Though the fog of time may have clouded certain details, a parade of past scandals that each seized the public’s attention ring familiar to this day.
There’s Lyle and Erik Menendez, privileged sons who offed their parents in their Beverly Hills, California, home in 1989. Jean Harris, the girls’ school headmistress whose lover, celebrity diet doctor Herman Tarnower, was found shot dead after she visited him in 1980, landing her in prison with a murder conviction. Televangelist Jim Bakker and wife Tammy Faye, who built a faith-based empire before sexual and financial misdeeds wrecked their PTL Club money-machine and put him in the slammer.
Barbara Walters was there to cover these and other shocking events. Now the veteran journalist is updating the stories on American Scandals, a nine-segment series on Investigation Discovery.
“We had thousands of past ABC News 20/20 stories to choose from, and we brought some of them up-to-date by talking with subjects we could get to, as well as the people around them,” Walters said recently. “We’re exploring what is their life like now? What have they learned? And what can we learn from them?”
Fresh interviews supplement archival footage — some never before aired — which, viewed from as much as 30 years, often takes on new significance. “Footage from the past can look very different when viewed in the present,” Walters noted.
The series begins with the still-unsolved murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, whose lifeless body was found in the basement of her Colorado home in 1996, placing her parents, John and Patsy, under instant suspicion. Walters now talks with John, whose daughter would today be 25, about the lingering mystery and scrutiny that have plagued him ever since and that haunted his wife to her grave in 2006.
In its second episode, Scandals revisits perhaps the most galvanizing murder case of modern times — the vicious 1994 stabbings of Ron Goldman and Nicole Simpson, the ex-wife of O.J. Simpson. Walters interviews Simpson houseguest Kato Kaelin, 56, who now pronounces his host (acquitted in that trial but currently serving time on an unrelated robbery conviction) guilty of the murders.
Walters also takes a new, perhaps gratuitous, look at one of the era’s most despised figures, Mark David Chapman, who at age 60 is remembered all too well for gunning down John Lennon in front of his New York apartment in 1980. Walters interviewed the assassin in 1992 and for Scandals has landed what she says is the first-ever interview with Chapman’s longtime wife, Gloria.
Another enduring couple: Mary Kay Letourneau, the former schoolteacher and married mother of four who was twice jailed for her affair with a sixth-grade student. Now 53, Letourneau and Vili Fualaau, 32, have been married for a decade with two teenage daughters of their own.
“My God, they’re still together!” said Walters, who interviewed the pair a few months ago. “They’re an old married couple!”
Though reigning for decades as one of ABC News’ biggest stars, Walters said she’s glad to find a berth on niche-cable network Investigation Discovery, which affords her room for weekly hour-long explorations.
“We don’t have a newsmagazine anymore,” she said, referring to ABC. “We have 20/20, but — they’re gonna mind my saying this — it’s changed,” having narrowed the general-interest format Walters presided over.
“What Investigation Discovery gives me is the opportunity to present a whole interview and bring it up-to-date,” she said.
Other episodes include a look at actor Robert Blake, who was tried and acquitted of the 2001 murder of his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley.
On another, she sits down with Kimberly Mays, who was switched at birth in 1978 at a Florida hospital with another newborn, resulting in a notorious custody battle between her biological parents and Robert Mays, who raised her. “We searched all over and found her living in poverty in Clearwater, Florida,” said Walters.
That points to the effort required to produce American Scandals, she added proudly. “They’re difficult to do. You can’t just pull out an old interview and throw it on the air.”