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A Power Goes Out at the Union-Tribune

Sunday, Aug. 16, 2009 | Arturo Carrillo had pulled it off, or so he thought.

The budding politician had engineered an election for the executive council of the San Diego City College student body to take place in the spring semester of 1976 — when he and his cronies had a better chance of winning, rather than in the fall semester when the election was supposed to be held.

Carrillo had persuaded the dean of students to look the other way, and scored enough votes to win the presidency. But he didn’t count on the skinny kid from Moab, Utah, who happened to be the editor of the San Diego City College Fortnightly.

The kid, David Hasemyer, had studied the college’s associated student constitution. And he knew Carrillo had broken the rules.

The lead of Hasemyer’s story following the election was simple and straightforward:

During ASB Council proceedings last Thursday new ASB Executive Council officers were elected. These elections were conducted contrary to the election instructions in the AS constitution.

“I realized then that journalism does matter,” Hasemyer told me last week. “You can make people do what they are supposed to do.”

From City College and the Fortnightly, Hasemyer moved on to San Diego State University, and the editorship of the Daily Aztec. And then on Aug. 13, 1979, Hasemyer landed a job at the San Diego Evening Tribune.

Wednesday, Hasemyer was among the 112 people the Union-Tribune laid off in its sixth downsizing in less than three years. His last day was one day shy of his 30th anniversary at the newspaper. He was the metro staff’s most senior, and most accomplished, reporter.

He has been a friend and mentor to me for the better part of a decade, and we worked together on the Union-Tribune’s investigative team for four years (I was laid off last year). I have a bachelor’s degree in journalism, but the years working with Hasemyer are what I consider my journalism education.

Hasemyer came of age in the era immediately after Watergate, when investigative reporters ruled the roost at daily newspapers. It was a time when men and women with energy and passion were allowed to follow a story, no matter how difficult and time consuming, to its truthful conclusion.

He was, until Wednesday, the last of the old-time investigative reporters at the Union-Tribune, and for that matter in San Diego. He was breaking the biggest stories in town 20 years ago, and he was breaking them two years ago. And his departure shows that there is no longer room for his brand of journalism at the city’s major daily newspaper.

The arch of major stories Hasemyer covered over three decades spans from his travels in the early 1980s to the Caribbean island of Montserrat to chase down infamous Ponzi-schemer J. David Dominelli, through months-long, and in some cases years-long investigations during the late 1980s, 1990s and this decade.

Hasemyer’s reporting led to wrongful prosecutions by the San Diego County District Attorney to be overturned. His stories forced massive reforms in how the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department treats jail inmates, and in how California regulates its funeral industry.

In 2000, he wrote about how the San Diego Superior Court system gave custody of a 10-year-old boy to a man who not only molested the boy, but offered him up to other pedophiles over the internet.

In 2002, Hasemyer, along with Steve Schmidt and I, wrote stories that exposed abuses of sick inmates in the state prison system.

A year later, Mark Arner (who was also laid off Wednesday), Hasemyer and I embarked on an investigation into officer-involved shootings. The stories revealed how San Diego police and sheriff’s officers who shot and killed people in the line of duty were handed back their guns and badges despite psychological evaluations showing that they shouldn’t be anywhere near a gun.

And you can credit Hasemyer for breaking the first stories on the biggest scandal of Mayor Jerry Sanders’ tenure. He and Jeff McDonald uncovered the influence that Aaron Feldman, the president of Sunroad Enterprises, had in Sanders’ administration when it constructed its office tower in Kearny Mesa.

And apart from his investigations, he covered floods, wildfires, a national political convention, and embedded on a Navy ship during the Iraq war. He did all this work rather anonymously, save the simple byline that many might not have even noticed.

Hasemyer has the traits that many investigative journalists share: Extreme doggedness, an abundance of outrage and an outsider’s view of the world. But he also has blessings that set him apart.

He has an amazing ability to find the fact, or the record, that makes the story. Most of the work that investigative journalists do is mind-numbing. It’s pouring through pages and pages of dense and esoteric documents. Hasemyer’s mind never seems to numb.

