Capital Gazette Shooter Awaits Trial, Staff Become The Story : Embedded Part 3: The Capital Gazette takes on a new beat: itself. As the shooter's case works its way towards trial, the staff tries to balance coverage obligations with personal feelings.

Here is Capital photographer Paul Gillespie's stunning collection of photographs of the newspaper's staff and the families of the victims.
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Capital Gazette: "I Know He Did It"

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Capital Gazette: "I Know He Did It"

Capital Gazette: "I Know He Did It"

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Hey. I'm Kelly McEvers, and this is EMBEDDED from NPR. I just want to say there's some strong language in this episode. And this series goes in order, so if you haven't yet, go back, and listen from the first episode.

OK, so in that episode, we told you how the staff at the Capital Gazette put out a paper in the parking lot the day of the shooting. After that night, one of the reporters who was there, Chase Cook, actually kept reporting on the shooting. He did a detailed timeline of what happened. He did interviews with people who knew the shooter. We haven't said the shooter's name yet in the series, but we will now, mainly because we'll be talking about his legal case. It's Jarrod Ramos. Anyway, a few weeks after the shooting, Chase decided - and his editor backed him up - that he actually wanted to interview Ramos because Chase wanted the scoop. No one else had talked to the guy. And because he wanted to ask him why he did it and why he waited seven years after he first got mad at the paper for publishing a column about him before he attacked it. Chase wrote him a letter and asked for an interview, didn't get a response. So he drove to the detention center where Ramos was being held.

CHASE COOK: I thought that if I could go there, that maybe he would let me talk to him because I was from The Capital. And I thought maybe I could get him to talk to me to explain what his reasoning was because he would be willing to gloat about it. And by gloating about it, I would at least be in the room so I could listen to him, and then I could report it.

I didn't know if they'd let me do it, but I picked the day that his name would show up for visitation, drove from my house in D.C. It's about a 30-minute drive. And I just walked in. And when I got in, you know, I had all these thoughts of like, well, if I sit down, what will he do? Will he slam his hand on the glass and try and scare me? Will he laugh in my face about how he shot somebody? Is he going to tell me the last words that they said before he shot them, you know? All these kind of things to try and prepare me for him to torment me - willing to go through that because, like, I was hoping that he would just be like, yeah, I did it, and then we'd just write that story and be done with it.

MCEVERS: This is the other reason Chase wanted the interview. He was willing to listen to whatever awful stuff Ramos might say because if he confessed to the crime, it would put on the record the thing that Chase and his colleagues already knew. And Chase thought a confession could maybe speed up the legal process, which would be less painful for everyone. So Chase walked up to some guards at the detention center.

COOK: I had my badge, and they were like, what are you doing here? And I'm like, well, I want to talk to the guy. And they're like, yeah, not this case.

MCEVERS: Turns out Jarrod Ramos' lawyer had already banned all reporters from talking to him. So Chase went home - no interview, no confession. In fact, a few weeks later, Ramos pleaded not guilty, which meant that now there would be a trial, which also meant that back at the Capital Gazette, things were about to get a lot more complicated - first because this not guilty plea wasn't the last surprise in this case and because there would be more moments like what happened with Chase, when the personal mixed with the professional. Could the staff at the paper fairly cover the trial of the man who killed their colleagues? And even if they could do it, was it a good idea for them? That's our show today after this break.


MCEVERS: OK. We're back, and I'm going to hand this story over to Chris Benderev again. He's going to start in the newsroom almost one year after the shooting - June 2019.


RICK HUTZELL: So it's standup time - everybody's favorite, standup time. Let me go grab my notes so I know what the heck I'm talking about.

CHRIS BENDEREV, BYLINE: One of the strangest things about being in the Capital Gazette newsroom was how quickly things could flip back and forth sometimes, between normal and totally not normal. This weekly standup meeting is being run by the editor-in-chief Rick Hutzell. And Rick starts it off with normal, boring office stuff, like problems with the phones.

