“Hail Satan”

(I am writing stories about some of the events I covered, so far, in my career as a broadcast journalist. Each one taught me something about life, the profession or myself)

When an inmate in leg chains is led into a courtroom, it is the sound that grabs you before anything else. I still remember the clanking of the metal sliding across the floor as I covered the trial of serial killer Richard Ramierz, the so called “Night Stalker”.
During the mid-1980’s, someone was breaking into homes in the Los Angeles area raping and killing women. It appeared to be random and that made it more terrifying. People living near freeways were warned to be especially careful. The person doing it was ruthless and brutal and kept getting away. In some cases, the killer would gouge the eyes of his victim. The break-ins all happened at night, so the media began calling him the “Night Stalker”. Police said they had very few leads.

I was working as a reporter for KCBS-TV. We were all covering the sexual assaults and killings and the fear that gripped the city and the suburbs. The “Night Stalker” was responsible for 14 killings over 14 months. Finally, in 1988, police captured Richard Ramierz and when he made is first appearance in a Los Angeles Superior courtroom, I was there. A bizarre case was about to get even crazier.
The day of the arraignment was a media circus. It was the first time the community was going to see the man, police say, who had been terrorizing them for months. The judges in Los Angeles, at the time, allowed cameras in the courtroom and we were there. It would not take long, and there was not much mystery about what was going to happen. Ramierz would be led in and stand behind a glass wall. He would be officially charged with 14 murders and he would be ordered held with no bail.

Some people in the courtroom that day were relatives of the victims. They, too, wanted to get a glimpse of this man accused of raping, killing and mutilating their loved ones. The room was packed and hot and buzzing.We heard the lock on the door to the holding cell bang open and a moment later we saw him. His hair was long and wavy. He looked gaunt. But, it was his eyes that were different. They were sinister. The man we had called the “Night Stalker” looked like someone who Hollywood producers could cast as a frightening killer.
The judge came in and asked everyone to come to order. The clerk began reading the charges and when she finished the judge asked Ramierz, “How to you plead?”. One of his lawyers quickly answered, “not guilty your Honor!” At that moment, Ramierz looked agitated. He raised his left hand, exposing his palm to the packed courtroom and he yelled “Hail Satan!” There was a gasp. The deputies grabbed him and quickly led him from the room and the place was buzzing. I heard people saying, “what was that printed on his hand?”

It was a pentagram. Drawn in ink from a ball point pen. A pentagram is an ancient religious symbol adopted by those involved in witchcraft or devil worship. Richard Ramierz had one on his hand in court while yelling, “Hail Satan!” I heard some in the courtroom mutter, it proves he is the devil.

I remember feeling frightened myself. The fear that gripped the community was real and so was what we had just witnessed in a court of law. A man accused of the crime talking about the devil and flashing a symbol to prove he meant it.
I was also there in the same courtroom, months later, when he was found guilty and sent to death row at San Quentin. This is when, for the last time, we heard those leg chains clanking on the tile floor as he was led in. Occasionally, he would turn around in the courtroom and flash an evil look to the reporters sitting behind him. Richard Ramierz lived up to the name we had given him, “The Night Stalker”.

An Explosion of Emotion

(I have been writing stories about some of the stories I have covered, so far, in my career. Each one taught me something about the profession or myself)

There is no mistaking the sound of an explosion. I was sitting at my kitchen table in my westside Indianapolis apartment and the window was open because it was a hot, muggy September evening. It was quiet in the room. I was writing checks and paying bills after a day of work at WTHR. I was a reporter working for Channel 13 and the big story that fall of 1978 was a series of mysterious explosions in trash bins in the town of Speedway, home of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. So far, no one had been injured, but people were scared. They didn’t know who was doing it and why.

I could barely hear the traffic on the freeway about two blocks from my apartment and, occasionally, I could make out a dog barking, somewhere. Then, there was a muffled boom. I didn’t just hear it, I felt it in the pit of my stomach. It was not a loud boom, but I sat up straight in my dining room chair and froze. It was an explosion and I knew, instinctively, it was another one of the mysterious bombings.

I called the WTHR assignment desk. The night editor had not heard any radio calls, but he promised to check on it. For a moment, I felt the fear we had been talking about during our newscasts. It was an uneasy feeling of being unsafe. Then, my home phone rang again. When I answered, the assignment editor had a different tone. He said, “it was an explosion and this time there are injuries. I need you to go. It’s near your apartment. The police are staging at Speedway High School”. I hung up and ran to get dressed.

I was on the scene in about 15 minutes and it was chaos. Our photographer had not yet arrived, so I parked my car just outside the yellow police tape and headed for a group of people in the parking lot of the high school. Many were crying. They told me a man had picked up a duffle bag left next to his car and it exploded. He was hurt, badly and so was his wife. The freshman football game was over and the parking lot was full of people.

