Source work and dogged reporting provide the definitive account of the search for a murder suspect and the corrections official who broke him out of jail.
The search for Alabama fugitives Casey White and Vicky White captured the attention of the world. When the U.S. Marshals Service took over the hunt early in the story, Washington-based federal law enforcement reporter Mike Balsamo reached out, working his network of sources in the Justice Department and the U.S. Marshals Service for details. Balsamo also connected with the U.S. marshal for the Northern District of Alabama, knowing he would be the person most likely to have the inside information that would enable AP to put together a clear timeline of a messy escape saga littered with gaps and confusing accounts.
Even as authorities were holding news conferences to talk about the violent end of the story — Vicky White dead; Casey White in custody — Balsamo began cajoling the marshal and the Marshals Service to talk with him first and lay out a detailed account of the manhunt.
U.S. Marshal Marty Keely did just that, late enough in the evening that Balsamo knew if he could get the story on the wire within hours, he would give the AP a massive competitive win.
The story included a score of previously unreported details, including how the corrections official, Vicky White, had convinced a co-worker to drive her to work from the parking lot where she stashed her getaway car, how the duo paid a homeless man to use his identification to book themselves into a motel — and how Vicky White had tried to break Casey White out of the jail before.
On a weak connection as he drove through the hills from briefing to briefing, Keely described how investigators learned the duo had changed cars three times, and the path they took to Indiana, where they were eventually caught. But the poor connection meant the marshal couldn’t go on camera for a Zoom interview, as had been the plan. Nevertheless, Balsamo scored a succinct, detailed interview with the law enforcement officer closest to a story that most people agree will be a made-for-television movie, the story of a jail official who was given the freedom to take a hulking capital murder defendant out alone and who had planned the breakout and getaway for months.
The marshal’s account, coupled with details Balsamo picked up from other sources — including the fact the couple had made a practice run — gave AP a story rich in detail and context. It also made for an exceptionally easy-to-follow narrative.
The story played widely across the globe, from Australia to the front page of the local newspaper in Florence, Alabama, where the escape took place. But its greatest accolade may be that of the Mississippi AP radio member who wrote in a note:
“I followed with much interest the prison escape story from Florence, Al. I consumed CNN, FOX, local news outlets and all the confusion on FB. It was not until I read an AP article by Michael Balsamo that all the dots were connected. It underscored to me the immense need for quality journalism. Thanks to AP and Mr. Balsamo.”
— Johnny Boswell, president Boswell Broadcasting, WLIN
For using all his resources to distinguish AP’s coverage even as others chased this extremely competitive story, Mike Balsamo is AP’s Best of the Week — First Winner.