News & Politics

Blood, Cops, and Videotape

Two TV Veterans Talk About Big Crime Stories--and Tell the Inside Story of Covering the Sniper Attacks.

In a TV news town increasingly dominated by blow-dried boys and girls, Mike Buchanan and Pat Collins are the last of the hard-bitten breed. Both started out covering cops on the streets of Chicago. For the last three decades, both have been covering crime stories for TV stations in Washington, sometimes together, mostly as competitors, always as friends.

Pat Collins is a third-generation Washingtonian; his grandfather was an engineer on the railroad. Collins grew up in the same house in Northwest DC where his father was raised. The family lived upstairs, and his father, a doctor, had his office on the first floor. At 15 Collins started writing sports stories for the Washington Daily News for $5 each. He worked for the Washington Star and two TV stations before settling down at News 4 in 1986.

Mike "Buck" Buchanan joined Channel 9 in 1970 after working for newspapers and other TV stations. He was born and raised in the Midwest, where his father, Jim, was a UPI reporter before settling down at the Miami Herald. When Fidel Castro became the leader of Cuba, Jim Buchanan was arrested in Havana with a CIA agent under his bed. Says son Mike: "I think he would be proud of me."

For all their decades of reporting, Collins and Buchanan say, nothing prepared them for covering this fall's sniper attacks, when 13 area people were shot at random and 10 were killed. Buchanan anchored the story at Channel 9; Collins reported from the street for News 4. For three weeks, they broke stories that sometimes broke their hearts.

What was it like to cover the sniper story?

MIKE: It all blended into one solid chunk of terror. I probably got about 48 hours sleep in three weeks. I lived with it. I couldn't drop it when I left the office.

PAT: It was like someone robbed us of October. I think there really was more fear in the city of Washington in the month of October than there was after 9/11.

MIKE: October nightmare.

PAT: I saw people running to and from the Safeway store, running in, getting small orders of groceries so they could carry them one in each hand, and then run back to their car. It was people crouching down to pump gas in their car. It was very, very scary, and it affected the entire region.

How quickly did you realize this was more than an ordinary crime story?

PAT: What really triggered it for me is when I saw homicide detectives show up with flak vests on. Homicide detectives pride themselves on the way they dress. You don't Main_Bodyly see them working a murder scene with flak vests on. I think there was some thought that maybe someone committed this murder to draw the police in and then, my God, they'll open fire again. Then it became clear, murder after murder after murder, that we had something that we'd never had before.

Mike, you got one of the biggest breaks in the case when you went on the air with news that police had found a tarot card with a message from the shooters at the scene of one of the shootings. How did you get that?

MIKE: It's not very sexy, but I got it from the wife of a police officer who was on the scene. She had no details. She said they found something.

That's all you had?

MIKE: Once you know that there's something there, then you start making calls, you play–you say, "That thing that was found at the scene, did it say anything?" You build on what little you have.

How did you know this officer and his wife?

MIKE: I think I spoke at the academy. Maybe it was five, ten, two years ago. I honestly couldn't tell you. Maybe some retirement party, some speech.

When did it break for you?

MIKE: It just developed. First, I found out something was found at the scene. Second, I found out it was a tarot card. Third, I found out there was something written on the tarot card. And fourth, I found out what was written on the tarot card.

Montgomery County Police Chief Charles Moose attacked you on the air for releasing the information. Did you question whether to air it?

MIKE: I didn't think it would ever make the air.

You didn't think it would air?

MIKE: I started at 11 in the morning, and I had it by 11 that night. I figured once I made the official call saying, "I'd like your reaction to this–a tarot card was found at the scene of the shooting," the police would try to kill the story. But Prince George's police said, "No big deal. Here's our statement: We're not going to comment on anything that might or might not have been found at the scene."

So they didn't tell you not to use it?

MIKE: Right. And I fully expected for them to say, "Please don't use that." I had my boss's phone number at hand. I figured there would be negotiations. There's usually a compromise–"Okay, tell them a tarot card was found but nothing about what was written on it"–something like that.

So you were surprised when Moose reacted so angrily at his press conference?

MIKE: Yeah, it caught me off-guard. I didn't know what to expect. Incidentally, let's give credit to Chief Moose–a best-actor award. That was all a show.

His reaction was all show?

MIKE: The FBI behaviorists told him, "Look, you're going to come out there, you're going to be mad as hell. I want you to go off the ceiling because you want the killers to think that you are upset. You have to show that you didn't release that, because the last line was, 'Please don't share this with the media.' " So Moose comes out and performs.

I never spoke to Moose.

The police tried to control information, but they caught the suspects when the report of their car and the license plate was broadcast by the media. How did that information get out?

