Aug. 4 2004 12:00 AM

The secrets of KUSI's not-so-tough guy Michael Turko

It's late and the scene on the deserted streets of the East Village is ominous and foreboding. In the darkness, just beyond the dim glow cast by a few random streetlamps and the eerie mist rising from the ground, a menacing presence lingers. This is evidently not the kind of place a person would ever want to stumble upon, especially alone, on a night like this.

Yet in the distance a shadowy figure strides toward us, his intentions unknown. Just as the fight-or-flight instinct is about to take hold, he emerges from the darkness beneath a streetlamp, folds his arms across his chest and fixes us in his confident gaze. Clad in a black leather jacket that serves as his bad-ass credentials, the balding mystery man is now instantly recognizable to most local television news viewers. An on-screen graphic identifies him for the benefit of the ill informed, but the ad's message is clear to all: Michael Turko has our back.

The ad for KUSI Channel 51's tougher-than-nails detective with a heart of gold and his segment, the Turko Files, undoubtedly elicits varied reactions-cheers, guffaws and utter disdain. It seems after five years of shouting at the camera, people either gravitate toward Turko's sensational reportage, aggressive delivery and regular on-camera displays of anger, or loathe him for it. Either way, more than half a million San Diegans tune in to Turko every day and he's become one of the most simultaneously feared, despised, loved, respected and laughed at figures in town.

And while the ad for his thrice-daily segment, complete with manufactured eerie mist and added dramatic lighting, may intentionally be just as over-the-top as Turko's on-air persona, it unintentionally hits upon an element of truth that may explain his apparent success. In a town that struggles to get enough police offers on the streets and where one-third of the City Council is under indictment, there seems to be no better name than Turko's for a citizen in distress. Like him or not, Turko's fighting for the little guy and he may just be the closest thing San Diego has to a superhero.

The TV in the lobby of KUSI's Mira Mesa office-park headquarters is tuned to the station's broadcast of Maury Povich's talk show and, at this moment, features a close-up of an impossibly obese baby. It's typical daytime fare on the independent television station known for trashy programming, its unapologetic exploitation of anything remotely patriotic and its stable of eccentric news personalities. The image of the corpulent babe is so entrancing, it hardly registers when Turko appears in the reception area sporting his rarely seen ponytail and a Ned Flanders-esque cookie-duster mustache.

As a rule, every superhero has an alter ego and it is definitely Turko's mild mannered equivalent who extends his hand. But unlike the gruff and hardboiled reporter he plays on TV, this Turko is surprisingly soft-spoken, polite and upbeat. He's also ready to hit the road. With plans to shoot parts of three stories today and the 6 p.m. newscast hours away, there's no time to lose.

If Turko is San Diego's version of a Caped Crusader, then Dave Faltskog, his cameraman of more than a year, is his Boy Wonder, and together the dynamic duo got screwed when it came to securing a set of wheels befitting their heroic stature. Far from a flame-spitting cosmic two-seater, their ride is just an ordinary unmarked white van with asthmatic A/C that doubles as their mobile office.

The Turkomobile rattles to a stop at a Mid-City stoplight as Turko, riding shotgun as usual, describes his brand of journalism.

"What I do isn't traditional journalism," he says. "I'm a consumer advocate. I feel like what I do is almost like writing a column in the newspaper. What I do is also entertainment, no doubt about it. People love to see the bad guy get what's coming to him, and they like to see people helping out other people."

What Turko does exactly is use the power of television to force action. Whether it's a misread water meter or a dishonest contractor, Turko uses negative publicity to bully the bad guys into correcting their misdeeds.

But at the moment he's busy indulging the fans that have spotted him from the next vehicle and has good reason to wave. During his tenure in San Diego, Turko has turned his on-air character into a local television institution, and it's people like these, everyday fans, that have raised him to his current status. It's the little people, average working-class folks, who provide him with the steady stream of solvable problems that comprise the bulk of his Turko Files.

On average, he receives more than 50 messages a day from people looking for some sort of assistance with a problem or offering to help him solve one. Each message is recorded by a voicemail system and then transcribed and printed onto daily call sheets for Turko to review.

Over the years, the messages have ranged from heart-wrenching tales of misfortune to stories of the truly bazaar, and Turko has investigated only a fraction of them.

"The way it breaks down, I get 300 to 400 calls a week," he says. "Out of those calls, about 30 of them are worth calling back and about three of them end up being stories, so I end up doing about 1 percent of the people who call up."

