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Getting the Pentagon shooter's brother to talk

Around 6 a.m. Saturday morning, I woke up in my motel room in Hollister, Calif. and sprang to my laptop to do what any modern reporter does these days: prowl Facebook. In the aftermath of John Patrick Bedell's shooting outside the Pentagon Metro station on Thursday night, many reporters were trying to learn more about the Bedell family, camping out at his parents' home in a gated community in Hollister to score an unlikely interview. But I was on Facebook trying to find Bedell's brothers, Jeffrey or Matthew, for a story I ended up writing for Sunday's paper.

The Bedell family, longtime residents of this agricultural area of California, had been thrust into the news because their oldest son Patrick had just shot at police officers near the Pentagon's entrance. He was killed after the Pentagon officers, injured, though not critically, fired back. But the parents, Kaye and John Bedell, had already issued statements saying they were not granting any interviews.

So I first reached out on Facebook to Patrick's youngest brother, Jeffrey, a former deputy attorney general for California and now a financial adviser in Sacramento:

Hi Jeffrey,
My name is Ian Shapira and I'm a staff writer at The Washington Post. I am now out in California and I am pulling together a piece about Patrick.... I know this is a painful time but capturing your brother's character most accurately is my central aim. I was hoping to talk with you by phone or meet up in person if possible today. There will be countless stories about your brother, all focused on the negative. My piece aims to take a fuller, more biographical approach, nuanced and factually accurate.... Please call when you can or write back letting me know what you think and how best to proceed.
Again, I am sorry for your loss.
Best regards,
Ian Shapira
Washington Post

But I was worried Jeffrey might not be checking his mostly public Facebook account. Several of his friends had written notes on his Facebook wall expressing sorrow, but he had not been responding, at least publicly. So I looked up his phone number and called him.

After he picked up, I identified myself, and immediately he said he was not interested in talking. But I interjected: Wait! Please don't hang up. Please don't hang up. You still there? I reiterated what I had written in my Facebook message. I told him I wasn't CNN and wouldn't come armed with intrusive cameras. He said he'd think about it and get back to me by 1 pm. There was hope, but I was doubtful.

Meanwhile, I was scheduled to meet that morning with Reb Monaco, a very close Bedell family friend and member of the local Board of Supervisors, who had already been quoted just about everywhere in the press. On my way to the Starbucks for our interview, Monaco called my cell. Great, I thought, he's probably canceling on me. I felt pressure, because I had flown all the way out to California, and if I didn't interview Monaco, I knew I'd struggle to cobble together a revealing piece for the next day's paper.

But Monaco had a cheerful tone in his voice. He told me that he'd be the guy in Starbucks wearing the Indiana Jones-style fedora. Oh, and by the way, he added as an afterthought: "I brought along Jeff Bedell." The brother agreed to be interviewed, Monaco said. I'd get the first interview with the family, I thought. I almost ran the traffic light.

Moments later, the three of us were standing outside the coffee shop. "Nice to meet you, I'm so sorry," I told Jeff, as we shook hands. We agreed to meet at the Board of Supervisors complex to talk more privately, but Jeff wanted to grab a coffee first.

And there we were, standing in line inside a Starbucks, the whooshing of espresso machines and children running around, animating the atmosphere as if it were any other mirthful day, with people clutching lattes and reading the San Jose Mercury News, whose front page was plastered with a huge story on Patrick Bedell. I wondered, didn't the customers know who was in their midst? The Bedells are well-known in the small town of Hollister. But Jeff mixed in with the crowd. He didn't appear edgy. He looked like any other artsy-intellectual professional in his 30s, dressed in jeans and brown shoes, his face framed by wavy blond hair and Oliver Peoples tortoise shell glasses.

After he got his drink, we drove to the San Benito County Board of Supervisors building, and Monaco led us into the closed-door session room. I pulled out my laptop and the interview began.

Jeff spoke lovingly about his brother Patrick, recalling their time growing up as children in the 1970s and 1980s, and as roommates in the late 1990s. When Jeff was in law school in the early 2000s, Patrick enjoyed interrogating him about what he was learning in his law classes. Despite his growing paranoia about the federal government -- that people were spying on him -- and his reliance on marijuana, Patrick often seemed normal to Jeff.

But Jeff explained how things were increasingly not normal, and how he had begged his brother for years to seek medical treatment for mental illness.

I asked him the potentially self-defeating question of what it felt like to live in the center of the media's ravenous attention, and he said: "My phone rings constantly and my parents' phone rings constantly in the middle of the night. It hurts. A lot. Shocking."

About an hour into the interview, Jeff cried when I asked how he learned about the shooting. I stopped typing and Jeff just sobbed, glancing upward and around the sterile conference room. He had been hosting friends for dinner that night in his new home, Jeff recalled, when his dad called and told him to turn on the news.

I sensed that Jeff felt a missed obligation, as if he could have stopped his brother before his descent into guns and drugs. So, I asked him if he felt guilty, and learned that landing an exclusive interview doesn't always mean you get an immaculately put-together perspective. How could it so soon after such a trauma?

"I think it’s too raw right now," Jeff said. "I am not looking at it like that. I am still trying to process this, that he’s not going to come back. Everything we could have done was done."

By Ian Shapira  | March 8, 2010; 11:11 AM ET
Categories:  How I got that story, More on the story  
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You did a nice job on the story, Ian. And I hope that Jeff feels he did the right thing by talking about his brother. It's an important story to tell. It's heartbreaking to have a sibling who goes from being a friend to being someone you don't recognize. It can happen in any family, and I feel for his parents and siblings.

Posted by: The_Bunk | March 9, 2010 1:23 PM | Report abuse

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