Published: March 6, 2024

By Joe Arney

It’s complicated enough to pitch your editor a story on a woman’s possible murder and how police may have bungled the investigation.

Add in the woman’s role in the bondage, dominance, submission and sadomasochism—or BDSM—community, and you can appreciate how Andy Mannix would have struggled to sell his editors on the value of an investigative report into the death of Heather Mayer.

The results, however, speak for themselves. Multiple years of reporting by Mannix, of the Minnesota Star Tribune, culminated in a compelling investigation of Mayer’s death that detailed how the police and legal system failed the victim, her family and other women in the BDSM community.

Today, the University of Colorado Boulder and the Denver Press Club announced that “What Happened to Heather Mayer?” is the winner of the prestigious Al Nakkula Award for Police Reporting.

“A lot of newsrooms would have run screaming away from that one: ‘You want do what?’” said Chuck Plunkett, a judge in the contest and director of CU News Corps, in the university’s College of Media, Communication and Information. “It was a really gutsy piece of journalism done with a lot of heart and a lot of empathy. It’s clear they went the extra mile and then some to do right by the subject matter.”

“This story not only impacted Heather’s case, but it has the potential to influence how police and society at large view ‘non-perfect victims.’”
Hannah Metzger (Jour’20), staff writer, Westword

Mannix began reporting on the story in 2021, two years after Heather Mayer died of what police called a suicide or “tragic accident” in the home of a man who was a “dominant” in BDSM—someone who consensually uses “submissives” to play with power. Mannix was motivated to pursue the story after being contacted by Mayer’s mother, who felt the police did not conduct a thorough investigation at least in part due to her daughter’s lifestyle.

The detailed storytelling and strong use of multimedia materials—including text messages, videos interviews, police videos and strong photography—made a strong impression on Hannah Metzger (Jour’20), a staff writer with Denver’s Westword and one of the judges.

“It is an incredible feat that Andy was able to get these victims to speak on the record about something so intimate and traumatic,” Metzger said. “This story not only impacted Heather’s case, but it has the potential to influence how police and society at large view ‘non-perfect victims.’

“It's a shining example of the power of local journalism.”

For another judge, Tory Lysik (Jour, PolSci’21), the overall quality of the pool was an impressive reminder of what local journalism is doing to hold law enforcement accountable.

In the Star Tribune piece, “there were so many layers the journalists could have stopped at … but they just kept uncovering more and more layers from there,” said Lysik, a data visualization journalist at Axios. “It went on to show (that) police can see cases on a monochromatic level, when there is really so much more to it.”  

The right tone for a traumatic story

She also noted that the boldness of the reporting was presented sensitively, in a tone other contest entries struggled to match.

“The components in place allow the reader to choose what they see, and what they cannot, without sacrificing the message and information within the story,” Lysik said. “In covering sensitive stories, this is crucial in order to not re-traumatize your audience.”

Alex Edwards (Jour’21), a reporter with The Denver Gazette, noted the tenacity of the journalists, editors, visual teams and other associated with each of the entries.

“As a young journalist, it was very encouraging to know that work like this is still being done,” said Edwards, another judge on the panel. “Pieces like those in the Nakkula series demonstrate that journalism is still the noble profession of respected titans like Murrow, Cronkite, Couric and countless others.”

The special mention went to Robert Anglen and Elena Santa Cruz of The Arizona Republic, for their reporting on the so-called “Gilbert Goons” and police inaction in making communities safe for teenagers.

“When the cries of victims and their parents fell on law enforcement's deaf ears, these reporters listened,” Metzger said. “They reignited hope that the victims will finally get justice. The impact has yet to fully unfold, as arrests continue to be made, but it’s clear most would not have happened without the work of these reporters.”

The competition annually attracts contest entries from national media organizations like The New York Times and ProPublica, which has won the last three Nakkula awards. Plunkett said it was “gratifying” to recognize a local publication like the Star Tribune, which took runner-up honors in last year’s competition.

“I’m so proud to see local newsrooms stepping up as they are, and like the Star Tribune has done this year,” Plunkett said.

Edwards echoed that sentiment. Judging the competition, he said, “showed me that any newsroom can make a huge impact within their community—and that almost any thread is worth tugging on. You never truly know what you’ll uncover.”

About the Nakkula Award

The Al Nakkula Award for Police Reporting honors the late Al Nakkula, a 46-year veteran of the Rocky Mountain News, whose tenacity made him a legendary police reporter. This year, nearly 30 national media outlets submitted entries to a panel of four judges: Edwards, Lysik, Metzger and Plunkett.

Each year, Nakkula contest judges look for stories that meet the highest journalistic standards, help readers understand complex issues and solutions, show a commitment to community, and bring about societal change. The competition is sponsored by the journalism department at CMCI and the Denver Press Club, and has been awarded annually since 1991. More on the Nakkula Award.