How a Las Vegas Newsroom Set Out to Solve a Colleague’s Killing

From a Washington Post story by Sarah Ellison headlined “How a Las Vegas newsroom set out to solve a colleague’s killing”:

It was after midnight when Las Vegas Review-Journal executive editor Glenn Cook hit send on a short email to the staff.

“I’m beyond devastated to be sending you this message,” he wrote. Veteran investigative reporter Jeff German had been found dead outside his home hours earlier, on the morning of Sept. 3, Cook told his employees, adding: “It appears he was stabbed to death.”

It was a terrible way to break the news to them. Cook would have preferred to tell them all personally — “I just remember wanting to throw up,” he recalled later — but the Review-Journal was minutes away from publishing its first news story about their colleague’s killing. And his email would serve as a tacit marching order for their workweek ahead: Even while they were mourning a friend’s death, these journalists would need to investigate it.

Over four breakneck days of relentless reporting, the staff of the Review-Journal would essentially crack the case, delving into German’s old reporting and doing their own on-the-ground detective work to identify a surprising suspect, who is now behind bars, facing murder charges.

“If this had happened to one of us,” David Ferrara, an editor and writer, told The Washington Post, “Jeff would have worked his tail off on every aspect of it. That was part of the reaction: Let’s do the best we can, because he would have done that for us.”

Cook woke early on Sunday morning, Sept. 4, to deploy several key staffers. They needed to polish German’s obituary and make calls around town for a story about reactions to his death.

The circumstances were disturbing. Police were saying that German had been found with stab wounds in a side yard of his suburban home, about seven miles west of downtown and the Vegas Strip. They believed he had been lying there for nearly a day before a neighbor spotted him and called 911. There were signs of an altercation.

Separately, Cook asked German’s direct supervisor, investigations editor Rhonda Prast, to pull together a list of people who had been the subject of German’s stories. “Jeff wrote about a lot of bad people,” Cook explained later, “who did a lot of bad stuff over the course of his career.”

At 69, German had spent 40 years covering the seamier sides of Sin City. The Milwaukee native had moved to Nevada in 1982, eager to cover organized crime, and quickly developed sources across Las Vegas. Originally writing for the Las Vegas Sun, he explored the lingering mob connections to the flourishing casino industry.

In 1997, he broke the news of the execution-style slaying of loan shark and racketeer “Fat Herbie” Blitzstein, said to be the last mobster killed in Las Vegas. A year later, when casino magnate Ted Binion died of a drug overdose, German dug deeper on a hunch that foul play may have been involved. Eventually the man’s girlfriend and her lover were convicted of murder, though both were later acquitted after an appeal, and German published a book on the case.

The scoops kept coming after German got laid off from the Sun and moved to the Review-Journal in 2010. With fellow investigative reporters, he uncovered wasteful spending at the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, leading to charges against several agency officials. And after a deadly 2019 fire at the Alpine Motel Apartments, they found failures in previous city inspections of the building. Deeply involved in the coverage of the October 2017 gun massacre at a country music festival, German was the first to report that the shooter had fired several bullets at a large jet fuel tank at a nearby airport.

But for all the bad actors German had intersected with over the years, Cook still could not quite get his head around the idea that one of them would kill him this way.

“If someone were to put a hit on Jeff over a story he did, would you really stab someone to death in broad daylight on a Friday?” he said. “Those details were almost what made it unbelievable to us.”

Glenn Puit was inclined to agree. One of the paper’s most experienced reporters, he was in his final week at the Review-Journal before going to a job in public relations.

On Labor Day Monday, two days after German was found dead, Puit and a younger reporter, Sabrina Schnur, set out early to knock on doors in the neighborhood. As the temperature surged past 100 degrees, they took occasional breaks in their air-conditioned cars.

“At that point we both assumed, given the nature of the crime, that this was going to be a domestic violence homicide or a random burglary by a person who was unhinged,” Puit recalled. A statement from police suggesting that the suspect may have been “casing the area” to commit other crimes reinforced the theory.

But just before noon Monday, police released a photo of a potential suspect. The person, apparently captured on security camera walking along a sidewalk, was unrecognizable to the two reporters, face and frame obscured, perhaps intentionally, by a wide-brimmed straw hat and a bulky orange construction jacket.

Schnur, though, focused on a corner of the image that showed a landscaping detail in a yard alongside the sidewalk. Scouring the neighborhood, she found it several blocks away from German’s cul-de-sac home.

Why would a burglar take such a circuitous and high-exposure path through the neighborhood? As the two reporters rethought their assumptions about a motive, another colleague was staring at the figure in the center of the photo.

Ferrara, an assistant city editor at the Review-Journal, had worked closely with German for years, sharing a closet-sized courthouse office with him back when Ferrara covered state courts and German covered federal courts.

Like Prast, the investigations editor, Ferrara had spent a day immersed in German’s past work. But it was not the old stories about ruthless criminals and mobbed-up casinos that absorbed his attention. Instead, he caught up on German’s recent investigation into an elected county official who, his subordinates alleged, created a hostile work environment and carried on what they perceived as an inappropriate relationship with a staffer.

Ferrara was so absorbed that he brought his laptop to the gym with him Monday morning. When Cook ran into him there, Ferrara called the executive editor over to eyeball the photos on his screen. “It’s him. Look at him,” Ferrara said, Cook recalled. “He’s short. Look at his posture.”

They toggled between two sets of photos Ferrara had compiled. One set showed the orange-jacketed suspect. The other showed the man who had spent the past spring under German’s reporting microscope: Clark County Public Administrator Robert Telles.

Looking forward to lying smear piece #4 by @JGermanRJ. #onetrickpony I think he’s mad that I haven’t crawled into a hole and died.