The police were not saying if this “bomb” was connected to the other explosions that had everyone afraid, but there was not doubt what people at the school were thinking. They told me they were terrified. They said they were afraid to let their children play outside. It was terrorism, and no one knew why it was happening.

Carl Delong had his right leg blown off by the blast. He had survived Vietnam, only to face violence just blocks from his own home. The Speedway High School bomb was the last one of the series, but at the time, the people of Speedway didn’t know that. They lived in fear for weeks, wondering when or if another one would explode somewhere.

The rest of this story is a complicated one involving a young man from Indianapolis who was found guilty of setting these explosions as a diversion. Police were closing in on his marijuana smuggling operation and he planted the bombs to try to distract them. Brett Kimberlin was eventually caught, tried and sentenced to prison. I stayed on the story, even traveling to west Texas to see the makeshift airstrip he used to land planes filled with illegal marijuana. He is now free again after serving his sentence in a federal prison.

It was my first taste of what we now call “domestic terrorism”. I heard the bomb go off that quiet, September evening and then I felt the fear of people in Speedway, Indiana wondering if their world would ever be safe again.

Right Place, Wrong Time

(I have been writing stories about some of the stories I have covered, so far, in my career as a journalist. Each one taught me something about life and journalism)

It’s just not natural to hear gunshots inside a shopping mall. They echo, and so do the screams.

I had just finished my salad in the newsroom at ABC4 in Salt Lake City. It was Valentine’s Day 2007. I sat right in front of the assignment desk and it was always noisy. The police radio scanners were turned up loud and I tried to ignore them. Then, we heard it and could not mistake the urgency. The dispatcher was calm but forceful, “a man with a shotgun inside Trolley Square Mall, we have an active shooter, there are casualties”.

I shot out of my desk chair and ran to the counter. We were all stunned. Trolley Square was a high-end shopping mall on the north side of downtown Salt Lake City. We didn’t wait for more info, I grabbed my bag and ran for the parking lot. The photographer met me there, we jumped in a van equipped with a microwave transmitter and headed for the mall. It was only a 5-minute drive.
During that drive I got more information. The shooter was pinned down inside by the police and the desk had received a call from one of our reporters. She was inside shopping and was now trapped in a supply closet with other shoppers. She was on the phone and relaying what she was hearing through the door.

As we got close to the mall, the streets were jammed. There were cars filled with people trying to get away and there were police cruisers everywhere. Instead of waiting in the truck, I jumped out and told the photographer I would meet him on the other side of the building. With my bag over my shoulder, I ran toward the east doors of the mall. There were police everywhere, some with their guns drawn, but they paid no attention to me. I ran right up to the mall door, grabbed it and entered the food court area. I took two steps and froze. The gunshots echoed through the brick hallway leading up to the main floor. It was a pistol shot, then another. I ducked behind a planter near the door. We didn’t have cellphones with video recorders, so I could not record anything, but I could listen. I heard yelling. I could not make out what was being said, but the tone was desperate.

Suddenly, one of the police officers ducking with me nearby decided I should not be there. He pointed and ordered me outside. I ran to the door and pushed it open. The cold air hit me. I stood there for a moment. I couldn’t move. I ran around the outside of the building to the west parking lot where all the TV station vehicles were parked. I put in my earpiece and called the station. I got a little more info from the assignment desk and found out that our reporter who was trapped inside was OK and heading for my location to do an interview.

As always happens, the next few hours were a blur of live reports, phone calls, coaxing witnesses to talk and answering questions from the anchors back at the station. I talked about my experience, but I still didn’t have time to really process it. I had heard the two shots that killed the gunman. I had walked into the mall just moments before the police moved in on the man with the shotgun in the greeting card store. It was Valentines Day and the place was filled with people.

Five people were killed and four were wounded by the gunfire. Police never determined a motive. I will never forget the sounds. The gunshots and the yelling. I was in the right place at the wrong time. I think about those killed and wounded every Valentines Day. They were trying to hide from the danger, I was running toward it.

A Red, White, and Blue Diaper

(I have been writing stories about stories I have covered, so far, in my career. Each one taught me something about myself or the world around me)

Larry Flynt is a character, a protestor, a pervert by his own admission, a drug addict, an instigator, a promoter and a master manipulator. He is the founder of Hustler magazine which, during the 1980’s, the U.S. government called pornography. It started a war and I got caught in it.

