Lynne Russell (right) admires her husband Chuck de Caro as they talk about their relationship while at their residence in Atlanta, Monday, December 9, 2019. Lynne Russell is a former CNN anchor and Chuck de Caro is a former CNN reporter. 
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM
Photo: ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

A harrowing robbery and a CNN love story

Lynne Russell, the popular CNN Headline News anchor back in the 1980s and 1990s, was 14 years removed from her final newscast.

She had married her fourth husband in a medieval castle in Italy in 2014: Chuck de Caro, a former CNN special assignments correspondent and member of the 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne) of the U.S. Army.

The part-time Atlanta residents were both very much embedded in the early history of Ted Turner’s burgeoning news operation, so much so they were invited and attended a ceremony last month at the Midtown campus where WarnerMedia unveiled a mural in Turner’s honor and named the campus after the legendary media mogul.

Lynne Russell (right) with her husband Chuck de Caro.
Photo: FILE

Recently, the couple recounted with the AJC a harrowing event four years ago that attracted national attention and changed their lives.

Russell and de Caro were on a road trip from the D.C. area to Los Alamitos, California, where de Caro was scheduled to speak to the state National Guard. On June 29, 2015, they stopped in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Russell had grown up, to visit several old friends and her high school. They were going to leave town the next day but decided on a whim to stick around an extra night, in part for the comfort of their semi-incontinent 13-year-old Weimaraner, Oliver.

Just before 11 p.m., they pulled into a dog-friendly Motel 6 off I-40 between a Buffalo Wild Wings and a Days Inn that had adequate lighting and a security guard. They had no idea that local police had been called to the motel hundreds of times in the previous six years for all sorts of criminal or suspicious activity.

After the couple checked in, de Caro entered room 126 to unpack and take a shower. At about 11:22 p.m., Russell left the room to grab extra towels from the front desk.

In the parking lot, Tomorio Walton – wearing a green T-shirt, white newsboy cap and shorts — asked Russell for a cigarette. He had arrived with three others just a few minutes earlier in a dark-colored Chevy Malibu seeking to rob somebody.

“I don’t smoke,” Russell said. She smiled at him. He smiled back and walked away.

She returned to the room, then left again to grab dog food from their Ford hybrid hatchback for Oliver.

By now, Walton had eyes on Russell, figuring she was an easy mark: an older white woman by herself. He stood near her room, speaking to someone on his cell phone while he awaited Russell’s return, according to security camera footage. At about 11:30 p.m., Russell came back to the motel room, dropped the dog food bag on the ground and passed her key card over the slot to open her door.

Walton – presuming Russell was alone – pounced. He pulled out his silver-plated Cobra FS380 gun and shoved her in the motel room, closing the door behind them.

Then began seven minutes detailed in police records, court documents and media reports that would test their ability to keep a potential killer from killing them.

How they met

In 1983, Russell was a new evening anchor on Ted Turner’s latest creation: CNN Headline News. It was a 24/7 quick news channel, cycling every 30 minutes, an outlet that preceded the internet by more than a decade. She was far more than a teleprompter reader.

“Lynne had this gift,” said friend and former CNN colleague David Goodnow. “She could read right through the TV and talk with her audience, not to them.”

She exuded a classic, unapologetic sexiness on air, a characterization she never shied away from.

Lynne Russell on her final day on air at HLN on May 18, 2001. 
Photo: CONTRIBUTED

She has posed for multiple magazine covers and even posed for Playboy — albeit not nude. Her Atlanta apartment is designed in the style of a boudoir. And she learned in the 1990s that she was a distant cousin of Jane Russell, the bombshell actress from the 1940s and ’50s. (“We became wonderful friends,” Russell said.)

De Caro first saw Russell in 1983 on a tiny black-and-white TV while on assignment with CNN in the jungles of Nicaragua. He was immediately smitten.

When he returned to Atlanta and stopped by Headline News studios, he made a beeline to Russell’s desk. This, he said, was his opening line: “It’s a shame you’re not a blue-eyed blonde. I’d go for you!” They ended up going for coffee. But she was married at the time. So he would email her once or a twice a year, checking in, to make sure she didn’t forget him.

“We respected each other’s work,” Russell said. “That was the program running in the background the whole time. Whenever either one of us said hello to the other, it meant something.”

“Anchor and real reporter,” de Caro added. “We were destined to be a mixed marriage!”

