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An American Hero’s Fall From Grace

Mark Johnson
Featured September 17, 2006 This series is, in essence, a character study. Why did a man, years after earning a high military honor, go on to rob a bank and flee with his child?
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We particularly liked the lead in this piece. It swept us in with its pace, strong voice, establishment of theme and strong detail. The story as a whole is an engaging portrait of a complex man.

We asked Johnson to give us some background. Here’s what he wrote us:

"I read a short wire story on the sentencing of Mark Samples for a bizarre robbery in Minnesota. What caught my attention was his get-away on a mountain bike, then scuba diving down the Mississippi. But what nagged at me was a line in the story that mentioned he had been decorated for heroism aboard the USS Stark. My question was the same one most people would ask: How does a hero become a bank robber? I wrote to Samples in prison, and when he didn’t answer the first letter, I wrote a short follow-up—in case he just hadn’t gotten around to replying, which turned out to be the case.

"The series was drawn from long interviews with Samples in prison, plus interviews with his parents, siblings and 12 of his shipmates from The Stark. I also interviewed two tellers at the credit union he robbed and neighbors who met him when he went into hiding in Ohio. The reconstruction of the Stark attack was drawn from the interviews with Samples and his shipmates, and from the Navy’s official report on the attack. The reconstruction of the robbery was drawn from interviews with Samples and the tellers and from the court transcripts. The reconstruction of Samples’ psychological decline was drawn from interviews with him and his family and from his psychiatric records at the VA Hospital.

"There were two main challenges. The first was that Samples’ ex-wife refused several requests for an interview, as did her parents. I felt that in fairness I had to tell readers what it was like for her when Samples took their son for 15 months and went into hiding. Since she would not talk to me, I had to look for her words elsewhere. I found them in her court testimony, letters that she wrote to the VA and to the judge, an appearance she made on "The John Walsh Show" and interviews she gave to the magazines Marie Claire and The Lutheran.

"The second challenge was my fear that readers would lose all sympathy for Samples when they learned he had taken his son into hiding and that his wife had no idea for those 15 months whether the child was alive or dead. There was no way around this. I decided the only thing I could do was deal with this honestly and try to put the reader inside Samples’ head as he reached the decision to flee.


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