Charlie LeDuff left The Detroit News last month after a two-year stint in which he reported stories, wrote a regular column, and hosted a weekly web show. On his decision to leave the paper, LeDuff told one blogger, “A man’s got to find a reason after forty-five years to feel it—I want to feel it.” This month, the legacy of his time at the News can be found in Mother Jones, which features LeDuff’s “What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones?” Telling the story of murdered seven-year-old Aiyana—killed during a SWAT raid gone wrong—LeDuff’s stark and meticulously reported piece spreads out from the single tragedy to explore the darkest corners of the city in which he grew up and to which he has returned—rampant crime, imploding industry, corruption, poverty. LeDuff spoke to CJR assistant editor Joel Meares about reporting for the piece, his time at the News, and his critics. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
When did you decide to write the piece on Aiyana Stanley-Jones? It must have been a substantial long-term project, given the amount of detail and context you include.
I first decided to write it when Mother Jones called me in June. But I’ve been working here in Detroit as a reporter since March 2008. If you think about it in that way, I’ve been working on it for that long. If you’re working as a daily columnist—or whatever it is I did—you start collecting details. In a newspaper, they don’t all fit together in the space that you have. So over the years, you start noticing patterns and details. For instance, you have a detail like this: Two chiefs of police ago, the chief is fired and he’s cleaning out his desk. As he’s cleaning out his desk, a burglar is cleaning out his house. What do you do with that? You put it in your pocket and you wait.
In terms of this kid, Aiyana herself, how long did it take to wander around and report her story? It took two weeks to do the basic skeletal stuff. Then you write it and then the editor wants more and you go back. It’s a hard question, but the short answer is a couple of months.
Yet it feels as though it’s more than a story about Aiyana, or the two other murdered boys who feature in the piece, Je’Rean Blake Nobles and Chaise Sherrors. Their deaths are central but it really seems to be about Detroit and the city’s East Side, which you describe in the piece as “the poorest, most violent quarter of America’s poorest, most violent big city.”
That was part of the deal I made with the editor. I said if you want me to write about the death of this girl, let me use it to say something bigger.
Specifically tracing the story of Aiyana—where did you start?
With Aiyana’s story I started with the neighborhood. I went to, as it were, the scene of the crime, to look at it in the daytime and to talk to the residents. You pick up some pieces there—you look at the neighborhood, you look at what she’s living in, and then you start thinking, okay, let me call her lawyer, let me see if I can get the parents, let me call Je’Rean’s parents. When I talked to his mom, she told me about Chaise, his best friend, who was killed. You’re like, okay, wow, I see a pattern here.
Then you back up and you go see the medical examiner. He dropped the thesis of the whole thing: When you’re a kid raised in this kind of poverty, what does that mean? What kind of chance do you have? He said, “I wish somebody would write that.” I looked at Danny [Wilcox Frazier, whose striking black and white photographs illustrate LeDuff’s piece] and he looked at me and we said, yep, that’s right. Let’s talk about kids growing up in the city in really abject poverty and ask how much anybody really cares about them.
You go into an incredible amount of detail reconstructing some of the kids’ murders—Je’Rean’s especially. You wrote:
Je’Rean’s crime? He looked at Chauncey Owens the wrong way, detectives say.
It was 2.40 in the afternoon on May 14 when Je’Rean went to the Motor City liquor store and ice-cream stand to get himself an orange juice and wash down his McDonald’s. About 40 kids were milling around in front of the soft-serve window. That’s when Owens, 34, pulled up on a moped.
How do you get that amount of detail from people? And what’s its value?