This Ain't Tv The Anchor That Dropped Newsman Ron Hunter Friends, Ex-colleagues Say Ego Lead To Downfall, Arrest

Posted: February 19, 1996

MANDEVILLE, La. — Maybe you remember him.

Ron Hunter.

Blow-dried hair, baby blues, solid chin, and The Look - earnest, serious, quizzical. The classic TV news anchor.

Way back when, he was one of the musical chairs over at Philly's KYW-TV (Channel 3). He was the pretty boy hired with much hoopla in October 1978 to replace Vince Leonard, the dean of local anchors, on the 11 o'clock news.

Chances are you wouldn't recognize him today from his mug shot - the one police took after they arrested him for allegedly breaking into a neighbor's house to steal a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese, a container of Hungry Jack biscuits and a pound of ground meat. Total value: $3.24.

He will be arraigned Wednesday on theft and trespassing charges.

``I can't go any further down,'' said Hunter, 57, during a recent interview at his home in this prefabricated city near New Orleans.

HE HAD A LOT Years ago, Ron Hunter was something of a celebrity, an anchorman some viewers and many colleagues loved to hate.

Back in Chicago in the late 1970s, he was riding high. Chicago magazine labeled him a ``pompadoured pomposity,'' and a Time magazine story about anchormen likened him to sitcom's vain Ted Baxter. But Hunter had the last laugh: a 1977 Emmy award, a quarter-million-dollar salary, and his own late-night talk show, ``Ron Hunter Today.''

His success story was not to last.

After Chicago, Hunter went to smaller TV markets, in Philadelphia and in New Orleans. His salary dropped. And his reputation - as an egomaniac who was tough to work with - worsened. In a business where friendships mean jobs, Hunter's TV-news career was over in 1985.

These days, Hunter is not reading the news, but making it - again.

He made headlines in June 1990, when his wife, Marilou ``Bunny'' Hunter, was found shot in the heart hours after she had called his radio talk show to bemoan their troubled marriage. Hunter told police that Bunny had killed herself while he slept in the bed next to her.

The coroner took weeks to rule her death a suicide.

As police lingered over the evidence - including court reports that Hunter had beaten his wife in the past - many in New Orleans wondered if Hunter, with his hair-trigger temper, had pulled the trigger on Bunny.

``He was a suspect to a lot of his colleagues,'' said Detective Norman Pierce, who investigated Bunny's death. ``They all thought he was capable of doing this.''

But lab tests showed that only Bunny had fired a gun, he said.

OPPORTUNITIES FADING Since the notoriety of Bunny's death, Hunter has found it even tougher to get a job, even at tiny radio stations.

Most months, Hunter and his two children - Allison Anne, 13, and Jonathan ``Colt,'' 8, - live on $230 in food stamps, $600 from Social Security and the kindness of strangers.

Only his children, his career memories and his insatiable ego seem to keep him going.

Often, he still acts like Ron Hunter, the TV anchorman.

Hunter would show up at tiny WTIX-AM radio station with his hair dyed and his makeup on, as if he was still in front of the cameras, said Jennifer Gugliuzza, who produced some of his shows.

``He was trying to hold onto his youth,'' she said. ``He was trying to hold onto anything.''

Now what he's trying to hold onto is his hope for a comeback.

``I hope, maybe against hope, that I will rise to the top,'' he said. ``I want to be a player again.''

But some who seem to care about him the most fret that it's time for Hunter to face reality.

``I have talked to Ron like a sister,'' said Betty Prager, his landlady of four years. ``I've said: `Ron, forget that Emmy. You have got to work, get a job, any job. You got to do other things. Stop waiting for that pie in the sky.' ''

``He's gone down so far,'' said Mandeville Police Chief Thomas Buell, who has known Hunter since his TV-news days.

``I don't know if Ron's on a slide he's not coming back from.''

VICTIM OF INDUSTRY In many ways, the Ron Hunter story is the stuff of movies, the tale of a celebrity whose star has taken a meteoric plunge.

In the fickle TV business, said Maury Povich, the talk-show host who worked with Hunter in Philly and Chicago, few survive.

``I think he's a victim of how this business can consume you,'' he said. ``He was consumed by the business and it ate him up.''

But Ron Hunter's story is also unique.

Pat Polillo, who was general manager at KYW during Hunter's stint, said that in his four decades in the business, he has not known of anyone who has sunk so low.

``I have never heard of such a terrible story,'' he said. ``No one has come to an end like this.''

Bad luck played a role in Hunter's life. But in talking with folks who knew him then and now, it is clear that Hunter has been his own worst enemy. He alienated co-workers by showboating on the air and subverting their careers when he had power.