Turko's recent call sheets include messages from Alma, who claims she was visiting a La Jolla jewelry shop when she overheard the owner having sex in the backroom; John, who says a gas station overcharged his debit card; Jan, who says she bought a bum sofa; Patrice, whose thinks a Vista perfume company is ripping off its employees; and a group of elderly women who claim a worker at their assisted-living facility is making amorous overtures.

None of these calls will garner a response.

"There are so many of these, and the solutions are right there," Turko says of calls like Alma's. "Turn around and walk out and don't do business with the guy."

So, then, what calls merit his attention? While each situation varies, Turko says a faultless victim, a clear sense of wrongdoing, a topic that will appeal to a broad audience, a subject that can be captured on film, and timing all combine to make a stranger's problem worthy of a Turko File. He also likes it when a caller has exhausted every option before turning to him for help.

First up today, a story about a Navy sailor who recently married a Japanese woman. After returning from Iraq, the sailor learned that his wife, who went to Japan with their child to visit her family, had been refused reentry to the U.S. The INS claimed the wife had failed to file some vital paperwork and would be subsequently banished from American soil for the next 10 years.

The Turkomobile screeches to a halt on a pier alongside the USS Midway, and a few minutes later, Faltskog is ready to roll tape. Turko stands quietly 20 feet away, with the aircraft carrier in the background, taking a moment to gather his thoughts. With a nearly imperceptible nod from his photographer he conjures a sense of outrage and launches into one of his trademark high-decibel tirades. His transformation into his fiery other self is instantaneous and it's almost as frightening as it is impressive to witness.

As he explains the sailor's situation and the obstinacy of the bureaucracy keeping him from his family, Turko moves toward the camera waving his arms to punctuate his indignation. Suddenly, Faltskog stops him. Something wasn't quite right. Turko backs up and tries again.

Ten minutes and only a few takes later, they head off to their next location, Seaport Village, where an old friend is waiting. Turko's fans may remember Mike Ismail, the Jordanian-American owner of Alamo Flags, from stories about landlords and homeowners associations that wouldn't allow tenants to fly Old Glory. Ismail stepped up and offered to provide those tenants with flags free off charge.

Today, just days before the Fourth of July, he's offering to give away 200 more flags to anyone who wants them. It's an upbeat story for a Turko File, but it's Turko's holiday tribute and it's a subject he can't resist.

"It's a good story for me because you can't go wrong wrapping yourself in the American flag," he says, "and it gets a lot of reaction from people in this town."

Turko and Faltskog bounce around Ismail's star-spangled shop where an autographed black and white headshot of Turko hangs on the wall. Turko interviews Ismail, they unfurl a flag and Faltskog catches it all on tape. Finally, they shoot a scene of Turko and Ismail shaking hands, saying "God Bless America" in unison. They get it right on the fourth take.

Loading into the van, Turko explains that every once in a while he has to drop the bad-ass routine.

"You have to show a warm side if you want people to like you," he says. "To make all of the stuff that I do work, people have to like you because if they didn't, a lot of these people wouldn't call up and offer to help people with their problems. But if... you're just a hard-ass, they are not going to do it, so you have to do warm-and-fuzzy every once in a while."

But isn't this a waste of a superhero's time? And what about the bad guys? Do they do warm-and-fuzzy? Do they do holiday tributes?

"We'll catch up with them eventually," Faltskog says with a grin.

What the world knows about the real Michael Turko is limited, and that's the way he likes it. A public figure by trade, he's cautious when it comes to sharing details about his private life. Even his last name is a pseudonym and he only agreed to talk to CityBeat on the condition that his true identity remains protected. His secrecy is fueled by concerns for the safety of his wife and two little girls-Turko has a restraining order against one stalker-and his need to have a private life away from work. Still, underneath the doors that he's reluctant to open, there's enough light shining through to offer a glimpse of the real Turko.

Although he considers himself a native Texan, Turko was born in Syracuse N.Y. in 1955 and spent his early days on the move, attending 13 schools before dropping out of an Ashville N.C. high school in the early 1970s. At 19, he struck out on his own hitchhiking across the country as one of the "wandering hippie folk." During his travels, he spent time on an Indian reservation in the Dakotas, where the young Catholic, who says he has Indian blood, experienced a different kind of religion.

Today, the impact of that experience is still evident. A self-described Zen Buddhist, Turko says he draws strength from long solo hikes in the desert and spends a great deal of time in the refuge of his shop turning blocks of wood into acoustic guitars, violins and other stringed instruments.

