On the 4th of July in 1979, I considered myself doubly fortunate – I was a metropolitan desk intern at the Dallas Morning News, and I was spending the day in the air-conditioned comfort of the news room watching television and hoping that nothing newsworthy would happen.
It was my first summer in Dallas, and after spending most of my life and all of my summers in Minnesota, nothing in Texas was quite as comforting as air-conditioning.
Anyway, that afternoon, word came over the police radio that 6-year-old Tyra Christine Heath of Mesquite had been found chained to a tree about three miles from her home. The little girl had been kidnapped nine days earlier, and now she was dead.
The recent murder of Amber Hagerman brought all of this to mind again, and it reminded me of a sad constant in our lives: Tragedies we can’t prevent occur, but often – and perhaps, unwittingly – the rest of us contribute to making a bad situation even worse.
The Tyra Heath murder was just such a story, the kind of news that a reporting intern dreams about. Real news. Real excitement. A real chance to make the front page.
At about 9 p.m., the night city desk editor told me to get over to Tyra Heath’s grandparents’ house to see what they had to say about the day’s events.
Of course, I already knew the answer to that question: I had watched the grandparents’ reaction to the discovery of their grandchild’s body on the TV news at 6 p.m. earlier that evening. The grandfather was visibly agitated with the yammering newspaper, television and radio reporters banging on this door, and he took a swing at the very same photographer now seated next to me in my (un-air-conditioned) car as we drove into the darkness.
At this moment, as I thought about what I was going to say when I reached the home, being on the front page didn’t seem quite as exciting anymore.
At about 9:45 p.m., with the photographer lingering back in the shadows, I tapped timidly on the door.
Both grandfather and grandmother answered, and the grandfather spoke immediately: “Get out of here,” he said, heading back into the house.
But for some reason, and I’ll never know why, the grandmother invited us into their home on the worst night of their lives.
As the photographer clicked away, tears welled up in her eyes as she showed us pictures of little Tyra and talked about her granddaughter’s stuffed animals and “friendly smile” in ways that only a parent or grandparent can summon to describe a child.
And then, at precisely 10 p.m., the familiar strains of the Channel 8 newscast drifted through the house, and the attention-getting teaser – dead girl found, film coming up – froze the entire household of grieving relatives.
And at a few minutes after 10 p.m., I stood with a grieving family as their family’s horrible tragedy played out before an audience of hundreds of thousands of strangers.
Silently, sadly, they watched.
Those few minutes of “news” seemed to last forever. Words like “murdered”, “chained” and “decomposed”, while awful enough on their own, landed with a sickening thud in the living room of this family.
There was a video of the grandfather, looking somehow inappropriately indignant, as he pushed away reporters and took a swing at the photographer. There was video of the tree where her body was found. There was video of the very same childhood snapshots Tyra’s grandmother now cradled in her arms.
This simple news story wasn’t “news” to this family; it was their life.
I hope I never again feel as hollow as I did at that moment. For even as I watched the awful truth on television, I realized that my story in tomorrow’s Morning News would be no different for this family: What’s “exciting” to a reader and a reporter can be like being stabbed in the stomach to those involved.
I remember the remainder of the night only in bits and pieces. We raced back to the Morning News, and while the photographer developed his pictures, I hammered out my first – and as it turned out, last – front-page story for the Morning News in about 15 minutes.
It was a great and sad story, if I do say so myself, sprinkled with vivid descriptions of a grieving grandmother and a shattered family.
And it was the last news story of its type I ever hope to write.
As we left her house, the grandmother said something I’ll never forget: “Tyra, she’s in a lot better place than we are right now.”
Every time another child is kidnapped and killed, and I watch the crush of reporters chasing their tails on television, and I read about and watch the pain and heartache of the affected family, I think again about the grandmother’s words.
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