A shot from the wedding of Chuck de Caro and Lynne Russell in 2014 in Italy. 
Photo: CONTRIBUTED

He bided his time, leaving CNN in 1987 and dating plenty of blue-eyed blondes in the interim. But he never married. Over the years, he started his own companies and consulted with the Pentagon and TV producer Donald Bellisario, creator of “Quantum Leap,” “JAG” and “NCIS.”

“She single-handedly threw my standards up another quantum leap,” de Caro said during a lunch with his wife at Maggiano’s in November. He then looked straight at her and said: “I didn’t know that class of women existed until you.”

“He would say more than once that I’m the epitome of an American woman,” Russell said.

“That’s true,” de Caro said.

“That’s a tremendous compliment,” Russell said. “Sure beats young hot (expletive)!”

When she was single in 2011, they finally connected and have been inseparable ever since.

Chuck Roberts, a fellow Headline News anchor at the time Russell was there, has had dinner with the couple and always found them amusing to watch — like the Cher film “Moonstruck” writ large. “They’re both Italian in every respect by heritage and DNA and impulse,” he said. “They’re passionate. They’re funny. They’re loving. They’re truly devoted to each other.”

“There’s kind of rhythm that goes with our ethnicity,” de Caro said. “Violently passionate, loud. Then quiet and loving.”

“Storms blow over quickly,” Russell said.

“She has the characteristics of a male best friend,” de Caro said. “We bust each other’s chops at every opportunity.”

“He is protective and kind and loving,” Russell said. “He reminds me so much of my father.”

He listed all of her skills: two black belts, a deputy sheriff’s badge, a real estate license, her private investigative license. “It’s like being married to a harem in one body!” he said.

And they have given each other romantic gifts. Russell drinks coffee out of an Army canteen cup with her name engraved on it, identical to one he used while he was in the Army. She gave him a hand grenade he keeps at his home in West Virginia.

The robbery

Back in room 126 at the Motel 6, Walton tried to make it easy on Russell by telling her he was robbing her because his girlfriend was kidnapped and he need anything of value for ransom. “Give me something and I’ll go away,” Russell recalled him saying.

But then Walton realized this wasn’t going to be so easy. De Caro heard the fuss and came out of the shower naked only to see his wife “flying through the air and crashing on the bed” and a man waving a pistol around.

“What the hell is going on here?” de Caro said.

Walton said he wanted cash, de Caro recalled, and de Caro scoffed. “It’s 2015. Nobody carries cash,” he said.

Russell, trying her best to stay calm, offered credit cards and other items, well aware that she and her husband had two .38 pistols sitting on a nightstand. She stood in front of them so Walton couldn’t see them. Both Russell and de Caro had concealed weapon permits and were proficient with guns.

She quietly slipped one of the guns into her $1,500 Kate Spade purse, which the robber didn’t realize was worth stealing, and handed it to de Caro. At this point, Walton was not mollified. “He started rummaging through our stuff,” de Caro said. “I told him, ‘Don’t shoot the dog!’”

Russell recalled Walton was “wandering around, acting erratic. His eyes were wide and he smelled like marijuana smoke.”

De Caro said he was seriously worried at this point that Walton was going to kill them both.

Walton finally spied something worth stealing: de Caro’s heavy work briefcase with two laptops. He grabbed it despite de Caro’s protestations. Walton, as he was departing, decided to shoot at de Caro, according to de Caro. Walton fired ten shots, hitting de Caro three times, once in the leg and twice in the abdomen.

But de Caro, with his military training, didn’t flinch. He immediately returned fire and was far more accurate. He hit Walton five times out of seven shots. Of the five, three facilitated Walton’s death as one bullet hit his face and two more entered his lungs.

An Albuquerque Police Department officer collects evidence after a shooting that left a man dead and another injured during what police say was an altercation between the on June 30, 2015, at a Motel 6. 
Photo: ADOLPHE PIERRE-LOUIS/ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL

Seven minutes after entering, Walton departed the hotel room, mortally wounded. The security footage shows Walton stumbling into the parking lot and collapsing.

Russell stepped outside, second pistol in hand, to see if anyone else was out there. But Walton’s accomplices saw Walton on the ground and peeled away. Russell called 911. Within a few minutes, first responders began treating a bleeding de Caro, who was clutching towels to his gunshot wounds. He told them he had been in special forces and “did not want to go out like this.”

“I never lost consciousness,” de Caro said. “The EMTs were really good.”

Both Walton and de Caro were taken by ambulance to the University of New Mexico Hospital. Walton perished. De Caro survived.

