Wide coverage of reporter’s murder reflects Las Vegas reputation

Las Vegas reputation

The New York Times, front page, Sunday, September 11, 2022

The murder of a working journalist anywhere is big news. This is especially true when it appears the motives were anger with past investigative reporting and a desire to stop future investigative reporting.

But as I have written in this space, bad things that take place in Las Vegas often get more attention elsewhere simply because of Las Vegas’s reputation for–bad things. I think that might help explain this headline and its display yesterday about the murder of Las Vegas Review-Journal reporter Jeff German, allegedly at the hands of a terribly obscure elected official, on the most prominent and prestigious media venue in the world, the front page of the Sunday edition of The New York Times:

Violent End to a Career Exposing Las Vegas Sins 

Editors, I think, love putting derivations of the word “sin” in close proximity to “Las Vegas” and then playing them up. By contrast, 45 years ago, The Times reported the June 2, 1977, bombing in Phoenix of investigative reporter Don Bolles of the Arizona Republic the next day on page 47, and his death 11 days later, equally buried on page 34. A veteran investigative reporter like German, Bolles was only investigating Mafia connections, of which Phoenix–like the Las Vegas of old–had plenty.

I don’t mean to pick just on The Times. If anything, the Las Vegas citizenry has only itself to blame for this kind of media treatment. After all, it was the publicly funded Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority that about 20 years ago came up with the wildly successful marketing slogan, “What Happens Here, Stays Here.” The alluring motto all but invited external media to see what was going on here. Of course, that also meant what happens here wouldn’t stay here for too long, as I have detailed in a series of reports entitled “It Didn’t Stay Here,” a list of which can be found elsewhere on this page.

History plays a big role in imaging. In 2018 ex-UNLV teacher Jonathan Foster published a book that identified Las Vegas as a “stigma city,” which he defined as a place whose perceived qualities “reside outside of a society’s norms at a given time.” Even today, Los Vegas promotes its mobbed-up past as a tourist draw, with restaurants and monuments named for killers and the government-backed Mob Museum in the downtown area. Indeed, in my view, as someone New To Las Vegas, the locals generally remain proud of their stigma.

The Independent, the now-online-only daily London newspaper, nicely illustrated all of these concepts a few days ago in an article headlined, “The slain journalist, the cheating official, and the murder that shocked Sin City.” Said the story:

An eye for the types of bizarre tales that can only be found in a city like Las Vegas, whose origins are synonymous with vice, racketeering, bribery and bloodshed, Mr German penned a column for the Las Vegas Sun in 1997 where he wrote about a taxicab worker that had been accused of practicing voodoo on fellow workers.

I don’t think this was completely fair to German, a hard-nosed 69-year-old journalist who wrote about hundreds of serious topics big and small in a distinguished 40-year career in Las Vegas. Indeed, the series of stories that apparently led to his killing centered around around the Clark County Public Administrator’s Office (Las Vegas is in Clark County). The tiny agency consists of a handful of full-time employees, plus part-timers, who secure the property of persons who die while next-of-kin is located and administers estates if no one can be found.

In most states the function of a public administrator is an appointed position. But in Nevada, since 1921 it has been an politically elected four-year post in most counties, including Clark, with candidates having to go through primaries in the spring followed by a general election in November. The elected public administrator since 2019 was one Robert Telles, a probate lawyer elected as a Democrat.

Starting in May, German wrote several stories for the R-J about dysfunction in the public administrator’s office, which is funded by taxpayer money. The stories depicted Telles as a terrible boss who also was fooling around with one of his staffers. The R-J published video of the fooling-around. The coverage prompted higher Clark County officials to hire a consultant to try and smooth out the office dynamics.Telles denounced the stories on Twitter but offered few rebutting facts. In June he was narrowly defeated for renomination in the Democratic primary by his main assistant, a result widely attributed to German’s stories. His elected term ran out at the end of the year.

Okay, it wasn’t Watergate. But it was Government At Work–the kind of stuff that newspapers should cover. More to the point, according to the R-J, German recently had filed public records requests for cell phone records concerning Telles’s government-provided phone, indicating that German was fixing to take another swing. This may have put Telles over the top.

Here’s the timetable laid out by authorities: On September 2, eve of the Labor Day weekend, Telles dressed up as a road repair worker, complete with an orange vest and a big brimmed hat that obscured his face. He drove his own car in broad daylight to German’s neighborhood and waited for him to emerge from his house. Telles, 45, then stabbed his 24-year-older victim repeatedly behind a gate in his own back yard. German’s lifeless body lay for a day until it was noticed by a neighbor, who called authorities. There actually may be as-yet-undisclosed video footage of the attack from a nearby surveillance camera.

The police publicized pictures of the suspected get-away car, probably gleaned from video doorbells of neighbors. Other R-J reporters immediately noticed the vehicle greatly resembled a car at that very moment in Telles’s own driveway and called police. A couple of search warrants later, Telles was in the county jail on an open count of murder, where he remains pending a formal arraignment later this week at which he might enter a plea. Authorities said that Telles’ DNA was found under German’s fingernails as the reporter tried to fight off his attacker. If true, this will be very hard evidence for Telles and his lawyers to explain away.

That Vegas is a bug light for outsized media coverage is difficult to dispute. In 2019 I wrote here about the insane worldwide publicity Las Vegas got about an infestation of crickets caused by wet weather, even though other places had experienced equal or worse insect events with far less attention. The second-largest English-language newspaper in India quickly posted a video about the event with spooky music and a grasshopper closeup resembling Godzilla. I attributed the over-the-top coverage to a combination of Las Vegas’s Sin City reputation and the Biblical account of Moses calling for locusts (a kind of cricket) to escape the evil Pharaoh.

Then there was the wide coverage nationally afforded the story of a hearse driver in a two-person-minimum HOV lane disputing a ticket because he was transporting a corpse–a second person–between funeral homes. I pointed out this had happened before elsewhere to far less attention.

More recently, in May, there was the vast worldwide publicity about a long-murdered man found in a barrel at the bottom of receding Lake Mead just east of Las Vegas. Bodies in a barrel are surprisingly common, at last in the U.S.: I found reports of perhaps 20 in just the past seven years through a simple Google search. But this was a barrel body dating back to the era of mob sway in Las Vegas, so the media went nuts. The victim still hasn’t been identified.

Las Vegas is a good news town. Often for the wrong reasons.

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