When Heather Unruh signed off for the final time last fall as anchor of the 6 p.m. newscast on WCVB-TV (Channel 5), it figured to be a while before she was in front of a camera again.
It was only a year.
Wednesday, Unruh was once more speaking into a camera — several of them, in fact — but this time the former TV journalist wasn’t delivering the news but making it. With attorney Mitchell Garabedian at her side, Unruh accused actor Kevin Spacey of sexually assaulting her then 18-year-old son at a bar on Nantucket last year.
As she spoke, her voice trembling, Unruh had to pause occasionally to wipe away tears. In 15 years at WCVB, she’d reported plenty of heart-wrenching stories — the Boston Marathon being just one — but Unruh had always stifled such displays of raw emotion. Not this time.
Friends and former colleagues are hailing Unruh for speaking up about Spacey’s alleged assault on her son, but they’re not surprised she did it.
“Heather’s a woman of character and strength and courage,” said Susan Wornick, a longtime former colleague of Unruh’s at WCVB. “Watching her [Wednesday], you can understand why people are reluctant to speak up. It’s easier not to.”
Likewise, Garabedian, who’s represented hundreds of survivors of clergy sexual abuse and was featured in the film “Spotlight,” says Unruh was courageous, and her willingness to talk about her son will help others.
“What she did will empower other victims of sexual abuse and make the world a safer place for children,” he says.
Unruh, a California native, arrived at WCVB after stints in Oklahoma City; Birmingham, Ala.; and Binghamton, N.Y. She and her husband, Nick Little, live in Dover and have two children.
Unruh’s departure from WCVB a year ago was abrupt and unexplained. She left soon after Maria Stephanos joined the station and took over as co-anchor of the 7 and 11 p.m. newscasts.
But Unruh didn’t disappear. Indeed, over the summer, in an interview with New England Living TV, she lamented some aspects of local news, saying “women are ‘encouraged’ to dress more provocatively than I feel is appropriate for delivering news.” That might not seem like a revelation, but it sparked a larger conversation about sexism in the workplace.
Unruh is also active on social media. To her 14,000 followers, she regularly tweets links to news stories, updates on a documentary film project she’s working on, or charities she’s involved with — a few years ago, Unruh and her husband started a group called Stand With Everyone Against Rape after the daughter of a family friend was sexually assaulted. (Before leaving the station, Unruh produced a feature on S.W.E.A.R. for the WCVB news magazine, “Chronicle.”)
But it was cryptic tweet on Oct. 13 that most recently got a lot of people’s attention. Unruh tweeted a picture of Spacey and this: “The #Weinsteinscandal has emboldened me,” she wrote, referring to the avalanche of sexual assault and harassment allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. “#truth time. I was a Kevin Spacey fan until he assaulted a loved one. Time the dominoes fell.”
That message, which was retweeted more than 3,800 times, was intended to “encourage investigation and conversation,” Unruh told the Globe afterward. Less than a month later, actor Anthony Rapp came forward to say Spacey had tried to sexually molest him when he was 14. Other men have since come forward with stories of alleged sexual misconduct by Spacey.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Unruh calmly recounted her son’s story. She said he was introduced to Spacey, a two-time Academy Award winner, at The Club Car restaurant on Nantucket in July 2016. She later told NBC News that her son worked at the eatery as a busboy and that the encounter took place after his shift.
Unruh said her son — “completely starstruck” — inflated his age, telling Spacey he was 21. Unruh said the actor bought her son “a lot of drinks” and, at some point, put his hand inside the teenager’s pants. She said the incident ended when Spacey went to the restroom, and a woman approached Unruh’s son and told him to flee the restaurant.
“I think Kevin Spacey should go to prison,” Unruh said in a firm voice.
She said her son reported the incident to Nantucket police last week.
Wornick, who used to live next door to Unruh and knows her son and daughter well, said it was heartbreaking to watch her friend’s eyes fill with tears as she shared the details of the alleged assault. But she’s also immensely proud of her.
“I watched those kids grow up. It was very painful to hear,” Wornick said. “But Heather’s got a lot of courage, and she showed it.”Mark Shanahan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.