by Lynn French
WRAL-TV Raleigh, NC

News never takes a holiday. Turn it on Christmas day, there it is. Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, it is on the air or in print. Labor Day, Arbor Day, Columbus Day, it does not go away. Somebody has to work those days to get it to the viewer or the reader. If you work those days for enough years, they will completely loose their meaning in the context in which the average American understands them. Christmas goes from opening presents and midnight mass to shooting stories about homeless people eating at the mission and other people who have to work on Christmas. Fourth of July used to be barbequeing and setting off fireworks in the streets, now it is chasing brush fires and DWI check points on the interstate.

But working normal people’s holidays is not all bad. In exchange, we create our own holidays to celebrate the events of life. Some of us take off our birthdays, anniversaries or the kid’s graduation. I take off the days that changed my life at one time or another. April 18, April 26, June 30, July 10, August 8, August 18, August 30, and so on. Those are days that are nothing special to anyone but me and no matter where I am or what I am doing that day I celebrate them in some personal way. Some of them are happy holidays; the equivalent of Valentine’s Day or New Years, the anniversary of my first kiss or my best friend’s birthday. Others are solemn reminders, like Veteran’s Day, the days that got me here but I would not wish them on my worst enemy.

A day that is truly a news holiday is June 20. It was on that day in 1993 that I covered my first big story as a reporter. I was still in college full time, working mornings at the PBS station as a master control operator and I had just started as a part-time one-man-band reporter at KOAT’s southeastern New Mexico bureau in Roswell (pre-X-files days when life there was more about cattle and less about aliens). Until this point, my stories had been snoozer city council meetings, fender benders on Main Street and elementary school picnics at the zoo.

It was a Sunday morning, I was working the sign-on shift at the PBS station in Portales, New Mexico. The general manager of the station came in and set the local newspaper on the desk next to the master control switcher. He asked me if I knew Catherine Kelton. I replied that I did not. I knew four people with the last name Kelton and a Catherine did not come to mind. Since the quilting show was not keeping me awake, I opened up the morning paper. The front page story was about this girl, Catherine Kelton, and how she was murdered the day before in her house in north Portales. Things like this did not happen in our cow town and I knew I had a big story on my hands.

A sick feeling formed in my stomach as I read how this girl was knocked unconscious and strangled to death with the tie from her bathrobe. Her house was only three blocks from mine, we were the same age and she was a student at the university as well. My spine tingled as the paper listed the murder as a possible random act. I went home that afternoon and sat on the couch with all the windows and doors shut and locked. I tried to watch TV, but every little noise outside made me jump through the roof. Finally my news hound reaction kicked in around sundown. I decided to drive by the murdered girl’s house.

As I approached the yellow duplex, the neighborhood was very familiar. My ex-news director, Patricia Viramontes lived in that same duplex until March. She had a crazy, fun roommate named Elizabeth Kelton---hmmm, a cousin, a sister maybe to the murdered girl? Elizabeth’s car was parked on the street. The keys were hanging in the ignition. Despite the grim crime scene tape all around me, I had to laugh. A few months earlier my truck was having alternator problems and died in front of the electric coop. I was over at Patricia and Elizabeth’s house whining about it when Elizabeth offered to help me try to jump start it so I could at least get it home. The next day
she picked me up at my house. It was the first nice warm day of spring and we were both wearing shorts for the first time since fall and kidded one another about our white chicken legs. We tried numerous times to get my truck going but its problems ran a lot deeper. It was lunch time and I offered to buy Elizabeth lunch at the Chinese restaurant up the street. A fellow co-worker of ours from the PBS station owned the restaurant. Elizabeth was a secretary at the station and I worked master control. Due to our opposite hours we rarely saw one another other than when I would come over to their house on Thursday nights to watch Seinfeld, help drink a box of wine, make nachos and eat leftover lasagna.

As we got out of her little red sports car at the Chinese food place, I locked my door and noticed the keys were still in the ignition. I yelled over the roof of the car to warn her. She laughed heartily, "This is Portales, Lynn, nobody is going to steal it, plus then I always know where my keys are, don’t bother locking the doors, I never do, it keeps me from locking my keys in my car, I do the same thing at my house."

As the yellow house turned orange in the dusky sunlight, I felt the story coming together. Obviously Elizabeth is here. I would let her deal with this alone for the night and work on getting information in the morning. I knew Elizabeth would have pictures of her, Elizabeth had pictures of everybody, some which would ruin my chances at a political career. Elizabeth would talk about this on camera, she definitely would. When I got home, I called the Roswell bureau’s answering machine to let them know what facts we had and what I thought I could get Monday before heading into work, wow, my first big story and everything was coming together.

