Monday, February 14, 2011

Blood Red and going Down

- On St. Patrick's Day in 1978 when I was the all-night DJ at WMNI-920-AM when a fellow announcer was slaughtered one floor below where I was doing my radio show. His name was Jim Eldredge and he hosted a talk show, which aired immediately before my over-night program.
The WMNI studios were in the Great Southern Hotel at Main and High Streets in downtown Columbus, and Jim not only worked there on the seventh floor he lived in a suite on the sixth floor. As was his habit after finishing his program he crossed High Street that night to a favorite pub of his for an evening of whatever he routinely went there for.
Then around 3:00 AM he returned to the hotel and stopped by the studio where I was doing my program. We exchanged our usual dialogue and he went off- to his violent death as it were.
Little could I have known that morning that I was probably the last friendly person Jim would see. At least as far as I know, the last co-worker. After finishing my program I got onto the elevator and as it often did it stopped on the sixth floor on the way down.
A tall black man wearing a dark trench coat and a furry hat got on and the elevator expressed directly to the first floor where I got off and left the building. There was nothing strange about a seedy looking character riding an elevator in the Southern Hotel during the pre dawn hours back then, that section of downtown Columbus was not the best part of town then.
The fact that I shared the ride down with someone like him was something that happened often. In those days The Southern Hotel was not known for its higher-class clientele as it is today. It was not unusual to find freaks hanging around at any hour.
Prostitutes, alcoholics and homeless bums were common pedestrians in and out of there and the fact that this particular individual had what looked like aviator glasses stretched over a fur hat with flaps did not signal anything strange, nor did his untied combat boots.
He looked like anyone else who might make others nervous in an elevator car in a run-down hotel in the early morning hours. But I was used to it. That is until I returned to the station later that day and saw several police personnel milling around with their clipboards and cameras. I ran into another announcer who told me that Jim had been found murdered in his suite.
That announcer was Ron Barlow. Ron was the stations franchise announcer and one of the most popular broadcasters in Columbus and I could tell by his expression and by the tone of his voice that he was not putting me on. Even though it would not have been too weird if he had been. Jocks liked saying stuff like that about other jocks. It is a warped fraternity sometimes.
Nevertheless, as the circumstances unfolded it was true. Jim had been stabbed something like sixty times. Those who were allowed into his room after the police finished their work described the scene as looking like a slaughterhouse.
Blood on the walls, the ceiling, the furniture etc. The scene was so gruesome that when Bill Mnich, the station and hotel owner had it cleaned up he changed the room number, probably because the address of what went on there was published as part of the story in the paper the following day.
The cops had no immediate suspects but they wanted to talk to all of the station’s personnel, and because I was the one who had seen him last I think I was someone of interest to them. However not for long. I did tell them about the stranger who joined me on the elevator but they didn’t seem too interested in him so I left convinced that they had suspected one of us. Paranoia perhaps.
Because of this, working the over-night shift took on a different emotion for me. Back then I was the only WMNI employee in the building after midnight.
As a matter of fact the only hotel employee in the building during the overnight period was the desk clerk downstairs. So coming to work each night knowing there was a killer running around somewhere was just a little eerie.
Especially during those times when I would have to leave the locked studio area and pass the elevators to go to the bathroom. Sometimes I would glance at the wall panel and see the elevator lights indicating that it was coming up.
Sometimes it would stop on our seventh floor and no one would be on it. It was times like this that I ducked back into the secure confines of the studio area and forgot that I had to go. I think after awhile some of us began to look at each other suspiciously, perhaps wondering if one of us might be a killer.
And since several months were passing with no arrest it became increasingly worrisome that whoever the killer was might never be identified. Thankfully an arrest was made but not until nearly a year later. The police arrested a tall black man and charged him with Jim's murder. It was explained that he had met the man at the bar and it was believed that he brought him back to his apartment where it was clear some sort of fight erupted.
Whatever went wrong Jim was killed for it.
In the years that passed the memories of that incident seem less important… as sad as that sounds. Nevertheless, it remains one of the most vivid ones I have of working at that station. And as morbid as it may sound those days were probably my best, in life as well as career-wise.
From our boss, Mr. Mnich who was the unfortunate one to find that horrific scene to anyone who might have teased or chided Jim about his old fashioned style of announcing, to the sales people who found it easy to persuade clients to buy time on his program, to those who admired and respected his experience and even the front desk secretary who cared about all of us.
Everyone was effected somehow. Yet in the shadows of all of that seriousness one DJ on staff could not resist joking about it. Knowing that Jim was cremated after he was killed he would remark anytime someone emptied an ashtray… “Hey don’t dump that…it looks like…” You get it.
Another handed me a letter opener that he had swiped from Jim’s desk (after he was killed) and commented…“Someone must have cleaned it off.” Radio people could be brutal.
Since then I have lost many friends from that station. Mr. Mnich himself passed away in 1981 the morning after our staff Christmas party. Later our news director, Martin Petree, our program director, Steve Cantrell, morning man Bill Weber, Carl Wendelken, newsman Tom Allen and others.
I worked for them for about six more years following Eldridge's murder. And even though I honestly feel that was the best radio job I ever had I can never forget that night in 1978.
Sometimes when I enter that building still today I remember as if it were a recent event. Knowing that as I was probably joking around that night on the air or with a listener on the phone, having and enjoying the time of my life playing country music, a friend was experiencing Hell just a few feet below me.

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