Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf Man?
On a sunny winter morning not long ago, Don Sorchych -- editor and publisher of the weekly Sonoran News -- doused his lox, eggs and onions with hot sauce and talked about how he came to live in Cave Creek. Hybrid wolves. He breeds them, crosses wolves with malamutes and keeps them in a pen outside his house. All legal, but it didn't go over well with his neighbors in Mesa, Sorchych's last place of residence. So in the early '90s, Sorchych moved to a place where he had no close neighbors -- Cave Creek, a tiny town on the northeastern edge of Maricopa County, the final frontier of an increasingly tract-homed metropolis.
Sorchych and his half-dozen wolves have been very happy. He speaks fondly of Romulus, his alpha male -- the leader of the pack. He speaks fondly of his newspaper, too. The Sonoran News celebrates its sixth anniversary this month, and in that time, many Cave Creekers have come to consider Don Sorchych the alpha male in town.
The publisher is gracious and elegant. Past 70, Sorchych (pronounced SORE-chek) is tall and well-built in black jeans and a tweed jacket, with bright blue eyes and bright white hair, sparse on top but reaching to his shoulders. Reading glasses hang around his neck. Over eggs and toast he's full of funny stories, the charming host of his adopted hometown.
Pick up the 30,000-plus circulation Sonoran News, and you'll meet a different guy. Sorchych's column, "My View," is legendary in these parts for its scorched-earth take on the local news of the day and the people who make it. Sorchych considers himself a devout preservationist, and anyone who does anything he believes jeopardizes Cave Creek's environment -- particularly his pet project, the purchase of Spur Cross Ranch -- is fair game. He has no shortage of fodder, as growth is about the only issue that matters in this town that looks south and west and sees Phoenix and Scottsdale rolling toward it at a rapid pace.
But Sorchych's attacks are not necessarily related to growth. He makes it mean, and he makes it personal: A former town councilwoman with a drug problem is "Ellen the Felon." A development attorney with a friend in the hallucinogenic business is Noel "Peyote" Hebets. When a disabled woman fought the town to allow her to build a wheelchair ramp from her property down to Cave Creek, as her neighbors had, Sorchych went after Easter Seals.
Sorchych has had a remarkable success rate -- if not in stopping growth, then in eliminating his enemies. "Ellen the Felon" Sands, as well as almost every councilmember he's taken out after in six years, is gone from office. So are two mayors, countless town staffers and members of the planning and zoning commission and other boards -- many have quit in disgust with the Sonoran News, replaced, by and large, with people Sorchych has celebrated.
Noel Hebets has little luck with the town. And as for Liz Weideman, the woman in the wheelchair -- who just happened to run into her trouble with the town when Sorchych moved into a house overlooking her proposed path -- no path. At least, not yet.
Again and again, the accused say they aren't allowed their say in the Sonoran News, mistakes are not corrected and letters to the editor are not printed. When a story wrongly accused then-council candidate Peter Curé of blading his lawn -- sacrilege, particularly for the guy who had written the town's native plant ordinance -- Sorchych did not correct the error. When the local chamber of commerce wanted to refute an attack, it had to run an ad; Sorchych wouldn't print its letter, the chamber says.
Former Cave Creek mayor Jacky Davis recalls that Sorchych did print a letter she sent, challenging him to write an editorial in which he didn't call anyone a name.
His comment, printed below her letter: "Pray for me Jacky."
Davis laughs. "Well, why should I bother?" she asks.
In a society where hatred of the media is practically an art form, it's not surprising that an outspoken small-town newspaperman would find himself at odds with local folks. But the depth of the animosity aimed at Don Sorchych is unusual, if not unique. Those he has crossed are obsessed -- even years after the attack -- insisting Sorchych has a hold on the town, control over those in power. He knows what goes on behind closed doors at town hall, they insist. Confidential documents are leaked to him. He's at every meeting. In another world, that's the mark of a good journalist. In Cave Creek, some insist, it's the mark of the devil.
