FOX 9 investigative reporter Jeff Baillon retires after 38 years at station
EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (FOX 9) - Jeff Baillon began working at KMSP in 1981. In that time, he worked as a reporter, assignment desk editor, weekend anchor and assistant news director. However, he spent the majority of his time at the station as an investigative reporter.
In the 1990s, he won KMSP’s first Emmy Award for his investigation into lax airport security, a full ten years before 9/11.
The investigation revealed gaping holes on the front lines.
"We got someone on our staff to get hired as a screener; we exposed how the training was a joke," Baillon recalled. "It was so bad that the instructor at the training course would help people with the answers so they could pass to get the job."
"That story got some of those companies fired,” Baillon added.
The story and hundreds of others shed light and spurred change over a 41-year career in the news business.
As part of an investigation on natural gas leaks, Baillon worked with the St. Paul Fire Department to blow up a vacant house.
“It really, really brought home the message that you don't want to mess with a gas leak," Baillon said.
He also did a story about ice safety.
“We said, 'People fall through the ice all the time in this state right? But do they know how to rescue themselves if no one is around?' So I thought, 'I am going to fall through the ice and see if I can rescue myself,'” he said.
The job often involved looking through stacks of paper documents.
“There is a lot of research, you go to courthouses and dig up records and you track down people that maybe haven't been around for years and years and you try to get them to talk. There is a lot that goes into it," Baillon reflected.
In 2015, one of his investigations rocked the Psychiatry Department at the University of Minnesota. A young man named Dan Markingson died by suicide while part of a clinical research project.
Baillon uncovered records, pointing to ethical violations leading up to Markingson's death. As a result of his work, the Legislative Auditor launched an investigation and the U of M spent $8 million, cleaning up its protocols so future research subjects would be protected.
Former Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson worked with Baillon on several stories including the Markingson investigation.
"I think the art of journalism is not getting the first blush or the superficial story. I think it requires digging and what I admire about Jeff he is like a dog with a bone and he was not going to let go of that story he just pursued and pursued until he came to the bottom line," Carlson said.
Results like that fueled Baillon. He knew he was in a unique position to help people who didn't have the power or resources to bring justice on their own.
Doug Kelder and his family had tried for years to bring the remains of his uncle, Army Private Bud Kelder, home after he had been left to die in a Japanese prison camp during WWII.
Baillon reported how the U.S. Government was not searching for the remains.
"We had a pending lawsuit in the Federal Government and we were pretty much hitting our heads against the wall,” said Kelder. “Subsequently we ended up getting some of the remains sent back to us. So we would not have accomplished that without Jeff’s help."
And it wasn't just Bud, the remains of three more soldiers came home, thanks to Baillon’s persistence.
BAILLON INTERVIEWING “MISSING” GOVERNOR
Those stories, he said, were the most rewarding of his career. But in 41 years there were plenty of stories that didn't go as planned. Like the time in college when Baillon and his Bemidji State news crew "accidentally kidnapped" Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich.
“We are at the airport and no one else is around, he gets off the plane and comes walking up to these three college students, who are there with this beat-up station wagon and says, ‘Hey guys can you give me a lift into town?’ The Mayor and the Police Chief had been at a restaurant nearby but his plane came in early. We gave him a ride into town, but they see his plane was there, but thought he had been kidnapped,” Baillon recalled. “We took him to our little TV studio and did an interview and they finally caught up with him, you can't make that up."
Those early days as an eager and enterprising college reporter paved the way for Baillon’s first real job in TV, a "one-man band", a reporter, photographer and editor in Sioux City, Iowa.
"The early Jeff Baillon is kind of similar to Ron Burgundy,” Baillon said with a laugh.
But it wasn't long before Minnesota came calling.
"I was 25 years old and I really thought I wanted to come back to the Twin Cities because this is my home. My wife is from here. It's a great place to raise a family," he recalled.
"It's not going to be 'retire', but as I heard someone else say it will be 'rewire,'” he told Fox 9 Anchor Amy Hockert.
Across the street from the station is a walking path Baillon knows well. It's where he'd come to clear his head. However, in the last six months, he's had a lot more to think about.
"I had prostate cancer, emphasis had. They caught it early, had the surgery, a few bumps in the road, but doing well and thankful I have come through that and I have this future to look forward to it,” he said.
These days, Baillon is feeling great and excited about spending more time with his family, his wife Sandy and his two daughters.
"The biggest thing I am looking forward to is becoming a grandpa, my daughter is expecting soon. And whatever, golf, maybe fish, travel a lot. There are somethings I'd like to do volunteer-wise that I can give back in a way that I haven't been able to do because I have always been working," said Baillon.
"It's been an incredible ride, the kind of career most people dream of, doing what you love every day for 41 years and being lucky enough to write your own story," he said.
"What I would like to be remembered for 1) he always looked for the truth, 2) he did it with integrity and 3) it made a difference,” Baillon concluded.