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The Killing of a Journalist

Former Express reporter Chris Thompson recalls a fallen colleague and his own days on the run.

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Last week, a man in a ski mask confronted Oakland, California, journalist Chauncey Bailey as he was walking to the downtown offices of the Oakland Post. The man raised a sawed-off shotgun and fired a round into Bailey's torso, then stood over him and fired a second round into his head.

The next day, more than two hundred police officers raided two homes and a bakery in North Oakland, tossing stun grenades through the windows before dawn. The bakery was the headquarters of the Yusuf Bey family, Oakland's most militant and allegedly violent black nationalist sect. Within hours, police say, a bakery employee confessed to murdering Bailey in retaliation for a series of stories he was preparing on the family's financial problems and alleged criminal history. The story made national headlines, in part because of the brazen murder of a reporter.

This isn't the first time Chauncey Bailey had run afoul of the Bey family. A few years earlier, members of the sect threatened to kill him for running stories they didn't like. I know, because he told me so in 2002. I interviewed Bailey while conducting my own investigation into the Bey family's history of alleged violence and fraud for the Express. I soon got a taste of what he was talking about.

For thirty years, Yusuf Bey and his followers built an empire of bakeries and security companies around the Bay Area, but an ominous air of menace and violence always surrounded them. In 2002, after family patriarch Yusuf Bey was arrested on charges that he raped a thirteen-year-old girl, my Express series reported that Bey family members had allegedly unleashed a wave of murder, rape, and fraud on Oakland, and the city's leaders praised them and gave them million-dollar loans in return. In one instance, Bey family members allegedly tortured a man for four hours, beating him with a police flashlight, burning his fingertips with hot knives, and trying to drown him in a toilet. For years, the Bey family allegedly beat and terrorized helpless black residents of low-income apartments they controlled, but the authorities never bothered to stop them. Yusuf Bey raped and sodomized at least four young girls, including his own foster daughter. Officials with the county's Child Protective Services knew all about it, but did nothing.

The day after the last story ran, the payback started. A young man called and said he had more stories about Yusuf Bey's taste for rape. I told him I was moving on to other stories, but he wouldn't take no for an answer. He drove to the office and asked to see me, and I foolishly walked out to the lobby long enough for him to get a good look at my face. Feeling a little hinky about the man's strange grin, I told my editor Steve Buel I was taking the day off, and he agreed to drive me home. While waiting for his car outside the office, I noticed a red minivan that looked out of place, but no one appeared to be behind the wheel. When I jumped in Buel's car, the same man rose up from underneath the dashboard. He was trying to follow me home.

Buel gunned the engine and trapped the car in place, told me to memorize the license-plate number, and swung back to the entrance. We jumped out and called the cops, and I spent the night at what you might call an undisclosed location.

After that came the phone calls. "Mr. Thompson, I just want to say that your days are numbered," one man said. "You fucked up for the last time, and your time is up." A woman called my voice mail, screamed obscenities, and advised, "Maybe you want to take a trip." Another woman simply said, "Hello, Satan," and hung up. Someone played one of Yusuf Bey's more inflammatory sermons into my phone. A few weeks later, another man growled, "We haven't forgot about you."

Meanwhile, the Bey family was going through some changes. Yusuf Bey had died of complications from cancer, and his heirs — Yusuf had at least 42 children — started struggling for control of his business empire. In the spring of 2004, the badly decomposed body of Waajid Bey, the CEO of the family's security company, was found in a shallow grave in the Oakland Hills. "It's not the death threats I mind," I joked with friends. "It's the credible death threats."

Every week, I'd get the same creepy phone call. Someone would call me at precisely 5 p.m., when I would presumably leave work. As soon as I said hello, the caller hung up. I thought, "Are those fuckers staking out the routes I take home?" My colleagues (including Rob Harvilla, now the Village Voice's music editor) would drive me from work, using cars I hoped the Bey family wouldn't recognize.

Finally, they took to staking out the lobby and following me when I left work — at least, they thought the guy they were following was me. Two goons fixated on an ad sales representative who bore a resemblance to me and chased him around town twice. On the second occasion, when they realized they had the wrong man, one of them pulled up to the car and said, "Where's Chris Thompson?" Whenever I talked to the Oakland police about my troubles, they all said the same thing: We hate those bastards, but there's nothing we can do until we pin something on them.

Needless to say, I'd had enough and headed for the tall grass. I spent several months out in the countryside of Northern California, reporting and writing my column from an old hunting lodge. At night, I drank and played liars' dice at a bar with old cowboys and race-car mechanics, and tried to figure out what to do with my life.

Eventually, the goons got bored hunting for me, and I slowly returned to the office full-time. Chauncey Bailey wasn't so lucky, but he fought the good fight against bad men. Despite the ongoing homicide epidemic, Oakland has slowly been emerging from its long, dark era of corruption, crime, ineptitude, and poverty. If city leaders manage to successfully prosecute the Bey family, they'll have cut a big tumor out of the city's heart.

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