Sorchych's enemies have hired private investigators to dig dirt on his background. They've nicknamed him "Sore Cheeks"; a wealthy real estate investor started a "Sore Cheeks Survivors" club and sent certificates to dozens of Cave Creekers. A raucous party was held at a local bar to celebrate the awards. The rumor around town is that one frequent Sorchych target actually stole the publisher's signature cowboy hat during a town council meeting, took it out back and urinated in it, then replaced it on his seat. Former Carefree mayor Hugh Stevens -- a Sorchych target -- is now so paranoid around the media he tapes all conversations. Local businesswoman Roberta Toombs just finished serving a year's probation for literally spitting in Sorchych's face.
And then, of course, there are the inevitable Nazi references.
"It's not a whole lot different than -- and this may sound very extreme -- but Hitler's Germany," says Peter Curé, a renowned landscape architect who quit his position as Cave Creek's vice mayor in disgust over Sorchych's attacks. "Because what happens is that a lot of these people believe this guy. If you print it long enough, people believe it."
Perhaps Svengali is a better comparison. It is almost as though Don Sorchych hypnotizes his readers with his harsh words and accompanying cartoons, numbing them with a barrage of negativity. Sorchych displays no remorse, taking a utilitarian approach -- get the bad guys out (or those he's decreed as bad) by any means necessary.
Part of Sorchych's breakfast chatter includes a lengthy discussion of his belief in metaphysics. "You're kind of a hologram," Sorchych explains. No one really exists. Perhaps that makes it easier to trash your neighbors, and take a trashing in return.
Oddly, Sorchych insists that his attacks are rarely personal. His response to Noel "Peyote" Hebets? "The guy is a cancer on this town." Sorchych doesn't recall refusing to run the chamber's ad, and doesn't specifically remember the piece about Curé's bladed lot, although he does remember Curé delivering a demand letter for $10,000 after some story that upset the landscape architect. No, Sorchych admits, there was no correction.
Sorchych does have his fans. The Sonoran News -- which covers not just Cave Creek but stretches down to north Scottsdale and west as far as New River -- has won frequent honors from the Arizona Newspaper Association, and Sorchych's attorney, Dan Barr, a celebrated champion of media rights, says his client is right on track.
"The First Amendment is exactly about protecting people like Don," says Barr. "Fear or malice toward none, that's . . . Don. Now, people believe that he hates them and has malice toward them, but they just don't know him very well."
Vince Francia, Cave Creek's current mayor, is another fan. Caveat: Francia doesn't have much of anything bad to say about anyone. He's a Zen Buddhist (day job: public relations at Turf Paradise, an odd combo) who says he and Sorchych meet frequently, but often to discuss philosophy, not town politics. Francia recalls that the two did not speak for a six-month stretch, years ago, after Sorchych called the then-councilmember "corrupt," but Francia says they got past that. The people who say Sorchych controls the town have ceded that power to him, Francia insists.
Some are ceding the town away entirely. Development continues in Cave Creek, but Sorchych can celebrate a small population decline among his enemies.
Former mayor Tom Augherton's voice catches and his eyes look wet when he speaks of how much Sorchych's words hurt. He's considered leaving town. Augherton's not alone. A couple years back, Dennis Wilenchik -- a successful Phoenix attorney and Cave Creek resident -- became one of Sorchych's targets. The attacks stopped as soon as Wilenchik resigned his position as chairman of the town planning and zoning commission, but he still hasn't recovered. Wilenchik thought about trying to buy the Foothills Sentinel, the other paper in town, so he could compete head to head with Sorchych. The lawyer understands the journalist's First Amendment rights, particularly when it comes to writing about public officials.
"I don't know that I can stand here and tell you that he's violated the law or anything. I wouldn't suggest that. What I'm saying is that he's using the power of that paper in a political manner that clearly is, I guess, his prerogative, but that is very harmful and damaging to the town because it's become a force to reckon with," Wilenchik says.
Ultimately, Wilenchik decided to just get the hell out of Cave Creek.
"I have my house up for sale right now because I don't want to live in that town any longer. I'm moving back to Paradise Valley. I do not want to have anything to do with him, with his control over the town. I think he's destroyed the town, and he's a little potentate."
Sorchych reacts calmly to such criticism.
"I don't see it that way," he says when asked if he's made unfair attacks, if he holds the town hostage. "Obviously, I wouldn't."
The insults roll off his back -- or so he says. "I've got very thick skin about that, and I really believe that I'm doing a service to the community, and I believe I'm right or I wouldn't say so, so I really don't spend a lot of time worrying about it."