I worked my sign-on shift at the PBS station Monday morning. It was eight a.m. sharp and the production folks were filing into the control room to work on a cooking show. I had just punched over from Sesame Street on satellite to tape delayed Mister Rogers and was rewinding the underwriting reel. One of the production guys came over, I knew he would ask for three machines and I would only be able to give up two and he would try to soften me up, we went through this every Monday and Thursday morning. He walked over, gave me a funny smirk, "Lynnnnnnnnnnn-----" he grinned again, I grinned back. Then his face turned very solemn, "Did you hear what happened to Elizabeth this weekend?" I shook my head, "What, what do you mean Elizabeth, her cousin or sister or whatever?" He clinched his teeth, "No, Elizabeth was her middle name, Catherine was her first name." My face turned hot, I could not breath, everything around me was in a slow flittering motion, my ears were ringing, the phone was ringing.

It was Donna at the KOAT Roswell bureau, she wanted more information and suddenly I knew too much.

That day Elizabeth and I went to the Chinese restaurant we had a discussion that turned ugly and I had not spoke to her since. A few weeks prior to our lunch, she quit the PBS station. She had fallen in with a bad crowd at the university. I tried to diplomatically tell her that her position was still open and we would welcome her back with open arms. She became angry, "I know what you are trying to do, I get this lecture from my family, from Patricia, I know what I am doing, I am fine, just let it rest." Patricia had just moved out because Elizabeth was starting to deal drugs. We all hoped it was a phase she was going through, we all knew she would wake up one day and realize what a mess she was making of her life, that day would never come.

I could barely breathe as I told Donna the facts from the newspaper so she could check them with Portales police. She kept asking me questions, but my ears hurt and I could not comprehend what she was saying. My mind was half a town away in a yellow house on South Avenue B where a person I cared for had just died a horrible death, this time in my mind. After a few minutes of stumbling through the facts, I suddenly gained my composure as I informed Donna that "sources say" the murder was believed to be drug related. I knew it was, why else would someone kill such a good person? Donna cooed over that tidbit, so far we had this story exclusively. She asked when she could have some video of the house. I told her I would put it on the 3:30 bus to
Roswell since I would be staying in Portales to work on the story the rest of the day. A very pleased Donna, unsuspecting to my situation, congratulated me on a job well done. I stood there still holding the phone to my ear after Donna hung up, every inch of me inside and out hurt. An hour ago I was planning the phone call to Elizabeth to get that clenching interview where she would clutch a photograph of her deceased cousin saying that dead relative soundbite, "Why would any one do this? She was such a good person. Why?" and then she would break down sobbing. Then Lynn would get lots of pats on the back for getting the story no one else could and we would put the big red "EXCLUSIVE" banner over the video and I would bask in the glory of hitting the ball out of the park on my first time at bat. But, now I stood there, the vulture, with one less buddy to fly through life with.

I managed to get through my shift and went home to get my gear to shoot the cold scene. I drove over a few blocks and turned my brain off as started to set up the tripod across the street from Elizabeth’s house. As I loaded a tape in the *" tape deck, I heard yelling, "You son-of-a-bitch, this is none of your fucking business, leave us alone!" I was rattled. A blonde girl and two guys were sitting on the front porch of the house adjacent to Elizabeth’s side of the duplex. I knew the blonde girl, she was my best friend’s ex-roommate from her freshman year. She was the one who called the cops when she heard Elizabeth screaming. I tried to ignore them as they continued to yell at me, but they were right and I was a ghoul for being out there.

My breath was escaping me again as all of this reality was setting in. Again, Elizabeth’s car sat there, keys in the ignition, what happened two days earlier was filling my head. I read in the paper that this girl, Catherine… Elizabeth, had come home from working the lunch shift at a local bar and started filling the bathtub with water. Someone came in the house and attacked her. They hit her on the head with an object and she fell into the bathtub. They took the tie from her robe and strangled her, she screamed and the neighbors called the cops, the killer forced her head under water in the tub until she quit breathing and fled. But now I could picture all the dimensions how the killer got in the house, of Elizabeth filling the tub and how many steps the killer had to take to leave the house. I could see it in my head, the fear on her face as she took her last breaths, how scared she was, those last few moments of her life before slipping away.

