How a Mississippi investigative reporter helped find a suspected serial killer
Mary Rose found the reporter who'd help her track down a suspected serial killer while she was listening to the radio.
That's Neshoba County, Rose told herself. It's near the home of the man she suspects killed her daughter and two other women. Mitchell, the reporter, lived in Mississippi, too.
"A light went off," said Rose, who spent 26 years doing her own investigating, "and I said, Mary, you need to get in touch with this man. He is not afraid of cold cases."
Six years and thousands of words later, that case is no longer cold.
It took Mitchell more than a year (and a lot of calls from Rose) to start reporting. But they both stuck with it.
On Friday, Mitchell's series, "Gone," was published online. It has nine chapters, more than 25,000 words, a five-episode web series and a newsletter. And so far, analytics show readers are coming, staying and coming back for more.
This isn't the first time Mitchell has written about Felix Vail, the man suspected of killing Rose's daughter and two other women. It's also not the last.
When Rose first called, she asked the 2006 Pulitzer finalist if he was interested in the story of a serial killer living as a free man.
Of course he was.
At the time, he was an investigative journalist doing the work of a daily reporter, writing multiple stories per week. Mitchell was interested in finding out more about the man but didn't have much time for enterprise.
In 2012, a new executive editor took over and changed the paper's focus. Enterprise work became a priority. Mitchell now had time for in-depth and long-term work.
Since that first call, Rose kept in touch with Mitchell. In the spring of 2012, she decided to make a trip to Mississippi from her home in Western Massachusetts. She was going to confront Vail, she told Mitchell. She had the script ready in her mind. Did he want to come along?
Mitchell, on leave at the time working on a book, did. The details of that first trip form the introduction to the first chapter of "Gone":
A day after Mother’s Day, May 14, 2012, I met the 64-year-old bright, short-haired woman and followed her to the property in Montpelier, Mississippi, where she planned to confront Vail.
She told me what she was going to say to him: “You may never go to jail, but I want you to know that I know and a lot of others know that you took the lives of these three women. You haven’t really gotten away with it.”
We parked and walked up to his gate, which was locked. She told me he lived down this path.
Mitchell wasn't a character in the original 9,000-word story that ran in an eight-page spread in 2012 detailing the death of Vail's first wife and the disappearances of two other women he married.
But since Rose first contacted Mitchell, he has been part of the story.
In 2013, Vail was found and arrested thanks to tips that came in to Mitchell after continuous coverage. The trial for the 1962 murder of Vail's first wife, Mary Horton Vail, begins on Aug. 8.
Mitchell didn't write in first person in any of the follow-up stories — until now. He's not an abstract voice revealing details anymore, but a reporter taking calls, finding leads and bringing the readers along with him.
It's not just a conventional narrative, but something he's never tried before — an investigative narrative. New details also fill out the newest version of "Gone."
"I know so much more now than I knew when I started," Mitchell said. "When I was writing the original 'Gone,' I was just feeling around in the dark."
This time, he had access to audio recordings and Vail's own disturbing journals (which Mitchell spent many weekends reading and making transcripts of). Key people have contacted Mitchell since that first story in 2012 — people that helped answer questions, fill in details, knew Vail and remembered alarming (and incriminating) things he'd told them. Even a private investigator wanted to help out.
Mitchell has worked on many other stories in the past four years, but Debbie Skipper, his editor, knows that giving him time pays off.
"I have tremendous admiration and pride for Jerry, and I know he's relentless," she said. "He has been that way with the Civil Rights cases, and so I knew he'd be that way with this one."
So Skipper isn't surprised.
"Some people might say don't go down that rabbit hole," she said, "but I always know it's worth the wait for him to follow it down that trail."
IT TAKES A NETWORK
"The stories are here that I want to cover," said Mitchell, a 2009 MacArthur Fellow. "There's so many of them that I can't even begin to cover them. Why wouldn't I want to stay where the stories are?"
Like Mitchell, Skipper's been at the Clarion-Ledger for a long time. The two have worked together for more than 20 years.
"The Clarion-Ledger, through all its ups and downs, has always been an agent of change in Mississippi," she said.
They've kept on Civil Rights cases and public health stories, Skipper said. It's their job to be a watchdog, but in Mississippi, one shot isn't enough. The coverage has to be relentless if it's going to get results, she said.
While the paper has a history of dogged work, there's a lot about "Gone" that's new, too.
Mitchell first thought of doing a podcast to accompany the story but then approached his editors with the idea of a documentary. There was already audio, journal entries and so much incredible material, Mitchell thought. And after watching "Making a Murderer," he knew they had everything they needed.
Randy Lovely, vice president of community news for the USA Today Network, championed the documentary, Mitchell says, and from there, that network, which the Gannett paper is a part of, kicked in.
The Des Moines Register's Kelli Brown was the project manager. USA Today's Steve Elfers shot and produced the documentary. USA Today's Shawn Sullivan was the site's lead designer. And many other people, both at the Clarion-Ledger and in the USA Today Network, contributed to "Gone."
Even in the best of times, Skipper said, when the newsroom was three times larger, they wouldn't have had the expertise they got with the collaboration.
There is a tradeoff, said Sam Hall, the Clarion-Ledger's executive editor, between putting out a daily paper, posting stories online and making time to go deep.
Last year, the paper restructured its newsroom to produce more big projects. Now, a six-person investigative and enterprise team rotates between daily work and projects.
"You have to budget it out and plan it," said Hall, who's been at the paper for four years, "but it's something we're doing routinely here."
Does the audience respond?
With "Gone," yes.
During the summer, concurrent visitors to the site of about 600 is OK, said David Bean, digital content editor and audience analyst. Eight hundred is really good. Anything over 1,000 is great.
On Friday, when the series first debuted, concurrents were well over 2,100, he said. Average engagement time is two minutes. Through Monday, the series has had 559,034 total pageviews. One surprise — while the entire series was published at once, the audience is taking it one chapter at a time. On Friday, chapter one got the biggest audience. On Saturday, chapter two. On Sunday, chapter three. (The first three chapters also ran in print on Sunday.) "Gone" is certainly a long read, but it looks like people are taking their time and coming back to it.
There's a greater opportunity to reach people now, said Bean, who's been at the paper for two years and before that spent 24 years at the Orange County Register. There are more platforms for projects, more ways to make the most of audio, video and podcasts, among other things. But none of that matters if it's not a good story, he said.
"A good story's going to bring in a good audience."
And, in this case, maybe a conviction.
Years ago, when she first heard Mitchell on the radio, it took Rose no more than 24 hours to get his number.
Now, six years later, she considers him a friend.
"He's been respectful. He's appreciative. He's been cooperative," she said. "He listens to my point of view... I think very highly of Jerry Mitchell."
His work hasn't just helped bring Vail to trial (which Mitchell will cover.) It's also revived the stories of three women whose death and disappearances were disregarded and forgotten. Rose is just sorry that the other two mothers aren't alive to see the results.
When Vail was first arrested, Rose felt a sense of peace that eluded her for 29 years.
"I'm delighted that, through this story, her spirit has been kept alive," Rose said of her daughter. "I've wanted that all along. She only spent 18 years on this earth, but she made a huge difference in my life just because of who she was...She was a gift. I love it that the world is able to see."
After years of being turned away from the FBI, local authorities and private investigators, Rose found a reporter who believed her and got to the bottom of something no one else could.
He never gave up, she said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said that Felix Vail lived in Neshoba County. That is incorrect. He lives near Neshoba County. Also, in the closing section, Mary Rose heard Jerry Mitchell on the radio, not on TV. We apologize for the errors.