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Rebecca Aguilar: Speaking out after a draining week "in limbo"

Suspended Fox4 reporter Rebecca Aguilar feels it's time to open up.
Photo: Ed Bark

For 13 years Rebecca Aguilar has hit the streets as an aggressive, scoop-generating Fox4 reporter.

Now she's unceremoniously out on the street, indefinitely suspended by her station in the same month she accepted the Broadcast Journalist of the Year Award from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Aguilar's Oct. 15th piece on 70-year-old property defender James Walton, who had just purchased a new shotgun outside a sporting goods store, prompted a flurry of bloggers and blog readers to brand her as bigoted, anti-gun, an ambusher and a "bitch" among kinder assessments. A since disabled video of her story on youtube.com still brandishes the headline, "Anti-white mexican reporter from Dallas, TX suspended."

"I'm bruised, honey. Yeah, I'm bruised," Aguilar says in her first interview on these matters and more. Against the advice of her attorney, she's telling her side because "I think staying silent makes a person look guilty."

In particular she wants to emphasize that she and Walton had conversed at length on the phone after he first called her at Fox4. In fact, she says, they again were talking shortly before she allegedly "ambushed" him outside a Mesquite Academy Sports & Outdoor store, where Walton told her he was headed because "they've got the best shotguns."

Our tamer interview venue is a Dallas coffee shop, where Aguilar, 49, finds it difficult to keep her composure. Her tears clearly are genuine, not an act. They embarrass her, as did Fox4's Oct. 16th order to pack up and leave after her previous day's story prompted both heavy criticism and a telephoned death threat to her newsroom desk.

"I'm sorry I'm crying but I've been waiting to talk about this for a while," Aguilar says. "It was humiliating. I love Fox4. I love my job, my colleagues. We're very competitive, but we motivate each other. A person does not stay at a station because of the money or the glory. I mean, I live there more than I live at home. It may sound corny, but it's true."

Her husband, a colleague at Fox4 whose identity she wants to protect, had to watch her leave the station with a cardboard box in hand.

"He's just been my rock," she says. "But so have many of my other fellow employees."

Fox4 management has declined to comment on the suspension, and again chose that option Tuesday after being informed of the Aguilar interview.

Aguilar, who signed a new two-year contract with the station in March, says she can't detail any of her meeting with news director Maria Barrs, who informed her of the suspension.

"I'm halfway out the door," she says. "So anything else I say (about what Barrs told her), I'm sure they could use to push me the rest of the way out."

She notes, however, that the script for her Oct. 15th story was approved beforehand.

"We have layers of gatekeepers," Aguilar says. "And I'm the only one suspended."

Her first brush with Walton came Monday morning (Oct. 15), but not on camera. Aguilar had covered the West Dallas salvage business owner's fatal shooting of a would-be burglar the previous night. He had sent another intruder to the hereafter just three weeks earlier. In each case, police confiscated his weapons but Walton likely won't be charged with any crimes. Texas law allows him to protect his property. That he did, although some might argue that his measures were unusually extreme.

Aguilar's story prompted a mild complaint from Walton, the reporter says. He called her at the station, but was mollified when she told him that her story said he had the legal right to literally take the law into his own hands.

They talked further, Aguilar says, after Walton deemed the rest of her story "OK." Aguilar says he then added, "But I'm mad at Channel 11. Those idiots had it all wrong."

"He was rather pleasant on the phone," she recalls, but also profane at times.

They hooked up again the same day. Aguilar says that Walton again told her, "I don't have time for you. I've got a full plate."

She in turn told him, "You know I'm a reporter. I may catch up to you."

Aguilar says her only intent was to get Walton's side of the story, which clearly became more of a story when he told her by telephone that his "full plate" included buying another shotgun.

"He never hung up on me," she says. Walton also kept telling her, "I'm not a 70-year-old pity party. You understand?"

"I don't know if he thought I was going to show him to be feeble and weak or whatever," Aguilar says.

