According to Jack Cameron, Tacoma once had the justified reputation of being a crime-filled cess-pool. “I grew up here,” he says. “I’m aware that that’s what it was like.”
But in 2006, while attempting to explain to a friend just how much Tacoma had improved, Cameron said offhandedly, “You know what, I could write about every single homicide that happens in Tacoma and I wouldn’t be all that busy.” He set to work putting that theory to the test and created Tacoma Stories, a website that seeks to remind us that homicide victims are first and foremost people whose stories are more than just how they ended.
“The early posts are terrible,” he says. “They’re really bad. A lot of opinion, not a lot of facts. I’m a lot better now,” said Cameron.
What hasn’t changed since the beginning is his focus on the victim rather than on the murder or the murderer. “Most of the time you hear all about the killer. If it’s a prolific killer, you’ll hear about his manifesto and how he grew up. There’s a lot of focus on the violence and that doesn’t help when you’re grieving.” Cameron has had friends of his own that have been killed. That has informed how and why he writes. “If you read something where the writer is trying to focus on the humanity, at least a little bit, that might bring some sort of comfort.”
He tries to write only positive things about his subjects, but admits that that can sometimes be difficult. “They may have had a criminal history or been involved in a gang. Maybe they had a gun too and it’s a self-defense type of thing. There’s all sorts of circumstances where society as a whole would view that person not as an innocent victim.” But that doesn’t stop Cameron from finding the good, in fact it makes him try harder.
“People caught up in that scene are usually written off by the media or written off by society in general,” he said. “But the way I see it, no one is their worst day. Besides, they still have loved ones. They have wives, daughters. They have family and friends. It’s not just that single death, now there’s a hole in the lives of the dozens of people left behind.”
As you might imagine, this type of work can have an effect on the person doing it. “There was a period of about a year and a half, around 2008, where I stopped. I quit. I still had the website up, but I just stopped following the homicides. It gets dark and it gets depressing and I got to the point where I didn’t want to do it anymore.”
But then Cameron got several emails from family members of some of people he had written about previously, asking him why he quit and pushing him to keep going. Hearing that encouragement from the very people he sought to encourage reinvigorated him and he’s been posting stories consistently ever since. “It stopped being something I do and became more of a calling.”
By his own admission, there are limits to this calling. “The tricky part is that there are a lot of people that don’t have an online footprint, at least not under their real name. For those people, I can’t give a lot of personal detail. I don’t have any special access that anyone else wouldn’t have except for a few contacts I made over the years.” But he keeps going the best he can, sometimes even getting help from friends and family of the victims who provide photographs or more information about their lost loved one. “I’m very receptive to family and friends of the victim. I have changed articles when they’ve asked me to, whether it was a discrepancy or something they’d rather not have posted.”
While it’s a project that started almost on a whim, it’s not one he plans on giving up anytime soon. “It’s about the people that I walk by everyday in Tacoma. I live in Tacoma. I grew up in Tacoma. I was born in Tacoma. So, when these homicides happen, it could easily be somebody I passed on the street the day before. They’re real stories to me.”