I first heard about the murder of Blue Eyes from Major Betty Baker, a feisty, God-fearing Salvation Army officer with a gravelly voice and a thick Scottish brogue. Every weeknight at about 10 o’clock, Baker and a driver would traverse New York City in a converted ice-cream truck, passing out snacks and hot chocolate to the people on the streets.
I was interviewing Baker in the spring of 1989 for a journalism school project when she mentioned Blue Eyes, who had left her Buffalo home at the age of 15 with a pimp. She had been on the streets six years the last time Baker saw her, which, Baker said, was shortly after 2 a.m. November 21, 1987. She said Blue Eyes was depressed and wanted to quit the streets.
Five hours after Baker saw her, Blue Eyes’s half-naked body was found displayed over a metal rack, face down, her skull crushed. Baker believed she and her canteen driver, John Lancaster, were probably among the last to see her alive.
Around the time I met Baker, coincidentally, I also met a detective, Paul Clermont, who worked at the precinct one block from my apartment. He was preparing for a trial involving the murder of a young prostitute, and I soon realized it was Blue Eyes. I told Clermont I had just met a woman who had seen her at 2 a.m., only hours before her body had been discovered.
“Don’t tell me that,” Clermont said, explaining the prosecution’s case hinged on the theory that Blue Eyes had been killed at about 11 p.m. If she were alive at 2 a.m., Clermont said, he had arrested the wrong man.
I double-checked with Baker, who was certain of her memory. She dug out her 1987 nightly journal and showed me the 2 a.m. entry, “Saw B.E.”
I went back to Clermont and told him this and about the canteen driver, Lancaster, whom Baker had said worked for the Salvation Army only briefly and who had left New York the day after the murder. At the very least, Lancaster should be able to corroborate or dispute Baker’s story.
Over the next several weeks I contacted Robert Beecher, the lawyer representing the 31-year-old security guard charged with Blue Eyes’s murder. There was no physical evidence against Lebrew Jones, who had an IQ of 66 and no criminal record; he was arrested following 20 hours of questioning without a lawyer.
In May 1989, only weeks before Jones’s trial started, I had moved to New England to begin a broadcasting career. I was uneasy about Jones’s fate but felt confident that if he were innocent, the information I had provided would prove it.
Later that summer, Beecher called me with the news that Jones had been convicted. After the verdict, the judge had asked Jones for his date of birth.
“I didn’t do that murder,” Jones had replied.
Those five words would haunt me for two decades.
Displaying the Evidence
During the next 15 years, I pursued a journalism career, first in television, then with a newspaper and, for a while, both at the same time. That last experience—deciding what aspects of a story to write for the paper and what should be told using video—was my introduction to multimedia storytelling.
I collaborated on many projects with John Pertel, a videojournalist who in 1992 had also become my husband. In late 2005, our family moved to New York, and my husband and I began working for The Times Herald-Record in Middletown. The paper had not ventured into producing video, and John became its first videographer/multimedia editor.
In the fall of 2006 I did an inmate search and found, to my amazement, that Jones was incarcerated only 12 miles from our new home. I went to see him on Thanksgiving morning. During most of the following year, John and I gathered information and shot video for what would become an elaborate multimedia presentation about this case. I am still in awe at the richness of the material we were able to accumulate.
For example, Jones is the eldest son of the late Rufus “Speedy” Jones, a drummer for Count Basie and Duke Ellington. With the help of jazz writer Scott Yanow, I found a number of DVDs and VHS tapes featuring his stunning performances. During an on-camera prison interview, Lebrew demonstrated his own drumming finesse, taught by his father, using his fingers on the table. Later, John interspersed this jailhouse performance with a video of Speedy doing a drum solo, with a result so poignant it brought tears to my eyes.
Jones’s lawyer gave us a VHS copy of Lebrew’s videotaped statement to investigators, the crime scene photos, the evidence list, and the crime-scene sketch. This sketch became the template for an interactive crime-scene map we created on our Web site, enabling viewers to examine close-ups of the evidence and get a sense of the area by clicking on wide shots taken from various angles. Folders within the map offered on-camera analysis by a criminal profiler who had conducted an extensive study of prostitute homicide.
