This week we talked with Virginian-Pilot investigative reporter Gary Harki. He talks to us about producing the Pilot’s award-winning true-crime podcast, “The Shot,” how reporting with a pen is different from reporting with a microphone, his reaction to the Pilot’s recent sale to Tronc, the future of investigative reporting at newspapers and more.
To start, can you tell us a little about yourself, where you work, what you do there, how long you’ve been there and what you did before that?
I’m Gary Harki, currently a projects/investigative reporter for the Virginian-Pilot. Before that, I was a city hall and police/courts reporter here. I started at the Pilot in 2012. This year I created, along with Joanne Kimberlin, Randy Greenwell and several other Pilot people, “The Shot,” a podcast about the unsolved murder of Police Officer Victor Decker in Virginia Beach.
Right now, I’m finishing up the O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism. I’ve been in Milwaukee at Marquette University for the last nine months working with three students on a project we are hoping to publish soon.
Before the Pilot, I worked in Washington D.C. for about a year for a trade publication covering the nuclear industry. I learned a lot about nuclear reactors, uranium mines and the nuclear fuel cycle.
From 2007-2011, I worked at the Charleston Gazette in Charleston, W.Va. I’m from West Virginia and it was a goal of mine since journalism school at West Virginia University to work there. I was the paper’s web editor for a time and also a criminal justice reporter. I covered a lot of police misconduct cases. In about three years, I wrote more than 100 stories about violent and corrupt police officers, many of whom drifted between small-town police departments with few, if any, repercussions for their actions.
What was your role in the current fellowship? And what did your team work on for the 9 months you were there?
With the fellowship stuff, I’m basically in charge of the project, and my editors at the Pilot are my editors over it. It’s hard to talk about what exactly the project IS right now because, well, it’s just not out yet. It was a first- I had three students to manage and that ended up being a lot of fun.
I thought that would be pretty challenging, but they’re all hard workers and really dove into the work of the project. Working with them ended up being the most rewarding part of the project. Still have no desire to go into academia though.
Were you itching to get back into the newsroom after time away?
I’m looking forward to being back for sure. I’m not quite back yet – I move back at the end of the month. I’ve got the project from the fellowship to finish which is going to take some time. There’s been several big changes since I left, but that’s to be expected. Newsroom are in constant flux.
I wanted to get into “The Shot”—the Pilot podcast about an unsolved police murder. Can you tell us about the story the podcast tells and what made you and the team, initially, want to sink your teeth into it?
I heard about the murder of Victor Decker not long after I got to the Pilot in 2012 – it kept popping up in the news. I think it was late 2014 or early 2015 when Patrick Wilson, who now works at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, stopped by my desk and mentioned that he always thought there was more to tell in the story. I was the Norfolk cops and courts reporter at the time. I went back and read whatever I could find on the case.
Victor Decker, a young Norfolk police officer already considered a hero by many in the community, was murdered outside of a Virginia Beach strip club in 2010. Police eventually arrested two African American men for the crime – but there was no physical evidence that placed them at the scene. The case was based on jailhouse snitches. Just before trial, prosecutors dropped the charges. One of the two accused men then went on to murder someone else. Police maintain they had the right men but no one has ever been convicted of the murder. Victor’s young wife Dawn was left with their baby daughter and a lot of questions. It’s been very hard for her and really all she wants is to know the truth about what happened.
Joanne and I started talking about this story shortly after Patrick talked to me. We both thought it had all the elements of a great true crime narrative – the twists and turns and suspense you need to carry the story through. And there was a very good reason to do it – the murder was unsolved, and you had a widow who wanted answers.
But getting to it took a while. We both had other big stories we were working on and we couldn’t find the time until early 2017. At that point, podcasts had blown up, including Serial and S Town. I floated the idea to Joanne, our editor Bill Henry and Steve Gun, our top editor. It really wasn’t that hard to convince everyone. It’s always a resources issue though. “Is this worth the time and effort or should we be spending our time on something else.” With “The Shot” I think we all realized that the floor for the story – the worst version of it we could get into a podcast – would be better than most other stories we could think to work on at the time. And really, we got most of what we wanted in there. We well surpassed what I thought of as the floor for the story.
From you all’s reporting, were you and Joanne ever able to come any closer to answering who actually did murder Victor? Do you have a feeling, or inkling, on who done it, so to speak, but that can’t be backed up with facts and or evidence? I realize you can’t actually say who you think did it, but I was curious as to whether you were—by the end of the project—able to make an educated guess.
