MORE

Molecular Damage

Shawn Dirks, January 2004
Jackie Mercandetti

Shawn Dirks says he couldn't wait to report for duty. After months of training, February 17, 2001, would mark the first time that Dirks would be patrolling alone as a rookie officer with the Phoenix Police Department.

That night, a Saturday, 42-year-old Lori Levinson was out on a date that ended badly at about midnight.

Three hours into his shift, about 1 a.m., the 25-year-old officer came upon Levinson in her Honda SUV at the intersection of 21st Street and Chandler Boulevard in Ahwatukee. He arrested her for drunken driving.

An hour later, as they pulled into the police station, Levinson accused Dirks of forcing her to have anal sex during the traffic stop.

Dirks said then -- and he continues to insist to this day -- that he did nothing of the sort.

But three years later, the repercussions of whatever did happen on that chilly February night still are being felt.

Shawn Dirks lost his career.

Lori Levinson says she's been plagued by continuing mental problems and alcoholism.

Dirks, who never was charged criminally, is a defendant in a pending civil lawsuit that Levinson filed in Maricopa County against him, his wife, and the City of Phoenix.

All but one piece of evidence strongly suggests that Levinson -- a four-time divorcée with a long history of accusing men of sexually assaulting her -- is lying.

But that piece of evidence, as controversial as it has become, is a doozie: In June 2001, a local police crime lab said it found a speck of Lori Levinson's DNA on the base of Shawn Dirks' penis.

But for the existence of what amounts to a microscopic bit of DNA that one expert has called "inconclusive," the allegations against Dirks would have vaporized.

However, to the Phoenix police and to the Levinson legal camp, the tiny swipe of DNA is proof positive that Levinson and Dirks engaged in sexual contact of some kind.

Says Levinson's attorney, Mark Breyer, who has funded her civil case for two years: "If two people are alone together and they both deny having sex, but the woman's DNA ends up on the man's penis, nobody's going to believe they didn't have sex. And in this case, the woman -- my client -- says the man raped her, and I believe her."


As Shawn Dirks tells the story, he was on routine patrol in the early morning hours of February 18, 2001, when he spotted the white Honda SUV at the Ahwatukee intersection. Its motor was running, the right blinker was on, and the headlights were off. But Dirks says he couldn't see a driver as he pulled behind the vehicle. He turned on his strobe lights and spotlight, and approached the vehicle on foot.

When he looked into the driver's window, Dirks saw a woman slumped in the front seat, apparently asleep. It was Lori Levinson.

Levinson appeared disoriented and disheveled when she came to, and he could smell alcohol on her breath when she finally opened her door to hand him her driver's license.

Dirks told Levinson to stay put, and he stepped back to his squad car, where he radioed in her license information. When he returned to Levinson's SUV a few minutes later, she was speaking to someone on her cell phone.

She asked Dirks to speak to the other party, whom she said was her FBI agent boyfriend. Dirks then talked for a minute or so with Bill Hanchak, a Phoenix FBI agent.

Hanchak later confirmed he'd told Dirks that he'd been on a date with Levinson that evening, but things had ended badly around midnight. Before hanging up, Hanchak also said Levinson had been drinking heavily.

But Levinson refused to take a field sobriety test at the intersection, and continued to be uncooperative.

From his squad car a few minutes later, Dirks sent a message for assistance to Phil Marriner -- the only other officer on duty in Ahwatukee that night. Officer Marriner responded within minutes.

After speaking by phone with a sergeant, the pair decided to arrest Levinson for DUI.

With some effort, the two officers pulled the obstructive Levinson out of the car, handcuffed her, and put her in the back of Dirks' cruiser.

Dirks then escorted the woman to the South Mountain precinct, 17 miles away. During the 22-minute trip, Dirks says, Levinson repeatedly asked him where they were going, and kept scooting around the back seat, even disappearing beneath his view now and then.

When they pulled into the station, Levinson demanded that Dirks get a female officer and a video camera. The rookie walked over and informed another cop that something was up with his DUI suspect.  

Within minutes, Dirks heard Levinson tell a police lieutenant that she'd been the victim of an anal rape.


Phoenix police lieutenant Tracy Montgomery first spoke with Lori Levinson around 2:30 on the morning of February 18.

She would spend the next eight hours or so with the alleged rape victim, and audio-taped all but the first 10 minutes or so of their conversations.

While still sitting handcuffed in Dirks' car, Levinson first told Montgomery that Dirks had punched her and knocked out a tooth cap before sexually assaulting her.

Montgomery and other officers saw that Levinson's pants were down below her buttocks. That raised the immediate question of why a rapist cop would deliver his partially unclad victim directly to the police station.

