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Deep reporting on a failed KKK murder plot reveals white supremacists working in Florida prison

A pickup truck with a Confederate-themed sticker is parked outside the Reception and Medical Center, Florida’s prison hospital where new inmates are processed, in Lake Butler, Fla., April 16, 2021. In 2013, at a prison dorm room in the facility, Warren Williams, a Black inmate who suffered from severe anxiety and depression fought and bit Thomas Driver, a white prison guard. When Williams was released a few months later, Driver and two fellow members of the Ku Klux Klan conspired to kill him. The KKK man they enlisted to do the killing was an FBI informant. (AP Photo / David Goldman)

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Some stories just stick with a journalist.

For AP investigative reporter Jason Dearen, a sparse 2015 announcement — three current or former Florida prison guards, determined by the FBI to be Ku Klux Klansmen, had been arrested for plotting a former inmate’s murder — sparked a yearslong effort to find out more.

The result was an innovative all-formats package in which Dearen and visual journalist David Goldman, working with producers Marshall Ritzel, Samantha Shotzbarger and Peter Hamlin, illuminated a festering problem of white supremacy in law enforcement. With cases of racial injustice in policing drawing scrutiny and with the participation of numerous officers in the Jan. 6 riots, the issue has taken on particular relevance.

Dearen’s big break came last summer when trial transcripts revealed an FBI informant was the star witness against the KKK members,his secret recordings providing a rare,detailed look at the inner workings of a modern klan cell and a domestic terrorism probe. AP’s request for the informant’s audio and video recordings went unanswered for months,but when they finally arrived,Dearen knew he had struck gold. And there was more: A partially redacted transcript revealed the informant’s name,and buried in one of the klansmen’s appeals Dearen found the previously unreleased name of the targeted ex-inmate,scoring the first interview with the man about his ordeal in Palatka, Florida.

Dearen and Goldman then retraced the klansmen’s steps through Palatka. Ritzel would edit Goldman’s footage into a gripping video while Shotzbarger and Hamlin created a riveting online presentation embedded with the incriminating recordings and remarkable visuals.

The final package raises the question of just how many klansmen work inside the Florida Department of Corrections and points to how little departments and agencies do to root them out.

The piece had immediate impact,with Florida papers featuring it on home pages and front pages. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel’s op-ed read,“Shocking prison murder plot demands full state investigation,” and a Florida lawmaker called for a federal investigation of white supremacy among prison workers. Politico’s Playbook called it a “MUST READ,” and an Esquire magazine column called it “flat-out astonishing.”

The piece found some 360,000 readers on AP News and kept them there for an average 5 minutes,30 seconds — longer than any other AP story in memory.

For dogged reporting and an immersive all-formats narrative that exposes a salient,timely issue,Dearan,Goldman,Ritzel, Shotzbarger and Hamlin win AP’s Best of the Week award.

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