug. 21, one day before the story ran.
Close inspection of the cover reveals yet another mistake: Of the 17 mugshots that are visible on the page, one suspect's photograph appears three times in three different places.
Bill Colarulo, spokesman for the Philadelphia police department public affairs office, says that, for months, officers in the homicide division's fugitive squad had worked hand-in-hand with DN writer Angeles, providing him with, among other assistance, the Spring 2002 Fugitive Handbook, published quarterly by the Homicide Division. They also advised Angeles to access the HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area) website, which lists all Philadelphia fugitives, for all charges, up until their arrest. The May 7 edition of the 29-page handbook, which was the edition provided to Angeles, detailed the names and crimes of murder suspects then wanted by the PPD. Based on this edition, when Angeles began writing the story, there were 56 men in the city wanted on murder charges: 38 blacks, 15 Latinos and three Asians. Colarulo says that throughout the assignment, Angeles stayed in contact with police officers for updates about the status of the wanted men. But Colarulo says that, at some point, communication fell off.
"We need to shut them down": Jerry Mondesire announces the Daily News boycott on Sept. 9.
Photo by Michael Rucker for Philadelphia Tribune.
"Mark [Angeles] coordinated very closely with the fugitive squad in homicide. He was working directly with Sgt. Bill Britt," Colarulo says. "Mark told us that the [story's] publication date kept getting pushed back, but he called almost every week to see what was what. Nobody, though, remembers him calling after, maybe, the middle of July."
DN Editor Zack Stalberg and Managing Editor Ellen Foley say they are surprised and embarrassed by the errors in the “Fugitives” story.
"In the course of the preparation of the cover and maybe the story, it looks like we had sloppy handling," Stalberg says. "It was not intentional. It was just something that happened. But we never heard from that woman. If we've harmed or embarrassed anyone, we'll apologize. But we didn't know about it. The more this starts looking like dumb newspapermen instead of a plot, the happier I'll be."
Foley, as managing editor, oversaw the story. She says she relied on Angeles to check all the facts.
"Before we did the story, the reporter was asked numerous times to check to make sure they were still fugitives and still on the list," Foley says. "My understanding was that Mark had checked the day before publication. Despite all of the checking and good work and all of our good journalism -- and the fact that the effort did produce the arrest of two people -- the city editor is slack-jawed that Mark didn't talk to the cops between July and August. If we made errors -- and we did -- they were innocent errors. We did follow the best practices. We did check. If these people were arrested and we said they were fugitives, shame on us."
As for the suspect who appeared three times on the cover in three separate places, Foley says they detected that error the day after the story ran.
"The person who designed that cover believes it was a computer error and he's quite stunned himself," she says. "The whole cover was evidently somehow spit out inaccurately by the computer. They're trying to explain it, but they're dumbfounded. The fact is that there is some conjecture about whether this cover -- in part or in its entirety -- was somehow changed by the computer. It's very weird."
Angeles, who recently quit the DN to accept a position at the Associated Press in New York City, says that he worked diligently with the homicide squad to tell an accurate story, often becoming frustrated by the delays. He says he had nothing to do with the design and layout of the cover images. He also says that in addition to speaking with the squad and referring to the Fugitive Handbook, he also checked the police website on a regular basis. However, Angeles says he doesn’t exactly recall the last time he spoke with Britt before the story ran.
"I'm pretty sure I kept in contact with my homicide guys from July into August," Angeles says. "I think if you talk to Sgt. Britt, he'd confirm that I was in contact with him and I was updated. The story, though, was held and held and held, and there were a few days that we didn't talk. There was a time when there was a window and there was one guy caught before the story ran, but I just found that out today [Nov. 20]. I don't know why Britt didn't tell me before this."
Sgt. Britt, the second-in-command in the homicide division’s fugitive squad, says that while the story was being written, Angeles was the only person from the DN that his unit was ever in contact with. Britt says he updated Angeles on a daily basis for months -- that is, until he went on vacation during the first two weeks of August. He says he doesn’t know if Angeles called during that time or whom Angeles spoke with in his absence.
Communications Gap: Coalition leaders Bruce Crawley (above) and Mondesire were impossible to reach, says Etta Fabian.
