Ron Porambo, who died October 22 at 67, made a fateful and most unusual career choice when, in the early 1970s, soon after publishing an impassioned book about the 1967 Newark, N.J., riots, he turned to a life of crime as a stickup artist.
Having spent much of his career consorting with lowlifes and advocating for their welfare against the powerful, Porambo committed the journalistic equivalent of "going native." When he died, apparently from choking on an orange, he was serving a life sentence for the murder of a drug dealer in 1983.
Charismatic yet oddly misanthropic, Porambo chafed as a reporter at daily newspapers in New Jersey and elsewhere, seldom spending long in a job before causing offense or quitting.
In 1971, when he published "No Cause for Indictment: An Autopsy of Newark," he was scratching out a living washing cars and driving a truck, having worked at nine reporting jobs in the previous eight years, according to a feature about him in the Washington Post.
The book focused on corruption and "police murders" in connection with the 1967 riots, which left 26 dead. A grand jury made no indictments. Porambo wrote that the case had been "a calculated, disgraceful travesty."
The New Yorker called it "probably the most moving and instructive book yet written on any of the bloody civil disturbances of the sixties."
It didn't hurt his book sales any that, shortly after it was published, Porambo was shot at twice in circumstances that made it look like members of the city's white establishment were out to silence him. The second time, he was hit in the legs by two bullets.
"Last week they tried to murder the author," an advertisement in the New YorkTimes Book Review said. Porambo blamed "the Italian people who run this town," but no one was ever arrested for the shootings.
It was in connection with the book that Porambo first went to jail, sentenced in 1973 to three months for bribing a Newark patrolman to furnish him with photos of people killed in the riots. "You may have tried to root out corruption, but you stooped to corruption yourself," the sentencing judge said.
Not long afterward, Porambo turned to more conventional crime, starting with an abortive stickup at a Toronto airport. "I went about it the way I did everything else. If there had been eight days in a week, I would have done it eight days," Porambo told Newsday's Fred Bruning, a friend of Porambo's from their days together at the Knickerbocker News.
For a few years, Porambo alternated between journalism jobs and crime, admonishing his children to follow the straight and narrow while settling on drug dealers as suitable victims because they were flush with cash and unlikely to go to the police, according to Mr. Bruning.
After a stickup gone wrong in 1983, Porambo was convicted of slaying a drug dealer. It was alleged that he had shot the dealer while the dealer was trying to protect his girlfriend from sexual assault by Porambo's accomplice.
Ronald Porambo was born in Newark, where his father was a prosperous baker who had invented and patented a cruller twister. Porambo was a New Jersey Golden Gloves champion boxer in 1956. He tried his hand at prize fighting with enough success to have appeared in preliminary bouts at Madison Square Garden a couple of times in the late 1950s.
Porambo briefly tried to work for his father and apparently served briefly in the armed forces. He majored in journalism at Rutgers, taking seven years to get the degree. "I knew that was the only course I could conceivably pass," he told the New York Times in 1972.
He began working at small newspapers, holding jobs in Lorain, Ohio, and in Albany, where he once wrote a story with the absurd on its face notion that local Chinese restaurants were serving discarded leftovers from Italian eateries.
In Kingsport, Tenn., where he worked for the Times-News, he met and wed a young woman named Carol Scott. That she was black and he was white was unusual enough that the New York Times saw fit to make it a headline in a 1972 profile of Porambo; such was his concern for the downtrodden that he would even marry one.
The couple lived in many places as Porambo moved from job to job, but in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Porambo held jobs at the Newark Star-Ledger and the Elizabeth Journal, they lived in Newark.
Porambo researched his book by searching out lowlifes in dingy bars. "He wrote about derelicts and bootleggers and hookers and second-story artists and crooked cops," Mr. Bruning wrote. Thin, wearing horn-rimmed spectacles and a beret, he cut an unusual figure in the mostly black circles in which he moved.
Always a bit of a marginal character, Porambo seems to have become further unglued around the time of the 1973 shooting. He had a new family to support, and even though the book apparently helped him get a job as a producer at public television, he must have suspected it wouldn't last. In interviews with newspapers, he boasted of being a crack shot and carrying an unlicensed weapon. And then he was sent to jail on the bribery charge.
Mr. Bruning kept up with Porambo in prison and reported that he found religion there.
"He was as remarkable a reporter as he was a remarkable character," Mr. Bruning said. "He had a very keen interest in helping the average Joe." When Mr. Bruning visited Porambo in Trenton last year, he asked once again why Porambo turned to crime. Porambo just wept.
A publishing firm in Hoboken, Melville House, has announced a plan to reissue "No Cause for Indictment" next year, on the 40th anniversary of the riots.