Within the hour, Lieutenant Montgomery spoke with FBI agent Hanchak. He told her that Levinson had lost the tooth cap in his presence earlier that evening, and that its disappearance had been the catalyst for a verbal fight and the unhappy end of their date.

Shawn Dirks says he was incredulous when he heard Levinson first make the allegations against him. He says he immediately suspected Levinson had made up the story in an effort to avoid a DUI prosecution.

Dirks' wife says he called her early that morning to say he'd be getting home a little late.

"He said, You're not going to believe this,' then told me what was up," Jill Dirks says. "I kind of thought he was joking, though I knew it was something he wouldn't joke about. I wasn't freaked out or anything. I trusted the Phoenix Police Department to do an adequate investigation."

Investigators have said they were ready to dismiss Lori Levinson's allegations as unfounded in the weeks after February 18.

In the prior five years, Levinson had accused three men -- a work supervisor, an ex-husband and a boyfriend -- of sexually assaulting her. Two months before the Dirks incident, she'd filed a police report accusing a girlfriend's husband of having physically assaulted her. In January 2000, she'd accused police officers of sexually manhandling her outside a Phoenix restaurant.

The first allegation, involving her supervisor, won her a settlement from the company she was working for. All the rest were unsubstantiated.


The best evidence Dirks has going for him is Lori Levinson herself, a woman with a well-documented history of vindictiveness, manipulation, impulsiveness and stormy relationships reminiscent of Glenn Close's twisted character in Fatal Attraction.

Like the Close character, Levinson also is intelligent, and capable of being seductive and charismatic to less discerning members of the opposite sex.

More specifically, her accounts of the night in question are plagued by gross inconsistencies.

But then there's that DNA.

If the DNA was Levinson's, how it got onto Dirks' penis other than direct contact remains uncertain.

Asks Levinson's attorney, Mark Breyer, "Even if you believe the defendant [Dirks] that my client is the boy who cried wolf,' does that mean that the wolf didn't show up this time?"

Breyer concedes that Shawn Dirks "presents very well and seems very sincere, straightforward. He and his wife seem like the all-American couple."

That's a fact. There is nothing in Dirks' known background that points to deviant or criminal behavior.

Shawn Dirks was born in the rural farming town of Luverne, Minnesota. His father was the manager of a farm implement store, his mother a registered nurse. They still live in Luverne.

It was an idyllic upbringing, says Dirks, a naturally quiet man with chiseled, clean-cut features, and a straightforward manner.

A star hurdler, Dirks earned a track scholarship after high school to Dakota Wesleyan University. But after suffering a hip injury during his freshman year, Dirks says he lost his scholarship, quit school and returned to his hometown.

He worked there for a few years, but says he "got sick of hanging out." He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force at the age of 20.

The military proved to be an excellent fit. After a few stops, the Air Force transferred Dirks in 1997 to Luke Air Force Base in Glendale. He worked for the "Wild Ducks" 309th Fighter Squadron as an avionics troubleshooter on F-16 jets.

In 1997, Dirks' superiors chose him as Airman of the Year for his 400-strong squadron. The following year, he won Luke AFB's award as its Avionics Specialist of the Year.

Dirks was working weekends at a Scottsdale nightspot in early 1998 when he met Jill Wyers, an engaging Valley native two years older than he.

"My line was, You want to see my planes?'" Dirks recalls. "I guess it worked."  

Replies Jill, "I always loved those F-16s."

They were married in January 2000. Soon after that, Shawn Dirks had to make a career decision. His next assignment in the Air Force would take him to Korea for a year, without his new wife.

The money and future opportunities were tempting, but in the end, Dirks says, it was an easy call.

"Family first, everything else comes after," he says.

In the spring of 2000, Dirks says, he applied with the Phoenix Police Department. "I always had police work in the back of my mind, so I took the tests for the hell of it, and aced them."

Phoenix hired Dirks in June 2000, and he reported to the police training academy the morning after officially leaving the Air Force.

"I took to it right away," he says. "Actually, it was a lot like the military. Tell me what you want, and I'll do it."

At his graduation months later, Dirks remembers, he told assistant chief Kevin Robinson, "I'm going to give you 20 years."

Dirks trained for months with experienced officers on the 41-beat, a high-density zone in central and south central Phoenix. He says he loved the constant action, and the camaraderie with his new colleagues.

It was an exhilarating time for Shawn and Jill Dirks. In December 2000, Jill had given birth to the couple's first-born, a son named Aaron.

The following month, Shawn Dirks learned he'd been assigned to Ahwatukee. "I barely knew it existed," he says. "I was thinking, Hope I don't get lost.'"

The couple studied maps of the area together in preparation for his first assignment as a solo officer, the 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. shift four days a week.

In mid-February, Dirks rode for two shifts in Ahwatukee with Officer Phil Marriner, a young officer himself with just more than one year on the force.