In 1983, Flynt obtained a grainy, black and white videotape showing auto company owner John Delorean looking at a briefcase full of cocaine in a hotel room near Los Angeles International Airport. It was an FBI sting operation. Delorean could be heard saying, “it’s good as gold”. The agents claimed Delorean took the bait and was ready to buy the $24 million worth of drugs and re-sell them to financially save his car empire. Flynt gave the videotape to KCBS-TV on a Sunday and it first aired on 60 Minutes. Government prosecutors claimed making the tapes public jeopardized their case and the government demanded to know how this magazine publisher obtained this FBI generated surveillance video. Flynt refused to tell them, claiming protection under the first amendment. The battle was on and, as we all found out again, Flynt never plays by the rules.

As a reporter for KCBS, I was assigned to cover the court battle. A federal courtroom is a sanctuary. The rules are strict. There are no cameras allowed inside, so we had our courtroom artist there for Flynt’s hearing. He was charged with contempt of court for not revealing the source of the Delorean video. He was ordered to show up and pay his daily fine, $10,000, or reveal his source.

We were all gathered inside the courtroom. The room was mostly filled with reporters. The federal prosecutor was sitting with his team at the table in front. The big double doors in the back of the room opened and we could hear his voice immediately. Flynt was already talking, taunting, laughing. His laugh sounded more like a cackle. Behind the two security guards leading him, we saw him sitting in his wheelchair (he needed the chair because of an injury suffered years earlier in an assassination attempt). He was wearing a bulletproof vest with a purple heart pinned to it, and instead of pants he was wearing a diaper constructed from the U.S. flag. He said, “if they are gonna shit on my rights, I am gonna help them shit on the flag”. It was his protest and it was a bold move even for him.

They rolled him up to the defense table where he met his lawyers. The attorneys were obviously caught off-guard by their clients’ antics but, Flynt would not be silenced. He growled that he should be protected by the first amendment and he said he was here to pay the fine for contempt. A man behind him had a white, cloth bag. Flynt said it was full of money.

Federal Judge Robert Takasugi came into the courtroom as the bailiff shouted, “all please stand”. He asked Flynt to reveal the source. Flynt said he was the publisher of Hustler magazine and was a member of the press protected by the first amendment. The judge imposed the fine and that’s when Flynt asked his helper to open the white bag. Inside was cash. He said there was $10,000 in small bills. The judge was smiling. Flynt said he would continue to show up everyday to pay the fine and next time he was bringing pennies.

Takasugi ordered Flynt, personally, to count the money for the court clerk and that added to the bizarre court hearing. It took a long time and during the counting Flynt kept talking and the judge kept asking for order in the court. There was Flynt, dressed in a red, white and blue diaper, wearing a bulletproof vest and a borrowed Purple Heart, counting stacks of $1 bills. He brought 8,000 $1 bills and paid the rest in $5, $10 and $20 bills.When the hearing was over, we met him on the sidewalk outside. He was clearly loving the attention and the protest. He was putting on a show to make his point and it worked.

A few days later, the judge granted Flynt immunity from prosecution if he broke any law to get the videotapes. He was also ordered to testify before the grand jury hearing the Delorean case. We never found out, for sure, who leaked the FBI video (he claimed it was someone nicknamed “the Samurai”).

But, Flynt was not immune from facing another charge. Within a few weeks, Flynt was charged with another crime, desecration of the U.S. flag. You don’t use one as a diaper in federal court without consequences.

It was clear this case, on both sides, was not about justice. It was about who would win the battle of publicity. It was an unfair fight. Flynt is a master.

Trapped in a Grieving Mob

(I have been writing short stories about some of the stories I have covered in my career, so far. Each one taught me something about myself and the world)

