November 28, 1988. Atlanta, Georgia. 7:37PM. A broadcast of the television show Miami Vice on local NBC affiliate WXIA-TV is interrupted by a strange and horrifying transmission: Seven minutes into the episode, the show was replaced by a man tied to a chair, a piece of cloth duct taped to his mouth. His eyes are wide and frightened, and he tries to thrash and scream. At this point the picture is unsteady and hazed with static. A high-pitched buzzing sound begins. The picture winks out and returns a minute later. Now someone is standing behind the man, someone wearing only what appears to be a leather loin cloth and a black hood. The person in the hood raises a knife, and cuts the captive's throat literally from ear-to-ear: Blood spurts out, and the wounded man begins convulsing. At this point, the transmission ends, and Miami Vice returns.
The terrifying broadcast was seen by nearly three hundred thousand people in the Atlanta area. Immediately afterward, calls flooded local 911 operators.
But the horror didn't end there.
At 11:21PM, a newscast on the area ABC station (WSB-TV) was interrupted in a similar manner. This time, the scene was one of the black-hooded executioner sitting in a chair and talking to the camera, his voice garbled and barely audible under the buzzing whine. An FBI transcript has him saying:
I don't like doing what I did earlier, but sometimes you have to get tough. People think they can do and say whatever they want. Fucking liberals. Did you see the Reagan debate? I was there. I was there when they put up the wall and I was there when [inaudible] fucking Atari! [Laughs]. See what I mean?
At this point the man holds up a severed head. Amazingly, it doesn't seem to belong to the man killed onscreen earlier.
Some guy he was!
Here he hums the song "Ruff Stuff" by hard rock group AC/DC.
At 11:24PM, the transmission ended.
Federal authorities quickly launched an investigation, while Atlanta police tried to identify the man who was killed on camera. On December 1, the Atlanta PD issued a statement calling the incident a "possible hoax."
On December 2, however, a headless body was found floating in a creek south of the city.
At midnight on December 3, the killer took to the airwaves again, hijacking a PBS signal seen as far south as north Florida. In this one, he is seen standing in front of a cracked concrete wall. A naked woman in kneeling before him, her head bowed. There is no audio, but one can imagine the screams as he cuts the woman's throat.
Within hours, federal investigators, who had been waiting for another transmission, were able to pinpoint the location from which the broadcasts emanated: An isolated region seventeen miles west of the city. The signal was traced to a shack, and FBI agents converged on it in a dramatic predawn raid.
Aside from a crudely made transmitter and the headless body of a woman, nothing was found.
The heads of the man and woman were eventually recovered from a swamp in June 1989. No one was ever charged, though police did have several credible suspects.
1: Gary Westin. Born in 1945, Westin worked at WSB-TV from 1971 to 1985, when he was fired for sexually harassing a female anchor. He was reportedly bitter about his termination, and sent several menacing letters to various former coworkers from 1985 to 1987. At the time of the broadcast intrusion, he was working in a warehouse on Atlanta's south side. He was questioned and released.
2: George Farmer. Sixty-one in 1988, George Farmer had retired from a factory in 1986. The shack where the body and transmitter were found sat on a piece of property he had owned since 1969. He claimed to know nothing about the incident, saying that he rarely visited the property and was, in fact, looking to sell it. He died in 1992.
3: Mitchell Gage. Forty-five, Gage had worked for several Atlanta TV stations from 1969 to 1981. He left WXIA-TV in September 1981 to focus on his art, which, it should be noted, routinely depicted scenes of torture and mutilation. Both he and Westin were strongly suspected, as both of them had been technicians in their respective stations, and could have built a functioning transmitter. No evidence was found, however, and Gage, like the others, was let go.
At one point, the FBI hypothesized that the culprit was the same man who had staged a similar broadcast intrusion a year earlier in Chicago.
On November 22, 1987, a man wearing a Max Headroom mask hijacked WGN-TV and WTTW in Chicago, Illinois. The first incident occurred during WGN-TV's live newscast News at Nine. "Headroom" appeared briefly before a sheet of moving corrugated metal sans audio. WGN-TV's engineers were able to switch frequencies, thus jamming the signal.
Later, at about 11:15, a second intrusion took place during WTTW's broadcast of a Doctor Who rerun. The second hijacking was better executed. For two minutes and six seconds, "Headroom" laughed, flipped off the camera, and made disparaging remarks about a local pundit, calling him a "Freaking liberal." He also hummed the theme to Cargo Clutch and held up a can of Pepsi and advised shocked viewers to "Catch the wave," which was Coca-Cola's slogan at the time.
The broadcast ended with "Headroom" pulling down his pants and being spanked by an unidentified woman with a flyswatter.
The case received national attention and led to a federal investigation, but no one was ever arrested. Could "Max Headroom" have moved his operation south? The Headroom Broadcast Intrusion was relatively harmless. Could he have somehow developed a taste for blood?
Though signal interruptions may seem rare, there was a spat of them during the seventies and eighties. One of the earliest occurred in England in November 1977 when a newscast was intruded upon by a speaker supposedly representing an alien race. The full transcript follows:
"This is the voice of Asteron. I am an authorised representative of the Intergalactic Mission, and I have a message for the planet Earth. We are beginning to enter the period of Aquarius and there are many corrections which have to be made by Earth people. All your weapons of evil must be destroyed. You have only a short time to learn to live together in peace. You must live in peace... or leave the galaxy."
Paranormal theorists say that the English incident (popularly known as The Southern Television broadcast interruption) was really a message from aliens, not protestors or pranksters, as the government claims. They also link the Headroom and Atlanta incidents, though each of the three broadcasts seemingly have nothing to do with each other.
Of the broadcast interruptions, the Atlanta incident is without a doubt the most terrifying, as two people were brutally murdered onscreen. Television historian Brian Pulson says: "The Atlanta incident left an indelible imprint on those who saw it and, indeed, the nation at large. For years the footage was hard come by, as it was not shown on the news due to its graphic nature, so it assumed this air of mystery unrivaled by any of the other broadcast hijackings."
In May 1994, during the first episode of The Stand, a four part miniseries based on a Stephen King novel, WSB-TV's signal was interrupted for ten seconds. In that time, viewers in Atlanta were treated to a wavering image of a man in a black hood. After a thorough investigation, the FBI deemed the intrusion a prank not associated with the interruptions of 1988. Of course, many disbelieve the FBI's findings. The Executioner, as he has come to be known, is said to be out there still, maybe waiting to return once more.