• David A.F. Sweet

‘Not Your Average Rom-Com’: How a Lake Forest Couple Met on Death Row

By David A. F. Sweet Back in 1975, when Michelle Hirschfield was born, the odds of a pregnant woman having quintuplets was rather large – as in 85 million to one. It was so rare that Walter Cronkite announced the birth of Hirschfield and her four siblings on the CBS Evening News. But the Lake Forest resident -- who works at the Gorton Community Center and who served as the president of the Newcomers Club of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff -- may have topped those odds later in life. After all, how many people meet their spouse on Death Row?

"The typical response is, 'Wait, what?'" says Jack Hirschfield, noting people's reaction when they find out how he and Michelle met. Then known as Michelle Levy, she met Jack Hirschfield during the 2000 execution in Huntsville, Texas of Betty Lou Beets, who was convicted of murdering her fifth husband. Here is Michelle’s and Jack’s story. How did you prepare to cover an execution?

Michelle: I was new in town having just moved from Fort Wayne, Ind. Indiana offered life without parole and at that time Texas did not, so I was shocked that a 62-year-old woman was being executed. I think the rest of the newsroom was so tired of covering executions that I got the assignment out of default. I didn’t have much time to prepare, but I did read up on the case to familiarize myself with the details. Jack: I was called in early that day to the FOX 7 (KTBC-FOX Station in Austin) because we were going live at 5, 6 and 10 and the drive to Huntsville is about three hours. I got in early that day, printed off research to review during the trip East to Huntsville and loaded up with my photographer for the trip to Texas’ Death Row. Was this the first execution you had covered?

Michelle: Yes, this was my first execution (and last). In Texas, you have to apply to watch an execution. Only one or two are allowed to watch. We were outside along with many other reporters and protesters (she was the second woman executed since the Civil War in Texas, so it was big news). When the person is executed, the lights dim, and that’s how you know it’s done.

Jack: I had covered one execution in the past. Executions are not opportunities to retry the case, as many protesters always want at an execution. They are opportunities to remind people what the death-row inmate was convicted of, any of the “lasts” (meals, written words, conversations, visitors) and any thoughts offered from the victim’s family and representatives of the inmate. How did you two meet at the execution? Michelle: I was working for KVUE, the Austin ABC station and doing live shots for other ABC stations across the country. I was standing under network lights to do my live shots and when I was done Jack came up to me and said, “You’re awfully young to have such a big job”. He thought I was a network correspondent. I replied something not-so-quick-witted like “I guess”. Then he introduced himself with a “I’m Jack Hirschfield, KTBC”. I recognized the call letters because I interviewed at that station but wasn’t hired so I said “That’s in Austin, right? I work at KVUE”. We chatted a few more moments before we dashed off to get our stories together for the evening broadcasts. Jack: We arrived in Huntsville, and I immediately began updating scripts and nailing down live shot hit times (times when FOX stations across the country would expect me to provide live coverage of the execution). My photographer and I wrapped our live shots for various stations by 6:15 p.m. About 200 feet away, I saw a friend of mine who happened to work as a photographer at KVUE, the ABC station in Austin, and next to him was a very cute reporter, who must have been new in Austin, because I didn’t know her. She didn’t even look familiar. I walked over to my friend and chatted with him for a few seconds. The reality though, either my friend was going to introduce me to this new reporter, or I was going to do it myself. I’m fairly impatient, so I quickly wrapped up my conversation with my friend and turned to this very cute reporter and introduced myself. I was a bit nervous and bumbled my way through a choppy conversation and left my card with the woman I came to know as Michelle Levy.

How did you get together again after the execution?

Michelle: The next night I am sitting at my desk in the newsroom when the phone rang. It was Jack asking if I wanted to see the town since I was new (I had lived in Austin for a few weeks only at this point). He offered to pick me up since I didn’t even know how to get downtown. I was wearing a suit so I changed into the spare clothes all reporters keep in their cars to cover things like flooding. I didn’t think it was a date so I didn’t feel the need to try too hard. Jack took me to all the fun spots on 6th Street. When he asked to take me to dinner a few nights later I started to think I might be about to break my longstanding rule of not dating anyone in the news business. Jack: I was smitten. After meeting Michelle, I knew I had to at least ask her out, but I didn’t have any way of contacting her, other than through her newsroom phone. The night after the execution, I had wrapped up my live shot in the FOX 7 newsroom and looked up at the bank of TVs usually found in all newsrooms and saw Michelle on KVUE wrapping up her live shot. This was the chance. I called the KVUE newsroom and asked for Michelle. They transferred me over to her, and I asked to take her out and show her some of what Austin had to offer. It absolutely was a date in my mind. How do people react when you tell them how you met?

Michelle: People aren’t expecting it so either they say: What? Or they gloss over it quickly. Those who get it are full of questions. Jack: The typical is response is, “Wait, what?” The next utterance is usually a question about who was executed and why. That response can sometimes be quick and easy or kind of depressing. Ms. Beets was convicted of killing her fifth husband and is likely the murderer of her fourth husband, although she was never tried in that case as she was sentence to death already for the murder of her fifth husband. Before her life as a killer, she grew up in a brutal environment as a child and suffered through marriages filled with violence and substance abuse. It really is a sad story all around. Final thoughts?

Michelle: It’s not your average rom-com to meet at the execution of a woman known as the Black Widow, but fate has a sense of humor. Years ago, I submitted to a How Did You Meet contest for Valentine's Day, and we only got an honorable mention. We were robbed!