How Post Photographer Got Picture of Mayor Barry’s Cocaine Bust

Sometimes the story behind the story is almost as sensational as the original news.

Nearly everyone remembers when former Mayor Marion Barry was arrested for possession and use of crack cocaine back in 1990.

Marion Barry arrested by the FBI
Marion Barry arrested by the FBI

But until an NPR ‘All Things Considered’ broadcast a few weeks ago, I had no idea about the story behind the story involving the page one photo in the Washington Post of Barry in handcuffs outside his home in southeast.

As part of a regular series called “My Big Break,” Post photographer Bill O’Leary told the amazing tale to NPR reporter Arun Rath:
“I had been on the administrative staff at the Post. It’s pretty much clerical, background work. And I was anxious to get out on the street with a camera.

An editor comes running in and says: ‘There’s a rumor Mayor Barry has been arrested.’ For this to happen was a monstrous local story.”
Editors quickly sent staff photographers to the FBI office out at Buzzard’s Point to cover the story. Only two photogs remained at the office. O’Leary again:

“Just me and one of the older photographers who had been going through a divorce and had asked for light duty.”

They were dispatched to Barry’s house as backup in the event the other cameramen at Buzzard’s Point missed getting a picture of Barry there.

Just after O’Leary and the second photographer arrived at the house, an FBI SUV pulled up and four men got out of the vehicle. One of the four was Marion Barry.

As the NPR reporter tells it, O’Leary raised his camera but an FBI agent intervened and started to push him backward. Then another reporter, Joe Johns, with NBC’s WRC-TV at that time, ran up and started shouting questions at the Mayor. The FBI agent turned away toward all the commotion created by Johns. In O’Leary’s words:

“At that instant, I get off this one picture–BAM!–with a punch flash, direct strobe, hideous in the middle of the night.”
O’Leary hustled back to the newsroom downtown and developed the photo in the darkroom.

“I finally start to unwheel it from the spool, hold it up to a light box, and there it is. It’s clear, sharp. It’s properly exposed and it’s the Mayor.”

“It was magic…That was my big break”

About Marty C.

Marty is a retired journalist who started covering sports for the old Washington Daily News. He moved on to better weather in Hawaii, working for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin and later as a business reporter at Fairchild Publications and Kiplinger.

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