MIKE: It was leaked, and it was put on the police radio.

PAT: Let's go back–what are the lessons learned here? Where did they get the big break in this case? They got the big break from people who called in. They got the break from a guy in Tacoma, Washington, who talked about unusual behavior of these people. They got a big break because somebody talked to this priest. They got the biggest break of all when the tag number went out and the trucker saw their car. You'll find this in many criminal investigations, that a lot of criminal cases are solved–I'd say the great majority are solved–by somebody dropping a dime.

Where does that put you as journalists in getting the word out?

PAT: Getting the word out is what stimulates people to make the call. I don't want to sound like John Walsh [of America's Most Wanted], but, I mean, that's the reality of the way things work.

There was criticism from the public that you guys give out too much information. How do you respond to that?

MIKE: The police would be very happy if we just took their press releases and ran with that and nothing else. Our idea of heaven is probably to have access to the files. Some place in between there's a happy medium.

Has the media coverage of major crimes changed?

PAT: Can I talk about cable? They'll probably never give me a job in cable, but here's what's happening. We've seen it twice in this city in the last year and a half: Chandra Levy and this case. There is a tremendous competition between cable news networks–the Fox people, the MSNBC people, the CNN people. They come on and they're on 24/7. What I find remarkable is there's no accountability.

MIKE: A toast to that, Pat.

PAT: If I do a story and I'm wrong, someone is going to hold me accountable–my boss, the public, you're going to call me. Someone is going to say, "Pat, you really screwed that up."

On cable they'll go on the air with something and they'll hit that hard, and you know what? If it's wrong, they don't care, because the next hour they've got another thing. They start the drumbeat again–boom, boom, boom–and the satellite trucks come out of the sewers, and they come out here with this wolf chant, "We know it, we got it, watch us, watch us, watch us." It's like some tribal chant, and when the dust settles, when the day is done, it's all a bunch of junk. And it kills me because I've spent half my day knocking down this stuff trying to find the element of truth that we can go with.

Does that put pressure on you guys?

PAT: Sure it does, because there are people watching this stuff, and if they say that blue Martians are responsible for these slayings, people begin calling our stations saying, "Well, Fox said the blue Martians did it–how come you didn't say it?" So I've got to go out and prove the blue Martians didn't do it to the satisfaction of everybody. Then I can go on with the story.

Mike, as an anchor, did you feel the same pressure?

MIKE: No, I didn't feel that kind of pressure. I'll tell you where the pressure comes from. Pat and I have debated this. Pat says the young reporters, a lot of them are presenters, not reporters. You know why? They don't have time. We were raised in an age when you dig for facts–you make the phone calls, you go in person, you knock on doors. These people do not have time to do that because cable happened–news went from an hour to, God knows, a telethon every day. There isn't time to really dig–they've got to be on the air all the time.

PAT: And the other thing is you've got to know how the criminal-justice system works. There are people in television today because of the news, and there are people in news today because they want to be on television. If you know how the criminal-justice systems works, then you'll know where to go to harvest facts. Often I look like a million bucks just quoting from the public record.

What happens in a major case like this when the big New York television guns come to town?

PAT: To some extent, that helps. I think in this case a lot of the big guys got a lot of what I call top-side leaks. I don't think everybody involved in the task force knew what was going on. A lot of the what you call shoe-leather detectives were probably less informed about the actual developments in the case than some of the reporters. But I think in some cases the information went right up to the top–I mean, the big federal people knew what was going on. The big shots have big sources, and I think that helped them work the case.

Is there anything in your recollection as police reporters that in any way gets to the level of horror and fear that you saw in the community here?

PAT: No. This was extraordinary. We've had other crimes that have been sensational . . . .

Such as?

MIKE: Chandra Levy.

PAT: On my way here on the subway I was making notes. The Hanafi Muslims, for example. [In 1977 Hanafis took over buildings and held hostages in downtown DC after another Muslim sect slaughtered Hanafi members at a mosque on 16th Street.] Memory works in little freeze-frames: Kareem Abdul Jabbar carrying that little casket that was no bigger than a shoebox out of that funeral service is an image that will stick in my head forever.

There is what I call the allegory month. You may remember it–it was March, I think, 1977–but there was Bradford Bishop, who killed his entire family and vanished. Buck went down to the Great Smokies, where he was last seen, where they found his car.

MIKE: Burnt-out car. He was never found.

PAT: Unsolved mystery. We were both working together on that story.

MIKE: The two biggest mysteries I'd say that we've covered that don't have an ending: Bradford Bishop and the Lyon sisters. Two girls–the daughters of WMAL disc jockey John Lyon, who is still around. I think they were 10 and 12.

