At precisely two minutes before midnight, the door of a parking garage on an elevated stretch of 18th Street in Chinatown judders to life. Like an aluminum theater curtain, it rises inch by clattering inch, revealing first a snarl of railroad tracks just outside, then, once fully opened, the twinkling grandeur and brooding depths of the city’s skyline. Idling in his gurgling Crown Vic, amid a static storm of police scanner squawks, bleats, beeps, and babble (All units . . . 23-Robert . . . Shots fired), Pauley LaPointe paradiddles the steering wheel, amped by the vision unscrolling before him, antsy to pounce on the opportunities laid bare just past the cresting avenue.
“Looooove it,” he coos. “Look at it. It’s like fucking Hill Street Blues.”
He’s referring to the title sequence, shot in Chicago, of that classic police show: a blue garage door snapping up, a squad car bumping out, its siren wailing into the city, the pregnant unknown. “Every time I pull out—” LaPointe starts to say. “What a beautiful city I have to work in.”
But enough of that. He guns the V-8, and the car answers with a rumble. There is mayhem in the air, which means money on the table. If LaPointe can get to it first.
And to do that, the freelance video journalist has to be out there, swooping down on crime and car crashes like, well, a vulture picking over a carcass, some might say, or, as he prefers to think of himself, a noble chronicler of the urban trenches, telling the most raw and real stories by trolling the nocturnal carnage that has put Chicago in a harsh national spotlight.
Called simply Pauley by cops and competitors alike, LaPointe works alone, his appearance as much a calling card as his video camera. It starts with his hair, a Caesar cut that he dyes Anderson Cooper white (“My girlfriend likes it,” he says), and his eyes, an Aqua Velva blue. At 43, he’s compact, the battle against middle age waged on the Bowflex he keeps in his loft-style office. Then there’s his voice—a mélange of surfer dude and street set on constant chatter, his words sprinkled with New Agey references to “chi” and “energy” and “life force.”
As the owner of Captured News—a “media content management system for news shooters and users of news content,” according to its website—LaPointe serves as a sort of middleman between local and national TV stations and another 13 or so freelance video journalists, mostly young and green, who likewise roam the city in the wee hours, always trying to outsmart and outhustle the competition to get the most gripping footage—and, yes, that often means the bloodiest. LaPointe’s purpose, their purpose, is singular: to feed the insatiably video-hungry but increasingly budget-strapped beast that is TV news. LaPointe’s clips generally fetch $150 to $300 from local stations, unless the story is major or the footage goes national, in which case he can get up to $1,500.
It’s especially important for him and his team to be out this night, this weekend. Because this isn’t just any Friday. It’s the kickoff to Chicago’s most violent season—summer—and thus LaPointe’s most lucrative time of year. The Friday before Memorial Day by the calendar’s reckoning, but to LaPointe, who has been making a living working the dark edges of the city for two decades, it’s “the unofficial beginning of the bullshit.”
It started a full four hours before LaPointe, with his vampire schedule, emerged from the five or so fitful hours of sleep he typically allows himself. At 8 p.m., a four-year-old girl and two teens were shot during a party in West Englewood. All would survive, including the little girl, who was shot in the head.
So yes, the bullshit is already in full swing, with LaPointe a step behind. No worry. The moment he plugs in his cell phone earpiece, which hums with scanner chatter, he’s knee-deep in fresh drama.
His first run comes just after midnight with the report of a security guard shot in the leg in the Loop. Probably nothing—“unless it hit a femoral artery,” LaPointe says. But he checks it out anyway, back-streeting his way to the scene, under the el, across Wacker, upper, lower, loop-de-loop, pink-lighting through an intersection. The call turns out to be a bust. “He was only shot in the foot,” LaPointe says. But soon enough, a second incident—shots fired at a gas station off the Dan Ryan—spins LaPointe off through the streets again, hoping for a score. It doesn’t happen. Cops are on the scene, and shots were indeed fired, but with no victim, it’s a little like a pedestrian almost hit by a taxi.
Then, around 12:30, another snap-crackle pops, this time off West 104th Street in Washington Heights. The scanners dole out the basics—where, what. To fill in the picture, LaPointe flips open a dash-mounted laptop and clicks on Twitter.
