March, 1976
  • March, 1976
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When he died four months ago. James Edward Morris. Jr., had his fingers on top of the wall that successful people stand on. He was climbing, then he fell. Thirty-one years old, he had just received the California Teacher Association's John Swett Award for his coverage of the teachers' strike here in June. 1977. He was a news reporter for KGB radio and worked with morning newscaster Jeff Prescott, who said. “I have one word that sums up Morris: impeccable. He knew what makes a good story; he knew how to get interviews out of people; and he was a craftsman—the best I’ve ever worked with.”

Late in September of last year he and his girlfriend. Michele LaRue drove to Salinas to visit an old friend of Morris named Maldus Alver. They had been at Alver’s apartment only a day or two when Morris and LaRue quarreled sharply, and because a recent fight between them had escalated quickly and dangerously, LaRue didn't feel like staying to see the end of this argument. She left for San Diego in her own car. but not before Morris had given her his intimate possessions: his silver bracelet, his rings, and even the brass buckle of his belt. Then he borrowed Alver s 1971 Chrysler Newport and stayed out all night with it, calling the next morning, a Friday, to say he'd found the place where he wanted to die. He said that if no one heard from him by ten o'clock Saturday morning, he would have achieved his end.

Jim Morris

Jim Morris

When the day had passed, and then the night, without a word from Morris, Alver at last called the Monterey County sheriffs, who broadcast a “BOL” (be-on-the-lookout) report. Alver said that Morris had talked about driving into the hills, which may have meant Johnson Canyon, on the eastern side of the valley where he and LaRue had spent some time. But Alver had no idea where his friend really was, for Morris’s story seems now to have been his design for throwing rescuers off the track. He didn't drive to the hills, but to a corn field fourteen miles south of town. A dirt lane, white as smoke, led him cast of Old Stage Road, then dwindled into tire ruts that ran along a windbreak of eucalyptus. A gap in this stand of trees was wide enough for the Newport, which Morris guided to a spot veiled by the trees and shoulder-high corn. From here he could see the distant road on his left, through the shaggy trees, and to his right a high white shaft that rose from the center of the field—a well outlet—and power and telephone lines that crossed overhead on the bias. Leaving the radio on to play all night, he made the most careful preparations to smother himself in the car’s carbon monoxide fumes.

Why did he kill himself? “Can I explain it?” asked his mother, Claranelle Morris, a legal secretary for Revlon in New York. She hesitated, then spoke in a clear and untroubled voice. “No, I just can’t. And not only can I not explain it, I think it’s better that I not try. There are too many things that nobody knows about Jim, and it would be a guess on my part to say why he did what he did. Of course, everyone goes back to himself to ask why this happened. Michele [LaRue] was saying that Jim was going to a psychiatrist at the time he did this, but my very personal feeling was that he was not going to be frank enough with anybody for them to help.”

He came to San Diego two years ago and was, at first, the house guest of Ernesto Gladden, now the midday disc jockey at KGB-FM. Gladden knew Morris from their days together at WIND radio in Chicago, where Morris was a reporter at the time Gladden moved into his first big assignment as an announcer. “I’ll tell you a typical thing about Jim Morris,” Gladden said. “He was the one who showed me his home town. I was new; he took me around. We ended up walking in the early morning along the North Shore, and Jim pointed to the skyline and said. ‘There it is. Ernesto. There’s your new home. This town is ready for your music. This town is ready for you.'

Gladden repaid that hospitality when Morris moved here, and Morris was happy to have it, for his first few months were difficult. He had visited here the summer before and had found it to his liking. So when Rick Leibert, program director at KGB and a friend of Morris’s from WIND, told him there might be a job for him in KGB’s news room, Morris headed for San Diego. When he arrived, however, he discovered that the job he had hoped for had already been filled. He was put to work helping the station with a door-to-door survey. “I go out for six, seven, eight hours a day—pounding the pavements like some goddamned magazine salesman,” he wrote to a friend in Chicago. And yet if the work was discouraging, it didn’t keep Morris from his natural interest—the strength of his reporting—which was to draw extraordinary conclusions from ordinary people.

