05/02/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT
It was late on a Friday night when Senior Writer Joyce Wadler got the call to write this week's cover story on Leona and Harry Helmsley, the billionaire couple indicted April 13 on tax evasion charges. "There went my weekend," says Wadler. "Instead of throwing a dinner party, I'm chasing alleged bad guys." With the help of other staffers, Wadler, 40, quickly drew up a list of possible sources—including lawyers, business associates and ex-spouses—and set reporters, who also studied court documents, in motion. "Right away, I was fascinated by the psychological angle," she notes. "The Helmsleys have more money than most people can imagine, and yet they seem to have taken a tremendous risk to get just a little more. Why?"
Associate Editor Lee Aitken, who edited the Helmsley piece, says Wadler was picked to write it "because she has the perfect ear for this kind of story. Joyce instinctively knows where the bodies are buried. She gets to people's vulnerabilities and finds out exactly where they went wrong."
Wadler, who joined PEOPLE last year after stints as a free-lancer and as the Washington Post's New York correspondent, says nowadays she's hooked on the "crime, gangster and bad guy beat." Her recent PEOPLE story subjects include slash victim Marla Hanson (Jan. 5, 1987), Jim and Tammy Bakker (May 18, 1987), Mob hit man Jimmy "the Weasel" Fratianno (Dec. 21, 1987) and Jimmy Swaggart (March 7, 1988). "I used to do a lot of showbiz stories," Wadler says, "and I've found that many criminals, like many actors, are prisoners of instant gratification. They see something and they can't say no."
The eldest of three children born to Bernard and Mildred Wadler, who, before their retirement, ran a Catskills boardinghouse and building supplies store, Joyce always wanted to be a writer. "There's just no other way I could make a living," she says, adding that a B.A. degree in journalism from New York University merely helped her launch a career "as a professional voyeur. As a journalist, I'm given a license to snoop. I ask rude questions anyway, but this way I'm allowed to." The Helmsley story, she says, was "a tremendous challenge to my snooping skills. It's an amazing tale. Humor, greed, smarts—it's got it all. It even was worth messing up a weekend—I think."