The crime was brutal – two guards shot to death with their own .40-caliber Glocks inside a Georgia Department of Corrections bus packed with prisoners. The setting was primal – a lonely stretch of state highway in rural Putnam County 40 miles north of Macon. The suspects, both hardened cons, one with devil’s horns tattooed along his hairline, carjacked a passerby’s Honda Civic and were in the wind. The local sheriff, Howard Sills, a shrewd, 61-year-old native son who spices his homespun wit with lines from Shakespeare, was a mythic character. In other words, all the ingredients were in place, and the media from everywhere in the South descended with lights and cameras. “It was a feeding frenzy,” says Joe Kovac Jr., crime reporter at The Macon Telegraph. “It stirred the senses. It moved the needle. Everyone wondered how it would turn out.” Kovac wondered something else – how best to tell the story.
Kovac pounded out this bravura piece of work in 48 hours after 36 hours on the road. In a climate where many newspapers are reining in reporters, he was given the chance to go for broke.
Kovac is 48 and has spent almost his whole career at the Telegraph. When he started, the paper boasted a daily circulation of 40,000, a massive plant on the banks of Macon’s Ocmulgee River and an editorial staff of more than 80. Now, the circulation hovers around 20,000, the newsroom has moved to the campus of Mercer University and there are nine reporters – 10 if you count the sportswriter posted in the college town of Athens to cover University of Georgia athletics. As a result, Kovac, his seniority notwithstanding, gets assigned his fair share of news briefs. “I shag robberies and car wrecks to no end,” he says, using baseball lingo for going after anything that’s hit. At the same time, he keeps his eyes open for the main chance. “I do take-outs when they present themselves.” If ever a take-out presented itself, this was it.
The headline atop Kovac’s superb, 2,500-word account of the murders and the manhunt – which appeared online this summer just nine days after the crime and in the Telegraph’s Sunday print edition three days later – left no doubt as to how it all unfolded: “Prison escapees’ wild run from the law ended with secret, midnight return to Georgia.” The article, however, is so well-constructed and tautly written that, like a great piece of sports writing the morning after the big game, you don’t read it to learn the final score. You read it because it takes you into the heart of a stirring tale. Careful scene-setting, ambitious flashbacks, character development, humor – the reporter used them all to craft a stem-winder. As for the kicker, it’s stunning, and it owes much to the “fine, well-read Southern belle” who was Kovac’s 11th-grade English teacher at Warner Robins High south of Macon. Jeanine Floyd preached the virtues of the “full-circle narrative” to her students, and at least one was listening.
First, however, there was the reporting. On June 13, the day of the murders, Kovac and his Telegraph colleague Liz Fabian filed a straight news piece out of Journalism 101. The story started with a pyramid paragraph. It introduced the victims – Curtis Billieu and Christopher Monica – in the second graph and the suspects – Ricky Dubose (the one with the tattoo) and Donnie Russell Rowe – in the third. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal was quoted calling the killers “cowards.” A $60,000 reward was announced, and Sheriff Sills, speaking of the guards, made it plain that this investigation was personal: “I have their blood on my shoes.”
With the convicts’ whereabouts uncertain, waiting came next. Kovac, however, had a leg up on the carpet-bagging journalists who’d descended on the town – a professional friendship going back two decades with the man who would be in the middle of whatever happened: Howard Sills. Over the years, the reporter has written many stories featuring the sheriff, among them one about the theft of Putnam County’s most distinctive historical monument – a statue of Br’er Rabbit erected to mark the birthplace of author Joel Chandler Harris. (Putnam’s other homegrown literary star is novelist Alice Walker.) “With him, it’s all about relationships,” Kovac says. “He’s comfortable with me.”
As a result, when word came that the killers had made a mistake several hundred miles to the north in Tennessee and were in custody, Kovac phoned Sills. “I heard he was going to pick these guys up, and I asked him if I could go. He said yes within a couple minutes.” The reporter then texted Telegraph Metro Editor Oby Brown, who gave him a thumb’s up.
On Monday, June 19, Kovac was riding shotgun in Sills’ black Suburban as it speeded north on Interstate 75. Occasionally, the reporter and the sheriff gabbed, especially when they stopped for coffee, where strangers who’d seen Sills on TV wished him good luck. Mostly, however, the two were quiet and observant. Not everyone was pulling for the law. Sills had gotten threats about trying to return Rowe and Dubose – an alleged white supremacist – to Georgia to face trial. One of the victims, Billieu, was black, and someone in California emailed the sheriff: “Dear Fat Pig: We got a good laugh at you making an ass of yourself on the news. To many of us Donnie Russell Rowe and Rickey Dubose are HEROES, and if the blessing arises we will help them remain free.”
