Written by Katie Turner
Opening up the newspaper every day, only to find yet another person has been murdered is enough to bring anyone down. But rarely do we consider what it’s like to be the person on the other side of the ink. Calgary Herald crime writer Jason van Rassel has spent majority of his career knee-deep in death. For him, it’s never just a story in the newspaper.
He’s moody, irritable and aggressive. You can blame death.
Jason van Rassel has been stomping the streets, pen and pad in hand, for more than 15 years, the majority of which he has focused on crime coverage.
The beat fits.
“I’ve heard people in the newsroom say that I’m probably one of the best hard news guys we have and that’s even after all these years when I’m a little older and a little slower,” said van Rassel, who 37 and single.
As one of the lead reporters for the Calgary Herald, the city’s largest newspaper with 526,600 readers per week, van Rassel’s job is disputably one of the most important in the newsroom. “No question, (crime is) important,” said Tony Seskus, Herald assistant city editor. “Newspapers often have more opportunities to go deeper into crime and their underlying issues. It's critical we do that.”
Statistics Canada reports that Calgary has the fourth highest homicide rate in Canada and ranks the city Number 1 in terms of hate crimes. Because crime seems to be a growth industry, there’s no slowing down for the self-described “intense” reporter.
Sharply-dressed in a button down shirt and dark black sunglasses, van Rassel appears to be ready for action at all times and commands attention as he enters a room. Although not big in stature, his confident presence alone feels like it could pummel The Incredible Hulk with just one blow.
“I’m moody, I’m temperamental and (my co-workers) would say so. They’d say that I’m probably very hard to work with sometimes and it’s gotten to the point a few times at the Herald where management has felt the same way and it doesn’t matter over the years how productive I’ve been and how much I’ve brought to the paper, where it’s been a problem, I’ve been told before ‘You keep acting this way and we might not want you to work here anymore’.”
While confidence can get you a long way, in van Rassel’s case there are times when having too much of it can be detrimental. The reporter has struggled throughout his career to climb the ladder while keeping his aggressive and sometimes abrasive personality in check.
“You talk about the sports analogy— that guy is a cancer in the dressing room. I think there are times that I’ve been that cancer where it’s just toxic. You know, who wants to be around me because I’m going to bitch and moan from the time I come in to the time I leave or I’m fine till something sets me off. I think I’ve only come to realize the effect that I’ve probably had on people, well not probably, that I did have on people around me I think that it’s only in the last couple years that I’ve come to appreciate that,” said van Rassel.
For someone who’s prone to a pessimistic view of the world and has struggled with depression, covering death almost everyday can weather even the toughest of exteriors.
“Are we miserable by nature and we’re drawn to journalism or does journalism make us miserable?” asked van Rassel.
Recently, van Rassel finished working on one of his most extensive, in-depth stories to date. With gang violence bubbling at the surface of the city’s underground, he has attempted to dig his way into this covert society. The tumultuous time in the city is mirrored by van Rassel’s desire to take the next step in life.
Though you can tell he would be more comfortable drinking a beer, a cup of coffee does the trick. Sitting down to begin an unusual experience of being the interviewee, van Rassel mentions that he’s happy his coffee is lukewarm because he usually downs it too fast, resulting in a loss of taste buds.
This time it’s his own story he’s telling.
Growing up in suburban Toronto as the youngest (by a six-year gap) of three brothers and a sister, van Rassel said he developed a strong voice early on in life.
“I think that’s what made me an extrovert,” he said. “They talk about how birth order sometimes affects your personality, I always felt the need to be listened to and to maybe shout above the din of everybody else, so yeah I think that’s probably influenced my personality quite a bit. And also the need to be taken seriously when you’re hanging out with older people all the time, you don’t want to be talked down to.”
This strong desire to be heard teamed with an overwhelming sense of curiousity led to a constant stream of questioning about the world around him. “My mom, if you asked her, would say it was probably kind of annoying having all these questions about the world,” he said.
While the word annoying was never used, Pierrette van Rassel does describe her son’s questioning as frequent. “He was always asking questions,” she explained, and if she wasn’t able to answer a question, her inquisitive son would respond, “ ‘Well how come you don’t know? You’re a grown-up’.”
By the age of five, he was reading the Toronto Star, added his father Robert van Rassel over the phone from their Toronto home. To further feed his need to know, van Rassel took on a paper-route in elementary school, which he held until high school.
“This was back when papers came out in the afternoon still, so I’d come home and the bundle of papers would be sitting on the front porch and I’d have to go deliver them. And I’d be late because I was reading them,” he said.
His first real taste of journalism came as a writer for the campus newspaper at his Catholic high school. Within the school, there was a very active pro-life group, which gave van Rassel inspiration for a column idea. He wrote a piece based on the idea that perhaps these students should be advocates for a less divisive issue, as not everyone would ever agree on the topic of abortion. While the teacher in charge of the paper told him it was a well-written piece, van Rassel said he was still suspicious of whether or not it would run. Sure enough, the day the paper came out, van Rassel swiftly whipped through each page.
Once in the hands of the principal, his column was pulled from being printed so, he quit the newspaper, but not without getting a word in. “I still had the original typed copy and a bunch of buddies and I, there were a couple other guys who for whatever reason had things that didn’t get into the paper, we photocopied them all, all our stuff, stapled them together…and distributed them around the school, so I got the word out anyway.”
“He needed to be challenged all the time or he got in trouble,” explained Pierrette. “When he did get in trouble in school, he wouldn’t hide it from us. He would come home and say ‘You’re going to get a call from the teacher,’ and I’d say ‘What did you do now?’” This scenario of brutal honesty and the roguish desire to defy authority is what van Rassel describes as being a pivotal moment that would set the tone for much of his career.
“I thought stories were too small for me, like ‘I’m not gonna cover this bullshit story,’ sort of thing.”
One thing, and possibly the only thing that van Rassel never questioned, was the career path that he was destined for, so without hesitation, he headed to Toronto’s Ryerson University to study journalism. Graduating in the middle of a recession did not make the job hunt easy but after applying to a dozen community newspapers, he got his start in December 1993 at the Sioux Lookout Bulletin, about 300 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay.
“The newspaper was in an old house and the editor lived up stairs in one of the bedrooms and I lived downstairs in the other bedroom for probably the first eight, nine months that I lived there.” Despite being in a small town, van Rassel said he was given the chance to cover real news stories and remembers one in particular involving a mid-air collision between two small planes which he recalled killed four or five people. “It happened either on a Sunday night or very early on a Monday and Monday was our production day. We put the paper together Monday, it went down the highway to a town called Dryden about 100 kilometres away…. and then they came back by truck on Wednesday.”
Because of the late-breaking story, they missed their courier pick-up for the week. “So I drove the flats down myself to Dryden,” explained van Rassel, “about an hour down the highway, I slept in the car while the paper was coming off the press…and I actually drove a couple thousand of our papers back to Sioux Lookout on Tuesday with me so they could hit the street a day early because this was such breaking news.” In the middle of a press conference about the collision, van Rassel walked in holding the newest issue of the Sioux Lookout Bulletin, literally hot off the press.
"I’ve been told before ‘You keep acting this way and we might not want you to work here anymore’.”
After nearly a year-and-a-half, the young reporter’s attention span was fading so he went in search of a new challenge and found the city of Iqaluit in the territory of Nunavut. At that time, the decision had already been made to make Nunavut a Canadian territory, making it was an exciting time to be a reporter in what soon became the capital city. “It was a really good place to pick because we were covering really serious political stuff. I mean, they were creating a new government and I had a front-row seat.”
For the next year-and-a-half, van Rassel worked closely with the editor of Nunatsiaq News, Jim Bell, who became somewhat of a mentor. What he didn’t manage to soak up during his time in Iqaluit, however, was maturity. At 25, his ego got the best of him and he began to think that he was above covering some of the stories he was assigned.
