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The Journalistic Rivalry Over a Juicy Murder Story : Charges and Countercharges Fly--Everything From Unethical Conduct to Checkbook Journalism

June 26, 1985|ELIZABETH MEHREN | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Both are experienced journalists, and both know a good murder story when they see it. In fact, so compelling was the murder of Utah multimillionaire Franklin Bradshaw by his grandson Marc Schreuder that both Shana Alexander and Jonathan Coleman seized upon it for the subject of separate books.

The crime was lurid enough, masterminded as it was by the mother of Marc Schreuder, Frances, who also happened to be Franklin Bradshaw's youngest daughter. But the fray that followed has included not only the total polarization of the Bradshaw family, but also a series of charges and countercharges--accusations of everything from unethical conduct to checkbook journalism, the practice of buying information--on the parts of authors Coleman and Alexander. Indeed, the exchange reads rather like a remake of Alexander's old televised "Point/Counterpoint" debates.

Coleman asserts, to begin with, that Alexander "came to this project secondhand." Alexander, on the other hand, makes no secret of the fact that she undertook the project that became "Nutcracker" (Doubleday) at the request of the children of the late Tommy Thompson, her former Life magazine colleague, "who had been powerfully drawn to this story because Marc was in school with one of Tommy's kids." Given her friendship with author Thompson, Alexander said, "I found it impossible to say no. I didn't even know what they were asking me about. But then when I got into it, I found it was a story of considerable interest."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 10, 1985 Home Edition View Part 5 Page 4 Column 1 View Desk 3 inches; 93 words Type of Material: Correction
An article in the June 26 View section stated incorrectly that Jonathan Coleman, author of "At Mother's Request," had become interested in the murder story that was to be the focus of his book on March 19, 1982. Coleman said he first became aware of the story at that time, but that his interest crystallized when he reported on the story himself for CBS News that June.
Coleman also refutes suggestions made in the story by the writer of another book on the same subject that he dined with the girlfriend of then-accused murderer Marc Schreuder during Frances Schreuder's trial, and said he met with the late writer Tommy Thompson after Schreuder's trial, not during it.

By contrast, Coleman--once an editor at both Knopf and Simon & Schuster, later a producer at CBS News--said that "the first piece I ever did on camera was on this story." It is etched firmly in his brain: "It was the same day that Israel invaded Lebanon, March 19, 1982." Coleman said he continued to follow the Bradshaw/Schreuder saga as its details unfolded, but that finally, on the day Frances Schreuder was arrested, he suddenly realized the magnitude of the story.

"I was on my way home," he said, "I'd just finished work on a documentary on Central America, and I picked up the New York Post. This was the headline: 'POLICE: MOM TOLD SON TO KILL GRAND-DAD.'

"My first impression," Coleman said, "was that Murdoch had really stepped over the line.

"But then I thought, if this is true, it's a once-in-a-lifetime story, right out of ancient Greece."

"It isn't Greek," retorted Alexander. "It isn't Freudian. It isn't mythological. It's a story about madness, and madness doesn't follow any known patterns, because it's just pathology. It's just sick.

"It's 'Cinderella' standing on its head. If it were Greek, if it were Oedipal, the son would kill his father. This story doesn't fit any of the patterns."

But the story did fit the formula for a hot-selling book. Doubleday, Thompson's publisher, agreed to let Alexander inherit Thompson's exclusive material for the book that was to become "Nutcracker," and even stepped up the publication date. At Athenaeum, publication of Coleman's "At Mother's Request" was also sped up by several months. Originally targeted to hit the stores this fall, and some two to three months apart, "Nutcracker" and "At Mother's Request" were officially published June 21 and June 20, respectively.

Yet Alexander herself said she had no idea when she first agreed to tackle the Bradshaw/Schreuder story that another book was in progress on the same subject. From her "very first phone call" on the matter, however, she said she learned otherwise.

Because of the Tommy Thompson connection, Alexander said she had been given the name of a Connecticut private investigator who had worked on the Bradshaw murder investigation. "Everybody loved Tommy Thompson," Alexander said. "He was such a charming figure." And so help poured in, such as investigator "Jim Conway, who loved Tommy, and said, after Tommy's death, 'whoever picks up the reins on this book, let me help.' "

Though she had "50 or 60 phone calls I could have started with," Alexander happened to place her first call to Conway. "And he said ' you're doing Tommy's book?' " Alexander said the investigator was incredulous: "He said, 'well there was a fellow here last week and he said he was doing Tommy's book.' "

Coleman denies that he ever represented himself as having inherited the Thompson book project. During the trial of Bradshaw's grandson, Coleman said he and Thompson discussed the matter of a second book. "I told him it would be publishing suicide to go up against him," Coleman said. "Two months later, he died, which was such a shock. He was only 49."

Coleman began to reconsider. He said he contacted Thompson's Doubleday editor, Sam Vaughan, and was told that Alexander had taken over the project.

"I was entirely unintimidated by the fact that she was doing it," Coleman said, explaining his decision to take on the book that became "At Mother's Request."

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