at home with Chris Hansen
The Dateline NBC correspondent and Emmy Award–winning journalist shares some inside scoop on his seminal series To Catch a Predator and his coverage of major headlines—Columbine, identity theft, the Oklahoma City bombing, international sex trafficking, Detroit’s blight, the global trade in counterfeit prescription drugs. This husband, father, friend and neighbor welcomes us into his Stamford home.
Dateline NBC correspondent Chris Hansen is best known for staring down sexual predators with his steely “what-were-you-thinking” gaze. He has also turned the network’s hidden cameras on pharmaceutical counterfeiters, identity thieves, scam artists and terrorists.
So how is the domestic Chris Hansen different from the guy we see putting the scare into sleazy bad guys on television? His wife, Mary Jo, grins as she forms her answer: “Well, for one thing, no one runs out the front door when he comes home.”
Stamford, his home of seventeen years, provides a welcome refuge from the seedier places hidden cameras and his signature impact journalism take him.
Suburban Detroit natives Chris, Mary Jo and their now teenage sons adopted Stamford as their second hometown when the peacock network made him an offer in 1993. Here you are more likely to see Chris taking his close-knit NBC production team out on his boat or relaxing with his sons over a Sunday pub lunch at Tigín or Brennan’s than showing up with a camera crew in tow. (Although he has, on occasion, done that here too.)
“There’s no diva about him at all,” says knitwear designer Jamie Delaney, a Hansen neighbor and close friend. “In fact, if you didn’t see him on TV doing what he does, it would be kind of hard to imagine he has that side.”
“I don’t think anyone likes to see themselves on TV breaking stories more than I do,” Chris says with a laugh. “And I’ll be the first to admit I have a darker side.”
In 1975 former Teamsters Union boss James Riddle “Jimmy” Hoffa disappeared from the parking lot of a restaurant near Chris’s childhood home in Bloomfield Township, Michigan. Fascinated by the enduring mystery and its organized crime overtones, then fourteen-year-old Chris would ride his bike to watch the FBI agents at work. “I found being on the other side of that crime tape so fascinating,” he says. A self-described “nerdy kid,” Chris had iconic television newsmen as his heroes—Chet Huntley, David Brinkley and Irving R. Levine. At Michigan State he studied broadcast journalism—“the only major I ever considered”—and “begged to get on the air” when he got his “big break, a $4.80-an-hour job at an NBC station in Lansing.”
With his rugged good looks and commanding voice, Chris could have been on a trajectory straight to the anchor desk, but his stealth curiosity is what propelled his career fast-forward. He caught the national network’s eye by working closely with undercover law enforcement to turn a lens on the rich-and-famous lifestyles of the Chambers brothers, notorious Detroit crack cocaine dealers. “They had mansions with 24-karat gold faucets,” Chris recalls. “The stories were the water-cooler talk of Detroit.”
When Chris went national in 1993—as a correspondent for Now with Tom Brokaw and Katie Couric—he was hired as part of an up-and-coming triumvirate that included NBC Nightly News anchor-to-be Brian Williams (a New Canaan resident) and the late correspondent David Bloom. “I think the idea always was that Brian would end up as anchor, and my job was to play that Mike Wallace role,” says Chris.
Chris got that prime-time chance in 2004 when Dateline launched To Catch a Predator, a novel collaboration with the activist group Perverted Justice. The series, which was Chris’s idea, featured hidden-camera investigations exposing online sexual predators. “When we did our first sting, my biggest fear was that no one would show up. But we had eighteen guys at the sting house in two days.”
While controversial for its methods, Hansen says To Catch a Predator would not have accomplished its goals without the hidden cameras. His cool-tempered “have-a-seat” kitchen interrogations with 250 alleged offenders only enhanced the series’ can-you-believe-it appeal. “Even I thought I had seen everything. Then a naked man walks in the door.”
Predator-chasing got Chris parodied on Saturday Night Live, but he also recruited fans in key demographics—college boys who Chris says “loved the whole tackle-the-perps element.” The show’s popularity led to Chris’s book To Catch a Predator: Protecting Your Kids from Online Enemies Already in Your Home. “I think the most amazing thing about this work was it showed people how a predator can be anyone,” Chris says. “It can be the guy standing in line with you at the drugstore, your kids’ coach or teacher, the very same people who are supposed to protect us. In our very first sting, we had a New York City firefighter.”
The series experienced a blow following the 2006 suicide of Louis William Conradt Jr. The Texas prosecutor shot himself during a police pedophilia sting arranged by the network. Conradt’s sister charged in a lawsuit that the network interfered with police duties and failed to protect her brother. The lawsuit was “amicably resolved” for an undisclosed sum in 2008. The settlement agreement prevents Chris from commenting at length, but he suggests that litigation was not what caused NBC to halt the series.
“I think there’s a fine line between doing something well and overdoing something,” he says. “We shot thirty really good hours. I think somewhere down the line, it might be interesting to update the series, but certainly, we made our point and there are plenty of other good stories to tell.”
Chris went on to win some of his seven Emmys for exposing the scary ease with which Chinese counterfeit medicines end up in American pharmacies. He won another one for his dramatic exposé on child-sex trafficking in Cambodia, which took him undercover for an emotional rescue of enslaved children. “I see myself as a storyteller, but what I really like to do is break stories,” says Chris. “I suppose I like it when there’s a darker quality to them, but I’m most interested in telling people things they don’t already know.”