“Basically I think didn’t value the experience as much as I should have,” he said. “I look back now and I was so itchy to get out of there and get a job at a daily that I thought stories were too small for me, like ‘I’m not gonna cover this bullshit story,’ sort of thing. Jim and I had a huge blowup one day a few months before I left and it was never the same between he and I again after that,” he said. “I like to say I wasn’t fired, and I wasn’t shown the door but they certainly pointed out where it was if I wanted to take it and so things ended that way with me deciding to leave.”
“Since we’re talking about my personal life and everything like that, much of my adult life I’ve had depression. Back then I don’t think I realized it. I was miserable and miserable to the people around me and looking back, I think those were the first signs of depression in my adult life.”
After making his exit, van Rassel than embarked on a “couch surfing expedition” back home in Toronto. During this four-month period, he headed west in pursuit of any daily newspaper that would take him, dropping off resumes in Winnipeg, Vancouver and Calgary, both at the Herald and the Calgary Sun. While he landed an interview with the Herald during the spring of 1997, the outcome wasn’t quite what van Rassel had hoped for. “(The editor’s) advice as I left was ‘Go get some experience in a place like Kamloops or Kelowna or Prince George and maybe some day you’ll be old enough to work for the Calgary Herald.”
With no bites, van Rassel headed back home only to return again to Calgary two weeks later for a seven-day trial at the Sun, at the end of which he was offered a permanent position. Making the transition from an Arctic town of 4,220 to a booming city with 936,000 residents, it was a given that almost immediately, crime stories became a key part of the job. “At the Sun, the newsroom is small enough where if you were on general assignment and you work in the city department and you’re anywhere physically near the police scanner, there’s an expectation that you learn the lingo and you learn to listen to things. So certainly early on I was getting some good crime stories,” he said.
Within the first six months, van Rassel became a junior police reporter and soon after became the assistant night city editor. “On one hand you feel like you’re the wonder kid. You know, you’re like 25 and you’ve made manager at major daily newspaper. But by the same token, I found that in that job I was second-guessed a lot. You know, they give you the job but they don’t think you’re old enough or experienced enough to make key decisions.” Because of his age, 25-year-old van Rassel got the sense that there wasn’t a lot of faith in his delegating abilities and after one of his reporters got beat on a homicide story, he was demoted to a reporter on the health beat.
In the fall of 2000, a disgruntled van Rassel approached the competition looking for a job at the Herald. It wasn’t until February of 2001 when he was flourishing on the health beat that he heard anything back. After he broke the story that a man had died of appendicitis waiting in an emergency room and also the new location of the Alberta Children’s Hospital, two of the city’s biggest stories that year, the Herald wanted van Rassel. “The day after the Children’s Hospital thing I got a call from (the Herald)…The funny thing is, when I applied back in September I was mad as hell and wanted to leave the Sun, but in February things had been improving and I was loving life again, but the Sun is this kind of up and down place.”
“The Sun was just such a volatile place, and I don’t necessarily mean this to paint a horrific picture, but yelling is common place, arguments were common place and there’s really no repercussion. If an editor yells at you, you yell back. It was almost family-like…In some ways, good, everyone wears their hearts on their sleeve, but I nearly got into a fistfight with a copy editor. I mean the worst thing that happened was Jose Rodriguez (current editor-in-chief of the Calgary Sun) stood between us and told us to cool down.”
Despite the tension of the Sun’s newsroom, the family-like mentality also made for a “very cohesive tight-knit group,” according to van Rassel, but ultimately that wasn’t enough to keep him there. “I thought the Herald is bigger, they’ve got more money and I probably have a better chance of learning different kinds of reporting and advancing my own career, so that’s why I made the jump.”
So van Rassel left the Sun after nearly four years to work at the paper’s closest competition and was put on the crime beat almost straight away. In his first week, Calgary mother, Rie Fujii left her two children alone in her apartment for 10 days and both died of starvation. Long time Sun crime reporter Peter Smith, van Rassel’s former co-worker and now competitor, was tipped off about the double homicide. “My very first week on the (cop) desk at the Calgary Herald, where I was supposed to be somewhat of a stabilizing influence, an experienced presence, we got the crap kicked out of us for a week in a row,” said van Rassel. “I’d never been beaten like that in my whole career up to that point.”
