When a five-tool player arrives in a minor-league town people often wonder how long he'll stick around.
Pete Shellem stayed 23 years in Harrisburg, leaving a record of accomplishment for himself and his paper, the Patriot-News, that would ticket him for Cooperstown, if journalism had such a hall of fame. Who at bigger papers did the work that he did?
He got four people out of jail, after his stories showed their murder convictions were wrongful. He had a hand in a fifth, too. Official misconduct pissed him off.
He tracked down evidence to Leipzig, Germany, and found witnesses missed by the police.
What might be most impressive is that he did this in a conservative town while holding down a beat, the local courts. He owned his beat, by cultivating extrordinary sources, mastering records, knowing how to ask precise questions, and then having both animal instincts and a sense of outrage.
Today's metro column is about a champion of the underdog who couldn't save himself.
I thank Mario Cattabiani of the Inquirer's Harrisburg desk for starting me off with sources and insights, and this piece, from the American Journalism Review two years ago. Shellem told him this: :
"I was always taught that reporters are supposed to be government watchdogs. The most drastic thing the government can do to an individual is charge them with a crime and send them to jail. We have a good justice system in this country, and it pisses me off to see people misuse it to run over people, most of whom are at some sort of disadvantage."