Richard Lollar was one of two men killed in the 2000 Super Bowl week stabbing outside an Atlanta nightclub that led to Ray Lewis's pleading guilty to obstruction of justice. For 13 years Lollar has been buried in his hometown of Akron, and in those 13 years his mother Priscilla had never been to his his grave. Finally, last Wednesday, Priscilla Lollar visited her son's grave, at the behest of a reporter. Then, an hour later, she visited it again—with another reporter.
Super Bowl week is a vacuum begging for human-interest stories, but there are only so many. It's not a surprise that multiple reporters wanted to do something on Lewis's criminal past, but it's incredible providence that two—Tim Graham of the Buffalo News and Kent Babb of the Washington Post—chose to do the exact same story. They interviewed the same family member of the same victim, built their stories around the same staged anecdote of her visiting her son's grave, and most amazingly, showed up at Priscilla Lollar's house within 10 minutes of each other. I asked Graham and Babb to explain how it happened, and the answer is a story of coincidence, awkwardness, and a clever bit of ruthlessness.
Graham was on the story first. Last Monday he got Priscilla Lollar's sister on the phone and asked if the family would be willing to meet with him to discuss Richard and their feelings toward Ray Lewis. They agreed, and when Graham called Priscilla on Tuesday morning to get some details on the gravesite, she told him something he hadn't known—she had never been to the cemetery. He offered to take her, and they agreed that he'd pick her up at her house on Wednesday afternoon.
Graham apologized for the number of calls he assumed they had been receiving—they told him he was the first reporter to call. "I thought that gave me a jump on the story," he told me over email.
Enter the Post, later that same day. After talking to Graham on Tuesday, Priscilla Lollar got her second phone call—this one from Babb. He proposed a meeting six days later—which would have been today—and he too learned that Lollar had never been to the grave. When he got off the phone, Babb recalled, he realized that he might not be the only reporter on the story. So he called back, asking if she would be willing to bump up their meeting to the very next day, Wednesday.
Lollar hesitated, Babb told me. He asked if anyone else had called. Yes, she said, "someone from New York" was already coming on Wednesday.
"As soon as I got off the phone, I booked the first flight out the next morning," Babb said in an email. "In my mind, the race to the house was on."
Both reporters arrived in Akron on Wednesday—Graham with a Buffalo News photographer, and Babb with a local freelance photographer. Graham had told Lollar he would pick her up at 2 p.m., but the Buffalo News team decided to scout out the cemetery first.
Because of the weather, Graham and the photographer found themselves running late. They didn't get to the right cemetery until 2:10 p.m., and the photographer began snapping photos while they were there. In the middle of that, a car pulled up: Babb was driving, with Priscilla Lollar in the passenger seat.
Graham was "stunned," he told me. Babb, seeing an SUV with New York plates parked in the otherwise empty lot, kept on driving. "We parked about 200 yards away and waited." The Buffalo News team stood at the grave for a few minutes, then gave up; as Graham put it, he didn't want to "play chicken."
So while Babb was escorting Priscilla Lollar to her dramatic first visit to her son's grave, Graham and the photographer went to the Lollar house to interview other family members. About 15 minutes after they got there, Babb pulled up with Priscilla Lollar, and the two reporters introduced themselves to each other.
"It was a little awkward," Babb said. "I'm not sure either of us knew what the protocol is in that situation. We joked about it being like a press conference."
Graham interviewed relatives inside the house, while Babb interviewed Priscilla's sister inside his rental car. When he was done, Babb drove off.
Priscilla Lollar apologized to Graham, saying she had mistaken Babb for him. She offered to go back to the cemetery, this time with the Buffalo News. So Graham took her, accompanied by one of Richard Lollar's brothers, for her dramatic second visit to her son's grave.
After the two had filed their pieces, the competition between the reporters became a competition between editors. Each story was slotted to run as a long feature in the Sunday papers. Knowing this, the Washington Post bumped up Babb's story to Friday. The Buffalo News did one better—a short version of its story, with video of Priscilla visiting her son's grave, went online Wednesday night. (The full story ran Sunday.) So Priscilla Lollar's second visit to her son's grave was published ahead of the account of her first visit to her son's grave—a sort of metaphysical scoop.
Here's how the Washington Post described Lollar's first visit to the grave:
Priscilla walks through the line of gravestones, her eyes scanning the names. To the edges, to the center, back to the edges. She finds her way to an incline, a row of markers hidden under a thin layer of snow.
A breeze blows through the naked tree limbs, and the sound of faraway cars fills the air. Then, a voice.
"Here he is right here," Priscilla says with a smile.
She stands there for a long time, saying nothing. She uses the toe of her shoe to push snow from Richard's marker, adorned with a pair of clasped hands and a cross. Her shoe traces the marker's perimeter, again and again, and Priscilla chuckles at her discovery. This is a reunion, but more than that it is proof that life's most complicated things are love and death, and how we deal with them.
Priscilla's gloves disappear into her pockets, but her eyes don't leave the marker. As the silent minutes pass, the smile fades. Her lip quivers, and her eyebrows furrow.
"I love you," she says, barely louder than a whisper. "I love you."
She wipes a tear from her cheek, and it won't be the last. She repeats the words. After more than a dozen years of sidestepping emotion, here she stands, experiencing so many.
"I love you," she says again, her voice growing louder.
She pauses again and stands in the quiet. Then her eyes look up, and she takes a step forward.
"We've got to go," she says.
And here's how the Buffalo News described her second visit (after neatly eliding her first visit with the Post by writing, "Priscilla Lollar saw his plot at Glendale Cemetery for the first time Wednesday").
Priscilla Lollar stared at the headstone for a few silent moments and began to sniffle. An ambulance wailed along the Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway. She broke down in tears, removed the mitten tops from her half-finger gloves and vigorously wrung her hands before bringing them to her trembling cheeks.
"Right now, I just want to see what's up under there," she sobbed. "I want to see if he's in there, something. I don't know. I don't know. I wonder if he's in there. I don't know.
"I never seen him in no casket or anything. So I don't know. Now I want to see what's up under here. I want to see if he's in there or anything."
She began to howl.
"I want him to come on back home! I just want him to come home!"
In his email to me, Babb freely admitted to his "unfair advantage," knowing he wasn't the only reporter seeking Priscilla Lollar that day. "All in the game," he said.
Graham understands, too. "It sounds like a coincidence of two reporters showing up at about the same time to do the same story," he said. "Kent got there a few minutes first.
"It's a story I'm sure Kent and I will be telling at the bar for years."