Wednesday, September 21, 2011

After My Car Was Firebombed While I Covered a Riot...

by JudithYates Borger

It was a hot August night in 2002 when I was a reporter for the St. Paul Pioneer Press dispatched to Minneapolis because it looked like a riot was erupting. Police had tried to issue a warrant on a drug house when someone unleashed a pit bull on the officers. They shot at the dog, the bullet ricocheted off the sidewalk and hit a youngster in the arm. Word went out in the neighborhood that cops had shot a kid.

I normally covered the Minneapolis mayor's office and city council. I'd never worked a police beat in my life and didn't have a clue how to handle a simple burglary, let alone an explosive situation. Nonetheless, the paper wanted all west-of-the-Mississippi reporters on the scene. I got lost on the way, and by the time I arrived, the cops had pulled out, leaving a TV van with a damaged antenna dangling like a broken arm, some torn down yellow police tape and a lot of broken glass. People stood around in groups talking in low murmurs.

I pulled my red Honda Civic del Sol, a gem of a two-seater convertible, into the parking of a convenience store, which was lit up like a surgical suite. Wearing shorts, a T-shirt and my 15-year-old Birkenstock sandals, I got out of my car, locking my purse in the trunk. Several people standing around eyed me, the only white person in sight, with curiosity. I looked like a lost soccer mom, except for my reporter's notebook, pen and cell phone.

I seldom worked nights and my first thought was to wonder what time was deadline. Clearly I wasn't going to have time to write a story, so I called the newsroom and started to dictate what I saw. I was in reporter mode and it didn't occur to me to be frightened.

I saw someone run away from a car and moments later a fire kindled inside. The crowd saw it too, and began to gather around while the fire grew. Soon the car was fully engulfed and I was afraid the branches of a huge maple tree the tree would catch fire, and then the house behind it. People watched like it was the Fourth of July as the car exploded. Fortunately, the fire burned out without touching the tree.

As I stood in the parking lot the manager of the convenience store walked up to me and asked, "Who are you?" Then he told me he had dragged a man who had been beaten into the store. Mohamed Somebody, the manager, had called 911 a couple of times to say the man needed medical attention, but no one was coming.

We were standing under the bright lights of the parking lot when we heard gunshots. Bang, bang, bang. It sounded like they were feet away. That’s when I realized I was in danger. I looked at Mohamed, he looked at me, and we both hustled into the store, careful to stand away from the windows. I envisioned spending the night surrounded by Blue Bunny Ice Cream.

Inside the store, I met , a StarTribune reporter, a competitor who had taken a brick in the back of his head. He was incoherent, asking me over and over again, "Who are you?" He asked where he was, and how he had gotten there. I answered his questions and then he'd start them all over again.

After what seemed like a very long time, three or four police cars pulled up in front of the store, blue and red lights flashing. Officers with shotguns and a big dog poured out like the cavalry coming to the rescue. One came to the door of convenience store, talked to the manager, looked at incoherent reporter, then asked me, "Who are you?" I was beginning to get used to the question.

She escorted the two of us to the back seat of the patrol car and shut the door. I looked out the window and saw my car parked next to the convenience store. I'd already seen one car firebombed that night and knew mine was next. When I knocked on the window to get the officer's attention — you can't get out of the back seat of a patrol car — she told me to forget about my car for the night.

"Get it in the morning," she said. I'll just bet, I thought.

The next morning, I got another reporter to drive me to the lot outside the convenience store to pick up my car. When I got there, the bricks on the side of the store were scorched, and a man with one tooth was outside with a broom and dustpan. I learned later that the fire department had already hauled away the husk of my car, including the charred remains of my purse, which had held $200 cash, a spare cell phone and all my credit cards.

"That was my car," I said to the man who was sweeping up the last bits of metal.

He reached into the pile, pulled out the "H" hood ornament, wiped it off on his pants and offered it to me.

"I'm sorry," he said.

KnightRidder, which then owned the Pioneer Press, refused to replace my car, saying it paid reporters 36.5 cents a mile to cover gas and my insurance. Besides, I was told, if it paid for my car it would have to pay for every car that got firebombed. I wonder where else that happens. Miami?

The Pioneer Press paid for my deductible on my car and homeowners insurance – for the cash, cell phone and other stuff toasted in my purse – and an airline ticket to Chicago, where I bought another cute little convertible identical to the one that was torched. Because the cause on the claim on my homeowners’ insurance was fire, I got a letter from our company telling me to be sure to check my home’s furnace.

Ten months later I resigned the paper, not because my car was firebombed, but because it was clear management did not have my back.

Like the fiction I write these days, this story has a satisfying conclusion. My protagonist is … wait for it … a newspaper reporter whose car is firebombed. Superb detail in that passage, if I do say so myself. She has lots of adventures while juggling career, family and her passions for both. I love making this stuff up.

Where’s Billie? and Whose Hand?, both Skeeter Hughes Mysteries, are doing very well in trade paperback and ebooks, available at all bookstores, Kindle and Nook. I’m working on the third mystery right now, title to be determined.
I’m deliriously happy and feeling safe in my work. Life is good.


  1. Your life as a journalist was certainly more exciting than mine. But I know what you mean about management. It's hard to keep working for someone you don't really trust.

    Those incidents and details are what make your stories authentic and exciting though. That's why I'm getting ready to do a ridealong. You have to keep it real.

  2. I thought the story in your post sounded familiar, Judy. It was a great scene in your book.

    Glad you're safe . . . and only write about danger.

  3. Great story, Judy! A real nail-biter! But you say, "I love making this stuff up." Was this story made up, too? I can't tell. Either way, what a close call!

  4. @ Jodie:No. I did not make up any of the post. All truly happened. And more.
    @Peg: Yes, my true experience was the basis of a scene I wrote for Where's Billie? Best researched car-firebombing passage you're going to find anywhere.

  5. Fascinating story, Judy! I've dealt with unfeeling employers before, and they sure know how to make an individual feel helpless.

    I'm sorry about your car, but I'm sure glad you're okay!

  6. As a former television journalist, I can say with complete confidence: man does this sound familiar. I saw a lot during my time there and miss very little of it. I remember coming home from vehicle fatalities with blood on my sneakers. Not pretty. Of course, all of it formed the perfect springboard for my career as a fiction writer. As I'm sure you can attest, Judy, life really is much stranger--and it sure makes for great novels.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.