July 18th, 2008
11:38 AM ET

Beating a murder rap


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Chuck Hadad
AC360° producer

My boss pulled me into his office one afternoon in late May and dropped a bombshell: “We want you to do a short documentary about the election. Come back to us with an idea and as long as we're on board, we want you to go for it."

I was thrilled with the assignment but also overwhelmed with the endless possibilities. It was like when your 9th grade English teacher told you to write an essay on "anything you want". You loved the freedom but at the same time were crushed with the limitless options.

"This is going to be part of an iReport film festival and your film will be a model for people to get an idea of what we're looking for," he said. Now the pressure was really on. America was counting on me.

I came back a week later with an idea that was as ambitious as perhaps it was foolish. I wanted to know what the country thought about the election and I planned to find out by driving across the country asking as many different people as possible. In talking to individuals, I hoped to discover some universal truth.

But there were two major caveats: my boss insisted I do it alone and could only let me out of my normal producing duties for one business week. Although I was given the option of pitching another idea with a less hectic schedule, I was now totally committed to the project and figured out a plan to pull it off. I'd work both the weekend before and weekend after my five day dispensation and if I drove an average of eight hours a day, I could shoot what I needed to, sleep enough so I wouldn't pass out behind the wheel and make it across the country in nine days without killing myself. It was just crazy enough to work.

I was issued a Sony PD-170 camera for the project and given a one hour crash course in the finer points of camera and audio work. I've been a producer with CNN for five years and had worked on countless stories but this would be the first I'd be shooting personally and was told to practice before hitting the road.

The PD-170 is for the most part, very user friendly and while the photographer who instructed me was happy to answer any questions, nothing can prepare you for getting a steady shot of the "Welcome to Arkansas!" sign with one hand on the wheel while doing 80 on the highway (hypothetically of course. I would never do that).

I started on the eastern-most point of my home state in Montauk, New York, at 5 in the morning on Saturday and nine exhausting days later, ended up in LA on a redeye flight back home. As I talk about in the documentary, I was shocked, inspired and entertained in my travels but at one particular stop that didn’t make it into the film, I was flat out scared.

It was the last night before the end of my journey and after a long day of shooting and driving, I picked an arbitrary town in the middle of nowhere Arizona to stop and sleep for the night. The name of the motel I checked into escapes me but it might as well have said "Bates" on the sign because it both resembled the lodging from the Hitchcock flick and had the creepy vibe to match.

There were a few cars parked in the lot but during the 12 hours I spent there, I didn’t see another living soul with the exception of the motel manager. It was dusk when I arrived and the she told me that little was open except for a gas station and a general store on the edge of town. I was going to be getting a surfing lesson the next day in Los Angeles and needed beach towels and food so I headed to the general store. But when I walked in there was no one inside.

"Are you looking for anything in particular?” a voice behind me boomed. I spun around and the clerk was right behind me in the doorway. He was a bit of a close talker and towered over me at 6 foot 3. He was in his late twenties with tattoos up and down both arms, an earring in his left ear, and if I was a betting man, I'd say he was a gang member. He definitely did not fit in this tiny town.

ME: "I'm looking to buy a couple of beach towels."

HIM: "Oh, bro, you need to drive like 70 miles east for that."

ME: "70 miles?!"

HIM: "Yeah bro. Tell me about it! I'm from the city, from Dallas, and there's a Wal-Mart in every direction you look."

ME: "Dallas? What the hell are you doing out here?"

HIM: "Oh, I beat a murder rap."

It was at this point that the fear started to set in. Two words run through my mind and I mull them over at lightening speed: "murder" and "beat". "Murder" needs no explanation but "beat" requires exploration. The implication to me is NOT that he didn't commit the crime and the wheels of justice spun an innocent man back out into society.

"Beat" means to me that prosecutors didn't follow proper procedure or evidence was tampered with or witnesses were intimidated. I manage to hide my surprise and fear.

ME: "Really?"

HIM: "Yeah bro. I never thought I'd beat it and told my wife if I did, that we'd get out of town so this is where we ended up."

ME: "Oh. Get out of the life huh?"

HIM: "Yeah bro. Exactly."

By this point, I had backed away a few feet and started to wander around the store. The conversation somehow still had the tone of discussing sports or the weather.

ME: "OK, well I'm just going to grab some food and that should do it."

HIM: "Alright bro. Well if you need anything else, I'm right here."

I kept things courteous at check-out, managed to steer the chit chat away from what I was doing or where I was staying and headed back to the Bates Motel. When I got back to my room, I locked and chained the door, settled in for a somewhat fitful night of sleep and shortly after sunrise, I high-tailed it out of town. Suffice it to say, I never got a chance to ask him about the election.

Filed under: Chuck Hadad • iReport Film Festival
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