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The next bureau chief, Ron Stodghill, who arrived in September 1998, saw Grace’s personal problems hamper her work. Ironically, around this time she was finally promoted. She became a writer-reporter, a title that freed her from her old administrative duties but still placed her a couple of notches below full correspondent. Grace was not considered a strong writer, but, Stodghill says, “she was a magnificent reporter, . . . arguably the best street reporter the magazine had.”
He was particularly impressed with her work on a 1998 story about Ryan Harris, an 11-year-old girl who was at first believed to have been raped and murdered by a seven- and an eight-year-old. Stodghill describes the scene as “a madhouse,” with reporters crawling all over Chicago’s Englewood district. “It was not only rough, but there was little access,” he adds. Stodghill, assigned to write the story with Grace’s reporting, went to the neighborhood to get a look for himself. “I got out of a car and [Julie] saw me. She said, ‘Ron, come over here.’ There was an old woman sitting on a porch, an African American woman, who was calling Julie her adopted granddaughter.” The woman filled Grace’s notebook with quotes and insights that other reporters never got.
Grace’s parents, Ruth and Duard, now believe the “gory-type stories” that became Grace’s specialty triggered her descent into alcoholism. “It all started with the school shootings,” Ruth Grace says. Grace covered West Paducah in 1997 and Jonesboro, Arkansas, in 1998. And in 1999, when word of the Columbine shooting spree broke, Julie Grace was dispatched to Littleton, Colorado.
Facing a pack of competing reporters never intimidated Grace. Nor, it seemed, did the gruesome nature of crime reporting. In fact, her Time colleagues remember that Grace would get excited when news broke and clamor to get the assignment. Dirk Johnson, Newsweek’s current bureau chief in Chicago, remembers running into Grace while he was reporting the Jonesboro school shooting for The New York Times.
“Everybody was searching for family members of the little boys who had shot up the school. I found out that the grandfather of one of the boys lived back in the woods,” Johnson says. “It seemed like a big coup and seemingly there was no one there.” As he walked up to the house in a rural part of Arkansas, he remembers, “out came Julie Grace with a big smile on her face.” She crowed, “I got here before The New York Times!”
Columbine was a different story. According to her parents, Grace was reluctant to go: She told them she was running a fever, but flew out anyway. The scene in Littleton was chaos. Hundreds of reporters had descended on the small town, all chasing the same targets: the students; eyewitnesses; the parents of the shooters; anyone, really, with a terrible tale to tell. Her parents say that Grace was so distraught by what she encountered that she called her doctor for a prescription because she couldn’t sleep. During the day, Grace drove around Littleton, interviewing kids and “crying along with them,” says her father, Duard. At night, Grace struggled. She called her dad one evening from her hotel room, telling him she “couldn’t concentrate on doing her story.” After Columbine, he said, “she started drinking heavily.”
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