She eventually caught up with him as he headed to his car with the new shotgun. During much of their on-camera exchange, Aguilar stood inside the driver's seat door with a microphone plainly in view.

"Can we talk to you briefly?" she had asked.

"Either you shut the damn camera off or I'm not talkin' to ya," he replied.

But the camera kept rolling and Walton kept talking. What most viewers remember is Aguilar asking him, "Are you a trigger happy kind of person? Is that what you wanted to do -- shoot to kill?"

Aguilar asked this in a non-confrontational tone that she maintained throughout the interview.

"The way I asked him was not in a harsh manner," she says. "I'm very careful about my tone. Because since I am a woman, I don't want to be called the b-word."

But the "trigger happy" query has become a national flashpoint, even though Aguilar quickly followed with, "So basically you were scared for your life?"

"I am known for asking questions that I think bring back deeper answers," Aguilar says during our interview. "But I treated this man with utmost respect. In fact, some of the questions I asked him on-camera I had asked him already in our conversations on the phone. That's why you don't see him alarmed . . . I knew that he felt comfortable with me, and I felt comfortable with him. I know from experience when people don't want me around."

Walton called her again about two and a half hours after the interview first ran on Fox4's 5 p.m., Oct. 15th newscast. Aguilar says he was upset that she had mentioned the tears in his eyes.

"He said, 'Well, you made me look like a pity party,' " Aguilar recalls. "Thank you very much. I told you not to tell anybody about my (bleeping) tears.' "

In much happier times, Aguilar accepted her NAHJ award at an Oct. 4 ceremony in Washington, D.C. The organization has denounced her suspension in a three-page letter to Fox4 management.

Someone else called, too, via a cell phone text message a minute or so after the story first aired. It was an envious news manager from a rival station whom Aguilar did not want identified. But she showed the message as proof. "Good job," it said. The name affixed to the message is a familiar one in local news circles.

Less than 24 hours later, Aguilar learned of her suspension. She still doesn't even know whether it's with or without pay. Earlier that same traumatic day, Aguilar says she picked up her newsroom phone to hear a man tell her, "I'm a gun owner. And if I ever find you, I'd like to shoot you in the head."

The same man, she believes, also had called shortly after the story aired the previous night.

"So I reported it to my bosses first, and nothing was done about it," she says. "Nothing was done about my protection. My suspension was a priority over my safety."

Aguilar says she reported the threat to the Dallas Police Department on Wednesday (Oct. 17th).

"I really felt that the DPD had my back," she says gratefully.

By her estimation, Aguilar has done more than 3,000 stories, many of them exclusives, during her 13 years at Fox4. "And that's conservatively speaking."

She says it's all the more reason to be "shocked" by a suspension she never saw coming.

"I don't know if I'll survive without a blemish," she says. "Every time you Google my name now it's like 'Aguilar, suspension or ambush.' Before it was 'Aguilar, award-winner.' It's changed in a week."

"Can I go back (to Fox4)?" she asks when asked. "Of course I'd like to go back. You don't give up after 13 years at a company. I love my job. And I love when people trust me. I love it."

She also loves the thrill of an "exclusive," as does any reporter worth anything at all. But not at any price, she insists, noting that countless people on the receiving ends of her stories have described her as "one of the fairest people in the world."

"I'm a role model for other journalists in the market," says Aguilar, who is the oldest on-camera female reporter at Fox4. "I show that it doesn't matter that you're close to 50 years old. And it doesn't matter how many awards you get. The big thing in TV news is what have you done for me lately. How can I teach others to be motivated and go out there and kick ass every day if I myself am not doing it?"

Against her better instincts, though, she's now betting that Fox4 will fire her after just one fateful interview fired up the blogosphere.

"I don't want to lose my job," Aguilar says. "But as of right now, I don't know. I haven't heard a thing. I'm in limbo, man. That's a weird feeling."