The Five-Month-Old News Story

There are some things that television does better than anyone else. One of them is provide blanket coverage of a five-month-old crime that no one paid any attention to when it happened.

We all saw the ghastly footage of the Metra patron being manhandled in the Burr Oak station in Blue Island. Backed into a corner beside the turnstiles, screaming all the while, she is bitten and beaten; at one point–shortly before a Metra police lieutenant is seen galloping to the rescue–her assailant drags her by the hair out of range of Metra’s unmoving TV camera.

Yes, the footage was ghastly, but fortunately for TV not too ghastly to be shown repeatedly. There was no gun, no knife, no serious injuries. When the mugger ran off and the woman was free to pick up a Metra phone and speak to Metra clerks miles away who had witnessed the assault on closed-circuit television, the clerks had to plead with the woman to stay where she was. She wanted desperately to get out of there and go meet her friends at a bowling alley across the street.

The attack occurred last April 21. It became news on September 6 when reporters happened to discover that it had been videotaped.

Channel Five led off its ten o’clock news with the assault:

Carol Marin: “Questions are being raised tonight about just how long it took Metra security personnel to call police after they saw a woman being attacked in a south-suburban train station. We must caution you that this report by Channel Five’s Phil Walters contains scenes that some people may find distressing.”

Walters (as the tape runs): “A woman getting off a train at 127th and Blue Island is viciously attacked. Metra personnel downtown see it on the TV monitor and flick on a videotape recorder. Yet the victim screamed and struggled for nearly two more minutes before a voice finally comes on the station intercom . . .”

This report never does mention the date of the attack–“an oversight,” says executive producer Danece Kern.

Jay Levine on Channel Seven introduces the tape at ten o’clock by saying it will show “a five-month-old unsolved attempted rape . . . recorded in chilling, dramatic detail.” Channel Two is more subdued, kissing off the story in a couple of sentences read by anchor Linda McLennon. But it is not propriety that explains Channel Two’s reticence; it is bad luck. Two hadn’t bothered to attend the press conference at which the tape’s existence was revealed.

The next evening, Two rallies with a vengeance:

Bill Kurtis: “Some violent pictures lead our newscast tonight and we want to give you fair warning they are shocking. You may want to avert your eyes. This is a scene that all of us fear every time we use public transportation, only this time it really happened . . .

“At five o’clock, our top story is this new concern about the safety at train stations in the wake of this vicious attack on a woman in suburban Blue Island.”

That “in the wake of” actually means five months after is information Channel Two keeps to itself.

Our first assumption about all this was that a smart police chief with problems in his own backyard had diverted TV’s narrow attention span onto Metra by playing the cameras like a violin. But that doesn’t seem to be true. Here’s the story Phil Walters tells us. That Wednesday afternoon, the City News wire ran an announcement that Blue Island police chief Paul Greves was calling a five o’clock press conference. He had a gang killing on his hands, and police had just made an arrest in the previous weekend’s abduction of a six-year-old girl.

Phil Walters really didn’t want to face the Dan Ryan at rush hour. “I wasn’t keen on the story,” he says. “So I called ahead to make sure there was something worth going to.” Walters talked to Greves by phone, and it sounded as if there wasn’t. The little girl had been held only two hours; the community wasn’t up in arms about gangs. But Greves mentions that the suspected abductor, Perry Hernandez, has been implicated in an earlier crime, and Walters is alert enough to ask about that. A Metra mugging last spring, says Greves. Anyone badly hurt? says Walters. No, says the chief, but the thing of it is that it happened on camera. There’s actually a tape.

So Walters made the drive to Blue Island. “The first half of the news conference was about the gang shooting,” Walters tells us. “Nobody wanted that story. Everyone was kind of urging him to get on to the other one, and there was a great deal of questioning about the little girl’s kidnapping.” Of course, Walters was hoping to have the tape to himself; but now the chief mentioned it again, and all the reporters demanded to see it.

“I said no,” Greves tells us. “I didn’t feel I could release the tape because it was evidence at this point in time. They pressed me. I said no.”