Last year in April, Dateline aired one of his most personal broadcasts, the critically acclaimed America Now: City of Heartbreak and Hope, an hour-long examination of blighted inner city Detroit. “To see a city so abandoned that people are growing crops in empty house lots was an incredible experience because I consider Detroit my first home,” he says.
The stark contrast with the place where he now lives is not lost on the TV journalist. “Stamford is a real city that looks and feels like it is well run,” he says. “The prosperity here has been kind of the opposite of what happened to Detroit. When we first moved here, if you drove the wrong way coming out of the train station you could get offered sex, crack and stolen merchandise in five minutes. Now, you have people moving downtown.”
On the Home Front
Choosing Stamford as their base was a no-regrets move for the Hansens, influenced by its proximity to New York City and the “castles to cottages” elegance of their waterfront neighborhood. “I like Stamford’s realness, that it has a bit of everything,” says Chris. Here in a handsome Colonial, their sons, now sixteen and nineteen, have become avid sailors, played lacrosse, attended local private schools and given their parents some requisite sleepless nights.
For despite all the shady characters Chris encounters on the job, nothing causes him to lose more sleep than “my oldest son on the highway, coming home from his part-time summer restaurant job after closing time.
“I guess I’m typical in the way I worry about their grades, their friends, their choices, that they are healthy and safe, but we’ve been very lucky with them,” he adds. “I love it when their friends come over here and just hang in the kitchen or watch sports. It helps me know what’s going on without seeming too intense.”
“They are wonderful parents,” says Polly Denham, an interior designer who sold the Hansens their home and moved to another house nearby. Along with her realtor husband, Mark, she is among the couple’s closest friends. “Chris is stricter than Mary Jo—I suspect because of some of the things he’s seen—but the two of them have a nice balance.”
The intensity of Chris’s job, which requires 24/7 devotion, has made him especially grateful for Mary Jo’s role as “executive producer” at home.
Technology made Chris constantly plugged into the office. “He can report stories anywhere these days,” says Mary Jo, who relays how she and their sons once guarded an airport lounge door while Chris taped a story voice-over.
Chris’s investigations have sometimes bothered Mary Jo, who says she tends “to have a lighter, more trusting view of the world” than her husband. On watching his Predator stories, she adds: “I would think it’s a sickness, and feel bad for the guys.” She worries when Chris leaves for a trip and “gives me the lists of his contacts at the FBI. Then I know the story is dangerous, and I’ll be honest, those are not my favorite trips.”
Family friend Jamie Delaney observes: “She is just the sweetest person you’ll ever meet, but we have always been in awe of the way she anchors the family. Chris can be in and out the door on a moment’s notice, and she always has it together.”
For his part, Chris is grateful to his wife for providing such stability for the family, particularly when his work takes him away as it often can. “Mary Jo has been very good about giving them that,” he says. His regular Sunday boys’ pub lunches are his bonding “way of preaching about life without having them think I’m preaching at them.” He talks openly about his work: “It’s important for them to understand what I do and why I do it.”
And while Chris describes himself as “brooding and serious”, his friends say he is laid back, relaxed, completely hilarious and a seriously good cook.
“On the weekend he’s the guy making the Caesar salad from scratch,” says Polly, who had just run into Chris at the Grade A market. It was Halloween “and he was getting all the stuff for chili.”
The Extended Family
Their close-knit neighborhood has been a supportive base for Mary Jo while she and Chris raised their boys far from immediate family. Mary Jo created a chic and cozy traditional home that showcases her flair for restoring finds she scavenged on Stamford’s Canal Street antiques centers. She’s been known to present her friends with hand-fringed jeans and picture frames trimmed in fur salvaged from thrift shops.
The couple has contemplated moves to larger homes nearby, “but I always have loved the idea that I can look out the window and see my neighbors,” says Mary Jo. Instead they put on a stunning addition, expanding the kitchen into an eating/living area and adding a semi-enclosed sunroom that is a favorite spot.
The most meaningful thing about their Stamford life is the way the Hansens have created a “second family” with friends. Every Thanksgiving they feast at the table of Michael and Jamie Delaney, where the kitschy party themes and festive toasts make it a favorite Stamford tradition. “Chris travels so much that the last thing he wants to do is get on a plane for Thanksgiving or Christmas,” says Mary Jo. “Jamie always has a theme. One year it was neon Thanksgiving, the next, Jackson Pollock. It wouldn’t be Thanksgiving if we didn’t go.”
Jamie says the Hansens are extended family. “They bring a lot of joy to the room,” says Jamie. “And when toast time comes, Chris is hilarious when he chimes in. He does these Letterman-style top-ten lists that are just ridiculously funny.”
And he’s also happy to get involved, says Polly. He has been grand marshal of the Stamford Parade Spectacular and guest speaker for the Stamford Police Department’s Officer of the Year dinner. “What I like about him most is how down-to-earth he is,” says Jamie. “At a party he’ll be in the corner having a very serious conversation one minute, cracking jokes at the table the next. He can talk to anyone about anything, which is his gift.”
That guy sounds just a little less serious and a whole lot more fun than the guy who shows up with a camera crew and tough questions. “Oh, I’m always pretty serious,” Chris says, “but I lighten up a bit at home.”