Frozen By Fire


(I am writing stories about stories I have covered, so far, in my career. Each one has taught me something about myself or my profession)

Once you see something horrible, you can never erase it from your memory. In 1984, I worked for KCBS in Los Angeles and didn’t know that the images and stories of what happened in Mexico that November Monday morning would stay with me forever.

When I got to the newsroom, I was immediately told to get ready to fly to Mexico City. A huge liquified petroleum gas facility near Mexico City had exploded and the fireball created burned through a nearby slum neighborhood. It was horrible. The death toll was rising by the hour.

When we landed, we discovered it would be a 45-minute drive to the disaster zone. The boys selling newspapers on the curb along the way were yelling the headline, just two words, “Fuego Mortal”, or “Deadly Fire.” 40,000 people lived in the town of San Juan Ixhauatepec, a poor suburb of Mexico City and home to the largest liquified petroleum gas plant in the country. Most of the men living in town were either farmers or they worked at the gas plant. As we got closer we were forced to stop and walk. The roads were jammed with people. Some were walking out with shocked and stunned looks on their faces. Some carried knapsacks or blankets tied at the top. Others were walking with us heading into the fire zone. They were scared. They needed to find their loved ones. We came over the top of a Hill and saw the valley below. There was no color. Gray smoke was billowing from the fires still burning at the plant in the distance. The neighborhood next to it was gone except for the walls of charred homes. These were not big houses, they were adobe shacks with wooden doors and plywood roofs.

Police were trying to keep people away, but it was no use. It was imposible to secure the huge area and local officials told us they didn’t know how they were going to get to and identify the dead. This was a huge crime scene, but we were waved on in and that is when the story changed. We didn’t come to the story, it came to us in a very dramatic way.

We started walking down one of the burned out streets. Everything was touched by the flash fire. The trees were black and bare. The cars were gray and gutted. Even the seats were gone. Just springs remained. We walked up to a man sitting on the curb in front of one of the houses. We asked him in Spanish, “Is this your house?” He said no, it was his brother’s house. “Where is he?”, I asked. He said he was inside and gestured me to walk in the front door. There was no door. It had been burned from the hinges. The man followed behind me and my photographer led the way. As we approached the end of the hallway entrance the photographer stopped and turned to the room at the right. I slipped behind him and saw a family frozen by fire. The sofa was just a metal frame and on it were 3 bodies. They were black, charred remains of three humans caught in the conflagration. They had no time to move. The fire came like a flash flood.

I just stood there not believing my eyes. I turned to the man who we met outside and he nodded and said in Spanish, “That’s my brother and his family. They had no were to run.” Back outside again, we kept walking and found children looking for their missing parents. We found women sifting through the black dust looking for mementos. In virtually every house or back yard we saw bodies. They were burned beyond recognition. It was hard to tell if they were men or women. We could tell the children only because they were smaller. The real story I want to share is what I saw in the eyes of those we met wandering the streets here. They were emotionally stunned, just like we were. They were seeing death everywhere and becoming immune to it.

There is no accurate count of how many died in this industrial accident. The initial number was 248 people killed. We went back to the neighborhood several years later to investigate reports that the government buried more than one thousand victims in a hillside nearby. The houses were being rebuilt. The people were moving back in and, surprisingly, the huge liquid petroleum plant was still there, back in operation right next door.

Flying Blind


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

Sometimes it better not to know the risks before you dive into an assignment.

In 1976, I was working as a reporter for WFRV-TV in Green Bay. It was summertime and that means fire season in the millions of acres of forest in the viewing area. A fire broke out in the upper peninsula of Michigan and I was sent to cover it. I got there Ok. I got the story, but I nearly didn’t make it home.

We usually worked in teams at WFRV. The photographer would handle the film gear, camera and lights. I would do the reporting, but this time I was a “one-man band”. The assignment desk arranged for me to fly in a chartered plane that would land at a small airport near the fire and then I would rent a car and get the story. It was going to be my first time in a small prop-driven airplane and I was excited.

