No one's ever called journalism an exact science. But it gets to miss the broad side of the barn only so often before the finicky turn angry.
"Tonight Channel Seven news has learned that the baffling murder of a North Shore socialite appears on the verge of being solved," anchor John Drury announced on January 21. The socialite was Suzanne Olds, bludgeoned in her garage on December 28. Chuck Goudie gave the details. "Investigators appear to be just one piece of evidence away from requesting a murder warrant naming this man, Helmut Hofer. [Graphic of Hofer.] Channel Seven news has been told by sources close to the case that authorities on the North Shore now have Mr. Hofer under surveillance in the Chicago area and that he may be arrested as early as next week."
It turned out to be a long week. Hofer remained at large on February 10, when Goudie again rode the airwaves. But now he was in a position to really deliver the goods.
"Tonight Channel Seven news has uncovered the evidence that has brought suburban police close to cracking the case," he confided. Goudie reported that photos had turned up showing Hofer and estranged husband Dean Olds "in their underwear in bed." Not that any proof of homicide could be more irrefutable than these pictures (which Goudie didn't show us), but there were also the telltale prints.
"Channel Seven news has learned that detectives discovered boot prints near the murder scene," Goudie revealed. "We've been told that authorities have now determined the sole pattern was made by boots like this--cheap imitation military-style high-tops." As Goudie continued, the camera lingered for about nine seconds--a newscast eternity--on a pair of black boots of the type an ersatz storm trooper might wear, especially the worst kind of ersatz storm trooper, the swaggering brutal blond Nazi homosexual ersatz storm trooper and cold-blooded assassin.
Goudie went on, "Evidence technicians have told police the boots were size 13, the same size worn by Helmut Hofer, and sources tell us that stride, height, and weight tests on the boot prints match somebody of Hofer's size."
That about nailed it. Aside from one or two details--like establishing that the prints were left the night Mrs. Olds was murdered and establishing that they were made by boots Hofer happened to own--he was as good as hanged.
Unfortunately for Goudie, the state's attorney's Felony Review Unit is less interested in gripping TV visuals than in evidence. We wanted to ask Goudie last week why more than two months after the crime Hofer remained at large and unindicted, and what Goudie made of the assertion by the German deputy consul general that Hofer is the victim of a "homophobic" smear campaign. Goudie said he'd be happy to talk. But then a WLS TV spokesman stepped in, and after her cooler head prevailed we had to settle for a declaration that Channel Seven stands by its coverage.
While the daily papers can't be praised highly enough for resisting the mystery of Helmut Hofer, it's not really their kind of story. A handsome, continental, 25-year-old male model who can be linked to a sensational divorce, a sensational murder, and the gay demimonde is born to be exploited by television.
Channel Seven has not had Hofer to itself but it's led the stampede. In search of heat if not light, camera crews have set up outside leather bars like Manhole and discos like Bistro Too, where Channel Two said Hofer once worked as a dancer. Channel Two quickly got hold of color photos from Hofer's modeling portfolio and splashed them on the screen three nights running. The only actual news to report the third night was that no one had been charged with anything.
Early on, we gather, TV coverage alluded to a sizzling criminal past in Germany. We haven't been able to get transcripts of those broadcasts, but we're impressed by what faithful viewers tell us. "I assumed what I saw on TV was pretty accurate," says gay activist Rick Garcia. "It said he was wanted for a number of things in Germany, including sex crimes with men. So I thought he was a prostitute, to be honest."
But a German government official tells us Hofer was never convicted of anything more tawdry than drunk driving (although he's now being investigated for embezzlement). And Hofer says he's never been paid to dance in bars in his life. "What do they try to do, make me look like a gigolo in there, saying I'm a naked dancer in a discotheque?"
Last month police closed in. They nabbed Hofer for writing a bad check six days before the murder. Hofer says the check, for about $100 for a couple barbells, bounced because a $400 check he'd deposited to cover it didn't clear.
Channel Seven made hay. Mary Ann Childers: "Tonight we have learned new information. . . . Police sources tell Channel Seven they are building a circumstantial case against Helmut Hofer." Visual of Roscoe's, a gay bar. Visual of the bounced, irrelevant check.
It strikes Hofer as curious that his bank claimed to lose all record of this check, yet somehow it showed up on Seven. Not just curious but frightening, in his view and ours, is that the police dealt with this trifle by barging into Roscoe's and leading him out in handcuffs.
