At Chicago Tribune Tower, walls do talk

Embedded in the exterior walls of the Chicago Tribune building are more than a hundred rocks, bricks and fragments from famous sites around the world. They include bits of the Berlin Wall, Notre Dame Cathedral, Pearl Harbor, Taj Mahal and the White House.

Beside the Tribune Tower’s main doors, on Michigan Avenue, I spotted pieces from The Great Wall of China and Fort San Antonio Abad in Manila.


The idea for the artifact collection, according to an article in the Tribune, came from Robert McCormick, the paper’s former publisher and editor. In 1923, two years before the Tribune Tower was constructed and while pondering how to decorate the building’s outer walls, McCormick apparently asked reporters to send in stones from famous places, such as the Pyramids of Egypt and the Parthenon at Athens.

Seeing the fragments reminded me of the days – not too long ago – when major U.S. newspapers had bureaus around the world, and when even mid-sized papers could afford to send reporters around the country.

Following the explosion of the internet and social media, a good number of newspapers in the U.S. closed down. Those working to remain profitable, including the Chicago Tribune, have cut costs in various ways, including slashing newsroom staff.

But no matter how much newsrooms shrink, every day I see reporters striving to tell stories that educate and inform the public, promote transparency and encourage people to participate in community building.

Inside the Tribune Tower, on the marble walls of the lobby, are etched about 20 quotations about the media’s significant role in a democratic society.

Tribune Tower lobby


The one that struck me most was a statement by McCormick.

“The newspaper is an institution developed by modern civilization to present the news of the day, to foster commerce and industry, to inform and lead public opinion, and to furnish that check upon government which no constitution has ever been able to provide.”



Family discusses mental illness that led to deadly police shooting

I was surprised to hear that the man offered to talk about his son, who had been shot dead by police in April.

Lowell Holmgren, 86, had called my paper, the Rapid City Journal, in May. He said his youngest son, Tim, had been suffering from bipolar disorder when he pointed a gun at police and threatened a mass shooting at his apartment complex in Rapid City.

Tim, 53, turned out to have been wielding a pellet gun, which resembled a real semi-automatic handgun. No explosives were found in Tim's apartment, contrary to his claims.

Lowell Holmgren at home in Rapid City

Lowell wanted the public to know the dangers of bipolar disorder, also known as manic-depressive illness, and that it is imperative to seek professional help.

We spoke in his house for almost two hours. He showed me family photos and talked about Tim's career accomplishments, including as a public relations executive and journalist.

He also talked about the signs that revealed his son's mental illness.

Because of Lowell, Tim's widow, Kathy, agreed to meet me.

The first time we talked, in the apartment she began renting after Tim's death, Kathy seemed apprehensive about speaking to a reporter. While I interviewed her at the dining table, a niece of hers sat in the living room, listening to our conversation, ready to intervene and protect.

Kathy talked about meeting Tim in college and being happily married to him for 28 years. She described a successful man and loving husband who couldn't find the treatment he needed, until mental illness turned him into a person she no longer recognized.

Both Lowell and Kathy said they don't blame the police in Tim's death.

Photos of Holmgren children

The story, Man killed in officer-involved shooting struggled with mental illness, was published June 11.

I discussed the work that went behind it in the first episode of my paper's newly launched podcast, Journal Storytellers.

You can listen to it below. (Fellow reporter Seth Tupper also talked about climbing the eight highest peaks in South Dakota.)


Robbing banks by bike?

Every week, I receive news releases from various law enforcement agencies, such as the local police department and sheriff’s office, the state attorney general’s office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office. Once in a while, I read about an incident that makes me marvel at the absurdity of the situation.

On Wednesday, I received a release from the FBI, asking the public for help identifying the suspect in a series of robberies in Colorado.

The suspect, described as a white man in his 30s to 50s, is believed to have robbed three banks and an ATM in three Colorado towns between May 30 and June 12. Three of the robberies apparently occurred in one morning, within an hour and a half.

The FBI said the man “demanded money from bank and ATM employees, received money and fled the banks on a bicycle. There was no weapon seen, and no one was injured.”


Wait – He fled on a bicycle!? Then cycled to two more locations before riding off into the distance?

When I shared the news with a fellow reporter, he joked that the cops should just let the man keep the money in recognition of the feat he had accomplished.

Crimes against kids: the hardest stories to cover

I find violent crimes against children the most difficult stories to cover.

The first case that haunted me for days was the killing of an entire Filipino household in December 2000. It was my second month as a producer/writer for an investigative Philippine TV program, my first full-time job out of college, and I was assigned to look into the incident that had been dubbed a “massacre.”

Eight people, including three boys between 9 and 13 years old, were found stabbed, hacked or beaten to death at home. I saw photos of the crime scene, and couldn’t forget the images of the children lying naked and lifeless. On the walls of one room was a message written in blood. (A male household helper was later sentenced to almost 400 years in prison for the crimes.)

It was the last story I worked on before Christmas that year, and I don’t remember getting a good night’s sleep till the New Year. The color of human flesh and smeared blood kept flashing in my head.

A couple of years later, I documented the police surveillance and arrest of a man suspected of being involved in the child pornography trade. The pictures of abuse that law enforcement showed my team shrouded me in gloom for days.

It was my first exposure to a child pornography offense, now among the cases I routinely come across in U.S. state and federal courts.

Last year, a South Dakota woman was sent to federal prison after using her 20-month-old son as a human shield during a drunken fight with her boyfriend. The boy died three weeks later while under the care of his father, who was also sent to prison.

