Pete Shellem, a reporter for the Central Pennsylvania paper, the Patriot-News, died last week. Shellem was best known for his investigative journalism, which directly led to the freeing of four prisoners serving life sentences for murder. Mike Feeley, Shellem's editor at the paper, recalls Shellem's accomplished career.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, we mark the passing of Pete Shellem, reporter for the Central Pennsylvania paper, The Patriot-News. Shellem’s investigative work directly led to the freeing of four prisoners serving life sentences for murder, as well as to the conviction of former Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernie Preate for campaign-related mail fraud. Mike Feeley was Shellem’s editor at the paper, and he joins me now. Mike, welcome to the show.
MIKE FEELEY: Oh, thank you very much.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, Ernie Preate, who served jail time in large part due to Shellem’s investigation dubbed him a one-man innocence project, and he was quoted as saying he was there when the justice system failed. I guess Ernie didn't harbor any hard feelings.
MIKE FEELEY: No, I think when Ernie went to prison he came out not just a reformed man but a person who was interested in reforming the prison system, and I think, while he put him in prison, he admired the work Pete was doing to get innocent people out of prison.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s it take to be a one-man innocence project?
MIKE FEELEY: He would just dig and dig and dig. And he really loved reading thousand-page court documents. He loved taking phone calls from prisoners and, and getting letters from prisoners. You know, you get somebody out of prison, you get a couple of letters; you get a second person out of prison, you start getting hundreds of letters. By the time you get the third person out, you’re getting, you know, in a year, thousands of letters. And he would read every one.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The American Journalism Review described him as “a journalistic throwback: a chain-smoking-
MIKE FEELEY: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - B-movie reporter who meets sources in bars, immerses himself in his subject.” It sounds like we're describing an old man, but he was only 49 when he died.
MIKE FEELEY: Forty-nine but, boy, we ran a photo of him on our paper, and it, it actually made me laugh; it felt good. It was the rumpled shirt, the reporter’s notebook pad sticking out of his back pocket, looking through files at the courthouse. He had those old-style reporter ideals, in - you know, in a modern newsroom.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s the sort of stuff that he found that other reporters and investigators and defense attorneys missed?
MIKE FEELEY: Steven Crawford spent 28 years in prison. It was his family’s garage where the body was found. The piece of evidence was his handprint in blood on the side of a car, a pretty damning piece of evidence. Pete was suspicious after reading a lot of court records. He was suspicious of the state police examiner who looked at this, got forensics people from around the world to look at this. And in the end it turns out that the blood was splattered on Steven Crawford’s hand print. Obviously he would be touching cars. It was his family’s garage, and so the blood had splashed on his handprint, which was a huge turnaround. So -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Wow.
MIKE FEELEY: And then in the Barry Laughman case, Barry was a mentally retarded man who was coerced into a confession. Now, we can say that easily. Pete actually tracked down DNA in Germany that everyone said did not exist, and it was that -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: DNA in Germany for a Pennsylvania murder?
MIKE FEELEY: Yes, a Penn State professor had been studying that DNA for something and had packed it up with him when he moved to a new job in Germany. Pete tracked it down, and it proved Barry Laughman wasn't the man that everybody said was there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Shellem discovered that a serial killer lived in the same apartment building as an elderly woman who was murdered. This was a lead that was never pursued by prosecutors who tried and convicted another man.
MIKE FEELEY: The fascinating part about that story – it’s a fellow named David Gladden. He had run out of all his appeals. He was going to be in prison for the rest of his life. Pete told this great story of why were they not looking at the serial killer [LAUGHS] next door. And it was just on the power of his whole presentation of the story that the D.A. decided that he was to be let go.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, the day that Gladden was sprung from jail?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It was in the middle of a snowstorm. It was a February, I believe, and he had nowhere to go, he had no one to help him out. So Pete got in his car and picked David up in the front of the prison and brought him home. He talked to Pete regularly, and Pete became a really good friend of his.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: As his editor, were you ever worried about Pete getting too involved with his subjects?
MIKE FEELEY: Pete is a contradiction. I want to read you something from a former colleague, Pete Shelly. He’s writing an Op-Ed piece for us for Sunday, and I got a look at it. “He was gruff and abrasive and profane, and he could trade barbs and slurs not fit for a family newspaper with the best of ‘em. Forget The Front Page or Woodward and Bernstein. Think Columbo without the charm. [BROOKE LAUGHS] But here’s the rub: Pete cared deeply about justice and fairness. He cared deeply for the down and out, for the men and women who literally had nobody else to turn to.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thank you so much.
MIKE FEELEY: No problem.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mike Feeley was Pete Shellem’s editor at The Patriot-News. Shellem died this week at the age of 49. The paper is setting up a journalism scholarship fund in his name. Go to PennLive.com for details.
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BOB GARFIELD: Coming up, the new plan - yeah another one, to save newspapers.