First person: Harsh reality of reporting on young lives lost

Jason Sickles
December 19, 2012
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NEWTOWN, Conn.—Small talk with new acquaintances inevitably evolves to, "What's the worst story you ever covered?"

The question makes me cringe. I enjoy what I do, but 20 years of reporting on crime and national news has put me face to face with unforgettable tragedies.

Being on the scene at Hurricane Katrina, Columbine, Virginia Tech and the Aurora, Colo., theater massacre undoubtedly made me pause and seek perspective in life.

But what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary has been different. Not to take away anything from those other horrors, but first-graders slaughtered by some sicko is a gut-wrenching story even for the most jaded journalist.

My “worst” stories have always been and will always be tragedies involving kids.

Kids like 11-year-old Jason Boner, who I witnessed get sucked down a storm drain during a 1994 Dallas rainstorm. I can still hear his mother crying his name as she ran to the scene.

Or 9-year old Amber Hagerman, whose kidnapping and murder inspired the Amber Alert system.

A surprise snow was falling the night coroners carried Amber's body from a cold Texas creek in 1996. She looked peaceful in her blue casket days later, but her neck, slashed and scarred, served as an evil reminder of why she was being laid to rest.

[RELATED: How to help the families]

Now it’s the scenes from Newtown that will forever nag me.

Front-door funeral wreaths signifying a death in the family may be a thing of the past, but in Newtown, silver state patrol cars served the same purpose this weekend. An officer was parked in the driveways of every child gunned down by Adam Lanza.

“There’re 20 of us,” a trooper told me with tears in his eyes.

Then on Monday, I watched as a grief-stricken woman dropped off a little red and black dress with morticians at Honan Funeral Home in Newtown.

“That should have been her Christmas dress,” my own mother said when she called to check on me.

[RELATED: Photos of the Newtown shooting victims]

While my colleagues have concentrated on covering the victims of this tragedy, I’ve spent most of my time here reporting on the shooter, Adam Lanza. The who, what, where and how. Sadly, we still don't know the most important ... why.

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My stories prompted a few angry emails from readers.

“You get off on violence so much, come on over - I'll kick your ass for ya!,” one fella wrote me.

How absurd. I do what I do to inform, not glamorize a gunman. It’s something I discussed with a former FBI profiler this week.

“If this case doesn’t turn us around and make us think about what makes us tick and how these things happen, nothing will,” said Mary Ellen O’Toole, an expert on psychopathic criminals. “We have to understand so we can take strides forward.”

The kind of strides that will keep me from worrying about Jasper, Oliver, Patrick, Peyton and Trinity, my nieces and nephews who are the same ages of the Sandy Hook victims.

Eight-year-old Peyton recently discovered how to text from her iPod Touch and is keeping my wife’s phone buzzing. The evening before the Newtown nightmare, I sent her a playful message:

“It’s Uncle Jason. Why don’t you text me?!?! ☹”

Her innocent reply: “But I love you.”

I love you too, kiddo, and I’m coming home to give you a big hug.