‘The dagger to the heart of the free press’: Colleagues of murdered Las Vegas journalist continue their work | Vegas

Jeff German was a dogged, old-school investigative journalist, roused by nothing but the whiff of corruption or official malfeasance and following it wherever it led. For four decades, he chronicled the racketeers, gangsters, loan sharks, unlucky crooks, and big-time crooks of Las Vegas, the notoriously sleazy desert town he called home.

When, to the chagrin of nearly everyone in Sin City and beyond, German was found stabbed to death outside his home earlier this month, it served as a reminder of the risks that come with such work – and the threat to which many journalists face in a country whose last president notoriously dubbed the media “the enemy of the people”.

Yet German’s colleagues at the Las Vegas Review-Journal, the city’s leading newspaper, knew there was only one appropriate way to channel their grief and honor his memory: by doing what he allegedly did and while investigating her murder.

Within days, German’s fellow investigative reporters had tracked down vital information leading to the arrest of a relatively obscure county official whom German had accused, in a series of articles published in May and June, of intimidating. his staff and having an inappropriate relationship with a subordinate. . The official, Robert Telles, is now behind bars and has been denied bail as the investigation continues.

Last week, reporters revealed that Telles, a lawyer on the periphery of Democratic party politics who has sold himself as a civic reformer, was arrested in 2020 on domestic violence charges and given a suspended sentence for resisting police came to arrest him. him. The newspaper also published the emergency call made by Telles’ wife at the time, in which she complained that he had drunk too much and was “become crazy”.

These, according to reporters, are likely just the first of many revelations – some resulting from requests for public records made by German while he was still alive and others the result of shoe leather work by his colleagues. colleagues since his death.

Clark County Public Administrator Robert ‘Rob’ Telles is escorted to court after he fatally stabbed reporter Jeff German. Photograph: John Locher/AP

“There’s a lot more coming out,” said German’s former boss, Investigations Editor Rhonda Prast. “We work 16 hour days and continue to work through the grief of losing Jeff. It’s overwhelming.

“You don’t always know who you’re talking to”

At least on the face of it, Telles was not someone to trick an experienced journalist like German into thinking he had to watch his back. Telles’ title was public administrator of Clark County, and his job was to administer the estates of county residents who died without leaving a will. As another prominent Las Vegas investigative journalist, John L Smith, put it: “You probably don’t even know the office exists unless you die without a will – and of course you don’t.” neither, because you are dead. .”

As German’s stories testify, Telles was unpopular enough in the office that some of his employees filed confidential complaints about his behavior, which they then shared with German with surreptitious text messages, emails and gunshots. . video footage. Weeks after the first story appeared, Telles lost a bid for a second four-year term as public administrator in a primary that pitted him against his first deputy. While he graciously accepted his defeat at first, he then sent out a series of hostile German tweets (since deleted) accusing the journalist of spreading lies and slander.

Still, it was not Watergate-level mischief. Nor did Telles’ aggrieved reaction match the threats that German journalists and others have faced in the past from Las Vegas gangsters and thugs. In a town where mafiosi were once known for drill holes into the heads of their enemies and throw bodies into hastily dug holes in the desert, journalists have had their share of guns or knives drawn at them or – as in one notorious case – set their car on fire as a warning. German himself has already been punched in the face by a court official suspected of having links to organized crime.

“The sad irony,” Smith said, “was that this was a trivial survey of office politics. The lesson for all of us is that you don’t always know who you’re talking to. You don’t know necessarily what else is going on in their lives.

As soon as German’s body was discovered in his suburban cul-de-sac the day after his death, police began collecting surveillance footage of neighbors’ homes and local businesses and released a photo of a man wearing a straw hat and a reflective orange. jacket. They also released a photograph of a GMC Yukon Denali that they believed was connected to the case.

Police were certainly interested in investigating the subjects of German’s recent stories, but they haven’t ruled out the possibility that it was also a random attack. More at the Review-Journal, Meanwhile, investigative journalists were already taking an interest in Telles and searching Google Maps for photos of his suburban home a few miles from German’s. A GMC Yukon Denali was parked in the driveway.

Robert Telles speaks with journalist Jeff German in his office in Las Vegas on May 11, 2022.
Robert Telles speaks with journalist Jeff German in his office in Las Vegas on May 11, 2022. Photo: KM Cannon/AP

When a news crew was dispatched to Telles, they found him washing the car. Within 24 hours, the police had obtained a warrant to tow the car and search Telles’ house. Shortly after, Telles returned from the office wearing a white hazmat suit, barricaded himself in the house and was eventually removed on a stretcher with bandages around his arms where officials said he was was cut. Police later reported that they recovered pieces of a straw hat from the house and compared Telles’ DNA to traces of human tissue found under German’s fingernails.

As news spread that a public official was suspected of murdering a journalist who was writing about him, press freedom organizations from coast to coast sounded the alarm. . What could that mean, they asked, in a country where journalists have historically enjoyed considerable leeway but where, increasingly, the political climate is turning against them, the police do not not always respect press cards, and even a politician who body-slammed a Guardian reporter in Montana and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault had no trouble getting elected governor of his state three years later.

Almost as soon as news of German’s murder broke, the Nevada Press Association expressed concern that an official under investigation might be responsible. “It would be a stab at the heart of a free press and a blow to our democracy,” he said. Similar National Press Freedom Statements organizations followed back to back.

It is still relatively rare for journalists to be killed on the job in the United States – only 16 in the past 30 years, according to the Journalists Protection Committee. But many media watchers think it could become less rare. In Virginia in 2015, a local TV reporter and her cameraman were filmed live by a former colleague. Three years later, gunman upset over how his criminal proceedings were reported murdered five people in the newsroom of the Maryland Capital Gazette.

Since first running for president in 2015, Donald Trump has made a sport out of baiting the media, accusing reporters of lying about him and encouraging his supporters to boo — or worse – to the press during its meetings. Of Greg Gianforte, the Montana politician who slammed the Guardian’s Ben Jacobs, he said, “He’s my guy.”

What makes German’s murder particularly devastating is that journalists like him – tenacious, hard-working, interested in looking under every rock to hold those responsible accountable – are becoming an increasingly rare breed as news outlets at cash-strapped reduce their local coverage and balk at the cost of conducting in-depth investigations.

Prast, his editor at the Review-Journal, said it was deeply painful to look at his desk empty and to carry on with work without him. “Jeff was an incredible journalist and a person with a big heart,” she said. “He was gruff on the outside, but he was fair and balanced and very modest. He sat right next to me. I miss him a lot.

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