How we got the story: Katheryne Lugo
When I re-watch this story our I-Team did in February, I am so proud of it, considering how little we had to work with in the weeks leading up to the air date. Some stories come together quickly, others take a lot of time and effort. This one was well worth the effort.
I got the assignment to provide an update on the Katheryne Lugo cold case in January, and was hitting nothing but roadblocks trying to put it together.
Katheryne was just four years old when she disappeared from our area in 1994. It was a huge story at the time, but that was before the Internet, social media, and digital news archives -- so a Google search will not turn up much. An initial search of our station archives also turned up nothing. The system is tape based and admittedly a bit disorganized so I started my work on this story thinking we wouldn't have any old file video from the 90s to show -- just a missing photo person of the little girl.
Reading the few old articles I could find about the case, I got some names of key players: Katheryne's family members, the detectives working the case for Riviera Beach Police, the case manager from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the FBI Special Agent in Charge. Without fail, every single one of them had either retired, changed jobs, and/or moved away. The people who did answer my calls didn't know how to reach them. I had no idea who I would interview for this story, if anyone.
I started with an organization that I was confident could and would help me: the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They told me they didn't have anyone who could speak on the Katheryne Lugo case specifically, so I asked if I could interview someone who works on age progression photos to talk about how they keep these cold cases alive by releasing updated images. They said yes, and I did a Zoom interview with one of their artists, which was a start. It was a long shot, but I asked the NCMEC if they had any way to reach out to Katheryne's mother for me to ask if she'd be willing to do an interview. I had no idea where she moved to so tracking down a phone number was a bit of a needle in a haystack situation. The center told me they'd check -- but I didn't get my hopes up.
The next thing I did was try to track down the investigators who worked the case in the 90s. Detective Pat Galligan was the name that kept coming up in the old stories, so I looked into his whereabouts. He retired from the police department years ago, and all my contacts there told me they didn't know how to reach him. Looking up news stories about other cases that mentioned Pat, I came across the name of one of his friends, who happens to be a lawyer in our area. I found the lawyer's phone number online and did a cold call. The lawyer told me he lost touch with Pat but that his brother might know how to reach him. I got his brother's name and number and gave him a call. Turns out this guy was not only Pat's friend, but was also a retired Riviera Beach Police officer who worked the Katheryne Lugo case! He gave me some insight to help track down Pat, and then agreed to shoot an interview with me offering his memories of the Lugo case. I was getting closer.
Later that day I got a phone call from an unknown number. It was Pat, and he wasn't too happy with me. In my efforts to get in touch with him, I accidentally (and annoyingly) reached out to his son and wife. I apologized and explained that I had been having a hard time reaching him and didn't mean to bother his family. Eventually he agreed to do a virtual interview and talk about his work on the case and his thoughts on it today. It was worth all the effort because Pat was a sound bite machine. It wouldn't have been nearly as interesting of a story without him.
The FBI agent who worked the case also retired and I thought that wouldn't work out, until I told my producer his name. It turns out this retired agent has been a source for him in previous stories, and still lives and works locally. My producer helped me get in touch, and we did an interview. Things were coming together!
The real break was when I got an email from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, telling me Katheryne's mom was open to talking to us. I was shocked and elated. The email contained her contact information, and I started by sending her an email. Days went by and I didn't hear anything back. That's when I tried her cell phone number, calling and texting her. Still no response. I started to think she had changed her mind. I gave it one more shot by calling her number on my way home from work one night, and she picked up. We spoke for a few minutes, I explained how we wanted to approach the story, and she agreed to do a Zoom interview with me later. I am still so grateful to her for agreeing to take part. She was so genuine and emotional and it made the story so much more impactful. She hasn't spoken about her daughter's case in years and I could tell it was hard for her to revisit these memories. This was a tough interview to do because I could feel this mother's pain and at times lost the words to express my sympathy and think of the next question I wanted to ask. She generously provided several personal and rare photos of Katheryne to use in the story, which added a very personal and heartfelt touch.
As we got ready to write and edit the piece, I wanted to make one more effort to look for archive footage. I felt very strongly that we needed to show old video to emphasize the passage of time. My photographer Wally and I decided to dig through the station archives until we felt satisfied -- and we spent a while in a dark and dusty warehouse pulling tapes off of shelves, trying to decipher the old handwriting, and pulling anything we thought might be relevant to the case. By the end of the effort we were covered in a layer of dust but had six tapes that appeared to have stories relating to Katheryne Lugo. Putting the beta tapes in a player and recording them confirmed we had struck gold and located some great video from 1994 and 1995 of the search and trial.
One thing that didn't work out for me was my attempt to reach the suspect in the case. After he was acquitted of Katheryne's kidnapping, he moved to California and was arrested for an unrelated crime there. He is still serving a sentence in CA, and I was able to locate his prison and get an updated mug shot. In my wildest dreams he would have agreed to talk to me about Katheryne in a jailhouse phone call interview. I wrote emails and letters to him requesting his cooperation. I never heard back.
After shooting all these interviews and thinking about the focus of the story, the one word I kept coming back to was "hope." Katheryne's mother is holding out hope. Investigators say it's hard to be hopeful after so much time has passed. Age progression artists keep updating Katheryne's photo to keep hope alive. Is it realistic to maintain hope she will ever be found? I wanted to know if there were cases of missing children who reappeared after so many years -- and I was surprised to learn from the NCMEC that there are success stories. We located news clips about a few of them, and featured them in the story. That part of the piece really seemed to resonate with people -- and provide viewers some hope that cases like Katheryne's can be solved, no matter how much time goes by.
A lot of effort goes into all of our special reports but this one was particularly challenging because of how much leg work went into tracking people down and convincing them to talk. I'm glad we stuck with it and went the extra mile to creatively shoot the archive footage (in the actual dusty archive area of our warehouse!). Let me know what you think of the story!