Photo By Michael T. Regan
"Every time Mark called me, we'd go over the list," Britt says. "But he also checked the HIDTA web page. That's the best way to check fugitives. As soon as they're picked up, they're deleted from the site that day or the next day. The last time I spoke to Mark, that was the last week of July, I told him to take Padgett off the list."
Britt says that although the story wasn't published until August, the process began during the spring, when there was still a chill in the air.
"This article was bumped for months for other stories. First, it was Allen Iverson. Then, Bill Cosby. Then, Martha Stewart. It got to be a joke, because it never came out," Britt recalls. "Over the course, we deleted names and added the new fugitives. And we always kept Mark updated. Our understanding was that only Lester Lambert [the subject of the 1,666-word story written by Angeles that accompanied the photographs] was going to be on the cover of the paper. When the article came out, it was a surprise to me. I had just come back to work on Aug. 19. I called Mark to thank him for his help, but it was my understanding that he didn't get the heads-up that it was coming out. I really don't think he knew. I remember him being surprised that it had run that day."
Recently, cooperative relationships between media and law enforcement have come under scrutiny. Tom Rosenstiel, director for the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says that over the years journalistic standards have changed.
"These days, the press feels it's an arm of the law -- but it is not," he says. "Before, you didn't name a suspect until they were arrested. Television shows, like America's Most Wanted, have changed all that. But, as journalists, if you're going to say someone is at large, you'd better have your facts right. There is no level of interpretation here."
However, Foley points to those fugitives who have been apprehended since Aug. 22.
"This is a common technique that [tabloids] on the East Coast use," she says. "You put out in the community the faces of fugitives. These are the people the police have identified as fugitives and the community can help track them down -- as they did."
Since the story ran, police report that three suspects have been arrested. A fourth has been located in the Caribbean and Philadelphia police are awaiting the governor's warrant that will be necessary to extradite him. In addition, the police say they have received "hot tips" on the location of five others, including Lester Lambert. One white fugitive did finally wind up on the list, but was arrested within a few days. At City Paper's press time, there were still no white fugitives wanted for murder in Philadelphia.
The boycott being staged by the Coalition for Fair News Coverage is still under way; however, the DN circulation department reports no appreciable decrease in sales. Coalition leaders have since extended their protest, enlisting 39 clergy to sign a petition requesting that the Philadelphia school district stop distributing the paper to students; launching a joint advertising campaign by six of the area’s largest black newspapers to promote readership of those publications; airing public service announcements denouncing the DN; and continuing to hold rallies. Last week, about 100 people set fire to newspapers in a metal trash bin at the corners of Broad and Clearfield streets. They say they were protesting an obituary that denigrated the memory of a well-respected community leader. During a Fox Philadelphia newscast about the incident, Stalberg compared their tactics to those of the Nazis.
Britt says that he believes that the arrests and new leads prove the story was well worth the wait. "I think the story was very productive. It prompted people to call," he says.
Colarulo says that the facts of the story could have been better handled. "There were a lot of positives that came out of this story, but there were also a lot of errors."
Crawley says that eventually affronts made by the Daily News to the black community will end. "Whether [Fabian] reached us or not, the problem she had at the Daily News will be solved."
Crawley and the coalition have requested and are still awaiting a meeting with DN publisher Bob Hall.
Foley says that there are times when things just go wrong. “We may have done some sloppy work, but they were innocent mistakes,” she says. “Here at the Daily News, our hearts are filled with a good feeling for Philadelphia and a true wish to make it a better place.”
Reached in prison, Padgett proclaims his innocence and says that his appearance on the cover has placed him in an unwanted spotlight. “They put me in a bad situation, putting my face in the paper,” he says. “Now, I got [fellow inmates] pointing at me and I don’t know who’s watching me and for what. I don’t want to be in this position in here.”
Fabian says everybody dropped the ball. "[Crawley and the NAACP] didn't take what I was saying seriously," she says. "They weren't concerned about it from the beginning. Obviously, it's an issue they didn't want to be bothered with. And the Daily News, they've been doing this a long time. It's nothing new. These guys have been done wrong. All these mistakes with people's lives. I just don't understand that."