Editor’s note: As the focus of local news began to shift from radio and newspapers to television in the 1950s, Bert Shipp made a similar transition, leaving the Dallas Times Herald to work as a reporter for WBAP Channel 5. Shipp spent the next three decades helping shape broadcast journalism in North Texas, a legacy now carried on by his son, Brett, at WFAA Channel 8. The following is an excerpt from Shipp’s memoir about his early days racing around the city with his camera, Details at 10: Behind the Headlines of Texas Television History.
The only thing stirring in the police pressroom on a midweek morning was a noisy fly. This outhouse insect with the charmed life, or one of his pals, had been buzzing the stale atmosphere of the “cop shop” for what seemed like several months. The oversized green fly, the kind often found tormenting country folks, must have found the climate at least somewhat agreeable. The only danger it faced was from Dallas Times Herald police beat writer George Carter. George had just about worn out a handful of tattered, rolled-up police complaint sheets trying to kill that pesky buzzer.
But this police reporter was out of pocket when an oak-sized detective lumbered into the pressroom looking for him. When he was informed by an early morning radio newsman who kept up with such things that George was probably at Mike’s barbecue and beer stand across Harwood Street, the detective slapped his big meat hook of a hand against a desk. It awakened the other radio man and startled Julia Scott, a black newspaper reporter. Dallas Morning News veteran Jim Ewell had just shown up for work. He didn’t flinch at the detective’s antics. You couldn’t spook Jim with a starter’s pistol. He was one cool customer, with his pipe stuck in his face. Without directing his comment to anyone in particular, he looked at his watch and said, “George is on his second pack of smokes and is asking Mike to pull the lid on his sixth beer of the day.”
“I need one of you Ms. Americas to witness a statement down in burglary,” the burly policeman announced. He popped those giant hands together, clapping again to make certain he maintained our attention. “Bert, how’s about you gracing us with your company and writing skills,” he said. “Hear you are the new department darling as of the other night down on St. Louis Street.”
As usual, I was available. Of course, like all television reporters, I did it all—police, city hall, schools, and anything else. Newsmen set up shop around the police station because that’s usually where the action was at that time of day. In general, the news business was spread between killings, burglaries, wrecks, and 7-Eleven robberies. Some television journalists made a living off car accidents. If a fellow could get to a wreck before his competitors, he was held in high esteem.
“Glad to be of service, Mr. Detective,” I said. “Helping out detectives is becoming my thing.” No smart comments about “department darling.” I hoped my comment threw off anything the detective might have insinuated. The less said, the better. Concerning the “department darling” thing, I would just as soon have the loudmouth detective zip his lip. St. Louis Street was a scary situation a few nights ago, one that I preferred to forget.
That night, I was alone in the county pressroom. Most of the time, night duty in WBAP’s Dallas bureau was uneventful. This was one of those nights. It had started painfully dull and appeared to be moving toward comatose. It was still fairly light but drawing dark fast when lights flickered on a special police radio channel. I heard cops talking about some urgent ugly business taking place around St. Louis Street, slightly south of the downtown area. I had heard enough police talk. I figured a bunch of vice squad guys were about to interrupt business at a whorehouse.
“A whorehouse raid!” I shouted as I snatched up my camera. “Lordy, I’d better grab the light,” I reminded myself. The dayside reporter had left it on “charge” after draining out all the juice on another assignment. No telling how much charge it still had in it. I had to take a chance. It was the only light on the premises.
I zipped through downtown on Main Street. Homebound traffic had pretty much drained off. A few talented office chicks might be late leaving, taking advantage of the two-for-one cocktails at the Turf Bar happy hour. I whipped south on Harwood and found the light at Commerce in my favor. The Jackson Street signal was somewhere between amber and red. I voted for amber and headed for Wood Street. That light was totally, unequivocally red. Then I sped toward the Farmers Market area. What a house of ill repute was doing on the edge of the Farmers Market trade zone was something I never could figure out.
I pulled my little orange news wagon up an alley behind some trash cans. My position was close to the action but not close enough to be noticed. I was aware of a number of “smooth” cars, police cars without markings, “unwrapped” as they were called. The sun had pretty much gone down, but there was more than enough cop car light to flood the area.
After a minute or two, I thought the raid had already taken place. The cops were yelling at women who were being shoved into a panel truck. Some men, who might have been customers, were getting the “what for” for patronizing and consorting with “such uglies.” I remained in the deep shadows, careful not to become part of the story if one was to develop.
Then I saw a husky, bald, black man acting like a jackass. Every time a cop would get a hand on him, he jerked loose and took a swat at the officer. The cops were too busy to notice me, even though I was filming all of the action. I could tell that the light battery should have been charged a lot longer. It was fading fast, really getting weaker. I was 30 yards away, now in deep dark. I had no idea if I was picking up anything at all, but if I was getting any pictures, they might be pretty good. The black male subject was being screamed at and told to “behave.” He was huge and, even above the police noise, sounded pretty mean. It turned out that he was the man of the whorehouse, the pimp. He was roughly subdued and firmly cuffed, with his hands behind him. I saw all of this, but I didn’t know if or what I was filming.
Then the prisoner made a lunge at one of the detectives. He flattened the cop, who landed with a cloud of dust. “You son of a bitch!” Then, with a flash of orange fire, a gunshot from the cloud of dust split the night.
I froze. I was really scared. Was my camera running? Was my light still good? I had no idea. In an instant, things went from bad to worse.
“You dumb s--t, he’s handcuffed!” an officer shouted in the dark at the shooter.
The prisoner dropped like he was shot, badly shot. Someone hollered for an ambulance. Now someone noticed that there was a dim television camera light. Cops know that where there is a TV camera light, there is a newsman to go with it. “Oh, s--t! Who’s over there with the light? Cut it off! Now! We mean NOW!” the voice demanded.