And what about the Motel 6 security guard? He was on the phone while all this was happening and got to the hotel room after it was all over.

Postscript

Oliver, who licked blood off de Caro after the shooting, was not hurt but was placed in 14-day quarantine. Russell sent Oliver to doggie heaven three months later. “The gun fight was just too much for him,” Russell said. De Caro was still in the hospital and had to listen tearfully by speakerphone as Oliver was put down. “Hurts more to talk about that dog than getting shot,” de Caro said.

Walton’s motivations for the robbery were clarified in a 2017 Daily Beast investigation. The publication interviewed Walton’s girlfriend, who told the reporter that Walton felt he had no choice but to rob Russell and de Caro. She said he was addicted to crystal meth and under the sway of Skyy Barrs, a man who plied Walton with free drugs and threatened to hurt Walton’s girlfriend if he didn’t do Barrs’ bidding.

Barrs was eventually captured, charged and sentenced to 13 years in prison in 2018. He pled guilty to conspiracy to commit armed robbery and trafficking heroin.

Russell and de Caro sued Motel 6 and the security company in 2015 for negligence and ultimately settled for an undisclosed amount.

An Albuquerque Police Department mobile crime lab is seen July 1, 2015, after a shooting at the hotel left a man dead and another injured during what police say was an altercation between the two the night before at a Motel 6. 
Photo: ADOLPHE PIERRE-LOUIS/ALBUQUERQUE JOURNAL

Whatever financial remuneration they received didn’t relieve Russell from PTSD. She suffered numerous nightmares, sought comfort from three therapists and lives with a spinal injury stemming from being thrown onto the bed by Walton. “She’s had it worse than me,” de Caro said. “I just had to deal with physical pain.”

De Caro, 69, almost died three times, Russell said. He fought off a super bug infection. He suffered deep vein thrombosis — a blood clot in an artery. He had a pseudoaneurysm in his thigh the size of a tennis ball caused by the gunshot wound.

>> RELATED | Lynn Russell sues Motel 6 over shooting

Over four-plus years, De Caro has endured at least nine surgeries. “I just had kidney surgery,” he said. When he returns from Italy later this January, he’ll have another one.

“I’ve had men say, ‘I’d take a bullet for you,’ “ Russell said. “He took three!”

Russell, now 72 but not looking much different than she did when she was on TV, decided to return to Atlanta two years ago. (She spent 18 years in Atlanta while at HLN.)

“The vibrations are right here,” she said. “I’m at my creative best. I have friends here.”

“It’s the closest thing to home for this Army brat,” added de Caro about Russell, who grew up with a dad in the military. “We both like it here. We both have a history here.”

The couple still worries that one of Barrs’ gang member buddies might eventually come after them in revenge.

So they live in a secure building in Atlanta and a remote home well outside the D.C. area. They spend three months a year in Italy. They continue to carry concealed weapons and remain staunch gun rights activists.

>> PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Lynne Russell: ‘Guns? There’snothing to debate’

Russell still does public investigation work, keeps up her martial arts training and writes romantic comedy thriller novels such as “Hell on Heels” fronted by a TV news reporter and private eye P.J. Santini, a lot like Russell herself. De Caro lectures about information warfare for government agencies.

Neither watches CNN or HLN regularly anymore, soured by what they see as a hackneyed, liberal bent. The couple, nonetheless, accepted an invitation to see WarnerMedia fete Turner himself last month at what is now the Ted Turner campus in Midtown. 

Charles de Caro and Lynne Russell speak with Tom Johnson, the former President of CNN, at a ceremony dedicating an AT&T WarnerMedia building to Ted Turner, the founder of Turner Broadcasting System, on Friday, December 6, 2019, in Atlanta. 
Photo: ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/SPECIAL TO THE AJC

After the event, de Caro had an opportunity to say hi to CNN president Jeff Zucker, who he often criticizes on his blog American Greatness.

“I love Ted Turner,” said de Caro,” but I hate Jeff Zucker.”

He recounted what he said to Zucker after the dedication: “Hi Jeff, I’m Chuck de Caro. I was CNN’s first special assignments correspondent. Don’t take all the negative stuff I write about you personally. It’s just that you’re ruining the network I bled for.”

Taken aback, Zucker, de Caro said, asked what publication he wrote for, then bowed out quickly.

De Caro chuckled, thrilled he got to make Zucker feel uncomfortable for even a moment. A spokesperson for Zucker did not respond to a query for comment.

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