The Unusual Suspect

The very private public life of Joel Rose

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When the phone rang that Friday morning, Lauren Reed could think of only one thing: Heart attack.

Three days before, she felt -- no, she knew -- there was something wrong with her father. It wasn't as if anything had set her off. He never had heart trouble and seemed perfectly healthy when she saw him in July. But still. Call it a premonition. Call it intuition. Call it being a mother.

She hadn't wanted to make a big deal of it -- her dad was never one for melodrama -- but she needed to reach him anyway. She was thinking about buying a new car, and even at 41, living 500 miles away, with three kids of her own, she always talked to him before making big financial decisions.

When she got him on the phone that Tuesday, she was relieved. As usual, the first thing out of his mouth was a wisecrack. He was fine. "I thought, okay, it's just my imagination working overtime."

But three days later, when the call woke her at 6 a.m., she knew it wasn't her imagination.

It was her mother, Beverly, calling from Akron.

"It's your father," she said.

"Oh God. I knew, I had a premonition," she told her mother, who had been divorced from Lauren's father more than 20 years ago. "He had a heart attack."

"No," said Beverly.

"And then she told me," says Reed.

That morning, her father, former radio and television personality Joel Rose, walked to the mailbox in front of his small Brecksville home to find a lurid story on the front page of The Plain Dealer: "Ex-TV host Rose under investigation in porn case."

The paper reported that Rose was being investigated for mailing packages containing underwear and pornography to more than a dozen women in Greater Cleveland. The article, based on anonymous sources, said the packages were sent over a two-year period and often included a greeting card with a personal, typewritten message.

Rose had known a story was coming. Two days earlier, on Wednesday, August 2, detectives seized a hard drive and a typewriter during a search of his home. Rose had also been escorted to Parma Community General Hospital, where he provided blood and saliva samples for DNA testing to determine whether he could be connected to the packages. Later that day, The Plain Dealer contacted him to ask about the search. He declined to comment. The next day, Thursday, August 3, the paper ran a small item about the warrant, buried on page 6B in the Metro section, noting, "What was being sought or what prompted the search could not be determined."

Rose, meanwhile, went about his business. He bought a new computer to replace the one that was taken and spent much of Thursday setting it up. That evening, he went to dinner with a friend. While he was out, a reporter from The Plain Dealer stopped by the house and briefly spoke to Lois Rose, explaining that the paper had learned her husband was under investigation for sending sexually related material to local women.

When another Plain Dealer reporter finally spoke to Rose later that night, he denied the allegations, saying he didn't even know the women making the charges. "I don't know who that would be," he told the paper. "I don't think I would comment." He referred questions to his lawyer, prominent defense attorney Jerry Gold. Gold told the paper the allegations were "absurd."

Early the next morning, after retrieving The Plain Dealer from his mailbox, he went back inside. A short time later, he emerged from the house again. He walked down his driveway, across the private street that had been his address for nearly 20 years, then 10 feet into a thicket of woods on the other side.

He put a loaded .38-caliber revolver to his right temple and pulled the trigger.

Left behind, placed on top of that day's paper inside the house, were four notes: one to wife Lois, one to Brecksville Mayor Jerry Hrudy, one to Brecksville Police Chief Dennis Kancler, and one to his stepdaughter and her boyfriend. Each note proclaimed his innocence.

The notes, however, are not the only things Joel Rose left behind. He also left a troubling legacy, particularly for friends and family trying to reconcile the man they knew with the allegations leveled against him -- an effort invariably viewed through the prism of his suicide. Indeed, despite preliminary findings that evidence could not tie Rose to the packages sent to victims, he remains a suspect. Though he was once among the most prominent newsmen in the city, two months after his death, almost everyone is still wondering how much they really knew about Joel Rose.

"It's either one of two possibilities," says Dr. Michael Leach, a psychologist who knew Rose for 20 years. "Either Joel was a dirty old man more than anybody ever knew, and that having somebody discovering it was too much for him to take, or he was being accused of awful crimes in The Plain Dealer for which he felt there was no defense."

Standing amid a faux kitchen in the Channel 3 studio, 10 feet from the station's futuristic weather center, Fred Griffith, as you'd expect, looks perfect. His suit is perfect. His hair is perfect. Even his reading glasses, the way they sit down at the end of his nose as he reads his notes, look as though they were placed by some sprightly angel who inhabits TV land.

