Tiny But Mighty

Reporter’s Notebook

Cheryl Williams had been waiting 18 years for her day in court.

If it had just happened a little sooner, she would have been able to walk in. Instead, she had to be wheeled in. 50 years of raising other people’s babies and hoisting them on her hips have left her body weak.

Miss Cheryl was wheeled up to the witness stand, tucked in, and microphone pulled down toward her. She’s so petite that all the jury could see was her head and signature white pigtails skimming the stand.

She looked more tired than she did 2 years ago when we first met. Her son Mike Williams disappeared during a duck hunting trip in December 2000. 16 years later she was still trying to pressure the cops to take his case more seriously, and open a criminal investigation. I’d been assigned to cover the cold case for Crime Watch Daily.

As it turns out, my reporting led to a cascade of events. Nothing like banging on a few doors to upset things. A few months later Mike’s body was discovered buried in a swamp, and his “widow” and his best friend were arrested.

Brian Winchester, his best buddy growing up, admitted to killing Mike so he and Mike’s wife, Denise Williams, could collect 1.7 million dollars in life insurance and live happily every after—without Mike. Denise denies any involvement, but Brian Winchester admitted everything in exchange for full immunity. Denise Williams is the only one on trial for murder.

Which brings us back to the tiny but mighty Cheryl Williams on the witness stand. Miss Cheryl told the jury how Denise threatened her. Apparently Denise didn’t want any publicity to help find her missing husband, and she sure as hell did not want a crimal investigation into his disappearance. Miss Cheryl paid a heavy price. Denise allegedly threaten to without access to Mike’s daughter, Cheryl’s granddaughter. Miss Cheryl never saw her granddaughter again, and to this day they are estranged.

The jury didn’t like hearing that. Many jurors shook their heads in disgust. It may not be a crime to withhold someone’s grandchild, but in the court of Life —this was surely a sin. Denise’s attorneys argued that the child was kept away so she wouldn’t be confused by Miss Cheryl’s unrealistic belief Mike could still be alive ( remember they just found his body in 2017).

But Denise missed the point. To be a mother is to believe against all odds.

Denise also underestimated the love of a mother. Miss Cheryl never gave up and because she stood on street corners with homemade signs and paid for billboards and wrote thousands of letters pleading to help find her son…ultimately Mike Williams was found. The swampy roads of Tallahassee led right back to Mike’s best friend and Mike’s wife. Funny how that turned out.

And so Miss Cheryl got her day in court in more ways than one. As Miss Cheryl was wheeled out, she glared at the defendant, and stared her down, until Denise caved and looked away.

And that my friends is just a tiny bit of justice.

At the time this blog was posted Denise Williams was still on trial for murder.

Alligator Mike No More

Reporter’s Notebook

It’s near impossible for me as a reporter not to have feelings about the people I cover.

I met Cheryl Williams in the summer of 2016. And what a hot summer it was in Tallahassee, Florida. It had been 16 years since her son Mike Williams had disappeared during a duck hunting trip in December 2000. The case was cold, cold as the gators in Seminole Lake, where authorities said Mike fell in, died and was likely eaten by alligators.

Ridiculous, huh? I sure thought so. Miss Cheryl never bought it and she forged a one woman war against all odds to be heard and get her son’s “missing persons” case turned into a criminal investigation.

Some cops, okay many cops, laughed at this little lady ( yes she’s a petite gal) with a squeaky voice and white pigtails. I did not. Before me was a passionate mother in pain, searching for her boy and determined to find him, and, what happened to him. Lots of people have called her crazy, and she was sane enough to take a mental note of each one of them.

Which brings me to me. When I sat down to interview Miss Cheryl for Crime Watch Daily, the TV show I worked for, I knew she wasn’t crazy. But more importantly, SHE knew, I knew. And so, we clicked. She trusted me. In these times of unscrupulous reporters who don’t give a crap about the people they report about, that was a very big deal.