After three years of traveling, Turko attended the University of Texas at Austin where, in 1980, he received a bachelor's degree in journalism. But he started work before graduation, landing a gig as a television news reporter in Austin during his senior year. From there he did two two-year stints as a reporter at stations in San Antonio and Denver. In 1984, Turko returned to Austin, where he enrolled in law school and married his first wife. After graduating, he opened his own law practice in Austin and worked as a defense attorney, handling consumer cases.

But in 1990, disgusted with representing clients who were "not innocent" and, having started a new life with his current wife, he jumped at the chance to get back into TV in San Antonio when his old boss offered him a job as an investigative reporter and agreed to match his lawyer's salary. Turko says he did a handful of big investigative series each year, but he wanted more money and more exposure. And then an assignment got to him.

The story was about a janitor whose backyard and basement kept flooding because of a poorly maintained alley behind his house. The janitor called the city and was told that maintaining the alley was the homeowner's responsibility, so he rented a bulldozer, fixed the alley and asked the city to come pick up the extra dirt. Instead, a code compliance officer gave him four citations for performing construction without a permit and violating other city ordinances.

"I did his story on the set, and at the end of that story, I realized that I was just really angry about this," Turko remembers. "When I came back on camera I pretty much abandoned my script and I pounded on the desk with my fist and I said, "˜You know, this is just not right-look what this guy is going through,' and I got real animated. You can actually see the other anchors shying away from me, going, "'What in the world is going on there,' but the viewers loved it, and that's the day the Turko Files were born."

Turko kept at it, finding other little stories he could do something about while resisting pressure from management to bundle them into a single package and move on to something else.

"Finally, I said, "˜Look, just call it the Turko Files and let it be my pieces about people with their problems and how we get them solved, and that will be enough,'" Turko says. "They let me do it and it pretty much took off after that."

In 1995 he got a call from the general manager of Nashville's WKRN, who offered him a job. It was in the capitol of country music where Turko honed his on-screen character into the unrefined blue-collar persona we know today. He came up with the phrase "It ain't right," invented his wall of shame, which he uses to embarrass wrongdoers, broke out his leather jacket and became known as "a door kicker" for forcing his way into abandoned homes.

"It really took off in Nashville because it's a showbiz town and the theater side of it really got them in our corner," he says. "There is a lot of theater in what I do. I admit it. You have got to entertain people. You have got to get their attention. You have got to make them want to see the story."

WKRN's promotion team saw Turko's potential and played up his tough-guy image for all it was worth, even producing a music video to advertise his segment. Turko quickly became a Nashville celebrity and was subsequently given the star treatment when he lost his temper on a crowded street.

According to the weekly Nashville Scene newspaper, Turko lived up to his "door kicker" title when he booted the side of a car driven by 17-year-old Mancy Pendergrass, causing $460 in damage. Turko says he simply reacted after nearly being run down in a crosswalk with his 1-year-old daughter in his arms. After a futile attempt to get the authorities involved, Pendergrass had her minister contact Turko with two damage estimates, but Turko called the police and accused the minister of extortion. In the end, Turko turned the matter over to his insurance company and Pendergrass got her money, but not until she signed a confidentiality agreement prohibiting her from talking to the press.

But it was too late. The story about the bully reporter who attacked the straight-A Christian folk singer was too good for the local press to ignore, and in one of those sardonic twists of fate, Turko, champion of the little guy, learned what it was like to be cast as the villain.

"It's not something I'm proud of, but I'd kick her car again," he says.

Despite the embarrassing incident, Turko kept at it and eventually received a call from KUSI's owner, Mike McKinnon Sr., who noticed Turko's work and offered him a five-minute segment on the nightly news. After a 10-month courtship, he signed with KUSI, and in July of 1999 the San Diego audience got its first-albeit slightly less aggressive-taste of Turko.

"I don't have producers and promoters here telling me to do this circus bullshit," he says. "I get support for what I want to do... and I'll be forever grateful."

Five years later, Turko has made a name for himself here in San Diego. Well known by city officials, PR flack and the public at large as a man to be dealt with, it's obvious why KUSI signed Turko to a five-year contract extension in May.

"In a perfect world, I'd be out of work," Turko says. "I'm not worrying."

Bad guys beware.

It's late afternoon when Turko and Faltskog arrive at the KUSI studios and split up to prepare for the 6 p.m. newscast. Turko sits at his workstation, which is adorned with photographs of Sitting Bull and his daughters, and pounds out his script. Meanwhile, Faltskog retires to an editing bay to splice the day's tape into seamless packages. It's not long before Turko reappears with makeup on and his ponytail tucked into the collar of his blue blazer.

