A slain reporter, a city of sin and a politician charged with murder
By Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Mike Baker
As one of four reporters on the investigative team of Las Vegas’ main newspaper, Jeff German wrote stories that reached nearly every sordid corner of Sin City.
Even as old-school reporting jobs dwindled, German’s watchdog articles and columns pried back the curtain on mobsters, crooked politicians, casino titans and just about anyone who misused wealth or power in the city. In the past few years, he had scrutinized lavish spending by the city’s tourism agency, claims of sexual harassment at the coroner’s office and allegations that the Las Vegas Raiders football organization had violated discrimination and labor laws.
After four decades of surviving reporting on the most unsavory characters in a city with a reputation for mob-linked killings, there was little reason to think that German, 69, would be in danger when he turned his attention earlier this year to an obscure government office where some employees claimed their boss was a bully. The article didn’t even run on the front page.
But authorities now say that the boss in that story, Robert Telles, went to German’s home on a quiet cul-de-sac this month and stabbed him to death, months after the expose that may have cost him reelection was published. Telles has not yet entered a plea, and his lawyer has not responded to requests for comment.
The killing has rattled and outraged the readers, journalists and sources who had grown to trust German’s brand of shoe leather reporting in a town where little is to be trusted, from the glittering billboards to the gamblers across poker tables.
German first got hooked on journalism back in his native Milwaukee, where he got an internship in the late 1970s and befriended the local police reporter, Jim Romenesko.
The two of them were soon gathering after hours to get drinks at a bar called Major Goolsby’s or chasing stories off the clock, said Romenesko, who went on to a long career of his own.
“He just had that determination to get the story,” Romenesko said.
At the time, German sported a look that resembled John Travolta, with feathered hair and a shirt that exposed both his chest and a gold chain that he wore around his neck. He expressed interest in reporting on the mob and was soon headed to a new job in Las Vegas.
He quickly developed sources across the city and became known for his skill at coaxing everyone from cops to defense lawyers into trusting him with information as he wrote about organized crime, mobsters and political leaders in need of scrutiny.
German spent much of his career at The Las Vegas Sun, but as the newspaper went through a series of layoffs more than a decade ago, he moved over to a rival, The Las Vegas Review-Journal. That paper was having its own struggles, but German continued to produce the kind of work that made him a vital asset to the newspaper and the city.
On a breezy day this spring, when he was supposed to be taking time off, German met at a table outside a Starbucks with two new sources. They shared troubles in the office of the public administrator, a small department that handles the estates of dead people, wondering if German might be interested in writing an article.
German listened intently, calming their jitters and jotting notes in his notepad. He made no promises about writing a story and spent weeks after the meeting checking with other sources and vetting the employees’ accounts.
“He was interested. He was caring. He was professional,” said Rita Reid, a deputy in the office of the Clark County Public Administrator and one of the people who met German that day. “You could tell, he just wanted to do the right thing.”
German eventually produced a story in May that was far from a blockbuster — the agency was so obscure that few in town knew what it did — but was the kind of impactful work he was known to produce. In the story, current and former employees of Telles’ office said he had been such a bad boss that some of them had suffered headaches; they said he had played favorites, given some employees unreasonable assignments and prohibited them from using their phones. They also said that he had been having an “inappropriate relationship” with an employee and that it had made the office dynamic worse.
Telles denied the claims and criticized the article in statements on Twitter and his website, but the county went on to hire a consultant to try to resolve the turmoil in the office. Telles then lost a primary campaign to Reid. Online, Telles continued to rail against German, accusing him of writing a “lying smear piece.” German discussed the online posts with his editor.
“He brushed it off and said, ‘I’ve had much worse than that,’” said Rhonda Prast, an assistant managing editor at the Review-Journal who worked closely with German in recent months. “He wasn’t nervous about it. He wasn’t concerned. Neither was I.”
Journalists often face intense criticism, but German would be only the ninth journalist over the past three decades to be killed in the United States in response to their work.
In recent weeks, German had continued to report on the public administrator office, recently filing a records request for text messages and emails that Telles had sent. Reid said Telles remained infuriated by the scrutiny.
Authorities said that on a Friday morning this month, Telles, who lived about a 15-minute drive from German, went to the reporter’s house and got into some altercation with him.
Police said that they had not recovered a murder weapon but that they did find Telles’ DNA at the crime scene. Investigators also searched Telles’ home and car and found a hat and shoes that matched those worn by a person seen on surveillance video of the scene. Both the hat and shoes had been cut up, police said, and the shoes had blood on them.
The man pictured on the surveillance video was wearing an orange construction vest, gloves and a large straw hat that hid his face. Police said Telles had been trying to conceal his identity. A series of road construction projects were taking place near German’s home last week, and many workers wore similar outfits.
Before he was arrested, Telles ignored reporters’ questions outside his home.
Telles’ former wife, Tonia Burton, said she had been stunned to see that Telles had been accused of the killing.
“I’m just watching and in shock and not sure of anything,” said Burton, who was married to Telles until 2008. “I don’t think that there’s any explanation that we can come up with until he either confirms or denies that this happened.”