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Learning to appreciate news reporter Jeff German: A remembrance

John L. Smith
John L. Smith
Opinion
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When I first met Jeff German in the early 1980s at the Las Vegas Sun, I was a wisecracking sports columnist working on my best Jim Murray-meets-Mike Royko impersonation.

German was a young hot-shot news reporter/columnist from out of town trying to take Vegas by storm. He wrote like Sgt. Joe Friday talked. If he had a sense of humor, he kept it well hidden in his reporter’s notebook.

Even back then he prided himself on asking tough questions, and he asked a lot of them. Like Walter Winchell with better hair, German had a nose for news, a dogged work ethic, and a genuine gift for irritating others.

One of those he irritated was Seymour Freedman, an ex-boxer and New York cop who worked as a bailiff for former Strip jazz drummer-turned-Municipal Court Judge Seymore Brown. In addition to serving as the judge’s assistant and personal valet, Freedman was also a childhood pal of Gambino crime family associate Gaspare “Jasper” Speciale.

A bookmaker and money lender by calling, Speciale and partner Bobby “The Hunchback” Barent operated the popular Tower of Pizza restaurant on the Strip. At the Tower, customers could get a pepperoni pizza with double cheese, a big plate of spaghetti and meatballs, a bet on a ballgame, and a loan at street interest rates. Freedman worked for Speciale, but not as a busboy.

When German started poking around the bailiff’s friends, Freedman poked back. At a party at the Sands, the bailiff threw a drink in German’s face and then sucker-punched the reporter, sending him to Sunrise Hospital with a split lip that needed stitches. At the hospital, German was met by Metro Officer David Groover, who along with partner Gene Smith had been tormented unmercifully by the reporter in the pages of the Sun.

“German looked at me and said, ‘I can’t catch a break. I get punched in the mouth by a guy that I write about, and now they send you to investigate it,’” Groover, now a Nevada Transportation Authority commissioner, recalls. “I jokingly told him Gene Smith was on the way to help with the investigation.”

When German wrote about the incident a couple days later, a strange thing happened. He was actually funny. Not exactly Henny Youngman, mind you, but his writing was a far cry from the starched stentorian tone of his usual column.

When I met him in the hallway, I greeted him effusively and congratulated him on the self-deprecating humor of his piece. He swallowed the compliment whole.

“Great story, Jeff,” I said. “Somebody should punch you in the mouth every day.”

As you might have guessed, our acquaintance got off to a slow start. But I learned that German could take a punch and crack a joke.

In those days, he sat near another promising young reporter, Scott Zamost, who was as smooth as German was rough-edged. Now a CNBC senior investigative producer, like so many of German’s colleagues Zamost was staggered by the news of German’s recent murder, allegedly at the hands of Clark County Public Administrator Rob Telles, whom the reporter had been investigating.

Zamost is reminded of the time the two knocked off from work late on Christmas Eve and dropped into a bar only to find Chicago Outfit hitman Anthony Spilotro holding court with tough-guy actor Robert Conrad. His deadline juices ever-flowing, German requested an interview. Although Spilotro was cordial enough, for a reputed killer, he knew better to go on the record with a reporter.

Zamost moved onward and upward, German to his next Las Vegas byline, but the two stayed in touch.

“I saw Jeff for dinner whenever I made it back to Vegas — the last time in 2019,” he says. “He was basically the same person as he was in the ‘80s. All of this is so surreal.”

Back in the 1980s, sports writers worked late at the Sun. Long after most of the newsroom had cleared out and the beat reporters at city hall and county government had gone home to their families or favorite watering holes, the sports desk kept humming right up to deadline in order to wedge the West Coast ball scores into the final edition. By then, the newsroom would mostly be quiet, save a surprise visit from firebrand publisher Hank Greenspun. One exception to the regular nightly exodus was German, at his desk, grinding away.

After work in those years, it was still common to run into the sporting crowd, that intoxicating late-night cocktail of humanity that included bookmakers, show people, politicians, attorneys, casino workers, and the hoodlum element. As a sports columnist and later a Metro columnist at the Review-Journal, I’d occasionally see German in that crowd, working his sources between sips of beer.

He was a constant presence around the courthouse. If there was a big trial, German was sure to have a piece of the story and sometimes the whole thing. A tireless digger, he was hard to beat. Although I sometimes cringed at the stories that he wrote to please management, his work ethic was undeniable.

These days, as the community tries to comprehend a senseless and vicious act of violence committed against a dedicated news reporter doing his job, remembrances are pouring in for German. Longtime Las Vegas journalist and author Geoff Schumacher, now a vice president at The Mob Museum, counts German as a friend – not that the relationship was always easy.

When Schumacher landed at the Sun in 1988 fresh out of college, so new to the job, he laughs, that he didn’t recognize Hank Greenspun, “The undisputed star of the newsroom at that time was Jeff German. Jeff was an investigative reporter and columnist, and he took on the biggest stories in town. When I became the Sun's city editor, technically I was Jeff's supervisor, but it didn't really work that way. His primary boss was Mike O'Callaghan, the former Nevada governor who was the paper's executive editor. When Jeff turned in his stories and columns, we might debate word usage or punctuation, but that was about it.

“Jeff was a tenacious reporter. When he identified a story that he wanted to pursue, he was relentless in his desire to get the story -- and get it first.”

He was often first and didn’t mind reminding people.

Some called German egotistical, and I think that’s true. But after decades on deadline, I’ve met few reporters – and zero columnists – who didn’t think their literary pearls and news revelations were essential reading destined to be enshrined for posterity.

His friend Schumacher says, “As a younger man, Jeff could be gruff at times, perhaps a trait that came with being an aggressive reporter who had to deal with a lot of people who didn't want to tell him what was really happening. But, overall, he was a nice guy.”

Schumacher left the Sun after a decade, but the two teamed up again in 2021 in association with the R-J for the popular “Mobbed Up” podcast. At 69, German served as narrator and primary reporter for the series, and the result is a significant contribution to the Las Vegas story.

Daily journalism is a tough trade, one that wears down the dedicated like a No. 2 pencil stub. Like many others, over time I grew to appreciate Jeff German.

Even after four decades, he never stopped punching.

Updated at 6:30 PM to correct Scott Zamost's employment.

John L. Smith is an author and longtime columnist. He was born in Henderson and his family’s Nevada roots go back to 1881. His stories have appeared in Time, Readers Digest, The Daily Beast, Reuters, Ruralite and Desert Companion, among others. He also offers weekly commentary on Nevada Public Radio station KNPR.

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