March 2000 – August 2003
I was heard on hundreds of radio stations across the country, including some of the biggest news stations, while reporting for CBS Radio News and the Westwood One program America In The Morning. I primarily covered stories in the Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach areas, but was also often sent to other parts of Florida, as well as the Bahamas, to cover major stories of national interest. I’ve included audio below of some of the bigger stories I covered during that time.
I started working for the network in 2000 as the custody battle over Cuban boy Elian Gonzalez was building. I had been filing reports for CBS for seven years by then, starting in 1993 when I was working at KARN in Little Rock, Arkansas, which was a CBS affiliate. I continued filing, maintaining a relationship with the network while subsequently working for WRVA in Richmond, Virginia and WIOD in Miami.
I worked for CBS as a stringer reporter being paid per story, but had the title of CBS News reporter when introduced on the air. It was an interesting way to make a living. Admittedly, I would get nervous during down times when there were no big stories coming out of south Florida, but it was never quiet for long. And some stories would stretch out for days, weeks, and in some cases, even months.
That’s how the Elian Gonzalez story was. The five-year-old boy was one of only three survivors of an accident at sea, in which a boat carrying a group of Cuban migrants trying to get to the U.S. capsized. Elian arrived on Thanksgiving Day in 1999 and would become an icon for Miami’s exile community, which did not want him returned to the communist island, arguing he would have a better life in the U.S. In March of 2000, CBS told me they needed someone to file regularly from Miami, so I left WIOD and began reporting exclusively for the network. For a couple more months I reported the story, much of it camped in front of the Little Havana home of Elian’s Miami relatives as INS officials tried to negotiate with the family. CBS had a position alongside other media outlets in front of the boy’s home, with two tents in place and even ran two phone lines for me to use so that I could report live and also be online with my computer. When negotiations failed, heavily armed federal agents raided the home to seize Elian and return him to his father, the only surviving parent, who would eventually bring the boy back to Cuba. During the ensuing demonstrations, I would learn what tear gas felt like, as police tried to get a handle on the protests. It was a fascinating story, which taught me a great deal about Miami’s Cuban-American community and the history of Cuba.
AUDIO: A compilation of reports on the Elian Gonzalez custody battle in Miami from November 1999 and June 2000 for WIOD, CBS News and the Westwood One program America In The Morning.
Another incredible drama that I wound up covering was the Florida recount in the 2000 presidential election. It would keep the nation waiting five weeks to learn who won, with the U.S. Supreme Court eventually intervening. On election night, television networks declared that Gore had won Florida’s 25 electoral votes, based largely on exit polling. But as the actual election results started coming in, Bush took the lead, prompting the networks to put Florida back in the undecided column. By the following morning, Bush led Gore by about 2,000 votes, which was slim enough to require that the counting machines re-tabulate the punch card ballots. It took a few days and, when completed, the Bush lead had dwindled to just a few hundred votes. By then swarms of lawyers and strategists from both sides had descended on Florida and a full-scale legal battle was on.
Gore attorneys requested a hand count of ballots that couldn’t be read by machine, which required election officials to study each punch card ballot that didn’t have a clear hole punched out. I watched the slow, agonizing process, first in Palm Beach County, as election officials would go one by one, studying each of the cards, trying to determine voter intent. The nation would learn lingo for punch cards in those weeks, like a “chad,” which was the part of the ballot that was supposed to be punched out as voters made their choices. But sometimes they weren’t completely punched out and you had a “hanging chad.” Or perhaps it was a “dimpled chad,” where the voter didn’t use enough strength to break it loose from the ballot. Then, with attorneys from each party watching, election officials would study each ballot, sometimes with magnifying glasses or by holding it to the light, and all would have to agree on who that voter was trying to vote for. I saw this played out over and over again in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
While that continued, Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris (who was Florida’s top election official and had been co-chair of Bush’s 2000 campaign in Florida) announced she would not accept any revised election numbers after November 14th, which was the state deadline for amended returns. The fight then turned to Tallahassee and the Florida Supreme Court, which extended the deadline to November 26th. The hand count of ballots continued until the U.S. Supreme Court intervened on December 12th. In a 7-2 vote, it ruled that a decision by the state Supreme Court requiring a recount was unconstitutional, and in a 5-4 vote that Florida’s recounts could not be completed by a December 12th “safe harbor” deadline. That meant the previously certified total, which had Bush ahead by 537 votes, would stand for Florida, making George W. Bush the 43rd President of the United States.
