How I Got That Story: Nate Blakeslee

Nate Blakeslee began his career as a transportation beat reporter with the Austin Chronicle. After that, he moved to The Texas Observer where he specialized in investigative journalism. Primarily focusing on criminal justice, Blakeslee developed a wide range of sources in Texas, particularly while writing his book, Tulia: Race, Cocaine, and Corruption in a Small Texas Town. It was a tip by one of those sources that led him to one of the largest stories of the year in Texas, and to the kind of “smoking gun” document most investigative reporters only dream of finding.

His article “Hidden In Plain Sight” chronicles how gross negligence and a bureaucratic cover-up allowed two Texas Youth Commission employees to get away with sexually molesting numerous wards of the state. After its publication, the article ignited a firestorm that led to the arrest of the two perpetrators and the firing of most of the top brass of the TYC. More importantly, Blakeslee’s article brought justice for the young victims, people whose civil rights too often are overlooked.

Blakeslee, now a senior editor at Texas Monthly, still freelances for the Observer.

Tell us what you were doing when you found this story.

I was doing criminal-justice reporting. I had done an investigation on a drug war that actually turned into the book, Tulia. That investigation was how I got started on the criminal-justice beat. I learned about this story from a tip one of my sources in the field gave me. She was a criminal-justice reform advocate and told me she heard there had been a terrible incident of sexual abuse in West Texas. For some reason, she added, it had not been prosecuted or covered by the press. She also said she believed it was documented.

How did you go about following the tip?

The first thing I needed to do was find the report. It actually didn’t take long. My editor had a connection at the Capitol who had a copy of the report and that person gave it to me. The report was about 100 pages and had been conducted by the Texas Rangers. The stuff the report documented was far worse than what my source had described. It was definitely a case where heads should have rolled, where the perpetrators should have been prosecuted, but nothing had been done.

The document itself was the key to this story. It was a bombshell document, the kind I am always looking for as an investigative reporter. It also had all the contact information listed in it.

So then what did you do?

Then I went out to West Texas and started talking to people. First I saw the whistle-blower that had initially tipped off the Rangers. I also cultivated another source close to the investigation that remained confidential. That person alerted me that there had been a cover-up. I started getting more documents and began putting the pieces together. From there it was a case of talking to whoever was willing to speak to me.

I eventually found Hernandez, one of the perpetrators. That was a jaw-dropper because he was still working with kids. I just dropped in on him. He was flabbergasted. I think he thought everything had just washed away, that it was over. I could tell he wanted to know what I knew though. That is why he spoke to me.

What was the hardest part of writing this story?

The hardest part was the reluctance of people to talk to me on the record. That was essentially because the story was in a gray area, legally. Law enforcement and people in West Texas didn’t really want to speak about it. Persuading people that now was the time to talk about it was the toughest part.

What happened after the story was published?

After the story was published the case blew up. The daily paper was working on the story, too, and printed theirs after us. After our story, most Texas dailies started covering it. The legislature was in session, too, and the story hit the fan. They immediately convened hearings about it. The executive director of TYC resigned and most of the top brass was fired. The two perpetrators were arrested.

Do you have any insights to share with others about investigating a story like this?

No, not really. Reporters don’t often run into documents like this one. In fact, a person can go a whole career without a case like this. This story was just waiting out there to be found. I can say if you find something like this, get it into print as soon as you can.

Any last thoughts?

I am glad that the story broke in a publication that is not part of the mainstream media; that it was part of the alt-media world. It shows that publications such as ours can make a difference.

Read the stories that garnered Blakeslee a first-place finish in Investigative Reporting (circulation under 55,000):
Hidden in Plain Sight

Part of the 2008 “How I Got That Story” series, in which Academy for Alternative Journalism fellows reveal the processes of the writers and editors who won first-place AltWeekly Awards. These interviews also appear in Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2008.

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