First Person

A source emailed me his life’s work. Then, he ended his life

March 14, 2018

I was crashing on deadline when the emails started flowing into my inbox. Hope Hicks, the White House communications director — who had been with President Trump since long before he announced his candidacy — had just unexpectedly resigned.

I got confirmation of Hicks’s departure at 4:36pm. A minute later, I started getting a flood of emails from P.S. Ruckman Jr., a political science professor who taught at Northern Illinois University and Rock Valley College. In 10 emails containing 65 spreadsheets, he was sending his entire data set of more than 30,000 presidential pardons and commutations.

The first email said simply, “Would want you to have this and use freely.”

I had already gotten nine of the emails before I noticed them, but I immediately recognized that this was the data set—the one that made him such an essential expert on any story about presidential pardons. It was data I had often asked him to share, unsuccessfully, and now here it was, unsolicited, and out of the blue.

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“I was just thinking about you today—and your data. I’ll call you when I’m off deadline,” I responded.

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I didn’t end up calling until almost 48 hours later. I left a message asking if everything was OK. If I had called right away, would he have picked up? And if so, would I have recognized that he was about to do something so terrible? Could I have stopped it?

By Monday afternoon — now five days after the emails — I still hadn’t heard back, which was somewhat unusual. I went to his Twitter feed and his blog and saw no recent posts. I did a Google news search and found a headline in the Rockford Register Star from Saturday: “Sheriff’s department investigates double murder-suicide at home of RVC professor P.S. Ruckman Jr.”

His sons, found shot to death in their bedrooms in Ruckman’s house outside Rockford, Ill., had not been to school since Wednesday — the day of the emails.

My heart sank. I wrapped up my work and headed home. I didn’t even tell my editor I was leaving.

On the way home, I called the Winnebago County Sheriff’s Office, in case the emails helped to pin down a timeline or establish his intent. (On the advice of our lawyers, I did not provide the emails or the data set itself.) The detective said the emails were potentially significant — he seemed particularly interested in the value the data had to Ruckman. For him to suddenly give it away — something he had previously been unwilling to do — might demonstrate that he was wrapping up his affairs.

And if nothing else, it should help to debunk the conspiracy theories that would inevitably pop up, he said.

I have a background in computer-assisted reporting, so when I first started examining presidential clemency in 2015 I quickly gravitated to Ruckman. He was an important source for stories showing that President Obama was granting pardons on older cases than any president in history — an average of 23 years after the conviction. When another source leaked internal memos showing Obama had made few changes to former President George W. Bush’s pardon policy, I used Ruckman data to help show Obama was denying a higher percentage of pardon applications. And when I figured out that the White House count of clemency actions was off by one because one offender refused the conditions of his commutation, Ruckman was able to tell me how unusual that is: it had happened just 16 times before.

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Devoid of the present context, his insights were irrefutably valuable. They allowed me to write stories that won the Gerald R. Ford Foundation Award for Distinguished Reporting of the Presidency in 2017. But in the wake of what has happened since, it’s become impossible to think about that award without an overwhelming sense of awkward regret.

Ruckman was a scholar, but also an advocate. Through his blog and in op-ed pieces, he advocated for a more regular, robust use of the presidential pardon power to correct injustices and show mercy. Though he never said so, I got the impression that those views were informed by Christian values of redemption and forgiveness. I’m struggling to reconcile those ideals with his final acts: In his final moments, Ruckman took steps to preserve his professional legacy, even as he apparently plotted to take his own life — and those of his two innocent sons.

So what, then, should become of that legacy? Some have suggested that I verify the data before using it. That’s impractical, and I have no doubts about the quality of his research. Others say I should report on it, but not give Ruckman credit. That, it seems to me, would violate basic journalistic standards. It’s not a matter of credit, but of properly attributing information.

“It’s irreplaceable,” said George Lardner, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter who’s retired from The Washington Post and who collaborated with Ruckman on an unpublished book about pardons, Guilty No More. (Ruckman’s resume says he’s the co-author, but Lardner said he did all of the writing based on Ruckman’s research.)

“The data’s important and stands on its own, quite apart from what he did to his kids and himself,” Lardner said.

Ruckman told me that he assembled the data through painstaking and meticulous research at the National Archives, transcribing thousands of individual clemency warrants into spreadsheets.

I never met Ruckman. I didn’t even know his name was Peter — he had always gone by the initials P.S. professionally. He struck me as smart, hard-working, and occasionally moody. I also know he was proud of his sons. Last year, he sent me a link to a YouTube video showing one of them, Christopher, playing the guitar. “Just thought I’d share,” he wrote.

A close friend of Ruckman’s ex-wife — the boys’ mother — reached out to me with a plea.

“Please, do not glorify him,” she said. “I beg you, do something positive with that data and publish it in the memory not of him, but of Christopher and Jack, who deserve to leave a legacy. They had no choice. You do.”

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Gregory Korte is a White House correspondent for USA TODAY. Follow him on Twitter at @gregorykorte.