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Why a national story? It's a mystery - Bob Paslay

Everyone loves a mystery. That is why local crime stories make it to the national attention. Take the latest one of Lori Hacking, who went missing while jogging in Utah.

Did her husband have anything to do with it? Did he lie about plans to go to medical school in North Carolina? If he didn't do it, where is she?

If you read a number of newspapers there are thousands of crimes a day across America. Some get a big splash locally and some capture the imagination of the nation and continue to be the focus of massive attention.

This is the 10th anniversary of the Susan Smith murder case in my home state of South Carolina. In case you don't remember, Susan Smith worked in the small upstate town of Union and was the mother of two beautiful energetic children.

She tells the sheriff's office she is out driving in a remote, deserted section of the county and a man comes up at the intersection and forces himself into the car and drives off with her two children in the backseat.

By morning she is crying and begging the man to bring the children back. As she cries, we cry. And she pleads, we plead. We see birthday video of the children. We hold our breath.

I was at a daily newspaper that never covered that county but as it became apparent a local story was fast becoming a national story we swarmed the county like other reporters.

All the while we were praying and hoping and crying, the children were strapped into their car seats in the car in the bottom of John D. Long Lake. Susan Smith, a woman with a troubled, abused past, had let the brakes off and watched as the car bobbed a second and then sank.

Where are the kids, we wondered? The mystery aspect kept us riveted and once it became a national story it stayed on.

No one, especially the women who later wanted to rip Susan apart limb by limb, will ever forget the anger felt when we found out she had been playing us, crying while she knew her children were dead.

Even veteran newspaper people can't always predict when a story will capture the attention of America and become a national story. But you can often guess and be right. The story has to have just the right elements.

Susan Smith's kids could be your kids or my kids. How can a mother or father sleep or function, knowing their kids are out there somewhere? Sometimes it is like the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. But we understand that more, a national hero or celebrity. That is what happened in the O.J. killing and in the Michael Jackson molestation charges. But if a story has elements we all understand, a shooting in a crowded national chain restaurant, a missing family member, then it has the potential to capture national attention. But it doesn't always. Other mothers killed their kids before and after Susan Smith. Other people went jogging or walking and disappeared.

In my reporting days, I was in the courtroom when a judge faced three young men charged with a brutal rape of a woman in a hotel room. One of the men lured her to the hotel because she was the mother of one of the men's children. Every rape is a horrible act of violence, but this one was so brutal that it still chills me to write about it now.

The judge sentenced them to a long sentence but added at the end of sentencing that he would suspend the sentence if they agreed to be castrated. I was a warm human being but became a block of ice as the words rolled out of the judge's mouth. I remember like slow-motion turning in the jury box where reporters and other sat during sentencing and looking at the sheriff. He was in shock. We all were in shock.

And then after my story ran it moved to the Associated Press and then it became a world story, not just a national story. Japanese television crews came in, reporters from the nation came into the middle-sized city of Anderson just over the Georgia border. National debates on rape and castration sprang up on talk shows. I remember a reporter for the New York Times coming over from the Atlanta bureau and asking if he could buy me lunch to talk to me about the story. Let me tell you, when a New York Times reporter asked you, you don't refuse. My television friend Paul Brown asked me to hold a mic for him in front of the defendants as we interviewed them outside the jail after the sentence and that picture in Time Magazine included my hand (look, take fame where you can get it.) Eventually the sentence was overturned and changed to long jail sentences but not before the world had explored the story.

Now because of the always hungry, never satiated, 24-7, got to fill up time national television media we are often worn out by a story before it runs its course.

Why, weary viewers ask, can't you stop talking about that story? Because once it becomes a national story, it won't go away until the mystery is solved or another, better mystery comes along.

Bob Paslay is assistant managing editor for the News Daily and Daily Herald newspapers. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753 Ext. 257 or at bpaslay@news-daily.com.