QUESTIONS WITHOUT ANSWERS

"Should we assume there are violent criminals on the loose?" asked the woman reporter from Channel 12.

This is what you might call a "sound bite" question. It is not designed to obtain information but merely to elicit an answer that will sound important on television.

They are comparable to those immortal lines in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles that still bring shivers down the spine of the reader:

"Mr. Holmes, they are the footprints of an enormous hound!" Maricopa County Sheriff Tom Agnos wasn't playing the game for astonishment, however.

"Well," Agnos said, "I think that's pretty obvious." Agnos, who is scheduled to undergo open-heart surgery later this month, was heading the 20-man investigation of the so-called "Asian hate crime," in which nine murders were committed in a matter of minutes.

They all occurred over last weekend in a white farmhouse west of Glendale that had been converted into a Buddhist temple named Wat Promkunaram.

The sheriff was dead serious. The reporter, however, was still determined to create something that would sound dramatic for the living room.

The reporter's voice boomed back again like a voice of doom for another sound-bite question: "Must the community be concerned that this will happen again somewhere else?" This time Agnos showed signs that his patience was reaching a breaking point.

"Well," he said, "I would certainly hope that something like this would not occur again." Agnos hesitated.

"This is really a very unusual crime for any part of the world. It's really a tragedy, a one-of-a-kind situation. No, I would hope that it would not occur again." Agnos then delivered a short lecture.

"Look, I appreciate the newsworthiness of this event," he said. "But I'd like you to appreciate the fact that we have an investigation going on. I'm not going to comment on certain areas. I mean I'm not going to talk about evidence we found in there or any leads we may have up to this point.

"And remember, when I tell you `No comment,' it's not because I don't like you." There were probably two dozen media people formed around the sheriff in a half circle in an area 30 feet away from the murder scene.

"Do you have any leads?" "No comment," Agnos said.
"Are there any suspects?" "No comment." "Was this an execution-style killing?" Agnos shook his head.

"`Execution-style killing' probably only has meaning in a movie or in a state prison," he said. "I would say this: The killings were very methodical." "What do you think your chances are of apprehending the people who did this?" another reporter asked.

Agnos' expression became even more determined than it had been. It was as though he had pumped himself up for this moment.

"I think this crime is so horrendous," he said, "that the community is not going to tolerate something like this. I believe we are going to get phone calls, get some information. This is really a terrible, terrible tragedy." It's early Sunday morning and the cars are lined up along the narrow dirt road for a quarter of a mile. There are more than 21 cars amd trucks here and you can't see another parked car in the area for miles.

Six television crews have set up their cameras in the driveway. There are reporters from the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Sacramento Bee. For Sam Stanton, now with the Sacramento newspaper, and Randy Collier of the Arizona Republic, it is a reunion.

Stanton, remembered for his outstanding coverage of then-Governor Evan Mecham, was in Tucson doing a story on the University of Arizona's dispute over a telescope site near Safford. He was ordered to the scene of the monks' murders as soon as the Associated Press bulletin hit his city desk back in Sacramento.

Network television reporters were on hand, too, as well as CNN. But the crowd is not as large as it would have been before the tremendous cutbacks that have hit newspapers and television news departments in the past year. Travel budgets have been slashed.

I walk toward the house in which the nine Buddhists were shot to death early Saturday morning. The sheriff's deputies have stretched a yellow tape across the driveway to keep reporters and visitors away from the crime scene.

This is the most difficult part of any crime to write about. It's Sunday. The story broke on Saturday. It was both gruesome and shocking. But the readers have already been told the most shocking part. It is always a question as to how much more they want to know.

What is left to tell now is actually more important--who did the shootings and why?

The police apparently are reluctant to tell about any clues they have for fear that might bungle the case. You can't blame them. Quite often a piece of information withheld from the media turns out to be the very bit of evidence that enables them to break the case.

Two, and maybe more, cold-blooded killers entered the Buddhist temple off Cotton Lane in the hours just before dawn and dispatched nine lives by firing bullets at point-blank range into the backs of the victims' heads.

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