Heidi Hemmat on Dangers That Caused Her to Quit Fox31, Story That Went Viral
Heidi Hemmat worked as a reporter and anchor for KDVR-TV, also known as Fox31, for a decade and a half before leaving the station earlier this year; the six-time Emmy winner's final stories were aired in May, and she formally severed ties in August. But neither she nor the broadcaster publicly discussed the reasons behind the split until Thanksgiving Day, November 24, when Hemmat posted about the fallout from a threat to her life made by the subject of a previous investigation.
In addition, Hemmat revealed that she ultimately decided to move on partly because of a belief that her direct supervisor — KDVR news director Holly Gauntt — was dismissive of her concerns about safety. (Gauntt hasn't responded to an interview request from Westword, but Joan Barrett, Fox31's vice president and general manager, responded on behalf of the station with a highly critical statement denying Hemmat's accusations. See it below.)
Hemmat thought sharing her account online was a simple and effective way of answering questions about her departure, one that would mainly be viewed by past fans and future clients of her signature business, Heidi Hemmat Productions. But the tale quickly went viral, with outlets as varied as Fox News, the U.K. Daily Mail, Mediaite and the Independent Journal Review disseminating what she calls "cut-and-paste" versions of her experiences without bothering to reach out to her. The results, she says, were filled with errors.
"I'd like to believe true journalism is not dead," Hemmat says, "but these stories were done across the country without anyone ever confirming the facts with me, and a lot of what they wrote wasn't accurate. Walter Cronkite would be rolling over in his grave."
The original post got its start in a very casual way, Hemmat notes.
"I got up on Thanksgiving morning and was working on fixing something on my website when my husband said that one of the main searches was 'Why did Heidi Hemmat leave KDVR?'" she says. "And there was no answer. That made me want to respond, made me want to give the answer, because when people at news stations don't explain their departures, people assume they did something wrong. I even think some of my co-workers were left with that impression. So I just thought I would write a little blog post and express my gratitude about how things had changed — and that would be the end of the story."
In "Why I Left KDVR and TV News," Hemmat pointed to the subject of a four-part investigation — a business owner who was ultimately arrested in April 2015 on suspicion of forgery, theft, fraud and more.
The man isn't named in Hemmat's blog post "because I'm still scared of him," she disclosed. (We're not identifying him here, either, but the other reports linked above do so.) Hemmat wrote that her concerns were sparked by a phone call from the man's psychiatrist, who "told me he was 'homicidal' and was planning to kill me. The psychiatrist thought the threat was so credible, she broke HIPAA laws (the laws that protect medical records of psychos such as theater shooter James Holmes) to warn me. She informed me he was on a '72 hour mental hold,' but because it was 4th of July weekend (2015), he would likely be released before then. She then asked me if I had somewhere else I could go, because he knew where I lived and, of course, where I worked."
Because Hemmat is the mother of two children who were ages one and three at the time, her narrative continued, she filed police reports that resulted in a restraining order being placed against the man. He was also fitted with an ankle monitor, but any sense of safety this last action might have provided was short-lived.
"I distinctly remember a day when the guy 'tampered with his ankle monitor' and I was informed by the victim advocate that he had broken it and the county could not track him," Hemmat's post maintained. "I promptly put my kids in the car and started driving. Where? I don’t know. But as they babbled in their little toddler way in the back seat, all I could do was hide my fear, never letting on that their mommy could be taken from them [or] — worse — they could be injured in the crossfire. By the way, I also by this point had a gun for the first time in my life."
"Why I Left KDVR and TV News" refers to her supervisor as "my boss." Hemmat confirms that the reference is to Gauntt and acknowledges that the news director paid for undercover Denver police officers to guard her home for several days. But as the weekend neared, Hemmat wrote that Gauntt "expressed concern about how much it was costing and downplayed the threat. 'He's not going to do anything to you,' she said. 'If he was going to kill you, he would have done it by now.'" According to Hemmat, Gauntt also insisted that she follow new developments in the case — and when she asked if the matter could be dropped because she felt a new piece might endanger her life, the news director replied, "Heidi, we're journalists. We are not going to stop doing stories just because he had a temper tantrum."
