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Newsman Russ Ewing Puts His Life on the Line to Bring in Men on the Lam

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A little after 2 p.m. on Tuesday, March 19, precisely as promised, two men walked up the path leading to the Gary, Ind. police headquarters. As they neared the front steps, Police Chief Virgil Motley came out to meet them. No introductions were necessary. “He surrendered,” Russ Ewing, an investigative reporter for Chicago’s WLS-TV, told the chief. “There was no coercing. He came in of his own free will.”

“Thank you,” said Motley. Then he led the other man, Frank Leavy, 43, a steelworker wanted for murder, away to a holding cell.

Leavy said nothing during the transaction, but the look he gave Ewing was itself a complex statement: equal parts fear, resignation and gratitude. Three days earlier the husky steelworker allegedly had shot his girlfriend in the face in what the police report described as an “altercation.” Leavy, who swears his .32-caliber pistol went off by accident, fled to Mississippi. “I got in the car,” he says, “and just started driving. I didn’t know what I was doing.” He knew enough, however, to call WLS’ Russ Ewing, who has earned a reputation around the Windy City for being the fugitive’s best and sometimes only friend.

By orchestrating Leavy’s surrender, Ewing reached an extraordinary personal milestone. In his 19 years as a TV newsman he has now talked 50 such suspects and desperadoes into throwing down their weapons and surrendering peacefully. As an unarmed intermediary, Ewing places his life between dangerous fugitives and wary police. Many of the capitulations have been made before TV cameras, thus providing Chicagoans with a long-running supper-hour blue plate of Dragnet and You Are There. Competing reporters at other stations have been heard grumbling about Ewing’s “showboating” and “becoming more important than the story itself,” but Tom Russell, an investigator for Chicago’s city government and a Ewing buddy, disagrees. “Russ really thinks he was put here to help people,” he says. Ewing himself tends to be pragmatic, even Darwinian, in discussing his dangerous specialty. “In television,” he says, “if you don’t do something different, make some kind of a name for yourself, you’ll never get anywhere. There are always 10 reporters waiting for your job, so you’ve got to come up with something new.”

Ewing developed this strategy for building his reputation when he began his career as a TV newsman. “When I started out,” he says, “I didn’t call a lot of public relations people. But I got to know cabdrivers, garbage-truck drivers, people in hospital receiving rooms, the underworld. I just went out on the streets for sources who provide leads and tips.”

To a certain degree Ewing already knew those streets. Orphaned at 4, and adopted by his aunt, Elizabeth Johnson, he’d grown up on Chicago’s seamy South Side. In 1956, fresh out of high school, he joined the city fire department. He was only a six-week rookie when he volunteered to rescue an 11-month-old boy from a blazing apartment. “They knew that if they turned on the hoses the steam would kill the child,” he recalls. “So I asked them to let me go in. I did, and that little baby put his arms around my neck as if he would never let go. I got him out, and then I cried for two whole days.”

It was Ruth, his wife of 30 years, who nudged him out of the fire-fighting business. “She worried me to death,” he says. “She was always saying, ‘Well, are you going to be a fireman for the rest of your life?’ ” In 1967 Ewing signed on as a courier with another Chicago TV station, which eventually led to writing and reporting the news. “Your average reporter, once he’s done his job, only wants to get back to his sailing or his tennis,” observes Fred Thomas, a former colleague now with NBC in Washington, D.C. “Not Russ. His antennae never retreat.”

Through the years Ewing’s instinct for news has drawn him into some truly tense confrontations. There was, for example, the 4½-hour hostage shootout in 1976, when two men in ski masks attempted to rob a South Side currency exchange. Police gunfire wounded both robbers, who promptly grabbed a couple of women customers and demanded to see reporter Russ Ewing. “At the time,” says Ewing, who rushed to the scene, “I didn’t know what to do. I thought they were going to shoot at any moment, so I kept talking.” One of the robbers, James Shelton, who was released last May, expresses gratitude to the newsman: “The situation was real critical until Russ Ewing came up. The police would have killed us without him.”

Then, in April 1980, Russ wedged himself into an equally tight spot at a maximum-security prison in Michigan City, Ind. “Thirty-five convicts had taken seven hostages,” he recalls. “When I got there they were still pretty hostile. They said they were going to cut off the guards’ heads and roll them out the window. All I could do was talk. I kept telling them that any kind of living is better than any kind of dying.” Throughout the five hours of dialogue that led to a peaceful resolution, Ewing would allow no TV coverage, lest it spark the prison tinderbox.

On his most recent adventure, Russ flew down to Memphis, then drove to Mississippi to bring in Frank Leavy. On the flight back, the burdened steel-worker told him the story of his life. When they parted, Ewing felt drained. “You know, I really think this is my last one,” he said. “I’ve done this 50 times, so I don’t have to prove anything to anybody. Still, it’s going to be hard to say no when somebody’s really in trouble.”