HUTZELL: Naomi and apparently Alex have both complained about reception on their work phone. If anybody else has this, we'll mention it to the IT people. I mean, I - can you get a cell booster in here? Is that a thing still?

BENDEREV: He also tells everyone how he's planning to go to Lowe's this weekend to get a new fridge for their kitchen. But at another meeting the very same day, Rick also raises a very not-normal agenda item. See, every day for the past year, along the bottom of the paper's opinion page, the Capital Gazette had been printing the names and photos of the five employees who were murdered on June 28, 2018 - Gerald, Rob, John, Rebecca and Wendi. And now, in the conference room, Rick looks around at his staff and tells him that he thinks it might be time to make a big change to this tribute.

HUTZELL: And I am talking with the families about the appropriateness of taking the pictures off the editorial page at the one-year anniversary and keeping the names. They kind of stare at me.


HUTZELL: And I think one year's time to let them rest. But if you have any thoughts, let me know. Rachael, how's your op-ed going?


BENDEREV: The editorial page tribute was just a small example of something that Rick had been dealing with ever since the shooting. His paper's job was to cover the news, but they were the news. Rick generally believes that reporters should keep their personal feelings separate from their work because, otherwise, your work could be compromised by those feelings. It's the journalistic standard of objectivity. By the way, there is a big debate right now about who gets to decide what's objective and what's not. For a long time, it's mostly been white men.

But anyway, back at the Capital Gazette in 2019, the issue for Rick was that his staff appear neutral. Here he is at a meeting after someone had hung up stuff from a local advocacy group.

HUTZELL: We cannot put up stuff supporting - no matter what we feel about it personally, there's no, you know, go Democrats, go gun control, go anti-gingivitis, whatever. The newsroom remains neutral in terms of causes and advocacy.

BENDEREV: So you might think that Rick would feel really uncomfortable with covering the murder trial of the person who attacked his office and killed five of his colleagues. And Rick says he knows he could have handled this story over to the Baltimore Sun. Remember, they own the Capital Gazette. But Rick did not want to hand this over. He reminded his boss at the Baltimore Sun, Trif Alatzas, the publisher, that this was one of the biggest news stories in Annapolis history.

HUTZELL: I did have to convince Trif that we could do this, and I told him that this is a story that affected this community. And that is the one thing that The Capital actually is. It's a symbol for a whole bunch of stuff now for other people. But it remains focused every day on what's going on in the community. So I felt it was crucial for who we are that The Capital visibly cover this and try and maintain a sense of objectivity.

BENDEREV: In the end, Trif said OK. The first problem, though, was the reporter at the Capital Gazette who would normally write about any murder trial, Phil Davis, he was in the newsroom during the attack.


BENDEREV: He had to hide under his desk to survive. And he'd probably be taking the stand as a witness during the trial. It was pretty obvious that he couldn't be the reporter on this story. So Rick asked if any other reporters wanted to fill in. And Chase Cook, the guy who tried to get an interview with the shooter, said that he did.

COOK: I was like, well, I'll just - I'll cover the trial. I wasn't in the room when it happened, so that should be fine.

BENDEREV: It was around this time that Chase also got a call from a reporter at The New Yorker magazine. They wanted to write a story about how the paper would be covering itself. Chase almost declined the request. He's the kind of guy who is not afraid to speak his mind, and he was worried that he'd say something to get himself in trouble. But the interview actually went fine - or so Chase thought until they got another call from the magazine.

COOK: So The New Yorker fact-checker called me and said, hey, I just want to make sure you said this.



BENDEREV: Chase had definitely spoken his mind. I'm covering the fucking Ramos trial, he'd said. And from there, it only got more candid. Chase had told The New Yorker writer Charles Bethea that calling Ramos the, quote, "suspected" shooter felt weird. The convention at most news organizations, by the way, is to label someone who hasn't been convicted of a crime yet as alleged or suspected. But, Chase continued, the human part of me is like, he doesn't work at the Capital Gazette, and he was arrested there after the shooting; obviously, he did it. But, he said, I'm going to treat it as unbiasedly as possible.

