How a Tip to Obituaries Breathed New Life Into a Decades-Old Mystery – The New York Times

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A news assistant on the Obituaries desk describes how information he received while doing a routine part of his job set him on an investigation of a notorious 1975 kidnapping.

Credit…Mel Haasch; photographs by Eddie Hausner/The New York Times, NYC Department of Records/Municipal Archives

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As the junior member of The Times’s Obituaries desk, I specialize in a duty more esoteric than writing or editing. I keep our list of recent deaths. Every tip from a Times reporter, every voice mail from a mourner and every entreaty from a publicist with a posthumous client — I record them all and ensure that each person they represent has a chance at whatever immortality newsprint offers.

Last winter, I stumbled on a special sort of narrative — a confession made just months before someone died. The admission, by a lawyer seeking to right a decades-old wrong, set me on a quest to learn the truth about a sensational kidnapping that was widely reported in 1975. My investigation was published in August.

To explain this scoop and how I got it, I must first describe the unusual duties of my job.

The Metro desk sends reporters to crime scenes, and political journalists roam the halls of Congress. But the Obituaries desk does not gather the news; it listens for it. My colleagues and I do not visit graveyards. We depend on announcements from strangers.

When we hear a new name, I write a note that includes a death date, a career summary and an estimate of the number of instances that person appeared in The Times.

You might think that makes me a ghoulish bouncer, scanning résumés to inflict the rigors of status consciousness even after consciousness itself has ended. Yet it would be more accurate to imagine me as a school crossing guard, waving passers-by in the right direction. That is because we treat every single person whose death we’re told of as worthy of consideration for a Times obituary.

An undiscriminating approach is necessary to find a type of story that editors sometimes call a “tale.” These articles narrate lives lived in the grip of unusual passions or distinguished by accomplishments unappreciated in their own time.

This year, for instance, we’ve written about an unsuccessful Olympic swimmer who found glory on the amateur circuit and a Hasidic oral scribe.

Everyone on our list is researched, sometimes for hours, by me or another member of our staff.As the news assistant, I make only additions, taking note of the calls I answer and the emails I see.

Tabulating these names is grunt work, but I find integrity in the democratic view it implies — that everyone holds the potential to be a tale.

That brings me to my scoop. On Dec. 19, when The Times received a long email about Peter DeBlasio, a lawyer said to have been a “leading personal injury plaintiff’s attorney,” my eyes did not glaze over. Midway through the note, my attention was rewarded. Mr. DeBlasio’s daughter, Alessandra, wrote that her father had self-published a memoir shortly before his death that revealed what she called “the long-held secret” of his most famous case — the trial for the kidnapping of the whiskey heir Samuel Bronfman II. I asked for a copy of the little-read book, and then I immersed myself in it.

Back in 1976, Mr. DeBlasio secured an exoneration for his client, one of two charged with kidnapping, by persuading jurors that Mr. Bronfman staged the crime as a hoax to shake down his family for cash. But on Page 474 of Mr. DeBlasio’s book, I discovered, he said the opposite was true.

“I want it to be clear to all who may ever read these pages that Samuel Bronfman was not a part of the kidnapping,” Mr. DeBlasio wrote. “I have always felt sorry for him.”

The confession in his book helped set the record straight on wild allegations from the criminal investigation and trial, including that a Brooklyn fireman spent years surveilling a scion of one of the world’s great fortunes, and that the fireman and Mr. Bronfman were secretly lovers. I recounted the crime’s twists and turns not on the Obits pages, but in a 3,000-word story that recently led the Metropolitan section.

It took me eight months, studying court records and interviewing people involved in the case who are still alive, to figure out the significance of Mr. DeBlasio’s book. But what should have been the hardest part of my reporting, getting the scoop itself, took no enterprise at all. It was just grunt work.