ST. PETERSBURG — Early in his career at the Clearwater Sun, journalist Tony Panaccio was not the biggest fan of news anchor John Wilson.
“If I was sitting in the newsroom at 11 watching the news and there was a story that I missed, my night got longer,” Panaccio laughed.
But that was before the two bonded on the morning of Jan. 24, 1989.
As two of the 12 reporters who had just watched the execution of serial killer Ted Bundy, they sought to comfort one another.
John Wilson asked Panaccio if he was okay. Panaccio asked the same of Wilson. Both answered, “No.”
Bundy was a monster, but watching him die was nonetheless disturbing. That shared experience formed a bond that continues today.
Until recently, though, they never discussed the execution. At an Ybor City production studio in early August, they relived that day.
Their recollections were recorded and filmed for an oral history book, Our Top Story: How Ted Bundy Changed Us Forever. The book will be released Nov. 1.
They also plan to do either a documentary or feature film based on the interviews.
John Wilson’s son is a third author of the book, providing the perspective of someone who covered the execution from the grassy lot across the street from Florida State Prison.
A junior year reporter for Florida State University’s WVFS radio station at the time, Paul Wilson was there in 1989 to talk with those who witnessed the execution.
His father gave him the scoop.
That moment haunts 53-year-old Paul Wilson.
“It was January, probably around 50 degrees, but my dad looked like it was summer,” he said, fighting back tears. “I’d never seen him like that. It was chilling.”
The trio asked former Tampa news anchor Reginald Roundtree to serve as the fourth author, who conducted the interviews.
“You have three human beings, three stories, three personal stories,” Roundtree, 62, said. “I had to bring out that emotion, ask questions they weren’t comfortable answering, and get their story.”
A week after the Ybor summit, they gathered again at Paul Wilson’s St. Petersburg office to discuss what’s next for the project. They were still uneasy recalling the execution.
“It’s not so casual that it’s a conversational subject,” John Wilson, 80 and retired as a news anchor, said. “It affected all of us personally in many different ways. To be really frank, I don’t like talking about it.”
A 30-year news veteran working with Tampa’s ABC affiliate in 1989, John Wilson was not initially interested when the Florida Association of Broadcasters presented him the opportunity to witness Bundy’s execution.
“Then I was told it might include an interview with Bundy,” Wilson said. “It was going to be Bundy’s choice. Who would interview him would be his final decision. If he chose me, I had to be prepared.”
He asked mental health professionals what to expect from a serial killer who confessed to 30 murders.
Their advice was to “let him talk. He will want to keeping talking if you let him,” John Wilson said. “I was told he would talk in the third person, which he did.”
But not to John Wilson. The interview went to James Dobson, a psychologist and opponent of pornography, which Bundy blamed for his violence.
John Wilson said he “felt compelled” to still go because Margaret Elizabeth Bowman, one of Bundy’s FSU victims, was a St. Petersburg resident who attended St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church.
“That’s my church,” he said.
As the sun was rising on Jan. 24, 1989, a white government van picked up the chosen journalists at the grassy lot across from the prison.
“I was absolutely nervous,” Panaccio said. “I was underwater.”
While John Wilson was handpicked due to his experience, Panaccio, just 23 and with a few years experience at the time, was chosen by happenstance.
The Associated Press and United Press International each selected one staff member to attend the execution. The Lake City Reporter was automatically included in the press pool because Bundy was sentenced to death due to the murder of a 12-year-old Kimberly Diane Leach of Lake City. The Florida Association of Broadcasters selected three television and two radio reporters.
The names of 19 Florida newspapers were then thrown into a hat, according to the now defunct Clearwater Sun’s archives, with theirs being one of four picked.
The newspaper had a skeleton crew, Panaccio said, and the two most experienced staffers — the managing editor and editor in chief — had covered an execution 10 years earlier.
“They didn’t want to do another,” he said, “but were more than happy to train me. They told me not to think about what Hollywood has shown. There’s no smoke. There’s no fire. It’s not that dramatic. But it’s an image that is going to stay with you.”
As the van took them to the execution, he also received advice from John Wilson, who said he looked after Panaccio because of his young age and because they were from the same media market.
