They say crime doesn't pay. Oh yeah? Check out Anthony Sanders, editor and owner of the St. Louis Metro Evening Whirl.
Over the past eight years, Sanders has reinvigorated St. Louis' premier crime tabloid -- adding color to its pages, cleaning up its writing (well, sort of) and resurrecting readership from an anemic 4,000 a decade ago to a circulation today of around 47,000. With the transformation, the paper -- in operation since 1938 -- is earning a reputation never before thought possible. The Evening Whirl is getting its propers.
"I'm very familiar with the Whirl," says United States Attorney James G. Martin, who each Tuesday casts aside his Wall Street Journal and St. Louis Post-Dispatch to pore over the Whirl's garish tales of human carnage. "I'm a big believer that our greatest job in law enforcement is crime deterrence, and I'm convinced the Whirl gets the stories out there that deter crime."
With its sensational headlines and menacing cover shots of black gangbangers -- and still clinging to a certain air of rougish disrepute -- the Whirl is a long way from landing a Pulitzer. Any discerning reader can pick out a half-dozen grammar and syntax errors without flipping past page one, but do the paper's regular readers care? Heck no. They read the oversize, purple-prose-laden tabloid for its shock value and to keep track of neighbors and friends in the rough-'n'-tumble crime zones of St. Louis, north St. Louis County and East St. Louis -- the Whirl's primary circulation areas.
Shaping the paper's editorial content is its chummy relationship with law enforcement. The cops pass down news tips, and in return the Whirl makes them out as comic-book superheroes -- complete with alter egos. Martin, the buttoned-down U.S. attorney, is referred to as "The G" (a sexy take on his middle name, Garvin). Homicide detective Jeff Stone is "Stonehard."
"The Whirl is a great tool for us," says Stone, who admits to feeding the tabloid stories from time to time. "The people we're looking for aren't the type of people who read mainstream papers. There's a whole section of society that can't wait to read the Whirl to see who they know."
"We've had several occasions when we've been looking for a guy for days or weeks, and after the Whirl comes out he'll show up at police headquarters bitching about his photo appearing in the paper," recounts St. Louis homicide detective Tom Carroll, better known to readers of the Whirl as "PacMan" for his knack for "gobbling up bad guys."
In another instance, PacMan recalls, police raided the home of a murder suspect only to find the man's hideout littered with copies of his crime spree as depicted by the Whirl. Police would later use the newspaper as evidence in the suspect's prosecution.
With his light brown skin, salt-and-pepper hair and wire-rimmed glasses, 56-year-old Anthony Sanders casts a professorial visage, but that image fades the moment he opens his mouth. In street-forged dialect, "police" comes out "poh-leese," and four-letter expletives are his frequent adjectives of choice. Still, longtime readers say Sanders is watered-down soup compared to the Whirl's spicy founder, Ben Thomas.
It was the flamboyant Thomas, the man who bragged of running track alongside Jesse Owens at Ohio State, who established the paper as a grisly crime journal by cozying up to homicide detectives and marketing his broadsheet in liquor stores, gas stations and quick-shops throughout the city. The paper is still distributed the same way, but gone is the lyricism that Thomas devoted to the paper. He would spend hours writing articles as poems, so that they read like a combination of nursery rhyme and blues anthem.
A 1983 article on the arrest of a robbery suspect reads: "George Lowery, 42, of the 3900 block of Blair, committed a crime that wasn't so rare, and for him was a terrible affair, and police caught him there. The crime master turned out to be his own disaster."
Thomas called his weekly columns exposing people arrested for drug and domestic-violence charges the "Dope Fiend Club" and "Wife Beaters and Sweetheart Mistreaters." His penchant for exposing homosexuals -- referring to lesbians as "bulldaggers" and gays as "faggots" -- earned him the ire of the gay community.
Sanders says he never tried to replicate Thomas' style. For starters, society no longer tolerates the epithets and blind accusations that made Thomas his mark. In place of Thomas' lyrical prose, Sanders fills the paper with articles accented with his own crude street lingo. As always, the Whirl's articles appear without a byline, a practice that lends the paper an omniscient narrative, as if the streets themselves are coughing up the tales.
A piece on a domestic-violence case in Cahokia begins: "Just because a woman has children by you does not mean you own her. Let her get on with her life with the new man. Or thug as the case may be. Michael O. Foster couldn't do that and is now behind bars for 30 years on two counts of aggravated battery with a firearm."
A story on the rape of a Granite City teenager reads: "Here's one of the perils of drinking before your time. A young 15-year-old high school student drank until she passed out and woke up with a penis in her vagina."
"It's all supposition," says Sanders. "We get the same information that everyone else gets. We just know how to fill in the details to make them interesting. For example, say you got a guy nicknamed 'Bobo' who pulls a gun on the police and gets himself shot. Now, you got to ask, 'Why the fuck would anyone pull a pistol on a cop when they are trained to kill your ass?'"
Still, for all its "genius," there are those in the African-American community who claim the Whirl serves to perpetuate stereotypes of black men as violent criminals -- an argument Sanders dismisses outright.
"The reality is that 99 percent of this is black-on-black violence perpetuated by drugs," Sanders says. "I'm giving readers the same thing they could get in the news briefs of the Post-Dispatch, but instead of giving it to you in tiny teaspoons, I'm giving it to you in a whole goddamn scoop. If you're choking on it, it's because it's there."
Produced in the basement of Sanders' Central West End home, the Whirl is a bare-bones operation; Sanders is the paper's only full-time employee, while two freelance writers compile police reports and press releases into stories that Sanders drops into the paper's formatted pages.
Sanders isn't sure how the Whirl got its name, "but I always thought 'whirl' was like kicking up the dust of the night."
Roughly 47,000 papers are sold each week at 400 outlets for 50 cents a pop. For each paper sold, ten cents go to the paper's retail distributors, and ten cents go to independent distributors. That leaves the Whirl with 30 cents in the black for each tabloid sold -- or some $14,000 a week before counting the paper's revenue, which comes from such advertisers as Mobil Mart on Kingshighway and the 7-Eleven on St. Charles Rock Road. It makes for a pretty good living, says Sanders.
"I think if you took the Whirl to the Harvard School of Business, it would be lauded as one of the slickest businesses in America. We've got no overhead and we're making money selling newspapers in 2004. I take great pride in that."
As resolute as Sanders is in defending the Whirl, he admits he does wrestle at times with the paper's legacy of sensationalizing crime -- a key reason why Sanders will not attach his face to the paper and declined to have a close-up photograph taken for this story. His friends know his crime-racking occupation, but he'd prefer to keep his anonymity among the general public.
"I inherited a reputation as a bully when I took over this paper, and I've tried to dispel that," he says. "We're sensitive to black people. I don't want to make my people look like hoodlums."
Sanders says he's tried to soften the paper's look by featuring more white criminals, but such moderate facelifts didn't make financial sense.
"If I do anything other than what I'm currently doing, the sales would suffer. I'd have to take a big financial hit. There's a demand for this paper. Fuckers just can't wait to get their hands on it."