Two newspapers collaborate to finish work of murdered investigative reporter

Last September, longtime Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jeff German was stabbed to death outside his home. The killing shocked the newspaper and the community and left some of his reporting unfinished. John Yang reports on how The Washington Post worked with the Review-Journal to complete German's story that detailed a sweeping Ponzi scheme that targeted Mormon investors.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    We turn now to a story from the world of journalism. It's an example of one newsroom helping another after a horrifying tragedy.

    John Yang has more.

  • John Yang:

    Last September, longtime Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jeff German was stabbed to death outside his house. Charged with his murder, Robert Telles, a Clark County public administrator who German had investigated.

    The killing shocked the newspaper and the community and left some of German's work unfinished. Enter The Washington Post, which worked with the Review-Journal to complete one of the stories that German had started. The piece detailed a sweeping Ponzi scheme that targeted Mormon investors. Last week, it was published by the two papers.

    For more on how this collaboration came about and was carried out, Glenn Cook is the executive editor of The Las Vegas Review-Journal, and Lizzie Johnson is The Washington Post reporter who went had to Nevada to finish the reporting that German had started.

    Glenn, as difficult as it is for a newsroom to lose a colleague, I cannot fathom what it's like for a newsroom to lose a colleague the way Jeff's life was taken. How did this affect the newsroom?

  • Glenn Cook, Las Vegas Review-Journal:

    It's the worst thing a news organization can ever possibly deal with.

    There's shock, intense grief, anger and, for a lot of our employees, the kinds of conversations that they'd never had to have before with their partners, their spouses, their families about the risks of doing their jobs.

    I had to have a sit-down conversation with my wife and my teenagers, who asked me specifically, would someone ever come to our house to harm you and would they harm us? That was — that was part of the trauma that we had to navigate as a news organization going forward after Jeff's murder.

    And it goes without saying that we still miss him terribly, and that this community misses him and his work.

  • John Yang:

    Lizzie, Glenn was talking about the risks that come with this work. This is the same work you do, the sort of enterprise investigative reporting.

    What was your reaction when you heard the news about Jeff?

  • Lizzie Johnson, The Washington Post:

    I mean, it's just — it's awful. It's exactly what Glenn was saying.

    I think journalists are very aware of the fact that our jobs are getting harder and there are dangers there. But you never actually think that someone you see in the newsroom one day won't be there the next.

  • John Yang:

    Glenn, tell me a little bit about how this collaboration began, how it came about.

  • Glenn Cook:

    The day after Robert Telles is arrested in connection with Jeff's murder, I get an e-mail from Craig Timberg, who's The Washington Post's head of collaborative investigations. And the subject line of his e-mail was: "Condolences from The Washington Post and an idea."

    It offered reporting help, specifically, the idea of The Post providing reporting help on stories that Jeff might have been pursuing at the time of his murder. We came to an agreement fairly quickly that this story on this Ponzi scheme that we already knew about — the man alleged to be the leader of this scheme was already arrested, in custody.

    There were a lot of documents that had already been filed in connection with this that Jeff had pulled and had read, studied, highlighted, made notes from at the time of his murder. And after some back-and-forth with his colleagues at The Post, Craig said: "We're in."

  • John Yang:

    And then, Lizzie, you went out to Nevada. What did you do from there?

  • Lizzie Johnson:

    Yes, so I landed in Las Vegas, and the newsroom was the first stop that I made, went in there and met Jeff's colleagues and got to hear all about him and what he was like as a reporter.

    And then his editor handed me this stack of folders containing these court filings that Glenn had mentioned he'd read and started thinking about. And so that's where I picked up.

  • John Yang:

    And tell us a little bit about what you found, this — the scope of this Ponzi scheme, and what you found as you reported about it.

  • Lizzie Johnson:

    So the alleged Ponzi scheme was about $500 million. And it spread very quickly through the Mormon Church.

    There were people who had put in their life savings, their retirement accounts, who had taken out a second mortgage on their house. They thought that they would get annualized returns of 50 percent, which seemed really great. And they were being sold on this by people that they trusted, people that they saw in church on Sunday, whose kids had grown up with their kids, and they have no reason to distrust that the investment wasn't real.

    Unfortunately, this is fairly typical of what is called an affinity fraud. And so, in the aftermath, these people's lives were left in ruin.

  • John Yang:

    Glenn, what do you take away from this experience about journalism, about the state of the industry, about collegiality in the industry?

  • Glenn Cook:

    Our industry is an incredibly competitive one. Everyone's competing for readership, for audience.

    But, at the same time, nothing brings our industry together like fighting for press freedoms, the First Amendment, ensuring that important stories can be told everywhere, not just in certain places. And it's unfortunate, obviously, incredibly tragic, that it — that the murder of a journalist really sends that collaboration and — into overdrive.

    The Post's offer was incredibly important and meaningful to us because our limited resources were focused on telling Jeff's story and on Telles, his suspected killer. And I knew we just were not going to be able to get to this Ponzi scheme story at any time in the near future. And The Post's willingness to step in and tell the story — Lizzie worked with our photographer Rachel Aston.

    And, together, I just thought they did a beautiful job.

  • John Yang:

    Lizzie, what do you take away from this experience? And are there any particular feelings about picking up the torch that Jeff had sort of been leading and finishing it for him?

  • Lizzie Johnson:

    From what I have heard about Jeff, how his colleagues and family described him to me, he seems like the kind of journalist that I have always wanted to be, someone who was really dedicated to his community, someone who shed light on dark places, someone who wanted to expose this tangled web of fraud, and all of the people that were left in its wake.

    And so it felt really, really meaningful, probably the most meaningful thing that I have done in my career to be able to tell this story for him in his honor, to let people know that, just because he couldn't do it, you can't kill the story, that the story will live on.

    And I think that — I think Jeff would have liked that.

  • John Yang:

    Lizzie Johnson of The Washington Post and Glenn Cook of The Las Vegas Review-Journal, thank you both very, very much.

  • Glenn Cook:

    Thank you, John.

  • Lizzie Johnson:

    Thank you.

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