Police Controlling Media Again on Serial Predator Case

By Ray Stern

A Phoenix man is sitting in jail today on suspicion of touching, grabbing, and possibly trying to kidnap or molest a dozen young girls in recent weeks.

His name is Robert Jesse Payan, 28. But police don't want you to see who he is yet. They haven't released his mug shot. They won't confirm whether Internet pictures of a man matching the suspect's description are of the suspect. And they won't say whether their suspect sketch (above) resembles the man, even though police acknowledge the sketch helped catch him.

As New Times reported on July 18, Phoenix police have already tried to stop news reporters from talking to any witnesses or victims in the case, though one TV news outlet — Channel 3 (KTVK) — bucked the request and ran one such interview regardless.

But Channel 3, like others in the news media, has held back on publishing pictures of Payan, as the police have requested. That's mainly because Phoenix police and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office haven't released an official photo. According to Detective Reuben Gonzalez, the reason is that "our investigators are still working with victims to conduct photo lineups and process forensic evidence."

As this police spreadsheet of the attacks shows, the victims were young and their descriptions somewhat vague. Police are worried that if they release the jailed suspect's photo, one of the victims or witnesses might see it on TV or elsewhere, distorting recollections and screwing up the investigation. It seems the cops believe they've nailed the guy on several attacks but want as many victims as possible to identify him in order to heap on the charges.

Whether that's the right call is merely opinion, however. Though the cops will probably release the suspect's photo today or tomorrow, perhaps the delay will mean another victim will never come forward. It could also be argued that once an arrest has been made, the public has the right know exactly who this guy is.

Sybil Hoffman, Channel 3's assistant news director, says she still believes her station made the right call in airing the victim interview.

"The police are not happy with us," Hoffman says. "But we stood our ground."

Unlike in that situation, though, withholding the suspect's picture while police interview the victims and do lineups is understandable, Hoffman says.

Like Channel 3, New Times was able to find photos that could be of the jailed suspect. However, without official confirmation, New Times has decided not to publish those photos — another journalism ethics problem, to be sure, but kind of a no-brainer. It would be horrendous to link an innocent person to these perverted attacks.

Phoenix police deserve praise if it turns out they got the right man in this case. According to news reports, they put Payan under surveillance for about a week before taking him in. But the reason they were watching him was because witnesses had identified him from the sketch — which, quite possibly, they had seen because of the extensive media coverage.

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