“He told me to focus, keep it simple,” Panaccio said. “Be the eyes and the ears for your readers. Put them in your chair, show them what you’re seeing, what you’re hearing, what you’re smelling. Bring them here. He told me that if I can do that, I’ve done my job.’”
They watched from what Panaccio said looked like a broadcast booth. A glass window separated them from the electric chair area.
“Bundy came in like he was expecting a party,” John Wilson said. “The guards didn’t drag him in. He was clearly leading them. He looked at every eyeball, every one of us in there, and smiled. They then escorted him to the chair, maybe six or eight steps, and put him in the chair and strapped him tight. He’s still looking at us.”
Bundy’s last words — “I’d like to give my love to my family and friends” — confused John Wilson.
“What friends?” he said.
The electric chair’s metal skull cap was placed on Bundy’s head, thick straps were pulled against his mouth and chin, and a veil covered his face.
John Wilson noticed makeup around the hooded executioner’s eyes as they flipped the switch that sent 2,000 volts into Bundy.
“A woman,” he said of the executioner. “It was freaky. The whole scene. And then bam, the first charge.”
Mimicking how Bundy’s body reacted, John Wilson leaned his head back slightly to the right and then pretended to try to lurch it forward, only to be immediately stopped by an imaginary head strap.
What followed was uncomfortable, Panaccio said. They removed the veil and “we could see his face as they waited for the body to cool so they could check if he is dead.”
John Wilson said he began wondering if death was the right decision. Perhaps Bundy should have been further studied so “we could better understand what a serial killer is.”
Bundy was pronounced dead at 7:16 a.m.
“While John Wilson is thinking about existential issues, I was just trying to hold on,” Panaccio laughed. “I was underwater, just trying not to fall in a ravine. I kept writing, but don’t think I ever looked at my pad.”
The van was supposed to drop them at the south end of the parking lot where their cars were parked. Instead, they were dropped on the north end.
“To get to our cars, we had to walk past all of the media wanting to interview us,” Panaccio said.
As reporters, they were trained to never become the news story, John Wilson said. “We could not do that with this. We were witnesses.”
Paul Wilson described the parking lot scene as a “macabre Mardi Gras.”
“People selling ‘Tuesday is Fry-day’ shirts because it was on a Tuesday,” he said. " You had protesters for and against. You had clergy out there. And then the phalanx of media. The field was about the size of two football fields, and it was covered by satellite trucks.”
John Wilson sought out his son for his first interview as a witness. Paul Wilson still has the tape.
He played it for the Tampa Bay Times.
John Wilson’s voice is unwavering, but Paul Wilson said his dad’s face told another story.
“He was shaken,” he said.
Realizing that Panaccio would soon be overwhelmed by reporters, John Wilson — also there to cover it for Good Morning America — said he calmed the young journalist by becoming his first interviewer. “I grabbed Tony and gave him a softball question to get him warmed up.”
Panaccio still recalls the question, “Why are you here?” he said. “And he gave me that answer earlier in the van. So, I said, ‘To be the eyes and ears for my readers.’ That brought me back.”
John Wilson and Panaccio estimate they were each interviewed by a dozen media outlets.
A week later, Panaccio said, John Wilson called to check how he was doing.
“That’s just who he is,” Panaccio said.
They remained close.
Eight years ago, John Wilson helped Panaccio grieve the loss of his father.
“I had emergency surgery a few years back for a burst appendix,” Panaccio said. “When I got home from the hospital, the first call I got was from John’s wife, Mary K, asking me if I needed anything.”
Today, Panaccio and Paul Wilson work together through their Lonesome Pine Pictures production company and Wilson Media advertising agency. They met around 10 years ago.
Early in their first conversation, “Tony said to me, ‘I was with your dad at Ted Bundy’s execution,” Paul Wilson said.
Panaccio didn’t say more about the topic, and Paul Wilson knew better than to push for details.
“He didn’t tell me that to tell me a story,” Paul Wilsons said. “It was to let me know he had a deep connection with my dad and, through him, my family. That connection can never be broken.”