Tom Wills: Big names, big stories in 70s

By Tom Wills - 5 & 6 p.m. anchor

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - I arrived at WJXT in 1975 and began co-anchoring the evening newscasts Bill Grove, the station's founding news anchor and news director. 

Two years later the station celebrated Grove's 25th anniversary with a gathering at the Thunderbird Motor Hotel on the Arlington Expressway. Walter Cronkite and Florida Gov. Reuben Askew attended.

That same year, a charter plane carrying Lynyrd Skynyrd, flying from Greenville, S.C. to Baton Rouge, L.a. crashed in a forest near Gillsburg, Miss., killing six people including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant and injuring six other band members. The bulletin moved on the UPI wire just after the 11 o’clock news on Thursday night, October 20, 1977. Producer Tom Moo and I were in the newsroom. I went back on the air, interrupting regular programming (The Newlywed Game) to broadcast the bulletin. The phones lit up. Callers were seeking more information.

At some point that night, we were able to arrange a private phone conversation between relatives of band members here in Jacksonville and a clergyman who was at the hospital in McComb, Miss.

The next day, photographer Joe Coppoletta and I flew to Mississippi. It was the first time since Channel 4 switched from film cameras to video cameras that a news crew had traveled out of town.  Neither the news crew nor the airline knew how to transport this brand new, state-of-the art equipment. When we arrived in Baton Rouge, our first stop, the gear was broken. Somehow Joe, kneeling on the floor of the airport terminal, was able to get it working again. If he hadn't, we would not have been able to report on the tragedy.

Joe and I walked along a dirt trail into the forest to reach the crash scene. It was not sealed off. We came upon the wreckage of the Convair CV-300. 

The fuselage was broken in two. The luggage and other personal effects of the passengers and crew were scattered on the ground. I will never forget it.

The injured were hospitalized in McComb and Jackson. Out of respect for their families, Joe and I did not go to the hospitals. We interviewed friends of the band, including an author who was writing a book about Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Upon returning to Jacksonville, we produced a half-hour tribute to these hometown rock stars. The title of the broadcast was taken from the Skynyrd song, “Need All My Friends.” The program featured a brief interview with Billy Powell at Jacksonville Airport when he flew home a few days after the crash. He had stitches on his face. He told me he did not see how the band could go on without Ronnie Van Zant.

The 1970’s saw Channel 4 continue its long tradition of aggressive investigative journalism with a young reporter named Steve Kroft, who went on to become a correspondent for "60 Minutes."

Steve delved into everything from a JEA proposal to build a tanker docking facility, (the project was scrapped) to landowners who stood to benefit from construction of the Dames Point Bridge. (We called a series of reports Steve did, “The Bridge to Buddy’s Fish Camp.”)

Another of Steve’s reports lead to a lawsuit against Channel 4. At the time, a Duval County grand jury was investigating possible campaign finance violations involving Mayor Hans Tanzler. Steve found out the jurors were looking into a check for $10,000 given to Tanzler by a prominent local attorney, C. Ray Greene. Steve went to Greene and Greene showed him the cancelled check. He told Steve the money was a loan, but acknowledged there was no collateral and no documentation spelling out terms for repayment. On the 6 o’clock news that night, Steve reported that the grand jury “was investigating a payment to the mayor from Greene” and that Greene said it was a loan.

The moment the news was over, the phone rang in the newsroom where I was starting work on the 11 o’clock news. I answered the call and it was Greene. In a slow, rather soft drawl, he told me he could, “Understand a mistake, but if Channel 4 ran that story about the ‘payment’ again, he would sue me, Kroft, and Channel 4,” and then he hung up.

I relayed the message to news director Ernie Mastroianni, who consulted with Kroft and Channel 4’s attorney, August Quesada. They agreed the story was entirely sound and accurate and would run again. Quesada saw no legal reason to kill the story. However, we added some clarification to the 11 o’clock version. Each time we used the word, “payment,” we qualified it with the word, “loan.”

Greene made good his threat and sued. He accused Channel 4 of libel, and claimed our story damaged his law practice. Eventually, the suit went to trial with WJXT-TV, Kroft, and me as defendants.

As solid and fair as the story was, it was still a sobering experience to be on the witness stand, under oath, answering questions from a combative attorney about why I chose the words I used to write the introduction to Steve’s report which I read on the air. The lawyer had the script on an easel and used a pointer as he grilled me in front of the jury. Steve and I both testified about the clarification that was added at 11 o’clock.

Our lawyer called Greene to the stand. Under cross examination, he disclosed that he made that phone call to our newsroom from the cabana of his swimming pool at his weekend home in Ocala. He also conceded that in the year since the story aired, his law practice had earned $600,000 which was more than the firm earned the previous year.

We won the case. Channel 4’s attorney pursued Greene in court and won reimbursement of the station’s legal expenses.

Copyright 2014 by News4Jax.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.