In the midst of a hostage crisis, two desperate gunmen made a request of TV reporter Russ Ewing: Help us work out a surrender.
During an uprising at maximum-security Indiana State Prison, inmates requested his help in negotiating peace.
Over a decades-long career at WMAQ-NBC 5 and WLS-ABC 7, the Chicago television newsman had more than 100 people wanted by the police turn themselves in to him. Some sought to clear their names, others to atone or just get it over with.
Many also wanted to avoid a bruising capture by law enforcement by having him film them unharmed before escorting them to the police, according to Eugene Stanback, his frequent camera operator.
“If I take a picture of you, and I can show that you haven’t got a scratch on you, then if you do come up with some scratches, it’s to your advantage,” Mr. Ewing once told the Chicago Sun-Times.
Mr. Ewing died Tuesday at 95 at his home in Paw Paw, Michigan, according to friends. He found out in October he had bladder cancer, according to Patricia L. Arnold, who produced many of his broadcasts for ABC 7.
“He was unafraid of just about anything,” ABC 7 reporter Paul Meincke said.
“Russ Ewing is truly a legend among Chicago TV journalists,” said Alan Krashesky, anchor-reporter at ABC 7. “He put his own personal safety on the line dozens of times in his career to negotiate the peaceful surrenders of criminal suspects.”
“He wasn’t flashy, he wasn’t flamboyant, he was just meat-and-potatoes,” Meincke said. “He was earthy and honest.”
Mr. Ewing was a sympathetic mediator, confessor and psychologist. Those qualities made people he interviewed trust him, especially in African-American neighborhoods, said Stanback, who worked for WLS for 39 years.
“I remember going out into the neighborhood, and, in 15 minutes, we could put together a package,” Stanback said. “People would say, ‘It’s Russ Ewing! Russ, you want to talk to the mom [of a suspect or victim]? She’s around the corner! You need a picture? Here’s a picture.’ ”
“He had the ability to relate to people, especially in the black community,” said Jim Stricklin, who often shot Mr. Ewing’s street footage when he worked for NBC 5. “They knew him and respected him.”
He was unflappable, said ABC 7 camera operator Ken Bedford — even when he picked up a suspect with a big gun collection. “Russ says, ‘Bring the weapon with you that you used to shoot the person,’ ’’ Bedford remembers of that time, “and then somebody yelled back, ‘Which one?’ ’’
Mr. Ewing was involved in countless risky situations, Meincke said. “He had some real, real scary ones, and crews would always be forewarned that Russ was going to be dealing with somebody who was wanted by police,” he said, “but they trusted him.”
“They trust him” was the caption under Mr. Ewing’s photo accompanying a 1992 Associated Press article about crime suspects who turned themselves in to him. The headline: “Murderers prefer to surrender to Chicago TV reporter.’’
“Ewing says he gets calls from other criminals,” the AP story said, “but is so busy he limits himself to killers.”
“Most have been in prison and aren’t afraid of going back,” Mr. Ewing told a reporter. “Some are afraid of going to prison, the young ones are. They shot someone and didn’t intend to do it. Some claim they didn’t do it. Some just want someone to talk to.”
In a 1995 Sun-Times interview, he recalled one of his scariest surrenders this way: “This guy who had shot a couple of people in Gary called, wanting to turn himself in. He was hiding out in an old, water-soaked shack. I went up, and he’s sitting there with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a .357 magnum, fully loaded. He said, ‘Russ, I’m going to prison for the rest of my life. I want to shoot my gun before I go.’ I asked, ‘You got anybody in mind?’
“We talked, we laughed, and he got the gun and fired three shots into the ceiling. Plaster was falling everyplace, and I looked at him and said, ‘Hey, that looks like fun. Let me try it.’ He gave me the gun, and I fired three shots into the ceiling. I said, ‘You got any more bullets?’ He said no, and I was happy as hell.”
In 1995, when he retired after 14 years at ABC 7 and 15 years before that at NBC 5 — he’d been recognized with nine Emmys, a Chicago Headline Club Peter Lisagor Award for Exemplary Journalism, two “medals of merit” from the city of Chicago and a Sun-Times editorial lauding his “courage and diplomatic skill” in persuading holdup suspects to give up their hostages.
At the time, he said 114 people had surrendered to him. One murder suspect arranged to hand himself over after seeing himself on “America’s Most Wanted.”
Mr. Ewing said one of his most rewarding stories involved getting an unscrupulous real estate dealer to repay a mother of seven children who lived in the Chicago Housing Authority’s old Robert Taylor Homes. She had saved for years to give the agent a $6,000 deposit to help the family find a new home, but he said he was going to keep $2,000 of their money even though he didn’t come through.
”She called me crying and upset and said, ‘What can I do?’ ’’ Mr. Ewing told the Sun-Times. “So I waited until a day when I had been out in one of the live trucks, doing another story. I went and got her, and we pulled up in front of this real estate dealer’s house. We put the aerial up, faced the camera to his place, and I started telling people this guy’s a thief.
“He saw the commotion, came out and said, ‘What the hell is going on here?’ I said, ‘Didn’t my station call you? They were supposed to call you and tell you that we’re doing a story on network television about how you took $6,000 from this poor woman from public housing.’
“He finally said, ‘I’ll give her the g--damn money back.’ He got a cashier’s check, gave the lady the money back, and I stood there with tears in my eyes.”
A gifted raconteur, Mr. Ewing said he informed his WLS bosses of his plans to retire “because a guy has moved into my house, and I can’t get him out.” Asked who, he replied, “Father Time.”
But Father Time didn’t keep him from being coaxed back to work in 1998 as a special contributor for NBC 5.
In 1997, he was inducted into the Chicago Television Academy’s Silver Circle. In 2003, the Chicago Association of Black Journalists created the Russ Ewing Excellence in Journalism Awards and Scholarship Presentation.
He also was a talented pianist, pilot and former city firefighter.
Once, when he was 20, “There was an airport [near] 93rd and Harlem, and he went there and took flight lessons,” Arnold said, “and then he bought his own plane.”
Mr. Ewing started at WMAQ in 1964 as a courier. Three years later, he started reporting on air, according to The HistoryMakers website. He investigated Social Security fraud, corruption, unfair credit policies and conditions at Chicago’s city animal shelter. He credited TV news pioneers Len O’Connor and Floyd Kalber with helping his career.
In 1980, he had the first interview with John Wayne Gacy after his murder convictions. The serial killer told Mr. Ewing an alter ego had guided him to kill 33 young men.
Six years later, Mr. Ewing helped uncover the identity of Gacy victim Timothy McCoy. After listening to the concerns of McCoy’s relatives, he obtained dental records and contacted forensic experts, resulting in the ID.
For years, he had a Steinway piano in his living room, Arnold said. Friends said he could play anything by ear. He even headed his own group, the Russ Ewing Trio.
Orphaned at 2, he was raised near 42nd and Champlain “by people I refer to as my aunt and uncle,” he once told the Sun-Times. Young Russ went to Englewood High School.
His wife Ruth died in 2004. He used to say they met in kindergarten. She worked as a librarian at Englewood High School, Arnold said.
Mr. Ewing knew his negotiating efforts were risky.
“When you do something like that. and it works, you’re a hero,” he told the AP in 1976. “When it doesn’t, you’re dead.”
See ABC 7’s tribute to Russ Ewing
Video courtesy of ABC 7 Chicago