John Bankhead retired last week. Bankhead had been the spokesman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation since 1987. He wasn’t a cop. He was a communicator, the go-to under some of the weirdest and most unhappy circumstances imaginable. Bankhead says he conducted his first TV interview in Atlanta in 1987 with WXIA’s Donna Lowry. He remembers his first encounter with yours truly when I met him with a photog at his church following a Sunday service.
As reporters, we knew that when the GBI was involved in a newsworthy case, Bankhead would meet our information needs on a timely basis. Even when information was sparse, Bankhead’s credibility reduced the number of disagreements in the field between reporters and law enforcement.
For 26 years, he was a class act. He agreed to the following exit interview.
Moments that stand out in your career as a PIO?
1 – Tri State Crematory – I recall when I was driving up I-75 to Noble when the news first broke, I passed Dr. Kris Sperry, Chief Medical Examiner and his deputy, Dr. Mark Koponen. Dr. Sperry waved me over so I stopped in the median. Dr. Sperry got out of his car and came back to tell me that I was not going to believe what I was about to see when I got there. For Dr. Sperry to say that, I knew it was going to be gruesome – better use unusual – and he was right.
2- Meredith Emerson case. The hiker who went missing in Union County. Gary Hilton was convicted of her murder and that investigation led to his being charged and convicted in Florida. He received the death penalty down there. Hilton is evil incarnate. I was at or near the scene when they found her body. They had to bring Hilton down from the Union County jail so he could tell them where he discarded her head. I have never seen GBI agents so emotionally upset over a case before or since.
3. Kristi Cornwell – Another missing woman in Union County whose body was found months later by her brother. The man we believe was responsible for her kidnapping and murder killed himself in a standoff with Atlanta police.
4. Julie Love – 1989 missing woman case which the GBI eventually solved. Channel 11 News Director Steve Smith broke the news on the fact that the GBI had arrested one person and were looking for another. I told him to hold off since agents had more work to do on that other person. When they arrested the second man, I gave Steve the go ahead to go with the news. Others stations weren’t too happy with me about that, but that’s the news business. I was there when they found her body in a pile of tires off a remote road in Atlanta.
5. Santa Claus (that is a town) Killings in Toombs County – four members of a family were murdered just before Christmas, the parents, their 16-year-old daughter and their 8-year-old son. The parents were also foster parents and the other foster children were kidnapped by the murderer, one of whom was sexually assaulted by the suspect. I remember the Christmas tree in the home with dozens of presents under the tree for the children. The suspect was later arrested by GBI agents and he was tried and convicted in Walton County. I helped remove the body of the 8-year-old. The top of his head was blown off by a shot-gun blast. He had been sleeping in the top bunk and part of his brain was on his little league photo on his dresser.
6. The Ranger, Ga. murders of a family of four which you covered. An Amber alert helped catch the killer. He tried to kill himself.
I have limited myself to 6 but there are many others.
– Three (or two or one) moments of jerkiest behavior by reporters / photographers? Name names at your discretion, unless mine is one of them!
I always let the reporter fire the first shot then I return the fire. New reporters to the Atlanta area who were not familiar with me have tried to be pushy at first but have come to learn that I don’t have much patience with that approach, so I don’t get the “jerkiest behavior”. The Atlanta media have been very professional in their dealings with me and the GBI over the years and I am grateful for that.
I did have this voice mail message from a TV assignment person who didn’t know my voice mail had picked up. She must have been training a new desk person, and I could hear her tell her trainee that John Bankhead can be an asshole at times so you better be prepared when you call him.
Any noble / honorable news media moments stand out?
All of them. You are all professionals.
Did any GBI folk ever urge you to lie to the media? Mislead the media? Why? How’d that turn out?
Never. That is not tolerated. We have that in our media policy and no GBI employee has ever suggested doing that in my 25 years here. Credibility is as vital in this job as it is in yours. The Director, our legal services director and I gave a presentation to the International Association of Police Chiefs this past summer on how to tell the media that you screwed up. Bottom line – You do it quickly and honestly. The Director and I did add a section to our media policy to stress that that the media is not to be misled.
There was a case in the Metro area years ago where a woman had claimed people had sacrificed babies at a remote location in one of the metro counties. The media found out about the claim and showed up near the scene. The agent in charge had the bright idea for our crime scene specialist to bring an evidence bag to his car, put it in his trunk and drive off without saying anything. Well, the media started calling me asking about the baby bones we found. There were no bones as there were no babies being sacrificed but there is an addition to our media policy that says the media shall not be misled in any fashion.
Some law enforcement PIOs excel at giving good quotes / soundbites while divulging very little actual information. You were, respectfully, a master. Any tricks to that?
I was in a media class Atlanta PD put on years ago, given by the FBI – go figure – and they had these scenarios that each of us were interviewed about on camera. I gave my interview and Lou Archangelli asked me how I said so much without saying anything. I never thought much about that about being a “trick”. I just know what I can’t talk about and what I can and I talk about what I can. “Filler” if you will.
To some reporters and photographers, I could fall into those categories at times. I think it might have to do with the pressure they (use to be we) face now with the change in media inquiries with the advent of the internet. Used to be, radio needed it first, then TV, then the newspaper so you had some breathing room to respond based on differing deadlines. Now with the Internet and all the cable news shows et al, everyone wants the info at the same time; and being a one-person shop here, that can be trying. Email does help with that, though.
And my “curmudgeonliness” doesn’t come through in an email as much. I remember your interview of me on the Ranger case and your photographer asked me a question that I must have misinterpreted or didn’t like and I responded rather rudely. I guess I could blame it on the stress and pressure, lack of sleep, etc., but it was uncalled for and I later apologized.
Are law enforcement folk more distrustful of the news media than they used to be? Why?
I don’t think so. When I first started this job, most of the local agencies the GBI assisted in an investigation wanted us to handle all the media inquiries. Now, most of those agencies handle the media inquiries themselves unless it’s something major. That also has to do with the professionalism of the media.