Monday, April 07, 2008

The Sad Story of Will Spens

"Somewhere along the way, the guy fell off the apple cart." That was how The Independent's news editor, Nick Welsh, once cogently capsulized the Will Spens that we knew here in Santa Barbara.

Spens died a week ago today, in a single car accident near the Santa Barbara/Ventura County Line.

I first met Will at one of the "Save the News-Press" rallies in De la Guerra Plaza in the fall of 2006. When he introduced himself I remember thinking, "is this the same Will Spens who was once a news reporter for KNBC TV?" He was.

It wasn't that he didn't still have those rugged TV news guy good looks. He did. But he also had a definite "down on his luck" look about him. And of course the oddest thing about his appearance was the "breathe right" bandage that he constantly wore across the bridge of his nose.

He lived in a transient hotel in downtown Santa Barbara and was working part-time at some type of telemarketing job. The job gave him access to a phone and a computer. Two things he didn't have where he was living. He used the computer to maintain his own blog, Daily Webloid, which can still be viewed, although it hasn't been updated since October 9, 2006.

Anyway, that first meeting was very brief. He later e-mailed me and wanted to get together to talk. His message sounded a little desperate with the subject line being: "Asking for a face to face meeting at earliest convenience," in all caps.

I was a little wary of getting together with him thinking I might be hit up for money, but I agreed to meet him at the Coffee Cat downtown. It was an afternoon in late October of 2006. I rode my bike and was a few minutes late. He was already there and I could tell he was a little agitated and anxious thinking that I had stood him up.

We sat outside and he immediately lit up a cigarette. We talked about the turmoil at the Santa Barbara News-Press and how the various local media outlets were covering it. The discussion then got around to his own storied career in broadcast journalism. He started out in in radio where he worked with Don Imus, when Imus was still a Top 40 DJ. Spens later went to work as a TV news field reporter in New York City for WABC and then WNBC. After that he came out to L.A. in the early 1990's where he worked at KNBC and KCBS TV.

My friend Hans Laetz, who worked in the L.A. market at the same time Spens did, described Will as having a stylized delivery on TV. On a live shot he would pace around and have the camera track him in a hand-held cinéma vérité style. During Spens' L.A. tenure, rival KABC TV hired Jeff Michael (now at FOX 11) to fill a similar role. The two hated each other, because they were using the same shtick, usually at the same stories.

When it came to investigative reporting, Will was a very competitive guy.

That afternoon over coffee, Will's stories were captivating. He spoke of his romantic involvement with long-time KNBC anchor Kelly Lange and of course had a lot of reporting "war stories." He was vague as to why his relationship with Lange ended and was equally vague as to why he moved from TV reporting to being a radio reporter at KNX in L.A.

There was also some jumbled talk about conspiracies and people who were after him. He wanted to know if I could recommend a good lawyer, someone who wasn't afraid to take on "the big boys." Rather than flat out tell him "no," I told him to give me some time to think about it.

In asking around about Will the rumors were that it was a drug problem that put his colorful career into decline. When he could no longer hold a job in L.A., he moved up here.

The last time I saw Will was in early February of this year. It was in the Santa Barbara City Council chambers just prior to the start of the weekly council meeting. He came over to where I was standing. He reeked of cigarette smoke. He glared at me and was saying something about not being able to find anyone "to take his case." The meeting was about to start, so I gave him my number and told him to call me later. I never heard from him again.