Though I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness, I may have knocked on as many doors as the average JW. Most of them were the doors of folks whose neighbors were mired in some kind of terrible tragedy, a story-type covered with gusto at my previous, crime-obsessed workplace.
It ain’t rocket science: You get an address. You find the neighborhood, typically at midday or so when many houses are empty. You exit the vehicle, and begin the rounds. I always look for shortcuts, of course. Any human being in a driveway or wielding a garden tool gets my first friendly visit. Otherwise, it’s cold-calling, telemarketing style, except with shoe leather.
The “talk to neighbors” drill is typically a tell-tale sign of weakness. If the story lacks on-camera commentary from folks with strong ties to the principal figures in a story — victims, family members, eyewitnesses — in other words, the folks who are frequently the most reluctant figures to make public comment — then we resort to chatting with neighbors.
This invites the kind of cliched commentary that viewers of TV news are too often familiar with:
“We spoke. We said hi to each other. Didn’t know each other very well.”
“He was a quiet guy. Kept to himself.”
“We knew each other a little. He loved his mother / children / spouse.”
“Never expected this in our neighborhood.”
“He had a great dog.”
They’d known each other only two months, but Critten spilled jaw-dropping tidbit after tidbit about his allegedly homicidal neighbor.
Some of the headlines that emerged from three or four minutes on Critten’s porch:
- The murder suspect was obsessed with demons, and claimed to have “talked to” a demon as a child.
- She drove a hearse (before it stopped working, which subsequently stayed parked in the back yard).
- She’d “escaped” from a psychiatric institution (“crazy house,” as he put it).
- She’d casually informed him that she once killed somebody and would consider doing it again.
She was also covered with demon tattoos and loved loud heavy metal music. Those details aren’t shocking, but they add seasoning to the rest of the story.
“Gotta tell you, sir. I didn’t expect to hear all that,” I told Critten as I thanked him for the interview and exited his porch. I’d also interviewed two other neighbors, who provided the more predictable “I’d seen her around, but didn’t really know her” kind of material.
They didn’t make the cut.
Once, I knocked on the door of the neighbor of a murder victim. The suspect was already in custody. I needed material. The neighbor answered, and told me what he knew: “Tell you the truth, that guy was an a–hole. I’m sorry he got killed, but I won’t miss him. He was a complete jackass.”
That, too, was eye-opening. I decided not to use it.