Civil Outcome

Former Phoenix police officer Shawn Dirks
Jackie Mercandetti

On his first solo night in February 2001, P hoenix rookie cop Shawn Dirks found himself accused of anal rape. He knew his accuser was drunk -- he'd encountered her during a DUI stop. But he didn't know until later that she was also mentally disturbed.

It quickly became evident to investigators that the woman, Lori Levinson, had a sordid history of getting drunk, getting mad, then spewing similar unsubstantiated allegations against men. And her stories about what had happened on the night in question seemed to change with each telling.

Dirks denied wrongdoing, and returned to work on a beat in Ahwatukee for the next four months. Then, stunningly, a tiny swipe of what could have been Levinson's DNA showed up on swabs taken of Shawn Dirks' penis shortly after the incident.

The presence of the DNA cost Dirks his job. The accusations cost him his budding career.

He had heard the vile rumors from inside his former department that he and Levinson had been lovers (even Levinson wasn't saying that) and that he was guilty as sin.

To be sure, there had been some legal victories for Dirks after his firing: The County Attorney's Office declined to prosecute him for sexual assault, and an administrative law judge recommended that he be allowed to keep his police certification.

Until last week, Dirks -- now 27 and the father of a small child with his wife, Jill -- was fighting the stigma of being an accused, if uncharged, rapist ("Molecular Damage," February 5, 2004).

But after a gripping, often tense two-week trial in Judge Paul Katz's court that ended April 29, a nine-person civil jury decided that Dirks had been telling the truth about what happened on that February night.

In unanimously rejecting Lori Levinson's claims, the panel said in effect that -- no matter whether Levinson's DNA had been on Dirks' penis or not -- the 44-year-old insurance saleswoman had fabricated the rape allegation against the rookie cop.

To win her case, Levinson only had to prove it was more likely than not that she'd had sexual contact with Dirks. That legal threshold is far lower than "reasonable doubt," the standard in criminal cases.

Levinson didn't attend the late-afternoon verdict, and hadn't commented to New Times during the trial. Her attorney, Mark Breyer, expressed disappointment with the verdict, and said later that he still believed his client's tale.

The usually stoic Dirks made it to court just in time, and broke into tears and a huge grin after hearing the verdict.

"No longer can you take a straight DNA case and say, ÔThat's it. It's over,'" said juror Dan Zehring during a freewheeling chat in the jury room after the verdict that included other jurors, opposing counsel, Shawn Dirks and his wife, Jill.

Actually, experienced law enforcement types know DNA usually is only one piece of a larger investigative puzzle. In this case, jurors concluded Dirks simply hadn't had the time to do what Levinson was alleging.

"The timeline was absolutely crucial," said jury foreman Bohdan Romanenko. "We felt that it [the alleged rape] could not have happened within the time frame that it had to have happened."

"We just added everything together, piece by piece, and looked it over again and again," added Stephanie Pratt, a budget analyst from Chandler. "There was a lot more to this case than the possible presence of her DNA."

In hindsight, the Phoenix Police Department took a far less thorough approach to its investigation of Dirks than this jury of nine average citizens. (Phoenix police officials did not return a call seeking comment for this story.) The department relied almost exclusively on the controversial speck of DNA and on a faulty timeline prepared by a sex-crimes investigator to conclude that sexual contact had occurred between the pair.

As for the DNA: Two experts testified Dirks could have picked up Levinson's DNA while handcuffing her at the scene or while placing her into his squad car, and then transferred it to his penis while urinating.

Interestingly, one of those experts -- Mesa Police Department senior criminologist Virginia Smart, who had processed the original DNA swabs -- had testified far differently at Dirks' police-certification hearing in 2002. Then, she said that such a "secondary transfer" of the genetic material was next to impossible.

The jury also learned that none of Dirks' DNA had turned up on genital and buttocks-area swabs taken of Levinson a few hours after the alleged assault.

Because of legal rulings, jurors during the trial just heard tidbits about Levinson's checkered past, which included myriad allegations of sexual abuse committed against her -- by her stepfather, an ex-husband, an employer, a boyfriend, and (in January 2000) another Phoenix cop.

All of those allegations were unsubstantiated except for a late-1990s claim against a work supervisor whom Levinson said had coerced her into sex during a sales conference in Texas. That case ended with a $160,000 out-of-court settlement in Levinson's favor before she ever filed a lawsuit.

Both Dirks and Levinson testified extensively during the trial. Dirks admitted he'd erred by not immediately calling for back-up on what became a suspected DUI situation, but said he'd done nothing legally or morally inappropriate on the night in question.

Levinson, however, testified emotionally about being jarred into consciousness from a drunken stupor in an Ahwatukee church parking lot (Dirks maintained he'd happened upon Levinson parked at an intersection with her engine running): "I remember being woken up in pain . . . I remember struggling and fighting and being sodomized and screaming. . . . The pain like that you don't forget. It wakes you up. Startles you into sobering up."

But Levinson claimed to have no recollection of a second Phoenix officer who arrived at the scene after Dirks requested assistance.

She had no plausible explanation for not telling the second officer, Phil Marriner, that she'd just been anally assaulted. Nor could she adequately explain why she hadn't informed her companion of earlier that evening -- an FBI agent -- during a series of cell phone calls to him within minutes after the alleged rape.

At Phoenix's Family Advocacy Center a few hours later, Levinson also didn't confide in key trial witness Kimberly Yedowitz, a veteran sex-abuse nurse.

"I figured there was no point," Levinson testified. "I wasn't going to sue. . . . Who's going to believe a drunk woman over a police officer?"

Each client was well-represented -- Breyer for Levinson and Shannon Ivanyi for Dirks. But the jury said the facts and witnesses in the case overwhelmingly supported Dirks.

"You did a good job with what you had," juror Zehring told Breyer in the post-verdict talk.

What Breyer had, according to the trial testimony of noted forensic psychiatrist Stephen Pitt, was a mentally ill client with serious alcohol-abuse problems who was prone to fits of rage and impulsivity.

"Hell hath no fury when people like Lori Levinson don't get their way," Pitt testified.

Breyer said after the verdict that he'd long known Levinson's account of the incident and her personal history meant for an uphill struggle at trial. He also knew Dirks was going to seem like a saint by historical comparison.

"Shawn Dirks is going to look like a bright, look-you-in-the-eye kind of guy," Breyer had told jurors in his opening statement. The barrister then conceded he wouldn't be able "to turn Lori into a stellar, look-you-in-the-eye kind of guy."

And Dirks' motive for suddenly and violently attacking an allegedly unconscious woman during a traffic stop on his first night as a solo officer? Breyer couldn't come up with one.

But Dirks' attorney, Ivanyi, argued passionately that Levinson had devised the rape story to try to get out of the DUI, which she did.

Afterward, a juror asked Dirks what had happened to his job with Phoenix police.

"They terminated me because of this incident," Dirks said, in his normally understated manner, not adding that the firing didn't happen until the supposedly telltale DNA results showed up four months after the incident. He now works as a technician for a fire-protection firm.

Someone then asked Dirks if he wants to ever be a cop again.

"I don't know," he replied, shrugging.

Juror Dave Dickerson, a Mesa math teacher, pointed out that "once an allegation like that is out, it ruins your whole life."

Before everybody said their goodbyes (Mark Breyer left after about 20 minutes of the hourlong session), juror Zehring, a retired Gilbert firefighter, summed up what appeared to be the panel's feelings about this troubling case.

"My hope is that you can put this behind you," Zehring told Shawn Dirks, shaking his hand soberly.

E-mail, or call 602-229-8433.

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