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Capital-Gazette Shooter Sanity Trial Starts Wednesday

Associated Press photo

The man who shot and killed five people in the Annapolis Capital newsroom is to go on trial in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court Wednesday, almost three years to the day after the tragedy.

Jarrod Ramos, 41, already has admitted to the killings in June 2018. The question the jury will have to decide is his sanity at the time.

Ramos shot his way into the newsroom shortly after 2:30 in the afternoon of June 28.

A few hours later, then acting Anne Arundel County Police Chief William Krampf told reporters it had been “a targeted attack on the Capital Gazette, that is located at eight, eight, eight Bestgate Road, on the first floor.”

Krampf said the shooter “entered the building with a shotgun, and he looked for his victims as he walked through the lower level.”

Standing on a hillside just across Bestgate Road from the Capital-Gazette offices, he said the shooter was “prepared to come in” and “to shoot people.” And then the chief put on his glasses to read the list of the victims.

“The first victim’s name is Wendi Winters,” he said. “Second victim is Rebecca Smith, third victim is Robert Hiaasen, fourth victim is Gerald Fischman, and the fifth victim is John McNamara.”

Wendi Winters, a community reporter and editor spent 20 years writing about the “Teen of the Week” and local civic groups; Rebecca Smith, was a young sales assistant who hadn’t even been there a year; Rob Hiaasen, was a beloved editor, Gerald Fischman, an editorial writer, John McNamara, a veteran sportswriter.

Krampf said police took the shooter into custody without incident and seized a shotgun and some smoke grenades.

Ramos, police said, had a long-standing beef with the paper over a column that reported on his 2011 guilty plea for harassing an old high school friend online. He sued for defamation in 2012 and lost. But he continued to hold a grudge against the paper.

Not long after the shooting, reporter Chase Cook, the one who famously said, “We’re putting out a damn paper tomorrow,” went to the Anne Arundel County Detention Center to try to interview Ramos. He told NPR’s “Embedded” podcast he thought he could get Ramos to explain his reasoning.

“Because he would be willing to gloat about it,” Cook said. “And by gloating about it I could at least get into the room and listen to him. And then I could report it.”

Cook said he was willing to put up with whatever Ramos might do or say to try to intimidate him, even telling him what his friends' last words were.

“I was hoping that he would say, yeah, I did it. And then we would just write that story and be done with it.”

When Cook got there, however, he learned that Ramos’s lawyers had banned interviews with reporters.

What followed was 16 months of defense motions, court hearings and the usual back and forth before a criminal case ever gets to trial.

The first anniversary of the shooting passed and four of the paper’s survivors, Selene San Felice, Rachael Pacella, Danielle Ohl and Phil Davis shared their thoughts with WYPR’s Emily Sullivan.

San Felice and Davis talked about the community reaction to the Capital staff.

“There have certainly been really, really, really tough parts of this,” San Felice said. “But I have felt really supported and so just incredibly blessed with all the resources that we have gotten and all the people that want to hear our story.”

“It seemed like for, like, six months there was nothing but support from everywhere,” Davis added. “From like Toronto and New Jersey and then the volunteers coming in to help.”

The four recounted their tension--and joy--when they were awarded a special Pulitzer prize for covering the shooting in their own newsroom.

And Pacella talked about covering some of the preliminary courtroom maneuvering.

“People asked me, like how did you do that,” she said. “And, honestly, that didn’t affect me as deeply as when I’ve tried, more recently, to do a story about other shootings."

Then, October 28, 2019, a week before his trial was to start, Ramos pleaded guilty to the killings. But he added that he was “not criminally responsible,” Maryland’s version of an insanity plea.

Reporter Phil Davis told reporters outside the courthouse there was something good about that.

“Having to not go through this part of the trial, which would have been an argument of his guilt, certainly seems validating,” he said. “At least on my end.”

Pacella called it a “big, emotional release.”

“I definitely feel a little bit better and a little bit lighter after this plea,” she said.

But, she added, she still thinks, every day, about the friends she lost and their families.

The second phase of that trial, to determine Ramos’ sanity, was to have started in March 2020, but courthouses were shut down because of the pandemic.

Now, it’s to start Wednesday, and once again, the Capital will have to cover it, in a way, covering themselves. Rick Hutzell, the editor through all this, said like every other story that touches the community--from high school sports and arts to a tide of plastic in the Chesapeake Bay--they will pick up their coverage of this tragedy with Wednesday’s trial.

“And we have covered the trial of the man charged with the murder of our colleagues,” he told a recent regional journalism conference, a catch in his voice. “I am proud to work among these giants.

But, like many newspapers in America, they’ll have to do it with a smaller staff due to corporate cutbacks.

In early 2020, Tribune Company, which owns the Capital, the Baltimore Sun and other papers, was faced with a takeover by Alden Global Capital, a venture capital fund known for buying newspapers and slashing staff.

Tribune began offering buyouts and Joshua McKerrow, a photographer in his 40s who said he hadn’t had a raise in six years, decided to go. He told “Embedded” it would be better than waiting for Alden to take over.

“Part of the reason I took the buyout was because I thought, look if Alden comes in and gives you lay-offs, it’s just going to be put your stuff in this box and get out,” he said. “And there won’t be a chance for anyone to say nice things about you, or, hey, thank you for what you did.”

Then, two others took buyouts. Tribune closed the Capital’s new newsroom in Annapolis and told the reporters they could work out of The Sun’s offices, 45 minutes north in Baltimore.

Daneille Ohl, the chair of the Capital reporters’ union, who had fought unsuccessfully for raises, told “Embedded” she was consumed with frustration.

“The thing that makes me so angry,” she said, “is that we could bounce back from a mass shooting. But I do not know if we can bounce back and survive corporate ownership.”

Now, Alden has taken over Tribune and is offering another round of buyouts. And Hutzell, the editor who saw The Capital through its darkest days, is taking one. He said in an email that the staff was “keeping mum” about their coverage of the trial and that he was moving on, looking for new challenges.

His last day was Friday.

Ramos’ trial is expected to last at least a week. The jury’s decision could determine whether he spends the rest of his life in prison or is committed indefinitely to a state psychiatric hospital.

Joel McCord is a trumpet player who learned early in life that that’s no way to make a living.