There are dozens of amateur scanner monitors in town—devotees who eavesdrop on the police and fire department chatter and tweet details in real time. But LaPointe has whittled those he follows to a hardcore few: Chicago Scanner (“Listening to Chicago’s Finest & Bravest on 11 Scanners, as It Happens, Since 1992”); Traumanatrix a.k.a. Dixie McCall (“Diva of Death, Mistress of Mayhem”), who hints that she’s an ER nurse; and Spot News, a freelance photojournalist who sometimes shoots for LaPointe and whose obsessive tracking (60,000 tweets and counting) makes him the go-to source for the scanner crowd.
From them, LaPointe assembles the mosaic: The victims are a mother and her 18-year-old son, who, shortly after returning from a prom event, caught bullets outside their Washington Heights home. Both are “code yellow,” in police parlance: injured, but not seriously. (“ ‘Green,’ you’re fine, walking wounded,” LaPointe explains. “ ‘Black’ is dead.”) Even so, in the cold calculation that is the news business, the emotional elements—a mother and son, the prom—make the shooting an irresistible lure for local stations and a must-get for LaPointe.
He throws the Vic into drive, but before takes off, he realizes he forgot something. Reaching into the back seat, he fishes out a stiff black vest, which he shrugs on and secures with Velcro straps. “The bullets don’t have eyes,” he says. “They just hit. And sometimes they’re still shooting when I arrive.”
Like the time in 2008 when shots from an assault rifle sprayed all around him as he pulled up to a standoff with police in Auburn Gresham. Cops killed the gunman, but not before he put a bullet in the vest of a SWAT team member, clipped another officer in the foot, and shot at a police helicopter overhead. Neither LaPointe nor his stringer was hurt, but, he says, “when you hear an AK-47 blasting, it gets your attention.”
The lesson: Wear the vest. “I have two kids,” he says. “They’re teenagers, but that doesn’t mean I want to be killed if I can help it. Our job is not for the faint of heart.”
His 19-year-old son, P.J., learned that on one of his initial runs. A film student at Columbia College, he decided to join his father’s crew last year. “His first homicide was a man shot in his car,” LaPointe says. “The guy must have been trying to get out when the shooting happened because he wound up flopped, head down, towards the curb, blood all over the place. P.J. saw it and threw up for the next six hours.”
When LaPointe gets to the site of the postprom shooting, one of his stringers, Tom Walsh, a lanky 19-year-old with a Blackhawks skullcap and a Kevlar vest of his own, has already amassed a nice cache of B-roll—that is, footage that plays while a TV reporter is doing a voice-over. The question is, Did Walsh, on the job for a mere month, get anything more?
“I did.” Walsh beams at LaPointe. He got a “great sound bite” from a neighbor. He also got footage of a victim being loaded onto an ambulance.
“Awesome!” LaPointe says. “What about the scene?” He looks past the long length of yellow crime-scene tape and the two cops posted in front of the house. Balloons—red, white, yellow, silver—float from the stair railings, and a “Congrats Grad 2015” sign covers the front windows of the white bungalow.
“Grab a couple more shots of the balloons and sign, OK?” LaPointe gently prods. “This could be the biggest shooting of the night.”
Unsaid, but understood by both, is a harsh truth: In the freelance video news business, some shootings are more equal than others. “Dead gangbangers will not sell over a mom and son coming home from prom who were just shot and lived. That’s just the reality,” LaPointe, now back in the Vic, tells one of his other stringers through his cell headset as he jets north. “It is sad, but understandable in a way. It is what it is.”
Into the night he rolls, roaring back down the Ryan, scanners muttering (Cadillac four-door . . . Is there a unit trying to come in? . . . Unable to copy . . . Need your location . . . You have shell casings and blood on the scene), past the post-bar-hour cars drifting in and out of lanes, and down an exit where a big caramel-colored man with a four-day beard and a bored look holds a sign that says “Aloha, Homeless, Hungry, and Hawaiian.”
It’s another few miles on a car that has crisscrossed the city more times than a Red Line train. When I ask how much mileage LaPointe has racked up, he eyeballs the odometer. “Uh, 278,000.” That’s just on the Vic. “I’ve put a million miles on cars during the course of my career—at least,” he says. And he estimates that gas alone sets him back as much as $20,000 a year. (He won’t disclose how much he makes annually. “Let’s just say I won’t be retiring in the near future.”)
This car isn’t just any car. It’s a Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor—“Crown Vic” to anyone with a badge—the vehicle of choice for cops in virtually every big city. The nights I rode along with LaPointe, the speedometer routinely clicked over 90 miles per hour and at times flirted with 100. By design, LaPointe’s particular model—blood black, rear end bristling with a nest of whip antennas—mirrors an unmarked cruiser so closely that even cops are sometimes fooled.
