This is not the Christmas story that I wanted to write about, today, but The Los Angeles Times has raised a question that makes it, for me, a must cover for this weblog. But first, here is the top of the Associated Press report about Bruce Pardo, the man in the Santa suit who shot up that Christmas Eve Party in suburban Los Angeles.
COVINA, Calif., Dec. 25 -- Stinging from an acrimonious divorce, a man plotting revenge against his ex-wife dressed up like Santa Claus, went to his former in-laws' Christmas Eve party and slaughtered at least eight people before setting the house ablaze and, hours later, killing himself, police said.
Bruce Pardo's ex-wife and her parents remained missing after the rampage, and it was feared their remains were among the ashes of the house. Pardo allegedly used a bizarre homemade device that sprayed flammable liquid before igniting the fire.
Pardo, 45, had no criminal record and no history of violence, according to police, but he was angry following last week's settlement of his divorce after a marriage that lasted barely a year.
The emphasis in the lede for this story is on the best explanation for why this man did what he did. Of course, no one is certain at this point. The Associated Press did the cautious thing and quoted simply quoted authorities about this -- tragically -- logical motive.
Meanwhile, the New York Times report focused on the details of the crime and that was pretty much that.
COVINA, Calif. -- A man in a Santa Claus outfit opened fire on a Christmas Eve gathering of his in-laws in this Los Angeles suburb and then methodically set their house ablaze, killing at least eight people and injuring several others, the authorities said Thursday.
Shortly after the attack, the gunman, identified as Bruce Jeffrey Pardo, 45, killed himself with a single shot to the head at the home of his brother in the Sylmar section of Los Angeles, the police said. In addition to the eight people whose bodies were found in the ashes of the house here, none of whom were identified, at least one other person was thought to be missing, and perhaps as many as three. Among the total of dead or missing were the couple who owned the home and their daughter, the estranged wife of the gunman, the police said.
Again, this is pretty standard material in early reporting about a tragic event that left the key participants dead. There is much work to be done to learn the details, let alone the motive.
As the local newspaper of record, the Los Angeles Times gave this story more effort and more space. It is not surprising that the editors and reporters found more details. What surprised me was the decision to base the lede on, well, the killer's religious identity.
If there is a motive at this point, police are pointing at the breakup of this marriage. But in the Times we get this interesting choice for a lede, which sets the stage for the deadly party:
As he had in years past, Bruce Jeffrey Pardo volunteered to serve as an usher at his church's midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
Pardo, however, was miles away from the Holy Redeemer Catholic Church as the religious service got underway. He had driven a rental car from his home in Montrose to the Covina home of his ex-wife's parents. Shortly before 11:30 p.m., dressed as Santa Claus, he approached the front door with a large, wrapped package.
What is the connection between the Mass and the killings?
Well, there really isn't one, except for the fact that this symbolic details tells us something about how much Pardo appeared to have veered away from his normal life. The detail is valid, I think, a variation on the "He was such a nice man, I can't believe that he did this" imagery that often appears in the wake of these kinds of tragedies.
Sure enough, the story offers these details near the end:
Recently, Pardo had been living in the Montrose home alone, said Det. Antonio Zavala. Court records show that his wife divorced him last September. He "was apparently going through a bad time in his marriage," Covina Police Lt. Pat Buchanan said.
Neighbors said that Pardo had lived in the house with his wife, Sylvia, 43, and her three children for a few years, until she and the children moved out last spring. The family was often seen walking their dog in the neighborhood.
Pardo, several neighbors said, was a quiet, unassuming man who enjoyed tending his garden and regularly ushered at the evening Sunday Mass at Holy Redeemer.
"Bruce?" said an incredulous Jan Detanna, the head usher at the church, when told about the attack by a reporter on the phone. "I'm just -- this is shocking. He was the nicest guy you could imagine. Always a pleasure to talk to, always a big smile."
So here is my question: If you were writing this lede, which details seem to be the most crucial in setting the stage for this massacre?
Is it the painful divorce or his role as a Catholic churchman? In a longer story, the shocked responses of people at his church are important. I know that. But is this the lede? That's the question, for me. This was a strange choice, to say the least.