There are a number of people who, if police arrested them today for Decker’s murder, wouldn’t surprise me. Based on the information we had at the time of the podcast and some info we’ve gotten since, there are several people I think could be the killer. I would be more surprised if Kareem Turner and Raymond Perry were re-arrested for the crimes than if a number of other people were arrested. I don’t see another arrest happening though. Virginia Beach police have given no indication that they plan on investigating the case further. Which is a shame. I think there’s a possibility it could be solved. Certainly Norfolk Police and Dawn want that.
Also, it’s striking that a case involving a police officer has been left this way. You really don’t see that too often.
As a guy with a print background, was there a difference you found between reporting with a pen (print) and reporting with a microphone (podcast)? Was it a new challenge in that way?
Certainly there are differences. We did most of our big interviews in a controlled setting – in our make-shift studio on the Pilot building’s third floor. No one works on that floor anymore and there wasn’t much background noise. It made for the best audio. By that point we’d already talked to our sources several times. That was different. And, I’d often go over things a few times with people, come back to questions I’d already asked and sort of ask them again. I found that sometimes made for more concise and better thought out answers.
Also, usually doing an interview you really want it to be an informal conversation but when you’re recording audio for a podcast, you don’t want to hear yourself interrupting them or injecting a word here or there. You find yourself nodding your head a lot and just letting people talk.
“Really, I think anyone on a news beat should think of themselves as an investigative reporter every day. Don’t take the press release at face value, think critically about what you’re being told and constantly be asking yourself, “What are people not telling me and what’s the bigger picture?”
So earlier in our talk, you alluded to newsrooms being in constant flux. What was it like to come back to the Pilot right when the sell to Tronc went through? How did you find out?
I found out about the sale from a colleague at 7 a.m. (Central) by text. There’s definitely better ways to start your day. That said, the Pilot has seen near constant change since I was hired in 2012, and it had been on sale for something like 10 years. I was surprised the paper was sold, but when I left on the fellowship I knew there would likely be drastic change by the time I returned. That’s the news business right now and I just assumed that trend would continue.
I’m certainly paying close attention to what happens next with Tronc but I’m not – and I don’t think the newsroom is – freaking out. At this point I feel like most local news organizations are in a similar position to the Pilot. It’s constant change everywhere.
Investigative reporting seems to be your bread and butter. Do you ever worry about the future of it at local and regional newspapers?
I do, but I also don’t see the point of working at a newspaper if that’s not one of its main goals. But that said, I think some in the industry- reporters and editors- tend to think of investigative journalism as this monolithic thing. It’s like there’s either daily news or an investigation that takes nine months and takes an issue or a problem and starts at the beginning of time and examines it in a 12-part series.
Sometimes that’s a good model, but a lot of times it’s not. I’ve watched several stories get that treatment over the course of my career (some of which I’ve worked on) where the end result was a story not much different than the reporter had in the beginning.
Really, I think anyone on a news beat should think of themselves as an investigative reporter every day. Don’t take the press release at face value, think critically about what you’re being told and constantly be asking yourself, “What are people not telling me and what’s the bigger picture?”
And then find out the answers to those questions and write about it. Then go do it again. Now keep in mind, I say this as someone who has done nothing but big projects for more than a year.
Do you think your time at the then Charleston Gazette, now Gazette Mail, instilled this idea of “sustained outrage” in you and informs your reporting to this day?
I’m sure it does. I went to West Virginia University and studied journalism, then worked at the Exponent-Telegram in Clarksburg, W.Va., but if I’m honest about my real journalism education was at the Gazette. Working with Eric Eyre, Ken Ward and Paul Nyden was a real lesson in relentlessly pursuing investigative work.
I always tell young reporters, if you can get a job there, do it. There’s so many politicians, government agencies and businesses (among other things) that need a good reporter to look into them that you can really find something – an outrage that needs sustained attention – and go after it.
If you look at the history of the Gazette it’s been attacked by powerful politicians – from Gov. Arch More in the 80s to Attorney General Patrick Morrissey today and it’s never let up.
I can only hope that continues under its new owner HD Media. Not retaining Rob Byers was not a good sign but Greg Moore is still there, and Ken and Eric. For now, the tradition lives on.
What’s next for you? Coming back to the Pilot soon, do you have any leads on the next big project?
I’ll be back in the Pilot newsroom in July. As to next big project, I’m not there yet. I still need to finish the fellowship project!
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.