“Oh yeah, when I first started in the business, I was told by a state policeman that the smartest thing you can do is get a car that will not get you in trouble in terms of people wanting to break in, steal your stuff—a car that will make you feel a little safer in the hood,” says LaPointe. To complete the effect, he has installed a squawk horn and put a flashing light on the front windshield.
The interior is all practicality. “One, two, three, four, five . . . nine, ten,” he says, counting the scanners in a bank where the center console once was, the little rectangles glowing like a row of Lite-Brite pegs. Continuing the tour, he grabs a platform attached to a hinged arm bolted under the dash and swings out a silver Apple laptop. Tethered to a 20-gig mobile Wi-Fi hot spot, he can upload footage to a website so that news stations can purchase his videos no matter where he is. Back in the days of tape, if a murder occurred in, say, Antioch, he would have to drive there and back to make Beta tapes to drop off at each individual station.
“With gas prices and the cost of tape, I almost went broke,” he says. “Live [TV news] trucks had such an advantage. Now I kill it. There’s no limit to where I can get my stuff out and how fast I can get it to them.”
Observing LaPointe, you quickly realize that speed sustains him. “Whaddya got?” he chatters into his headset. “OK, so one dead there? All right. Did you happen to hear where the two-shot was? I thought he said he had two yellows? Well, I’m just going to start working my way south. I’llbeoverthereinaminute, okbye.” Tap-tap-tap on the keyboard, reach for a pen, change lanes, press the headset. “Did they say possible homicide? OK, bye.” Pedal down, laptop down, window cracked. “Hello? Whatcha got? OK, let me know and I’ll let you know.” Turns to me. “Madness, buddy. Once it starts happening, it’s like a fucking waterfall.”
Be advised . . . Gunshots fired under the cover of very loud music . . . Large crowd present . . . No further.
A fatal shooting at about 1:45 a.m. on Pierce, near Wood, catches LaPointe’s attention for more than the fact that it adds to to the night’s body count. It’s in Wicker Park. A murder in a trendy, affluent part of town means more news interest. And an easier sell.
LaPointe races up the Kennedy to the location and parks at the end of the block, a gentrified, shiny stretch of red-brick and wrought-iron beauty, all trimmed lawns and swept sidewalks. (Police would later say that a man was sitting on his stoop with some friends when another man approached and started blasting.) LaPointe pops the trunk, pulls out his camera—a small high-def handheld number—and heads toward the blinking blue. “Always flashing lights in my life—whether I’m at a dance club or out on the streets working,” he says.
A few steps in, he stops. Fuck. A blue minivan squats like a turtle. A stringer for his main competitor. The guy has already plucked the scene clean, LaPointe says, and is probably feeding the footage to a station as we speak.
In the blood sport that is TV news, the competition among freelancers is more than fierce; it is at times ugly, personal, cutthroat even, at least between LaPointe and his chief rival, Ken Herzlich, who runs Network Video Productions. Both have been around forever. Both despise each other. To LaPointe, Herzlich is a “game player” who tries to shut him out of a scene by all means possible: “He’s just a mean-spirited guy.” To Herzlich, LaPointe is a showboat: the dyed hair, the Crown Vic, and the claim that he’s the model, at least in part, for the Jake Gyllenhaal character in the film Nightcrawler, about a video journalist with no conscience. “LaPointe wants to be on TV,” Herzlich says. “He wants to be famous. That’s just not me. I want to do the work.” Counters LaPointe: “I compete by kicking that guy’s ass every night.”
Not tonight, though—at least not at this scene. LaPointe was smoked fair and square. Grumbling, he picks at the leftovers: an ambulance beep-backing down the block, cops shooting the breeze. As he retreats to the Vic to reconnoiter, he happens upon a trio of 20-somethings—two men and a woman—sitting on the steps of an expensive-looking condo tucked behind an iron fence.
“Any insight into all of this?” the woman asks.
LaPointe turns his palms up. “Another night, another shooting. I think our guys have already covered, like, a dozen tonight. It’d be worse if it was warmer out.”
“This is such a nice neighborhood, too,” one of the guys chimes in.
“I’ve never felt unsafe in this neighborhood until this year,” the woman says. “This is the third or fourth time we’ve had the cops out here.”
Her friends look down and shake their heads. LaPointe wants to say something. He wants to tell them to try living in Englewood or another of the couple dozen neighborhoods where the cops come three or four times an hour; where bullets, not firecrackers, pop on a Saturday night; where, later this evening, he’ll see a woman pushing a man in a wheelchair and take an educated guess that he lost his legs to a shooting, not diabetes.
