One of the last 48 Hours stories that CBS Newsman and accused David Letterman blackmailer Joe Halderman worked on—airing just one month before he allegedly launched his plot to extort the late-night host—involved a ransom scheme. Weird, huh?
On August 1, 48 Hours aired a true-crime story, produced by Halderman with Sara Rodriguez, about Sonia Rios—the "Black Widow of Lomita." Rios, a Filipino immigrant who lived in Lomita, Calif., allegedly had two of her ex-husbands murdered during visits to her home country, once in 1987 and again in 2006. Rios herself turned up dead of a bullet wound to the head in 2007.
The story originally aired in February, but the August re-broadcast was updated with new reporting based on developments in the case. It's a run-of-the-mill true-crime tale of murder and deception, but it features one detail that seems strange in retrospect: The sister of one of the victims, who never got her brother's remains from the Philippines after his murder, at one point received creepy anonymous e-mails from someone claiming to have her brother's ashes, and offering to sell them to her. From the script:
Jackson was devastated. She didn't even know where Larry's ashes were. But after her brother's murder, she received a bizarre e-mail with an offer: "It said that they would help my family get my brother's ashes back."
The mysterious e-mailer told Jackson her brother's ashes could be retrieved from the Philippines for a mere $35,000.
That's from a story Halderman was immersed in a mere 40 days before he delivered a blackmail note to Letterman's car, demanding money in exchange for silence on Letterman's sexual hijinks. The strange thing is, in the story Halderman reported, the ransom scheme goes haywire: The man behind the e-mail ends up attracting attention to himself and gets arrested for Rios' murder. Maybe Halderman got the idea that he—a producer who crafts TV crime narratives for a living—could pull off a heist like that better than any of the rubes he covers. Or maybe he wasn't thinking at all. (We should note that the onscreen credits for the Rios piece don't list Halderman as a producer, but the online credits on the transcript do, and we know from published reports and from talking to people involved in the case that Halderman was deeply involved in producing the story.)
We came across the weird synchronicity between Halderman's day job and his after-hours scheming while going through his old 48 Hours segments and looking for signs that they may have been produced by someone crazy, desperate, stupid, and/or unscrupulous enough to engage in blackmail. By and large, everyone we found who was involved in Halderman's stories speaks highly of him.
"He seemed to be a pretty nice guy," said Dennis Bourdeau, the brother of Rios' other victim. "They did a fantastic job." As a result of Halderman and Rodriguez's story—Peter Van Sant was the correspondent—Bourdeau was able to locate his brother's remains in the Phillippines after 22 years and have them brought home.
"He was a gentleman and a professional, and there was nothing out of the ordinary," said Murray Janus, a criminal defense attorney whose client, Piper Rountree, was at the center of another of Halderman's stories. Rountree was convicted of murdering her husband, and Halderman's story largely hewed to the prosecution's case. The prosecutor, Wade Kizer, had the same recollection: "I was completely surprised when I saw [the Letterman] story. He was always professional, and seemed like a pretty nice person."
We only found one person who's seen the business end of Halderman's reporting and had any complaints, and they sound more like routine—and probably legitimate—bitterness at getting screwed over by a reporter than signs of nascent extortionist leanings. Houston attorney Marty McVey, who was embroiled in the Rountree case—Rountree was convicted of murder after prosecutors accused her of impersonating her older sister and traveling from Houston to Virginia to carry out the deed—says Halderman and his CBS News colleagues did a "hatchet job."
"They took everything out of context," McVey says, claiming that the 48 Hours piece on the case implied that McVey was involved in a sexual relationship with both the Rountree sisters. "They tried to make it look like I was intimate with both those women, and it's just not true. And they never asked me outright if it was true." But everyone does that, right?