If you talk to journalists who have worked in Rochester, many will tell you that Gary Craig is one of the finest news reporters ever to carry a notebook in that city.
The longtime investigative reporter from the Democrat and Chronicle and before that the defunct Times-Union has won dozens of state and national journalism awards. He gained fame in 1998 when his reporting helped win the release of a wrongfully convicted woman named Betty Tyson from prison.
Now, he’s getting more attention than ever with the publication of his first book. "Seven Million" tells the intriguing story of one of the biggest crimes in Western New York history, a 1993 robbery at a Brink’s depot, where bandits stole more than $7 million cash.
The crime occurred just after a big shipment of money had come in from the old Federal Reserve Bank branch in Buffalo, and the holdup also led to the mysterious disappearance and apparent murder of Ronnie Gibbons, an Irish-born boxer who became tied up in the conspiracy.
Craig, 58, recently spoke to The Buffalo News about his book and his career.
Q: First off, congratulations on a very engrossing book. I'd like to know at what age you began thinking about becoming a news reporter. Where did you grow up?
A: I always enjoyed writing so I decided to go into newspaper after college because it provided a regular paycheck, though a very small one. I learned as years continued that I enjoyed the reporting as much or more than the writing, so the allure of the job in fact came after I’d entered the profession.
I grew up in Winston-Salem N.C. My parents were killed in a plane crash when I was eight. I was raised from then on by my brother, who is 13 years older and now a retired airline pilot, and his wife -- my sister-in-law --who is an interior designer and rescues dogs from puppy mills. They, in essence, are my parents, and they were good ones.
Q: Tell us a bit about where your news career has taken you…what are your current duties with the Rochester paper?
A: Somewhere in my career I developed an interest in matters of criminal justice. For 20 years now that has been my primary focus, along with federal courts, at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. I also teach a course at Rochester Institute of Technology – a class I created – on “Media Coverage of Crime,” which can occasionally be critical of the very work I do.
Q: What is the best thing and what is the worst thing about being a newspaper reporter in 2017?
A: The best thing and the worst thing may be the same thing. We now have so many ways we can enhance our coverage, with videos, online links to the very information we’re using for our reporting, social media crowd-sourcing, etc. At the same time, the need to utilize these mechanisms and the time they take can detract from the time needed to report and craft a well-told narrative story or investigative piece.
Q: You have covered the Rochester Brink's heist since it occurred in 1993. At what point did you begin thinking of this case as a possible book project, and what made you think it could become a good book? How long did it actually take to write the book?
A: The story and the characters were so intriguing that it seemed a natural for a book. I actually started writing in 1994, knocked out a few chapters, then stopped. In 1996, I learned of Ronnie Gibbons, the missing boxer connected to the heist, and finding Ronnie – dead or alive – became my goal. I’ve written of missing people, but I’ve never grown as close to the family with a criminal case as I did to Ronnie’s mom, though we would not meet until after Ronnie’s remains were found in 2011. I probably started working regularly on the book in 2012, and spent time on the book on and off into early 2016. I only took one extended period off from work, and that was only a month, so I had to squeeze the research and writing in with my job.
Q: Tell us about the blog you wrote about this case for three years. Did the blog help you in any way to turn up information that you used in Seven Million?
A: I had an idea for a narrative online blog with the story, expecting maybe 50 installments over a year. Instead it became nearly 300 installments over three years. The audience grew over those years, and folks with information about the crime reached out to me because, I believe, they saw I wanted to tell the story fairly.
Q: What fascinated me about this book was the possible involvement of the Irish Republican Army. It seems clear that people with IRA connections were involved with the crime. After all your research, do you believe the IRA, as an organization, was involved? Do you think any of the missing money went to the IRA?
A: This is one of the great mysteries. The authorities tried hard to find IRA links and didn’t, and the consensus is because it’s unlikely that the organization masterminded the robbery. That said, I think the odds are good that some money found its way to the organization because of the sympathies of some of those involved.
Q: You're a family man. How hard was it to write a book, continue your full-time reporting job and keep some semblance of a family life, all at the same time?
A: My wife was wonderfully understanding, and it was made easier now that we’re empty nesters. I cannot imagine doing it when our two daughters were young. The job, I admit, was tough to navigate. As you and everyone in the profession know, staffing is much slimmer at media operations than in years past, and we’re all juggling much more than we did. I had a hard time staying focused on the book because my mind was typically on the daily demands of my job. I was helped by a supportive management.
Q: You almost seem to hint that there could be a sequel down the road someday. How likely is that?
A: There are many unanswered questions, particularly what happened to Ronnie Gibbons. I know there is still information and unfound body parts in Cape Vincent, where Ronnie’s torso and foot washed ashore. However, I imagine that any questions I can answer would likely be the foundation for news stories, instead of another book.