A Bloody Cacophony | New Times Broward-Palm Beach

A Bloody Cacophony

It's rush hour in South Florida, and reports of car accidents, nasty traffic jams, and petty crimes blast at boom-box strength in John Wolmer's Oakland Park home office. Surrounding him on a u-shaped desk are 40 noisy scanners spitting out police chatter picked up from West Palm Beach to Miami. The sound of so many voices is overwhelming, particularly because it's combined with ear-splitting squeals and computerized buzzing meant to catch the attention of dozing cops. Wolmer has listened to this headache-inducing background music day after deafening day for 23 years.

Every once in a while, those scanners deliver something that catches Wolmer's ear. Maybe it's only a dead body; there are plenty of those. Or maybe it's a plane crash, though he's rarely that lucky. Most likely, it's an Interstate 95 pileup or a domestic dispute turned violent. "You have your average Dade County shootings -- you might have ten a night," Wolmer drones. "The real cool things are planes down, fires through roofs, major accidents."

When he hears a noteworthy transmission, which he says happens about 15 times a day, Wolmer, a blue-eyed, balding 55-year-old with a pleasant smile, punches a few lines of text into his PC. Seconds later, the message appears on cell phones carried by reporters and editors from a dozen South Florida news operations.

TV news directors and newspaper editors have hired Wolmer to take over what has long been considered the newsroom's dirtiest job: listening to the mind-numbing chatter on police radios. Companies like Wolmer's News Busters have existed for decades in some major cities, including Washington, D.C., and New York, but they generally employ people who respond to police scenes and sell photos or footage to the highest bidder. These firms have prospered because many TV news operations have reduced staff while increasing the number of minutes of broadcast time, says Al Tompkins, an instructor at the Poynter Institute, a training center for journalists in St. Petersburg. In addition, new technology has made it more difficult for newsrooms to keep track of police activity. "It used to be that any boneheaded reporter could pick stuff up off scanners," Tompkins says. "But it's gotten a lot harder."

Wolmer started News Busters with his wife, Janet, in 1979 after a chance phone call. The couple ran a bait business out of their home and listened to police scanners to pass the time. One night, they heard a report of a plane crash and called WPLG-TV (Channel 10), which broadcast a story on the event. After that, he says, Channel 10 paid him about $25 every time he called in something that made the air. For the next year, Wolmer recalls juggling both businesses, often phoning in the news while coated with fish guts. Then he says he realized the financial potential of scanner monitoring and dropped his bait business. He has since spent $50,000 on equipment, including a 35-foot tower behind his home that set him back $6000.

He's earned far more. Wolmer won't say how much news outlets pay him, but he claims to make more than $50,000 a year. He has a Corvette in the garage of his home, which is appraised at $250,000, and a $167,000 vacation home upstate. Still, Wolmer says his work isn't something others should covet. "This is a horrible business," he says in his living room, the two portable scanners in his lap and the macabre song of the radios drifting from his office. "I wouldn't wish this on anybody."

Wolmer wasn't the first person in South Florida to try monitoring scanners for a living. Bob and Carol Sherman started a similar business five years before Wolmer, back in 1974, in their North Miami Beach home. But they acknowledge that they have lost much of their business to Wolmer in the past few years and now serve only the Herald and a few TV stations.

A feud began between the two companies about five years ago when Wolmer aggressively outbid him, Bob Sherman says. "He promised to put me out of business," claims Sherman, who says he used to be a freelance photographer for major magazines. Sherman gets angry when asked who's better at listening to the scanners. "I have journalism background coming out of my ears. This guy has fishing line coming out of his."

Wolmer concedes he has no background in journalism but insists news directors and editors asked him to expand his service because the Shermans were failing. He says he works with the Boca Raton News, the Herald's offices outside Miami-Dade County, the Sun-Sentinel, WIOD-AM (610), and channels 4, 5, 6, 7, 10, 12, 23, and 25. He asserts that the Herald's office in Miami is the Shermans' only remaining customer.

The dispute between Sherman and Wolmer hasn't always been civil. Sometime after news organizations began switching to Wolmer, his phone was flooded with hang-ups all day and night, according to court records. Wolmer says he put up with it for nearly two years before asking police to put a trace on his line. The trace, and then a search of phone company records, showed that the Shermans had made hundreds of hang-ups. Bob Sherman pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge in June 1998, and a judge sentenced him to six months of probation and 50 hours of community service.

Now dominant, Wolmer boasts a setup better than any 911 call center. Many agencies even allow him to speak on their frequencies. Wolmer claims his work has helped save several lives. About four years ago, he arranged backup from the Fort Lauderdale Police Department for a Florida Highway Patrol trooper who was being fired at after a traffic stop. In 1993, Wolmer helped marine units find a speedboat that crashed into a barge at Port Everglades, and earlier that year, he helped guide rescuers to the four passengers of a Cessna that ditched at sea. His work earned him a citizen's award in 1993 from the Fraternal Order of Police.

Sgt. Tim Bronson, head of the Fort Lauderdale Police Department's homicide division, says Wolmer has become an important resource. "Sometimes law enforcement doesn't match things up (with other departments) as well as we should," he says. "John helps us."

But Wolmer's constant paging gets old, says Jim Leljedal, spokesman for the Broward Sheriff's Office. Sometimes, unsubstantiated information sent out on Wolmer's pages causes reporters to flood police with calls. "You have a guy drop a load of lumber and someone might call 911 to report shots fired," Leljedal says. "Then John sends out a message on it and I have to spend time explaining it wasn't gunfire. Frankly, John can be a blessing and a curse."

For someone who isn't used to it, the sounds in Wolmer's office are overwhelming and unrecognizable, like the conversations in a crowded movie theater before the show begins. Wolmer says he listens for stress in the dispatchers' voices, knowing that an elevated tone could mean a newsworthy happening. And out of the dozens of dispatchers often speaking at once, he says he can recognize the voice of 911 operators from each department.

Wolmer can't escape the scanners inside his home. There are six in the kitchen, another five above his workbench in the garage, and others in the bedroom-turned-office that Janet uses to keep the business's books. Wolmer has two portable scanners he takes with him when he leaves the house. Preparing to go out for a quiet meal with Janet on his 55th birthday on September 10, Wolmer grabbed the portable radios. He says he also carried one to his daughter's wedding reception earlier this year. To not bother others, he keeps the volume low.

Wolmer has probably heard reports of thousands of murders. First, he says, a dispatcher reports that shots have been fired, then officers arrive to find a dead body, and finally, sometimes he hears a description of the killer's arrest. He's also listened in on hundreds of babies being born in cars and ambulances. Asked if the emotions of it ever get to him -- whether it's a death or a birth, a pilfered life savings or a mass of casualties -- Wolmer doesn't hesitate. "Nah," he says. "It's all business."