Finally, The New Yorker fact-checker finished reading all of Chase's quotes back to him.

COOK: And so I said, yep, I said that. And I was like, well, I'm a journalist. I know that I agreed to this, and I can't take it back. So I'm not even going to ask if I can take it back. I just texted Charles and said, hey, one of these quotes is going to actually cause me some problems, but it's what I said, and it's what I believe.

Like, the story about my relationship to this case as a journalist is that I know he fucking did it, and I still have to respect the writing of it, the work of it, the professionalism. There are people who every day, who are journalists who write about stuff, who might even be covering pro-amendment rallies and be so staunchly anti-gun, but they can do the job.


BENDEREV: Chase hung up his phone, and he knew what he had to do.

COOK: I walked into Rick's office and was like, hey, I talked to The New Yorker; I said something that's probably going to cause something to happen. And he goes, what? I said, oh, I said this. And he said, ah, it's probably fine. And so then the next day, Rick was like, I should have known better; it is not fine.


BENDEREV: The Baltimore Sun was not pleased about Chase's interview. Rick and Chase's memories diverge over exactly what happened next. Chase told me that he thought the Sun was about to take him off the story. Rick and the Sun told me, no, that wasn't the case. But it was clear to Chase that something needed to change.

COOK: And so that's when I backed off a little bit. You know, maybe I was wrong. I shouldn't talk about that stuff in public, in The New Yorker. But it was also uncharted territory.

BENDEREV: Ultimately, Chase wrote less about the trial story. Rick started looking to hire a new reporter, someone who hadn't been at the paper at the time of the shooting, to take over covering the case.


BENDEREV: Fast-forward to September 2019. It's been well over a year since the shooting. The trial of the shooter was supposed to be over by this point, but it still hasn't happened. It'd been delayed twice, and now it's coming up in less than two months.


HUTZELL: All right, so this is a meeting to discuss trial - let me shut the door. So first off, I just want to...

BENDEREV: Rick's called a meeting in his office to talk about trial coverage. There are a few Capital Gazette staffers around a long wooden table.


HUTZELL: OK, so just a reminder as we get closer to this - so we have one, two, three, four people in the newsroom who will be witnesses in the trial.

BENDEREV: If you'd peered out from Rick's office, you could have seen all four of those people - Paul, Janel, Selene, Rachael - working at their desks.


HUTZELL: So the general rule is don't talk about this story in the newsroom. My office is available for conferences. That's partially because, you know, issues of trauma and also because these people are witnesses. It's an unusual thing to do...

BENDEREV: One of the people listening to Rick is the person that he'd hired to be the lead reporter on the trial story, Alex Mann. Before this, Alex had been at his first job at a college, at a tiny paper, so this was a great step up for him - plus, a return to a paper that he'd loved. He'd been an intern here before the shooting.

But covering the shooting case, it also threw this young reporter into lots of unusual situations, like this one day early on in his new job, when Alex was doing his daily check of the court website for any updates in the case.

ALEX MANN: I noticed that there were four new filings in Maryland's electronic court record system. So then I had to be like, well, I better get my butt down to court to actually see what these documents are. And then I got there. I called Rick. I was like, Rick, listen; they've moved for - to subpoena four people, and you are one of them. And he said, OK.

BENDEREV: The subpoena was asking Rick to provide any old emails, notes, any records that he had related to the shooter from before the attack, when the shooter had been suing the Capital for defamation. When Alex got back from the courthouse, Rick only had a few words to say to him about the subpoena story.

MANN: He told me - he's like, I'm not editing this, and not only am I not adding this, I can't really talk to you about it - which is a very weird thing for a reporter and editor. That's who I would be going to to ask questions, you know? So that day, I couldn't

BENDEREV: For that one day, because Rick had literally become the story, he didn't touch that article about the subpoenas. He'd go back to editing Alex tomorrow.


