Carmel Cafiero, veteran South Florida investigative reporter, dies at 76

Carmel Cafiero, a veteran South Florida investigative reporter, mentor, and pioneer for women in journalism, died Friday, her daughter said. She was 76.

The former Plantation resident joined WSVN-Channel 7 in 1973, the first female reporter at the station, and worked there for 43 years before retiring in 2016.

Cafiero was known for her fearless pursuit of the truth, to which footage of her chasing down politicians and business owners can attest, as well as her compassion, the kind that existed both on and off camera.

“She was probably the most talented, honest, and trustworthy reporter I ever worked with in nearly 20 years in the business,” Eric Eglin, a former producer at Channel 7, said in a text. “Everyone could trust Carmel to tell the truth, get to the heart of the story, and cut through the B.S. There will never be another Carmel. She broke the mold.”

Cafiero grew up in New Orleans, working at a small TV station in Baton Rouge, where she was the first woman to anchor an evening newscast before she joined Channel 7 as a general assignment reporter, according to the TV station.

She was also a single mother at the time, leaving Louisiana in her 20s with her young daughter in tow.

“She had never been out of the state before,” her daughter, Courtney Howell, told the South Florida Sun Sentinel on Saturday. “She left with just me into the great unknown, into Miami, to work at a station where it was all men.”

Despite having to juggle work and single motherhood, Cafiero quickly set herself apart as a journalist, using inventive reporting methods to illuminate wrongdoings in the community.

In 1975, only two years after she started, she won a George Foster Peabody award for a series called “Apathy or Fear” where she would be tied up on the side of the street or in parks throughout South Florida to see if people would help while hidden cameras captured their reactions.

A year later, she won another Peabody for her coverage of abortion clinics that performed fake procedures on women who weren’t actually pregnant but thought they were. Cafiero brought in her photographer’s urine “so there was no doubt that he wasn’t pregnant,” she told the Sun Sentinel back in 2016.

Perhaps her most notable work, Cafiero’s “Pill Mills” series exposed the opioid crisis unfolding outside of pain clinics in South Florida, winning her the prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Award in 2010.

For that series, Cafiero and news photographer Anthony Pineda would stake out parking lots outside pill clinics across Broward, catching people using right outside and confronting clinic workers.

Pineda worked with Cafiero exclusively from 1992 until her retirement.

“Sometimes people are excited because they see her on TV and they’re like ‘Oh you’re Carmel’ and then they realize, ‘Oh, you’re here for me,’” he told the Sun Sentinel back in 2016. “She is an old-school journalist. She’s the real deal.”

Many South Florida journalists remembered her as a mentor.

“She is the reason for my foot in the door .. which leads to, well, all the rest, and that’s a long story,” Glenna Milberg, a senior reporter at WPLG-Channel 10, wrote in a Facebook post on Friday.

She recalled bringing Cafiero Popeye’s Cajun Dirty Rice on lunch runs back in the 80’s. Later, she said, that turned into going out and bringing back interviews, then stories.

“She took me under her wing when I was still in college – and I eventually became her producer,” wrote another journalist, Cheryl Schechter Luckman-Simmons. Her last text message from Cafiero read “You got this girl.”

Bill Kallus, a former producer at WSVN and now a media relations manager at Orlando Health, met Cafiero back in the 90’s. Some people in television have big egos, he told the Sun Sentinel. Cafiero wasn’t one of them.

“She was just a great mentor,” Kallus said, “… one of these people who made it her mission to help the younger folks that were just up and coming in TV.”

In some ways, he said, represents a bygone era of TV journalism, her style of investigative reporting increasingly hard to find.

“She was such a powerhouse down there as far as investigative journalism goes,” Kallus said. “Really that’s kind of lost right now, you really don’t see that a lot, especially in the local TV news field.”

Cafiero would take the time to give him advice on producing a compelling investigative story, the key to which, she told him, was focusing on everyday people.

In one story, she spoke to a woman named Selma Shapiro who lived in a rat-infested home. Footage shows Carmel walking through the dimly-lit rooms covered in rat droppings, wearing a respirator mask. The story later led the community to pitch in and completely redo the home.

“I didn’t realize that people actually cared about me,” Shapiro told Cafiero on Channel 7 after seeing her new home for the first time. “I thought no one cared about me, but I found out differently.”

Cafiero spent the years of her retirement fishing in Louisiana, a dream of hers, though she missed her job dearly. She had all the news apps on her phone, Howell said, watching the news every day, sometimes even pitching stories.

Still, she said, the person people saw on TV segments like “Carmel on the Case” was only one side of her mom.

“There was more to her than the badass reporter,” Howell said. “She was a badass wife, mom, and grandma as well.”

Asked if she ever saw the Carmel Cafiero people knew on TV while she was growing up at home, she replied, “Only when I was in trouble.”

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