AUDIO: A montage of reports on the 2000 presidential election battle in Florida, with voting problems in West Palm Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Miami.
Florida would go on to invest in high-tech, touch screen voting machines, though they proved to also be problematic, as was evident in the 2002 Democratic primary for Governor of Florida. It would take a week before Bill McBride emerged victorious. Even though his opponent in the primary, former Attorney General Janet Reno was only a few thousand votes behind McBride, and there were plenty of discrepancies that she could have objected to, Reno said she was conceding defeat to avoid further dividing the Democratic Party.
McBride lost the general election that November, making incumbent Jeb Bush the first Republican Governor in Florida history to be re-elected. Within just a few years the expensive touch screen voting machines would be scrapped in favor of optical scan equipment, in which a voter filled out a paper ballot which would be scanned and provided a paper trail.
On August 25, 2001, I got a call about the crash of a small plane in the Bahamas that killed R&B singer and actress Aaliyah. The 22-year-old had been there shooting a music video. CBS put me on the next fight to Abaco Island and when my plane touched down, the wreckage of the aircraft she had been in was still smoldering off to the side of a runway. I spent the next several days there talking with paramedics who had responded to the crash, the production staff who had worked on the video shoot and Bahamian investigators who were looking into the cause of the crash.
The key factor was determined to be that the small plane, which had nine people on-board, was overloaded by 700 pounds. It barely got off the ground during takeoff before crashing about 200 feet from the runway. Investigators said pilot Luis Morales never should have allowed so much weight on-board the aircraft. It was also soon learned that in the weeks leading up to the crash, Morales had been arrested for cocaine possession and an autopsy found he had cocaine in his system at the time of the crash.
AUDIO: Reports from Abaco Island in the Bahamas in August 2001 on the crash of a small plane that killed R&B singer and actress Aaliyah and eight others.
I also covered Florida’s connections to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Several of the 19 hijackers who commandeered four commercial airliners had lived and received flight training in South Florida. People who lived next door to the hijackers were stunned. All told me the men seemed like friendly, normal people. I also included the accounts of a flight instructor who had given training to two of the men, as well as a waiter at a restaurant in Hollywood, Florida who had served a drunken Mohammed Atta and another hijacker the weekend before the terrorist attacks. All were overwhelmed to know they had come in contact with some of those responsible for such a horrific attack and felt extreme guilt, thinking they could have done something.
AUDIO: Reports in the immediate aftermath of the horrific 9/11 terror attacks, as investigators realized many of the 19 hijackers had lived or received flight training in South Florida.
Just a few weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks, Bob Stevens, a photo editor at a tabloid newspaper company based in Boca Raton, Florida, became the first American in decades to die from an anthrax infection. Two other workers at American Media Incorporated, publisher of the National Enquirer, the Star and other tabloids, also became sick, but would survive thanks to quick treatment.
It was just the latest in a string of really disturbing stories for residents in the area. As Kim Tabachka, a teacher there told me, “It’s definitely creepy that it’s here and it hit Palm Beach before anywhere else. It’s like Palm Beach County is the den, the haven of all of it, with the voting and the terrorists living here and now anthrax.”
Authorities said the anthrax arrived at the building in a letter that was passed around to several employees. I spent several weeks in Boca Raton, much of it across from the AMI building, as investigators in white protective suits went in and out. Immediately there were fears that this was another terrorist attack and sure enough powdered anthrax started showing up in letters sent to Capital Hill and news organizations, killing a total of five people. Suddenly Americans had to start taking extraordinary new precautions when opening their mail.