“You know what breeds in the sun?” he wrote. “Paranoia. These surveys have given me time to talk to San Diegans in different phases of freak-outedness, and it seems paranoia is the thread holding the San Andreas fault together. People rage about overpopulation of the region by ‘them’ (meaning newcomer snowbunnies from the north and east), but it's difficult to meet someone who isn’t from somewhere else.”

When he wasn’t on the surveys, he took part-time reporting assignments, which kept him fairly busy, since he didn't have a car. Morris must have been the only reporter in San Diego—perhaps the only radio reporter in California history—to follow the news on a city bus. At 4:30 in the morning he used to catch the 441 bus from his cottage near Hoover High and report for a day’s work that often didn’t end until mid-evening. The news director, Lew Rogers, called him “the amazing Jim Morris.”

The first time I saw Morris he didn't seem so much amazing as outstanding, in the proper sense of the word. The scene was a press conference called by the San Diego Labor Council, which proved so useless that a television crew (I can’t remember which) wondered loudly if they should even set up their camera tripod. But there was Morris, asking questions with verve and striding from one end of the room to the other. His size was prominent—not overly tall (five-eleven), but thick everywhere you looked, from his Afro to his feet. Clearly he had mastered the journalist's task of being heard in a crowded room, and of starting a friendly conversation from nothing. Whenever he spoke he gave the impression (by his smile, his eager eyes) that what he was going to say next would be funny. His eyes looked completely soft brown, with little white in them, and his nostrils flared. This man who was chosen to play Santa Claus at a KGB Christmas party looked fierce as a totem god when he didn’t smile. And he used his smile; he had a practiced air of being exactly as refined as he wanted to be. He was the up-to-date Hemingway character, the urban Nick Adams, whose passions were boxing and bullfighting, and yet whose preference was always fish over red meat and jazz over rock and roll. He asked one of his girlfriends in town, who belonged to the National Organization for Women, if NOW approved of his newscasts. “He really cared what we thought of his reporting," she said, quite touched. (This woman insisted on withholding her name for what she said were political reasons.)

He was usually seen in tweed pants and an ordinary dress shirt; he smoked a pack or two of Camels a day; wanted to lose weight from time to time; drank Dos Equis and gin to excess; smoked good pot; snorted cocaine on election night (according to the woman from NOW); and was found at his autopsy to have four, perhaps five, apparent needle punctures on the middle of his right forearm (which proved inconclusive as there was no drug paraphernalia in the car and no alcohol or baneful drugs in his blood—apart from the carbon monoxide, which had saturated the hemoglobin at 72.4 percent).

I remember him best at a dozen press conferences for the way he asked his questions, his superb delivery. He smiled at the same time he projected outrage, and his queries were more like accusations— challenges to the news source to say one single thing that was worthy of attention. “Jim didn’t always know what he was talking about, but he knew what he wanted,” said one of his former colleagues.

I remember a press briefing on school integration, where Dr. Oscar Kaplan explained the results of a public-opinion survey, which cost the district $22,000 and which said white parents would rather leave town than send their offspring to schools where half the children are Chicano or black. These same parents, though, favored voluntary integration where one-third of the students could be minorities.

Morris, who was seated at a pupil’s desk in the front row of the briefing room, rose and asked Kaplan what the survey really said. Didn't it say that white parents think it's fine to import minorities to white schools, so long as not too many of them agree to ride the bus?

“Things have really turned around for me since our last communication.” wrote Morris the week he was finally brought on as a full-time reporter at KGB. “I’ve become the station’s 'instant expert.’ a title which carries a monster workload and a lot of ‘head up’ prestige. Not a lot of money yet, but I’m not worried anymore. I’m enclosing a copy of my promotion.” Other letters followed:

“Sunday. June 5 (1977)

“We’ve got a teachers’ strike going here—starting tomorrow—and I’m right in the thick of it....

