Photojournalist Alex Vasquez’s tireless passion to tell the stories of the Inland Empire
by Kristina Bugante
photography by Katelyn Keeling
First meeting Alex Vasquez is sort of jarring — his over-6-foot frame stands just as tall as the large, four-wheel drive news van he lugs around with him practically 24/7. His eyes are almost always shaded with dark sunglasses, so there is that initial feeling of disconnect, but he soon reels you in with his boisterous, but welcoming, personality. His van is unmarked, awaiting to be rewrapped with his station’s logo, but his media credentials hang from his neck. He’s donning a baseball cap and a shirt both emblazoned with NBC logos. After taking a call on speakerphone with an assignment editor, he begins multitasking, his fingers flying across his iPhone screen. “We’re going to the 3000 block of East Cedar in Ontario,” he says. At this point, it’s only 10 a.m., but Alex already began his day at 7 a.m. at an assignment 50 miles away in Banning — and now, he’s in Upland, figuring out where he should go to next. He still needed a story in time for the noon newscast.
“This might not even be our story,” Alex says, but he has to approach it like it is going to be the one he has to work on for the day. Soon after, he’s parked on one side of that industrial road in Ontario, shooting b-roll of scattered car parts, broken glass and an uprooted tree — the aftermath of a fatal crash from the day before that police say was due to street racing. He waits around the area for a while, but later decides to pursue an interview with the victim’s family in Rancho Cucamonga — which turns out to be a bust. Then, he’s sent out to cover a completely different assignment over 50 miles up north in Apple Valley. “You never know where you’re going to end up,” he says.
On Super Bowl Sunday three years ago, Alex was at a bar in Mentone, California, a tiny town approximately 70 miles east of Los Angeles. As he was watching the game with his friends, word got out of a bus crash that was not far from where he was. Seven people were killed after a tour bus carrying passengers from Tijuana sped down Highway 38 and lost control, crashing into two vehicles. “This off-duty firefighter next to me was like, ‘I got to go,’” he says. “So I go follow him.” Alex, who always has a camera with him, even on his day off, ended up being the first journalist at the scene, beating all the other media there by an hour and a half. In his career, he has built a reputation for being first for his work out on the field. “It’s weird,” he says. “It’s kind of like dumb luck. It seems like news always follows me, instead of me following the news.”
A journalist with drive
Alex, who graduated from the communications department at the University of La Verne in 2005, is now an Emmy award-winning photojournalist for NBC4 Southern California’s Inland Empire news bureau. He began his journalism career at the NBC affiliate KYMA-DT in Yuma, Arizona, and has worked for major broadcasting affiliates such as KABC and KCBS. He joined NBC4 in 2006 as an assignment editor before he started working on the field for NBC4’s sister station KVEA52, a Telemundo affiliate. As someone who continuously churns out stories from the immense Inland Empire, Alex drives NBC4’s only four-wheel drive news van, which gives him the ability to take him to places other news vans cannot. In December 2015, a gas tanker truck caught fire on the 15 freeway in Corona, shutting down all lanes of the highway. “None of the other news vans can get to where that happened,” Alex says. “So I put on the four-wheel drive and went up and over that mountain and came down, and the firefighters were staring at me, ‘I can’t believe you went over that thing.’” His competitiveness has given him an untiring edge to where he is constantly looking for stories — as if he is on call all hours of the day. Alex is constantly driving around the Inland Empire — with one hand on his steering wheel, and the other on his iPhone, he is in constant communication with reporters and assignment editors back at the station in Universal City, going to wherever they send him. While he’s driving to a story, he is still constantly scoping the area and listens for key words such as “shooting” or “fire,” on his police scanners, including the five in his van and the 14 in his house. “They’re on 24/7,” he says. “People sleep with their televisions on, but for me, it’s the police scanners.”
Covering the Inland Empire
Alex’s commitment to getting the best story before anyone else makes him well-prepared to cover the Inland Empire. During his years of covering stories in Los Angeles county for NBC4 and KVEA52, Alex constantly requested the stations to send him to assignments in the Inland Empire. “I know the area, I wanted to be there, and no one else wanted to be there because of the weather and the terrain,” he says. Eventually, he pitched to the company to create a bureau out in the area. “They said, ‘Well, we need someone out there, so we’ll give you a chance,” Alex says. “And I guess I haven’t looked back since.”
Tony Shin, who came from NBC7 in San Diego, joined NBC4 in 2013 as the Inland Empire Bureau Chief and a general assignment reporter. Over the past years, Alex and Tony have worked together side-by-side, primarily covering stories in Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The two cover as much ground as they can — Alex says he has gone as far east as Blythe near the California-Arizona border, as far south as San Diego County, and as far north as the Nevada state line. He averages up to 100 miles a day driving in his news van. “When I worked in LA, everything just seemed to be 30 minutes from the station, and out here, I’m lucky if it’s within 30 miles of where I’m at. It’s such a big area that it’s hard to stay on top of news because it keeps constantly coming,” he says. Tony says that can be frustrating because all Alex wants is for the station to be represented well with the viewers. “He’s the kind of guy who wants to be No. 1 when it comes to getting all the facts right,” he says. “We want to be everywhere, but we can’t. And we try. Believe me — we try.” Oftentimes Alex and Tony split up and work separately, and then come together later to put their work together for the show. Since the Inland Empire bureau consists of only the pair, Alex and Tony often have to do the extra work that goes beyond their respective job descriptions. For example, Alex has to do more interviewing and reporting than most photographers do, while Tony is able to shoot and edit footage alongside his on-camera work. “I don’t have to worry about what he’s going to do. I only have to worry about me, because I know he’s going to do it right,” Tony says. “And that is unique for a reporter or photographer. He does both jobs. Thank goodness he does that because I need it. We need it. We need to be able to work like what we do in order to keep up.”