I was in 6th grade when we got the horrible news that President John Kennedy was assassinated. It was the first time I realized the power of television. I was glued to the coverage of an American tragedy. It ignited my interest in journalism.
Many years later I found myself covering another assassination and drawing comparisons to the Kennedy murder. This time it was in Mexico where there is no holding back the passion or emotion. I have been in the middle of wildfires, riots and even a KKK cross lighting but felt what I felt during this story unfolding on the streets of Mexico City.
It was 1994 and I was the main anchor for KCOP-TV Real News in Los Angeles. The AP bulletin was only one line about an assassination attempt in Tijuana against Mexican presidential candidate Luis Donaldo Colosio. The wounds from two bullets fired at close range during a campaign rally eventually killed the popular candidate. It was a major political and personal story for millions of people on both sides of the border.
We landed in Mexico City for the funeral just 24 hours after the assassination and there were already banners and signs posted on lights posts and walls depicting Colosio’s face. Some mourned his death others were demanding justice. The signs should have been a warning that we were walking into a country where many people were now hurt, angry and afraid. Our first stories drew comparisons to the feelings of Americans in the days after John Kennedy was shot in Dallas, Texas. The man accused of shooting Colosio had already been captured and some were linking him to a political conspiracy to affect the election.
The official memorial ceremony was held at the main offices of Colosio’s political party, the Institutional Revolution Party, or PRI. Security was tight and the ceremony was closely controlled and planned, but then the day became more chaotic and I was caught in the middle of it.
We followed the black hearse carrying Colosio’s body to a neighborhood on the south side of the city. A small, family funeral was planned at a funeral home there. But, as we approached the area, we saw the streets jammed with people. The hearse stopped. We jumped out of our rented car and saw the back door of the hearse open. Several men grabbed the flag draped box, lifted it on their shoulders and began carrying Colosio’s body toward the small funeral home about 4 blocks away.
The people on the street pressed closer and began chanting, “Colosio, Colosio, Colosio”. There were no police, no security, just people wanting to get close to the man they considered their leader. Some of them were crying and reaching to touch the coffin or the colorful Mexican flag that covered it. I looked up, as we struggled through the mob, and saw women standing on balconies waving handkerchiefs. Tears were streaming down their faces.
Colosio was supposed to be their political savior. He was the candidate promising to speak for them. He was young and handsome and leading in the polls. The people of this neighborhood were saying goodbye, not just to the man, but to their dream. Some were angry. They told me they believed the mayor of Mexico City hired the man to assassinate Colosio. They wanted justice.
I was caught in the middle of a grieving mob but I did not feel afraid. Instead, I could feel the love these people had for the man and the hope he gave them. I could also feel their frustration and anger. They knew they would never really know who killed him and why. They were powerless again, except for the power of their tears.
We arrived at the funeral home. The casket was taken inside, but the people remained outside. It seemed to be they just wanted to be close to him. They were praying. Colosio was their John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I will never forget the raw emotion I felt that day walking shoulder to shoulder on the streets of Mexico City with people who had their hopes killed by an assassin’s bullet. It changed Mexican politics forever. It changed me too, just like Kennedy’s death changed me and this country in 1963.

The Blue-Eyed Enemy

(I am writing short stories about some of the stories I have covered so far in my career as a broadcast journalist. Each one taught me something.)

According to one of the people I interviewed for a major investigation I did, I am a “blue-eyed traitor”. It was an accusation that led to the end of an interview session and a very tense, potentially dangerous next few hours. Threats against journalists are not a new phenomenon.
I first interviewed the grand dragon of the California Ku Klux Klan in the early 1980’s. That interview led to the realization that a new group was forming under the disguise of a pseudo religion. I was a reporter at KCBS in Los Angeles and we set out to expose them and their potentially dangerous tactics and methods.
The so-called Aryan Nation Church of Jesus Christ Christian was headquartered in Sandpoint, Idaho and was led by a man claiming to be a minister. Pastor Richard Butler set up a camp in the wilderness where followers could come for rifle target practice and meetings that were more like pep rallies. Their ranks were growing and branching out to states all over the west, including California.
I went to Idaho, along with a photographer and a producer. We checked into the Holiday Inn on the shores of Hayden Lake. We did not have an interview scheduled. The plan was to drive to the camp and talk our way in. The dirt road into the Aryan Nation camp was protected by a guard house and a gate. Standing next to the small shack was a guard carrying a semi-automatic rifle. A sign on the front of the gate said, “no Jews allowed”. It was clear this was not a friendly bunch. After a few minutes and some calls back and forth to the camp headquarters, we were turned away. We would not be allowed in. However, Pastor Butler agreed to meet with us and answer questions the next day in a room at the Holiday Inn in town. We agreed.
I had done plenty of confrontational interviews before, but this one would be different. We were on their turf and didn’t know if those around us at the hotel were part of the group. We kept a low profile in town that evening.
The next morning at breakfast it became clear we were being watched. We noticed several people in the hotel restaurant who were clearly there to keep an eye on us. About 10 am we got the call. Pastor Butler would meet us in room 1425 at 1 pm.
After lunch we took the elevator to the 14th floor. We had our camera gear and the notes and research we had worked on outlining the hateful and racist publications and teachings of the Aryan Nation. We wanted to find out just how dangerous this new group could become.
I am white. My producer was white and the photographer was white. According to the group’s teachings, of course, we were not the “enemy”. We were greeted by Pastor Butler. He looked like a grandfather. He was in his 60’s with white hair, wearing a dark suit. He handed me his card. It had the Aryan Nation symbol on it. He asked how we heard about his group and why we were interested. I told him about my interviews with the Klan in Los Angeles and we talked about the gang problem in the big cities of the west. It was benign conversation while our photographer set up his gear.
The interview began. We talked about the organization and Butler told us why he started the Aryan Nation church, as he called it. After about 10 minutes of general philosophy, I wanted to get to the meat of his philosophy. It was a hate group, but Butler claimed it was simply an organization to promote the ideals of white Americans.
I pulled out one of the flyers we had found posted on a telephone pole in the small community of Hayden Lake. It was clearly posted there to terrorize. It showed pictures of black people depicted as monkey’s. It showed caricatures of men with big noses with the words “kill the mongrel Jews”. It showed other pictures of Asians with their eyes exaggerated. One of the flyers headlines said, “don’t let these animals invade our town”.
I looked at him and held up the flyer. Pointing to it I said, “Pastor Butler, why do you hate blacks?”. He said he didn’t hate them. I said, “Why do you hate Jews?”. He said he didn’t, despite me holding up the flyer. So, I said, “Why do you hate Asians?” Again, he said “I don’t hate Asians”. He was clearing getting agitated. Finally, I said, “Well, I am looking at this flyer and it’s clear that you do. So, If you don’t hate blacks, Jews or Asians, who do you hate?”
There was a long pause. The armed men standing just outside of camera range began to inch toward Butler. I didn’t now if I had crossed a line. Butler leaned forward and said, “Who do I hate? I hate blue-eyed traitors like you. This interview is over”.
He stood up. The armed guards walked him to the door and he was gone. We were left in the room at the hotel with two other men with guns. Clearly, they were not happy about the way this had ended. They told us to pack up, now.
The ride down in the elevator was tense. The two men led us to the lobby and warned us to stay away from the camp. We were now the enemy of the Aryan Nation. I was the blue-eyed traitor. It would not be the end of my confrontations with members of this group.
We found out that day that racism has no color. It’s more about being an enemy and we became the enemy to a group of dangerous people. Butler had to know I was going to ask those questions. Turns out he didn’t really have to answer them. His actions spoke much louder.
(We found out about a year later that one of the armed men guarding Pastor Butler that day was later convicted of murdering Denver radio talk show host Alan Berg)