The old-timers grouse about how much Cave Creek has changed over the years, but to the untrained eye, it's a perfectly preserved specimen of the Old West -- not the faux Western schlocky turquoise and boot stores you find wedged next to modern art galleries in downtown Scottsdale, but rolling, saguaro-covered hills, wooden signs and sawdust-floored bars with names like Horny Toad and Harold's. You can take a pass down Cave Creek Road and pretty much see the whole town.
It hasn't even really been a town for long; Cave Creek just incorporated in 1988. There was strong opposition to incorporation from those who wanted no regulation at all, but the inevitability of a takeover by Phoenix persuaded the majority of the residents to make Cave Creek official. The place has always attracted independent types, mainly gold miners and tuberculars, before bars opened on the main drag and attracted a rowdy crowd.
Life was tough so far from the big city. It's still tough, or at least different from city life. Power outages are common. Most of the town streets are not equipped with fire hydrants; instead, the fire department keeps a map of homes with pools. Unlike the neighboring town of Carefree, which caters to a more obviously upscale crowd, Cave Creek has historically shunned gated communities and other trappings. That's not to say that rich people don't live in Cave Creek -- a million-dollar home is not uncommon -- but you'll likely have to take an unpaved road to get to it.
One of the town's original newspapers, started by a group of local women, was called the Vacuum Cleaner and promised to suck up and report all the good news. But even before Don Sorchych started the Sonoran News, there was hard-charging journalism in Cave Creek. The Foothills Sentinel opposed incorporation and didn't like the controls the newly formed town council was placing on residents. Jacky Davis, a town founder and its second mayor, remembers fierce opposition -- she was even the target of a recall supported by the Sentinel -- but the difference between then and now, she and others say, is that while there have always been personalities in Cave Creek, Don Sorchych makes things personal.
When he moved to town in the early '90s, Sorchych found himself a house in a secluded spot, on the edge of a ridge overlooking empty desert. He loved the idea of living rural, having grown up in another tiny town, Depue, Illinois, 110 miles out of Chicago. The only business in town was a zinc plant, where his father worked. It's now a Superfund site.
Sorchych left Depue for the Navy during the Korean War. The closest he'd come to a career in journalism before 1995 was an aptitude test he took upon entering the University of Illinois after the Navy; he was told he was suited for a career in journalism. Instead, he went into electronics. It was a smart move, financially -- how many journalists can eventually afford to buy their own newspaper? Sorchych got involved in the microchip business, working for companies in Florida and eventually moving to Mesa in 1986 to take a short-lived job with a now-defunct firm, then working as a consultant for Intel, among others.
Two weeks after he'd moved into his Cave Creek home, a man knocked on Sorchych's door and asked if he could take a look at the empty land below the house. Turned out he wanted to survey the land that was to become a large subdivision called Hidden Springs, later to be known as Red Dog Ranch.
"That's the way I met my neighbors," Sorchych recalls ruefully.
He fought the development for more than a year, mobilizing neighbors, citing geographic surveys that said the land was unfit for houses, watching engineers. He filed an unsuccessful referendum against the development.
The local media wouldn't listen. Neither would the town council. "It was very clear the council was wired" to do the developer's bidding, he says. Sorchych spoke to a local businessman, Kent Myers, who he says tipped him off that the council met privately at a restaurant called the Wagon Wheel. Sorchych could come along if he liked, he says Myers told him. Did he want to be an insider or an outsider? (Myers denies the conversation ever happened.)
Sorchych was disgusted. At that point, the natural next step for many folks would be to either run for office or give up the fight entirely. Sorchych decided to buy a newspaper.
The Foothills Sentinel wasn't for sale, so he bought the corpse of a small paper in nearby New River called the Desert Observer. The first issue of the Sonoran News appeared in February 1995.
Tom Augherton, a town councilman at the time, was enchanted. Augherton is a dapper fellow, salt and pepper with round glasses, looking much more Washington, D.C., where he was raised, than Cave Creek. Augherton has worked in Arizona government for years -- including a nine-year stint as administrative chief of staff to then-attorney general Grant Woods -- but his first love was media. He has both bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism. He recalls that he and others welcomed the second paper.