In 1992, when Hasemyer was reporting with Joe Cantlupe and Mark Sullivan on the state’s largely unregulated funeral industry, he kept hearing about crematoriums that would cremate large numbers of bodies at once, and allow the ashes of different people to be comingled. He scoured the records that a local crematorium called Neptune Society had filed with the California Cemetery Board, which indicated that nothing was out of the ordinary.

But then he compared the records with those it had filed with the county’s Air Pollution Control District. These records didn’t match — the crematorium was reporting emissions to the air pollution district that were far greater than what would come from the number of bodies that it was telling the cemetery board it was burning. This allowed the reporters to show that Neptune Society was falsifying its reports to the cemetery board.

Among the greatest lessons Hasemyer taught me was the best reporters not only do a lot more listening than talking, but they do a lot more reading than writing. I will never forget the day the two of us were reading records of stress claims by police officers at the state Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board office in Mission Valley.

We were working on a story about local officer-involved shootings. The state’s Police Officers’ Bill of Rights keeps almost all records kept by the Police Department on these cases from public view. And though district attorney’s offices are charged with investigating the cases, they exonerate the officers more than 99 percent of the time and only release vaguest of details to the public on their investigations, if they release anything at all.

However, in 2003, when Hasemyer and I were reporting our story, workers’ comp claims by police officers were public. We were reading through stacks of those claims when one of us (neither can remember which) came across a file on sheriff’s deputy Jeffrey Jackson.

Jackson had told this to a psychiatrist: “Shooting is easy. Life doesn’t mean much to me.”

Hasemyer has also shown me a level of compassion for the people he writes about that I have not seen in another reporter. So many of his stories have focused on injustices done to people at the very lowest rungs of society — prostitutes, prison inmates and gang members. Much of his work has centered on children who get chewed up by the system.

When he tells the stories of these stories, he does so through clenched teeth. And invariably, his voice will catch at some point in the story and he will have to stop and regain his composure before finishing.

I asked him the other night what drove him to do these stories. His answer was simple: “I do it because my reporting gives a voice to people who otherwise don’t have one.”

In 1998, Hasemyer and Cantlupe turned in one of the most impactful investigations in the Union-Tribune’s history, providing clear evidence of official misconduct during the prosecutions of local gang members on trial for the murder of San Diego Police Officer Jerry Hartless. In their seminal story on the case, Hasemyer and Cantlupe wrote:

Five months ago, the justice system got the killers of Jerry Hartless after an emotional ordeal spanning six years and two trials, making it one of the longest prosecutions in the county’s history.

But along the way, in the pursuit of justice, officers withheld information, lied under oath and contradicted each other in a case that reflected a breakdown of department procedures.

The unraveling of the case went on for years and eventually reached the office of former San Diego District Attorney Paul Pfingst. The reporters found that during the second trial prosecutors had allowed an inmate informant to essentially run wild, going so far as to provide for conjugal visits in the DA’s office.

The years-long scandal, dubbed “sex in the DA’s office,” contributed to Pfingst losing to current District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis in 2002.

With these stories, Hasemyer took on the most powerful people and institutions in San Diego County. He is proud of this. But what makes him most proud is an award he received from the San Diego Criminal Defense Bar Association. The award reads: “For outstanding journalism which has significantly contributed to the preservation of individual liberties and civil rights.”

Hasemyer continued with his outstanding journalism throughout this decade. He and McDonald wrote some of the newspaper’s most significant investigations into the city of San Diego’s finances in the post-pension scandal era. They included stories of mismanagement of San Diego’s municipal airports and the San Diego Sports Arena complex.

But in the last couple years, as the newspaper continued with its seemingly unending retrenchment, Hasemyer’s authoritative voice was largely silenced. His most recent bylines consisted of daily court stories and features on Balboa Park events and whale sightings.

In one of our many conversations since Wednesday, Hasemyer told me about how the power was out in the newsroom when he reported for his first day of work at the San Diego Evening Tribune at 5 a.m. on Aug. 13, 1979. He laughs at the memory of spending the first hour of his career at the newspaper sitting in the dark.

Wednesday, there was another power outage at the newspaper.

Please contact David Washburn directly at david.washburn@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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