Alex likes how isolated the Inland Empire is compared to Los Angeles. “I think being out here is the best fit for me because I think I represent the people out here a lot better,” he says. Alex says he does not like working in Los Angeles because the pace and the stories out there are completely different. “Out here, I get stories about an alligator found in a marijuana house guarding the plants, and I don’t see that happening in LA very often,” he says. Alex’s hobbies are a lot similar to those in the Inland Empire, such as off-roading or spending time down by the Colorado River. He has formed a relationship with the community and tries to give them the stories that matter the most to them. “I get a lot of people out here who tell me, ‘We don’t watch the news because everything’s just about Los Angeles and we’re not Los Angeles,’” he says. “I get a lot of pride in trying to do stories out here that matter and ones that people really want to see and benefit from.”
Crediting La Verne
Alex majored in television broadcasting at the University of La Verne. “I was the kid who sat in the back of the class,” he says. He described himself as an “average student,” but what made him get to where he is today was that he wanted to succeed in the business more than anyone else. Alex still keeps a midterm exam he took from Professor of Communications Mike Laponis’ audio and mixing controls class. “I got a D-,” he says. “And now I mix audio and video for one of the largest broadcasting companies in the world.” Mike says the thing that strikes him the most about Alex is his versatility. “I remember he was so interesting as a person,” he says. As far as the D- from years ago, Mike thinks Alex is a lot more than that midterm exam. “He’s serious about what he does, no matter what it is, and we’re really proud of him,” he says. Alex is thankful for what he was taught at La Verne and says that he would not be in journalism if it were not for his professors. “I remember being in class and thinking to myself, ‘I’ll never need the stuff I’m learning here,’ but it’s so weird. Everything I learned, I use every single day.” Everything he has learned at La Verne — from wrapping audio cables correctly, to being a good person — Alex says has contributed to who he is today. Mike thinks Alex is the “perfect photographer.” “To me, he’s like the perfect blend of everything to make a really good photojournalist. I can’t think of anything that he’s lacking. He’s got it all — that mechanical aptitude, his street smarts, his being bilingual and bicultural, and understanding technology and journalism and ethics.”
Attacks in San Bernardino
One Wednesday afternoon, Alex was driving from his house in Upland and decided to steer away from his usual route, opting to take the 210 freeway instead of the 10. “I don’t know why,” he says. “Something just told me, ‘Let’s go that way.’” On the drive, one of his police scanners went off — there was an emergency in the 1300th block of South Waterman Avenue in San Bernardino, where an active shooter was inside of a building and more than a dozen people might have been shot. He was just two miles away, so Alex drove to the scene and took out his camera. When he arrived, he was still hearing gunshots being fired.
This was when an armed couple in tactical gear rampaged a holiday party on Dec. 2, 2015 at the Inland Regional Center and opened fire, killing 14 people and injuring 22. The suspects, Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, later led officials on a pursuit and were killed in a shootout with the police. The rampage was later investigated as a terrorist attack and was the deadliest mass shooting in the U.S. since Sandy Hook in 2012. Alex was on the scene early enough to see wounded victims still running from the building. Tony was wrapping up an assignment down in Murrieta and was prepping the story for the show that afternoon. Then, his phone rang. It was Alex. “The only thing he said was, ‘Tony, get out to San Bernardino — right now. There’s a shooting. And it is bad. It is bad,’ and he hung up on me,” Tony recalls. “He never acts like that.” As NBC4 continued its hours-long live coverage of the incident as it was unfolding, Alex’s raw footage of wounded, bloody, crying and shocked people being treated on scene moments after the initial shootings was being looped continuously on television screens across the nation. “It was weird that day. While everything was happening, everything was moving in slow motion, but yet everything was so fast. I go back to look at the video, and I’m like, ‘Wow, I don’t even remember that happening,’” he says.
The rampage in San Bernardino was not the first tragedy that Alex has covered. “I’ve been in the middle of fires, Stanley Cup championships, horrible terrorist attacks — you name it,” he says. NBC offered Alex to see counselors after the shootings, but he says the best therapy he has had is to keep doing his job. “I don’t like to slow down because it makes me think and reflect on everything I’ve seen, so as long as I stay busy and I keep moving forward, I think that’s what keeps me going,” he says.
And Alex stays busy, working five days a week, maybe even more — he rarely says no to an assignment, calls out sick maybe only once or twice a year and does not take advantage of working overtime. “I don’t even like taking vacation time,” he says. “I just have so much fun doing what I’m doing, and it’s crazy. And my friends think it’s crazy. For me, this is just still too much fun and too exciting for me to walk away. I’m having so much fun, and the day that I stop having fun is the day I’m gonna walk away.”