On Nov. 29, 2012, news cameraman Mike Vielhaber was sitting alongside police Sgt. Ali Pillow for a ride-along. WEWS Channel 5, where Vielhaber has worked for the past 13 years, had given him the green light to do a story about what was then a new law enforcement initiative: V-GRIP (Violence-Gun Reduction & Interdiction Program). He was collecting footage near East 140th and St. Clair when the infamous 22-minute chase that resulted in 137 shots and the deaths of Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams began.
"My V-GRIP story never aired," Vielhaber tells Scene outside the Great Lakes Science Center on a recent night, though it's superfluous to mention. "We had just taken some guns off a few kids at a gas station when we started hearing bits and pieces of the chase."
Vielhaber says he and Pillow had reached East 55th when the chase poured over the Innerbelt bridge. Pillow, mindful of his media guest, was stopping at every red light, but Vielhaber managed to get exclusive footage nonetheless.
"I had video of the chase going down 90 and then down 72nd," he says. "We followed all the way into East Cleveland. I wasn't there for the shooting itself, but I walked up to the scene long before anyone else had gotten there. It was a lot of blank stares."
That night, Vielhaber says, was probably his craziest in the nine years he's worked the overnight shift for Channel 5, a shift that began on Labor Day in 2009 and one that he's occupied ever since.
"We had a hole from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m.," he said. "And our news director wanted 24-hour coverage. I jumped at it."
Vielhaber had worked in both the Jackson, Tennessee, and Richmond, Virginia, TV markets after interning with Channel 5 when he graduated from the Ohio Broadcasting School. He says he'd done some overnight contract work in those markets and loved the solitary thrill of the chase. These days, he works from his SUV, which is stocked with camera gear and audio equipment, and lives at the mercy of the police scanners. He leaves his Wadsworth home at 10:30 p.m., and, until 7 the next morning, he's humping it from blazing fire to car crash to homicide, often arriving before the police to capture footage for the morning news broadcasts.
"These Cleveland cops are so strapped — the Fourth, the Fifth [districts] — sometimes they just can't spare a car. And yeah, it can be scary, but you learn how far you can go, and how to make your approaches," he says.
(Vielhaber recommends Netflix's Shot in the Dark to get a sense of what he does; the 2014 Hollywood thriller Nightcrawler, not so much.)
This summer, in contrast to recent years, has been fairly quiet. And while Vielhaber concedes that that's fantastic for everybody else — "I don't want bad shit to befall people" — it's boring as hell for him.
"We've had whole weeks where we've shot only a couple of things," he says. "I don't want to compare myself to a fireman, but it's kind of like that. When the radio goes, I go."
(Some early mornings, if he's not chasing anything, he'll capture the skyline at dawn, images and video of which have earned him a devoted social media following.)
He says his sleep schedule hasn't suffered too much working overnight — he's pretty adaptable, he says, and gets his week off on the right foot with a long Sunday afternoon nap — and that working nights may prove to be an advantage now that he's got two kids. (Taking them to after-school sporting events is no problem.) But Vielhaber says in a few years, when a wave of retirements is expected to hit Channel 5, he'll think more seriously about shifting back to daytime.
As we're talking, a siren blares beside us and a police cruiser speeds by on the Shoreway. Vielhaber jets to the front seat of his vehicle to check his scanners. A minute or so later, he turns down the audio and says it's not worth it.
"That was a K-9 car," he says. "It was probably just going to do a sniff at a traffic stop." This isn't big enough news to warrant a chase. Unless ... Something occurs to him and he flashes a smile.
"Hey," he says, "maybe it's a Browns player."