We went to Asbury Park, New Jersey, and interviewed Betty Baker, who at 82 still had VHS copies of television news stories featuring her Salvation Army work during the 1980’s. We got permission from the news outlets to use the video, which showed Baker at work on the canteen and a seedy Times Square with silhouettes of prostitutes soliciting johns.
I filed a FOIA request with the New York City Police Department that eventually yielded only six pages but led me to Lois Hall, Blue Eyes’s mother.
That’s when I knew I had the soul of the story.
Tracking Down Sources
During my first call to Lois, she told me she had always believed the wrong man was in prison for her daughter’s murder. She also said Blue Eyes’s name was Michaelanne, not Michelle, as police and prosecutors had called her, and her nickname was Micki.
We traveled to Buffalo and got Lois on camera as she held dozens of photos of Micki at different ages and read aloud from notes Micki had written as a child. But Lois had something even more compelling—home movies of Micki taken shortly before she was killed.
Suddenly, Blue Eyes was no longer just a slain prostitute. She was Micki Hall, a living, laughing, vibrant young woman, a daughter so beloved that her mother had never been able to bury her ashes.
As details of Micki’s life emerged, we shot more video in Buffalo—at the housing projects where Micki had grown up and at the apartment building where Lois said a pimp named “Cain” had kept Micki locked up before taking her to Manhattan. We interviewed Micki’s sister, Cindy Tirado, who said she had spent time with Micki in New York City. Tirado described living in a rundown New Jersey motel, riding with Cain each night through the Lincoln Tunnel to work the streets. Later, we would go to New Jersey and New York with the camera, retracing those recollections.
Users click on map icons to reveal photographs of the crime scene and evidence related to the murder and to listen to experts, such as a forensic psychologist, analyze what happened and why.
Collaborating in Our Newsroom
The design and programming aspects of this project presented its own set of challenges. Two departments within our newspaper—editorial and new media—had to work closely together to construct the project.
This was not the first time that our new media staffers had developed multimedia projects for the newsroom, but this one involved more people and interaction than ever before. To get this project onto the Web, editorial needed help from those in new media for their programming and Flash development expertise. Patrick Mullen, new media’s director, believed this story would attract enough unique visitors over the long haul to warrant lending us his Flash programmer, Vinny Kaprat, for a considerable amount of time.
Our supervising editor, Chris Mele, had an enormous task. In addition to guiding me through the writing, he coordinated the print and online versions and acted as liaison between editorial and new media. It was also his job to keep Executive Editor Derek Osenenko apprised of our progress.
During the week preceding publication, we ran an online promotion featuring the most compelling aspects of the case. John took shots of our printing press rolling out papers to push the upcoming Sunday special section and those went up on the Web site. The new media department worked hard to optimize the project for search engine placement, and Online News Editor Erik Gliedman continually promoted the report on the front page of recordonline.com.
Since the project launched, we’ve received tremendous feedback along with plenty of recognition from our journalism peers. Most gratifying, however, is what our reporting has done for Lebrew Jones and Lois Hall. Jones is now represented pro bono by the Innocence Project and the Manhattan law firm of Davis Polk & Wardwell. Micki Hall’s fingernail clippings have recently been found and are being tested for DNA; Jones is hoping the results will prove his innocence.
Lois regards the project as a tribute to Micki, whom she long believed had been forgotten. Last year she met Jones during a tearful encounter at the prison, and she is convinced of his innocence. The two have since forged a warm friendship, a unique bond, born of unspeakable violence and a monstrous injustice.
Christine Young has worked for almost 20 years in both newspapers and television and for coverage of this story received the 2009 Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award from John Jay College of Criminal Justice at The City University of New York, and the 2007-2008 New York State Associated Press Association writing award for best multimedia package. She and her colleagues at the Times Herald-Record were awarded the 2008 Sigma Delta Chi Award for Investigative Reporting (affiliated) for this story, "I Didn’t Do That Murder." For other stories, Young has received an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton, National Headliner Award, Clarion Award, and an Edward R. Murrow Award.