Ferrara was not alone in his suspicions. A small group of newsroom colleagues had started reviewing Telles’s social media accounts. Judging from tweets like this, the county official was clearly very upset about German’s reporting.

Typical bully. Can’t take a pound of [criticism] after slinging 100 pounds of BS. Up to article #4 now. You’d think he’d have better things to do.

Telles, 45, was the product of a politically connected family from El Paso, whose great-uncle had served as the city’s first Mexican American mayor and President John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to Costa Rica. A married father of three, Telles had launched his career in Las Vegas as a probate lawyer before running for and winning the post of county public administrator in 2018.

But as Telles geared up his reelection campaign this year, German published a story in May describing how his small agency, which oversees the settlement of unclaimed estates, had been wracked by “allegations of emotional stress, bullying and favoritism.” German wrote that the office had broken down between factions: employees who had come in with Telles and those hired under the tenure of his longtime predecessor. Frustrated with his management, and suspicious of his relationship with a staffer, some of the holdover staff had gone so far as to secretly videotape their “clandestine meetings” in the back seat of her SUV at the parking lot of a local outlet mall.

Both Telles and the woman said their meetings were innocent conversations to vent about office politics and denied that they were romantically involved. The county brought in an outside consultant to help oversee Telles’s office and attempt to ease the tensions.

In addition to his acidic tweets, Telles openly stewed over the Review-Journal’s coverage in posts on his campaign website, accusing German of trying “to drag me through the mud.” He mulled legal action but wrote that “suing a newspaper, like the Las Vegas Review-Journal, is near impossible.” Weeks later, he badly lost his reelection bid, placing third in the Democratic primary behind one of his disgruntled deputies.

With Ferrara leading the drumbeat, the newsroom began to buzz with speculation about Telles. But metro editor Carri Geer remained wary. “It didn’t seem possible,” she said later. “It would make a great story, but I was always skeptical, playing devil’s advocate.”

But on Tuesday afternoon, police released a new video of the orange-jacketed suspect walking and a photo of a car linked to the suspect. They described it as a red or maroon GMC Yukon Denali.

Everything started happening fast. A friend of Ferrara’s messaged him with a photo he had found on Facebook. It showed what appeared to be Telles’s family standing next to a maroon Denali.

Ferrara looked up possible addresses for Telles. One was a little more than 1 mile from German’s house, another was 2 miles away and a third was roughly 6 miles distant. Then he received another message from a friend sharing a Google Street View image of one of the addresses. It had a recent timestamp, and it showed a maroon SUV in the driveway.

“As soon as that happened, we just knew,” Ferrara recalled.

Geer dispatched staffers to go to Telles’s house, not to talk to him, but just to drive by and see what they could see. The situation was volatile, editors realized: There was a risk that a suspect who might have killed their colleague could react badly if approached. Also, “we sure don’t want to make him jump in the car and flee,” Cook said.

Reporters Brett Clarkson and Katelyn Newberg made the trip together, with Newberg driving while Clarkson positioned himself to have a clear view from the back window.

“I was fully suspecting no one was going to be there and there would be no car,” said Clarkson, who had just joined the Review-Journal weeks earlier. “If he really did this, there is no way the car will actually be there.” Newberg kept her eyes on the street ahead as they drove past Telles’s house. “We didn’t want him to know we were there,” she said.

They were both stunned to see that not only was Telles at home, he was out in his driveway, washing a maroon SUV, the exact make and model described in the police report. Review-Journal director of photography Ben Hager discreetly snapped a photo.

Police have not disclosed to what extent they had developed Telles as a suspect before the Review-Journal staff had zeroed in on him. Law enforcement officials frequently withhold from the public some details drawn from a crime scene as they conduct their investigation. The journalists, though, shared some of their own intel with police, from their list of German’s controversial story subjects to their identification of his car as a possible match for the suspect vehicle.

In the course of one of the newsroom’s conversations with police, Geer said, editors learned that police were also surveilling Telles’s home. “We asked the police, through our sources, if we should pull our reporters back,” she recalled. “They said yes.”

Reporters were back on the scene, though, for the start of a long and surreal Wednesday. Police taped off the area surrounding Telles’s house and executed a search warrant, finally giving the Review-Journal enough cause to write a story describing the county official as a suspect.

When police returned Telles to his house after hours of questioning, journalists noticed he was wearing a full-body white costume that resembled a hazmat suit, the only thing he had left to wear after police took his clothes for testing.

That afternoon, when police came back to arrest him, Telles barricaded himself in his home, made suicidal statements, and attempted to woundhimself, police said, before he was carried out on a stretcher. He has been charged with murder and is being held without bond.

Cook said that no one in his newsroom is seeking credit for drawing attention to Telles as a potential suspect. But he allows that it is fair to credit the Review-Journal as having “a role in making sure Robert Telles was on the radar of law enforcement from the get-go.”

As his colleagues pivot from investigating German’s death to mourning him, though, the Review-Journal remains an inextricable part of its own story. On Wednesday, the newspaper was granted a temporary restraining order to prevent law enforcement from searching the contents of the computers and phone they seized from German’s home.

German, his boss said, was famously protective of the people who shared information with him for his stories. As much as the Review-Journal wants to see law enforcement win a conviction, the paper wants to keep the government from perusing his files, something Cook said would set a unfavorable precedent for journalists and violate German’s right to protect his sources to the very end. “I have a hard time believing there’s anybody in Nevada more deeply sourced than Jeff,” he said.

Sarah Ellison is a staff writer based in New York for The Washington Post. Previously, she wrote for Vanity Fair, the Wall Street Journal and Newsweek, where she started as a news assistant in Paris.

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