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CJRColumbia Journalism Review

May/June 1994 | Contents

Chronicle

HIGH-PRESSURE SYSTEM
When a Private Storm Breaks in Public

by Phil Linsalata
Linsalata is a staff reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Just after midnight on March 23 meteorologist Bob Richards climbed into his red Piper Cherokee. Pointing it west down the main runway at Spirit of St. Louis Airport, the city's most popular TV weatherman opened the throttle and flew into the sky.

Richards, born as Robert L. Schwartz, had worked his way up through a quick succession of television markets. As the thirty-eight-year-old chief meteorologist for KSDK-TV, the St. Louis NBC affiliate, he was earning $ 250,000 a year, Just a few weeks before his midnight flight, he and his wife and their seven-year-old daughter had moved into a $ 300,000 home in the hills of west St. Louis county, not far from where he kept his single-engine Piper.

A bit corny, Richards was known for making public appearances at the drop of a hat. Toting an accordian, he would show up with a smile and a tune to ham it up for almost any cause.

It was one such public appearance that had brought Richards together with Donna L. Henry, a woman who worked at a home for veterans in Farmington, a rural community on the fringes of KSDK's broadcast signal. Henry had invited Richards down to do his shtick for the veterans. He had been happy to oblige. That was almost two years ago, and the starting point of an affair.

By last December, Henry, a divorced mother of an eleven-year-old girl, had decided that the relationship had run its course. She tried to break it off. But that proved difficult.

On March 2, Donna Henry petitioned Associate Circuit Judge James E. Pennoyer for a protective order forbidding Richards from any further contact. She showed the judge about a dozen letters and cards Richards had sent her. Henry said that he persistently called her, that after she changed her telephone number Richards called her mother and her boss's wife. At times he left messages with Henry's daughter, bringing the child into the mess. She said he also flew his airplane over her home. The judge issued a temporary order and scheduled a hearing at which Richards could state his case against making it permanent.

That's where The Associated Press and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch stepped in. The story broke on Friday, March 18, four days before Henry and Richards were set to appear before Judge Pennoyer. "On Friday, we were able to get copies of the court documents and get comments from the judge, from the Farmington woman, and from Bob Richards," says Lori Rose, an AP correspondent in St. Louis. "I discussed it with my superiors in Kansas City. Based on the fact that this was someone well known in the region and that we had a court order, we felt it was a legitimate story. And it was a fair story -- we held it until we had comment from both sides.

"We did not get into the real gossipy stuff," Rose adds. "We kept it straightforward and simple."

That story moved late in the afternoon, crossing the news desks of forty-one newspapers and a hundred broadcast stations in Missouri and parts of Illinois. Its arrival on the wire terminals at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch helped settle an internal discussion that had been going on for two days.

"We had the essentials of the story Thursday," says Post-Dispatch editor William F. Woo, "but a decision was made not to publish, and to look into it further." Woo says he held the story from Friday's editions because gaining such protective court orders requires little proof. By Friday, however, further reporting had assured editors that Henry's application for a court order was "not malicious," Woo says. Meanwhile, the AP broke the story. "At the time, the facts of the order were known to Richards's family and employer," Woo says. "News of the order was on the air. So we published seven inches, subordinated on an inside page of an inside section.

"That was a difficult call, even so," Woo adds. "I think, and I hope, that it was the right one."

The story carried Richards's denial of Henry's claims. He described himself as happily married, and he described Henry as a groupie, frustrated because he "had not taken her up on her advances." Before the end of the weekend, all four major television news stations -- including KSDK-TV -- had carried the item. Each dispatch was short and low-key. But the news was out. Quietly, Richards's wife and daughter left town.

Then came Monday morning drive-time radio. Radio personalities picked up the item and began to ridicule Richards. Some played sound effects of an airplane buzzing overhead. Later that day, Richards's attorney pre-empted the scheduled court date by agreeing to the consent order. On Tuesday, the Post-Dispatch ran a second story on the settlement, playing it short and inside.

At 6:30 that morning, Donna Henry, angry about Richards's description of her, called Steve Shannon and D. C. Chymes, the drive-time voices of WKBQ-FM in St. Louis, a controversial pair whose use of on-air racial slurs had made headlines in 1993. Without prior planning or any advance preparation, Shannon and Chymes put Donna Henry on the air.

She described a love affair that she said began in March 1992 and deteriorated a year later. Richards's portrayal of her as a disgruntled fan, she said, was infuriating. "My name is plastered everywhere, and he has almost weasled out of it," she said. "He's an out-and-out liar."

To prove her point, she replayed recorded telephone messages on the air that she claimed were Richards's. In one, left on her mother's answering machine in early February after she had changed her own number, he pleads that he is "going crazy" without her. "I want to spend the rest of my life with her ... I'm not doing very well without her," he continues on the tape. And he refers to his "ex-wife."

Donna Henry closed the on-air call with a none-too-subtle hint that her counteroffensive could escalate. She said she had gotten certain phone calls over the weekend, as reports on the restraining order circulated. "Now," she said on the radio, "with all these women calling me, and when I'm hearing the same story, every line he used on me, he used on all of them ..., "she said. Shannon and Chymes let the comment hang there, then played more sound effects: airplanes buzzing, accordian music. They replayed the package about an hour later, at peak drive-time.

Shannon says he aired the Henry phone call because he wanted to let her tell her side of the story. Given the chance, he says, any of his competitors would have done the same.

Tuesday night, Richards looked straight into the camera with his trademark smile. Forecasting sunny, mild weather, he signed off and left the set to meet Karlee Stratton, who describes herself as a former actress and an old friend.

She says they met under St. Louis's Gateway Arch and talked for about an hour. Richards was "devastated," she says. "He felt strip-searched and raped in the public eye ... stripped of his self-respect, pride, and dignity."

Richards left for the airport. Stratton said she was troubled, so she beeped him. He returned her message with a call from his car phone, reassuring her that he was fine.

He parked his Honda in his hangar and taxied the Piper Cherokee into position. Airport regulars were accustomed to his late-night flights. He liked the quiet, they said.

At eighty miles per hour, Richards lifted into the night sky, holding the throttle open into a steady ascent. At 400 feet, the throttle wide open, the plane nosed into a power dive. It slammed into the ground, disintegrated, and burst into flames. Richards died instantly.