Tacoma character, gadfly, muckraker John Hathaway dies

When some veterans at The News Tribune heard John Hathaway was dead they weren’t sure whether to believe it.

Over the years, the notorious political gadfly and publisher of the online muckraking journal The New Takhoman had been the source of much misinformation and overblown “scoops.”

So some at The News Tribune didn’t discount the idea that word of Hathaway’s death might be some kind of elaborate hoax, engineered by the man himself.

It was not.

The 69-year-old Tacoma native died June 3 at St. Joseph Medical Center.

“He was a gadfly, but he was a lovable guy,” said Carolyn Perry, Hathaway’s partner for the past 4 1/2 years. “He just didn’t like what the City Council was doing to his city.

“It was his personal thing. If he found fault with something and he felt it should be told, he told it.”

Hathaway started The New Takhoman in 1995, specializing in insider gossip from Tacoma City Hall and cut-and-paste cartoons lampooning local elected officials.

He moved his publication online in 2000, and three years later learned of a story that turned out to be pivotal in Tacoma history and briefly gave Hathaway national attention.

One of Hathaway’s sources slipped a copy of the divorce proceedings of Police Chief David Brame into Hathaway’s newspaper tube — documents that included allegations that the chief abused his wife and threatened to kill her.

Hathaway posted an 11-paragraph story the next day.

“Remember, dear readers,” he wrote, “you heard it first, off the record, on the Q.T. and very Confidential. ...

“What started out as an amicable divorce proceeding, filed in King County on February 24, has turned out to be the biggest scandal this ‘Sin City’ has seen since Commissioner Kerr got caught with his pants down on K Street more than 50 years ago.”

The story was followed by reports in The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The News Tribune and local television newscasts.

Four days after Hathaway’s post, Brame shot his wife, Crystal, and killed himself.

The timing of the events led some to the conclusion that the publicity over the divorce caused Brame to snap.

Hathaway expressed no regrets.

“It’s news,” he later told a News Tribune reporter. “It’s Tacoma news. If it rubs a little dirt on our already tarnished image, not my problem. It’s not my job to polish the badge.”

Personally, Hathaway, once a bartender at the now long-gone Lincoln Bowl on Tacoma’s East Side, cultivated a 1940’s gumshoe persona, wearing a thin mustache and a wide-brimmed fedora.

The effect was magnified by his gravelly voice, roughened by years of scotch and Camel cigarettes.

Talking in pulp fiction detective jargon, he relished making after-hours calls to reporters, editors, cops and politicians, discussing perceived scandals and ethics violations.

He sometimes wrote as a hard-boiled alter ego, Paul Malone, who he once described as the “essence of sleaze” and “keeper of inside dirt supreme.”

A 2003 profile in The News Tribune quoted both supporters and detractors of Hathaway.

“On balance, I’m glad there’s a John Hathaway,” said then-City Councilman Mike Lonergan. “I feel like he’s an advocate for open government, and that’s not a bad thing.”

Kevin Phelps, a city councilman at the time, could have done without Hathaway.

“Everything he does is negative,” said Phelps, a frequent cartoon target. “He looks for the bad in everything. I haven’t seen any value in what he does.”

During the Brame coverage, CBS News featured Hathaway on the show “48 Hours.” The producer, Paul LaRosa, later wrote a book about the Brame tragedy. In the book, “Tacoma Confidential,” Hathaway played a central role.

Hathaway reveled in the fame.

“Some people get 15 minutes,” he said. “Me? I’m getting 48 hours.”

Perry said there will be a service of some sort later this month, but she’s not yet sure what form it will take.

“He didn’t want a service, so I’m not sure what’s going to happen,” she said. “We may just have an open house for those who want to come and share.”