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Recalling Pinellas

Hype creates hero in 1949 hot rod murder case

As a St. Petersburg Times reporter from 1948 to 1965, Jerry Blizin covered some of Pinellas County's biggest stories. One of them unexpectedly brought him national attention.

In 1950-51, I got more than my 15 minutes of fame. My dose was two hours (not counting commercials) on NBC broadcasts, one on radio, the other on television, for my coverage of a crime dubbed "the hot rod murder case.''

To my embarrassment, the two shows exaggerated my role and left out the work of others.

What started as an armed robbery on Aug. 16, 1949, ended with a retired New York police officer named John Schineller lying mortally wounded outside a neighborhood grocery store. Schineller went into the store on Tangerine Avenue S (now 18th Avenue S) to buy a loaf of bread just as James Porter, fresh out of prison, entered with a handgun. Schineller, 58, tried to wrest the gun away and was fatally shot. Porter, 25, was wounded but fled in a rusty hot rod.

A radio and television production company called Prockter Productions, whose hit NBC show was called The Big Story, picked up on the murder because Times city editor Stan Witwer sent the company a letter about it. I forget what the 1950 radio version was called, but the TV version was dubbed "A Warm Sun, A Hot Rod and a Cold Stiff." It made me into a hero who single-handedly solved the crime.

Eddy Levine, an advance man for Prockter Productions, told me it was the first Big Story to feature the west coast of Florida. The show used a professional actor named Grant Richards to play me, but amateur actors from the St. Petersburg Little Theatre played other roles. The shooting locale was changed from a grocery to a sporting goods store. There were plenty of exaggerations about my role as reporter.

Look magazine had a two-page spread titled "Jerry's Big Story" on March 27, 1951, just after the March 23 TV broadcast. It compared the real story to the TV version and concluded, "Reporter Jerry Blizin would be the first to admit that routine police work captured the killer in his 'big story'; his newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times, ran an editorial saying so. But if he is embarrassed … to see himself frisking suspects, vaulting fences, talking an armed murderer into surrendering and more often leading than following the police around St. Petersburg, he can console himself with The Big Story's $500 award for the good job he did in reporting the crime. For the rest of Big Story's audience, no consolation is required: it's an absorbing show."

Unfortunately, The Big Story made no mention of Bob Preston, then a Times photographer and later managing editor of the St. Petersburg Evening Independent. Preston's crime scene pictures appeared in both the Times and Look. It was the police radio in his car that enabled the two of us to beat the police to the scene. He also stuck with the story from start to finish.

Preston and I were in his black sedan, having an evening hamburger at Burdick's Drive-In on Fourth Street S, when we heard a police radio call about a shooting on Tangerine Avenue. The city police force had only a few patrol cars back then, so we got to the scene first.

When we arrived, two boys were outside the grocery. They thought we were detectives in an unmarked car, so they gave us a couple of shell cases they found. They described the assailant and said he got away in a "polka dot hot rod." They didn't know the license number.

When the police arrived, Preston and I turned over the cartridges and had the boys repeat their story. One officer recalled issuing a ticket for speeding to the driver of an odd-looking hot rod weeks earlier. It had some round rust spots that looked like big polka dots.

A search of traffic records turned up a copy of the ticket and the name Glenn William Heck. Heck lived in Pinellas Park.

Preston and I joined a police and sheriff's team that questioned Heck and staked out his home. Turned out he had loaned his car to Porter, but Porter hadn't returned it. Police then went through Heck's garbage, looking for clues to Porter's whereabouts.

They found the address of a woman friend, and that's where Porter was arrested without incident early the next morning. During the scuffle with Schineller, Porter had been shot in the left hand, and his bloodstains were still on the car door.

Porter was defended by lawyer Harry Fogle, who later became a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge. Porter got a life sentence for murder.

Sure enough, I got a $500 check and a bronze plaque from Pall Mall cigarettes, sponsor of the program. The company also started sending me a monthly supply of Pall Malls, which I — a pipe smoker — gave away, thus marking myself as an early contributor to respiratory disease. I kept the plaque.

The rationale of The Big Story was that it was exclusively about reporters. The producers had to hype that, so on television I was shown grilling the suspect. That was dramatic license — it never happened. Nor did I jump over fences in hot pursuit of clues. I stayed with the story as an observer until it was over, 5½ hours after it began. Reporters rarely get a chance to get in on a story at its start and see it wrapped up so quickly.

Television wasn't widespread in St. Petersburg at that time. Still, a significant number of police officers managed to watch the show. Some simmered. As I walked into police headquarters the next day, Lt. Jack Healey leaped out from behind the booking desk, caught me in a choke hold and threw me into a holding cell.

As he locked the door, he grinned: "Okay, Sherlock, if you're so brilliant, figure a way to get out of there."

Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report. Jerry Blizin, who lives in Tarpon Springs, can be reached at jbliz3@knology.net.

Hype creates hero in 1949 hot rod murder case 12/29/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 1:38pm]
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