A few months ago, a state prison inmate was sentenced to an additional 100 years behind bars for raping two children over a two-year period. He had at least three other known child victims.

There are children being molested by relatives, raised around illegal drugs and physical violence, trafficked for sex work, left to starve.

A decade and a half since I started reporting on crimes, these stories have not gotten any easier to cover. And maybe this should be the case when reporting about society’s weakest and most vulnerable.



Seeing past and present in empty courtroom

An old courthouse in Sioux Falls, South Dakota’s biggest city, made me realize how much things change yet also stay the same.

I stumbled on the former Minnehaha County Courthouse during my first visit to Sioux Falls, in March. After a year and a half of living in South Dakota, I figured it was long past time to see the state’s commercial capital, where many local news stories originate.

After looking at the current county courthouse and the Sioux Falls federal courthouse from the outside – it was a Sunday, so both were closed – I noticed an old building with a clock tower nearby. A sign identified it as the Old Courthouse Museum.

I tried the main doors, which swung open. It turned out the place is open to visitors every day, and entrance is free.

The old Minnehaha County Courthouse at 200 W. Sixth Street, Sioux Falls, S.D.

Construction on the three-story building began in 1889, and it opened as the Minnehaha County Courthouse in 1890. It was last used in 1962, when court and county business were moved to the current courthouse because of the need for more space.

The old courthouse was almost demolished to make way for a parking lot. Local college students spearheaded efforts to preserve the building, and it was turned into a museum in 1974, said Ben Devlin, an in-house historian.

A year earlier, the courthouse had been added to the National Register of Historic Places, the United States’ official list of historic places deemed worthy of preservation.

The building is described on the National Register nomination form as “the finest example of Richardson Romanesque architecture in South Dakota.” It is among the area’s few remaining structures made of Sioux Quartzite, a material used in the construction of many local public buildings and business establishments in the late 1800s, according to the document.

I spent most of my visit looking around the main courtroom. It was the first time I’d seen a courtroom with stained-glass windows and a balcony, which reminded me of Catholic churches. It now serves as a venue for social functions, such as weddings.

The old courthouse’s main courtroom has two levels.

In the balcony, the rows of wood-and-metal folding chairs painted a picture of the way of life decades ago. The back of each chair had a built-in wire rack, where people can hang their coats or shawls. I imagine this was used year-round, when people got more dressed up to go out and about.

The courtroom balcony features its original folding chairs.

The seats, when folded, revealed a pair of C-shaped wires underneath. A museum sign explained they were meant to hold men’s hats, while spaces underneath were designed to hold canes or “parasols.”

The built-in wires behind and under the chairs were meant to hold articles of clothing, such as coats, shawls and hats.

I pictured the relatives and friends of victims and defendants who once occupied those seats, just like they do in courtrooms today. They would have been dressed in more formal clothing than the T-shirts, jeans and sneakers I see in courtrooms every day.

But I believe they carried the same gamut of emotions: anger, fear, disgust, anxiety, disbelief, shame, hope, grief.

Started with words, ended with a gunshot

What is it like when somebody calls you by the N-word? A criminal defense attorney asked his client on the stand last week.

“They think I’m not a human being, they think they’re better than me,” 32-year-old Jarrad Smith replied.

Smith was on trial for attempted murder, aggravated assault and a firearm offense after shooting another man in the parking lot of a South Dakota strip club in the early morning of Dec. 6, 2016. The shooting victim, 27-year-old Kyle Haverly, survived a bullet wound in the abdomen.

Because of previous felony convictions, Smith could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of even just one of his charges.

The shooting happened in the club parking lot in the early morning of Dec. 6, 2016.

Smith claimed self-defense. His lawyer said Haverly called Smith by the N-word several times despite Smith’s objections, threatened to hang him and punched him in the head. Smith, a native of St. Louis, Mo., is black; Haverly, of South Dakota, is white. The men did not know each other. Both had been drinking.

Haverly admitted using the N-word, saying it was valid since the word appears in the dictionary. Haverly’s companion during the incident told the court it was spoken as a greeting to a “friend.”

The three-day trial was the first I ever covered that invoked racism in the U.S. It was also the first time I’d heard a black person talk at length about how being called the racial slur made him feel, how it has been a regular occurrence since childhood. I’ve spent most of my life in pretty homogeneous Asian societies.

The prosecuting attorney objected to the case being framed in racial terms. It was about Smith escalating a fistfight into a gunfight, the prosecutor said. No one else had a weapon.


But during closing arguments, Smith’s lawyer talked about the power of words, quoting  African-American writer and civil-rights activist Maya Angelou (1928-2014).

“Words are things, I’m convinced,” Angelou said in a TV interview aired in January 2011. “You must be careful about the words you use … careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance.

“Someday we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. I think they get on the walls, they get on your wallpaper, they get in your rugs, in your upholstery, in your clothes and finally, into you.”

At 8:11 p.m. on Thursday, eight hours after the case was handed to the jurors, the nine women and three men filed back into the courtroom to deliver their verdict.

Smith was convicted of one count of aggravated assault. He was acquitted of his other charges: attempted first-degree murder, another count of aggravated assault and commission of a felony with a firearm.

He is waiting to be sentenced.

Update: On July 25, Smith was sentenced to 7-1/2 years in prison. Prosecutors asked for 30 years; his lawyer asked for five years.