Photo: Richard Fricker, right, with Observer Founding Editor Frosty Troy at 2013’s inaugural Frosty Fest in Oklahoma City.
BY RAY PEARCEY
More than once, over the span of the last year or so, I have wanted to unfriend my buddy, Richard L. Fricker.
And I don’t just mean expelling him from my Facebook world, but Richard was like the refrain in the old Eagle song, you see – you could “always check out of hotel Richard, but you could never leave.”
Richard died this past week, after a brief illness, at 69.
Fricker was a public citizen of the first rank and the closest that we had, in T-Town, to the old muckraking, big bark journalistic tradition.
Physically, he bore a real resemblance to Richard Attenborough, the recently deceased gifted actor/filmmaker. But Richard F. was a lot more cantankerous than the characters that Attenborough typically played late in his life, including most famously, the genial entrepreneur/business tycoon in Jurassic Park.
Richard could be impossibly compassionate one day and nosy, intrusive as hell the next. He’s was one of the few friends who would routinely ask me “where” I was in our phone chats; sometimes when I was in his personal orbit, he’d asked me who I was talking to after I completed a phone call – one of the biggest no-no’s in our “post privacy” world.
Remember this, though: He was a fevered concatenation. He could drive his closest friends batty but he was a devout husband and father. And even though he was not a wealthy person, RLF was a sometimes above board, most times not visible donor to T-Town artists, writers, musicians and other fascinating, but temporarily hapless denizens in our realm.
Richard was a soccer freak, a former Texan, a proud if righteously conflicted Vietnam vet, a Spanish speaker, and a journalist of the most resilient, investigative variety. He was a print journalist “plus” his entire working life: he sparked up at a small town daily after being honorably discharged from the U.S. Navy in the ’70’s as a radar operative, Petty Officer third class. In addition to his print craft, he did episodic radio news for local, national and international outlets, including the Mutual Network, BBC, and CBC, and helped shepherd a handful of documentary films shot in Tulsa.
The man was a fighter, a big proponent of using state and national freedom of information legislation, and posing white knuckle, totally audacious questions in press conferences and in private exchanges with politicos and other bigwigs.
And brother Fricker was a fierce partisan for civil liberties and human rights, an in-print and in-your-face, foe of racism and an unassailable enemy of police brutality, cop obfuscation and corruption. He regarded raw privilege, and arbitrary authority, as the highest sins.
While he was old-school in many ways, he also wrote a signal piece for the very first issue of Wired magazine in 1992. Readers will recall that Wired, for over a decade, was the unriveled repository of everything that was super cool, techno hip and on the edge.
Richard’s Wired story on the now little-remembered firm INSLAW, and it’s strange troubles, was a remarkable pioneering scope out of a murky, predatory connection between the U.S. Justice Department and the well placed, but tiny software/tech company.
INSLAW was a small programming and algorithm systems outfit that had conjured some agile code called PROMIS – for stapling together dozens of disparate government databases to track illegal domestic throw downs and U.S. criminal operatives.
The Feds, Richard surmised, wanted to redeploy the firm’s cross agency, interactive database application for intelligence and defense work and transnational drug interdiction – but the Feds were not all that cool about paying INSLAW for this new task set.
The INSLAW story was arguably one of the first about the strange, still morphing nexus between information tech, software engineering, intellectual property and the limitless data requirements of our justice system and the American intelligence community.
And while the government’s rebuttals and claims of misrepresentation in Richard’s story were as voluminous as fans at a World Cup champion after-party, a federal judge later awarded $8.6 million to the minuscule INSLAW, having decided that DOJ and the U.S. intelligence community did, in fact, steal, as Richard had claimed in his path-breaking story, their assets.
Richard was also one of the senior writers for The Oklahoma Obsever, a statewide, monthly political and commentary magazine. The Observer, as Editor Arnold Hamilton will tell anyone, is a neon platform for “afflicting the comfortable, while comforting the afflicted.”