Now, eight years later, he has no doubt made up for initially dropping the ball and has only continued to hone his reporting skills and make a presence for himself in the Herald newsroom. “I first met Jason soon after I heard him shouting an expletive across the newsroom,” explained fellow Herald crime writer Sherri Zickefoose. Since 2001, Zickefoose has been working beside him and the one word she would use to describe van Rassel —“loud.”
“Outside work, Jason is just as intense and curious about how things work. This makes him an interesting person because he can talk about nearly anything. Plus he's very aware of what's happening around him. He's a very switched on guy,” she said, adding that on top of all of that, van Rassel does a dead-on impression of Horatio Caine, David Caruso’s character in CSI: Miami. While he may mock television police for fun, in reality van Rassel has an exceptional reputation with Calgary’s cops.
“You talk about the sports analogy— that guy is a cancer in the dressing room. I think there are times that I’ve been that cancer where it’s just toxic. You know, who wants to be around me because I’m going to bitch and moan from the time I come in to the time I leave…”
“Because he has been doing the police beat for so long, obviously there is a high level of trust,” said Emma Poole, communications advisor for the Calgary Police Service. “Also, we don’t worry after we have spoken to him that he’s not going to get the details correct, we just know his style and his work ethic.” In addition to working with him almost every day through the police, Poole has known van Rassel for about 10 years since her time as a reporter at the Herald. “I was kind of nervous when I first met him actually because he was pretty competitive when he was at the Sun so I was thinking ‘Oh great, who is this guy coming in? What’s he gonna be like?’ but it turns out now he’s probably my closest friend.”
After working together at the Herald, Poole got to know van Rassel outside of his tough reporter persona. Much like in his writing, telling the truth is something that Van Rassel values highly in his personal life as well. “He’s a say it as it is kind of guy and you know, you don’t often find someone like that who tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear,” said Poole. “You can go to him for anything. You make not like the answer you get back, but at least its an honest one,” she said with a laugh.
While the competitive nature of the crime beat may not always be an easy one to tackle, Zickefoose’s observations of van Rassel over the last few years have shown that it’s his attention to detail and savvy that have got him where he is today. “He was very aggressive and had a solid knowledge of his beat. He was good at his job because no matter what he got sent out to do, he succeeded. Most times beyond people's expectation,” she explained.
When tackling a story, van Rassel explains that he has one universal approach— confidence.
“I don’t have the apprehension that younger reporters do in terms of approaching somebody’s whose relatives just died or have been killed,” he said. “Don’t lard up your pitch to somebody with frankly bullshit about ‘I want to do a tribute story about your brother.’ Be honest. I’ve got a job to do, I know it’s hard to talk to me right now, but I need to know this. That has opened hundreds of doors for me. Just nothing more complicated, or clever than that.”
Although the reporting may come naturally for van Rassel, there are instances when he’s not only writing about trauma but also seeing it first hand. “There are definitely images that have stuck with me over the years that I wish, I wish hadn’t, and not even things from when I was younger, things that allegedly when I’m older I should be better able to handle it,” he said. “You can put it out of your mind in the moment when you’re writing the story but sometimes when you stop and think about it afterwards, it can be difficult.”
According to Zickefoose, “Jason’s strengths are in the details.” Even in the situations where he wishes he didn’t focus on the details, it’s obvious that the scene is still vivid in his mind as van Rassel recalls one particularly disturbing situation.
About two years ago, van Rassel was covering a car accident, recalling even the street address of the collision. The crash happened when a motorcycle collided with a van, sending the female passenger of the motorcycle through the back window of the van. “When I got there, her lower part of her torso was hanging out of the van, even though they had the tarp covering up the inside of the van, and she was wearing those striped Gap socks and her feet were just hanging there and I wish I never saw that. And as I’m telling you the story, I see it all over again,” he said, trailing off. “I’ve done multiple murders, I’ve done probably hundreds of things that on paper are more horrifying, but in terms of being in that moment and actually seeing that, I wish I never did, but I did.”