This is the way the elder statesman of Cleveland is supposed to look. What's changed, of course, is the setting. For 27 years, Griffith ruled Cleveland morning television with WEWS-TV/Channel 5's Morning Exchange. A year ago, the station finally pulled the plug on the show, with no small amount of fanfare. Old hosts came back. Old clips were aired. People cried.

Griffith, however, moved on. These days, he hosts Fifteen Minutes With Fred, a segment on Channel 3's noon newscast that centers around cooking and light features. It's a far cry from The Morning Exchange's glory days, when Vice President Nelson Rockefeller stopped by for a chat, or when the show snagged Jimmy Carter for an exclusive interview at Burke Lakefront Airport the day before he was elected president.

"I think part of our success was that we presumed intelligence on the part of the viewer," says Griffith. "And the viewers rewarded us for it."

In the age of the Internet, of digital cable, of satellites and Jerry Springer, it's hard for most people to imagine the reach The Morning Exchange had in those days. At its zenith, the show didn't just win its ratings time slot; it obliterated everything in its path. During the mid-'70s, more than half the televisions turned on in Cleveland on any given morning were watching The Morning Exchange. It was the most successful local daytime program in the country, the model upon which ABC brass would base a little morning show of their own -- Good Morning America.

It was a different era of television, but the success of The Morning Exchange was hardly a mystery. The chemistry among its three hosts was television rapture. Griffith, of course, was the headliner: a tall, good-looking guy who projected enough warmth to start a brushfire. Liz Richards, who delivered the weather forecast, was the proverbial girl next door -- with a twist. Married to Garry Dee, Cleveland's most notorious shock jock at the time, their tumultuous relationship became an ongoing drama on the show.

And then there was Rose. Short, bespectacled, and balding, he was the antithesis of the pretty-boy evening anchors with whom he nominally shared a job description. Hired to present the news on The Morning Exchange in 1972, before Griffith became the regular host, he became the show's one sharp corner, the iron fist inside Griffith's velvet glove.

Rose had grown up in Akron, a smart kid with an aptitude for tinkering. His mother was a vaudeville actress, his father an executive for a rubber company. If they weren't particularly warm parents, they provided stimulation for Joel's curiosity. He was active in theater, played the accordion, learned about electronics.

Even as a child, when he got into something, he didn't do it halfway, says Reed. He didn't just learn to play the accordion; he formed his own orchestra. He didn't just dabble in electronics; he figured out how to wire the living room. Once, when his mother was having friends over for tea, one of the women claimed she hadn't said something. Joel came bounding into the room. "Yes, you did," he told the woman. "I have it recorded."

He went to college at Miami University, where he discovered two of his life's passions: broadcast journalism and ham radio.

Afterward, he landed back in Akron, working his way through the ranks of local radio. In 1967, he made the jump to television, becoming WEWS's first Akron-Canton reporter. He was soon brought to Cleveland as the station's assignment editor. But he quickly became disenchanted and was planning to take a job in Minneapolis when Garry Ritchie, the station's news director, asked him to anchor Channel 5's noon newscast.

By today's standards, Rose seems an odd fit for television. He wasn't pretty. He could no more feign sincerity than he could become a runway model. But he was smart and intuitively aware of what played on the air.

"Everybody was doing the news the same way, with stories stacked in traditional journalistic style," he once told The Plain Dealer. "You'd start with the most important story of the day, go down the list in order of decreasing importance, and end with the ha-ha story. I didn't do it that way. Every once in a while, I'd put the ha-ha story at the top. I tried to make people feel a little better about things. I put the features higher up. We did all the same stories. Just in a different order."

In 1972, he was asked to read the news for a new morning show Channel 5 was putting together for the mercurial Alan Douglas. Douglas was intelligent and provocative, but his intense and dour mien didn't mesh with the effervescent vibe of morning television. When Douglas left the show, station Public Affairs Director Fred Griffith was handed the reins.

Griffith quickly changed the show's demeanor, making it, as Cleveland Magazine would later describe it, "not unlike an exclusive, continuous (if booze-less) cocktail party."

It turned out that Rose, cynical and suspect, with his acerbic style and dry wit, was a perfect complement to Griffith's homespun earnestness.

"He would take stabs at people, but in a humorous way," says Patti McCormick, who worked as an associate producer in The Morning Exchange's early days. "Fred was this wonderfully nice guy and wouldn't ask the really tough question sometimes, because he was just too nice. So we'd sic Joel on them. And Joel, tongue in cheek, would go, 'Well, what about that and this . . . and haven't you done that to this person?' Joel was a little more gutsy on the air. In his newscasts, he always had a twist to his stories or some ironic thing."