Sills’ destination was the Rutherford County Jail in Shelbyville, where the two were behind bars, but because he was already thinking about prosecuting them, his first stop was at a farmhouse outside of town where they’d taken an elderly couple hostage, which proved to be their undoing when the husband phoned 911. As the sheriff spoke with the man and woman, Kovac took notes in a yellow legal pad. Inside his head, the deadline clock was ticking – there would be no time to transcribe tapes, so he decided to write in longhand. He didn’t know whether any of this would even be relevant to his story, but he jotted down the kind of facts that could establish a sense of place. The Jack Daniels distillery in Lynchburg was 14 miles away. The house was on the banks of the Duck River. “Over the years,” Kovac says, “I’ve learned that maps are your friend.” In this instance, that was surely true. He’d found his lede:
SHELBYVILLE, TENN. – The Georgia sheriff stood along a two-lane highway in the evening sun and eyeballed a yellow clapboard farmhouse that overlooks the Duck River.
The fugitive duo he had come for was by then in jail. The sheriff, a blond-mustached man with the build of a snub-nose revolver, was building his case. He hoped to send two men to death row. Or, as he put it, two hoodlums to hell …
The place lies 14 miles up the road from Lynchburg, home of the Jack Daniels distillery.
The beauty of the lede is that it not only paints a picture and sets a tone but it suggests action in the past and action to come, enabling Kovac to follow it immediately with a flashback that provides information about the murders down in Georgia, the days of uncertainty and the ordeal of the couple. (They “had been savvy enough to cooperate and pray for the best.”) Then, with the simple use of one word, Kovac brings readers back into the present:
“Now, Sheriff Howard Sills had come for them.”
The article is so well-constructed and tautly written that, like a great piece of sports writing the morning after the big game, you don’t read it to learn the final score. You read it because it takes you into the heart of a stirring tale.
What Kovac does next only a skilled writer could pull off – he launches another, shorter flashback, this one offering bios of the suspects (Rowe’s nickname is Whiskey) and bringing Sills more fully alive, describing the sheriff as a “sincere but sometimes surly straight shooter.” Most important, he also uses the moment to introduce a piece of information that, while moving, feels extraneous: The Saturday after the crime, Sills attended the funeral of one of the murdered guards, Curtis Billieu. However, it does important work, setting up his ending.
Here, most writers would have powered into a present-tense narrative, but Kovac doubles down with a final flashback describing Sills’ trip from Georgia to Tennessee. This allows the reporter to mention the threat from those who hoped to keep Rowe and Dubose from facing justice, lending jeopardy to the remainder of the yarn. It was a risk, but Kovac’s editor endorsed it. “Oby’s a reader, and that’s what you want,” says the reporter. “He will let you try stuff.”
The necessary buildup at last complete, Kovac lets loose with a pedal-to-the-metal account of Sills’ midnight run back to Georgia. After Rutherford County lawmen set up a perimeter around the jail, Rowe and Dubose emerged in orange jumpsuits “chained up,” in the sheriff’s words, “like Hannibal Lecter.” At 1:37 a.m., deputies placed them in separate Chevy Tahoes, the seats covered with plastic trash bags. There would be no bathroom stops.
A five-SUV motorcade then whipped down Interstate 24 at 85 miles an hour toward I-75. Even in the middle of the night, the sight of all these police vehicles moving at speed did not go unnoticed. It looked like “we’re driving Mike Pence or some lesser Yankee,” Sills cracked. All the while Kovac took notes – Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” fading in and out on a distant radio station, the sheriff adjusting the clip in his M-16 and flashing his blue lights when a car approached too fast from the rear. “There’s so many nuts out there,” he quotes Sills saying.
Near dawn, the caravan reached Putnam County. It was then that Kovac noticed that a mute passenger had traveled along with them on the entire trip, and he realized he had the chance to use the full-circle technique his high school English teacher advocated years earlier. “Endings are the whole game,” says the reporter. Here’s his:
When the caravan wheeled up at the Putnam County jail at 5:38 a.m., a picture of a man in Army dress blues was perched in the seat behind Sills.
The photo was on the front of a funeral program. Sills had left it there four days earlier.
The program had been in a pile of paperwork and somehow, by sheer luck, it was propped up, as if on display.
Corrections officer Curtis Billue’s picture faced straight ahead.
It hadn’t moved the whole way home.
Kovac pounded out this bravura piece of work in 48 hours after 36 hours on the road. In a climate where many newspapers are reining in reporters, he was given the chance to go for broke – not that he’d put it that way. “I may be the least pushy reporter around,” he says. “I’m reluctant to insert myself into a story.” Rather, he does something better – he tells stories the old-fashioned way.
For The Macon Telegraph – indeed, for all mid-size regional dailies – this is the kind of gripping, narrative journalism that can distinguish them. Their big-city brethren rarely dispatch writers to the hinterlands to do such work, and online very few know how. America is great tale country, and when those tales are so well told, it still has a way of making people take note.