Alone in a historic house, Waas used e-mail and the phone for companionship. At one point he boasted to Keefer in an e-mail that he’d developed a stock mantra for some of his sources: “You like sooo have the right to remain silent. You like sooo have the right to an attorney. You like sooo very much need an attorney.”
Waas’ musings sometimes drifted away from hard-nosed journalism into more introspective territory. He confided how “hard it was for him to just function as a human being,” Keefer recalls.
And in his most candid moments, gripes from stories long ago archived on Nexis would come roaring back—against old editors, old newspapers and magazines. “He felt like there were a lot of evil people who had done bad things to him—former employers, people he had made enemies of,” Keefer says. “He talked about how he had been really successful at a young age, how he was a Pulitzer finalist. But he hadn’t continued to have that kind of success. And he was obviously really struggling with that.”
Evidently he was also struggling financially. In 2003, says landlord Franklin Wassmer, Waas started bouncing rent checks. Wassmer says Waas would call to say he was dropping by a check right now and then wouldn’t. “He said he was close to a book deal,” he recalls.
By February 2004, Waas owed roughly $16,000 in back rent and fees, triggering a protracted landlord-tenant dispute that would span two case files. Faced with eviction, Waas responded by claiming that the house was in need of repairs. These purported defects, Wassmer says, were either minor, bogus, or Waas-made. “He had difficulty changing light bulbs,” he explains.
The court cases set the stage for bizarre cloak-and-dagger encounters between the journalist and his landlord. In one instance, according to the landlord, Wassmer showed up at the house with a work crew—at a pre-arranged, Waas-approved time—only to find that the locks had been changed. He rang the doorbell several times. Waas didn’t answer, so Wassmer ended up crawling through a kitchen window.
As the landlord got to work, he found Waas ambling down the stairs. Evidently he had been in the house the entire time.
When landlord and tenant would meet face-to-face, there was no danger that their interaction would be lost to history. Waas came to the meetings with a tape recorder. Wassmer countered with a video camera. Wassmer says that during one of their exchanges, Waas swiped the video camera and dashed upstairs. “He just laughed as if he caught me,” Wassmer explains. Wassmer called the police.
In his account to the police, Wassmer explained that he was just trying to do repairs. The police, Wassmer says, ordered Waas to return the video camera. “[The police] noticed the condition of the place,” Wassmer recalls. “They didn’t want to come in. They said it was disgusting.” Waas returned the video camera.
Though the two parties reached an agreement on payments and repairs in October 2004, relations remained testy. As new court dates approached, Wassmer says, his tenant would call with hazy new allegations. On one day, Waas called the landlord 28 times on his home and cell phones. If Wassmer didn’t pick up, Waas filled the answering machine. “He would say, ‘I’ve taped all your conversations. I have you on record threatening me,’” Wassmer recalls.
Wassmer soon became one of Waas’ investigative projects. The reporter boasted of having talked to one of the landlord’s former co-workers, telling Wassmer that he was trying to figure out why he had left a previous job. “As if this was something—a scoop,” Wassmer says.
In February 2005, Waas “failed or refused” to make his rental payment, according to court records in Wassmer’s second eviction attempt. The reporter requested extra time to pay up, but Wassmer’s attorney rejected the request, whereupon Waas “threatened to declare bankruptcy.” A subsequent court ruling put him on the verge of eviction, and Waas followed through. Four days after the ruling, he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. Among his assets, he listed: $50 in cash, $300 in his checking account, various belongings, and “Journalistic Enterprises and Manuscripts” valued at “Unknown.”
Waas listed his 2004 income at $4,200; in 2005, he listed none. Sara’s Market, a nearby grocery, posted bounced checks from Waas on a wall near the entrance.
Editor’s Note: Months ago, when this article was still a draft, it got Washington City Paper and its staff nominated as finalists for “Worst People of 2006” by Daily Kos. Our subject, Murray Waas, has complained publicly and privately that the authors are prejudiced against him, are incapable of writing fairly and accurately about him, and have acted unprofessionally and unethically in gathering their material. He has also disputed many of the facts presented in the article.