In these situations, it’s about developing coping skills, said van Rassel. “Frankly, we have an employee assistance program and I talk to a shrink. (My psychologist) said to me one time ‘I’ll guarantee that you’ve picked up on those vicarious traumas over the years from collectively witnessing all these things and being around all these people when they’re so emotional and that sort of thing.’ He said ‘Actually, I’d be more worried about your mental health if that sort of thing didn’t affect you’.”
Although it is hard at times to forget the images burned into his mind, for van Rassel, the idea that his work can give someone a voice, or provoke social change is what motivates him to continue in the field, and at the moment, all roads lead to gangs. The last few months for van Rassel have been spent interviewing several sources, and researching for countless hours all in an effort to better understand Calgary’s current vicious gang warfare.
It’s his most challenging assignment yet.
The battle between the FOB gang and the FOB Killers is one that has been raging for around seven years and has resulted in multiple murders. “This (story) is just specifically about the FOB and FK and they’re responsible for most of the shootings we’re seeing that are going back and forth. The conflict between the two gangs is responsible for more then 20 homicides since 2002,” explained van Rassel.
Because gangs seem to exist in a whole other society, getting any real information about the people involved takes an extreme amount of effort on the reporter’s part. “As much ink as I’ve spilled on it, and it’s probably more than anybody in this town, I’m still only scratching the surface,” he said. “It’s a world that, if you’re a law-abiding citizen you can’t really reasonably expect to penetrate to any large degree. You can nibble around the edges…someone might even open up the door for you to get a glimpse but you never know when it’s going to slam again.”
While the recently published feature article is the most in-depth coverage van Rassel has given the gang violence, it’s not the first time he has written about them. In the past, if he has written something that the gang members don’t like, van Rassel said they would give him a call and let him know. He said he’s never been afraid that his work puts him in danger, but he knows it would be stupid to think that threat isn’t a possibility, especially after the shooting of crime reporter, Michel Auger. Auger was gunned down in 2000 outside Le Journal de Montreal the day after his in-depth piece on Quebec’s motorcycle gangs was printed. Although Auger survived, van Rassel said, “shooting him showed that it’s certainly not inconceivable.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that between 1992 and 2008, 723 journalists have been killed in the field, nearly 32 per cent of which were print journalists. In the first few months of 2009 alone, 11 journalists have been killed while working in various locations around the world because of their reporting.
Despite the possibility of danger, van Rassel has never considered passing on a story and will continue to pursue all his assignments at full force, although crime may not be on the docket for much longer. “I’d like to probably change beats and that’s not a secret,” he explained. Taking a step out of the depths of death, van Rassel hopes to be able so showcase his strong views through writing a column. “I could work crime for 20 years and never have it cornered and mastered, there’s still so much out there. But definitely, I think everybody who’s in journalism, you crave variety and your attention span doesn’t always last. I’m an opinionated guy and I’d love to be a columnist.”
For the time being, van Rassel plans to stay in Calgary, the city that houses his close friends, current girlfriend and his job at the Herald. “As long as I keep up my streak of good behaviour and don’t make any career limiting outbursts, I’m probably employed for the foreseeable future,” he explained. As for the question that van Rassel himself posed; “Are we miserable by nature and we’re drawn to journalism or does journalism make us miserable?” For him, the answer is “I think it’s a little bit of both.”
Although covering the crime beat may be losing its appeal, van Rassel’s immense curiousity still remains. “Stories like that, where one scumbag murders another scumbag don’t excite me anymore, but here’s the thing; how did that scumbag get there to that point in their life where their selling drugs on the street, or they’re homeless or they’re hopelessly addicted to crack? There’s a story behind that.”
After 15 years in journalism, van Rassel knows that everyone has a story.