The Morning Exchange staff was an unusually tight-knit group, mostly because it had to be. It had a skeleton crew, producing two hours of live television five days a week. Almost everybody worked 10- or 12-hour days, stuffed together in a tiny office in the WEWS studios off Euclid Avenue.

"That became my family," says Richards, now an attorney in St. Petersburg, Florida. "And not just the people on the air, but the people off the air, too. The way they made me feel and the way I loved them gave me a feeling of safety each and every day."

But even in this familial atmosphere, Rose was conspicuous in his discretion. While people on the show seemed to know almost everything about one another, Rose guarded his privacy. It wasn't that he was aloof or distant; he just didn't talk about certain things.

"Joel was an extremely bright, clever man," says Richards. "There was a lot of depth there. But also, looking back, I realize now that he was a private person, who had private dreams, who also probably had private expectations of his life that he was very careful to share."

He was the same way at home, where he seldom talked about the show, the colleagues he shared his workday with, or the guests he met -- many of whom, because of The Morning Exchange's ratings and influence, were the most prominent celebrities and politicians of the day.

"On school vacations sometimes, I would go up and spend the day with him," says Reed. "I remember that he was always very businesslike. This was a job to him. They would have guests sometimes that I was excited to hear about. He would come home, and I would say, 'Tell me about Arnold Schwarzenegger,' and he wouldn't really talk about it. He kept it separate. 'Well, there's nothing to say. He was OK,' he'd say. You wanted more details. You wanted more information."

He used his humor, say his colleagues, to deflect questions he didn't want to answer. Actually, he used humor for everything. On the air and off, he took no small pleasure in staging elaborate practical jokes on unsuspecting marks. A talented mimic, he once called the press secretary for then-governor John Gilligan, Bob Tannenbaum, and, impersonating Gilligan, told Tannenbaum to cancel all the governor's appointments for the day.

"He made up some excuse, and he had Tannenbaum going for I don't know how many minutes," says Ritchie, the former news director. "I mean, no matter what Bob would say, there would be a comeback that would sound something like the governor might say in a situation like that."

His pranks didn't amuse everyone, however. He sometimes teased Richards to the point of drawing tears, even on the air. He once got her so angry that she exploded in the middle of the show. He apologized the next day.

In probably his most notorious prank gone awry, Rose broadcast over a private two-way radio frequency that a plane had gone down over Lake Erie. He was trying to dupe his television news competitors, whom he believed were listening in on WEWS's radio frequency. They were, but it didn't make the Coast Guard any happier. It was preparing for a massive search when it realized the whole thing was a hoax.

The late '70s were a particularly turbulent time around The Morning Exchange. Rose, Griffith, and Jane Temple, a producer on the show, were all divorcing their spouses at the time. "That whole two- to three-year period was an emotional time for all of us," says Temple. "We would sit and talk. We could sympathize with each other."

Rose and Temple would often be the first ones in the studio each morning, and sometimes, before anyone else arrived, he would play songs for her on a piano that sat in the studio's storage area. Though he was just as curmudgeonly in real life as he was on air, he also assumed a big-brother-like role around The Morning Exchange, mercilessly teasing while simultaneously protecting his charges from the outside world. "I really loved his company," says Temple.

Even then, however, Rose shared little of his personal life. When he was about to marry his second wife, Lois, in the early '80s, Temple only found out about it because Lois had picked the same Higbee's dress that Temple was planning to wear for her own wedding.

"When the day was over, he went home," says Jan Jones, who took Richards's place on The Morning Exchange in the late '70s. "He went home to Lois. He went home to his life."

By 1983, Rose decided his life needed to change, and he left the show that made him a household name in Cleveland. "I just felt I was ready for a change of direction," he told The Plain Dealer. "If I thought I could do this other thing and I didn't take a chance, I'd probably feel for the rest of my life that I'd cheated myself. So I decided to just wing it." Friends say that, as an astute observer of the industry, Rose foresaw the changing dynamics of television -- forces that didn't favor his role on the show. More and more, local stations were concerned about the bottom line, and slicing salaries for on-air talent was the easiest way to trim a budget. If there was going to be a squeeze, Rose knew Griffith wouldn't be the odd man out.

Three years earlier, Rose had set up a consulting business, Flagship Communications. Though he had a few clients when he left The Morning Exchange, his main source of income for the next several years came from Group W, an arm of Westinghouse that owned several television stations around the country.

