Below the Belt

Lawyer Dennis Wilenchik's spearheading Joe Arpaio's attempt to smear his chief political rival

Legally, a defamatory statement "tends to bring a person into disrepute, contempt, or ridicule or to impeach the person's honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation."

Saban had the burden of proving, by clear and convincing evidence, that Hendershott "knew the statement was false when made or acted in reckless disregard of whether the statement was true or false."

As it turned out, those burdens would be too much for Saban to bear at trial.

Daniel May
Disgraced former TV reporter Rob Koebel was a key witness in Dan Saban’s recent trial.
Disgraced former TV reporter Rob Koebel was a key witness in Dan Saban’s recent trial.

The filing of the lawsuit allowed Dennis Wilenchik to delve into every aspect of Dan Saban's mercurial personal life, including his awful experience in the early 1970s with his adoptive mother, Ruby Norman.

As the case neared trial, an out-of-court settlement wasn't on the horizon.

Saban earlier had promised to drop the suit — in which he asked for no damages — if Joe Arpaio resigned. Fat chance.

Naturally, Saban was angry at everyone responsible for the story that aired on Channel 15 on the evening of April 30, 2004.

In the story, Ruby Norman accused Saban of raping her more than 30 years earlier, when he was in his teens. She first had gone to the East Valley Tribune to tell her tale, but a reporter there passed on it.

In early April 2004, Norman had e-mailed the sheriff's office with her name and phone number, claiming that her adoptive son, then Arpaio's opponent in the GOP primary, had done some "not so honorable" things in the past.

As vague as that was, a sheriff's lieutenant left a printed copy of the e-mail with Hendershott, the county agency's day-to-day boss.

Hendershott soon spoke by phone with Norman for a few minutes and, according to his trial testimony, she sounded "credible." The chief deputy admitted taping his chat with the woman, but after Saban's attorney asked for a copy, he said he had erased it.

Almost immediately after speaking with Norman, Hendershott had his public-information department contact Channel 15's Rob Koebel.

Now living in Florida and out of the news business, Koebel was considered the coziest of all local reporters with the publicity-driven sheriff. In a broadcast media market hardly known for in-depth reporting, such an unofficial designation takes some doing.

Koebel lost his job a few months after his big scoop hit in late April 2004, when the embittered Saban camp informed Channel 15 that the reporter had donated money to Arpaio's re-election efforts that February. Of course, reporters are not supposed to show such bias toward the people they cover.

But putting aside Koebel's campaign contribution, his stories about "America's toughest sheriff" and his minions were more propaganda than journalism. Sheriff's officials had even considered hiring Koebel as a public-information officer after Channel 15 fired him, trial testimony revealed.

Koebel had been the obvious choice to Dave Hendershott for leaking the news about the budding Saban rape allegation. In hindsight, however, it is curious that that the chief did not keep an arm's length from the reporter and from Ruby Norman.

"Mr. Hendershott doesn't like to interfere with media relations at all because he hates reporters," Lisa Allen, Arpaio's director of communications, testified during the Saban trial.

Saban's lawyer, Robbins, asked Allen if it would surprise her to learn the chief had spoken to Koebel for a total of about 45 minutes on 10 different occasions during the week or so before Channel 15 aired the Saban rape story.

"There are times when reporters are embedded with stories [and] he might have to talk with them," Allen replied, not missing a beat.

Hendershott played his tape-recorded discussion with Ruby Norman over the phone for Koebel even before sheriff's investigators had interviewed the woman.

The chief told Koebel to file a public-records request so that the sheriff's office could immediately release an "incident report" on a case that hadn't even officially started.

In fact, nobody from Arpaio's office even had laid eyes on Ruby Norman by that time — didn't even know if she had a legitimate complaint or was a crank caller. Two detectives from the agency's Threat Assessment Unit (now the Selective Enforcement Unit) soon went out to interview Norman at her home in Apache Junction.

The detectives then returned to the sheriff's headquarters in downtown Phoenix to write their report, which was transcribed by a secretary on the spot. The four-page document listed Dan Saban as a "suspect" in the rape of his adoptive mother more than three decades earlier.

"We basically will take an initial report, and it doesn't matter who it is," Hendershott later told the Saban jury. "Whether it's Mr. Saban or the cow in the dell, we're gonna take an initial report."

Mike Worley, a retired police chief who operates Police Practices Consulting in Louisville, Kentucky, says Hendershott's actions were reasonable, at first.

"What you have here probably was okay in the initial part," Worley said. "You had someone making a claim that she was assaulted by someone who was fairly prominent. I can see where a lot of law enforcement agencies would do some follow-up."

But when told that Hendershott had played the tape of his interview with Ruby Norman for a TV reporter before investigators had interviewed the woman, Worley said, "Oh, boy. When you leak a report and contact friendly media to actually involve them in the ongoing investigation to this extent, it puts things in a whole different light. That was a significant breach of acceptable conduct, under any theory."

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5 comments
Hal Stiles
Hal Stiles

As a former resident of Phoenix (and a longtime reader of New Times and Paul Rubin), thanks for the great story on Dan Saban and his trial. I voted for Joe when I lived out there, and I wonder what I was thinking.

Tominator
Tominator

I think Sheriff Joe and Andy Thomas are a joke, they get the people voting them in because they are, "tough on crime", right? Well they are actually, "tough on families". They are creating criminals by over charging minor offenses and that is causing prison overcrowding. I had a 17 year old son that got into a simple car accident, no alcohol or drugs involved, and they set him up with 7-18 years in prison on a first offence. They are seething publicity rabid nut cases. Everybody in court in Maricopa county has the same comment, we are loosing our kids to sheriff Joe and Andrew Thomas when they could be joining the military, and not being a burden on the tax payers. I hope everybody sees this and votes them out, it is a misuse of authority and municiple funds.

toejam
toejam

Court is suppose to reflect public opinion!Video an print media reflects the editors opinion! Point being the media makes people guilty with out the use of the laws, and even if the person is innocent the media did it's damage, and gets away with it unless you have the $$ to fight it

Annalisa
Annalisa

I would like to see more about judge houser's jury instructions led to this kind of outcome. An accusation of rape ought to be defamation per se & damages shouldn't need to be proven. Sounds like there was a problem getting the court to do as it's supposed to do (follow the law); no big surprise there. Also, the Tribune mentioned that now Wilenchik (sp?) is threatening Saban with an abuse of process suit. Give me a break. So the drama goes on.

Jamie Carnahan
Jamie Carnahan

I'm embarassed to say that I didn't vote in the 2004 election that was mentioned in this story. I did vote for Arpaio before that. No more voting for Joe by me. I'm not sure about Saban either. Why can't we do better with our elected officials? It was a very interesting story, and I went back and read the earlier one, which really told what was going on. Thanks

 
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