“Friday, June 10

“It might be difficult for you to believe, but this is the first time I've had a chance to write since I started this epistle six days ago. I’m lying across the bed, exhausted to the point where it's just not possible to sleep. Since I went to sleep on Sunday evening in midthought. I've worked sixty-eight hours and have totally amazed this city . . . . Monday was the start of the teachers’ strike and I covered that sucker like a blanket for five days. I was everywhere—fourteen hours a day, average— and I got an exclusive interview with the school superintendent after he had just been stabbed in the back by a school board capitulation. He wouldn’t talk with anyone, his secretary told me, but I sent him a little note and he just came out, took my arm, and let me into his office and gave me a good interview. That was my second scoop in seven days—nobody else had him—and it was a perfect end to the week.”

All the old friends and relatives who heard from Morris while he was here got the same story. He was working hard at what he wanted to do. He was happy. His abundant life included friends, an apartment, a car. But those who knew him well understood they weren’t necessarily hearing everything.

“Jim was a very secretive person,” said Sandra Pieken, 39, the woman he lived with for seven years in Chicago. “He wanted you to know where he was at as he projected the image. No more, no less.... He was an incredible guy who could talk about anything in the world except himself and his own life.”

He was raised on Chicago’s Southside, near Vernon and Sixty-fourth streets, a pan of town w here families moved around a good deal but never left the neighborhood. Jim and his younger sister Pamela were raised by their mother and grandmother; their father was murdered when Jim was in high school, about three years after his mother had divorced him. “Did he miss his dad?” his mother said. “Yes, I'm sure he did. It was one of those things he kept to himself.... For many years he gave me such a hard time that I felt he was punishing me for having left his father. But there was an old friend of mine, a contemporary of my mother, whom James would visit and talk to when he was a boy. And she told me very early on that he recognized how his father was a charming man who had a bad nature, and he saw beyond the image that his father portrayed. And so I think he knew, or understood, why our marriage went the way it did. My explanation to the children was always that it was too expensive for me to live with their father, because I wanted to hide the real reasons for the way their father was. ”

The family was centered in the church that Mrs. Morris had belonged to all her life, the Church of the Good Shepherd. “l just dumped my kids into every activity the church had,” she said, “but James was not the reliable organization person. ” She remembered the Sunday when the children had been allowed to organize the service, and when Jim himself had been chosen to deliver the sermon. She was worried, the minister was worried—no one knew what Jim would come up with. “Well,” she recalled, “he gave the most beautiful talk. Everyone was so pleased! And afterward people started asking James if he were interested in the ministry. Of course he just disappeared. He didn't take too well to this pushing.”

Chicago, circa 1969

Chicago, circa 1969

In high school he excelled at languages, Russian in particular, but dropped out three months before graduation to join the Army. “It bugged the hell out of me that he did it this way," said Mrs. Morris, who had fought him bitterly. But it turned out to be the break that saved him from the draft and Vietnam. He did his hitch in England and in Germany, where he took extension courses at the University of Frankfurt and applied himself to learning German. When he returned to Chicago at twenty-one, he had the GI Bill behind him and talked of becoming a doctor.

“I don't really know what happened,” said his mother. “I was seeing him occasionally, and never knew exactly what his plans would he. And after a while he simply ceased to talk about medical school. He changed his mind and went to the Columbia College Communications School in Chicago. I felt, anyway, that James would do well at anything that regarded talking. He had no difficulty finding a job at WIND, and was nearly an instant success.”

“He was a digger,” said Jim Boutet, a reporter who worked with Morris at WIND, if you sent him out on one story, he came back with two or three.*' But a reporter was all Morris became at the station where others in his position had regular turns at anchoring a news show. “He was basically a good guy with a lot of problems,” Boutet went on. “It was basically a racial problem, though he never talked about it. He was vastly underemployed, and probably undereducated.”

