The job offers didn’t come quickly, and the manager left KSHB. Meanwhile, Ptacek, Keith King and Ryan Kath molded themselves into Kansas City’s finest TV investigative team.
But the agent eventually found an offer that Ptacek couldn’t refuse. By the time you read this, he’ll be in Washington, D.C., searching for tips as the leader of a newly formed investigative unit for WUSA, a CBS affiliate in the nation’s capital.
“I’m sad to leave,” Ptacek says. “I never thought I’d say that.”
The man this paper once dubbed “Best Bulldog” didn’t turn into a lame duck once he signed the WUSA contract. Ptacek’s investigation into exploding glass bakeware aired Friday, February 17. The following Monday, KSHB broadcast his six-month investigation into the disappearance of Belton teenager Kara Kopetsky. A cadaver dog hit on a scent in a home, and a feud erupted between secret sleuths and the Belton police. And on the day of his exit interview with The Pitch, Ptacek was breaking news that the General Services Administration would move employees out of the Bannister Federal Complex — the facility whose history of deadly toxicity Ptacek helped uncover.
“It’s crazy,” Ptacek says. “It’s like there’s a magnet here that will not let go of me.”
In a wide-ranging conversation, Ptacek talks of his unfinished business, where to get a good cheap suit, and his biggest fear about the move.
The Pitch: Why are you leaving us, Russ?
Ptacek: This kind of job is what I dreamed about 25 years ago, when I got into the business. And this is a station that doesn’t have an investigative unit, so I’m going to get to help create this investigative unit and help in the hiring decisions in creating a team. I see it as my golden opportunity to make my journalistic dreams come true. And I have the resources to do it for the first time in my life. Everywhere that I’ve ever been, I’ve had to work within a very tight budget. And WUSA is opening up the purse and investing a lot of money into a really incredible investigative unit.
What business are you leaving unfinished here?
Six months ago, I really thought I was going to find Kara Kopetsky before I left. And I actually feel guilty because I wanted to bring that family closure. And the Bannister situation, even with the development today, they’re not moving those people out for two more years. So those people are going to be there for two more years. And unfortunately, there is no test to prove that building is safe. All that exists are tests that prove no known safety issues today. We got a congressional debate, a hearing. We got the CDC to come in, the EPA to come in, all sorts of regulators to get off their asses, but still I’m troubled that there are no solid answers to what’s making all of those people sick and die.
How many of those 40,000 Freedom of Information Act documents did you actually read?
I can tell you that I touched them. But essentially, you’re glancing to see if there’s anything unusual. Boy, I don’t know — thousands, certainly I read thousands. And learning elements. I mean, I was a terrible student in science. It certainly was not my forte. I didn’t even know that there was such a thing as beryllium when I started this investigation.
Have you mastered the periodic table?
I am a reluctant master of the periodic table, but only in the elements that can kill people.
What type of stories are you looking to tell when you get to D.C.?
The tough thing is, right now is, I’ve developed so many sources, and today when someone has really something juicy, they think to call me. In Washington, I’ll be walking down the street, and no one will have any idea that I’m employed, let alone that I’m an investigative reporter. I’ll have no name recognition. It’ll be like starting from scratch. And so, people are not going to be giving me stories. So in the beginning, it’ll just be me following suspicions, filing Freedom of Information Act requests, going through public records and trying to find things that are unusual or suspect and trying to turn that into a story.
While I’m waiting for that tipster to go, “Oh, I should call Russ Ptacek,” I’ll be looking for the types of problems that are systemic in every municipality and government across the country. But in this great big pool, I’m also going to have every politician from the entire nation to look at. So when I’m not looking at the school board, I’m going to be looking at Congress. And when I’m not looking at Congress, I’m going to be looking at the General Services Administration.
One of the most frustrating things for me is, when I find something of national importance that affects people all across the country, this PR flack stands between me and the people who can take action. And I can’t just walk up to so-and-so and say, “Why is this happening?” In Washington, I’ll be walking up to those people and I’ll be saying, “Why is this happening?” Just this very day, the General Services Administration — this move is being managed by the Bannister death-list woman. So she’s still in charge. This is the same woman that paid $234,000 to hire a PR firm just to handle the toxin question. She’s still in charge. We found more than $20,000 in bonus money through our investigation. But her boss in Washington won’t talk to me. I can just walk right up to her and say, “Excuse me. Can you tell me why you’re managing taxpayer dollars like this?”
Are you going to walk right up to her?
I’m under the impression that I will have a lot of autonomy. But everything I do will ultimately have to be approved by an editor or a manager. So I don’t know if I will be following up on Bannister when I get there. I hope so. In fact, I hope to take Bannister on a larger scope, because what’s happening out there in that secret nuclear bomb-making facility is happening all over the country in similar facilities. People are getting sick, and people are dying. ... So what I’ve learned there I can take and turn into a national story, and I can go up to the people at the National Nuclear Security Administration, and I can go up to the people in the General Services Administration, and the people in Congress and I can go, “Hey, I’m Russ Ptacek, and 9 wants to know: Why’d you do that?” I mean, I have access to the people who can change things all across the country, and that’s pretty exciting.