Dirks says those first two nights were uneventful, but fun. His third shift, the first by himself, would be another story.


Lori Sue Levinson was born in Michigan in 1958. Though her attorney declined to let her speak to New Times, details of her life are contained in court records and other written materials.

Levinson's parents divorced when she was a young girl. Levinson has said under oath that her mother's second husband, a Florida businessman, started to molest her sexually when she was about 13. (The stepfather denied those allegations in a deposition taken last year in connection with Levinson's pending civil case against Dirks.)

After graduating from high school, Levinson got married for the first time as a teen, but soon divorced.

She had two children in her 20s, with her second husband. That union also failed.

In a deposition for her civil case, Levinson said she resided in several states before landing in Arizona in the mid-1990s -- working as a cocktail waitress, dental assistant, cosmetologist, mutual-funds salesperson, and, finally, selling insurance.

Levinson testified she was making more than $100,000 a year in the mid-1990s as an insurance company manager when she got transferred to Arizona. After that company fired her, she found a job with another insurance firm, Insure America.

In the late 1990s, Levinson said in deposition, she settled a sexual harassment claim against a vice president of Insure America for about $160,000. She said the supervisor had forced her to have sex in her hotel room during a sales conference in Texas. The case never made it to court; the company settled early in the process.

"I was too drunk to consent," she said when asked about it in connection with the Dirks case, adding -- as she often has in similar incidents -- that she had little memory of what happened that night.

Levinson said she's been married and divorced four times, most recently in 1998. Maricopa County court records show that her divorce from her fourth husband became final in early 1998.

Sometime later, Levinson testified, her ex-husband raped her. Again, she claimed she was too drunk to recall much: "I remember the police were called, I remember him having a gun to my head, I remember him forcing me to have sex with him."

Outgoing, chatty and flirty, the diminutive woman with the big brown eyes never had a problem attracting men. But her mercurial nature made it difficult, to be kind, for them to stay attracted.

Case in point came on the evening of January 30, 2000.

That night, a 911 operator took a call from an employee of an IHOP restaurant at I-10 and Ray Road.

Phoenix police reports, audiotapes of the 911 call, and subsequent interactions between Levinson and a responding Phoenix cop tell much of the story:  

The employee hands the phone to Lori Levinson, who shrieks, "He's got a gun. He raped me. I don't want to get into it right now . . ."

The operator asks Levinson about the weapon.

"He pulled a knife on me, then he pulled a gun on me because I wouldn't give him a blowjob."

Just outside the restaurant, Levinson's date, a guy named Mark, sits by his pickup truck as officers attempt to calm her.

Unable to do so, the officers handcuff Levinson and are forced to drag her out of the restaurant. According to police reports, she kicks a police sergeant in the groin during the scuffle, and loses the cap of a tooth -- the same tooth cap she'd later claim Shawn Dirks punched out during her alleged rape.

Officer Steven Mead tries to conduct an interview with Levinson, who's handcuffed near his police car.

"He raped me, he beat the shit out of me," she sobs loudly, sounding inebriated.

Levinson asks Mead to lift up her shirt and look at her right breast, which she says had been injured.

"No, I don't want to do that," Mead replies.

"You taking my shirt off?" she persists.

"I'm not taking your shirt off," the officer says. "I don't want to. I said a doctor would take a look at you."

Levinson finally alleges that Mark had raped her outside a Phoenix restaurant.

She tells Officer Mead that witnesses had seen her date drag her out of the restaurant "literally by the ankles. You want to call them? Nooooooo. You want to handcuff me . . . I am the fucking victim!"

Eventually, Levinson claims Mark had forced her to perform oral sex outside the Phoenix restaurant.

In response, she says, she'd bitten his penis.

"I'm not Lorena Bobbitt," Levinson explains, referring to the woman who bit off her wayward husband's penis in the early 1990s. "I'm not trying to bite it off."

She continues to disobey Mead's repeated orders to step into the back seat of his squad car.

Finally, Mead gets Levinson into his vehicle.

"Owwww!" she howls. "Break my fucking legs! Oh, my God!"

Soon, she switches her tack, and tells Mead that another officer had twisted her right breast while subduing her.

Mead points out that he'd just seen her kicking herself in the back of his police car.

"Kicking myself?" she replies. "No, I was kicking the door."

Mead's police report says he heard Levinson say she was "bruising myself for the lawsuit." But the audiotape reveals she actually told the officer, "You're asking for a lawsuit."

His pithy reply: "Stand in line."

When Mead asks her if Mark had used any weapons in his alleged assault, Levinson now says he hadn't.

Police transport her to the station, where her daughter picks her up. No charges are filed against anyone.

The next day, Phoenix sex-crimes detective Don Newcomer phoned Levinson about the alleged rape.

