Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

When the story won't go away

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The call came, as I expected it, first thing in the morning. The woman's voice was soft and polite and determined. She is a relative of Antonio Lanzellotti, the man who was killed two years ago by a kid driving a stolen SUV.

She has called the newsroom before, asking us to stop running Mr. Lanzellotti's photo. She has always been polite, she has always spoken with intelligence and the conviction that comes from a strong moral compass.

This time, she wanted to buy the rights to a Free Press photo: the one that depicts the two mangled vehicles -- one of them Mr. Lanzellotti's taxicab -- at Portage Avenue and Maryland Street March 30, 2008.

It was the scene of a terrible crime.

The other vehicle in the picture, a Chevy Avalanche, had been stolen less than 48 hours earlier. A 14-year-old auto thief had been at the wheel, high on drugs and booze, showing off for his friends packed into another stolen vehicle. He blew through two red lights on Portage Avenue, reaching speeds of 139 km/h before crashing into Mr. Lanzellotti's cab at that intersection, instantly killing the 55-year-old father and seriously injuring his passenger.

The young woman called to buy that crash-scene photo so that it would never be published again, so her family would stop feeling the pain that image wields.

There are many good days to be in the news business.

This was not one of them.

This was a day when you say things like "it's a news photo," "it's on the public record," "it's simply not something we can ignore." A day you invoke other public photos invoking private grief -- the Challenger explosion, the Crystal Taman roadside memorial, the cherubic face of Phoenix Sinclair.

What you cannot say is that you will stop writing the stories, and printing the photos.

Mr. Lanzellotti was killed just months after Winnipeg's preposterously high auto-theft rate began to decline. We in the "auto theft capital of Canada" suffered through long months when cars were getting stolen about every 30 minutes.

Though the numbers were at long last declining in the spring of 2008, the behaviour of the young car thieves appeared to be getting even more reckless, according to police. Youths were goading them into dangerous car chases, they said, thumbing their noses at authorities and a system that bore no consequences.

The night that Mr. Lanzellotti was killed, 14 young people were packed into the two stolen vehicles.

The Free Press launched a year-long investigation of this particular fatal crash and all of the youths arrested. Three of the paper's best reporters followed those kids as they slowly plowed through the Manitoba court system, to chronicle how they fared. The story ran March 29, 2009. It revealed that, of the 14, most ended up being given supervised probation and a few weeks in custody (on top of time already spent in jail). One is already back in jail, in fact, charged with driving a stolen Hummer that struck and killed another innocent Winnipeg motorist Dec. 11, 2009.

The reporters know all of these kids' names, where they live, where they went to school. Because of the Youth Criminal Justice Act, their names or their photos or their criminal records -- anything that might identify them -- cannot be published. That's why a headline Wednesday laboriously referred to the "boy who killed the cabbie."

That's why all that remains, ironically, in the public domain is the victim's name, the victim's face, and the scene of this terrible crash.

"I'm so sorry," I told the woman on the phone. It does not help to say this.

You're sorry the family has suffered this great loss, you're sorry that the media continues to pick at a scar that can't heal. You're sorry that yet again you have used a painful image to illustrate a painful story.

But this story -- now a matter of public record, shaping public policy, the target of public outrage -- will not go away.

This week it hit the news because the Crown is seeking to have that 14-year-old driver given an adult sentence of another 23 months in jail, which is tougher than he would get as a now-16-year-old young offender. The teen's lawyer is seeking eight more months behind bars.

During the sentencing hearing, the teen's probation officer testified that in 2008, just weeks before the fatal crash, the boy had been placed on the most stringent youth criminal supervision program in the province.

And then he proceeded to breach that probation -- 24 times -- before getting behind the wheel of that stolen SUV and forever changing the Lanzellotti family's life.

Every parent knows the basic rules of disciplining a child. Consequences matter.

Without them, any punishment is meaningless. This youth continually flouted the law, and got away with it right up until he limped away from that horrific crash.

We cannot pretend it didn't happen. We cannot dismiss it like one of the young offenders did when she heard that Mr. Lanzellotti had died.

"Wrong time, wrong place," she shrugged. "It's not like it's a big deal anyways."

That one photo of Mr. Lanzellotti puts a face to a terrible loss. The images of the crash scene have the power to instantly convey the enormity of the offence. Photos bear witness, and have us all bear witness, to the fact that this was very much "a big deal."

That is why I cannot promise the paper will stop investigating the story of how one man died and 14 got away. And it's why I cannot promise the paper will stop running those photos. They are part of the public record, and the only images that document this crime.

I can only promise we will try to be as sensitive as we can. We don't use photos gratuitously, and we will not in future. We'll use them, however, when the story can't be told without them.

We believe we are doing this for the right reasons.

But that's cold comfort to the people who loved and lost Mr. Lanzellotti.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2010 A16

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