November 17-23, 2005
: Michael T. Regan
Buyouts cost Philly a tabloid crime-writing legend.
Tabloid crime writing is an art form. At its best it should be artfully simple and chillingly detailed, offering glimpses into the minds of those who crossed the line to murder. It should leave you feeling cold and unnerved, make you put your hand to mouth, exhale and shake your head in shock and disbelief as you read.
It's all about the details.
And Kurt Heine finds the details.
Like the story about Caleb Fairley, a 21-year-old Gulph Mills man who brutally beat and strangled to death a young woman and her 19-month-old daughter as they strolled through a children's clothing store. Caleb had created a bizarre fantasy world for himself in an attempt to escape the taunts of his abusive mother. The fantasy world spilled over into reality. Heine began his story:
Caleb's girls don't call him stupid. They live in a blue trunk at the foot of his bedleather-clad vixens with handcuffs and ropes, their only purpose to please the man who spreads open the pages of the smut magazines that bring them to life.
Or the story about a North Philadelphia bar held hostage by a gunman angry over a drug debt. The gunman made his victim, Angel Morales, a 20-year-old pizza delivery man, endure a cruel bit of pageantry before his death.
As the other hostages, including three women, sat hogtied by the pool table, the gunman ordered his victim to pull down his pants and dance atop the bar Tears streamed down Morales' face. And as the gunman pressed the pistol barrel to the back of Morales' neck, the dance was over in a jerk and a spurt of blood.
Throughout his 22 years at the Daily Newsseventeen as a writer, the last five as city editorHeine, 50, a thin bespectacled man with a salt and pepper beard, has established himself as one of the best tabloid crime writers in the country.
He has covered all of the biggest Philadelphia crime stories of the last 20 years, including the Gary Heidnik murders and Marty Graham killings of the mid-1980s. Other reporters marvel at his ability to mine the pertinent details out of seemingly mundane murders and deliver them with disturbingly effective turns of phrase.
"He is one of the people that helped turned crime writing at the Daily News into an art form," says Daily News assistant managing editor Pat McLoone. "One of the greats."
But Heine is one of the 25 Daily News staffers departing in the recent buyout packages offered by Philadelphia Newspapers Inc., the parent company of both the Daily News and Inquirer. He cites PNI's constant ax-wielding as the reason for his departure.
When Heine took over as city editor in 1999, he had roughly 50 reporters at his disposal. He now has just more than half that number.
"You want to work at a place where you feel you have the resources to make a difference," he explains.
Heine will be replaced as city editor by Gar Joseph, a longtime and highly respected political reporter. All newsroom staffers interviewed expressed confidence in Joseph's selection. "Gar has a treasure trove of political experience," says columnist Stu Bykofsky, "and it's not like he's going to turn his back on a juicy triple-murder for a story about a City Council measure." But all agree that Heine's departure represents a major blow to the paper's tabloid sensibility.
"No one at the Daily News," says Bykofsky, "ever could turn a silk purse into a sow's ear like Kurt could."
After graduating from Penn State with a journalism degree, Heine drove a limousine and covered the cop beat for the Trenton Times before landing a job at the Daily News in 1983. He was assigned to the suburban crime beat, which mainly meant calling up police chiefs every day and asking them if anything interesting was going on. A story about a murderous drug dealer was what first drove home the attraction to crime reporting.
It was a seemingly simple story, Heine recalls: one drug dealer killing another. But, during the trial, cops detailed how they had found a death list in the killer's apartment. Next to each name on the list was an explanation for why each had been marked for death. One inscription simply read, "Fucked with my stereo."
Intrigued, Heine managed to strike up a conversation with the defendant in the bathroom.
"You could tell right away talking to the guy that he was extremely intelligent," Heine says. "It struck me as so fascinating that an otherwise intelligent and normal person could want to kill someone for fucking with his stereo. What could the guy have done to the stereo? Turned it up?"
A desire to understand the psyche of those he covered became the driving point of Heine's reporting.
"We're all basically the same creature," he says. "We are all capable of doing these terrible things. I felt providing as much detail about what drove someone over the edge would be a valuable, important thing to do."
That desire to mine the minds of killers served Heine well when he wrote dozens of stories documenting the Heidnik and Graham murders. Heine's coverage of Grahamwho killed and hid seven women in his hovel of a North Philadelphia apartment in the mid-1980schronicled some of the apathy and hopelessness ravaging inner-city community neighborhoods. He wrote of how Graham's girlfriend stayed with him throughout the killing spree:
He choked her during sex until she couldn't breathe. He waved a machete at her until she bowed to his deviant whims. He hacked off the seat of her pants and had his way with her while she lumbered in a drug stupor. She believed him when he said he had murdered his old girlfriend. And the stench of death made her sick.
But the girlfriend always returned, she told Heine, for drugs, shelter and for "Graham's kind, attentive side."
As city editor, Heine has helped maintain the paper's tabloid identity, recognizing stories that would resonate with readers. A good example, he says, is a story from a few years back. A newly engaged young couple was riding along the Schuylkill Expressway when a piece of heavy equipment flew off a passing truck and through the couple's windshield, beheading the wife-to-be.
The Daily News ran with the story for weeks, until police finally tracked down the driver of the truck.
"It was a heartbreakingly tragic story," says Heine. "But one people could connect to. Everybody rides the expressway."