Inside the New York Times: “When a big, awful crime happens, a reporter’s job is pretty straightforward—the morning after is when things get trickier”

From a New York Times Insider column by Andy Newman headlined “Tracing the Troubled Path of a Man Accused of Murder”:

When a big, awful front-page crime happens, a reporter’s job is pretty straightforward: answer the basic questions of who, what, when, how and, if possible, why.

The morning after is when things get trickier.

On Jan. 15, a 40-year-old woman, Michelle Alyssa Go, was pushed to her death in front of a subway train in Times Square, and a mentally ill homeless man was arrested. The story The Times published that night included everything we had learned about the crime.

The next morning, the Metro editor, Jim Dao, directed the desk to report an article detailing Ms. Go’s life — a classic “second-day” story to help readers get to know a victim who could have been any of us or our loved ones. My colleagues would learn that Ms. Go, a transplant from California who stayed in New York after studying at N.Y.U., loved traveling, worked in finance and volunteered helping young adults prepare for job interviews.

Then he reached out to me — a reporter who covers social services and homelessness in New York City.

For much of the pandemic, New Yorkers watched a string of random attacks with growing alarm. The Metro section’s readers, Jim wrote in a Slack message, would appreciate if we could “get inside the issue in a deeper way.”

He continued: “I think we should be trying to understand who the suspect was, his path through various jails/prisons/hospitals, what were his interactions with government agencies/doctors/etc. Did they mishandle him, allow him to fall through cracks in the system?”

In a way, I had started reporting this story a month before the attack, though I didn’t know it.

I had read a draft of a report from BronxWorks, a nonprofit that runs a shelter for mentally ill men, which has since been published, that described a troubling pattern: Hospitals kept refusing to admit mentally ill homeless patients they felt might be too disruptive, or discharging them before they were stable. BronxWorks even described a client who pushed a man in front of a train after they had tried and failed to get him admitted to a psychiatric hospital.

But we still needed to learn about the life of the man charged with killing Ms. Go: Martial Simon, 61, who had been in and out of hospitals for years.

I sent Nate Schweber, a longtime freelance reporter on the Metro desk, photos of Mr. Simon and asked him to go to Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen, one of the city’s biggest. “See if anyone recognizes him.”

Nate found a man, Larry Williamson, who had known Mr. Simon for 20 years. Mr. Simon, Mr. Williamson said, had often complained about his treatment at the hands of the medical establishment — not that they were hospitalizing him against his will, but the contrary: They kept discharging him before he could stabilize.

I called an advocate for homeless people and asked if the advocate knew anyone who had had contact with Mr. Simon. The advocate said that someone who had access to Mr. Simon’s medical records had shared with the advocate an even more chilling piece of information: In 2017, a psychiatrist at a state mental institution preparing Mr. Simon’s discharge papers noted that Mr. Simon had said it was “just a matter of time” before he pushed a woman onto the train tracks.

We did not reveal the name of the advocate because Mr. Simon’s medical records have not been made public. Such anonymity is a last resort, according to New York Times guidance, to be used only when there is no other way to publish reliable information we think the public should know.

Another freelance reporter, Chelsia Rose Marcius, reached Mr. Simon’s older sister, Josette Simon, who filled in details of Mr. Simon’s biography — his years as a loving son and brother before schizophrenia swallowed him. Ms. Simon sent us a photo of her brother as a beaming teenager.

Now the one-dimensional madman from the tabloid headlines was starting to seem more like a person who could have been any of us or our loved ones, too.

It wasn’t exactly a second-day story anymore — by the time it was published, 21 days had gone by since Ms. Go’s death. But it took that long to understand how Mr. Simon’s unraveling fit into the broader crisis in mental health care in the city.

Andy Newman writes about social services and poverty in New York City and its environs. He has covered the New York metropolitan area for The Times for 25 years and written nearly 4,000 stories and blog posts.


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