My Friend the Murderer

(I have been writing stories about some of the unusual stories I have covered so far in my career. This is another one.)

In January of 1975, a beautiful young woman was murdered. She was home in the Green Bay, Wisconsin area for the holidays and was at a New Year’s Eve party. She made the wrong choice that night, but it should not have cost her life. Her name was Susan Reignier. When I began researching for this story on social media I was contacted by some of her family and friends. They want her remembered for her smile and her spirit. The man who killed her was my friend and I ended up in the courtroom one day during his murder trial as a reporter.
His name was Dickey. That’s what we called him in high school. His last name is not important to this story and I don’t want to give him the satisfaction of having his crime sensationalized in print. He was not the most popular kid in school, by far. In fact, he was a little quiet and maybe even shy. My best buddy, Joe, and I would sometimes drive by and pick up Dickey when we went out on a Saturday night. He was in our class and he lived in our neighborhood. He was just like our other friends or, at least, we thought so.
After we graduated Preble High School, I went off to college and lost touch with Dickey. Turns out that was a good thing. My first journalism job after college graduation was back in Green Bay. I got the chance to report for WFRV-TV in my hometown. It was May of 1975.
One of the stories on our coverage list for the month of June was a murder trial. A woman’s body was found in January on the ice of Ashwaubenon Creek. Police said the man arrested for her murder confessed but was pleading not guilty by reason of insanity or diminished capacity.
Another reporter was assigned to cover the trial, so I wasn’t paying much attention to the details. It was my first job out of college and I was focusing on the stories I had to tackle. However, one day the reporter assigned to the murder trial called in sick and I had to step in. When I saw the formal name of the man on trial I wondered if it was the same guy I knew in high school. It was a common last name. It couldn’t be. Could it?
When I arrived at the Brown County Courthouse that morning, I headed up stairs to the courtroom. There were a few people already there, but no defendant. I sat down with my notebook and waited. A few minutes later, the side door opened, two deputies led him in. He was dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit. I was shocked. It was him. My high school friend Dickey was handcuffed and facing 25 years to life for murder. I was in the front row of the courtroom and Dickey did a double-take. I was staring at him. Our eyes met. He shuffled over to the table and before sitting down he said, “Hi Ross”. That was it.
It was my first real court case as a reporter and my first taste of a murder trial(I would cover hundreds more). Dickey had picked up the girl who was hitchhiking home from a New Year’s Eve party and stabbed her. He dumped her body on the creek bed. I never found out the motive for this brutality.
I reported on what happened in court that day and the next day the other reporter was back on the case. I went on to something else, but I never forgot the look on Dickey’s face when he saw me or the feeling in my heart.
The guy we hung around with as high school students, was sent away to prison. Do you really know the people who you call friends or acquaintances?
One of the people who posted a comment recently when I was working on researching this story said, “She (the victim) was my friend. I never use the word hate but I hate the boy who took her life!” We all do, even his friends who end up being reporters.

The Feeling of Evil?

(I have been writing short stories about some of the stories I have covered, so far, in my career. Each one taught me something about journalism and life.)