Do you own boots like the ones on TV? we asked him.
No, Hofer said. And he said his shoe size isn't 13, it's 11.
What about that picture of you and Olds in bed?
They weren't in bed, they were on a bed, Hofer said. And they weren't in underwear. They'd just come in from a swim in Florida, and a third friend snapped their picture.
We moved on to other key revelations of the coverage. Yes, Hofer lived for a time in Olds's Streeterville apartment, not because they were lovers, but because the building would accept his schnauzers. Yes, he was driving Dean Olds's Ford Taurus the night Suzanne Olds died--he drove it frequently. But he adds that parking-lot tickets, telephone records, and the recollection of a garage attendant all support his story that he was visiting his friend Doug Kragness that night on West Cornelia.
But television cares much less about parking-lot tickets than mysterious bloodstains. Goudie reported January 21: "Police are awaiting the results of lab tests on blood found inside the car that Mr. Hofer has admitted driving the night of the killing. . . . Investigators expect the blood in the car to be that of Suzanne Olds, rubbed off on the killer." And way behind the eight ball, Joan Esposito revealed February 10 on Channel Five that new information on the Olds murder had come to light: "The first piece of evidence, blood found in Dean Olds's car." (The second piece was a boot print.)
Nothing much has been heard about that bloodstain lately, so we're wondering what the lab boys turned up. (The police aren't saying.) Hofer offered three possible sources of it: a friend who cut her knee, Dean Olds's nosebleeds, and a schnauzer that bleeds whenever it's in heat.
Hofer told us he came to Chicago about a year ago to join a lover in the suburbs. When they broke up, he moved in with Olds, a business partner. He intended to go back to Germany, but stayed because he was subpoenaed to testify in the Olds divorce suit. Suzanne Olds was alleging that her husband diverted into a limousine service he and Hofer owned in Munich about three and a half million dollars of the couple's assets.
It's clear that any professional police department investigating Suzanne Olds's death would want to take a long, hard look at Helmut Hofer. It's just as clear that much of the reporting on this long look has been reckless and preposterous. In mid-February Rick Garcia and Kragness's friend Charlotte Newfeld, a Lakeview activist, called a news conference to denounce the reporting. Only the gay and lesbian media were invited. "The coverage, particularly Channel Seven's," said Garcia, "has attempted to portray a seedy side to the gay community. For too long the religious right has always lumped us in with child molesters and murderers. . . . Channel Seven has exploited those elements."
Says Hofer, "They destroyed my future. My modeling career--no one will ever hire me again. They have closed every door. I was standing at the bus stop, and one woman started looking at me--and then after a while everybody moved to the other side. I was so paranoid I wasn't going out on the street for four weeks.
"They have back in Germany big newspaper stories. I had good chances back in Germany of getting the greatest jobs. Now after the stories that I murdered a rich lawyer's wife I can forget it."
Deputy consul general Christoph Sander is the German official who told us about Hofer's scandal-free police record back home. "They are playing on Mr. Hofer's homosexuality," Sander says. "Most of the backdrop of the pictures they gave on the evening news was North Halsted. There was no direct connection to the case at hand. It's kind of a homophobic campaign actually. It's not anti-German. It's homophobic. It's kind of astonishing to me in the USA."
Notes on the sale:
On February 16 the Sun-Times announced that "award-winning journalist" Gail Bronson had joined it as the business editor. The announcement was premature. Bronson didn't intend to report for another week or two, and in the end she didn't take the job at all. There'd been a misunderstanding. "I was told by several officials of the company who were in a position to know," she says, "that there was not a pending sale. In one instance I was told specifically that they would not sell the paper to any bad types, such as Conrad Black quote unquote."
Then they did. Bronson says that to protect her job security she asked to renegotiate with the new management. No way, said deputy managing editor Mark Miller, who would have been her boss; there might be new owners, but the management stays the same. Sure, says Bronson, "And I've got a bridge to sell you too."
Predictions that Black will turn a liberal paper to the right fly in the face of that paper's self-image. The Sun-Times gets to state its spiritual predisposition once a year in the Editor & Publisher Yearbook. And dating back to the Rupert Murdoch era, the Sun-Times has consistently declared itself "conservative."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Jason Smith.