Bill Baker, then an executive with Group W, had worked with Rose at WEWS and hired him to take a look at the company's faltering news outfits. The consulting gig was short-lived, however. Rose was mainly working at Group W's Philadelphia station, trying to turn it around, and was sick of commuting back and forth every weekend. In 1986, three years after he left, he returned to The Morning Exchange. But things had changed.

The show was no longer the ratings juggernaut it once was. And it was now under pressure, like everything else in TV, to cut costs. When his three-year contract with Channel 5 expired in 1989, Rose was dropped from the program.

He wasn't the sort to mope, but it was clear to friends and colleagues that Rose was devastated. Save for his three years as a full-time consultant, Rose had been a public figure for most of his adult life. "He didn't talk to me about it, or he didn't talk to me directly about it," says his daughter, Lauren Reed, "but I know he was really crushed. That's who he was. I know that was really difficult for him. I remember when I was little, going out to dinner or lunch and having people go up to him -- people constantly came up to him -- and he acted like he didn't like it, but I know he loved it."

For all his misanthropic posturing, Rose was a creature of the media, and he enjoyed the public's attention. "I think he was so bright, so quick, that it was almost like he didn't have enough stuff to fill his time," says Jones, who kept in touch with Rose after they stopped working together. "When he was on the air, he was there early in the morning. You know, news is constant, constant, constant, change, change, change . . . He had other things to do, but it never quite fills your time the way TV does, the way news does. And that may have disappointed him."

Rose's private life remained full, however. He flew planes, taught flying, was still into ham radio. He got into computers, keeping tabs on his investments through the Internet. He did some consulting work. He was extremely active in community events around Brecksville, emceeing festivals and helping out during parades or the city's annual Hometown Days. In 1996, he even worked as a dispatcher for the Brecksville Police. And he still had a radio show -- a way to fulfill his fix for public interaction.

Eventually, even that began to change. In 1992, WERE-AM/1300 dropped him from its lineup, only to ask him back three weeks later to be special events director. Over the next few years, he bounced from one station to the next.

Finally, in 1994, he and Merle Pollis, another veteran broadcaster who had been one of Rose's best friends for years, hosted a show together on WELW-AM/1330. Jewish Heritage Radio pitted the two longtime friends in battle. Pollis is a self-avowed liberal. Rose had grown more and more conservative over the years, to the point that he was into his "Rush Limbaugh phase," as his children called it.

"He knew that it did him no good to be lukewarm," says Reed. But it was more of a persona than a personality, she says. Indeed, others say that Rose was far less radical off the air and far more willing to consider other points of view.

"He was a thinking man," says John Adams, a friend who met Rose years ago through a ham radio club in Brecksville. "He would actually listen to what people said, and then he would think about it in many different directions."

But that didn't go over well on talk radio, and Rose knew it. What did go over, and what Rose had a talent for, was taking a chunk out of someone's hide, most commonly someone whom he felt needed to be taken down a peg or two.

"He was really an everyman," says Jones. "He was wonderful with people when they came up to us, when they talked to us. He always had the time. To Joel, they were more important than the bigwigs who came through the studio."

Rose usually saved his most cutting remarks for those who were treated with the most deference. He once cut short a radio interview with Bob Hope, later telling his friends, "Nobody wants to listen to that old fart." When Jerry Lewis appeared on his radio show in the '70s, Rose dared to ask the question people had been asking themselves for years: Wasn't it true, Rose asked, that Lewis was exploiting the Muscular Dystrophy Association for personal advancement? For good measure, he called Lewis a skuzzball. Lewis promptly left the building.

In 1994, he was reunited with Jones for a weekly segment on a new morning show on WJW-TV/Channel 8. Jan and Joel on the Loose was a short-lived bit that featured Rose and Jones about town. It was his last regular television job. By 1995, he no longer had a regular radio show, either.

In 1997, the late Plain Dealer gossip columnist Mary Strassmeyer asked Pollis the standard "Where are they now?" question about Rose. He was teaching flying at the Lorain Airport, Pollis told her.

He had officially disappeared from the public radar.

Ten days after Joel Rose killed himself, The Plain Dealer and other media outlets reported that blood and saliva samples Rose provided for investigators could not establish a connection between him and the packages sent to women. Nor did the typewriter taken from the Roses' home match the notes.

Rose's family, however, has yet to hear about the results of those tests from an official source. Their only information has come from television.