I promised Miss Cheryl what I promise all the victims of crime I do stories on: I will do my best to get you answers. In this case, that meant knocking on doors and chasing down the people most likely to have those answers: the woman married to Mike when he disappeared and Mike’s best fiend. The two people closest to Mike, who ended up marrying eachother after he was out of the picture.

Guess my snooping around upset the apple cart just enough to unhinge Brian Winchester, Mike’s best friend and husband to Mike’s widow, Denise. Just a few weeks aftet my knock knock, Brian Winchester kidnapped his estranged wife Denise. Brian said Denise wouldn’t talk to him, and kidnapping Denise was the only way to get her to hear him out.

That kidnapping was the beginning of the end for Brain and Denise. Brain has admitted to killing Mike Williams, and he claims Denise was his accomplice. Brain has immunity from murder charges in-exchange for implicating Denise and leading police to Mike’s body. At the time of this post, Denise Williams is on trial for murder. Denise claims she knew nothing of Brian’s plan and she would have never married him if she did.

This blog is about the journey to get answers and justice.

The Iowa Way

I wonder what would happen if every state caucused? 

Sure it takes a long time; sure it’s personal. But the best part is that it asks a lot of a voter.  I think that’s what has inspired me here in Iowa.

When I vote in Los Angeles, there are signs everywhere: no electioneering beyond this point.

In Iowa, it’s the opposite. The people, the voters, try to persuade other voters to align with them.  And, the candidates are permitted, encouraged, welcomed into precincts. 

I was with Republican presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson tonight as he went to three voting locations to get some last minute votes.

I was astonished at his access, and at mine as a reporter.  Can you imagine standing in line, waiting to vote and having the candidate get in your face, shake your hand and ask for your vote? What an amazing opportunity for a voter and a candidate to have a mini-debate and hash out an issue in real time.

I did a live report for the Fox station in LA, from a school gym while Carson was talking to a group of voters.  At that moment I truly understood what House Speaker Tip O’Neil meant when he said “all politics is local.”

I am sold on the Iowa way of voting, except in New York. New Yorkers are way too argumentative. Caucusing would take too long there and people in Queens would get into fist fights.

Thank you Iowa, for inspiring me. Yes, even a jaded journalist can believe again.

Vote For Me, Please

Some rallies in Iowa are about locking down the undecided votes, other events are about rallying the troops.

Senator Bernie Sanders came to Marshalltown, Iowa to keep the faithful, faithful.

The crowd in Marshalltown was radically different from Senator Rubio’s event the day before in Urbandale.

Sure they are radically different candidates for president, and their parties are mortal enemies, but I am talking about style here.

Rubio worked the room. Sanders works the crowd.

To feel the Bern, you gotta let him have the stage. He’s not a press the flesh kind of guy. He admits he’s really not that comfortable shaking hands and making small talk, and it shows.

But again Senator Sanders is about authenticity…he is who he is. So the small room packed with supporters felt very intimate.  Perhaps because we were all squished into a tiny, hot room…kinda like a human terrarium.

By contrast, Hillary Clinton’s event at Lincoln High School in Des Moines later that night was a huge political rally in the traditional sense.  Hundreds of people standing in a high school gymnasium.  The warm-up act: Chelsea and Bill Clinton.

It felt big, presidential and frankly a little impersonal when compared to the intimate event for Bernie Sanders, or even the event for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie which was at a packed pub in West Des Moines.  Ok, it was a bar, and lots of people had beers in their hands, but somehow it felt more personal.

Next for me: I will be on Dr. Ben Carson’s media bus and following him on visits to precincts during the caucuses.

I got a sneak peak into the Carson war room. I will be there when the election returns come in. 

Stay tuned.

Making A Splash In Iowa

A lot can happen under one Ramada Inn roof during a presidential election.

Senator Marco Rubio was trying to rally a few hundred Republicans, many of them undecided, in a ballroom while dozens of Midwest families splashed around in an indoor pool and waterslide.