But LaPointe doesn’t say any of that. What’s the use? Instead, he offers: “It can be a tough city.” There’s no time for a long debate, not on a busy night, which this is turning out to be.
I need to request a crime lab for a homicide . . . Crime lab’s been notified. They’ll be responding . . . Ten-four. Officers on the scene.
“Chicago is like that perfect girl you want to date, but she’s got this really weird dark side,” LaPointe muses, tipping 90 miles per hour on the Dan Ryan. “Beautiful, she looks great, but sometimes it’s like, ‘Where did that fucking come from?’ It’s like Fifty Shades of Crime.”
LaPointe grew up far from the chaos, in the small, almost all-white western suburb of Westchester, just off the Eisenhower. For a while, after graduating from Proviso West High School in 1990, he plied a far different trade. “I was a teaching golf pro,” he says.
He spent a couple of years in Genoa City, Wisconsin, at the Nippersink Resort, and a year in Lake Geneva at the now-defunct Americana, which replaced Hugh Hefner’s Bunny playground when it went belly-up. He earned an associate’s degree at the College of Lake County, then enrolled at Roosevelt University for film study and video journalism. But while delivering packages for UPS on the side, he wrecked his spine. “That was the end of my golfing career,” he says.
LaPointe worked at CLTV in the early ’90s as a desk assistant on the “insanity shift”—9 p.m. to 7 a.m. on weekends. Occasionally, he found himself in the field; he helped cover the trial and conviction of Congressman Mel Reynolds, among other things. But a couple of heated exchanges with producers—plus surgery for his back that would require several months of rehab—led to a “mutual parting of the ways,” LaPointe says.
After his recovery, he decided to strike out on his own. “I just thought, This is so much more entertaining than sitting at a desk all night listening to a scanner. You’re like a caged lion. I wanted to get out there and see all this stuff.”
But the lone wolf act didn’t pay the bills, so he took on some stringers, offering to help them through his TV connections. “There was no way to get to everything,” he explains. The deal was (and still is): They would shoot the aftermath of a crime or a disaster and send the footage to him. If he could sell it to a station, he would give them a cut.
The business model worked, but his personal life wasn’t quite as tidy. He had a son and a daughter, born on the same day four years apart, and after a bitter custody battle with his son’s mother, he eventually settled in a two-bedroom condo in the northwest suburbs.
He put in long hours—insane hours—building the company, which was fine with him. “I don’t personally enjoy sleep,” he says. “I have to sleep, but I wish I didn’t. I would rather be going all the time.”
Still, even now, he can’t help imagining himself living the country club life, teaching duffers how to fix their slices. “I enjoy telling the story, taking the pictures. It’s a very interesting business. Where else can you get such an immersion into life? But I’m in the hood every night versus being on a golf course every morning. I miss the course.”
He also misses the cachet. “Sometimes I feel a little like Rodney Dangerfield,” he says. “I get no respect.” Assignment editors yell at him. Cops, though mostly cooperative, bust his balls. More than once, a victim’s family has called him scum for intruding on a tragedy, a sentiment that never fails to wound, even though he believes that what he does serves a higher purpose by drawing attention to a problem.
“We can show all the dead bodies of people being killed all over the world,” he says, “but we can’t show it in our backyard. It’s a double standard.”
Hardly anyone treats him like a legitimate journalist, he says, yet “I’m out here every day, telling the story of Chicago.”
LaPointe is off again, this time to the scene of a double homicide in Chatham. “There could be a shoot-’em-up anytime over there,” he says as we race to the scene. “It’s a hot zone, so watch yourself.”
He is cruising west on 79th Street, past the Just Jerk Cafe and a methadone clinic that has the neighborhood up in arms. He’s ready to tap-and-roll through the intersection at Indiana Avenue when his focus is diverted by a stooped graybeard, semidancing in place and trying to get his attention.
LaPointe slows the car and lowers the window, listing to starboard, not wanting to ignore someone in distress, but also too long on the streets to ignore the trust-but-verify imperative.
The man mumbles something, his slurred voice a box of gravel.
“Sorry, what?” LaPointe asks.
“I say, ‘Over there,’ ” the man rasps, pointing to a dark lump on a dark sidewalk, laid out like a forgotten bag of groceries. “He’s been laying there. I don’t know if he’s dead or alive, but he’s been there for a long time. There he is, right there.”
Clearly the man thinks LaPointe is a cop.
