From Punched, Kicked, Spat On, and Sometimes Thanked, by Paul Orlousky
“You owe me $240, and if you don’t pay, I’m gonna kick your ass!”
There I was, in a downtown Cleveland hotel room with two prostitutes and their pimp, and the pimp was angry. Very angry. He was a big guy and about twenty years younger than me.
What the heck have I gotten myself into?
It wasn’t the first time I had wondered that. As an investigative reporter for TV news, such thoughts came with the job.
I found myself in dangerous situations sometimes. I didn’t plan it that way, but it happens. You simply don’t know how people will react to being challenged or questioned, or—in this case—being refused payment for their illegal services.
To be honest, I got an adrenaline rush from situations like this. Professionally, I lived for that rush. I couldn’t wait to get back to the station to tell everyone what happened. I usually painted myself as the victim.
But not always an unwilling victim.
In this case, the hidden-camera investigation was my own idea. It didn’t go exactly as planned.
It was, I admit, one of my dumber ideas: to show that the back pages of some weekly entertainment-oriented local newspapers were making prostitution easily available. (This was in the early 2000s, before such services migrated mostly to the internet.)
Let’s prove it, I thought, and I pitched the idea. The news director would have to agree to renting hotel rooms for the investigation. He said OK.
Our 19 Action News was taking an aggressive approach to reporting at that time. This story certainly had sex appeal. Probably not much news value, since most everyone already knew what those back-page ads were for. But the station had asked me to come up with something sexy for the ratings—and what is sexier than sex?
We rented two adjoining hotel rooms. I was in one room with a couple of hidden cameras. Those were monitored in the adjoining room by two cameramen and our station security guard. They were ready to come out once I had made contact and the pimp had said enough to show this was a “sex for money” deal.
Clearly, we had no intention of paying for anything illegal. Yet that actually became the problem. A big one!
I had set up a code phrase for the guys in the other room. If things got at all rough after I said I was unwilling to pay, they were to rush into my room and rescue me. The code was “I don’t think this is gonna work out.”
With cameras rolling, I placed a couple of calls to phone numbers in the ads. I was wearing a wireless microphone with the transmitter in my pocket, and the wire and microphone running up my sleeve to my shirt cuff. After only about a half-hour I received a confirmation call back. Very shortly after that, there was a knock on the door. My three colleagues retreated into the other room.
I answered the door.
A huge guy stood there with two women. “You called?” he asked. I said yes and told them to come on in. They did. “Here’s the deal,” he said. “It’s $160 for one of them or $240 for both.”
I tried to get more information by acting dumb. (Some say that’s my best trait.) I hemmed and hawed.
“What’s it gonna be?” he said.
I hemmed and hawed some more. He was getting agitated.
“What’s it gonna be?”
I then asked the most important question: “Are you a full-service agency?” That meant, in the terminology of the trade, sex for money. He answered that they were.
I now had what I needed to prove my story. And I now had to get out of the situation.
“You know, I don’t think this is gonna work out,” I said. The code phrase.
“I don’t think this is gonna work out,” I repeated, expecting my troops to come to my rescue (and also grab additional video). They didn’t. So I said yet again, “I don’t think this is gonna work out.”
“I don’t care if this isn’t gonna work out or not,” the pimp said, pointing his finger in my face. “You owe me $240 for our time or we’re gonna have a f***ing problem.”
By now, I was getting nervous. I put the microphone in my sleeve right up to my mouth and said, loudly, “I DON’T THINK THIS IS GONNA WORK OUT.” Still, nothing happened. I was in for a beating for sure.
Only one thing to do: I announced that I was a TV reporter and that all of this was being taped.
“Yeah, I thought I recognized him,” one of the women said. Then they took off.
The video shows me looking back, directly at the hidden cameras, waving my arms wildly like a third-base coach telling a runner to run home, trying to signal the crew that they should get in there quickly.
By the time they finally came to my “rescue,” the big guy and the women were already down the elevator.
From this event I learned two things. First, don’t take chances with doing a dumb story that involves getting your ass kicked. Second, and more practical, check the batteries in the wireless. You guessed it; they were dead. The security guard and camera guys in the other room never heard me say the code phrase. After that, I carried extra batteries in my briefcase until the day I retired!
This wasn’t the first time I found myself in a tough situation, and it wouldn’t be the last. And yes, there were times when I did get roughed up. I just wasn’t the kind of investigative reporter who liked do his investigating by sifting through government data and crunching numbers. Sure, stories about things like overtime abuse can be told that way, but it just wasn’t my style. Plus, TV news relies on pictures, and the better way for us to do a story like that is to show someone doing something wrong. And that can lead to confrontation.
I became known in Cleveland for these kinds of news stories. It wasn’t something I had planned, though. It just worked out that way. Actually, it’s about the furthest thing from what I imagined a career in news would be when I got into it more than fifty years ago . . .