It was determined that this was not the result of international terrorists, but rather someone within the U.S. In Boca Raton, anyone who had visited the AMI building had to line up for testing and immediately begin taking antibiotics. The publishing company refused to return to the building, which became property of the U.S. government until it was finally cleaned and sold several years after the attack.
AUDIO: A montage of reports from Boca Raton, Florida on the first anthrax attack in October 2001, which killed tabloid photo editor Bob Stevens. Several other news organizations would also be targeted.
AUDIO: Appearing live on the national Jim Bohannon Show, Dec. 2, 2002, discussing a series of widespread illnesses onboard cruise ships. Many initially feared the outbreaks were terrorist-related.
About once every six months I’d take the train up to New York so that I could spend a little face-to-face time with all the incredibly talented people I worked with through emails and telephone conversations. It was great fun seeing how everything came together on that end and to be sitting around with the legendary voices I’d been hearing anchoring CBS newscasts for years. It was also exciting to be in the CBS Broadcast Center on West 57th Street which also housed the television news operations. You never knew who you’d pass in the hallways, including network correspondents or even 60 Minutes personnel. My earliest recollections as a kid of being wowed by news stories was watching 60 Minutes. Being in the same place that show was put together had its own awe. My only regret was that doors leading to their area had strict “no admittance” signs. I’d also always loved visiting New York, so to also have an official reason for a visit, while still giving me time to do a little wandering around the city was cool beyond words.
I covered plenty of other big stories beyond what I’ve detailed here. For months in the summer of 2000 I watched as the landmark Florida tobacco trial wrapped up. After two years, a jury decided that cigarette makers were liable for the diseases caused by smoking and awarded damages to a class of about a half-million sick Florida smokers. I also covered the school shooting in Lake Worth, near West Palm Beach, where a 7th grader shot and killed English teacher Barry Grunow. A year later I covered the trial of Nathaniel Brazil, who testified that he was only trying to intimidate the teacher when the gun, a cheap so-called Saturday Night Special, went off by accident. He was eventually convicted and is now serving a 28-year sentence. Another emotional story I covered was the crash that killed racing legend Dale Earnhardt at the Daytona International Speedway. That story interrupted my wife and I as we celebrated our one year wedding anniversary. We had just checked into a hotel on Fort Lauderdale beach and were on our second round of drinks when my cell phone rang and I had to hop in my car and start driving up to Daytona Beach. But that’s the exciting life of a reporter, never knowing when a breaking story will interrupt your plans. Another story that put me on a another flight is below, when a shark attacked and nearly killed a young boy who splashing around at a beach in Pensacola, Florida. The shark ripped off an arm, which surgeons later reattached.
AUDIO: A shark attack nearly killed an eight-year-old boy in Pensacola, Florida in July 2001. CBS sent me up to cover the story for several days, as Jessie Arbogast was being treated.
AUDIO: Driving in South Florida: a survey in May 2001 found it had the nation’s rudest drivers. The following month another study said Pembroke Pines, Florida had the country’s most dangerous intersection.
At that time, unless I was on an assignment out of town, I would work and broadcast from my home office in my condo in the city of Pembroke Pines, which is between Miami and Fort Lauderdale. I found there were advantages and disadvantages to working from home. Unless I was going out to cover something, I could dress however I wanted. It was also peaceful having my cats nearby as I wrote, recorded and edited stories. I also appreciated not having to drive to an office everyday. But I did sometimes missed the excitement and camaraderie of working in a newsroom with colleagues.
I loved the work I was doing, but the build-up to war in Iraq in 2003 severely cut into my freelance income. Stories from south Florida just couldn’t compete for the limited national airtime with a story like that. I went from having one huge national story after another in 2000 to going weeks at a time without anything in 2003. So I started looking around for a regular news job, at least in the interim, and learned the Miami Herald, a powerhouse daily newspaper, was planning to create a radio department to provide local news content for Miami NPR station WLRN. I applied, went through three rounds of job interviews and ended up being hired in August 2003 to be a morning news anchor starting the following month. I was sad to be giving up a national gig, but needed a steady income. I did however continue to periodically file for CBS in the following years, even after moving back to my hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas in 2009.