9 Employees Held Hostage In WCPO-TV 40 Years Ago

Oct 13, 2020

Armed with five guns and 600 rounds of ammunition, Over-the-Rhine resident James Hoskins held nine WCPO-TV employees hostage inside the station at Fifth Street and Central Avenue downtown on Oct. 15, 1980.

Hoskins, 41, gained entry after approaching reporter Elaine Green and photographer John Ehrhart with a semi-automatic rifle about 2 a.m. in the parking lot behind the station (which was torn down in 2004 for the convention center expansion).

Once inside, he wanted to make a statement on live television. Green instead offered to videotape him. Her 14-minute interview with him at gunpoint – in which he admitted to murdering his girlfriend – won a prestigious George Foster Peabody Award.  

"I blew my girlfriend away tonight. It’s over for me…. I killed her. We had planned to do this together, and I went berserk. She’s dead," said Hoskins, who was described by police as a terrorist. More weapons and materials for bombs were found at his 12th Street apartment.

"I didn't think we would survive it," Ehrhart told me years later.

After 90 minutes, Hoskins released all the hostages unharmed.

"Give me a place where the police can come and get me. We're going to shoot it out, and you people can leave," he said.

WCPO-TV was located at 500 Central Ave., downtown, until 2004.
Credit John Kiesewetter

Ehrhart took the videotape with him, says Tom McKee, one of the nine hostages. (Although I've written many stories about the Hoskins takeover at Channel 9, this was a new detail to me after talking this week to McKee, who is organizing a "Journalists & Stress: Coping Mechanisms in Unusual Times" Zoom session for the Greater Cincinnati Society of Professional Journalists 7 p.m. Thursday, on the 40th anniversary.)

Cincinnati Police officers, and the SWAT team led by Dale Menkhaus, were able to watch the tape at the command center inside the Cincinnati Fire Department headquarters across the street. "The police could see who they were dealing with; immediately watched it. They don't get to do that often," says McKee, who was working late that night on election stories after producing the top-rated 11 p.m. Al Schottelkotte News.

Looking south from the parking lot toward the Fifth Street entrance on WCPO-TV.
Credit John Kiesewetter

Channel 9 viewers awoke that morning to Schottelkotte reporting from the parking lot. He broadcast by using a mobile TV truck owned by Dayton’s WHIO-TV, a fellow CBS affiliate then. WHIO-TV was called in by Rick Reeves, the Channel 9 operations director who had been called at home shortly after 2 a.m. Reeves told me this after I posted a 35th anniversary story in 2015.

Inside the command center, Reeves and Channel 9 general manager Bob Gordon drew up floor plans for the police, in case they wanted to storm the building, which had large windows on the Fifth Street side. The station was built in 1967.

Reporter Elaine Green, who later owned and operated Video Features, died in 2014 at age 73.
Credit Courtesy Hodapp Funeral Home

"Hoskins was barricaded in the newsroom, and had access to all the police radio monitors, security cameras, etc. Police asked what kind of glass was in the large windows, and would it shatter with a sniper's bullet? I knew the architect's name, and we woke him up with the question. He thought it would shatter, but wasn't sure," Reeves says.

"Police cordoned off three square blocks and caused a huge traffic jam because cars were not allowed off I-75 at the Fifth Street exit," he says.

Unaware of the hostage situation, one of the engineers running late-night programming on the second floor came downstairs for coffee and stumbled into the gunman, Reeves says. Then a second engineer came down looking for the first guy, and a third guy used the public address system to page the first two, Reeves says.

"That almost caused Hoskins to lose it, but Elaine calmed him down and the third engineer was brought down," Reeves says.

Channel 9's logo on the front of the Central Avenue building.
Credit John Kiesewetter

Menkhaus negotiated by phone with Hoskins throughout the morning. Midday he heard a gunshot.

"Police thought Hoskins had killed himself, but were reluctant to let us back into the building in case Hoskins was playing possum," Reeves says. "There was a K-9 unit at the command center, so I suggested that we put a radio mike on the dog and send it into the facility. If alive, Hoskins would have to react and they could plan accordingly. That was done. There was no reaction, so police went in and found him dead." Police entered the building at 1:45 p.m.

"In addition to the automatic rifle, he had at least three pistols, two in his waistband and another under his hat. His body was on the floor of the newsroom, head back in his hat, which was filled with blood... and remained there while Al did the evening newscast with the body just to his left," Reeves says.

"When we were allowed in (the building) sometime before the evening newscast, immediately we went live to tell the remarkable story. I distinctly remember being in the control room and ordering no live shots of the body beyond the waist," Reeves says.

Ehrhart and McKee, who has taught broadcast journalism at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music since retiring from Channel 9 in December 2018, have credited Green’s calm professionalism with saving their lives that night. Green was married to Schottelkotte from 1988 until his death in 1996, at age 69. Green died in 2014 at 73.

Green told me in 2005 for a 25th anniversary story: "We all survived because nobody did anything stupid. Everybody stayed calm and nobody panicked… I still get chills. It’s a terrifying thing. You don’t know what you're going to say or do that might set him off."

Reeves says that "Elaine truly saved all of their lives by the way she dealt with him, acknowledging him as a human being and establishing herself as an empathetic figure, then making sure he saw the others as human beings."

After speaking to police on the scene, Green and McKee were taken to the Criminal Investigation Section (CIS) on Central Parkway to be interviewed by homicide detectives, since they had information about the murder of Hoskins' girlfriend, Melanie Finlay, 30, in their 12th Street apartment earlier that night.

Green told me years after the incident that as she was leaving CIS, she reached into her pocket and realized she had the key to Hoskins' apartment. He had given it to her at the station. So when police went to 12th Street address, Schottelkotte was there with a camera crew to get exclusive video.

Long after the incident, FBI agents gave WCPO-TV employees training on "how to act and conduct oneself when faced with a hostage-type situation," Reeves says. "The trainer said he'd seldom before heard of a similar situation where everyone concerned acted in such a highly appropriate manner. He, too, credited Elaine for their narrow escape."