When the Seattle Times newsroom of ink-stained bar flies was still evolving into today's serious if not somber journalists, Carlton Smith would say, between sips and drags at a bar across the street, "Jesus, these new people - they jog and eat granola. And they consider themselves reporters!" Smith was a dying breed which is now dead, as is he. The former Times and Seattle Weekly writer, 64, died Easter Sunday of unknown causes on his doorstep in Reno. True to his calling as a shoe-leather journalist, he was still living paycheck-to-paycheck.
California-born, Smith came up through the ranks - a copy boy at the LA Times where he later became a reporter, then hitting the road, writing for the Eugene Register-Guard and Portland's Willamette Week, landing here at the Times in 1983. A collection of his and Guillen's reporting on the Green River killer wound up a finalist for the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in investigations.
Free-lancing for SW, he wrote a 2002 piece, Truth or Death, about the possible execution of Green River killer Gary Ridgway, and a 2003 follow-up, The Devil We Now Know, after Ridgway was spared the death penalty. As the killer droned on, repeating his pleas to murdering four dozen humans, Smith sensed "something ritualistic, almost sacred..." in the wake of "an evil that had once seemed to be the work of the devil himself."
But it was only Gary Ridgway of Auburn, a nondescript 54-year-old painter at the Kenworth truck factory in Renton, a man so plebeian in his tastes and demeanor through the years that no one would have believed that he had murdered at least 48 women, most of them less-experienced prostitutes or runaway teens, many of them in his own house, in his own bed.
Mark Zusman, editor of Willamette Week, says he recently exchanged e-mails with Smith, who was scoping out a story in Portland. At the end of one email about his interest in writing about the topic, Zusman says, "Smith signed off with the following comment, a perfect coda to his journalistic career:"
But goddamit, reporters need to ask these kinds of questions and get answers or even denials -- otherwise they're worth nothing more than official ditto paper.