A cop pulled up to the house and got out of his car. A crew from KVII in Amarillo was right behind him. The detective went into the house and left the front door open. I followed the crew from KVII as they walked up the lawn to the sidewalk in front of the crime scene tape. I could see in the house, the big soft brown couch, the pictures on the wall, a wine glass sitting on the coffee table. I could not shoot, I just stood there like a sick voyeur. The reporter from KVII piped up, "I would love to get my hands on one of those pictures, the family is not releasing any." I felt my esophagus close up. I had several pictures of Elizabeth from a station party. The cop then came back to the front door carrying Elizabeth’s crock pot, the crock pot I had filled with Velveeta and green chilies so many times for Thursday night nachos. The KVII reporter told his photographer to start rolling, he then asked the detective, "Is that the instrument the perpetrator struck the victim with before the strangulation?" The cop nodded as he walked briskly to the car. Another officer ripped down the crime scene tape and they drove off. The KVII reporter stood there, "This is such a bogus story, no picture, no good video, who cares?" This guy sickened me, "I got a picture." His eyes widened, "Where, who, I’ll owe you one." I shrugged, "Sorry, can’t share." I walked away with my camera, in disgust for my chosen profession.

I got home and started digging for the pictures from a party last year. There were four with Elizabeth in them. Two with me, one with Patricia and one with another ex-news director. Why was I giving the station this picture? I guess I wanted people to see how beautiful Elizabeth was, how happy she was, give them a face to how wrong this was.

I put the tape on the bus to Roswell. It was the lead at 5 and 6 that night. The other stations scrambled to get information for the 10 o’clock news, none of them would get a picture of Catherine Kelton. Our parent station in Albuquerque was so impressed with how far ahead we were on the story that they also ran it. Under any other circumstance in the world I would have been so proud, it would have been such a crowning moment, but not even close. As I watched the story run, with my school emblem as the key over our anchor’s shoulder, with the pictures of Elizabeth and my video of the house, it was the longest 45 seconds of my life. At ten I watched the competing stations run a copy story with basic information from the District Attorney’s office, we won, we were better than they were. Big deal, my friend was dead, I lost.

The next day the Portales police arrested a football player from my university, Tommy Wayne Willis on second degree murder charges for the death of Catherine Kelton along with tampering with evidence and several drug related charges. The investigation played out in the local media. The death of Catherine Kelton was not a random act; rather she was part of a drug ring and was holding back money and not distributing to the right people. Willis was charged with killing Kelton and taking one ounce of marijuana and $75 from her house. A month later Willis pled guilty with a penalty of 17 years in prison. I wanted him to get the death penalty, but under New Mexico State law that was not possible, but at least he admitted he did it. Over the next few months, I considered calling Elizabeth’s family in Eunice, New Mexico to tell them how much we all loved her and knew her as a wonderful person and not the drug dealing hood the media made her out to be. I never made the call, I felt so guilty for giving the pictures to the station against their wishes not to release any to the media.

In February 1994, Willis withdrew his guilty plea claiming it was "not voluntary or intelligently made". But one year and one day to the date Elizabeth died, the District Attorney upgraded the charges against Willis to first degree murder. He could now receive the death penalty since it was a murder in connection with a felony. We called the DA’s office and asked them to fax us a press release on the new charges. Everyone else left the newsroom to go to dinner, but I felt kind of sick and did not want to eat. The fax machine rang and I stood over it expecting a one page synopsis but instead it spit out a 17 page fax detailing the entire investigation.

I considered just walking away as the cover sheet came out and going outside and watching the sun set. But I needed to know, maybe there would be some little piece of information in there that would help me understand why. I read how Willis sat in his car in the alley with a buddy planning to go in her house and "jack that bitch" and steal the drugs she was distributing. I read in heavy detail exactly how Willis killed her. It made no more sense than a year earlier. The only thing that made it even harder to take now, the DAs report mentioned her back door being unlocked and he walked right in. Oh Elizabeth, good hearted, trusting Elizabeth, it was Portales. I wrote up the new story for 10 o’clock and pulled the file video of her picture and the house, after all, it was my story.

Over the years the case bounced from court to court as it set a bizarre legal precedent for drug related cases resulting in murder. And over the years I would see those pictures and that same shaky, blurry video of the yellow house. Finally, in 1997, Willis was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison. The same station that was so happy to break the story four years earlier and lead every newscast with it did not even run a 15 second reader.

Since 1993, I have had to knock on the doors of about 100 families and ask them for pictures of their dead loved ones and see if they want to speak on camera. It has yet to get any easier. But every time, as I stand at the door listening to someone shuffle toward it and grasp the knob, I remind myself I have been on the other side.

June 20, 2000---It was my day off. I ate Chinese food for lunch (Kung Pao Chicken and fried rice). I dug in the garden rather than for pictures of Elizabeth. It was the kind of "holiday" that celebrities always talk about wanting. It was a really nice day for reflecting on how far I have come since that first big story. I was supposed to have June 30 off to celebrate a different kind of turning point in life, but kind of like veterans who work on Armistice Day (November 11), no matter what, I will make time that day to stop and remember. I hope it rains.

Lynn French
WRAL-TV Raleigh, NC

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