Perspectives: A Photojournalist's Worst Nightmare
Jessica Webb is a staff photojournalist for the Daytona Beach News-Journal. This is her first-person account of covering the beatings of three seniors, resulting in two deaths. The trio had been the subject of one of her recent photography projects:
By Jessica Webb
DAYTONA BEACH, FL – As news photographers, tragedy is something we see often. The scanner chirps, crackles, a siren sounds, and we run, hoping to be the first on the scene with good access and a compelling picture. It is easy to become desensitized, and not fully experience the emotions that come with the reality of spot news. We photograph pain through grimaced and tearful faces, yet often our own eyes are dry. Crime almost becomes just a part of life.
It was no different when I was sent to photograph a crime scene July 27. I heard a BOLO (“be on the lookout for …”) bulletin sent over the police scanner in a community about twenty minutes from the newsroom. I was looking for feature pictures near the office and was called to head south to the area. After getting directions from one of our police reporters, Lyda Longa, I headed toward Maplewood, a senior citizen community in Port Orange, FL. I had spent time documenting the lives of three seniors in that neighborhood, so I was familiar with the area.
About halfway there, photography editor Jim Michalowski called and asked if I was on my way. I still didn't know what happened, so he told me that police had found two bodies in a home. I told him that the elderly people I knew lived in that area. He urged me to call them and see if they knew anything about what happened. I hung up knowing that I wouldn't call them, but instead would stop by when I arrived.
About a block from the neighborhood Jim called me back with the address: 5612 Wilson Drive.
"Oh my gosh, that's their house!" I said.
He asked me if I was sure, which made me question it. I told him that I would call him as soon as I was on the scene. I had a sinking feeling though; Wilson Drive is a short street.
When I arrived the bright yellow crime scene tape hugged an area that was all too familiar. A neat and tidy yard of Joe Eads, Jr. that formerly boasted elaborate yard decorations now swarmed with police officers, detectives, and investigators. Seemingly out of place, cheerful pink and yellow flowers hung on the garage lattice. They were too reminiscent of the home's residents – three seniors who lived together for companionship.
My shock must have been evident, because one of the police officers asked if I knew them. I numbly nodded. All I could think about was, “This is not happening. This is not supposed to happen.”
For about six months, I had visited the home photographing the daily lives of Joe Eads, Jr., 84; Ralph D. Oleson, 91; and Angela Kopec, 82. I met Joe and Ralph last fall at Krispy Kreme in Daytona Beach. They grabbed my attention because they were dressed alike in all white; cowboy hats, shirts and pants. Later I met Angela, and learned that they all moved in together a few months earlier to care for Oleson, who had been diagnosed with Alzeheimer’s Disease. Angela owned her own house, but she would often spent the night at Joe's so that she wouldn't be alone.
They shared their good and bad days with me. Joe liked to get up early and check everyone’s blood sugar before breakfast and made sure they took their medicine. Often I would find them not feeling well due to illness related to age. Yet they were still open and inviting to having me share their lives through photographs.
The paper ran a photo page in March on the seniors and the hats they wore. My last contact with them was in April. I had been meaning to call and stop by to check on them, but I hadn’t made the time.
When I recovered from the initial shock of the fact that I was really photographing a crime scene where two people I knew were dead and one was seriously injured, I continued to cover the scene. The police weren't talking and there wasn't much activity from the detectives. My editor was great; he sent backup to make sure that I was okay as well as making sure we had all angles covered for the paper. After being asked to write a first person account for the paper that night, my editor and I went to dinner to talk about the whole situation.
The next day, a lawn maintenance man confessed to killing Joe and Angela and beating Ralph. He was looking for money for drugs and Joe refused his request. The police report said he “snapped” and stabbed the seniors multiple times. Reading the gruesomeness of the police report broke my heart as I pictured where and how the struggle took place. Ralph survived the attack and is now recovering in a local nursing home. According to his nephew, he is progressing well.
I don’t know how I have dealt with the ordeal, except for my faith in Christ. I know bad things will happen in the world, but I trust a sovereign God who promises that He is in control. He promises that he will accomplish good for those who love Him. However, it doesn’t take away the pain I feel for these people’s families or the fact that they suffered an agonizing death.
It does, however, cause me to think twice when I go to spot news, to offer compassion to victims' families and have even more regard for those who are struggling to survive around us. It reminds me that our subjects are people with needs, wants, and desires. To us, they are sometimes just another picture. But to them, we are a chance for their story to be told.
Webb has been an NPPA member since 2000.