In this week's media column in the print Reader, my subject is Homicide Watch, a D.C.-based website that tracks the district's homicides. It's also into mug shots; when a suspect's collared the mug shot goes up, adding its sinister allure to the site. But the bar's set much higher than the Tribune's. The only crimes Homicide Watch cares about are homicides. And there's follow-up. Homicide Watch tracks every case through the courts.
"Mugs in the News" offers a mix of crimes. A lot of the news stories have originated in TribLocal, the Tribune's string of suburban sites, where on a slow day there's no such thing as a crime too petty to cover. As for follow-up . . .
About 17 months ago I decided on a little experiment. I spotted a mug shot of a young woman whose crime—alleged crime—was to steal a credit card and use it to buy her children food. You don't need to know her name, or see her mug shot. Maybe she was an incorrigible thief. Maybe she was desperate.
The TribLocal story reported that a woman had been pumping gas in Will County when someone snatched her wallet from her car. She reported the theft to her credit card company, and when the card was used a few minutes later at a McDonald's close to the gas station, sheriff's deputies arrived and made an arrest. They found the suspect, a 29-year-old Chicago woman, sitting in a van eating hamburgers with her two kids.
It might have been the plaintive mug shot that made me ask myself, does she need this? She got more than just her picture on chicagotribune.com. One "true crime" website ran her mug shot and a story headlined "Moron of the Day: Steals Credit Cards, Uses Them 50 Yards Away." Another crime site carried a story that began, "Today's adventure in stunning idiocy . . ."
Months later she was cited on a business site in a story headlined "14 of the Dumbest Identity Thieves." Still ahead was the acclaim given her on another business site for "The Dumbest Things Americans Did With Their Credit Cards In 2011."
But what about her case? No one's reported on that, though to be honest there's not much to tell. She was charged with identity theft under $300 and misuse of a credit card under $300. The second charge was dropped, she pleaded guilty to the first, and probation was recommended. But she still hasn't been sentenced, and because she missed a court date she's been locked up since August. Her public defender doesn't know who's taking care of the children.
Does any of this rise to the level of a news story? No one seems to think so—aside from those occasional stories that reveled in how stupid she is, I haven't found a published word about her since she was arrested. I don't think so either, but then I don't think we even needed to see her mug shot.
Since those illicit hamburgers were ordered and the lady became briefly famous, a prominent Tribune reporter was arrested on a DUI. There was no mug shot, and that was followed by no coverage of any kind. So we know the restraint newspapers are capable of when they really try.