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Written In Pain

March 16, 2005|Tina Daunt | Times Staff Writer

Gary Webb planned his death with polite precision.

He typed out four lengthy suicide notes and put them in the mail to family members. He placed his prearranged cremation certificate and Social Security card on the kitchen counter of his suburban Sacramento home. He put the keys to his cars and motorcycles in an envelope addressed to his oldest son.

All his belongings -- among them numerous awards from his years as an investigative reporter -- were packed and neatly stacked in boxes in a corner of his living room. He left a note on the door. "Please do not enter. Call 911 for assistance. Thank you."

Then, sometime during the evening of Dec. 9, Webb, age 49, went into his bedroom. He put his driver's license on the bed next to him and placed an old .38-caliber revolver near his right ear.

When he pulled the trigger, the bullet sliced down through his face, exiting at his left cheek, a non-fatal wound. He pulled the trigger again. The second shot, coroner's investigators believe, nicked an artery.

His body was found the following day.

For weeks after, Internet bloggers buzzed with the news of Webb's death. Perhaps Webb -- a controversial figure in American journalism -- was murdered. Some saw reason to suspect a plot by the U.S. government; the former San Jose Mercury News reporter gained folk hero status among left-wing conspiracy theorists for writing scathingly about the CIA nine years ago.

Suddenly, the journalist known for unearthing incredible stories had become one.

Two Hollywood agents called Webb's family to ask about the movie rights. A television station in France sent a crew to file a report. Esquire magazine ran a tribute article.

Inundated with inquiries, Sacramento County coroner's deputies spent weeks investigating Webb's death and concluded that his wounds were self-inflicted. (They plan to release their final autopsy results later this month.)

Webb's suicide has left friends and loved ones trying to sort through tangled feelings about a man who was known not so much for the triumphs of a high-impact journalism career as for what he is accused of getting wrong.

In 1996, Webb produced a series of stories for the San Jose Mercury News that suggested the CIA was involved in the nation's crack cocaine epidemic in the 1980s as a means of helping Nicaraguan drug dealers funnel money to the Contras. His premise that the government knew about and even encouraged the drug sales -- with South Los Angeles as ground zero -- sparked outrage, especially among members of the African American community.

Government agencies and the media, most notably the Los Angeles Times, launched their own investigations into Webb's report. Resoundingly -- and some believed venomously -- they dismissed Webb's thesis. Later, his bosses at the Mercury News all but disavowed the piece, with a front-page editor's note stating that the series had largely overstated its provocative findings. Eventually, Webb was forced to resign.

As the CIA story began to unravel, so did Webb's life, sending him down a self-destructive path. While many of his supporters believe that the mainstream media's condemnation was largely to blame for the journalist's demise, those closest to him say Webb's downward spiral is far more complicated.

For more than a decade, the journalist struggled with clinical depression, sometimes so profound that he sought solace in reckless and dangerous behavior. He crashed cars and motorcycles, he had illicit affairs and he took journalistic risks -- beyond what his research could support -- in his stories. (He was sued for libel four times, two of the suits resulting in settlements.)

On the surface, Webb seemed confident and determined. Admired and even idolized by some of his colleagues who later abandoned him, he could dig up any public document, a talent that helped him win more than 30 journalism awards and earned him a national reputation as a dogged investigative reporter.

However, his cocky street-smart style concealed a core sadness that few ever saw.

"By the end of his life he was just in a lot of pain," said Webb's ex-wife, Susan Bell. "He was sleeping more, he hated to get up in the morning, he started having a lot of motorcycle accidents.

"I kept saying, 'Gary has a death wish.' "

Isolated yet scared of being alone, Webb tried a cocktail of antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs, prescribed by a doctor. He took Prozac for a while. He mixed Lexapro with Klonopin. He gave up the medications altogether last spring, after complaining to his close friends that they made him feel worse.

With his ego dependent on his job, Webb needed a good story to lift his mood. But after the CIA scandal, no major newspaper would hire him.

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