For Hemmat, a death threat by a man who was hospitalized on a mental-health diagnosis was far more than a "temper tantrum" — and over the course of the next year or so, the possibility of another reporting subject turning lethal haunted her. "I'd start researching a story and find out that someone had a criminal record — and I'd realize, 'This guy is scary. I'm going to drop it,'" she recalls. "I was trying to do safe stories, and there aren't that many of those in what I specialized in. So everything was kind of unraveling for me, and as I hard as I tried to put those feelings on the back burner and not be affected by it, I was always affected by it. And the conversations [with Gauntt] I quoted in my blog post added insult to injury."
So, too, did the manner in which her resignation was announced. The only time Hemmat met with Barrett, who was hired as general manager in February, was when she told her she was leaving the station — and she praises the GM for her kindness and sensitivity during their exchange. But in contrast to "all these people who retire from stations and get fanfares and goodbyes," Hemmat says the only official acknowledgement of her departure from KDVR was an e-mail from Gauntt that told staffers, “Heidi is no longer an employee of Fox31."
Nonetheless, Hemmat ended her piece on an upbeat note. It concluded: "Thank you to my family, thank you to my clients, thank you to my friends, thank you to my fans, but most of all THANK YOU GOD. In my darkest time, you answered my prayers.... Words cannot express my gratitude. Happy Thanksgiving to all — I write this with tears in my eyes, because I have so much to be thankful for."
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The initial response to her post was entirely positive, Hemmat says. "It was just so touching. Messages and words of encouragement started flooding in. And I started getting contacted not only by people in the community, but people at news stations across the country telling me they'd had similar experiences — saying, 'I've been threatened, I've felt scared and I didn't have the support I should have gotten.' Or, 'I wanted to leave a story because of that and people were annoyed.'"
But a darker tone seeped in after the story went national: "I started getting some mean messages. Like, 'You put this out on the Internet. You must not be that scared.'"
The implication that she purposely set out to spark the massive reaction to "Why I Left KDVR and TV News" offends her. "This was supposed to be just a quiet little blog post," she stresses. "I wasn't out to name names or make anyone look bad. It was just that this was what I was going through — and how do I explain why I left TV news without explaining the catalyst? I just sat down to write the blog post and my heart poured out. There were a lot of other details I didn't put in there, but those were the incidents that stood out in my mind."
Likewise, she's bothered that most of the reports published about her imply that she quit immediately after receiving the first threat. "I spent the better part of a year trying to get over it," she says.
For her part, Barrett takes Hemmat to task for the charges leveled in the post. "These accusations are unequivocally false," her statement begins. "We took Heidi’s concerns very seriously and provided her with support, security and an attorney, for which Heidi expressed her appreciation. To be clear, we never denied a request for additional security. We are disappointed Heidi has chosen to view the circumstances differently and disparage the station."
Barrett adds: "We wish her nothing but the best during what appears to be a continued difficult time."
In truth, Hemmat says, she's very happy with her life right now, both from a family and a career standpoint. She traces the roots of Heidi Hemmat Productions back to 2006, when her brother — Chad Hemmat of the law firm Anderson Hemmat McQuinn — asked her to put together a video about his client in a personal-injury case that ended with a multimillion-dollar settlement. She's now assembling such packages full-time.
"They're called settlement or mediation documentaries, and in a lot of ways, they're very similar to investigative reporting," she says. "When someone is catastrophically injured and they've hired a lawyer for a lawsuit, they may be very bad off or have medical needs where they can't wait for years to go to trial. So I produce documentaries that show the lives of these people, their family members, the opinions of experts and whether they're ever going to get better. Lawyers use the documentaries to show in closed-door meetings with a judge and a mediator, and the result can often be large settlements before ever going to court. So I'm still helping the little guy, still telling stories about people that really need to be told. And a lot of the people I've met doing this really touch my heart and make me appreciate what I have. There but for the grace of God go I."
Regarding the blog post, she says, "I just want people to understand that I didn't go out there seeking publicity. That wasn't my intention. I didn't want this to be national news. Quite the opposite. As soon as I saw what was happening, my heart started racing and I had the same anxiety I had almost a year ago. My intentions were pure. I just want everything to calm down, so I can get back to living my normal life — and hopefully some good can come of this. Somebody who had a similar experience will know that they weren't alone."
At the same time, Hemmat believes that TV reporting is getting ever more dangerous. "I've had kids, people aspiring to be journalists, ask me, 'What your advice?' And I never thought I'd give this advice, but I've said, 'Go to law school. Go to medical school. Do something else.'"
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