``If he was still riding high, you'd find a lot of people who would say he was a jerk,'' said a New Orleans newswoman. ``People thought he was a creep.''

Even colleagues he names as friends don't want to talk about him.

When his arrest made headlines here, strangers sent him money and offers of help, from a job driving a cab to paying for his kids' braces. Even the police department here sent his landlord $500 to cover a month's rent.

The people who best knew Hunter feel sorry for him, too. But they said they don't really want to help him.

The lessons learned from Ron Hunter, they said, are the trite universal truths you're supposed to learn early in life, before it's too late.

Don't burn your bridges.

And, what goes around, comes around.

KYW'S SAVIOR When Hunter arrived at KYW-TV in 1978, he was trumpeted by the station as the savior who would resurrect the station's sagging ratings after the loss of Jessica Savitch and other such talents.

And so, Hunter lived the life of the anointed. He reportedly was the highest-paid anchor in town. He had Bunny, an adoring blonde beauty 20 years younger, as his wife. He owned a rambling ranch house with a swimming pool in South Jersey, a collection of expensive French wines, a red 1957 Ford Thunderbird, and a five-by-seven projection screen on which he would admire videotapes of himself reading the news.

But already, Hunter's career was on the decline. Philadelphia was a smaller TV market. And he had to take a big pay cut, from the $250,000 in Chicago to $95,000 (according to Philadelphia magazine at the time) or $135,000 (according to Hunter today).

Hunter joined Beverly Williams as co-anchor of the evening news. By his own admission, ``I was a disaster.'' The ratings agreed.

During one newscast announcing President Carter's admission of the Vietnamese boat people, Hunter complained: ``Where will it all end?'' The switchboard lit up with outraged viewers.

Weeks later, and only nine months after his arrival, Hunter was demoted to the noon news.

By the time he quit in 1982, he had been relegated to weekend anchorman and the host of a news-magazine show called ``Good Television.''

SLIDE INTO DISASTER

Hunter then returned to Louisiana, where his first jobs were on his family's newspaper and radio station in Bogalusa. It was during his radio days that he changed his name from William Siegelin to a ``wholesome, All-American'' name, he said. His made-up name fuses Ron Holman and Ivory Joe Hunter, two 1950s pop singers.

His TV career began in 1967 in New Orleans. He then went to anchor jobs in Buffalo and Miami before Chicago and Philadelphia.

Back in his home state, he got a job in New Orleans as the ``Live at Five'' anchor at WVUE-TV (Channel 8). It meant another pay cut, to about $85,000, said Hunter.

Almost immediately, Ron Hunter horror stories began circulating in the tight-knit, TV-news community.

``His news stories were always more Ron Hunter than news,'' said a TV reporter on another station. ``It was laughable.''

To demonstrate how to escape from a car that had gone underwater, a la Chappaquiddick and Jessica Savitch, Hunter actually had a car he was driving submerged into Lake Pontchartrain.

``My colleagues called it showboating,'' said Hunter. ``I called it public safety.''

Another time, during a flood just outside the city, Hunter was out on a boat when he spotted a dog in need of rescue. He waded out and brought the dog back to the boat. Problem was, the cameraman missed the shot. Hunter then threw the dog back in the water so his heroism could be captured on tape.

But when Hunter became news director in 1983, his antics didn't seem so funny any more.

The worst was the infamous Hit List.

``He made a hit list and got rid of the stars of the news department to leave one shining star - Ron Hunter,'' said Lynn Ganser, then an anchorwoman there.

Within months of his appointment, Ganser and co-anchor Richard Anderson, and sportscaster Ron Swoboda, the former Mets right-fielder, were banished.

As the purge continued, others fled. By the time Hunter was replaced as news director in 1985, the station had tumbled from the No. 2 spot to No. 4.

NEW VENTURE With the other TV stations filled with his corpses, Hunter was unable to land another local TV job. He ended up at a string of 5,000-watt radio stations, making little more than minimum wage.

Not content with the radio gigs, Hunter decided the only way to get a TV job was to start his own TV station. He then spent about $180,000 of his family's savings and much of the next two years trying to get a TV station for New Orleans' north shore. But just when it seemed a go, the Federal Communications Commission put a freeze on all new stations.

With their finances shot and the dream a bust, Hunter's delicate marriage began to crumble. Bunny was filled with despair, said Hunter.

They had met in 1977 at a Chicago hospital when he was a patient. He was a celebrity newsman, a divorcee, living in a fancy high-rise overlooking the lake. She was a 20-year-old nurse whose conservative, suburban upbringing was short on frills.

``Bunny was infatuated with him,'' said her father, Milton Spinka. ``I think she lived for the flash. I think that's what sold her - his celebrity.''