BENDEREV: Rick didn't seem to have any regrets over his decision to cover the case of their own attacker. He continued to say, even publicly, how it fit within the paper's overall mission to write about everything important in and around Annapolis.


HUTZELL: The members of my staff have continued the work of reporting on our community.

BENDEREV: Here he is giving a speech to a regional journalism association.


HUTZELL: We covered a bike light controversy that generated huge public interest, if you can believe it. We wrote about high school sports and the arts and a tide of plastic flooding down the Chesapeake Bay. And we've covered the trial of the man charged with the murder of our colleagues. I am proud to work among these giants.


BENDEREV: Rick and his staff published straight-ahead news stories about the case - just the facts, quotes from both sides. They wrote these stories after each incremental update - every pretrial hearing, every new filing - as the trial got closer and closer.


HUTZELL: So for those who don't know, we are - you know, we're heading into the big trial. And Alex will be coming...

BENDEREV: It's October now. The trial is one month away. And today, Rick breaks his rule of not talking about it out in the open newsroom because he's not just an editor; he's also the supervisor at an emotional time.


HUTZELL: Anybody who has been going through this needs to, you know, take a breather during all this, needs help, please let me know. We will have counselors here during the trial. They're now saying three weeks, not...

BENDEREV: For the most part, people hadn't been talking about the trial out loud very often in the office. But as it got closer, you could see its effects. Schedules were being shuffled to backfill for people who would need time off, and one by one, the witnesses in the newsroom were meeting with the prosecutors to prepare to testify. Some of them had to view surveillance footage of the worst day of their lives and horrific memories that they'd been trying to move on from.

It's easy to forget that many mass shootings don't end in a trial. The gunman often takes his own life or is killed by authorities. But now, after a year and a half of waiting and preparing, the Capital Gazette survivors were finally going to get a chance to testify against their attacker. And then one week before the trial was set to begin, the case changed in a way that no one had been expecting.


MCEVERS: That's coming up after this break.


MCEVERS: OK, we're back. And here's Chris Benderev again.

BENDEREV: It's Monday, October 28, 2019, one week before the shooter's trial is set to begin. And then...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: WMAR 2 News at 5 begins now with breaking news.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: And we start with breaking news out of Annapolis. The Capital Gazette shooter pleads guilty to all charges.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: Let's go to Annapolis right now. WMAR 2 News, Mallory...

BENDEREV: After nearly a year and a half of claiming he was not guilty, the shooter did a surprise 180 - he switched his plea to guilty.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Well, Doug (ph), there were definitely some tears inside that courtroom this afternoon and also a sense of relief among many of the victim's family members and survivors.


BENDEREV: A lot of the staff came to the courtroom to watch Jarrod Ramos admit his guilty plea. For some of them, it was the first time they'd ever seen the shooter in person. And after he entered the courtroom in handcuffs, things did feel more tense. Selene switched seats with her mom just to get an extra foot further from the shooter. Danielle and Josh both took tissues when the bailiff passed a box around. Next to them, Alex Mann was scribbling in his reporter's notebook. And across the aisle, Rick seemed to be listening intently, often with his eyes closed.

Later that afternoon, he'd read a column about the guilty plea. In it, he said this about the shooter - he was innocent until proven guilty; today, in the eyes of the law, he is a murderer.


BENDEREV: After the guilty plea, Alex and some other reporters had been allowed 20 minutes to look over boxes and boxes of evidence against the shooter. It was hundreds of documents and photos that were normally under seal. And later, when Alex and Rick met up, Rick wanted to know, had Alex seen anything in there that might shed light on one of the biggest questions of this case - why had the shooter waited years and years until Thursday, June 28, 2018, to attack.

HUTZELL: So the question that's...

MANN: Why June 28?

HUTZELL: Why June 28? Was there any indication in there of why June 28?

MANN: Nothing.

BENDEREV: What about the lead prosecutor?