"How could a news organization not be a good thing in a community, in terms of disseminating news? And especially as elected officials, we're all self-serving. All we care about is our name and our photograph in print. We thought, 'My God, it's even better. People will know what great guys we are, what great gals we are. They're going to think we're terrific.'"
He remembers the first issue of the paper -- on a broadsheet rather than a tabloid, bigger and more impressive than the Foothills Sentinel.
"[Sorchych's] paper was better from the first day. Larger print, photographs, kind of a more sophisticated layout."
And it wasn't just the cosmetics that won Augherton over. For the first time he could remember, he was learning new information by reading the newspaper.
"The paper now became critical because it actually would tell you what's going on, especially the unofficial stuff between the lines that was not a part of the council meetings."
More people were coming to town meetings, voicing concerns, bringing up neighborhood issues, Augherton says. "There was an energy in the town we had not had before."
Augherton recalls that he'd visit Sorchych's office in the early days of the paper. Augherton's young daughter would fall asleep in a chair while the men talked about journalistic theories.
"He said that when he retired from politics he wanted to be a stringer for the Sonoran News," Sorchych recalls. "But I don't think he wants to anymore."
Sorchych is right. The relationship survived through the Sonoran News' first big coup in 1986, a two-to-one recall against then-mayor Bernard Buffenstein, who Sorchych continually castigated as a micromanaging, unresponsive leader with a king complex.
Looking back, Augherton now realizes that Sorchych's paper was bringing about a subtle but significant shift in Cave Creek. "There was something happening in the town which had never happened before," he says, "which was that grassroots activity had shifted away from policies and over to personalities."
Augherton didn't realize the danger until he was appointed to fill Buffenstein's seat. Initially, Augherton and Sorchych got along well. Perhaps too well, Augherton now reflects.
"One day, in a moment of exuberance and enthusiasm, he said to me, 'You know, if you wanted to be mayor of this town for 20 years, you could be. It's yours for as long as you want.' . . . There was a little chill when he first said that, because the implication was that somehow he had a piece of the action now -- he had been responsible for Bernard's departure and he had been responsible for my ascension to the chair of the mayor."
Like many people who leave big-city life for Cave Creek, Augherton considered himself a devout environmentalist. He chuckles, remembering his early days as a member of the town planning and zoning commission, when he drove around Cave Creek with a video camera, indignantly taping the destruction of saguaro cacti (and not knowing that it is perfectly legal for a private landowner to destroy the plants). But as mayor, Augherton says he couldn't always take a hard-line position every time, on every issue.
So Don Sorchych blasted Tom Augherton on a weekly basis. Augherton was horrified. And depressed. He'd lost his confidence, he says, convinced that Sorchych was right -- he couldn't lead. He pleaded with Sorchych one night, outside the Sonoran News office, to back off, but the next week the attack was even worse.
Augherton's mother-in-law, a local Realtor, was a frequent target, too, which Augherton is convinced was designed to further humiliate him. Sorchych called him by the diminutive "Tommie," and teased that Augherton didn't sound like an Irish name, although the former mayor says it's a derivative of Augher, a town in Ireland.
There was no way he could run for reelection, Augherton says.
"He had completed his personal destruction of me as the mayor, and to a great extent, of me as a resident of the town."
Sorchych praises Augherton as gifted and articulate, but disingenuous. "How long can you be a lobbyist and stay honest?" he asks.
The lowest blow: Like many other officials, Sorchych painted Augherton as "pro-development."
"What's the worst thing they can say about you in Cave Creek?" Augherton asks. "Not that you're the town rapist, not that you're a polygamist, not that you're a debtor or an IRS evader, but God forbid if you are a friend of the developer. Then you are the lowest level of hell."
And even worse? That you didn't support the acquisition of Spur Cross Ranch.
During Tom Augherton's time in office, the town of Cave Creek annexed Spur Cross Ranch -- 2,250 acres of pristine Sonoran desert on the northern end of the town. Abutting the Tonto National Forest, the land is home to endangered wildlife, Native American ruins and one of the last year-round creeks in Maricopa County.
It was an aggressive move, one done to try to prevent development of the land by its owners, Great American Life Insurance in Cincinnati and local businessman Herb Dreiszesun. The annexation tied the land up in litigation for some time, but ultimately, land trades were rejected, and the state and county decided to buy the land outright and make it a park.