His real first name was Stanley but they called him “Tookie”. Near the end of his life he was looking for redemption, but that would only come from God. Stanley “Tookie” Williams was executed at California’s San Quentin Prison in December of 2005. About one year earlier, I sat face-to-face with this gang killer on death row. It is a half hour of my life I will never forget.
There are two major gangs prowling the streets of Los Angeles, The Bloods and the Crips. “Tookie” Williams founded the Crips. They wear blue bandanas as their visible calling card. Their job is urban terrorism and organized crime. Williams was on death row for killing 4 people in 1979 during two robberies in the Los Angeles area. These were executions, according to the prosecutor. The victims were all shot at close range with a shotgun. He was convicted and sentenced to death.
I was working at KTNV in Las Vegas as the main evening anchor of Action News. I got a letter from a woman telling me there was a man on death row who was going to be killed by the state of California and that would be a huge loss in the fight against gangs. The woman was the so-called “friend” of Tookie Williams. She was promoting the book he had written in prison. It was a children’s book encouraging them to stay away from gangs.
I had seen gang life first hand in my decade and a half covering the streets of Los Angeles. If there was a way the man who founded the Crips could help kids avoid this violent life, it would be a great story. I pitched it and the news director agreed. We made plans to travel to northern California for a visit to San Quentin.
Arranging to interview someone on death row is a negotiation. First, you bargain to get the inmate or his lawyer. Then, you bargain with prison officials. Tookie Williams, through his “friend” said he would do the interview with me only if I would bring him something very special. He wanted a fresh vegetable sandwich on fresh white bread and a diet Coke. That was it. It seems on death row you don’t get fresh anything very often. It was his luxury and the prison officials said I could bring it in.
The warden refused to let us record the interview. I could not have a video camera or audio recorder. Just a still camera and a notebook and we were only allowed two photographs that would be taken by a guard. We had no choice but to agree.
I arrived at San Quentin on a day that is best described as gloomy. I don’t know if it was the weather or the feeling inside of me that I was going into a place that was infamous for crime, criminals and death. It was a feeling of sadness. I wasn’t afraid. I was “uncomfortable”. Prisons are designed to make you feel that way.
We were met in the prison lobby by our liaison. He gave us the rules. We would be led in. The interview would take place in a holding cell. We would sit across a metal table from the inmate. No touching, no handshakes, no contact. We had 30 minutes. Williams would have his hands and feet chained to the table. If the guard felt there was any violation of the rules, he would halt the interview immediately.
I had my brown bag carrying the Coke and the special vegetable sandwich. They searched it and gave it back to me with a dirty look. It was clear they really didn’t want to have to deal with this today. I later learned that guards always worry when prisoners are moved. It’s the most dangerous time. Tookie Williams, they said, was potentially dangerous. They still felt he was running the Crips from death row.
I was put in a tiny cell, six feet by six feet. The floor was concrete and the walls were steel mesh. The metal table was cold. Then, I heard him coming. A door slammed at the other end of the hall and the sound of the chains were unmistakable. And then, there he was. His eyes were glued to mine through the metal mesh as the guard fumbled with the keys to unlock the cage. Tookie Williams was a big man with a salt and pepper beard. The door opened and he shuffled in wearing his prison slippers. He never took his eyes off me.
The guard locked his chains onto a metal loop in the floor and then asked for my camera. He said he would take the pictures when the interview was over. The door slammed shut. I was sitting about two feet from a man convicted of killing four people. A man who in one month would be dead himself, as punishment.
I said hello. He said, “Is that my sandwich?”. I pushed the bag toward him. As he opened it he said, “Let me eat first. We don’t get this kind of food here”. I didn’t say anything for about five minutes while he quietly chewed and sipped the Coke. Finally, he said, “So what do you want from me?”.
I asked him about his book and why a man convicted of multiple murders and a founder of street gang would now be working to stop violence.
I remember his eyes. I always believed I could see truth in people’s eyes. Williams’s eyes were cold, as if I were looking at a window shade hiding what was inside. He said all the right things. He said he was innocent. He said he had learned that violence was not the right lifestyle. He said he regretted his gang life. He said prison taught him a new way.
He said it would be a shame to put him to death because he had so much to give and was ready to help to help solve the gang problem in American cities. He was pleading for his life. But, he was doing it with those cold eyes and not much emotion. It was, as if, he didn’t really believe his own words. I don’t know if he was telling the truth about what was in his heart. Reporters don’t know that, they only know what they see and hear and feel.
The interview ended. We could not shake hands. He thanked me for the sandwich. I said thanks for the time. The guard took two pictures of me and Tookie sitting in the cage. He never smiled. He and those chains shuffled back to death row.
I remember the deep breath I took when I walked out of San Quentin. I had never “felt” evil before.