The flight to the story was exciting and smooth. We landed at the small airport and I even shot film of the giant smoke plume from the fire as we were turning to aim for the runway. I only had a few hours on the ground to get the story and when I returned to the airport, the pilot was waiting. He was a young man about my age, early twenties with a “flat top” haircut. He was very quiet and very focused on his job. He checked out the plane and went through the safety procedures with me. I was in a hurry, of course, I had a deadline. It did not seem to matter to this young man. He asked me to sit in the front seat with him instead of in the back. He was all business.

As we took off it was sunny and clear, but he told me over the headsets that we might run into some weather as we get closer to Green Bay. It was about a two-hour flight, so I settled in and began writing and organizing my story about the fire. My mind was racing. We had to “soup” the film (develop it using a machine), and then I would edit it using a film viewer and glue. We had to make two reels, one for the video and one for the sound. They would roll at the same time on two different projectors and the director would switch between them to make the story look complete on-the-air. That is why we still call it an “A-roll” and a “B-roll”.

About an hour into the flight, the pilot said, “Ross, would you help me with something as we prepare to land”? I said, of course. He wanted me to take out my notebook and listen carefully to what the air traffic controllers were saying to him. He said, “write it all down, it’s critical”. Outside the window of the tiny 4-seater airplane it was milky white. The clouds had enveloped the plane and it was beginning to rain on the windshield. I looked over at the young pilot and his eyes were as big as poker chips. He was focusing on the dashboard and glancing out the front window even though there was nothing to see. He was flying using the instruments only. Pilots are trained to do that, and I hoped he was good at it.

Each plane has an ID number. The one I was in was N2287B. I had headphones on with a built-in microphone and I was listening for that number. It was my cue to write down the info and make sure we didn’t miss anything. That air traffic controller was our eyes, since we could not see anything inside the plane. “Cessna Nancy 2287 Baker, turn right 15 degrees and maintain heading”, crackled in my ears. I pressed the microphone button and asked the pilot of he got it. He said yes. I glanced at him and he was sweating. He never looked back at me. “Nancy 2287 Baker, you are 3 miles from the runway begin your descent”. The pilot reached over to the throttle levers and began to slow the plane down. He pointed the nose down and I could feel myself slide forward slightly in the seat. We could see nothing out the windshield. It was white. It was an eerie feeling. Then the radio crackled again and this time the tone in the voice was urgent. “Cessna N22877, what is your altitude”? and the pilot answered immediately. The air traffic controller came right back and this time I could tell he was flustered. “Make an immediate right turn and drop to 7000 feet”. The pilot shouted to me over the intercom, “Did he say 7000 feet?”. I said yes, and the pilot yanked the yoke to the right and pulled back on the throttle lever. We turned and headed down, quickly.

Now I was sweating, too. It was frightening. The tone of the air controllers voice is what scared me the most. We were clearly in danger, but we couldn’t see anything. The controller came back on the radio using our call sign and said, “you are on the same path as a jetliner coming into the airport and I need you to keep dropping quickly or you will collide.” What? I heard it! I looked out the windshield and all I saw was fog and rain. I looked at the pilot and he was pale. We both sat there waiting to be obliterated by a jetliner heading the same place we were heading.

It seemed like an hour, but it was only 4 minutes later that we broke through the clouds and fog and saw the end of the runway at Austin Straubel Field in Green Bay. The pilot aimed for the runway. We touched down and began rolling toward the hangar. I was exhausted and relieved. I asked the young pilot, “were your scared”? He looked at me and just shook his head. Then he said something I will never forget. He said, “I trained to fly by instrument, but until today I had never done it for real. That was my first time”! It was my maiden voyage in a small plane and, now I find out, it was the first time my pilot had ever flown by instrument. That is why he asked me to help him. I am glad I didn’t know that while we were still in the air.

When we pulled up to the hangar, I said thank you. We both looked at each other and started laughing. It was nervous laughter. We were glad to be on the ground.

In the few days after my crazy flight, I thought about the times in my career when I was faced with a challenge I had never faced before and I remembered the young pilot. He didn’t fail either. He did it and I was along for the ride.