Levinson now painted a far different picture from the one she had given police at the IHOP about 12 hours earlier.

"[Mark] just took my hand politely and said, Let's go -- we're leaving,'" she told the detective about the moments before her escort allegedly had attacked her. "Next thing I know, he pushes me down. I'm laying now. My head goes back and hits the ground, I'm laying on my back, he unzips his pants and sticks his dick in my mouth."

Levinson said she later agreed to accept a ride home with her alleged assailant: "I was thinking, Okay, when we get by the house, where am I going to jump out?'"

She said she'd "escaped" at the IHOP, and ran into the restaurant for help. After police arrived, Levinson said, an officer had pulled her low-cut top to her stomach and told her, "What do you think is going to happen to you dressed like this?' That's when I got ballistic, and I'm pretty sure that's when I kicked him in the balls."

Newcomer later spoke by phone with Mark, who denied wrongdoing. He said a drunken Levinson had come unhinged on the ride home after he declined her offer to spend that night and the next day with him.

"And at that moment, it just snapped," Mark said. "[She said], You don't know who I am. You don't know what you're about to lose.'"

He said Levinson repeatedly had slammed her head against the windows of his pickup as she ranted "about her stepfather molesting her, and that men don't accept her for what she is."  

Mark claimed he'd pulled over near the IHOP because Levinson kept threatening to jump out of his moving vehicle.

Later that day, Detective Newcomer told Lori Levinson that he wouldn't be pursuing criminal charges against Mark.

"Okay," she told him. "But the police committed a sex crime against me."

"And what was the sex crime?" the detective asked.

"The marks on my breast are from them," Levinson said, exasperated. "From them pulling my breasts out."

She ended her interview with Newcomer by telling him to go home to his wife.

"Be nice to her so she doesn't bite your dick off," Levinson advised.


Though he wasn't thrilled about it, Shawn Dirks' first assignment was in mostly residential Ahwatukee, a far more benign setting than the tougher parts of town in which he'd spent much of his training.

In the hours before he was to report for duty that night, Dirks and his wife say they made love for the first time since Aaron's birth. He then showered, donned his uniform and went to work.

During those first hours, Dirks says, he responded to a report of a barking dog, checked on illegally parked cars at a movie complex, stopped by a residence after getting reports of a loud party, and stopped at a convenience store for a soda.

Shortly before 1 a.m. -- and this is crucial to this case's time line -- Dirks says he returned to the party to see what was up. He tells New Times that he spoke there to a girl who was eager to get home before her 1 a.m. curfew. He says he ran the license plates of some cars parked there, including the girl's.

Dirks says he resumed patrol after leaving the party. He estimates that, at about 1:10 a.m., he saw two cars speeding in the other direction on Chandler Boulevard.

Just as he was about to give chase, Dirks says he saw something at 21st Street and Chandler Boulevard that interested him more -- Lori Levinson's white Honda SUV sitting with its headlights off and engine running.

Dirks neglected to radio in his location and situation, which, for reasons of safety, officers are supposed to do. That lapse would come back to haunt him in the aftermath of Levinson's allegations.

"I know that was a mistake," he says. "I was new -- the week before I was with motors [the traffic unit] and we didn't call in our stops."

As Dirks walked up to the SUV, he says he saw Levinson for the first time.

At 1:13 a.m., Dirks called in Levinson's driver's license information from his squad car. Records show Levinson phoned FBI agent Hanchak three times in a nine-minute stretch that began at 1:18 a.m.

Hanchak later told investigators that Levinson hadn't said anything to him about being raped, even though she was locked, alone, in her SUV during at least one of the calls while Dirks was back in his own car.

Dirks says he soon realized his first potential DUI arrest wasn't going to be a smooth one.

At 1:18, he sent a written message from his squad car to Officer Phil Marriner requesting assistance at the intersection. At 1:23, Marriner told Dirks he was en route, and he arrived a few minutes later.

Levinson wouldn't unlock her door at first, Marriner later testified, but she did so after he'd waved her driver's license at her.

He and Dirks then pulled the uncooperative Levinson out of her car and placed her under arrest; Dirks handcuffed her behind her back. The pair then placed her in the back seat of his squad car.

According to Dirks, that was the only physical contact he had with Lori Levinson.

Marriner said Levinson's pants were unzipped, though buttoned at the top, and that her leopard-skin blouse was unbuttoned to mid-chest. He also noticed her manicured, bright-red fingernails, and that none were broken.

"She was screaming, I don't understand,'" Marriner later said, and she kept insisting that he, too, speak to Bill Hanchak, whom she called her husband.

Marriner said Dirks drove Levinson's vehicle to a nearby church parking lot, about 75 yards away and not visible from the intersection.