In recent months, Richard, via The Observer, has assailed Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin for ignoring the Oklahoma Supreme Court, for her outsized maneuvering to deprive Oklahomans of federal ObamaCare benefits and for overseeing a botched state execution that has pulsed a wave of revulsion across the country and a ginned up re-look at capital punishment.
And while some politics writers were willing to let soon-to-retire U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, go by the wayside, Richard wrote a profoundly unflattering and unfailingly accurate rendition of the many questionable votes on civil liberties, unemployment, gender matters, labor, and retrenchment of the federal social net that was core to Coburn’s legacy.
Richard did extensive coverage of the so-called Abello controversy, one that won him the 1989 American Business Editor’s award for best investigative writing, the first of two he secured from work he did for the American Bar Association Journal.
The Abello controversy centered around a Colombian character with lots of dubious assets, associates and a grim history, who was actually extracted from Latin America and tried in Tulsa during the ‘90s. Richard’s fact-based conjecture was that while Jose Rafael Abello was certainly a participant in cocaine, heroin and other illegal drug trafficking, he was nowhere near the outsized figure that the Bush Administration claimed.
In a 1990 commentary, James Warren, of the Chicago Tribune wrote:
” … The piece [Fricker’s] leaves the distinct impression that the U.S. allegation that Abello was a high-ranking member of the Medellin cartel was hogwash and that he was railroaded, in part because the U.S. refused to let many potential defense witnesses come to the courtroom in Tulsa from Colombia … ”
Richard often said he was particularly proud of another ABA story, Reasonable Doubts, a many-tiered narrative about Adolph Munson, who spent 12 years on Oklahoma’s death row for a murder he had no connection to. Over the course of a tumultuous investigative foray, Richard secured info previously hidden by the authorities. His energetic rummaging was transformative – Munson was re-tried and acquitted.
And while most of Richard’s works were domestic pieces, often targeted at misconduct in policing, law enforcement, government misbehavior and the hypocritical deeds of Oklahoma political officials, he managed to get out of the country and do an international story from time to time.
The most notable, Emerging Law in Palestine, was a story spawned by his ’93 trip to the Middle East with then-ABA Journal Editor Gary Hengstler, shortly after the signing of arguably unprecedented codicil between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
In the piece, Richard conveys some prescient impressions that bedevil us today. Even as the Israeli government and the PLO were executing fresh peace documents, the foundations of the agreements were disintegrating, abetted by bitter dissents within Israel and the Palestinian cadre. Sadly, the then-new Oslo compact was in meltdown even while getting underway, producing the same twilight cast, ever conflict laden landscape that readers can sample by pressing CNN on their cable controller this week.
And this transnational dust-up story was far from unique: Richard would joyously savage any institution, politico or movement that he thought was hypocritical, anti-democratic, not transparent or simply a danger to the republic.
Richard was also contributor, this past 60 weeks, to The Oklahoma Eagle – a nearly 100-year-old weekly publication that I manage. He wrote about policing, courts, law-enforcement in the metro area, did several great film reviews, assisted with M.J. Denman’s fabulous weekly soccer piece, and with Arnold Hamilton’s permission, helped The Eagle to republish a passel of articles from The Oklahoma Observer.
Richard also contributed an article, some months ago, to Tulsa’s newest alt-weekly journal, The Tulsa Voice, and he was in the midst of negotiating an expanded role at The Voice – including extended coverage of local soccer – one of his torrid obsessions.
We can’t do without Richard in Oklahoma. We’ll have to find a way to regenerate his spirit, his ethical antenna, his outlook, his energy and, yes, his sometimes a-social, but productive mien.
I’m betting he is ruminating on the deficiencies of this piece even now; he is probably monitoring my work – somehow. He was so damn nosy.
– Ray Pearcey is editor of The Oklahoma Eagle and a columnist for The Tulsa Voice