In fact, their one constant has been a dearth of information. Beyond the questions of suicide, beyond the anger at The Plain Dealer -- whose coverage friends criticize as sensational and irresponsible --there is, of course, the matter of guilt. Rose, after all, is still a suspect.

The greatest concern is not that Joel Rose will be revealed to have sent the packages, says his daughter. It's that those who knew him best, or thought they did, will never know.

"The only thing we've been told, really, is that technically, they don't have to tell us anything," says Lauren Reed. "I'd rather know. For me, it would be easier to put this thing to rest to know that he had done it than to know nothing at all."

For now, they are left to reexamine and reinterpret everything Rose did over the last 64 years, left to wonder whether it adds up to someone who would stalk as many as two dozen women by sending them pornographic mail or someone who couldn't stand the thought of having the public think he would do such a thing.

His friends, naturally, find it hard to comprehend that Rose could ever be a suspect. "I always got the impression that he was someone who was very, very sensitive to not hurting people," says Adams. "He was very sensitive about people not getting stepped on. In talking with him in our little philosophies, he was someone who really cared about people, and he didn't like to see people be taken advantage of."

"My God, I'm in the business of figuring this stuff out about people," says psychologist Leach, "and I never would guess this about Joel Rose."

Former female colleagues also say they find the allegations hard to reconcile with the man they knew. "He was like my big brother," says Richards. "He was always teasing me, always pointing out how stupid I was, and always protective. Do you know how a big brother can absolutely drive you wild and say the meanest things, but won't let anybody else? That was Joel."

"He was a gentleman," says Patti McCormick, who was in her early 20s when she worked on The Morning Exchange. "He might tell jokes, and I can't say they wouldn't be off-color jokes, but everybody was doing that. He was always on the edge of everything, but he was never sleazy in a personal way to any of us. You had some very attractive people working at the station, and there were a lot of people there that would come on to us and a lot of other women at the station, and Joel was not one of them."

After Rose got married again, former Morning Exchange producer Jane Temple remembers how devoted he was to his second wife Lois, whom he would refer to as "Mrs. Rose."

"He would always say he couldn't stay late, because Mrs. Rose needed him to do the gardening or whatever it was," she says.

Yet Rose was hardly bashful when it came to talking about the coarser side of life, friends concede. "He was ribald," says Jones. "He was one of the guys."

And nowhere was that more apparent than with his satirical website, the Briarshop Corner Bulletin. The site, which parodied life in a small town, detailed the misadventures of the city's citizens, often complemented by pictures of fat naked women and reactionary political humor. There was an elaborate roster of fictional characters, with tales of who was sleeping with whom. It was, as some of Rose's friends have described it, a cross between an X-rated Lake Wobegon and Hee-Haw.

"It was stupid," says his daughter. "I thought it was disgusting, but it didn't make me angry. I was just like 'Dad, come on.'"

Still, if Rose had a secret life as a dirty old man, he certainly didn't hide it from anyone. He routinely sent bulk e-mails to friends, including his daughter, notifying them of new installments on his website.

Rose's defenders say his sexual openness was more a function of honesty than perversion. "There are two things that most people have a hard time talking about honestly -- sex and money," says Leach. "Joel didn't mind talking to you about those things."

"He was always open," says Jan Jones. "There were times he was so open that I'd say, 'Knock it off, Joel," and I'd walk away. He knew how far he could push . . . He was honest. He was such an honest guy. He was honest about sex. He was honest about money. He was honest about his politics. He was honest about what he was going to do on the air. When he told somebody he would be there for them, he was, in every respect. He backed them. He was so honest. I think that's why, when all of this came about, it was just so shocking. Whoa, this is another person. And whether or not he had another person inside him? I don't know. But it wasn't the Joel I knew."

But the Joel Rose everyone knew also wasn't someone whom friends and family believed would kill himself. Over the last two months, as they groped for answers, the one explanation they can muster for why an innocent man would commit suicide is also the oldest one: Pride.

"I don't have a crystal ball," says Leach, "but I do know that it wasn't from doing these things that he killed himself. As private as he was, that's also how proud he was of his reputation. I don't think he could stand the public ridicule."

"His public persona was quite important," says Reed. "That was the world he lived in. When you live and die by the ratings, when your livelihood is determined by ratings, I think that causes you to value who you are by the way the public values who you are. And I think he knew, he had seen it happen enough times with other people, he knew that once your reputation was dirtied, it didn't matter . . . People think, Where there's smoke, there's fire."

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