News Hostage

Workin' the Rails
There's nothing like an alleged serial killer to bring out the sober, judicious side of television news.

In addition to testing newly found Spanish accents as they roll off the alliterative name of Rafael Resendez-Ramirez, in addition to showing enough footage of (killer-free) freight trains to stock a History Channel documentary, our local stations are moving aggressively to offer every tidbit they can on the Hunt for Ratings -- excuse us, the Hunt for the Railcar Killer.

And we do mean offering every tidbit. Channel 2 followed up Game Four of the NBA Finals with an extensive look at the manhunt. An extensive look that included a quote from some law enforcement official that Ramirez "could be headed back to Houston."

Or he could be going anywhere else.
While we do, indeed, have railroad tracks here in Houston, there was precious little else offered in the way of explaining why he would choose to come back here. Except, of course, for the tag line urging us to keep tuned to Channel 2 for the latest on the case.

Channel 11 has also done itself proud, offering the exclusive on June 24 that a family member said Ramirez had been dropped on his head as a child and that the incident could be the cause of his current homicidal rage. This information, which we didn't see anywhere else, should have the beneficial effect of making Houstonians ostracize any child clumsy enough to tumble off the playground jungle gym. Best to weed them out while they're young, we say.

Channel 11 also wins the award for Most Bizarre Graphic, which we caught during a Game Four time-out June 23.

There was a picture of railroad tracks going off into the distance. A mug shot of Ramirez flashed on the screen, then floated off to the left. Then, as the anchor intoned sonorously about "loved ones who will never be forgotten," a mug shot of one of the victims appeared at the bottom of the screen.

It happened, seemingly by coincidence, to be just as wide as the railroad tracks on which it sat. That's odd, we thought. And then -- and we're still not sure we weren't hallucinating -- the picture started to move down the tracks. It was followed by another victim's mug shot, which also moved down the tracks and off into the distance. Others followed.

We suppose we should just be happy there were no choo-choo sound effects.

On Second Thought, Don't Keep Tuned
Channel 2's coverage of the Ramirez case, by the way, includes the winner so far in the coveted prize of Least Suspenseful Follow-up Report. Tony Kovaleski of the station's Investigators team (for all you card collectors out there, he's "Suspenders-Wearing Investigator") had a phone interview with a woman in Thayer, Missouri (population: almost 2,000).

The woman apparently had a truck stolen from her driveway in 1993 by Ramirez.

In his stand-up ending the report, Kovaleski all but shouted this: "I talked with the sheriff for the area around Thayer, and he's checking to see if there are any unsolved murders from 1993!"

Man, that ought to be one time-consuming investigation. The sheriff would have to check to see if there are any five-year-old unsolved murders not only in Thayer, but also in the rest of Oregon County, which includes the metropolises of Myrtle, Many Springs and Couch. Not to mention Alton.

Combing through all the unsolved murders lying around in the files up there, trying to nail down one in the relevant time frame, could take weeks. We're sure Kovaleski will keep us informed.

Dead Man Talking
Sunday's Houston Chronicle Outlook section included an opinion piece by Ed Myers, author of Social Security: America's Hidden Gold Mine. Myers was extolling the benefits of Galveston County's privatized retirement plan, which has become a favorite example cited by conservatives everywhere who want to abolish Social Security.

Myers opened with an anecdote: "One afternoon several months ago an elected official from Galveston County and his wife drove to Hobby Airport to take a plane. While there, he suddenly collapsed and died.... A few weeks later his wife received a check for approximately $250,000."

The list of elected officials from Galveston County who have died suddenly in Hobby Airport within the last few months is relatively short: It begins and ends with County Commissioner Wayne Johnson, who died at the age of 44 on January 25.

The amount of death and retirement benefits his widow received under the private plan isn't public information and has never been published; friends of Johnson's widow say she is livid over the disclosure.

"She's a widow, living alone, and the Chronicle decides to tell people how much money she has?" one friend says.

Of course, newspapers report information all the time that some people would rather not be made public. It doesn't usually happen on the opinion pages, but it's not unheard of.

What's perhaps more galling is that Johnson, while he was alive, was the elected official in Galveston who was most critical of the privatized plan. Just a month before his death, Johnson was at the White House testifying against Galveston's system at a Social Security forum.

"He's no doubt spinning in his grave," the friend says.
Of course, he might be happy -- he can take a place next to Martin Luther King, whom conservatives have turned into an icon in the battle to abolish affirmative action.

Got some shining moments of Houston journalism you'd like to share with anyone who may have missed them? E-mail Richard Connelly at


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