Killer reporting

There’s nothing like a good serial killer to spice up the local news. Not since the days of Robert A. Berdella has there been a multiple-killings suspect the caliber of John E. Robinson Sr., and the media chase on this case is no less fevered.

As soon as the first two bodies were found in sealed 55-gallon drums in a rented storage unit, the case had all the makings of a sensational story: The “gruesome harvest,” as Time magazine called it (perhaps in a nod to the region’s agricultural roots), involved multiple victims and the Internet, and, for the ever-important-for-a-good-story sex angle, the revelation that Robinson’s sadomasochistic interests weren’t as pure as he’d led his partners to believe.

The coverage itself, for the most part, has been the usual: daily updates on developments in the case, coverage of the legal proceedings, and sidebars on “related” matters, such as the common but irrelevant feature on how it feels to have a loved one missing.

And what would a serial-killer story be without a pithy nickname? That’s been one of the most entertaining aspects of watching coverage of the developing story. KSHB Channel 41’s “Slavemaster Murders” played on Robinson’s Internet handle, ignoring the fact that the cybersex identity didn’t exist when some of the initial victims were slain in the mid-’80s. KMBC Channel 9’s weird “Barrel Bodies” eventually turned into the lame “Murder Mystery.” The most creative moniker, however, came from a local who called in to KCMO 710’s The Chris Baker Show and suggested “KC Canner.”

Newspapers around the world are getting into the act with their headlines, such as the New York Post‘s “Cybersex Slay Suspect,” Salon’s “Barrel Horror,” New York Daily‘s “Sex-Slay Suspect’s Secret Life” (say that three times quickly), and Time‘s “The Bodies in the Barrels.” Then there’s London’s The Daily Telegraph, touting the capture of the “first Internet serial killer.”

But such descriptions of Robinson as The New York Times‘ “a quiet man who mowed his grass three times a week and grilled the hamburgers at a neighborhood cookout two weeks ago,” blanch when compared to The Kansas City Star‘s complex, in-depth examination of Robinson’s background. “Who is John E. Robinson Sr.?” ran in the June 11 issue, just one week after investigators announced the discovery of the first two bodies.

The article — which took up a large portion of the front page and two full pages inside, chronicled Robinson’s life in extensive detail, from his childhood, when he traveled to London as an Eagle Scout to sing for the Queen of England and schmooze with Judy Garland, to his adult life — marked by a long string of cons (including garnering a “Man of the Year” award at his own suggestion in 1977); his creepy interest in young, white, unwed mothers; and his connections to various missing women, including one victim with whom he applied for a marriage license as he remained married to his wife of more than 30 years.

As is standard procedure, the quest to uncover Robinson’s past commenced as soon as the story began to unfold early in the week. The Star committed a number of reporters to covering the day-to-day developments of the case as well as “the big picture,” the full context of the story. From that effort and commitment, The Star produced the clearest picture of Robinson yet. No doubt the story wouldn’t have been so strong if Robinson hadn’t been such a bad boy and left a paper trail of his life, but the reporters and editors who worked on the story — right up to the last minute — knew what to do with it, laying out a fascinating portrait of a man who just couldn’t seem to tell the truth. It showed just what a daily can do when it commits its substantial resources to such a story.

Rick Montgomery, Mark Morris, and Diane Carroll wrote the story, but several staffers contributed to the piece, according to Steve Shirk, The Star‘s managing editor of local and national news. “We like to think we don’t have walls here in our newsroom, but if there are, they’re little bitty ones … and they come down pretty quickly,” Shirk says. “We involved reporters from just about every desk we have, the Kansas desk, Missouri desk, national desk … as well as editors, photographers, artists, whatever — they all helped out on this thing.”

To track down leads on Robinson’s past, The Star sent reporters wherever the trail led, including Chicago and Florida, “to go knock on the door and be denied — if that’s the case, that’s the case. We literally pull out all the stops on a case like this.”

One story The Star didn’t get in regard to the Robinson case was an interview with Mistress Deborah, the owner of a local store that caters to the needs of sadomasochism enthusiasts. Mistress Deborah appeared on KMBZ 980’s The Tom Becka Show during the first week of the story in an effort to give a more complete picture of the bondage and discipline scene that Robinson has been giving a bad rap. According to Becka, The Star asked him for a tape of the show for a story about sadomasochism.

Initially Becka had planned to give them a tape of the show and get a little publicity in the process. “But then I remembered that Mistress Deborah had reservations, so I called her and she said, ‘No, please don’t,’ so I didn’t. It really wasn’t my call, but the lawyers decided not to do it.”

Apparently Mistress Deborah has been burned in the past by reporters who misunderstood S&M (imagine that), but she had agreed to appear on the talk radio show in an effort to provide a balanced view of the topic. “She wanted to do talk radio because it’s live, it’s a long forum, she’s got plenty of time to say what she means and clarify any misunderstandings…. And although (the show) was public record, Mistress Deborah didn’t want to be quoted in The Star. I had to respect the trust of the guest.”

As for the S&M show itself, Becka devoted two hours to a broad discussion that didn’t need a serial killer association to be interesting. The host got a lot of feedback — both critical and supportive — on the show, natch. One listener criticized Becka for sensationalizing the Robinson story. But Becka argues that the story itself is sensational and it’s hard not to cover it without getting into such subjects as sadomasochism. “We try not to sensationalize it, but at the same time, the story is so sensational it almost can’t be unsensational…. There are a lot of other angles and side issues with this story that I think make it easier for people to comment on than the actual issue itself, because the facts as we know them by now don’t necessarily make for great talk radio, other than just repeating what the facts are.”

In addition to providing a forum, Becka works like a beat reporter, cultivating sources close to the case. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there, so you try to keep on top of things as much as possible so you can try to clarify things as much as you can…. I’ve been in contact with people close to the case and also in contact with family members of some of the missing girls, and you just try to let people know what’s going on.”

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