Eric Webb hopes to bring awareness to his father’s struggle to preserve journalistic ethics in high-powered media and shed light on the depression that lead to his 2004 suicide.
By Jeff Gonzales and Tracy Johnson-Novak
Editor’s Note: This is the second part in a two-part series showcasing the conspiracy theories surrounding the death of former ARC student Eric Webb’s father, reporter Gary Webb, in 2004.
U.S. government-sponsored foreign rebels, asylum-seeking immigrants, and crack cocaine deals performed with CIA knowledge—Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Gary Webb reported on subjects that would change people’s lives.
Hollywood films can both glorify and fog reality. The story of former American River College student Eric Webb’s father is taught in history classes and, as The Current reported, is now being made into a Hollywood movie. The years during Gary Webb’s investigative reporting and after his suicide were filled with triumphs, tragedy and confusion. Unanswered questions led to numerous theories over what happened to Gary Webb. To his family, the reasons are unfortunate but clear.
“For most of a decade, a San Francisco Bay Area drug ring sold tons of cocaine to the Crips and Bloods street gangs of Los Angeles and funneled millions in drug profits to a Latin American guerrilla army run by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, a Mercury News investigation has found,” began the story that started Gary Webb’s problems and changed the lives of those closest to him.
Following the trail from a large-scale crack cocaine dealer to an army in Nicaragua, Webb worked many hours in several countries getting information for the story, revealing the connection between the explosion of crack cocaine usage in African American communities and the CIA-backed Nicaraguan Contras. The San Jose Mercury News printed a three-part story by Webb in 1996 called “Dark Alliance.” As the stories were published, Gary Webb found himself under incredible scrutiny.
When major news publications and government agencies claimed that Gary Webb wrote inaccurate information, the editors at the SJMN did not defend their reporter. With all this scrutiny and lack of support, Gary Webb published “Dark Alliance” in a book on his own.
“When the book came out, there were a few people backing him up, like Congresswoman Maxine Waters and Senator John Kerry,” Eric Webb said. “But the problem is that people were still associating all of these conspiracy theories with my Dad. That he was saying things that he wasn’t.”
The Mercury News pulled Gary Webb from the stories he was working on, then transferred him to remote cities and assigned him dull stories. Refusing to publicly apologize for anything he wrote in “Dark Alliance,” Gary Webb resigned and moved to the Sacramento area.
The Pulitzer Prize-winner found himself unemployed and blacklisted in the mainstream media. Unable to find work with a large daily, he found a home at the Sacramento News and Review.
“I think some of his best work happened there,” Eric Webb said of his fathers time at the local Alternative Weekly publication.
However, Gary Webb’s depression worsened as his marriage fell apart and his bills started piling up. By 2004, his family and friends could see the effects wearing on him.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how he felt,” said Tom Dresslar, a friend and former colleague of Gary Webb’s, in an article published about Gary Webb’s saga. “For him to get chewed up by the powers that be in American Journalism, to get shuffled out, exiled and made to eventually quit: you know how that guy feels.”
According to Eric Webb, his father was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and severe depression about a year before his suicide. He also took each of his children out for a “special goodbye” night before his death.
“My father and I ended (our) night playing Call of Duty 2 online on his PC in his office, as we often did when I visited, switching off in between ‘deaths,'” Eric wrote in an email to The Current. “I will always treasure that night…because it helped bring closure.”
With the CIA, a central player in “Dark Alliance,” conspiracy theories ran rampant after Gary Webb died. The coroner reported the cause of death as suicide. The fact that two shots were fired added fuel to theories of CIA involvement in his death. A simple Google search reveals numerous articles with just as many theories. These theories trouble Gary Webb’s family, who watched his depression spiral. There is no doubt in their minds that it was suicide.
“He gave us individually-typed letters to each of his children and my mom,” said Eric Webb. “People say, ‘It was typed. It could have been anyone.’ But he was an author. You can tell his voice. The notes mentioned specific events that no one would have really known. I felt like he was speaking to me personally.”
In the letter Gary Webb wrote to his ex-wife, Susan Stokes, as reported in the American Journalism Review, he wrote,
“All I want to do is write, and if I can’t do what I love, then what’s the sense of going on? Tell them I never regretted anything I wrote.”
The story that Gary Webb reported in “Dark Alliance” is one of many investigative pieces that he wrote. His work and courage will be remembered by many people.
Gary Webb concluded his final note to Eric Webb by writing, “Think of me now and then, and I will hear you.”