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Tucson Weekly Surprise, Surprise

Life Is Full Of Twists And Turns. And Some Of Them Are Sinister.

By Jeff Smith

FEBRUARY 8, 1999:  LIFE IS FULL of surprises. We know this because somewhere in Valhalla there's a cozy kitchen with a pot of chicken soup simmering on the stove and a needlepointed sampler on the wall behind the stove, next to the match safe, just below the clock in the shape of a cat, with the tail that wags back and forth, tick-tock, in time with the seconds, and it says:

"Life is full of surprises."

Only for most of us it doesn't seem that way.

Despite the conventional wisdom of the ages, despite the stats, despite the embroidery of the Gods, most of us appear to lead lives of unremarkable ordinariness. All that exciting, unusual, sometimes scary and unpleasant stuff happens to the other guy. We read about it in the papers, see it on the tube. The bad news is, you don't win the lottery or get caught by the paparazzi sneaking into a motel with Pammy Anderson. The good news is, you don't get raped and left for dead by some baby-faced kid who picks up Radio Marti on the fillings in his teeth.

Until you do.

At which point the only clues you have as to how to make your next move come from the movies, cop shows and pulp novels you've consumed. Despite the fact that, statistically, most of us eventually are going to be a victim of crime or a witness to it, despite the fact that, hey, life is full of surprises, when it finally, almost inevitably, happens to us, we're unprepared, unschooled, often unable to cope.

Surprise!

Norah Booth has led a life full of little surprises. She's been married, she's been divorced. She went to high school in a prosaic American small town, she went to work in Paris. She's been a photo-journalist, she's been a clown. Seriously: a trained, red-nosed, baggy-pants clown. She's lived all over Europe, all over the United States of America, all over Tucson. She's got ex-boyfriends who, if I told you their names, you'd say, "I've heard of him." And in every instance, her own curriculum vitae makes better reading than his.

So you might think life wouldn't have much to show Norah Booth that she couldn't handle with calm self-assurance.

You wouldn't be taking into account the October morning she took her dog for a walk in the riverbed and found the near-naked body of a murdered teenage girl. I guess maybe Norah spent too many of her formative years in the genteel society of Old World Europe, but this little surprise hit her with the force of a blunt trauma to the psyche. Not enough violent movies, not enough reality-based TV series, not enough newspaper reporting and photo-journalism: Norah Booth was sucked into the vortex of an ugly and protracted descent into the dark side of human behavior, and it gave her the night-frights.

The first thing she did was call 911. The second was stand there at the scene of the crime, wondering why the cop seemed to be working so hard at making small-talk, keeping her there, keeping her engaged, keeping her mind occupied, her mouth going, until a couple of ladies showed up to sit her down and talk her down and tell her that this whole episode might get to be her personal nightmare and that there were sources of support available to her.

How right they were.

Somewhere in there the thought flitted by that she was a reporter by inclination and training, and that eventually she might need to make more than mere anecdotal personal notes and snapshot images for her memory file of this remarkable surprise in her life. The thought came and went. It went unremarked, fortunately, as far as the law-enforcement machine was concerned, or her role in the unfolding melodrama might have been infinitely more of a stretch. It was perplexing enough, she noted later, when the prosecutors told her that as a witness in the case, she was not entitled to sit in on every court proceeding that piqued her curiosity or challenged her self-conflicted feelings of outrage and of justice.

This caught my attention and appealed to my own sense of irony. I recalled an otherwise inconsequential incident in my early schooling as an on-the-job reporter. I was covering the night cop beat at The Arizona Daily Star in 1968 and witnessed a 10-30. That's a traffic accident with fatalities. I stopped my car, yelled to another witness to call the cops, saw that one victim was dead and another uninjured, and started taking notes. I had the name of the dead man and his unhurt companion, plus the ID of the other driver, descriptions of both cars, and a consensus replay of the accident, plus some heart-wrenching quotes, before the police and paramedics arrived. I gave my story to the cops and was back in the newsroom before deadline, excited, proud of myself, and ready to hit the front page with a lively account of death on an otherwise ordinary Thursday night.

My editor smiled and dropped the story in the wastebasket.

"Sorry, Hotrod, but we'll have to let Harvey pick it up day-side, after the cops have filed their paperwork."

That's when I learned that for all the lip-service paid to first-person accounts of events, of eliminating extraneous filters between the fact and the report of it, of the importance of consulting primary sources in any news story, there is nothing more useless, frustrating and impotent than being a reporter in the middle of an official investigation.

You've got to keep your mouth shut and wait for the police to fill in the blanks with their variation on the old joke that travels around the room at a party, one mouth to another ear, half a dozen times, finally scribbled out in wretched cop-speak.

So Norah Booth went where and when she was allowed, listened to what she could, told what she knew, got to know the victim's story, her family, the man who faced trial for her murder, his story--and the whole sad, sordid, scary and ultimately stupid pattern of street life that ultimately contributed to the death of Salena Kahl and the trial of Jamie Givens.

And she woke up alone and scared in the middle of the night with the killer's face before her, and she went to a counselor, who sent his bills to the county, only the money is running out for that program and for others that help victims and witnesses get over their nightmares and into the daylight on the other side.

And finally, for therapeutic reasons and because it's what she does--when she isn't wearing a red nose and big shoes--she wrote the story of Salena and Jamie and their survivors, family, friends, and sold it to The Weekly. I've read it. It's a hell of a story, well-told. As I scrolled through it on my laptop I could see I was getting toward the bottom and wished there were more of it to read. So I talked to Norah on the phone about angles she couldn't, or wouldn't include for print.

I doubt if she wants to spend the rest of the millennium on the phone with her fans, but you can read what I read and draw your own conclusions. Norah's story will be in one of the February editions, and Salena's killer will be sentenced before that month is over. If I were you I'd be there.


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