Boob's Tube

Here's how publicity hound Joe Arpaio used a TV station to try to destroy rival Dan Saban with a bogus rape claim

On the early evening of April 7, 2004, an Apache Junction resident named Ruby Norman shot an e-mail over to Sheriff Joe Arpaio that must have seemed heaven-sent.

"I need to talk to you about a matter that would be of great interest to you," Norman wrote to Arpaio, then starting his campaign for a fourth term as Maricopa County's chief lawman.

"I am the mother of one of your running mates that's not so honorable. I do not want to see him make sheriff for the simple reason of things he has done. Please contact me."

Norman signed off with her name and phone number.

By "one of your running mates," sheriff's officials would learn that Norman was referring to Dan Saban, then a 47-year-old newly retired Mesa police commander who had announced his intention to run against Arpaio in the Republican primary that September.

Norman was Saban's adoptive mother, though the two hadn't spoken in about a quarter-century.

A few weeks after Norman sent her April 7 e-mail, she apparently alleged in a taped phone interview with Arpaio's chief deputy, David Hendershott, that Saban had raped her more than 30 years earlier, when he was a teen.

The word "apparently" is necessary because Hendershott would erase the tape, evidence that would have been most instructive in analyzing what happened later.

Norman never had reported the rape to authorities until she spoke to Hendershott.

She claimed to be coming forward to try to patch things up with her two other sons (one adopted and one birth), who had told her they didn't believe her account.

What Chief Hendershott and members of the sheriff's Threat Assessment Squad did after receiving Norman's e-mail is the subject of a fierce lawsuit filed by Dan Saban in Maricopa County Superior Court.

In the notice of claim before the suit's filing, Saban attorney Joel Robbins asked for $1 million — a relative pittance these days.

In lieu of that, Robbins said his client would accept $50,000 from the defendants, along with Sheriff Arpaio's resignation.

Fat chance.

The suit is a nasty one, with lawyers on both sides hurling vicious (and quotable) venom at the other with unusual ferocity.

Among other things, it claims that Arpaio and the other defendants invaded Saban's privacy by leaking details of their brief "investigation" into Ruby Norman's allegations to a Channel 15 television reporter, known as a sycophantic ally of the sheriff's.

That KNXV-TV reporter, Rob Koebel, and his boss, then-news director Bob Sullivan, rushed out a story about the rape allegations that aired as the lead on the evening of April 30, 2004.

The "exclusive" included interviews with the woman and Saban, the latter having been bushwhacked by Koebel at a Phoenix political rally just hours before airtime.

A scintilla of inquiry into Norman's account of the rape and into her checkered past would have revealed that she is a deeply troubled woman with a history of fomenting turmoil among family members.

Such as it was, the criminal case against Saban officially ended six weeks after it started, when the Pima County Sheriff's Office announced it wouldn't be investigating the matter because the statute of limitations for prosecution long had passed.

Pima County had gotten involved at Arpaio's request, after his office soon declared a conflict of interest in investigating political opponent Saban any further. That came after Chief Hendershott and two of his detectives positively assessed Norman's "credibility" as an alleged victim.

But, by then, Arpaio had gotten what he really wanted — a hot story about a political foe who seemed to be making surprising inroads against the powerful sheriff.

The defendants in Saban's lawsuit originally also included Koebel, who worked at KNXV-TV until July 2004 (two months after his big scoop), when it came to light that he'd donated $100 to Joe Arpaio's campaign, an ethical no-no.

But Saban's attorney agreed last year to drop Koebel and the Scripps Howard Broadcasting Company, which owns Channel 15, from the lawsuit.

Arpaio attorney Dennis Wilenchik calls the lawsuit "a transparently political and egregious abuse of process . . . motivated exclusively by Saban's political ambitions."

That's just what Saban has claimed about the sheriff's office's so-called rape investigation and the feeding of Ruby Norman's unsubstantiated allegations to a favored reporter, Koebel.

Thanks in large part to his close relationship with County Attorney Andrew Thomas, Wilenchik in the last few years has picked up lucrative civil cases defending local officials and their agencies ("Bully Pulpit," June 29, 2006).

In the Saban suit, the blustery barrister also has alleged that opposing counsel Robbins has a vendetta against Arpaio, another supposed motivation for filing the tort.

As evidence, Wilenchik has quoted from a book review submitted by Robbins to Amazon.com about Arpaio's 1996 tome America's Toughest Sheriff: How We Can Win the War Against Crime.

"Joe Arpaio is a blowhard, self-aggrandizing, ignoramus who has cost Maricopa County, Arizona, tons of money pursuing his idiotic vision of 'tough jails' and ham-fisted policing," Robbins wrote. "I am a lawyer who sues Arpaio. I have used this book to cross-examine him at trial and although it was useful for me, it is a self-serving myopic that is pretty dull."

What Robbins' own agitated writings about Arpaio have to do with the merits of Saban's lawsuit is uncertain.

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