Peter Sagal made sure that didn’t happen to Isabella Thallas.
Perhaps best-known as the host of NPR’s weekly comedy news-quiz program, “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me,” Sagal also, according to his NPR bio, has been and may someday be again “a husband, father, playwright, screenwriter, author, journalist, columnist, marathoner, Jeopardy contestant, dramaturg, podcast host, documentary host, foreign correspondent, wedding officiant, and magician’s assistant. As of last month, he can add Atlantic writer to his resume.
The core of “Killed for Walking a Dog” is in in the blunt and resigned subhed: “The mundanity and insanity of gun death in America.” Part profile, part event narrative, part outraged essay, it follows the death of Thallas, a young woman killed in flurried gunfire as she and her boyfriend walked the boyfriend’s dog, Rocco, on a Denver street in 2020. Sagal assumed such a senseless death would merit national coverage, then grew dispirited when it didn’t.
So he tracked the story in Denver media for two years and finally reached out to Thallas’ family, who called her Bella, for a fuller story of her life and death.
The resulting story explores Thallas’ life and grieves her death; explores the guilt and grief of her boyfriend, wounded when bullets “liquefied” bones in his leg; and reflects a life tragically lost in a manner that can sometimes be shunted aside by shootings with gaudier motivations or higher death tolls. As he writes in the story:
There was something about this killing, on the side of a Denver street on a sunny June morning in 2020, that captured my attention. I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened to Bella Thallas. maybe it was her age—about that of my daughters—or maybe it was the specific circumstances of her murder, which were both mundane and completely insane.
The story earned a spot in The Atlantic’s One Story to Read Today feature recommended by the magazine’s editors. Praise also came in from other journalists: Author and MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes calling it “gutting;” lauded narrative writer Marin Cogin, now a senior editor with Vox, called it “beautiful and quietly devastating.”
Beyond its power as a compelling portrait and societal lament, “Killed for Walking a Dog” is is a model other journalists can study for how to tell stories that are as ignored and urgent as the tale Sagal unspooled.
Sagal builds a portrait of Bella Thallas through a prosaic but powerful tool that can’t be praised enough: small details that add up. Painstaking reporting allows him to build an achingly specific portrait, and to prevent a victim from being reduced to no more than a victim or stereotype.
Readers learn not just that Thallas was guileless, but guileless enough to pay a random person to park a car at a concert; not just thoughtful, but thoughtful enough to send her mother a photo of her eating the beautiful birthday cake her mother had bought her. The cake had been so beautiful, Sagal notes, nobody had dared touch it during Bella’s 21st birthday. He even includes the filling: guava.
Heed your emotions
The cliché of journalists as dispassionate robots is common, even among other journalists. It deserves a home in the trash can, along with tropes about journalists wearing snap-brim fedoras and swigging hooch at their desks.
It’s important for journalists to report facts, even if they disprove initial impressions or favored narratives; to be fair, even to people or ideas they’re skeptical of; and to always, always be truthful.
Often it would be too much to let emotions bleed into a story. But whether they’re guiding you to a story or coming through in the words on the page, they have a place informing your work. Something you find ironic also may tickle readers; something you find outrageous may anger them.
You can feel Sagal’s emotions throughout his story. At first they’re quiet as a whisper, then they’re loud as a shout.
Bring back details for maximum power
Journalists should always be mindful of the power of introducing a detail, then bringing it back when it’s earned a more powerful context.
Fairly early in his portrait of Thallus, Sagal briefly mentions a “beautiful Dolce & Gabbana dress” the young woman’s mother had bought for her. In that reference, the detail seems like a symbol of the waxing and waning tension between a traditionalist mother and a daughter straining for independence.
If its initial mention is a symbol, the second is an uppercut.
The story’s final line resurrects the dress as Sagal weds his political essay of our indifference to gun violence with his personal portrait of an innocent woman felled by it:
And because we can’t bear to confront how suicidal it is to privilege over all else the rights of those damaged young men to use killing machines, we must bury the knowledge of this insanity along with Bella, who was interred in Block 117, Lot 108 of Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery, forever wearing the Dolce & Gabbana dress her mother had been saving for a special occasion.
Trevor Pyle was a newspaper reporter in the Pacific Northwest for several years, and is a communications officer for a regional nonprofit.