Sure, Mary Jo, Sure

Mary Jo West kidnaped? . . . Yeah, right.
After the first reports of the alleged abduction, the buzz on the street was that Mary Jo faked the crime.

First of all, she was snatched after leaving a stress-reduction workshop. Didn't that tell you everything you needed to know?

Then there was the matter of the criminals.
Mary Jo said her assailants were four teen-agers, two well-dressed young men and two middle-class girls. Were we supposed to believe that these two couples were out on a double date and just decided to rob and abduct one of the Valley's best-known television personalities?

Sure, Mary Jo, sure.
There was one final touch, the detail that screamed, "Mary Jo West is the local poster child for emotional instability and this entire story is a very sad cry for attention."

Ms. West said that as she fought her way out of the grip of the gunman and fled across the hospital parking lot, she heard the pistol fired twice. Pop! Pop! The police, however, were unable to locate any shell casings or spent bullets.

Of course the cops couldn't find any shell casings. It all fit.
The smug cynicism surrounding the Mary Jo West caper lasted one week. On October 17, Glendale detectives arrested sixteen-year-old Marilee M. Gray at Cactus High School. The teen-ager, who'd bragged of her exploits, was charged with kidnaping and armed robbery after the police followed up on a tip. Last Sunday, Renee Rock, 14, turned herself in to authorities in Bullhead City. On Monday, Daniel Banks, 17, was picked up. Rock and Banks are both expected to face the same charges as Gray. Mary Jo does not want to sit down for an interview about this experience. Not just yet anyway. She doesn't want the remaining suspect, who is still loose, stalking her. Furthermore, when this nightmare ends up in court, she doesn't want some defense attorney swaying the jury by accusing Mary Jo of drumming up publicity.

Still, her eyes flash at the recollection that people might not have believed her story in the beginning. And she knows that is exactly what happened. Hell, even the public information officer for the Glendale Police, Marshall Downen, said he ran into that sentiment.

And why should anyone take Mary Jo West at face value?
Hadn't we all read enough phony stories recently to spot one more pathetic attempt to tug at our hearts?

Before Tami Jo Albers shot her husband and then committed suicide, she attempted to convince the police that she was a kidnap victim. The hoax was quickly revealed, though the truth did not forestall the tragedy. And this summer everyone was transfixed by the harrowing adventure of Shantih Schmid, a nineteen-year-old abducted from a video store in Mesa.

People throughout the state prayed as members of Schmid's church, First Evangelical Lutheran, maintained a vigil in hope of the teen-ager's safe release. Miraculously, Shantih escaped with barely a scratch from the hoodlums who'd kidnaped her.

Miraculous, indeed! Soon the facts were unearthed by the police. Schmid and her friends staged the entire drama in order to extort $60,000 in ransom money from her parents. While the faithful in Arizona offered up prayers to God for the teen-ager's return, Shantih and her buddies engaged in a cocaine-fueled orgy.

Unlike Tami and Shantih, Mary Jo was no stranger to us.
When the West story first broke, it was hard to avoid one thought: For God's sake, shouldn't one of Mary Jo's friends sit down with the poor woman and help her before something awful happens? As for the rest of us, those of us who are not her friends but who cannot avoid the celebrity that she is, this was just the latest chapter in the public saga of a woman betrothed to headlines.

In 1976 Mary Jo West became the first woman to anchor a newscast in Phoenix with CBS affiliate Channel 10. Her broadcasting partner was Bill Close, a Valley institution even then.

But Mary Jo was never merely a groundbreaking journalist. From the beginning, she was taken into the hearts of viewers in a manner that rendered her larger than life. Her painful breakup with her first husband fed the local gossip grist mills for months. When she sang Maria's role in The Sound of Music for the Phoenix Little Theatre, people flocked to the show in such numbers that the production became the most successful ever mounted in the company's sixty-year history. The emotional nature of Mary Jo's relationship with all of us culminated in a bizarre psychodrama. In 1982, a mentally disturbed gunman, Joseph Billie Gwin, burst into the studios and took Bill Close captive as thousands of viewers watched live. While her partner read Gwin's rambling, incoherent statement over the air, it was Mary Jo West who prepared and presented, solo, that night's newscasts. It was a tearful Mary Jo who broadcast the word to the rest of us that Close was safe, that Gwin had surrendered his gun. Later that same year, Mary Jo hit the big time. She was summoned to New York to be part of the on-air team for CBS News Nightwatch. Her sendoff to the Big Apple was a public outpouring of heartfelt pride.

The New York adventure proved a disaster. The early morning broadcast on CBS was a failure and before long, Mary Jo was back in the Valley and working at a station where her ratings were no longer outstanding. By now, the publicity accompanying West had a bit of an edge to it. Mary Jo was no longer a media darling. Soon, she was out of the news business entirely.

When her second marriage to well-known political operative Dick Mahoney broke up, Mary Jo watchers wondered how much more pain she had to endure. Earlier this year, she was appointed station manager for the City of Phoenix's public-access cable outlet, Channel 35. West's new position enjoys about as much celebrity fame as that of a ham radio operator. Yet her near-abduction rated page-one coverage with a photo.

Mary Jo West was back in the news. It is a poignant comment on her roller coaster of emotional torments and career moves that people were skeptical of her kidnaping. How depressing that confirmation of her ordeal would be viewed as, somehow, positive.

"Thank God she really was held at gunpoint and not just imagining the whole episode as a precursor to a nervous breakdown."

We are, all of us, too cynical by half.
According to sources close to the investigation and according to the police themselves, Mary Jo West at first thought the kidnaping was part of a role-playing exercise staged by her stress-management workshop. When it became clear the gunman was serious, she said with authority, "Girls, what's going on here? Let's not do this. Help me here."

But Mary Jo had to help herself.
Asked later where she found the nerve to bolt from her car and flee across the hospital parking lot, Mary Jo said she was motivated by her daughter Molly, not yet two.

After her birth parents abandoned her in Honduras, Molly was put in a Central American orphanage run by Mother Teresa. The ensuing adoption brought the little girl to Phoenix.

Mary Jo said she was determined that her daughter would not be orphaned a second time.

"That night I went home and held my daughter," said West. "I took the next day off and spent the day letting her know how much I loved her."

When Mary Jo West departed for CBS in Manhattan in 1982, she told this paper: "I'm not frightened of getting killed or mugged. I'm frightened of it being Tuesday morning and I've just gotten off work . . . my friends are back in Phoenix and I'm grieving for them. And no one recognizes me. And I think, `Oh my God, what have I given up?'"

When Mary Jo was assaulted, it wasn't in New York; it was in Phoenix. Her assailants did not know who she was. The teen-age gunman was only five years old when Mary Jo became the first female news anchor in the Valley.

Her fear of anonymity happened.
As far as the four kids were concerned, she was just some blonde with a purse.

What she almost gave up was her life.

"Mary Jo West is the local poster child for emotional instability and this entire story is a very sad cry for attention."

Mary Jo said she was determined that her daughter would not be orphaned a second time.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey