A Liar, a Murderer and Events that Give Us Pause

Janet Cooke and David Gore

Sometimes events in your life give you pause.  Last week marked two such events for me.  One was from the past and the other was current.

First, the past.

I was hired in 1980 by legendary journalist Bob Woodward at The Washington Post to work on what was unofficially called “The Holy SH*T” squad. We were a young, eager team of reporters who were supposed to write stories that made our readers exclaim “HOLY SH*T” when they picked up their morning newspaper.

It was a great time to work at The Post because the newsroom was run by Ben Bradlee, one of the finest editors in history and a wonderful boss. I also made two life long friends while assigned to the squad:  Mike Sager and Walt Harrington. Walt had an influential career at the Post before leaving to write several critically acclaimed books and become a professor and dean at the University of Illinois. Mike works today as one of the nation’s top magazine reporters on staff at ESQUIRE and also has authored several highly reviewed books. Both are skilled writers.

Mike and I were reporters on the squad, Walt was an editor, but the most infamous reporter was Janet Cooke, a beautiful, talented and determined writer who wanted desperately to get promoted to either the national or foreign staffs, which were considered the ultimate jobs at the paper.  Some of you might remember what happened next.

Janet penned an eye-popping front page story about a heroin addict who was only eight years old. He was named “Jimmy” and he was being injected with drugs by his mother and her boyfriend. The story not only captivated the city, but it later won Janet the Pulitzer Prize in 1981 for general feature writing.

Jimmy turned out to be a figment of her imagination. The entire story was fabricated. Janet was pressured into confessing and then fired. The general consensus was that Woodward lost his chance to replace Bradlee as editor because of the scandal.  The Post lost some of the  luster that it had gained during the Watergate coverage.

And, oh yeah, the HOLY SH*T squad was dissolved.

Pete Earley, Mike Sager and Walt Harrington in 2008 at New York Book Party

Pete Earley, Mike Sager and Walt Harrington in 2008 at New York Book Party

Last week was the 31st anniversary of that stunning embarrassment in journalism and the BBC broadcast an interview with Sager who was romantically involved with Cooke at the time of the scandal. He later sold Hollywood the rights to a story for seven figures that he had written about her. Unfortunately, it never was made.

I have always felt bad for Janet. She was young and all of us were under tremendous pressure to write big stories.  I liked her both as a person and a writer. I remember Janet telling me one day in the newsroom that she had learned from a drug counselor that there was an eight year old boy who was addicted to heroin but she couldn’t find the child. She had spent days and days searching. I later was told that Janet had been called in by her editor. He was losing his patience and he told her that  if she didn’t find the boy soon, he would assign a more experienced reporter to find him and write the story. That would have been a crushing blow to Janet’s career. Not surprisingly, she announced a few days later that she had found Jimmy.

She made a mistake that ended her career.  You can listen to Mike’s recap of the Jimmy story here.

In addition to last week being the anniversary of the Jimmy fiasco,  another event that will always stay with me happened on Thursday when serial killer Davide Gore was executed in Florida.  I never thought that I would write a book that would help “greenlight” an execution, but that is what happened when readers in Vero Beach read Gore’s  gruesome letters that were printed in The Serial Killer Whisperer.

I could have attended his execution but didn’t. Instead, I relied on stories written by Russ Lemmon, a columnist for the Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers, who witnessed Gore’s death.  Lemmon kept Gore’s case in the public eye for more than two years and used his columns about Gore’s victims and my book in a successful campaign to get Gov. Rick Scott to sign Gore’s death warrant.

Gore refused to speak to the media before his execution. After eating a final meal of friend chicken, French fries and butter pecan ice cream, he took pen in hand for a final time. In his statement, he asked for forgiveness from the parents of Lynn Elliott, the 17 year-old teenager who he abducted, raped, and murdered.  His statement was much different from the nearly pornographic letters that he’d written from prison earlier. In them, he gleefully recalled how he had tortured his six known victims and bragged about inflicting “maximum” pain.

I would like to say to Mr. and Mrs. Elliott, that I truly am sorry for my part in the death of your daughter. I wish above all else my death could bring her back. I am not the same man today that I was 28 years ago. When I accepted Jesus Christ as my savior, I became a new creature in Christ and I know God has truly forgiven me for my past sins.”

Gore was given three injections through intravenous tubes in his arms. The first sedated him, the second paralyzed him and the third stopped his heart. The drugs were administered by a volunteer whose name was not revealed, but who was paid $150.

There was no question that Gore was guilty and if you read his letters, you’ll see that he had no remorse and no empathy for his victims. At one point when writing my book, I had to stop reading his letters because they were so disturbing and stomach churning.

However, I have been opposed to the death penalty since writing my book, CIRCUMSTANTIAL EVIDENCE: Death Life and Justice in a Southern Town.  That book helped free an innocent man from Alabama’s death row and showed me how prejudice, sloppy police work, and politics influence death penalty cases. Ironically,  THE SERIAL KILLER WHISPERER  helped speed up an execution.

This past week will be one that I will always remember.


About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.


  1. My husband and I were in Summerlin in April on vacation from Canada. I purchased “The Serial Killer Whisperer” at the book signing on April 22, 2012. The book was well written and very interesting. The book was also a very frightening look into how a Serial Killer thinks. A serial killer’s thinking is so far from my thinking that I was truely shocked.  I feel a loss of innocence from reading their letters. I’m truely frightened that there are people out there like these monsters. Congratulations to Tony Ciaglia for his good work. It was a pleasure meeting Tony at the signing. —Donna from Canada