Mark Fineman

Veteran 'LA Times' correspondent

Mark Fineman, journalist: born Chicago 3 August 1952; married 1992 Michelle Prosser (one stepson, one stepdaughter); died Baghdad 23 September 2003.

Considering all the dangerous places and the risky circumstances associated with Mark Fineman's dispatches, the veteran US foreign correspondent stunned his colleagues by dying of natural causes in Baghdad. He had a heart attack at a checkpoint, waiting for an interview with bureaucrats from the Iraqi Governing Council. Unsurprisingly, a piece of his was published on the front page of The Los Angeles Times on the very day he died.

Fineman looked like the archetypal alpha-male Gonzo reporter, with a gleam in his blue eyes and spiral notebook at the ready. He was an intelligent and generous colleague, willing to share contacts and sources, but only after he had scooped you.

Invariably, Fineman was one of the first to break stories in the world's hotspots, and he did not shrink from complexities. He won major journalism prizes. His beats stretched from Asia to the subcontinent, the Middle East and Latin America, and he had even asked to leave his plum post as the Caribbean reporter, based in Miami, in order to launch an investigative unit from Washington DC for The Los Angeles Times.

For nearly 18 years, he was a roving correspondent for the same daily newspaper, the LA Times. Born in Chicago in 1952, he had studied journalism and philosophy at Syracuse University and spent five years on the Philadelphia Inquirer before coming to the Times in 1986. He reported in depth about Communist guerrillas in the Philippines, the chemical tragedy at Bhopal, the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi and the chaos in Haiti.

In Havana, Fineman quickly distinguished himself by lifting the lid on a CIA secret about Thomas Ray, whom he described as "a man who wasn't there". Fidel Castro's orders kept the body of the B-26 bomber pilot frozen for 18 years after he was shot down during the botched Bay of Pigs invasion. All the details of the case were on ice too until Fineman started investigating in 1998.

On assignment with Fineman, things were never dull. He was a laconic story-teller and impulsively brave. While covering the mujahedin fighters in wintry Kabul back in 1989, a hulking warrior was utterly smitten with Kate Webb, a lone female reporter from the Agence France-Presse. But it obviously was not reciprocal. Mark Fineman noticed the odd couple immediately: a drug-crazed and lovesick lout tugging Webb by the hair down the corridor of the Kabul hotel.

He was quick to act. Along with the Independent reporter Ahmed Rashid, they jumped the gargantuan guerrilla, kicked him in the groin, and ran to safety with the grateful reporter. But, as soon as the muj recovered, he set out after the trio in a rage, and they were forced to leap from balcony to snowy balcony to avoid him. It was even more surreal the following day, when his superior officers forced the fighter to apologise to the reporters at a very uncomfortable dinner party.

This, and many other stories behind stories, never made it to the pages of The Los Angeles Times.

Jan McGirk

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