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Epilogue | Chuck Hendrick

Investigative reporter Chuck Hendrick exposed Florida drug trade, fraud

TAMPA — Investigative reporter Chuck Hendrick met police on undercover drug busts, a gun in the glove box.

He untangled the mechanics of the international drug trade, from their point of shipment to the laundering of profits.

He treated mobsters, physicians, police officers and elected officials with equal distrust and made enemies from all groups.

Despite multiple death threats, Mr. Hendrick left his cares behind him each day as he pulled away from the parking lot of the Tampa Tribune, where he worked for 27 years.

His three sons rarely knew the details of his exploits until they read his stories in the newspaper. But they all learned to apply the lessons he taught.

Mr. Hendrick, a fatherly figure to some and a nemesis to others, died Aug. 29. He was 86.

"Chuck was the only reporter I ever knew who packed heat," said St. Petersburg Times columnist Daniel Ruth, a former longtime Tribune reporter. The two men worked together for two years, producing a 30-part series about the drug trade in Florida. Mr. Hendrick's family said police advised him to carry a gun after he received the threats.

Another story on Medicare fraud uncovered kickbacks, overbilling and other crimes. Some people went to jail as a result, and others left town. Mr. Hendrick and Ruth ended up testifying before the U.S. Senate, and then-Sen. Lawton Chiles introduced legislation to make fraud harder to commit.

"He had a journalistic chip on his shoulder," said former Tribune staffer Al Hutchison, who succeeded Mr. Hendrick on the night cops shift. "He approached his sources with a healthy skepticism.

"He got results, and probably alienated a lot of people in the process."

Mr. Hendrick joined the Tribune shortly after moving to Tampa in 1953. He left briefly but returned in the 1960s, and remained the newspaper's chief investigative reporter. In the 1970s, he produced a months-long series on drug smuggling that took him to Colombian ports, then to banks in the Cayman Islands.

His role as investigator attracted those who wanted to do someone else in. "He was sort of a lightning rod," said former Tribune reporter Paul Wilborn. "If you had something on somebody, you'd call Chuck."

"On a personal level, he was very affable," said Ruth. "He was kind of like the Ward Cleaver of the newsroom. He conveyed the sense that he was someone you could talk to and you could trust."

Mr. Hendrick was laid off in 1982, when corporate owner Media General stopped publication of the Tampa Times, its evening paper, and merged staffs with the Tribune. For the next few years, Mr. Hendrick worked behind the scenes reporting stories for local channels 10 and 13.

"He was one of those old-school guys, and there wasn't a lot of respect for those guys," Ruth said. "People running the newsroom felt that guys like Chuck were just antediluvian and we needed fresher blood."

Mr. Hendrick was born in Richmond, Va., the youngest of eight children. His father died when Mr. Hendrick was young.

He served with the Army Air Corps in the Pacific during World War II, then graduated from the College of William and Mary. He married Audrey Young in 1948 and started a family. After a job with Western Union, he moved his family to Tampa.

His eldest son uses his father's powers of observation in his own marketing work. "I learned about research from him, critical thinking, the power of words and the power of images, too," said Charles Hendrick Jr., 59.

Keith Hendrick, 56, worked on cars with his father, who taught him how to bleed brakes and pack ball bearings with grease. "He taught me how to take things apart and put them back together again," he said. Today, he owns a marine electronics business.

Forrest Hendrick, the youngest son, is a retired Army helicopter pilot and combat veteran. "Probably the biggest thing I learned is always finding the truth and speaking the truth," said Forrest Hendrick, 51. "I told him before he died, even though the military has a lot of discipline and morals and ethics they try to drill into you, I already had them because he had drilled them into me."

Andrew Meacham can be reached at (727) 892-2248 or ameacham@sptimes.com.

.Biography

Charles M. 'Chuck' Hendrick

Born: Aug. 25, 1924.

Died: Aug. 29, 2010.

Survivors: Wife Audrey; sons Charles Jr., Keith and his wife Annie, and Forrest and his wife Brenda; and three grandchildren.

Investigative reporter Chuck Hendrick exposed Florida drug trade, fraud 09/04/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 4, 2010 5:56pm]
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