Augherton used his government contacts to lobby for money. The appropriation of a total of $15 million -- between the state and county -- was celebrated as a major coup for Governor Jane Dee Hull.
But there was just one problem: Even in the face of conflicting appraisals, the landowners wanted more money. They got it, to the tune of $6.3 million, thanks to Cave Creek's first-ever property tax, passed by the people last year. And thanks to Don Sorchych, who hyped the election with the kind of vigor usually reserved by the national press for Arizona Senator John McCain.
Sorchych sees himself as the town watchdog, but he was the town cheerleader in this case.
Shortly after the $15 million deal was made, then-Cave Creek town attorney Tom Irvine resigned his position -- another name to check off of Sorchych's enemies list, for various decisions Irvine made (including some having to do with Sorchych's disputes with neighbors) that the publisher didn't like. The town hired a lawyer named Gary Birnbaum to replace Irvine. Birnbaum was an interesting choice. For one thing, one of his associates, Fredda Bisman, had recently left her post as Scottsdale's city attorney, amidst allegations she violated open meeting laws -- hardly a ringing endorsement for a town attorney candidate.
And Birnbaum had some baggage of his own. Years before, Birnbaum had worked for savings and loan magnate Charlie Keating and had been charged by federal regulators with setting up sham land sales. Birnbaum denied this, but his law firm settled the case for more than $5 million.
Keating's career, coincidentally, had been launched by Carl Lindner, the owner of Great American Life Insurance.
This coincidence was too close for comfort for some Cave Creekers. Gary Schmitt, a local activist, brought the information to Sorchych's attention, but the publisher, usually an attack dog on disclosing conflicts, says he refused to print it because Schmitt was just out to get Birnbaum.
And when Augherton approached the town council to raise concerns about the hiring, Sorchych skewered him.
Then there's the comment current Mayor Vince Francia made recently, in a conversation about Sorchych.
"In the last two years, most of our conversations had to do with Spur Cross," Francia acknowledges -- and then the conversation gets interesting. "Many people do not know, but Mr. Sorchych played his part, too, not only via his newspaper in supporting the citizenry in trying to preserve Spur Cross, but Mr. Sorchych had a contact in Cincinnati at the Great American Insurance Company, and it was very key as we proceeded through the negotiations to really have an understanding of what Cincinnati was thinking, because they are the ones that owned 70 percent of Spur Cross. Mr. Sorchych made that information available to me so that we could plan."
Available? Like, by putting it in the paper? Oh no, Francia says -- this was often between the two of them. (Sorchych confirms this.)
Another $6 million plus, as it turned out.
The view from Liz and Michael Weideman's patio is pure desert -- total quiet, no signs of civilization -- until you look up, and there on a hill, about a city block away, sits Don Sorchych's house. Sorchych has a perfect view of the partially finished path down to Cave Creek that the Weidemans were building, until the town told them they did not have the adequate permits to build it.
Liz Weideman, a pretty young blonde in a hip pink fur hat, is wheelchair-bound, thanks to a drunk driver who hit her several years ago. She assumed there would not be a problem with building a path, because her neighbors have similar paths to the creek. She says town and county officials assured her she had the right permits, and she had sunk several thousand dollars into the project when suddenly, permission was denied.
Ron Short, the city official who originally approved the project, no longer works for the town and refused an interview request. But Weideman says the halt coincided with her new neighbor's arrival last year.
The Weidemans had been warned about Sorchych -- he has a history of fighting with neighbors, which began with the Red Dog Ranch development and extended to a protracted lawsuit over a lot surrounding his previous house. He finally lost the case on appeal and ultimately moved out of the house, after two of his nemeses -- ousted mayor Bernard Buffenstein and Kent Myers -- built houses right outside Sorchych's bedroom and living room.
Kerry Dudek, one of many former town managers run out of Cave Creek by Sorchych, recalls that Sorchych called town hall often -- and not always on official newspaper business.
"He . . . called frequently to lodge complaints against people in the community, neighbors, mostly, about zoning issues," she says. Sometimes he wrote about the people, too, as was the case with Joan Dodd, Tom Augherton's mother-in-law, who was working with a development very close to his former residence. (He does not disclose that they were neighbors.)