HUTZELL: Was there anything that she said that happened close to June 28? What was the last thing - she said there was something that happened August...

BENDEREV: Rick kept going. Did Alex learn anything more about exactly where the shooter had bought his gun from? No, Alex said. These were the questions of an editor who wants all the facts and someone trying to make sense of the day that changed his life.


HUTZELL: Do you need to take time off?

MANN: I'm going to think about it. I'm not going to make any call right now.

BENDEREV: Finally, Rick said Alex should go, take some time off. He wasn't going to be able to answer these questions any time soon, maybe ever.


BENDEREV: Now, there is something else I have to explain. This guilty plea was not actually the end of the shooter's legal saga because he also entered a plea of not criminally responsible by reason of insanity, Maryland's version of an insanity plea, which meant there would be a full trial after all - a trial scheduled for early 2020 to determine whether or not he had been mentally stable enough to understand the criminality of his actions. And so the paper would keep reporting this story. And Rick knew who he wanted covering it.

HUTZELL: I mean, Alex has demonstrated that he understands the issues involved in this trial. He has been covering it more than anyone and has written more on it than anyone. And it is his story to tell.

BENDEREV: But around this time, something else started happening. Rick began having a lot more meetings with his bosses at the Baltimore Sun. I noticed this because I was kept out of those meetings. They weren't OK with me recording. So Rick had to keep me on the other side of the door.

HUTZELL: It's going to happen now. I'm sorry.


HUTZELL: I'm sorry.

BENDEREV: That's fine. I'll talk to you...


BENDEREV: ...After.


BENDEREV: And the reason I'm telling you about this isn't because I felt left out. It's because a few years earlier, it would have been unheard of to have the Baltimore Sun involved in anything going on at The Capital. Because before The Sun purchased The Capital, these two papers actually used to be bitter rivals for decades. The smaller Capital Gazette always felt like the bigger Baltimore Sun would waltz in late and tell their stories about their town without any of the important detail and nuance.

But as the newspaper industry shrank, bigger papers began buying up smaller ones. And in 2014, the Sun bought The Capital. Rick told me that The Sun had been good owners, very supportive after the shooting, too. But this arrangement still meant that Rick wasn't the same author of his paper's destiny that he would have been before the sale. Now, he answered to his old rival.


BENDEREV: One evening in January 2020, I was in Rick's office, and he was clearly having a bad day. He was getting dozens of Slack messages over and over from his bosses in Baltimore.

HUTZELL: I'm usually pretty calm. Today - and...

BENDEREV: Not one of those days?

HUTZELL: That little sound is going to kill me one day. This is for the record. For those of you who invented Slack, f*** you. None of this is going to make the final cut. Come on.

BENDEREV: Later, I learned about something else bigger than Slack that had also been upsetting Rick. He asked me not to record. It wasn't public yet. And then he told me that the Baltimore Sun wanted to hire Alex away. They'd scheduled an interview with Alex for next week.


BENDEREV: To be clear, Rick totally wanted Alex to advance in his career. He was used to his reporters leaving for bigger papers. But the insanity plea trial was just around the corner, and Alex knew this complex legal case better than any reporter anywhere. So for Rick, losing Alex would mean losing what he'd spent a year and a half building - his paper becoming the authority on one of the biggest stories that's ever happened in or near Annapolis.

I asked Rick if that was what he was upset about - what it would mean for how well his paper could own a local story. No, he said. And for the first time that I could remember, he gave me a much more personal reason that he'd held on to this story. I mean, this guy f***ing tried to kill us, Rick told me. He was looking for me. Prosecutors had revealed that the shooter had kept a list of, quote, "high-value targets," and Rick was on that list. What's important, Rick told me, is that it'd be a reporter at this paper doing the best coverage. That would show that the Capital Gazette had truly survived, not just in that first famous edition the morning after the shooting, but every day since.


BENDEREV: In his office on that night in January 2020, Rick said something that in all the time I'd been talking to him, I'd never heard him say before.