The humid cloud of chlorine hit me like wave when I walked in to the Ramada in Urbandale.

I saw all these very pale families splashing around and I thought: there’s no way Rubio is having a campaign event here.

I was too embarrassed to ask families headed to the pirate ship splish splash, so I asked a man hauling a trashcan. Oh, I was in the right place. The Rubio event was just past the pirate ship.

As I walked toward the ballroom I couldn’t help wonder, was Donald Trump hiding in the pirate ship? Come on, you have to admit, that would have been a great stunt.

The setting was surreal, but then again this entire campaign season has been surreal.

By the time I got to the ballroom, I missed Rubio’s speech, but he was still working the room…one potential voter at a time.

Rubio stopped to talk to everyone, but he did so from behind a velvet rope. I felt like I was in LA nightclub and he was the celebrity.  In this room Rubio was.

Volunteers were busy trying to get voters to commit to Rubio on caucus night. Many in the room were undecided, and were planning to attend rallies for other candidates.

That’s what I like about Iowa. People come out to hear and see a candidate for themselves.

There is something very inspiring about that level of voter engagement.

And, if you plan well, you can get a swim in too!

Footnote: I ran into the legendary Judy Woodruff, perhaps the best TV journalist of our time. She is the bar by which we all should be measured.

 

Two Nights With Jack Black

Jack Black doesn't know it, but we spent two nights together enjoying theater and TV. It's what we do best in Los Angeles 

Two Premieres, Two Totally Different Shows

I thank the stars, the ones above not the ones who live in Beverly Hills, for great theater in Los Angeles. 

Theater here doesn't get nearly the attention that movies and TV do, but the audience is appreciative. Which brings me back to Jack Black.  

The School of Rock star is everything you see in that movie. I found that out at the opening of Matilda The Musical at The Ahmonson Theater. I loved Matilda because it's about the little girl in all of us. 

Jack Black and I were seated in the same row. See, I circled him in red in the photo.

He was with his wife and kids, and since I’m such a huge fan…I kept peeking over to see him. 

I'm so happy to report that Jack Black was enthusiastic, and as engaged as you would expect him to be. It made me like him that much more. 

The next night, I saw Jack Black again. Hey it’s LA. 

This time it was at the premiere of HBO’s new comedy The Brink, starring Jack Black and Tim Robbins. No kids tonight, this is HBO. 

So, The Brink can only be described as a cross between the movies Airplane and Austin Powers. The world is at the brink of nuclear war because of stupid crap which is weaved in with real life global tensions. Robbins plays a sex-crazed Secretary of State and Black is peon at the US embassy in Islamabad. Iqbal Theba, who you know best as the principal on Glee, is brilliant as the nutty military dictator. 

It's snarky, silly boy humor, and I laughed.  The Sanjay Gupta joke had me in tears.

Tonight, Jack Black was kind and warm like a host should be. 

I think the show will be a hit for HBO. As for the party, HBO does a great job with all its premieres, and what's not to love about a hand-grenade piggy bank as a party gift?   

Pitch Perfect 2: Not So Perfect

Review 

I wanted to see this movie no matter what. Reviews could not stop me. 

I loved Pitch Perfect so much that when I met Anna Kendrick at a charity event I embarrassed myself terribly by asking "ac-excuse me, can I take a photo with you?" 

She didn't laugh, and I didn't laugh at her sequel. Payback is a bitch. 

Pitch Perfect was so perfect because it had a great storyline about a girl who didn't fit in, or at least thought she didn't. It had a charming love story and quirky characters. 

The love story, the parenting struggles and the fun of the competition are all missing from Pitch Perfect 2. Even Fat Amy, played by Rebel Wilson, is less edgy. 

It's as if the entire movie is a string of cameos. Even the cast feels like they are just dropping by. Maybe Elizabeth Banks wasn't the right person to direct. 