With everything prepared and the news already underway, Turko heads to the set, where he takes a seat behind the anchor desk. Paul Bloom finishes a segment and introduces tonight's Turko File.

From behind Camera 4, it's still unnerving when Turko becomes Turko and launches into an update of last night's story. It's about a woman who has been double billed by AOL for the past five months on an account belonging to her deceased father. Turko stepped in and made a call to a high-ranking AOL official, and now, less than 24 hours later, the company has offered the woman both its apologies and a $1,080 refund. It's a happy ending, but there's no evidence of the spiritually enlightened father of little girls in the incarnation of the man currently pounding his fist on the desk.

The segment is over as quickly as it started, and a suddenly mild-mannered Turko steps off the set in a hurry to finish the last segment he needs for the 10 p.m. show. The stretch limo has already arrived.

The third story of the day is another happy ending to a Turko File, courtesy of Turko's loyal fans. After seeing a recent story about a group of high school prom-goers who were stood up by another limo company on prom night, Fady and Nicki Sweiss, owners of A Legacy Limousine, decided to make things right. They called Turko and donated their stretch limousine to chauffeur the kids to a fancy dinner, also donated by legendary bail bondsman "King" Stahlman.

While Turko, Faltskog and Nicki shoot the segment in the KUSI parking lot, Fady explains that his wife has a soft spot for kids but admits that some free advertising won't hurt business. Besides, they always watch KUSI, he says, and they often drive the owners, McKinnon Sr. and Jr., in their limos. They even gave Paul Bloom's son a special deal on his 21st birthday, he adds. It's interesting information that Turko never shares with his viewers, but he later explains away the appearance of any journalistic impropriety.

Turko says he has a simple policy when it comes to highlighting businesses that want to help out. He uses the first company that contacts him, and in this case, "they were the first ones who called."

He says his policy has frustrated station management, which has pressured him to feature certain companies in the past, but he doesn't make any exceptions.

Turko may not be as resolute, however, especially when it comes to making the McKinnons' golfing buddies look bad. In 2001, Turko opened a file on a vacant lot across the street from the mall on Fashion Valley Road. The city had paid the adjacent Riverwalk Golf Course thousands in tax dollars to landscape the area with trees and grass, but, as Turko found, four years later the lot was nothing but a barren eyesore. He started asking questions, and after two segments about the mishandling of taxpayer money, the golf course owners seeded the lot. Problem solved, but not quite.

The seeds never took hold, and today the only thing growing there is the number of stray golf balls that pepper the dusty lot.

Despite the lack of progress, Turko says he backed off of the story after the golf course took steps to address the problem. He says the fact that his bosses golf with the owners of the course had nothing to do with it.

"They never asked me not to do the story," he says. "I'm not going to go back and pick a fight with a friend of my boss, but they matched the letter of the law at that time."

As for the lot and the still-absent landscaping, Turko promises to reopen his investigation. "If I need to go back now, I will," he says.

It's typical of how Turko deals with mistakes.

Just a few years ago, he did a story about Jack's Muffler Shop at 2135 University Ave. after receiving a call from a woman claiming she'd been ripped off. Turko showed up with the camera rolling and demanded an explanation from the owner Larry Kimball.

"He came in, said his piece, went back and put it on the air-and it was totally wrong," Kimball says. "People that knew me and have had work done by me were outraged and they called [KUSI] to the point that he came on and apologized. Actually, he didn't apologize, but he took it back."

Turko says he regrets the mistake.

"I've been wrong, and when I'm wrong I go on TV and say so."

Despite a slight dip in business, Kimball seems to have forgiven Turko, and even his critics and journalism experts-some of whom accuse him of going after easy-to-solve problems and then basking in the glory of his own triumph-admit that he adds a unique and valuable aspect to a mostly homogeneous local news game.

And recently Turko hasn't shied away from complicated topics. In June he uncovered a story about the financially strapped San Diego Unified School District, which allocated more than $20 million in Prop. MM monies, funds earmarked for school improvements, to replace perfectly good fences. Turko followed the money to a single contractor, uncovered a shady bidding system and questionable improvements currently being made to schools that are slated to be closed. As a result, a school district citizens oversight committee has launched its own investigation.

It's an example of San Diego's superhero at his best.

"I want to be taken seriously," Turko says. "I want people to understand that I'm not just the guy that gets up there and yells "˜It ain't right.' I'm also the guy that gets some of these problems fixed."


See all events on Wednesday, Oct 26