Journalist murdered in Maryland spent years reporting in Petersburg

PETERSBURG, Va. – One of the five journalists murdered in the gruesome shooting that unfolded at the Capital Gazette newsroom spent years reporting in Petersburg, and even helped cover what was the city’s worse police shooting.

Robert Hiaasen worked three years for the Progress-Index in Petersburg, in the mid-1980s.

He was desk mates with Bill Atkinson, who started in August 1986.

“He was the first person to shake my hand when I came in the newsroom,” Bill said.

He said that early on he realized Rob was a true newspaperman.

“He was excellent at what he did, it was in his DNA,” Bill explained.

On May 22, 1987, Robert was covering what is considered the city's worst police shooting.

During the shootout, he helped save a small child’s life.

“He just scooped that child up on that tricycle, just like it was a small toy and carried that child off to safety and he never talked about it,” Bill said.

Other colleagues said Robert had a unique way of telling stories and enjoyed mentoring young reporters. "He was a coach, and he was a mentor. He wanted to teach young journalists to be better," Tina Reed, a former Capital reporter, told The Baltimore Sun.

His brother, best-selling author and Miami Herald columnist Carl Hiaasen, confirmed Robert's death in a Facebook post and later told CNN that his sibling was a generous, gentle man and "such a gifted writer and editor" who believed deeply in keeping the public informed.

Bill still can’t believe his former co-worker is dead, or that a newsroom was attacked by someone who authorities said had a history of threatening the paper.

Robert, 59, is survived by children and his wife of 33 years.

"I saw the name and I just went, ‘oh my gosh,’” Bill recalled.

Hiaasen had been an assistant editor and a Sunday columnist at the Capital Gazette since 2010.

The longtime editor and columnist was among five people killed Thursday when a gunman opened fire through the glass door of the newsroom at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, said William Krampf, acting chief of Anne Arundel County police. Together, the victims had more than 75 years of experience at the paper.

Here's what we know so far about the people who died:

Robert Hiaasen

Hiaasen, 59, had been an assistant editor and a Sunday columnist at the Capital Gazette since 2010.

A native of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he had been a staff reporter for The Palm Beach Post in Florida and more recently had spent 15 years reporting for The Baltimore Sun, according to his staff biography.

His brother Carl Hiaasen told CNN on Friday that Robert "was so proud of those reporters (and) the other editors" at the Capital Gazette.

"What he would want me to say was everything (they did) was for the readers," Carl Hiaasen said.

He wrote in a Facebook post that his brother was affectionately known as "Big Rob" because he towered over people, "but it was his remarkable heart and humor that made him larger than all of us."

"He spent his whole gifted career as a journalist, and he believed profoundly in the craft and mission of serving the public's right to know the news," he added.

Tom Marquardt, the former publisher and editor of the Capital Gazette, told CNN's Wolf Blitzer that Hiaasen was an "incredible mentor" to young reporters and editors.

"I mean, he was a calming voice in that newsroom," Marquardt said. "Also an inspiring voice. An incredibly gifted writer with a sense of humor ... He was just a joy to be around."

That sentiment was echoed by Teresa Johnson, one of Hiassen's students at the University of Maryland, where Hiassen taught an advanced news writing course as an adjunct lecturer this past spring.

It was Hiassen's first class at Maryland, but to his eight students, he "was like our journalism dad," inspiring them to be better reporters and often checking in on them, Johnson said.

Johnson, a 22-year-old multiplatform journalism and studio art major, recalled Hiaasen passing around a canister of gum to his students in every class, and talking them through how he reported his own pieces.

"You could just tell he was so excited to teach, and he was so intrigued by what the class had to write," Johnson said.

Hiaasen was a Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University in 2004, where he focused on screenwriting and narrative journalism.

Hiaasen had also been a news anchor and reporter at news-talk radio stations throughout the South, his bio said.

He is survived by children and his wife of 33 years, his brother said.

Gerald Fischman

Fischman, 61, had been at the newspaper for more than 25 years. The editorial page editor was known to have a quiet and reserved personality, but his work and knowledge charmed many.

"He had an encyclopedia knowledge of everything from the philosophy to who knows what," Brian Henley, a retired editor, told The Baltimore Sun.

The editorial page "may be the best way to read a community's mind," he wrote in a column in December.

Fischman recently won two awards from the Maryland, Delaware, District of Columbia Press Association for editorials about a County Council member accused of censoring public comments at meetings and the case of a teenager who was accused of hanging a noose outside a middle school.

Local politicians praised him for his professionalism.

"When I sat for my endorsement interviews in 2010, he made it clear to me it was to be earned and by no means was guaranteed," former Anne Arundel County Councilman Jamie Benoit told the newspaper. "He asked tough questions and exposed every weakness in my legislative record. He treated council races like they were presidential races."

Marquardt called him "a guy who could turn prose like anybody I've ever seen," who "loved his position at the Capital."

Fischman graduated from the University of Maryland in 1979.

John McNamara

McNamara had worked at the Capital Gazette in various capacities for more than 20 years.

"At a small paper like that, you have to be versatile," former Capital Gazette sports editor Gerry Jackson told the newspaper. "He could write. He could edit. He could design pages. He was just a jack-of-all-trades and a fantastic person."

The 56-year-old loved covering sports, and his interest in local history inspired him to write two books about University of Maryland's football and basketball history.

He was working on another book about baseball players raised in the Washington area, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Before joining the Capital Gazette, McNamara worked at The Herald-Mail in Hagerstown, Maryland, according to his LinkedIn profile.

McNamara graduated from the University of Maryland in 1983. Along with his colleagues Hiaasen and Fischman, he was one of three victims with ties -- either through graduation or through lecturing -- to the university.

"We're heartbroken," Lucy Dalglish, dean of the university's journalism college, said in a statement Thursday. "This was a senseless attack on journalists who worked hard to serve their community.

"We cannot stop thinking about our friends and colleagues in Annapolis and their families."

Rebecca Smith

Smith, 34, joined the newspaper last year as a sales assistant.

"She was a very thoughtful person," Marty Padden, the newspaper's advertising director, told The Baltimore Sun. "She was kind and considerate, and willing to help when needed. She seemed to really enjoy to be working in the media business."

In her Facebook profile, Smith described herself as a survivor of endometriosis and a "Dog Mom. Softball Fiance. Bonus Mom to the best kid ever."

Before the Capital Gazette, Smith worked in marketing for a health care organization, the newspaper reported.

Wendi Winters

Winters was an editor and community reporter for the Capital Gazette, writing several weekly columns.

The 65-year-old moved to Maryland after working for two public relation agencies in New York and "owning her own boutique agency in the Big Apple," her staff bio said.

Her skills as a journalist came from her experience in "retailing, wholesaling, art design, apparel and accessories design, management, public relations, modeling, styling, casting, event planning, motherhood - instead of 4-years at a j-school," she wrote in her LinkedIn profile.

Winters had a fashion design degree from Virginia Commonwealth University and organized campaigns and special events for companies such as J.C. Penney, Sears Roebuck & Co. and Gimbels, according to her profile.

She was an active volunteer with the Girl Scouts and Red Cross and had founded an annual event in Annapolis called P.R. Bazaar, where local journalists and public relations professionals meet to learn from each other.

"My mother was a wonderful woman and a fantastic reporter," her daughter Winters Geimer told The Baltimore Sun as the family gathered Thursday. "Her life was a gift to everyone who knew her and the world will not be the same without her. We are grieving and trying to make sure all of us can be together to celebrate the life of our mother."

***information from CNN Wire contributing to this report***