I asked his former boss, Edmund Dorsey. who is black, why Morris didn’t go farther at WIND. He said it wasn’t race that held Morris back, but his temper and his reading voice.. “Jim was then in his younger days.” he said, excusing the tantrums that made Morris infamous. Slugging a rival reporter or throwing an ashtray at a studio engineer who had botched one of his tapes—these stories made good telling for Morris after the fact, but for the moment they made only enemies. And however much he worked at perfecting what one friend called “the three voices of Jim Morris”—his Northside voice for mixing with whites, his Southside voice for talking with neighbors, his studio voice for talking to both—he never succeeded, in Chicago at least, in sounding smooth enough to qualify (in broadcast talk) as “a talent.” “He didn’t have the knack of reading a newscast as though he weren’t reading it,” said Dorsey. And so he was never a permanent anchorman.

In the end, he nearly got away with taking one of the station's cars on his five-day vacation. Instead, Dorsey let him resign, and there was no other job for him in Chicago. “People knew, I think, that he was good,” said Dorsey, “but they didn’t want to handle uncontrollable Jim.” Barely twenty-five, he was out of work in his home town, in the one business he knew well. “Was he frustrated?” said Sandra Pieken. ‘‘When somebody couldn’t call a cab on Michigan Avenue because he was black, and had to wait around the corner while his girlfriend called the cab—yeah, you could say he was frustrated.”

He settled into a job at Pieken’s candle shop on North Clark Street and spent the next four years at it. The two of them worked together in the daytime, went home together at night, and had their share of fights. “He had a lot of anger,” she recalled, “and drinking brought it out. It didn't make him happy; he just went into himself.... And he picked up things from his father—you beat your wife, you beat your girlfriend. I think he would have done the same to anyone he cared about

She remembered the morning he jumped from the breakfast table to chase a purse snatcher down the street. (He nabbed him on a bus.) And she remembered the night he cracked a beer stein over a man s head. “There were different sides to him, but he didn’t reveal any of them completely.” she said. “I went to several psychiatrists with him, but it was impossible. He didn't think it was doing any good. In many ways Jim didn’t believe that the psychiatrist's way of thinking was right.”

I asked his sister, twenty-eight-year-old Pamela, who lives in New York with her two children, whether Morris in some ways sought to follow after his father. She said. “I have seen the same thing in other men, where one side of them says they don't approve of what their father was doing, and at the same time they try very hard to act that way, to be exactly that side of the man.” But then she demurred and said she didn’t know her brother as well as a sister might. Her brother didn’t talk about himself to anyone, least of all to her and their mother.

In San Diego, almost none of Morris’s friends were willing to talk about him, some out of a sense of loyalty and others out of fear that this story might defame them as well as him. As a result, the last events of his life seem sketchy and not well connected. He continued his work at KGB with documentaries on illegal aliens, boxing, bullfighting, brush fires, and early-morning life in San Diego; and only his closest friends know (presumably) what tipped him toward depression in the middle of last summer, and committed him to suicide.

Michele LaRue saved his life in the first attempt. Just before dark on July 12, a Wednesday, she put his clothes and belongings on the front lawn of her house on Dubois Drive in Clairemont. He hadn’t paid his rent for a month, and moreover, he’d been intolerably ill-tempered for weeks. She couldn't say why—perhaps because he seemed to be under pressure at the station, working longer hours than usual. Anyway, she'd had enough. She went out with friends that night at 9:30 and locked the door behind her.

Some time before two a.m. Morris broke into the house and found a note from LaRue saying their relationship was over. He called a mutual friend, Hollis Gentry, and asked him if he’d seen LaRue. (Gentry later told an investigator that Morris had been drinking and sounded depressed.) Morris said he was going to kill himself and bum the house down, which gave Gentry reason to think for a moment, then rush to LaRue’s house by a quarter to three. LaRue meanwhile had already come home to face Morris, who had hit her on the head with his fist and threatened her with a steak knife. By the time Gentry came through the door, however. LaRue was holding an ice pack to her head and Morris was fairly calm. (She waited till his back was turned, snatched up the knife, and hid it in the bathroom.) At last the two of them left Morris in the house and walked out to Gentry’s car. Morris then joined them outside with a note that he gave to LaRue and told her to read alone The police report said Morris wrote, in effect, “You and Hollis killed me.”