HUTZELL: It's just a lot, you know? I need it to be over.

BENDEREV: This trial coverage and all this stuff?

HUTZELL: No, I need the whole thing to be over. I need to be doing something else.

Would it be easier to do something else? I don't know. I haven't done anything else in 32 years.

BENDEREV: I had never seen this version of Rick, the editor who loves his job so much that his staff calls him the news tornado, who will spin and skip out of his office into the newsroom to celebrate when they get a good tip or scoop. But today, he looked and sounded exhausted. He hadn't taken a real vacation since the shooting. It was like the idea of losing Alex and losing his edge on this one story made him remember all the other losses.

HUTZELL: My whole purpose in this has been to make the paper survive, to make this as an entity to survive, you know? And it's not the paper it was two years ago. It's - it never will be, you know? And it's - sometimes the realization is tougher than others. You know, is it because of the pressures on us that are different now because we're part of a bigger company? Is it because of what happened? Is it because of - I'm tired? Yeah, all of it. But at this moment - you know, ask me again in six months, and I'm sure I'll be, like, dancing to the newsroom. But I am not very happy in my job right now.

BENDEREV: When you say you're not happy with it, what is that?

HUTZELL: Crap, you know? Five people I know died here. I have won a Pulitzer. What else am I hanging around for, you know? Do I really have to rub my nose in it every day?

BENDEREV: It being?

HUTZELL: The death of my friends, you know? Wherever I go, it's going to follow me. I think about it every day. I think about them every day. But it's right here. It's right freaking - where is it? It's in the paper, you know?

BENDEREV: Rick was talking about that spot along the bottom of every day's opinion page with the names and photos of his five former colleagues. Even though he told his staff many months earlier that he might get rid of the photos and just leave the names, he still hadn't. He wasn't ready yet.

HUTZELL: You know, it's a lot of ghosts...


HUTZELL: ...A lot of ghosts.

BENDEREV: From what happened?



HUTZELL: Rick Hutzell.


HUTZELL: Hi, Catherine (ph). Thanks for calling. What's up? Yes, I will send it to you.


BENDEREV: On the next and final episode - a year of very big changes at the Capital Gazette.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You know, I know this is probably disappointing news for a lot of you. And when I first heard it, I got to admit my stomach was on the floor as well.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This is, I think, what it truly might feel like to be forgotten.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: And then I immediately was like, oh, my God, oh, my God. Like, this is it, right? And she was like, I don't know (laughter).


MCEVERS: Before we get to the credits, I want to mention two other people who survived the shooting at the Capital Gazette because we want to thank them for telling us their stories. Photographer Paul Gillespie ran out of the newsroom as the shooter fired at him. To deal with his anxiety afterwards, he started working on a series of black-and-white portraits of the surviving staff and the relatives of those who were killed. We will have a link to those images in our show notes.

Also, a big thanks to ad sales rep Janel Cooley. She narrowly escaped the shooting that day, too. And in the months later, she also threw herself into her job. She made so many sales, she won a company-wide contest. And she really helped us understand how survivors prepare to go into courtrooms and face their attackers. We want to thank her for that.


MCEVERS: This episode was reported by Chris Benderev, produced by Rhaina Cohen and edited by Alison MacAdam. Big thanks to Kia Miakka Natisse, Jenny Schmidt, Yowei Shaw, Chris Turpin and Justine Yan. Our intern is Carolyn McCusker. Our project manager is Liana Simstrom. Our lawyer is Kimberly Chow Sullivan, fact-checking by Susie Cummings and Mary Glendinning, engineering by Isaac Rodrigues, music by Ramtin Arablouei and Blue Dot Sessions. Our senior supervising producer is Nicole Beemsterboer. Our bosses are Nancy Barnes, Neal Carruth and Anya Grundmann.

If you want to reach out, we are on Twitter @NPREmbedded. We will be back next week with more in our Capital Gazette series. Thanks.


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