Michele Gillen, a legendary former South Florida television investigative reporter known for her dogged work exposing injustices, has died at age 66. She died of natural causes.
Her passing was confirmed by longtime friend and producer Marcia Izaguirre, who posted a lengthy tribute to Gillen on Facebook.
”For all those who knew her, she was a relentless warrior who fought indefatigably for the vulnerable,” Izaguirre wrote. “In every story she delved into, she aimed to discover the truth and spur change to improve the quality of life of her community.”
In all, Gillen won 39 local Emmys for her work stretching across decades.
Gillen grew up in New York City and graduated as a valedictorian from Emerson College in Boston in 1977. Her first job was at a TV station in Bangor, Maine. She came to Miami in 1980, at a turbulent time in the city’s history and weeks before the McDuffie race riots.
In Miami, her first job was at WPLG-ABC10, where she hit the streets chronicling the fires, murders and scandals. Izaguirre, in her Facebook post, said Gillen’s work on housing facilities for the elderly, beginning in the mid-1980s, led to national legislation against elder abuse.
“I will never forget her confronting state authorities on their arrangement to house released sexual predators to live in the same facilities, turning these safe spaces into houses of horror,” Izaguirre said.
In the mid-1980s, she was part of the newly formed investigative team that won national awards, including a best newscast award from the Radio-Television News Directors Association. Gillen and Bobby Groves, her producer, won the coveted Columbia-DuPont Silver Baton Award in 1988 reporting on the abuse of children in the state’s care.
“It was a glorious time for WPLG in terms of its journalism,” said John Terenzio, a former news director. “Michele was a huge part of that.”
Gillen’s versatility was unique. She also served as anchor for the 5:30 p.m. newscast with Art Carlson.
“It’s unique to find someone who has the charisma and personality to be an anchor — and also has the hard-news chops to be an investigative reporter,” Terenzio said.
Steve Wasserman, a former executive producer and news director at WPLG, recalled that Gillen also did a regular segment called “Wednesday’s Child,” working with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Miami. The segment aimed to pair viewers with at-risk youth.
“She really did some very compassionate reporting on these young people who needed adult guidance and mentoring,” Wasserman said, adding: “She had a lot of depth and she had a lot of versatility.”
After her time at WPLG, she moved to NBC in 1988 and became a correspondent for the news program “Dateline.” Gillen, however, got caught up in the Dateline scandal over staged crash tests on General Motors trucks, and was eventually moved to the NBC station in Miami, WTVJ. In 1995, she left for CBS’ KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, then returned two years later to Miami as an investigative reporter for WFOR-CBS4.
Gillen worked for nearly two decades at WFOR-CBS4, where she earned 25 regional Emmys. In 2004, she became the first TV reporter to interview Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi after he decided to give up weapons of mass destruction.
Among her most prominent stories in South Florida: chronicling the issue of human trafficking in South Florida, a series on the links between fire fighting and cancers, and a series on the inhumane treatment of the mentally ill in Miami-Dade’s main jail.
Miami-Dade County Judge Steve Leifman, a well-known advocate for improving how the mentally ill are treated in the justice system, credited Gillen’s dozen-plus stories for helping shut down the infamous ninth-floor ward. The series was called The Forgotten Floor.
“She hated injustices and she cared passionately about the most vulnerable in our community,” Leifman said on Friday. “She didn’t stop fighting for them until she was able to make improvements.”
Her tenure at WFOR ended in 2018, after the station declined to renew her contract. She later sued CBS for age and gender discrimination, claiming harassment and bullying. The case settled in 2019.
“Michele Gillen was the finest investigative reporter that I’d ever worked with, and I’ve worked with many,” Terenzio said. “Her drive to capture the story was phenomenal. Beneath it all, she was a kind, funny, delightful person to be with.”
She also exposed ongoing injustices against Holocaust survivors. David Schaecter of Miami, President of the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA, praised this work.
“We are grief-stricken over the passing of Michele Gillen. Twenty years ago, Michele’s groundbreaking series about the plight of Holocaust survivors living in poverty, and forgotten by society, forced institutions to address a human tragedy that had long been ignored. She continued for the next two decades to research and report about the Holocaust, about the need for accountability and remembrance.”