PAT: On their way to Wheaton Plaza and they vanished.

MIKE: Vanished. Not a sign.

PAT: It's just so odd to have two young girls abducted at the same time and no resolution. It was probably the closest fear level to the sniper case. Everybody was watching their kids. We had a lookout for a station wagon. That's it.

How do you two deal with the bloodshed and violence you cover?

MIKE: That's one of the reasons I wanted to go inside [and become an anchor]. I'd had enough of the street. This is a true story: About ten years ago a storm came through Washington, and a mailbox in Bethesda blew over and killed a little boy. I'd been reporting on the street for 20 years, and I had to do the terrible knock on the door of the parents. I'll never, ever forget it. The lady opened the door and said, "Mike, we've been expecting you." That was it–I was the voice of gloom and doom. I think that was the breaking point. Kids and cops. Those are the things that get you–kids and cops.

What about you, Pat–how do you deal with reporting murder after murder?

PAT: Well, I see my job as putting the face on murder, of going out and telling the story of the crime and the story of the victim so that people can better understand and appreciate the loss. I really believe that our society is a living body, and when someone is killed or murdered, a piece of us dies along with him. It's my job, it's what I do. I try to shield myself from it. I've seen a lot of murders, a lot of death–I was a medic in the Army in Vietnam–so I'm a little bit more, I guess, able to handle it.

Did the sniper get to you?

PAT: This one I did take home.

MIKE: You dreamt about it.

PAT: It consumed me, but it didn't get to me. I don't think you can let it get to you. It's like a doctor in an emergency room–things happen, they happen fast, there are certain things that you just have to do and when it's all over you might sit back and reflect on it for a minute, but you know that there's something else two or three steps away.

Does it affect your relationships at home?

PAT: I've been married a long time–my wife's been through this. Sometimes I might get a little irritable or cranky, but she puts up with it. It's what I do: I'm a reporter. I don't know how to do anything else. When you get a powerful story, and it's a palm sweater, it propels you.

You guys worked together for seven years.

PAT: At Channel 9. Buck's the reason I had the job. He had one of those crises–he wanted to be a big-time reporter, so he went off and covered the President for a video wire service.

When I was a little kid I remember seeing him on television [laughter]. It was that grainy black-and-white TV, and I thought he was a pretty good reporter, a little bit too dramatic.

MIKE: Oh, look who's talking.

PAT: But I thought he was pretty good. So he decided he no longer wanted to be a reporter–he wanted to be a correspondent. He went and worked for this video news service, and I don't know who the President was at the time, I think Eisenhower [laughs again]. That left Channel 9 without a crime reporter, so he recommended me.

MIKE: I taught him everything I know, but we have to give credit to Jim Snyder [the longtime news director at Channel 9].

PAT: We came out of the Snyder School of Broadcasting. He gave me my first job in television. He also hired Warner Wolf, Gordon Peterson, Andrea Mitchell.

Then Buck decides he wants to come back, so a year later he comes back. I was waiting for someone to order the goodbye cake from the Giant, but they kept me on.

We ended up covering a lot of stories together.

MIKE: In a day-to-day story we'd take turns–page one, page two. . . .

PAT: Back then we really were good. This was the infancy of local television news. We were really breaking ground with the technique, and also we were breaking stories.

But you were in competition on the sniper story.

PAT: We're in competition all the time. He gets his, I get mine. We play head-to-head blackjack; we play golf. We're not good at golf, but we're even.

It's how we blow off steam–we play golf a dollar a hole, and at the end one of us will press double or nothing on the last hole, and we end up pretty much even.

MIKE I'm godfather to his daughter, he's godfather to my son.

PAT: We vacation together; we're very close. He's probably my best friend.

MIKE: I would say Pat's my best friend.

PAT: He's my first call, before the lawyer. And we have the same lawyer.

Did you talk to one another during the sniper story?

PAT: We'd commiserate.

MIKE: Not often, but we did. We'd talk about who worked the longest. He called me to congratulate me on breaking the tarot-card story. That meant more to me than anything else.

[To Pat:] You wouldn't have used it, would you?

PAT: I'm far too responsible. I was embarrassed for you. But I'll give you the tarot card. I had the triple 9/11 tape.

MIKE: I had the Len Bias grand-jury testimony. I had the grand-jury testimony about the mountain of cocaine. Go ahead–your turn.

PAT: I had the Barry tape.

MIKE: I got the Chandra Levy story where Condit was ditching the watch in Alexandria. Your turn.

Do you think you'll ever work together again?

PAT: I always thought there would be some way, and we fantasize about that sometimes. The stars would have to line up. It'd be nice if we could team up–one more run–but I don't think that's in the cards.