By the late 1980s, with Hunter's career going nowhere, the glamour had lost its lustre. Bunny complained to her sister, Cheryl Cox, about having to sell personal possessions to buy groceries.

In June 1988, Bunny filed a petition for separation on the grounds of cruelty, according to the New Orleans newspaper, the Times-Picayune. Seven months later she sued again, claiming that Hunter had beaten her. Hunter now claims that Bunny had threatened him with a gun.

(Hunter's first wife, the former Linda Tannehill, never complained of abuse, said Patty Marcombe, his former sister-in-law. Hunter is not close to his adult son from that marriage.)

In 1989, the bank foreclosed on their big house in one of New Orleans' better neighborhoods, and the family moved to an apartment a few blocks from the city's worst housing project.

On June 20, 1990, Bunny called his radio station, WSMB-AM. Hunter had as his guest Dr. Judy Kuriansky, a psychologist.

Bunny gave her name as ``Ariel'' to the show's producer and got on the air, said Hunter. She complained about her marriage, then let it be known to listeners that Hunter was her husband.

Hunter nervously joked on air about the call, but he told police that Bunny had embarrassed him, said Homicide Detective Pierce.

``Wow!'' said Kuriansky after Bunny had hung up. ``This has to be a series. I want to know what's going to happen next.''

``Yeah,'' said Hunter. ``What'll happen next in the Ron Hunter household?''

Nine hours later, Bunny was dead.

DEATH OF WIFE, CAREER Hunter blames Bunny's death for the demise of his career. When asked if he felt any guilt for her death, he paused for several moments, then tightened his jaw.

``I refuse to accept any liability,'' he said firmly. ``I'm not going to live my life sitting here and blaming myself or the children.

``We're the victims.''

About a week after her death, Hunter's radio station fired him, claiming that he had shown poor judgment when he failed to cut Bunny off the air once he recognized her voice.

Recently, the strange tale of Ron Hunter got even stranger. His next-door neighbor was arrested for taking Hunter's daughter, Allison, on an all-night trip to Airline Highway in New Orleans, a road of cheap motels and bars frequented by prostitutes and drug users. Allison was not hurt.

The neighbor, Patricia Pruitt, denies any wrongdoing, but police charged her with contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Then, a week or two later, on Dec. 28, Hunter was arrested for allegedly breaking into Pruitt's house to steal food.

Hunter denies what he calls ``the food fable,'' and plans to plead not guilty on Wednesday to the two misdemeanor charges, trespassing and theft under $100. If convicted, he faces a year in prison and/or a $1,000 fine.

Just as it seemed things couldn't get any worse, Hunter's older brother, Curt Siegelin, was stabbed to death Jan. 5 during a robbery while working as the manager of a North Dakota motel.

FACING THE FUTURE

Despite his setbacks, Hunter still hopes for a bright future.

But even his future plans are pinned in the past.

He hopes somebody will make a movie about his life.

He wants to publish his 20-year investigation into the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

His key project is his autobiography, ``Talk to Me.'' The book is about Bunny and 18 other women he has slept with.

``It's a woman's book,'' he says, because it's mostly about ``a lover of women and a suspect.''

He can't wait till April 15, when his lawsuit against WSMB-AM, the radio station that fired him after Bunny's death, comes to trial. He is suing for wrongful termination and slander. He hopes to get a multimillion-dollar verdict. After that, he plans to move, maybe to California.

But mostly he wants to talk about Maury Povich. He always sways the conversation back to his former friend and colleague.

Hunter is obsessed with him, damning what he believes is Povich's undeserved success.

As he speaks, his eyes canvass his living room. It is a shrine to the Ron Hunter of yesteryear.

His photographs and awards cover the walls, the shelves and even some of the floor. A business card on the bookcase introduces ``Ron Hunter, Investigative Reporter. Honored by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with the Emmy.''

Center stage atop the fireplace mantle is the Emmy itself, won in 1977 for helping defuse a hostage situation in Chicago.

His eyes linger on the mementos of his once promising career. He then rants about Povich some more.

`HUNTER'S WAY'

``This is Ron Hunter. Here's what's happening,'' he says in his crisp, anchorman's voice, as the interview comes to an end.

Then his voice trails off.

``I don't want this story to be a downer,'' he says.

Moments later, he spots the February issue of Esquire magazine on his kitchen table. Al Pacino's photograph is on the cover.

Substituting his name for the celebrities on the magazine's cover, he continues his broadcast:

``Hunter's Way: On the Run From Fame, Fortune and Suicide . . .

``Ron Hunter Is in a Bad Mood . . . ''

He pauses for dramatic effect.

``Ron Hunter's Final Tour.''

Then he leans his head back and lets out a rare laugh.

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