Liz and Michael Weideman decided to drop by the Sonoran News one day to meet Sorchych. He was pleasant but arrogant, Liz recalls, and when they told him about the path, he said he had no problem with it. Sorchych even brought over some raw elk legs for Liz's dogs to chew on. An odd Welcome Wagon, but Cave Creek is odd, she figured.
Shortly thereafter, a police officer came to the house and issued Liz Weideman a criminal misdemeanor charge. She says town and county officials told her Sorchych was behind it.
Sorchych says he learned about the path before he moved into his new home, and it has nothing to do with Liz Weideman and her wheelchair. The ramp is an "unapproved assault on that wash," Sorchych says. "That's not what Cave Creek is about."
In any event, now the Weidemans can't finish the path. They can't sell the house because as it is, the path is too dangerous. It would cost $40,000 to fill the dirt back in, Weideman says, and she doesn't have the money. Her legal bills have topped $25,000.
"This is a nightmare, what he's done to me. I've lost half the hair on my head from stress. That's why I'm wearing a hat. I've got a bald spot," Liz Weideman says. "Could a newspaperman really have that much pull?"
Oh, yes, say the Sonoran News enemies who have rallied behind Liz Weideman and against Don Sorchych. Roberta Toombs (the spitter) and her life/business partner Lester Rechlin, have taken up Weideman's cause. They have a longtime grudge against Sorchych because they say he pushed to limit their business -- arts and crafts festivals in Cave Creek. Rechlin actually came to blows with the Cave Creek town manager over the Weideman matter at a recent meeting. (There's been no resolution as to who started the fisticuffs.)
And Noel Hebets, the development attorney with the peyote nickname, is behind Weideman, as well. Hebets says the moniker is born from his friendship with Leo Mercado, a well-known peyoteist in southern Arizona. Hebets insists he's never used peyote illegally, and says he actually met Mercado on an aloe vera purchase. ("Recreational use," Hebets says. "Better than anything in a jar or tube.")
Hebets represents Continental Mountain, a large proposed development that Sorchych really hates. He's been a frequent target lately.
Not everybody feels as though they have allies in the fight against Sorchych. David Phelps, a handyman with a penchant for local politics and a reputation as an environmentalist, was elected to the council when Buffenstein was recalled. Like Augherton, Phelps had a good relationship with Sorchych before he took office. But as soon as Phelps attended a meeting with developers -- just to listen, he insists, he didn't even take a sweet roll -- Sorchych pounced. Soon Sorchych was comparing him to slippery Bill Clinton, accusing him of colluding with Augherton, voting with Augherton in exchange for a job in government. Phelps declined to run for another term.
"Don didn't run me out [of office]," Phelps recalls. "What ran me out was the people who knew he was lying about me who didn't have the courage . . . [to] stand up for me."
Friends would come up to him in the grocery store to lament the attacks, but only one actually had the guts, Phelps says, to stand up to Sorchych. It was Phelps' dear friend, Geoffrey Platts, the noted poet and environmentalist who died late last year.
Cut Phelps Some Slack
By Geoffrey Platts
to say so . . .
is plain frippery.
As a man
and a friend,
why, he's there
to the end.
You've got it
Him I do defend.
honest as the
day is long.
his fellow man . . .
does everything he can.
So be a good chap --
cut him some slack.
And get back on the track.
Dean Brewer is the last of a dying breed: a town official not in step with Don Sorchych and unwilling to step down.
When Brewer was elected to the council years ago, he was considered the most liberal member, the strongest environmentalist. Now he's been pushed to the right and finds himself fighting council actions he says rob property owners of their rights. This has not gone unnoticed in the Sonoran News, but Brewer is running for reelection in March anyway. There are just eight people running for seven seats, and Mayor Francia is unopposed. Laura Cox, a councilmember who has sometimes been at odds with Sorchych, isn't running again. She insists it has nothing to do with the Sonoran News, but Brewer says she's told him otherwise.
Word has it that Brewer considered running for mayor, but he wasn't that brave. As it is, Augherton is concerned Brewer will lose his seat, but Brewer doesn't seem too upset by the prospect. He's got a good job as an engineer at Honeywell and a Harley he'll have more time to ride. He just refuses to give in, as others have.
"I don't really care, as long as it doesn't affect my family and as long as he can't hurt me professionally. I'm going to oppose him until the day I die -- or he does, whichever comes first."
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