By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
God is their co-pilot
It is common for a journalist to wish a colleague heading off for a difficult interview "good luck."
It is less common to commence an investigative project with a request for divine aid.
But that, BeloWatch has learned, is precisely how undercover Channel 8 cameraman Darrell Sparks and investigative reporter Valeri Williams launched Sparks' ill-fated incognito foray into Sunset High School on February 6.
As BeloWatch reported last week, Sparks, a 21-year-old part-time WFAA staffer, was carrying the hidden camera (known around the station as "Sneakycam") in a backpack. He was heading into Sunset, a Dallas public high school located in Oak Cliff, to surreptitiously film security procedures there. DISD security had become a hot issue after a gun-bearing student had slipped past metal detectors at Florence Middle School and threatened classmates and teachers.
Although DISDschools are owned by the public, notes district spokesman Larry Ascough, "it's not open season" for anyone to wander the halls. State law requires school visitors to identify themselves and have legitimate business in a school. DISD policy, which is conspicuously posted, requires visitors to check in at the principal's office. Press types have no special exemption from this requirement.
As he prepared to venture into the Sunset building, Sparks was clearly nervous about what might happen--as it would turn out, with good reason.
Williams, sitting with Sparks in the car outside Sunset, sought to reassure him; her words were captured on the microphone of the hidden camera, which was already rolling.
"I'll be praying for you in the car," the reporter told Sparks. "Let me say a quick word of prayer for you."
And then she did: "Heavenly father, I, just lift Darrell up. And I say, please protect him, guide him, help us not to be in a tense situation. Give him relaxation, help him be calm, and I just ask for your protection on him."
Darrell piped in with his own plea. "Lord, I'm just really worried. I just hope this thing works well, and I just hope that...just give this situation to you and let you do what's right because I know that I can trust in you to guide me through this situation.
"In his name, amen."
God surely works in mysterious ways.
In the embarrassing episode that followed, the WFAA staffer got busted by the very security system he was there to scrutinize.
Sparks lied to Sunset staff about why he was in the school building, and refused, in more than two hours of questioning by the school principal and security officers, to identify himself or confirm his affiliation with WFAA--even after they had discovered his hidden camera, which bears the station's name.
Williams, summoned to the principal's office by cellular phone from a waiting car, was left cooling her heels outside a closed door after too-persistently demanding the release of her colleague and the station's equipment. She was later escorted out of the high school by a security officer and Dallas cop; the principal says he ordered security to give Williams the boot after she had blocked his office doorway and refused to move, in an attempt to keep school officials from taking the camera and videotape to DISD headquarters on Ross Avenue.
Sparks ended up briefly handcuffed, under arrest, and ticketed for loitering on school property, a Class C misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500.
The camera and videotape ended up downtown, where DISD officials reviewed the film and made a copy for themselves before releasing the property back to WFAA officials.
And Williams--at least in the opinion of DISD officials--ended up with an uncertain tale to tell.
WFAA staffers--including Sparks, Williams, and news director John Miller--declined comment to BeloWatch, saying they can't discuss a pending project. But Miller did say that the story definitely "has not been aborted" and will run "within the week." Asked whether the piece will explore what happened to Sparks and Williams at Sunset, Miller said it would. "We're going to tell the whole story," he told BeloWatch.
But DISD officials insist there's no story to tell--and are still fuming about the station's decision to go undercover at Sunset, as well as the behavior of the Channel 8 staffers.
Principal Michael Stiles says Williams on Tuesday, February 14, returned to Sunset with a TV monitor to show him segments of videotape Sparks had secretly filmed. "She came in and said, 'we have reviewed the tape again and we have what we think are some troubling concerns about what we've seen.' They wanted to review it with me and get my response."
Stiles says a brief segment of tape, filmed from a balcony, shows students passing through a school metal detector unchallenged while an intermittent beeping noise is audible--and that Williams clearly believed this was evidence of a wholesale breach in Sunset security.
In fact, says Stiles--who had already carefully reviewed DISD's own complete copy of what Sparks had filmed inside his school--the reporter was wrong. The beeping signal actually came from a separate metal-detecting hand-held wand that a coach was idly setting off by passing the wand over his own watch and belt buckle.