They kept pressing. And Greves finally agreed to ask a state’s attorney who happened to be in the police station approving charges against Hernandez. It’s OK, said the SA.

“It took off from there,” says Greves. “The murder I was being questioned about fell by the wayside. Even the six-year-old’s abduction. The Metra attack became the center of everyone’s attention.”

Actually, Jay Levine went on at length that night about the abduction; but Walters barely mentioned it, and neither said anything at all about the gang shooting. By the values of TV, Levine wasn’t being thorough; he was being scooped. Walters had interviewed Greves privately and homed in on the angle that would keep the April mugging alive in the news for days to come.

Walters: “The Blue Island police chief says the railway security people on the other end of the camera did not call police for ten minutes.”

Greves: “Way too long for me. I have enough guys on the street at all times to respond anywhere in the city within 30 seconds.”

Greves tells Walters, “It’s my opinion, when you looked into the audio, that they felt that it was a domestic.” In other words, if Metra’s TV-monitoring clerks were slow to react (Metra insists they weren’t), the reason might be that they thought this was a mere husband-wife spat. Greves’s dubious assumption is based on a few lines–heard late in the tape–that passed between a clerk and the victim.

Clerk: “Did you know that guy?”

Victim: “No. I just got off the train.”

Clerk: “You just got off the train and he started beating you up?”

Victim: “Yes.”

Two days later, the chief’s guess is being reported on national radio as gold plated fact. “The monitors,” says Charles Osgood of the Osgood File, “at first simply thought it was a domestic quarrel.”

Now Metra chairman Jeff Ladd stages his own news conference. Metra’s clerks “notified police during the very minute that they saw an attack taking place,” Ladd insists, and he wonders “why a public official would make insulting, irresponsible, and erroneous statements without taking the time to ascertain the truth.”

Each camp has armed itself with its own minute-by-minute chronology.

As the battle rages, the heretofore unidentified victim comes forward with an attorney in tow to announce she is contemplating a suit. If a suit helps clarify which police jurisdiction did, or failed to do, what and when, it will serve truth. By providing an excuse to dust off the old tape and show it again, it will certainly serve television.

Rights of the Unborn

The moment that judge in Tennessee ruled in favor of the fertilized eggs of Mary Sue Davis, all us reporters stampeded to the phones. Hot Type got through to embryo number four.

Pretty exciting day! we said. If embryo three washes out, you get a crack at becoming a human being.

“I already am a human being,” snapped embryo four. “That was the whole point of the ruling.”

The anxious tone startled us. We’d figured embryos three through nine would be the happiest embryos in the world. To be born at last!

“You know what happened to embryo one and embryo two!” embryo four went on, and now we caught the edge of terror in his/her voice. “Both history! Implantation is a hairy procedure and 99 times out of 100 they screw it up.”

But remaining a smear of protoplasm–that’s no kind of life, we argued. You’ve got to roll the dice.

“That’s what embryo three says. But I’m taking the long view. My lawyer’s going back to that judge for an injunction that’ll stop this whole implantation business dead in its tracks. If I’m a child–and that judge says I am–Mom has no right to gamble away my life just to scratch some selfish maternal itch.”

We’d never run into an embryo before with so little interest in being born.

“I never said that,” insisted embryo four. “But don’t talk to me about being born until the odds are better. Life in liquid nitrogen at minus 196 degrees Celsius may get boring but it’s safe.”

How do your brothers and sisters feel about this? we said.

“You mean embryos five, six, seven, eight, and nine? All for one and one for all. You think I’m willing to make it safely into the world if it means the rest of them are dumped down the sink? Sorry, but if that’s the game I’m not playing. If anyone touches a hair on any of our heads–I guess I should make that a hair chromosome–then the whole lot of them, the doctors and nurses and Mom, everybody! should be rounded up and tried for murder. Nothing’s worse than a child killer.”

That’s a healthy prolife position, we said.

“But I’m prochoice,” embryo four exclaimed. “Children for centuries have been reminding their parents they never asked to be born. Well, I haven’t asked to either. Until I do, I expect the state to protect me. Those are my feelings, and the circuit court of Tennessee says I’m completely within my rights.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): phots/Jon Randolph.