The Sound of Despair

(I have started writing stories about some of the news stories I have covered over my career. Each one taught me something about life. I hope this one teaches you something.)

One of the most uncomfortable things I have experienced so far in my journalism career is waiting to find out if someone missing is dead or alive. My first taste of this moment came in 1975, at the beginning of my career, in a muddy parking lot on the west side of the Fox River in Green Bay.

The metropolitan sewer district was digging a tunnel. It was a huge undertaking. Drilling hundreds of feet straight down and then horizontally underneath the Fox River and then up to the surface again on the other side. It was one of those projects that mostly goes unnoticed until something goes wrong and on a rainy Monday morning in May something did go very wrong.

The men digging this tunnel were a combination of local men and construction workers from around the state hired to come here until the job was done. They were always aware of the risk of digging underground, but they took precautions and the money was good.

The tunnel they were digging would carry a simple, but large, sewer pipe to help support the growing population of the city. It was the Packer football team that put this city on the map, but it was the paper industry that kept growing the population.

I was new to the newsroom at WFRV-TV. I had just graduated from college and this was my first full-time job as a reporter. On this Monday morning when I arrived in the newsroom I got my assignment right away. There was an explosion underground. Four men were trapped. Rescuers were trying to reach them. They are staging a command post on the west side of the river.

My thoughts while were scrambled. How was I going to cover a story for television that is happening hundreds of feet underground in a tunnel under a river? I, remarkably, wasn’t thinking about the lives of the trapped men. It seemed ridiculous that they would not be brought out alive. It was my first story that involved the potential for death. My mind wasn’t ready to grasp the possibility.

I was learning. I didn’t know they could build a tunnel under a river. I didn’t know about methane gas and its’ dangers. I was struggling to tell the entire story and I nearly missed the human story that was about to unfold over the next three days.

The soil under the riverbed had not been disturbed for thousands, maybe millions of years. People who dig in this environment are always worried about finding pockets of methane gas. You can’t smell it. That makes it more dangerous. The workers, I know now, place detectors in the tunnel where they are digging to warn them of danger. On this Monday morning, they apparently didn’t work. The gas built up and something sparked a huge underground blast. The men were trapped. They could not get out and the rescuers could not get to them and know one knew if they were even still alive.

The men were all from Wisconsin, but they were not from Green Bay. At the first news briefing by the fire chief, he refused to release their names but said rescuers are doing all they can to reach them and bring them out safely. We had no reason to believe that was NOT going to happen and happen soon. It didn’t. Communication with the men had been cut off and the first firefighters who went into the muddy tunnel came back dirty and frustrated. There was no easy way in, so the decision was made to dig a second tunnel to try to get air to the trapped men. But it was risky. There could me another explosion.

By day two the reality set in. These men might already be dead. I had been focusing on stories about the process and didn’t really put myself in the shoes of those men or their families. That changed when a fire chief’s car pulled into the command post and a woman and two children got out. Reporters and photographers crowded around them. The chief pushed us away. They were led to the mouth of the tunnel opening and the captain leading the rescue effort talked with them for about 5 minutes. The woman handed the captain an envelope. He put it in a plastic bag.

When the woman and two boys turned and walked away we started walking toward them. It was clear they were “family” and this where the story changed for me. We pushed the microphones toward her face. She looked confused and in shock. She said she just wanted her husband out alive. She cried. The note in the envelope was for her husband trapped in the tunnel, if they could get to him. She said, “it simply says I love you”.

The next two days were a blur of more rain, mud, anticipation, despair and more tears. More family members arrived. Volunteer construction workers from all over the state came to help dig that second tunnel into the main one hoping to find the men alive and get them some air. When they finally broke through on day 3 they confirmed the worse. The men were dead. The explosion didn’t kill them. The air ran out.

It was my first story involving tragic death. I will never forget the sound of the crying when the fire chief went to the window of the van where family members were waiting.
It’s a sound I hear in my head, even today.

One Moment in Time

(I have been writing short stories about the stories I have covered over the years and what lessons they have taught me. This is one of them.)

When I came to work this December morning in 1976, I had no idea I was about to deliver some news that would make a man collapse in tears into my arms.

It was cold, but clear when I walked to the car in the TV station parking lot. We packed our gear into the brightly colored Chevy painted with the letters WFRV 5-Country Eyewitness News. The photographer and I had a two-hour drive ahead of us. I had argued against doing this story at the morning meeting because it had happened overnight and by the time we would get from Green Bay to Peshtigo, Wisconsin there would be no story left to get. But, we were told to go, and we did.

It was just a short 5 sentences we ripped off the Associated Press wire. It said, “Three people died in a house fire overnight. A mother and her two children were killed when the fire spread quickly. Firefighters worked in the cold to put out the blaze. The preliminary cause blamed the husband for over-filling a wood stove. One firefighter was injured”. I called the fire department before heading out on the road; the dispatcher said they were still mopping up at the scene.

