Below the Belt

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

Koebel would testify at Saban's trial that Hendershott personally had handed him the expedited sheriff's report within hours of the chief's interview with Ruby Norman and urged the reporter not to reveal to anyone how he first heard about the rape allegation.

Under oath, Hendershott denied it all, claiming he didn't know how Koebel physically got the sheriff's report. No matter, the speed with which the sheriff's office turned over the Saban report probably set a record for dissemination of a public record by the agency.

The MCSO is infamous in local media circles for delaying the release of requests for information — especially from outlets critical of Arpaio and his policies.

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.

In a strategy many journalists in attendance at the trial found laughable, Dennis Wilenchik told jurors that the sheriff's office is a beacon of upholding Arizona's public-records law. That is why, the attorney said, Rob Koebel had gotten the incident report so promptly.

Wilenchik did not mention that it took the sheriff's office 144 days to release the same report to New Times or that an investigator for Saban never did get the document after filing his own public-records request.

Another irony is that the sheriff's office's ongoing attempt to have New Times prosecuted criminally sprung from a reporter's request for Arpaio's real estate records, the release of which are mandated by the state public-records law. Those records are still being withheld by Arpaio's office.

Many people at Saban's trial wondered if Ruby Norman would be called as a witness. But that never happened, probably because of Norman's reputation. She is long-estranged from her three adoptive and natural sons because of, each has said in court documents, her propensity for making false accusations, many sexual in nature, against family members.

Why she came forward with her allegations seems destined to remain one of this case's enduring mysteries.

In Rob Koebel's April 2004 TV story, Norman was shown in silhouette only. A few hours after that interview, Koebel performed a classic media ambush of Dan Saban at a political rally. The reporter asked the candidate if he had raped his adoptive mother, as the sheriff's police report was suggesting.

A stunned Saban denied the allegation and pleaded with Koebel off-camera to contact his brothers about his adoptive mother's past false claims against her family. That never happened.

That night, Channel 15 went with the "exclusive" as its lead story on the 10 o'clock news, displaying the hastily prepared sheriff's report that cited Dan Saban as a rape suspect.

The case itself, which the sheriff's office soon shipped out to its counterparts in Pima County a few days after the story ran, eventually was dropped for lack of evidence.

During the trial, Chief Deputy Hendershott testified straight-faced that he hadn't been trying to toss Rob Koebel a hot one. He said he had just wanted to know from the reporter what information already was floating around about Ruby Norman's allegations.

"It's very, very infrequent that I would call a reporter," Hendershott said. "But does it happen in our office, and does it happen in law enforcement? It happens a million times a day across the United States, and there's nothing wrong with it."


The courtroom was packed with news media the day Sheriff Joe Arpaio testified in the trial of Dan Saban's defamation suit against the sheriff's office.

Dressed in a dark suit and flanked by two plainclothes security men as he entered the courtroom, Arpaio was testy in answering Joel Robbins' questions.

"Do you think it's fair to have folks who work for you investigating political opponents?" Robbins asked the 76-year-old lawman.

"Yes, I think it's fair," Arpaio growled.

Robbins asked the sheriff if he had been worried about Dan Saban upsetting him in the 2004 race.

"I had 71 percent [of the expected vote] two months before April," Arpaio replied. "So why would I be concerned?"

During a break, Robbins told Arpaio that he would fill up the water jug on the witness stand for the sheriff.

"Make sure you don't put any poison in there," Arpaio replied, chuckling at his little joke.

In his closing argument, Dennis Wilenchik pulled a $1 bill out of his pocket and waved it in front of the jury.

"That's what Dan Saban wants you to award him because he has [asked for] no monetary damages," Wilenchik said.

Indeed, Saban did not even ask for a buck — only that the jury find that he had been defamed.

The attorney then stuck the bill back in his pants pocket and said, "But I won't give this to [him], because he doesn't deserve it."

Joel Robbins invoked a disgraced U.S. president in his closing statement, reminding jurors that "Richard Nixon was never more powerful than in 1972 when he ordered Watergate. But powerful, evil people do powerful, evil things not because they're going to lose elections, but because power corrupts.

"At the end of the day, if you say $1, that will have vindicated this man, but it won't have paid for what they did to him."

But the jury found that Dan Saban had not been damaged, at least not in the legal sense of the word.

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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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