What sold WUSA on you?
They had a national search. I think that what I’ve accomplished at Bannister certainly influenced their decision. Watching a politician resign and get arrested and face charges with possible prison time got their attention. I think part of it was, I’m a speaker and I write for [news-industry nonprofit group] Investigative Reporters and Editors, so I’m recognized by my peers to a degree as having some skills under the investigative umbrella that are unique to me. And I think they liked those things that were unique to me. And one of those things is, I’m definitely not afraid to go up to someone and say, “9 wants to know: Why are you spending our government dollars like that? And why are you letting those people die?”
Have you been practicing that in the mirror?
I don’t want to say, “41 Action News.” I’m so afraid that I’m going to go up to someone, and the cameras are going to be rolling and it’s our only shot, and I’m going to go, “Russ Ptacek, 41 Action News. Why’d you do that?” I’m totally living a double life because I’m in conversations with them about the things that we’re working on for when I get there. Over the weekend, I was in Washington meeting with executives there and signing my contract and looking for an apartment, which I didn’t find.
You’re not looking on Craigslist, are you?
Oh, yes, I’m looking at Craigslist, but I’m not going alone. I always e-mail myself, “I’m going to XYZ address, and the person’s number was such and such,” thinking that the cops will be smart enough to check my e-mail if I turn up dead.
It must be hard to leave.
It is hard to leave because right now, stories are coming in like they’ve never come before. And I’ve developed all of these great sources and good friends. But, man, this job is literally the job I dreamed about when I looked like an 18-year-old but I was a 27-year-old at WIBW in Topeka, Kansas. As a young green reporter, I wanted to be the guy who is in a top-10 market and forming an investigative unit.
What’s most satisfying about this line of reporting?
The cool thing about this job is when you get someone justice, you actually feel like a hero. … I think it all kinda comes back to being a nerdy kid. When I see someone getting picked on, or an injustice, maybe I see that little me. And maybe now that I’m grown up and big and strong, it’s like, no, pick on someone your own size.
How many restraining orders have you had against you in your career?
I’ve had two or three, and both of them went away: [Former Clay County auditor] William Norris, and the other was a woman — who, gosh, 15 years ago had inherited a huge amount of money. And there was a question as to how she inherited the money from the guy. Clearly, she didn’t want to talk.
Was this the best year of your career?
I would say most rewarding two years of my career.
In local newsrooms, are there a lot of gender politics? Does it matter if you’re gay or straight?
It’s very interesting. I’ve been very active in AIDS fundraising, and so many of the events that I’ve helped organize, helped sponsor, have been mostly gay events. That’s something I would have been incredibly concerned about 20 years ago. But I think the industry has really moved beyond that. I don’t hear people making queer jokes. I don’t see ... who’s the most heterosexual. It’s who is the most talented, which is great because 20 years ago, I was afraid of anything being out of the Ward Cleaver square box.
It seems like out of all of the stations in town, KSHB seems to be the most welcoming.
I don’t think we’re the most welcoming.
No. I think it’s a coincidence. It isn’t like the station has a rainbow flag. Scripps clearly has an anti-discrimination policy. As do most stations now. But I don’t think people go there because of that, and I don’t think hiring decisions are made because of that. In fact, in most cases, it’s something where a week later, a month later, two weeks later, we’re going, “Him, too?”
Oh, yeah. I think a lot of people do the math. And I don’t have any problem whatsoever with that math, and I haven’t had any problem with it in Kansas City. I do know colleagues that are gay at my station and other stations, and actually, to me, it’s a surprise every time I find out.
Where did you get your suits?
[Laughs.] So the thing nobody knows about me is, I’m the cheapest guy in Kansas City. So every suit that I have was either on clearance or came from a massive discounter. So the average price of my suit is $100.
No kidding. Oh, yeah. The deal is, I never know when I’m going to be crawling under barbed wire. And so, I have to look nice on TV, but the reality is that I might be out in a pasture, ankle-high in dung. So I need clothing that, when it is damaged — and it will be — I won’t have to mourn. Or miss a car payment. So K&G, Burlington Coat Factory and the Internet are my stomping grounds. Literally, the guys at K&G know me by name — not from TV but because I’m a regular customer. Whenever they have the buy-one, get-two-free sale, I’m in there.
Is it too late to keep you here?
Yes, I signed the contract.
How long is the contract for?
It’s a three-year contract.
Oh, God, yes. ... For the first time in my life, I have an agent and an attorney. I haven’t even read the contract. So I hope it’s good.
They made me a competitive offer that’s going to make it possible for me to afford to live in Washington, D.C. And in addition to the money, I’m getting to do the job that I’ve wanted to do all of my life.