Running Toward the Danger


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

When you are covering a story, sometimes you don’t think, you just react. Only when the crisis moment is over, do you have time to reflect on what you did. I had one of those moments while covering the state funeral for President Ronald Reagan.

I was playing golf with a friend in San Diego when I got the phone call. Former President Ronald Reagan was dead. His age and his Alzheimer’s disease finally took him. My news director at KTNV-TV in Las Vegas said, “get home as soon as possible, we have you on a red-eye flight to Washington D.C.” It would be the start of 3 long days of work that would be filled with emotion.

We were set up in our “live” reporting location on the National Mall looking east toward the U.S. Capitol building. We were joined by hundreds of other reporters and photographers from around the world. The former president’s body would be brought to the Capitol and lie in state while thousands filed past the casket. The Capitol police were already setting up the barriers that would form the lines into the building. It was a maze of metal fencing leading to the doors of the building.

It was hot and humid. 90 degrees with 90 percent humidity and, occasionally, we would be drenched by a downpour. We were tired, too. Each day was filled with seemingly endless “live” reports in every newscast we had on the air. In between, we were interviewing people gathering to pay their respects to the former president. On the second day, we had just finished a “live” report for our noon newscast in Las Vegas. It was already almost 4:30 in the afternoon on the east coast. Suddenly, there was a buzz in the crowd of reporters and photographers and everyone was looking toward the Capitol building.

People who had been in line to see the former president were running toward us. They were scared. Hundreds of them were coming at us. Some women were carrying their children. Fathers, too. I grabbed my briefcase and yelled to my photographer, “let’s go!” We took off up the hill toward the building, fighting the crowd like salmon swimming upstream. Something was happening, but we didn’t know why everyone was so scared. I saw a capitol security guard running toward me. I grabbed his arm and said, “what is going on?” He said they are evacuating the Capitol because of an unidentified plane is in the area and it might be a terrorist attack. He turned and ran away. I kept running toward the building. We got to the steps and froze. The police had taken the metal barriers used to marshal people and turned them into a blockade. I tried to call the station in Las Vegas, but our cell phones were dead. The authorities had turned off the cell towers in the area to try to stop the possible terrorists. It was at that moment it occurred to me that while everyone else was running from danger, we were running toward it, along with scores of other reporters and photographers. We kept looking at the sky wondering if a jetliner flown by terrorists was going to slam into the building just like they did on 9-11. What the hell were we doing there? We would be killed! We never really thought about it until we were too close to do anything about it.
There were bells ringing and sirens screaming inside and outside the iconic building. There is a procedure for evacuating the Capitol and it worked. In a matter of minutes, the place was empty, except for a few guards, the body of a former president and about 50 reporters and photographers milling around on the steps outside. We just stood there looking at the sky, but nothing happened.

It was a false alarm. A small plane carrying Ernie Fletcher, the governor of Kentucky, who was arriving for the funeral was preparing to land at nearby Reagan National Airport. The plane had been cleared to land but had radio problems that prevented communication with the air traffic controllers. Air Force fighter jets were dispatched to intercept the unidentified plane and that’s what triggered the chaos, the evacuation and fear of a terrorist threat on Capitol Hill.

As we walked back to our “live” report location about two blocks away on the National Mall, everyone in our group was quiet. I was reflecting on what had just happened. What if this had not been a false alarm? I also found something out about myself and my colleagues. We didn’t even flinch when the people came running toward us, we started running toward them and the story. The potential danger didn’t cross our minds, until later. I was not alone. Reporters, photographers, producers and those who call themselves members of the “media” are first responders, too.

The rest of the time in Washington, D.C. was a blur of sweltering heat, patriotism, tears and pageantry as the funeral for the former president unfolded. I remember standing on Constitution Avenue in a crowd of people as the president’s casket rolled by. At that moment, 3 fighter jets flew overhead as a tribute. I wondered if they were the same pilots who had responded to try to keep us all safe just 24 hours earlier.

“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.