I was within a few feet of the writhing, mortally wounded pimp. The detective with the gun was quickly deprived of it. Now the cops focused their attention on me. “What’s your name and what are you doing here?” a patrol lieutenant demanded.I thought, ridiculously, “You are not in a good position to be rude.” I knew now what I had really seen. A cop had just shot a handcuffed prisoner in cold blood. Earlier, I had just thought that might be what I’d witnessed. Now I knew.
“Hey, I know him. It’s what’s-his-name from over at Channel 5. Used to be bad news at the Times Herald.” Detective Roscoe Borger took over. “Did ya get all that on film?” he asked cautiously.
“Can’t tell,” I covered myself. “I might have been too far away. The old light may not be what it used to be. Needs a charge every once in a while to get it up, like a lot of us.” I tried to inject a little levity into the tense atmosphere.
I knew I might be in trouble no matter what I said. I wondered if I might be “rubbed out” just to keep me quiet. I’d learned a lot about police doings when I was a reporter in Abilene. But then Abilene was a place where anything was likely and not always fair.
I kept my mouth shut and let the cops think what they would. Then I got the hell out of the neighborhood and off to Fort Worth as fast as my four cylinders could get to the end of the turnpike.
The 10 o’clock news on Channel 5 was the only station to have the shooting. The story started with pictures of the body being loaded into the ambulance. The story reported, “Police are still trying to untangle the events surrounding the shooting of the operator of a house of prostitution tonight on Dallas’ south side.” No harm to the department in that report. The ball was now on the police side of the net. But what about the shooting pictures? Did they not turn out? Was it too dark? I never found out, but the pictures I thought I shot never showed up on the news.
Speculation among police people was that Shipp “lost” them. The police department, of course, had to come up with its own final chapter to the story. So, weeks later, after an in-house investigation and grand jury attention, the police decided that the shooting was in self-defense. I kept my silence. Shortly after that, I noticed that I now had the run of the police department. No door was closed. Files were opened. News tips came from everywhere. I was the golden boy of the police.
When I followed the detective back into the burglary bureau interrogation room, the bureau captain gave me the old thumbs-up sign. And before I had completed my witnessing business, I was “howdy’d” by a half-dozen normally sober, sour-faced detectives. The word was out that I had “dumped” the shooting pictures and saved a cop’s ass. But as I signed my name to the suspect’s confession, I thought to myself, “I wonder what I would have done if I had had the pictures on the film.” I’d never know. Neither would the officers who called me a “darling.”
I noticed that the prisoner who had just given a statement looked like he might have been the loser in a one-legged, free-for-all, ass-kicking contest. He was badly bruised, to say the least. I started reading the statement.
The suspect’s name was Finis Blanketview. He said he was an Irving plumber. He developed an interesting side action when he decided to case property as a plumber and then plunder it as a burglar. Unfortunately, the territory that he plundered belonged to the French boys, a notorious gang from the Balch Springs area south of Dallas. Having for some time staked out the Denton Road industrial district, they were the best burglars in the business. And these boys had no need for a partner.
When they got wind of Mr. Blanketview’s plans to help himself to some of their action, they lay in wait, hijacked the intruder, and then just beat the holy crap out of him. They left him tied up inside a heavy machinery warehouse and called the cops.
I put the police “beef” sheet back in order and replaced the paper clip. I looked at Finis, wanting to laugh. How could a guy be so dumb?
Then I had a great idea. It wouldn’t hurt to ask. “How would you like to be the main man in a television news story about burglary?” Finis was happy to oblige. In the subsequent TV documentary, Finis was the star, acting more like a hero than a petty thief. And my standing with the police was only enhanced.
The inevitable result of this fame happened about a year after I first met Finis. A deputy sheriff from Bill Decker’s office called me. “Ya hear about the robber who held up a bank down in Mansfield and is now holed up in an old flophouse hotel in downtown Cleburne?” The deputy continued, “Well, get this. He’s keeping a bunch of lawmen at bay and says he’ll give up if you will come down there and walk him out.”
I was totally astonished. The Johnson County sheriff radioed the Dallas County Sheriff’s Department and told them to get “that television newsman” down there. I wasted no time getting to downtown Cleburne. Of course, the little orange unit was flanked front and rear with police vehicles with sets of lights and sirens.
As I wriggled my way through the crowd, I had “interview” on my mind. Lugging my big camera and managing the sound camera, too, I shouted from the edge of the crowd. “Finis, that you up there? I’m comin’ up. Okay, Finis?” It took several attempts to get a response. But there it came rather weakly: “Come on up—by yourself.”
I read every face as I made my way through the crowd. I wanted no unexpected moves. I knew county sheriffs and their deputies. They made the law and they were the law. And they would keep order. Fortunately, I didn’t notice anyone who was about to try foolishly to become a hero. Probably they figured there was going to be only one hero this day. Just who was yet to be determined, even if it cost one television newsman.
Thank goodness Finis was in a room on the second floor. That sound gear was a hernia-maker. “Finis, I’m here. Open the door before I drop this stuff!”
“By yourself?” Finis asked, as he eased the ancient, creaking door open enough for me to squeeze in. “Oh! Excuse me! I didn’t open it enough. Got your interview camera, I see.” He spoke knowingly, remembering the interview from his glory days on television.
One of the best lines in the interview was Finis saying he’d “rather surrender to the French gang than give up to that pack of police wolves down there.” Poor Finis. He really wasn’t a bad guy. Just not too smart—or lucky. I got my exclusive interview and a little glory. Finis got safe passage to jail without getting shot. As I passed through the curious and relieved crowd, I thought it really did pay to be a plumber’s friend!
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