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Deadly Rampage

Made-for-TV tragedy
unfolded too quickly for live reports

photo
Florida law enforcement personnel run with hostage Stephanie Kramer after she was released by Hank Earl Carr. More than 170 enforcement officers were at the scene. [Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]

By ERIC DEGGANS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 20, 1998


We see it so often on CNN or the national news that it almost seems made for TV: footage of a fugitive running from police, either on foot or by car, telecast with the immediacy of live television.

• Detective hailed as hero, professional, friend

• Among police, 'the world is paralyzed; everybody is crying'

• Trooper had been on job less than year

• Detective Bell just weeks away from 'dull' job

• Carr lived as he died: in violence

• Made-for-TV tragedy unfolded too quickly for live reports

• Caseworkers received allegations of abuse

• Handcuff procedures questioned

But when a man shot and killed two Tampa police detectives, hijacked a passing car, murdered a Florida Highway Patrol trooper and was found dead after holing up in a Shell gas station in Hernando County on Tuesday, local TV stations found the pursuit moved too fast to capture on videotape. The chase was over when their helicopters reached the scene.

Stating his name as Hank Earl Carr -- though police first identified him as Joseph Lee Bennett -- the man was captured on videotape by some TV stations earlier in the day while attempting to run from police who were trying to question him on the death of his son, who had been shot in the face with a rifle.

When area news organizations realized that Carr was suspected of shooting Detectives Rick Childers and Randy Bell and was driving north on Interstate 75, the fugitive was already well on his way to Hernando County, said Steve Majors, news director at WFTS-Ch. 28.

"This story changed by the second," said Majors.

"At one point, it was a child shooting, then it became a police shooting, then a manhunt . . . and the suspect's name changed, too," he said. "I have never been involved in a story that has changed so quickly. . . . Sometimes the videotape was ahead of the facts."

photo
Law enforcement personnel rush to seal the scene at the Shell station in Hernando County where Carr took his own life. [Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Such confusion prompted WFTS to air Childers' name and video of the officer testifying in a past court case early in its coverage, when other news organizations were still withholding the detectives' identities until their families could be notified.

"It was a mistake," Majors said. He also said the station dropped plans to broadcast at 11 p.m. a long-scheduled story on "road rage" incidents. Instead, it presented an hour of late-night coverage devoted to the incident.

"A story like that might be insensitive now," Majors said.

Off and on from about 3 p.m. to 8 p.m., area TV stations provided near wall-to-wall coverage of the incident, called by WFLA-Ch. 8 anchor Bob Hite "the worst tragedy in the 20 years I've been here."

Most stations jumped between extensive reports and halting attempts to offer regular programing, with most every outlet on hand to report news of Carr's death, minus any violent or graphic images. The one exception, among the area's six TV news operations, was WTOG-Ch. 44, which offered brief updates beginning about 4:30 p.m. during syndicated sitcoms such as Roseanne, The Simpsons and Seinfeld.

photo
Police enter the gas station after the Tampa bomb squad view a hole in the rear of the building where Carr took refuge. They found him dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. [Times photo: Kevin White]
"We didn't break in earlier because of children's programing," said WTOG news director Jim LaBranche, who said that cartoons 101 Dalmatians: The Series and The Mighty Ducks were airing at 3 p.m., when the crisis began heating up. "We don't do that for the sake of telling people three officers are down. We don't think that's appropriate."

Early on, the most complete account of what happened came from Carr himself, who was called by WFLA-AM shortly after reaching the gas station. Carr said the shooting of his 4-year-old son was an accident and that he might not live through the standoff.

"If anything, I'll shoot myself," he told announcer Don Richards, who tried to talk Carr into releasing his hostage and surrendering. "I can't see giving myself up to fry in a electric chair."

Richards said the caller claiming to be Carr seemed to know details only the suspect would know, convincing station producers to air their brief interview live.

"He was just ticked off at the world and thought he was being unfairly accused," said Richards, sounding weary while finishing up a work day that began at 3 a.m.

In between live reports, WFLA-Ch. 8 did break into regular programing early to cover the incident and provide information for a brief report aired on the NBC Nightly News.

Time Warner's 24-hour cable news channel, Bay News 9, also seemed a little behind the broadcast outlets in covering the story, delivering details slower than other stations and struggling with inexperienced correspondents. Bay News 9 news director Melissa Klinzing said the channel tried to limit video of the scene, especially when police surrounded the gas station about 7:30 p.m., to keep Carr from pinpointing police positions.

"There have been some tremendous risks taken (by other area news organizations) today," said Klinzing, pointing out that the news channel's guidelines kept it from showing video footage of police grieving and prompted double-checking of facts before airing them.

"It's time to show a little more respect."

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