Les Payne, a longtime Newsday journalist who shared a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on global heroin trafficking and who helped expose the Tawana Brawley hoax, died March 19 at home in Harlem. He was 76.
Mr. Payne’s family confirmed his death to Newsday, the Long Island-based daily where he worked for nearly four decades, rising through the ranks from reporter to associate managing editor. His son Jamal Payne told Newsday the cause was an apparent heart attack.
Mr. Payne joined Newsday in 1969 and was part of a reporting team that won a Pulitzer for public service in 1974 for “The Heroin Trail,” a more than 30-part series that traced the drug as it made its way from the poppy fields of Turkey to American street corners.
Mr. Payne later traveled to South Africa to cover the anti-apartheid riots in Soweto. He oversaw foreign and national coverage for the newspaper, and was an editor of the New York City edition of Newsday, which is now defunct. He also wrote a column before retiring several years ago.
As an editor and writer, he participated in coverage in the late 1980s that helped reveal the Brawley hoax, in which a black teenager claimed to have been gang raped by white men, covered with feces and left with racial epithets scrawled on her body. Mr. Payne obtained an interview with Brawley’s boyfriend, who confided that the story had been fabricated.
He faced scorn from the Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights activist, who had been one of Brawley’s main defenders and who accused the paper of maligning a victim. The paper was ultimately vindicated.
Leslie Payne was born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on July 12, 1941. “My grandfather was a janitor at the Tuscaloosa County Library,” he later told a reporter. “He used to bring books home all the time.”
At 12, he moved with his family to Hartford, Conn., and continued to haunt the public library as a refuge from the otherwise gritty neighborhood where he lived. He graduated in 1964 from the University of Connecticut and then served in the Army in Vietnam, where his duties included writing speeches for Gen. William Westmoreland, the commander of U.S. military forces there.
He was a founding member and past president of the National Association of Black Journalists.
Survivors include his wife, the former Violet Cameron; three children; three brothers; and a sister.