It was about noon when we arrived on the outskirts of Peshtigo. It was my first time there, but it was a famous place to people from Wisconsin. We had all heard about the great Peshtigo fire in our history classes. In 1871, on the same night as the great Chicago fire, a huge forest fire consumed the entire town. 1200 people died in the Peshtigo fire. There’s a museum there with all the details. Other than that, Peshtigo is just another beautiful, little Wisconsin town. Now, another fire there would affect my life.

We had the address of this overnight house fire and it was about two miles out of town on a two-lane country road. It was farm country, but on this day the ground was all white. The snow was thick on the fields and you could only see about half of the old wooden fence posts holding up rusted barbed wire.

We rounded a corner and saw the house. The white two-bedroom place was still standing…but most of the roof was gone and the white snow around it was covered with black soot and cracked pieces of wood and charred insulation that firefighters had ripped away during the firefight.

The driveway was short and rutted and it led to the side of the house and a small garage out back. As we pulled in we saw two fire trucks parked next to the garage. Several men were still pulling hoses into one of the trucks.

My photographer began shooting the scene and I walked up the slippery back concrete steps of the burned-out house. I entered through the kitchen. The ceiling had collapsed, so this tiny space was filled with charred wood and ceiling tiles. On the counter were the things that said “family”. I saw a cookie jar with a bear painted on the front. I saw mixing bowls and coffee cups.

I stepped over the debris and walked into a hallway leading to the front of the house. As I got to the living room, I stopped dead. It was hard to tell it was a Christmas tree. The fire made it look like black wrought iron and underneath it, surprisingly not burned, were toys and other remnants of a happy Christmas morning. Just 24 hours ago this family had shared a warm, loving holiday in this room. Now, the room was gone and most of the family was gone too. I just stood there. Across the room, I saw the wood stove that firefighters said was over-filled and caused this family tragedy.

We did the interview with the fire chief and were getting ready to leave when an official- looking car pulled up. It was the local fire marshal to inspect the place and confirm the cause. We hung around and found out that the preliminary cause; the overfilled stove was not the cause at all. Turns out, according to the fire marshal, it was an accident. A wire stapled into the wooden rafters in the basement had shorted out and the heat ignited some old insulation.

We headed into town for a sandwich, but something told me this story was not over. After eating at the local café, I said, “let’s make one more stop at the house before heading back to Green Bay.”

We drove into the driveway and noticed the fire trucks were gone. There was just one car parked in the back. As I walked toward the house, a man in a white t-shirt and black jeans walked toward me down the steps. His eyes met mine. His arm was in a sling and his face was covered with soot. My first thought was that this was the injured firefighter who had come back this morning to see the place.

The man took one step down and then sat down on those cold concrete steps. I walked up next to him and simply said, “Hi!” His eyes rose up and they filled with tears. He said, “I killed them.” My heart stopped. This man sitting here in front of me was the husband and the father of the 3 people who died just a few feet away in his burned-out house. “I killed them”, he repeated, “I filled that stove too full and I killed my own family.”

I found myself sitting next to him as he cried. My photographer had grabbed the camera and was standing about 15 feet away. He laid the microphone down nearby.

The husband and father just kept repeating, “I killed them, I can’t go on.” I wanted to tell him that he had not killed them, it was an accident just a faulty wire. Then I realized he didn’t know that. He had not met the fire marshal. He still thought it was his fault!

I grabbed his hand. I don’t know why. I said, “Listen to me, I am a reporter and I was here when the fire marshal found that it was not the overfilled stove, it was a short in a wire in the basement. It was an accident, it wasn’t you!” I heard my own voice. It sounded as if I was pleading for him to stop hurting. I wanted him to know. I wanted to help take away the pain.

He looked at me and said, “what?” I repeated the fire marshal’s story. The man started sobbing uncontrollably. He collapsed into my arms. I will never forget what he said to me. He said “I thought I had killed my family and I knew I could not live with that on my heart. I don’t know how I can live without my kids and my wife but knowing I didn’t kill them gives me something to hang on to. I was ready to just kill myself right here, right now.”

I told him, again, it was not his fault and he just cried. We sat there for about 15 minutes, not saying a word. Then he got up, looked back toward the door of the house where his loving wife and children had died. Then, he looked at me and said, “thank you.” He shuffled to his car and drove off.

Our drive back to Green Bay that day was very quiet. When I aired my story that night, we used the video of my encounter with this man and I shared my experience with the viewers.

It was “my” Peshtigo fire. Not the one history records in that museum, the one that killed hundreds of people back in the 1800’s, but a small fire one day after Christmas in 1976 that I will never forget. Even as a reporter you can’t forget you are still a person and you are part of the story.