Hailee Steinfeld's character, Emily, is new, but we don't know why. She doesn't change the course of events. 

The only moment, or storyline comes from Keegan-Michael Key who plays a record company exec looking for the next breakthrough. Snoop Dog singing a Christmas song is like puppy love: cute and sweet. 

The Bella's have changed, or maybe the actresses playing them have, because now they wear tons of make-up and false eyelashes, even in the camping scene. That's not the Beca with the chipped nail polish we met in the first movie. 

Bring back the real Bella's I miss them. 

 

Tomorrowland Can Wait: Review

This movie is so long, that it feels like tomorrow by time it's over. 

George Clooney may save the world ( duh, it's Disney of course the world is saved) but he can't save Tomorrowland. 

This futurist film about a parallel universe of dreamers and inventors has a great message about not waiting until it's too late to save our planet from war, climate change, pollution...you know the real evil doers. But the messaging is so overt, and the writing so obvious, it seems amateurish. 

The special effects are so kitschy that the futuristic city looks like Dubai. The costumes are a bland version of The Hunger Games. Hugh Laurie looks like he is wearing MC Hammer pants with an Elton John jacket. 

George Clooney who is arguably one of the best looking men, honestly looks terrible and tired. Did he take this role just to pay for his over-the-top wedding to Amal Alamuddin in Venice because that's the only thing that would make sense. 

Raffey Cassidy as the robot Athena, is fantastic. She's the most interesting character and Cassidy owns the screen.  

I never connected with this film and I wanted to. I am a huge fan of The Iron Giant, which was directed by Brad Bird. Bird clearly has a heart, and dreams big, but maybe the simplicity of his message is lost with a bunch of extra stuff that takes away from the  storytelling. 

I say pass.  

Milking Marlene

When I think of the great Marlene Dietrich, I don't picture a sturgeon being gently "milked" for her pricey and precious eggs.

Yet somehow, the film goddess was the inspiration behind the naming of a female sturgeon living on a German caviar farm.

This is Marlene

This is Marlene

This 6-year-old Siberian Sturgeon produces caviar exclusively for the Ritz Carlton in Berlin.  The Ritz says it's the first hotel in the world to have one sturgeon supply all its caviar on a continuing basis. 

Unlike traditional caviar harvesting, where the female is killed for her eggs, Marlene gets to live.  It's known as sustainable caviar farming. 

You might wonder how they "milk" or "massage" her, but explaining that would involve repeating some type of fish porn I won't write. 

I can tell you, the plan is to milk her once year, with the hopes of yielding 800-1000 grams of caviar for the hotel and its restaurant. 

I was fortunate enough to get an exclusive preview of the sustainable project before the Ritz announced Marlene. Like all divas, she insisted on controlling her press. 

As part of the preview, I sampled Marlene's caviar, and her little eggs were delicious. 

Most of Marlene's caviar will be sprinkled on this or that, but some of her caviar will be sold in  souvenir tins. 

Take a little Marlene home

Trust me on this one. Trying to get caviar home to the US can be nightmarish.  

I once packed a little glass jar of caviar from Odessa in my suitcase with a some ice. On the flight home, I fantasized about chopping onions and eggs. I thought about the wine I would I serve with it. 

But when I opened my suitcase, I found the jar had popped open. There were expensive little black fish eggs everywhere. Of course I suspected some dastardly customs person of opening the jar in the belly of the plane just to spite me. Either way, I will never try that again, but you may have better luck. A ten gram tin is 25 Euros which is approximately $30 US dollars at the writing of this story.

In farm rich California where I live, we pride ourselves on what we make and grow: wine, cheese, and those amazing avocados. So, I could really appreciate the enthusiasm and affection the Ritz staff has for its sturgeon. 

I'll admit I am a sucker for a fish tale with a happy ending, and after sampling her eggs, I feel connected to Marlene. 

Siberian sturgeon can produce eggs until they are 20 years old, which means Marlene maybe be getting massages for a long time to come.