EDITOR’S NOTE: In this first person account, ESPN producer Willie Weinbaum describes working with ESPN investigative reporter Mike Fish, who secured the key interview for Sunday’s “Outside the Lines” (9 a.m. ET, ESPN) report “Friend Who Fired,” marking the 10th anniversary of the death of former Arizona Cardinals safety Pat Tillman. The piece will also be part of a one-hour “Outside the Lines Special – Pat Tillman: 10 Years Later an Enduring Tragedy” on Tuesday (8 p.m., ESPN)
In January 2006, Mike Fish began an investigation of the death of Pat Tillman, its aftermath of deceit and the implications for the military and the country. Mike also examined the toll of the tragedy on Tillman’s family and others directly connected to the April 22, 2004 friendly fire episode in Afghanistan. After more than 100 interviews and a mountain of research, Mike wrote a groundbreaking 19,000-word, four-part series “An Un-American Tragedy.”
I was assigned to collaborate with Mike eight years ago to pursue the first on-camera interviews with any of Tillman’s platoon mates, and eventually arranged and conducted TV interviews with five Army Rangers whose firsthand accounts were documented in OTL’s program “Tillman’s Final Mission.” (The Oct. 15, 2006 OTL program won an award from MRE/Military Reporters & Editors and was nominated for an Emmy in sports journalism).
Since 2006, Mike and I shared a goal to find and interview the heretofore silent shooters and to hear their perspectives on what happened and how their lives had been affected. On Oct. 16, 2013 we submitted a proposal for “Tillman’s Shooters, 10 Years Later.” The plan, if none of the shooters agreed to be interviewed, was for Mike to write an ESPN.com report for the 10th anniversary. If any did agree, it would be accompanied by a TV report.
Over the next few months, Mike was able to track down the four men who had told investigators they fired upon Tillman and two soldiers next to him. But he was turned down by all of them – except for Steven Elliott.
When Elliott agreed to meet Mike, he suggested I also come to the West Coast to discuss the possible TV interview. A dinner meeting with Elliott and his wife, and a visit to their home the next day, went well, and when Steven gave a tentative “yes” to print and TV interviews, John Barr was assigned by OTL for the TV report. He quickly immersed himself in the subject and went on to do a tremendous job.
Elliott said that in the decade since the tragic episode, Mike was the first journalist to find him and request an interview. He said he was familiar with ESPN’s 2006 online and TV reports about Tillman. Additionally, he said the rapport developed at the February dinner — and with Mike before that — were key factors in him agreeing to the interviews.
In a letter he sent to Mike and me 36 hours after that dinner, Elliott wrote: “I want to thank you both for the care and sensitivity that you’ve demonstrated to us. It’s a huge step for me to be at this point, but I feel very comfortable with placing this story in your hands. Thank you for your willingness to tell it and for the time you’ve spent with us thus far.”