Morris' note

Morris' note

They drove around the block wondering what to do, and when they saw the house again they noticed that Morris had turned all the lights out. Instead of entering the darkened house, they raced to the fire station at Clairemont and Cole and banged on the dormitory window. A little while later Morris was found semiconscious in the back bedroom, with three fires burning in the house. “Another three, four minutes” and Morris would have died, wrote investigator Jim Raines (whose report, along with information from other city documents, provided the basis for this account). LaRue and Gentry followed their friend to Clairemont Community Hospital, and when they saw him again he was his restored-to-usual self—telling the attending doctor how to do his job.

The following day, in an odd reversal of roles, Morris the reporter was interviewed in his hospital bed by fire investigators, who asked him bluntly why he’d done it. Calm and relaxed, he told them he didn’t know why. He’d been drinking that night, he said, and “just freaked. ’’ He told them, too, that he’d been working sixteen-hour days and had been under pressure at the station and at home. (At KGB, general manager Jim Price and program director Leibert refused to discuss the details of Morris’s work either before or after the fire, saying that they had been misquoted and mishandled by this newspaper in the past.)

LaRue, for her part, said she didn’t want him punished for having hit her or threatened her with the knife. She said he needed attention; and Morris himself, on July 14, the day before his thirty-first birthday, told two investigators that he would ask for a psychiatric evaluation that day. (The hospital would not confirm whether he asked for or received that kind of help.)

Now he faced a felony charge of arson, and went some way toward ignoring it. He missed his arraignment in August, notice of which found its way to the San Diego Union and resulted in an article which appeared August 8. It was the first public disclosure of the incident. (Not even his colleagues at work were aware of the fire until the Union's story. That paper's account, however, did not point out that Morris was inside the house he’d attempted to burn down.) The arraignment vas rescheduled for September 14, and his time Morris was represented by attorney Michael Richter, who had him plead lot guilty, but who intended to argue the case later on the basis of Morris's insanity—not an easy case to build for a nan so much in control of his job and his appearance. Morris's life went on as usual while his attorney was stalling for time, waiting for a higher court to release a decision that, as expected, relaxed the definition of insanity to include defendants who could not stop themselves from committing an act they knew was wrong. A hearing was set for October 16, about two weeks after the end of what was supposed o have been Morris’s vacation.

Then on the night of September 25, when Morris had been gone three days rom his work at KGB, the Monterey bounty Sheriff’s Department sent two cars out on a call of suicide in progress. These cars turned out to be a metaphor of journalism: lights Hashing and sirens wailing, hey rushed to view a scene they could neither alter nor prevent. Morris had been lead more than a day.

“I talked to him the night before he lied,” said Sandra Picken from Chicago. She said it had been an “up” conversation. “He asked if I could contact some fiends in Chicago because he didn’t have heir telephone numbers. He said his work vas going well and he mentioned some awards that he'd won. “ She said he turned ad for only a moment when he told her of laving to kill Charlie, an Airedale he’d brought from Chicago. He said they’d been walking in an alley near his apartment when the dog was hit by a car. “Jim said he vent up to the dog and saw its bones were broken . . . and he said he broke its neck, and I believed him. I don’t know whether t’s a true story, but I believed it, because t’s something Jim could do and it's the kind of thing that could happen to him.”

KGB, informed of Morris’s death Sunday the 24th, delayed broadcasting the news till the following Wednesday; meanwhile, the first public notice appeared in the Salinas Californian of September 25. The article contained one error of observation. It said Morris had left suicide notes, when in truth the notes he'd written had nothing to do with himself. To he end he was well intentioned without being open, for the notes said only: “Car belongs to Maldus Alver,” and gave his fiend’s telephone number. The same issue, incidentally, carried front-page news of the crash of Flight 182, and on page five, a short article describing the first day of medical school for Allan Bakke.

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