LaPointe sighs—he’s losing time getting to the double homicide—then says to me: “I don’t want to check on a dead body, but here I go.”
Bathed in the yellow glow of the streetlights, he picks his way through a garden of fast-food Styrofoam, drained 40s, and sprays of shattered glass and kneels beside the person.
“Hey, you OK? Sir, sir, you all right?”
To me: “He just needs an ambulance, I think.”
“Sir! Sir! Are you OK?”
The body doesn’t move.
“Is he breathing?” asks a woman in dark jeans and a black do-rag, making her way across the grass, stopping a few feet short and leaning in for a closer look.
LaPointe feels for a pulse, the rise and fall of the man’s chest.
“He’s breathing,” LaPointe says, looking up. “Hey, can you do me a favor—”
“He was down there at the bar,” the woman says, cutting him off. “Is he drunk?”
“Well, I don’t see no blood,” LaPointe says.
“Aw, he came outta Duke’s,” she says, nodding toward a place across the street, its neon saxophone beckoning customers inside. “He just drunk.”
LaPointe sighs again. He starts to ask the woman to call 911, but she’s already halfway to her stoop, so he heads back to his car. “I gotta go,” he says. “On to my shooting.”
He falls silent as we resume our drive down 79th.
“I hope he doesn’t get robbed,” he finally says.
After slant-parking the Vic as close as he can to the scene of the double homicide, LaPointe starts filming. There isn’t a lot to see at this point. Just some detectives speaking sotto voce and a few uniforms cracking jokes. The bodies have been carried away. On the nearby corners, some residents yell at the officers, trying to provoke a back-and-forth to break up the boredom. “Hey! Hey! You got a cigarette?” one woman shouts, causing the crowd to snicker. The cops don’t bite, but one approaches LaPointe.
“You’re going to have to back it up,” he says.
“Who you with?”
“TV news. Did I do something wrong?”
The cop points to the yellow tape that has suddenly appeared behind LaPointe.
“Aw, come on. That wasn’t here before.”
The officer gives a sidelong grin.
“Yes, sir, Officer!” LaPointe says with mock friendliness. Then he turns to me. “See what I mean about respect?”
Looking back, he just shakes his head and calls out, “You guys have a good night.”
The rest of the evening spins like an ugly kaleidoscope. Shots fired at Halsted and . . . Be advised . . . Accident with an ejection . . . Gang fight, Gladys and Lavergne, 30 males and females . . . Multiple gunshots on Monticello [squawk] . . . Please respond.
That last one is another double shooting, this time in Humboldt Park. But LaPointe decides to sit it out. One of his team members has it covered. Besides, LaPointe and his crew have already logged so many shootings and killings that the TV stations have likely had their fill of gore for the night.
Wearily, LaPointe retreats to his office, a high-ceilinged space in Chinatown that looks like a cross between a fun house and a bachelor pad run amok. At one end, fake tropical plants surround a vinyl-lined koi pond, watched over by a stuffed doll: Peter Griffin, the doofus from Family Guy. At the other, a Sopranos pinball machine pings and blinks a few feet from a mirrored disco ball. LaPointe sits, hand to temple, at a polished white bar, blinking hard at a computer screen as “3:13 a.m.” pops up on an LED clock. He’ll be up for several hours more, tweeting out teaser footage and photos, checking in with the news stations to see if they need anything.
As it turns out, LaPointe can’t find any takers for his film from the double homicide in Chatham. The Washington Heights mother-and-son shooting, however, gets picked up by two local stations, with LaPointe’s Captured News logo running in the upper right of his footage. On Tuesday, he’ll learn the weekend’s body count: 12 dead, 44 wounded, double last year’s totals for the same time period.
There is to be one bright spot amid the grimness: LaPointe has promised P.J. that they can cover Bike the Drive, the annual event that closes down Lake Shore Drive for a few hours on Sunday each Memorial Day weekend. They probably won’t get much interest in the footage—all the TV stations will have their own people there. But the real point, LaPointe tells me, is to take a break from the mayhem.
At dawn, however, the scanners light up. The report: a massive pileup near Crown Point, Indiana, 46 miles away. It’ll take about two hours to cover, perhaps longer if it’s really bad. (It turned out to be relatively minor.)
LaPointe calls P.J. to break the bad news.
“Yeah, so no Bike the Drive, I gotta go check out this thing in Indiana.”
“OK. Sorry. Bye.”
At 5:30 a.m., LaPointe climbs into the Vic and waits as the garage door bangs open, rising on the new day.