That left Marriner alone with Levinson for a few minutes. But, Marriner said later, the woman never told him about being sexually brutalized, which would have occurred a few minutes earlier.

As Dirks prepared to drive Levinson to the precinct for booking on the DUI charge, Marriner reminded him to inform dispatchers that he was transporting a female who had been drinking.  

Dirks did so at 1:56 a.m., and also advised the station of the reading on his odometer. At 2:18 a.m., he contacted a dispatcher to say he'd just arrived at the precinct.

Within minutes, Lori Levinson was screaming rape.


Phoenix police Lieutenant Tracy Montgomery went to see what was happening in the parking lot outside the station.

Montgomery, a female officer who since has been promoted to commander, walked over to Dirks' patrol car, in which Lori Levinson sat, hands still cuffed behind her.

She saw that Levinson's pants were pulled down below her buttocks, and that her makeup was smeared. Levinson soon told the lieutenant that she'd been "torn apart" by Dirks.

Montgomery later described Levinson's accounts of the alleged rape, which changed often, as "fluid."

At one point, Montgomery said, Levinson was "indicating to me that she was placed on all fours for the assault to happen. Later, in a totally separate conversation, she had indicated that wherever this happened, it happened outside the patrol car . . ."

Montgomery also recalled Levinson telling her the rape happened as "she was being transported, the car was stopped, she was removed from the vehicle, and that's when the assault occurred."

The lieutenant said Levinson also alleged "she had been struck in the face by Officer Dirks and that [her] tooth was dislodged at some point. The tooth -- there were many stories about the tooth."

Montgomery spoke by phone with FBI agent Hanchak, who said Levinson was lying about getting her tooth cap punched out by Dirks. Said Hanchak, ". . . I know Lori, I know she can -- probably is trying everything in her defense to get out of being pulled over."

The lieutenant said she saw scratches on Levinson's lower back, but she suspected they'd been self-inflicted. She also noticed that one of Levinson's acrylic fingernails -- on the middle finger of her right hand -- was broken and had two jagged edges.

Montgomery recalled seeing dexterous women in the past pull items out of their front pockets, even when handcuffed, and speculated that Levinson could have undone her belt buckle and pulled her pants down on the way to the precinct.

Tracy Montgomery says she increasingly became convinced Lori Levinson was lying.

Around 5 a.m., Lieutenant Montgomery and another officer escorted Levinson to Phoenix's Family Advocacy Center to undergo a rape-kit test.

However, while there, she wouldn't speak to Phoenix sex-crimes detective Darren Burch about the alleged rape.

Shortly after Levinson got to the center, records show, she again phoned Bill Hanchak. He testified later that Levinson told him for the first time during that call that an officer had raped her and knocked out her tooth cap.

Hanchak later told Detective Burch he'd reminded Levinson that she'd lost the cap in his presence earlier that evening.

"I know she was like creating some kind of fabricated story," he told the detective.

Levinson finally agreed to be examined at the advocacy center by Kim Yedowitz, a registered nurse who also serves as chairperson of the Arizona Sexual Assault Network.

Yedowitz prepared to do what she'd done more than 600 times before -- try to put the alleged victim at ease, get a history, identify areas of trauma, and take blood and body samples necessary to provide authorities with DNA.

But Levinson declined to give her any details of the alleged rape, and generally remained uncooperative.

Yedowitz later said Levinson had told her in response to a direct question that Dirks' penis "went into her vagina," not her anus.

The nurse observed the scratches on Levinson's lower back and buttocks, and also noted four tiny tears "outside the anal area in, basically the crack or the fold between the buttocks cheeks."

Last November, Yedowitz said in a deposition that she couldn't tell if the scratches and the tiny tears had been self-inflicted or came during an assault.

About the back scratches, she testified, "You will also notice that she had a broken fingernail with two pointed edges on it. That to me leaves a high degree of suspicion about the majority of the injuries that are on her body."

And Yedowitz also said the outer anal tears were very unusual -- she'd never seen anything like it in an assault -- and she suspected Levinson could have caused them by intentionally overspreading her buttocks.

Detective Burch obtained a search warrant to take blood from Levinson to determine her blood-alcohol level (it was 0.11, over the legal limit).

But Burch inexplicably never asked for a warrant to get scrapings under Levinson's fingernails, or under Shawn Dirks' nails. The results of those scrapings could have answered many questions, including who had inflicted the scratches on Levinson's back. (Interestingly, Dirks' nails are bitten to the quick, and his wife says they've been that way since she met him in 1998.)  

In the hours after Levinson had made her allegations, Dirks ate at a restaurant with a police sergeant, then awaited his turn for testing at the Family Advocacy Center.

He says he urinated at some point, and certainly touched his penis while doing so.

Dirks says he phoned his police union representative, who advised him not to submit to an interview with Detective Burch, who would be investigating for evidence of a possible crime. That's not uncommon at the Phoenix department, according to officers who work there.

But Dirks readily allowed Kim Yedowitz to take swabs from his penis for DNA testing. "I had no problem with that because I hadn't done anything to be afraid of," he says.

The next day, February 19, Officer Dirks submitted to a mandatory interview by a sergeant from the department's Professional Standards Bureau. Then he returned to duty without missing a shift.

Two days after the alleged assault, Burch got a call from Lori Levinson. But she still didn't want to talk about the rape, and asked only about the results of her blood-alcohol test.

"I need to understand why you don't want to talk to me," Burch told Levinson.

"Well, I have a theory," she replied. "I'm just trying to sort this whole thing out in my head. And to be honest with you, Darren, there's a lot I don't remember."

What she now did remember, Levinson said, was that the rape had happened in the church parking lot, and she'd lost her tooth cap during the rape.

On March 6, Detective Burch drove the swabs taken from Levinson and Dirks to Mesa Police Department's crime lab. Mesa was chosen to avoid any appearance of bias by Phoenix's own lab.

According to Virginia Smart, a senior criminologist with the Mesa lab, Burch summarized the case for her, and told her he believed Levinson's allegations were unfounded.

For the next three months, Dirks says he worked the Ahwatukee beat without a hitch, "having fun, doing my job, learning a lot."

Then, on June 12, 2001, the case took a wildly unexpected turn.

On that date, Smart informed Burch that the swabs collected from the base of Dirks' penis had revealed the presence of Lori Levinson's DNA.

By any standards, the amount of that DNA was extremely small, and Smart also had detected none of Dirks' DNA on swabs taken from Levinson's body.

But she told the detective that could be consistent with a non-ejaculatory rape, or a rape committed by a man wearing a condom.

Smart also said it was highly unlikely that Dirks had picked up Levinson's DNA on his hands while arresting her, and later transferred it to his penis, say, while urinating.

Dirks got the bad news in a phone call from Detective Burch.

"He said the DNA had come back unfavorable toward me," he says. "I said, That's impossible,' something like that. Then I told my wife."


The stunning DNA results convinced Burch and others at Phoenix Police Department that Dirks was guilty of something.

"I believe that the DNA evidence provides the basis that some part of her body came in contact with his penis," Burch said later. "I have no idea what occurred. Could she have grabbed him? Could she have made a sexual advancement towards him? . . . In that case, she would have come in direct contact with his penis, but it would not be a sexual assault as it relates to him as the perpetrator. Or a consensual situation, it would not be a sexual assault."

Within a few days, the department reassigned Dirks to desk duty, where he remained until he was fired that August.

Darren Burch apparently came to believe that Dirks' whereabouts had been "unknown" for up to 45 minutes before the officer first called in Levinson's license information -- plenty of time to have committed rape.

But a New Times review of Burch's time line and other relevant documents shows that his analysis was flawed.

Police logs show that Dirks last radioed in his exact location at 12:32 a.m. while he was checking on illegally parked cars at the AMC Theatres at 48th Street and Ray Road.

Between 12:49 and 1:01, Dirks ran four license plates on his computer, but didn't report his location.

Dirks says all four vehicles were parked near a home about a mile or so from where he allegedly raped Levinson. He says he'd driven by there earlier in response to reports of a loud party, and decided to go by again.  

Outside the home, Dirks says, he spoke for 10 or 15 minutes with a high school girl named Katie Sneed, before sending her on her way. At that time, Dirks says he also ran the license-plate numbers of four cars, including Sneed's.

Police logs indicate he typed in Sneed's license plate on his squad-car computer at 1:01 a.m.

If that was the approximate time Dirks also spoke with Sneed, he would have had but 12 minutes to do the following before calling in Levinson's license information at 1:13 a.m.:

Resume patrol in Ahwatukee. Happen on a perfect victim -- a drunken woman with a history of crying rape. Handcuff her. Anally rape her. Tidy himself up. Remove the handcuffs. Move his victim's vehicle out to the street (or command her to move it). Pull his car behind hers. Leave her alone in her vehicle with her motor still running. Return to his own car to run her driver's license on a police computer.

But Detective Burch said in his report that no one could say for sure where Dirks had been between 12:32 until 1:13 a.m. He alleged that Dirks could have written down the four license-plate numbers at any time, and typed them in at his convenience.

Burch later said in a deposition that he'd interviewed the drivers of all four of the cars that Dirks had typed in. Burch claimed to have "ascertained where they parked, [and] if they had any contact with any kind of patrol officers. They all indicated no, they did not."

But an audiotape of the detective's August 2001 phone interview with Katie Sneed shows he asked her the wrong questions, and didn't listen closely enough to her answers.

Burch first told Sneed he wanted to know where she'd parked her car February 17, six months earlier. He gave her the names of the drivers of the three other cars he also was interested in, saying they'd been at the same location that night.

Sneed told him that the other three drivers were friends of hers.

Burch continued, "My investigation has to do with whether or not an officer who I'm looking at -- the focus of the investigation -- was at a theater parking lot or whether he was at this parking lot [at 21st Street and Chandler Boulevard] where this church is."

"I honestly don't remember parking at a church," Sneed responded, "so I'm pretty sure it must have been at an AMC because I usually go to AMC."

"So do you ever remember coming in contact with a police officer who was asking questions or was running your license plates or anything like that?" Burch asked.

"Nope," Sneed replied. "The last time I talked to a cop, honestly, was at a party."

Her unprompted reference to a party should have been a cue to Burch, but the detective didn't catch it. Instead, he returned to the crucial date, February 17, which didn't strike a chord with the girl.

Sneed told him she'd probably jotted a note about the event, whatever it was, in her date book. Burch's report does not indicate that he ever followed up on that lead.

But Sneed later told lawyers in the Levinson civil case that she had written something by the date in question on her calendar.

She recalled it said, "B's party, police officer by it."

That officer, Shawn Dirks says, was him.

In the weeks before the Phoenix Police Department fired him, Dirks underwent a second, far less friendly interview with a sergeant from the Professional Standards Bureau.

Concluded a report issued by that bureau on July 12 about its probationary employee:

"While Ms. Levinson was both uncooperative as a victim and had a motive to fabricate this allegation, the physical evidence indicates that sexual contact between Officer Dirks and Ms. Levinson did in fact occur."

The internal investigation also concluded Dirks had given "false, incomplete or misleading statements, or willful omissions to impede an investigation . . ."

However, the investigators left "unresolved" the allegation that Dirks had "sexually assaulted" Levinson.

Phoenix police officials fired Dirks in August 2001, and issued a statement to the media.

"We do our best to thoroughly screen our applicants," Detective Tony Morales said at the time. "But on occasion, someone like Dirks gets through."

Though Dirks says he knew it was coming, the firing staggered him.

"I felt numb," he says.

Adds his wife, Jill: "Actually, he was more than numb. He was crushed."  


In the fall of 2001, Detective Burch sent his report to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office for consideration as a sexual assault prosecution against Shawn Dirks.

But prosecutors say that, for many reasons, including Lori Levinson's continuing lack of cooperation with authorities, they declined to file charges against the ex-officer.

Then, in February 2002, Levinson filed a civil lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court against Shawn and Jill Dirks, and against the City of Phoenix.

In part, the suit alleged that the city improperly had trained and supervised Dirks, and should have known of his alleged propensity for sexual violence.

The Dirkses countersued.

No longer a cop, Shawn Dirks found work for a time at a Home Depot. Jill Dirks returned to full-time work at a mortgage company, instead of taking maternity leave with her newborn as planned.

In the spring of 2002, AzPOST (Arizona Peace Office Standards and Training Board) tried to revoke Dirks' certification to be a police officer. Though Dirks says he was bitter and confused, he decided to fight the case at a hearing before an administrative law judge.

The Phoenix police union gave its attorney, Mike Napier, approval to represent the fired officer at the hearing, which took place in three sessions over that summer.

Lori Levinson never testified; it's not clear why. But Shawn Dirks did testify, and acquitted himself well, according to the administrative law judge who heard the case.

Clearly, however, the hearing's most important witnesses were the DNA experts.

Virginia Smart, the senior criminologist with the Mesa lab, said she was convinced that Lori Levinson's DNA was on the base of Dirks' penis -- so sure she "conservatively" estimated the chances of that DNA randomly matching Levinson's at 45 million to one.

Smart said it was a "completely remote" possibility that Dirks had transferred Levinson's DNA from his hands to his penis while urinating.

"In my experience," she testified, "there's an awful lot of things to go through before you get to the penis if it's on your hands. So you're going to be wiping it off as you go."

In response to a question about the struggle during Levinson's arrest, Smart said: "That would explain if I had her DNA on his hands. It doesn't explain why it would be on his penis."

But Charlotte Word, lab director at Maryland-based Orchid Cellmark and one of the nation's foremost DNA experts, testified she couldn't say Levinson's DNA was on the penile swabs.

Word agreed that Levinson could not be excluded as a possible source of the DNA. But she said most scientists are loath to positively identify a "donor' with such a scant finding of DNA.

"We're left in a situation where it's basically an inconclusive result," Word testified.

Last October, Levinson's attorney asked Word about the odds of transferring DNA from one's hands to penis. "I can't tell you it can't happen," she said. "It seems pretty remote. But transfers do occur, and it either happened or it didn't, and I don't think there's a way to have an opinion on it."

Speaking generally, Superior Court Judge Ron Reinstein -- a member of the National Commission On the Future of DNA -- says of the transfer issue, "It has come up in many other cases nationally. Sometimes, it's a legitimate issue, sometimes it's not."

In his closing argument at the AzPOST certification hearing, Mike Napier addressed the puzzle of the DNA and its effect on the case:

"A shred of DNA has some kind of mystique that it's so conclusive, that it's unquestioned, that you can't doubt it. There is doubt. And you're left with Levinson, that's what you got left -- and your common sense. And you're left with Shawn Dirks and Jill Dirks.

"This is a monumental wrong. It's huge. My client's life has been turned upside down. And for this woman, this is a cruel sport fueled by a motive, and it's time to set it right."

Speaking for AzPOST, assistant state attorney general Dan Christl reminded the judge to focus on the DNA.

"We agree, [Levinson's] detrimental to our case, but we cannot ignore the scientific evidence," Christl said. "We have a right and obligation to go forward to protect the public. . . . We don't rely on Lori Levinson."

But Judge Diane Mihalsky didn't buy that argument. In August 2002, she sided with Shawn Dirks in a comprehensive 38-page ruling.

"Neither the circumstantial nor the expert evidence," the judge wrote, "establishes by a preponderance [51 percent] that Mr. Dirks engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with Lori Levinson while she was in his custody."  

The judge said even Christl had acknowledged Levinson was not credible, and concluded, "No substantial evidence indicated that a sexual assault had occurred."

Mihalsky discussed at length the differences between the opinions of Mesa's Virginia Smart and Cellmark's Charlotte Word.

"Dr. Word is more experienced and better qualified than Ms. Smart," she wrote. "[I] find Dr. Word's expert opinion testimony to be more consistent and credible than Ms. Smart's."

The ruling was an uplifting but ultimately hollow victory for Shawn Dirks. Though he applied to several local police agencies in its aftermath, no one would hire him as an officer.

Dirks says he began to realize that he didn't even want to be a cop anymore.

"It's not worth it," he says. "I don't want to deal with it."


On successive days in December 2002, Lori Levinson underwent a psychiatric evaluation and a deposition, the latter by an attorney for the City of Phoenix.

Attorneys for both sides denied New Times access to the evaluation, which was conducted by nationally known Scottsdale forensic psychiatrist Steven Pitt.

But in the deposition, Levinson claimed to recall little about being raped in February 2001. She said she did recall stopping in the church parking lot that night because she was too drunk to drive.

"My next memory," Levinson testified, "is being in extreme pain, somebody sodomizing me, screaming, struggling, feeling like it was lasting forever . . . I think -- I believe, that I was bent over the driver's seat."

The next thing she said she remembered was being in the back seat of a police car.

Levinson said she recalled nothing about being handcuffed, having her tooth knocked out by Dirks, or ever seeing another officer at the scene. Nor did she know how her vehicle had gotten from the church lot to the street.

"Is it your testimony that the officer placed you in the back of his patrol car with your pants down?" the city's Georgia Staton asked her.

"I don't know," Levinson said.

During the deposition, Levinson now recalled Dirks had threatened her on the trip to the police station, telling her "that I'd better not say anything, nobody would believe me anyway. If I said anything, my life would be made a living hell."

Staton asked Levinson why she had sued Shawn Dirks.

"For justice, to get him off the streets," said Levinson, who is living in Las Vegas these days.

"Do you want money?"

"I don't know."

"What do you want?"

"I want justice served."

"And what does that mean to you?"

"It means getting him put behind bars where he belongs."


Lori Levinson's lawyer, Mark Breyer, says he's eager to start the civil trial, which is scheduled for April.

"Somebody's right and somebody's wrong here, and the jury is going to tell us who that is," Breyer says.

Shawn Dirks says he's been enjoying his new job as a technician for a fire-protection firm. He says he's sick of hearing the name Lori Levinson, but that he, too, is anxiously awaiting his day in court.

Jill Dirks says she's very proud of how her husband has comported himself since being accused of a horrible crime.

"Shawn is a great husband and a great dad, a great guy," she says. "This has been such a scary thing for us."

Jill Dirks pauses for a moment before completing her thought.

"This shouldn't have happened to him," she continues. "There are two entities who put us into this position, one being Lori Levinson and the other being the City of Phoenix. I still think the Phoenix police are going to call us and say, We're sorry we did this to you, sorry we didn't do a decent investigation on the front end. Sorry we didn't believe you. Please take your job back.' Call me dumb."

E-mail paul.rubin@newtimes.com, or call 602-229-8433.


Sponsor Content

Newsletters

All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >