By JOHN T. WARD
Was news anchor Brian Williams robbed at gunpoint while selling Christmas trees in Red Bank in the late 1970s?
The big-money network newsman, who’s in hot water for claiming he was in a helicopter that was hit by enemy fire in Iraq a dozen years ago, claims that he was mugged one night at what’s now known as Veterans Park, at the junction of West Front Street and Riverside Avenue.
But some area residents think the story is bunk, according to a report by the New York Post Saturday.
Williams, who grew up in Middletown and attended Brookdale Community College, where he was the editor of the campus newspaper, the Stall, has repeatedly told a story of getting mugged in Red Bank. He told the story to Esquire magazine in 2005, and again to New Jersey Monthly three years later, according to Post.
Williams also told it in Red Bank, at a December, 2012, fundraiser for Hurricane Sandy relief efforts that joined him onstage at a packed Count Basie Theatre with Daily Show host Jon Stewart, who lives in Red Bank.
Here’s a snippet from redbankgreen‘s account of the event:
With his familiar orotund delivery, Williams told of being robbed at gunpoint while selling Christmas trees at West Front Street and Riverside Avenue in Red Bank when he was a student at Mater Dei High School in the 1970s, and spending hours at the Tradewinds nightclub in Sea Bright hoping for an appearance by Bruce Springsteen. He confessed to slipping into the Stone Pony on a fake ID for a Springsteen show in 1975. “There’s your lead story tomorrow,” he said.
Stewart, who grew up in Mercer County, recalled the near-exactitude of the Springsteen tribute outfit the B Street Band, and said he’d once used a gun carved from a bar of soap to rob “this petrified kid” who was selling Christmas trees.
The Post recaps his earlier tellings of the story:
In a 2005 interview with Esquire magazine, Williams said a thief drew on him in the 1970s — leaving him “looking up at a thug’s snub-nosed .38 while selling Christmas trees out of the back of a truck.”
He told the tough-to-believe story at least four times, claiming he was trying to help a local church when the thief snatched his money on West Front Street and Riverside Avenue.
“That wasn’t a bad job, until a guy came up and stuck a .38-caliber pistol in my face and made me hand over all the money. Merry Christmas, right? Of course, I suddenly appreciated the other jobs I thought I hated,” he told New Jersey Monthly in 2008.
But some local folks doubt the mugging story’s veracity, according to the Post. It quotes restaurateur Danny Murphy:
“I would highly doubt he’s telling the truth…. I find it hard to believe anyone was held up in this area in the ’70s. It was very safe.”
The newspaper also quotes 93-year-old Yolanda DeMaria as saying “It was never dangerous here… It was a very peaceful town, a lovely town. It was a small town with a dress shop and a five-and-dime. No one locked their cars.”
The Post cited no evidence that the story was made-up.
Williams did not respond to an email redbankgreen sent to him Sunday morning seeking comment.
It’s unknown if police were called on the alleged robbery. Even if they were, police Chief Darren McConnell said he did not know if paperwork on a reported robbery would still exist, but said he would look into it Monday.
Williams said in a statement issued over the weekend that he was taking himself off the air for “several days.”
NBC said it would conduct an internal fact-checking investigation into the Iraq incident, Williams’s reporting on Hurricane Katrina and any other issues that arise, the New York Times reported Saturday.