Below the Belt

Page 7 of 7

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.

Though he says he plans to appeal the verdict, Buckeye's police chief must be wondering deep down why he's opened up his life to Joe Arpaio's legal hit man, Dennis Wilenchik.

Saban kept a stiff upper lip immediately after the verdict, saying only this about his ordeal: "This hasn't been any fun, believe me. But I thought, and I still think, it was very important to shine the light on this sheriff and what he and his people are capable of doing."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin