Ask people about Bob Dean, and they'll tell you that the 62-year-old retired military man has been a hardworking and highly respected member of Pima County's emergency-services office for the past thirteen years.

Even his boss, Sheriff Clarence Dupnik, says Dean is out of this world. But that's exactly Bob Dean's problem.

Dean accuses the sheriff and other county officials of failing to name him as Pima County's top emergency-services official because of Dean's interest in UFOs. Does Dean, a veteran of 27 years in the Army, believe in unidentified flying objects? He replies, "That's like asking me whether I believe in Boeing 747s. I've seen military documents about UFOs. I was assigned to NATO, had top-secret clearance and I read studies about them."

Dean, who's affiliated with a couple of networks of UFO buffs, makes no attempt to hide his interest in the subject.

"But I'm not a flake," he says. "I've not been one of these people who runs around wearing little hats and tee shirts and go off to all these strange conventions. . . . I don't run off on little tangents and talk about little green men, and I have a right to the damn job because I earned it."

Whatever is going on up in the sky, Sheriff Dupnik is taking a drubbing down on the surface of the planet.

Dean has filed suit in Pima County Superior Court, alleging violation of his right to free speech and also accusing the county of age/gender bias (a charge supported by the results of county and state probes).

The national magazine UFO calls the case "perhaps the first lawsuit of its kind." And when it comes to UFO buffs, count former Attorney General Bob Corbin as a sympathizer.

"People have a right to believe in whatever they want to believe," says Corbin, who makes no secret of his own avid interest in such subjects as the legendary Lost Dutchman gold mine. "I have an interest in UFOs, too. I don't know whether I `believe' in them or not. But I'm sure interested in them. It's fun. Does that make me not qualified to be attorney general?"

That's a sentiment echoed by Karen Paulsen, Dean's top rival for the position, who describes him as a "highly competent professional who's deserving of the job." Paulsen says, "He's interested in UFOs; I'm interested in antiques. He pursues his interest on his own time. Why should it matter?"

More than a year ago, Dean finished No. 2 to Paulsen in a formal competition for the job. Despite county procedures, after Paulsen turned down the post, Dean never was offered it. The current boss wasn't even a candidate for the job, and in fact, served on the panel that gave Dean his lofty ranking.

The lawsuit is a long way from a trial date, but just last week, the civil-rights division of the Arizona Attorney General's Office told Dean it had decided there is "reasonable cause to believe that discrimination has occurred" on the age/gender issue. A Pima County investigation already had produced a similar finding.

The results of the attorney general's investigation are still confidential, and assistant attorney general Heather Sigworth won't comment. Officials in the Sheriff's Department aren't talking about the case, either. "Our official comment is that we won't comment," says Sergeant Rick Kastigar.

But one theory, according to a source close to the case, is that Dupnik wanted to hire a woman for the job, but couldn't cite Dean's gender or age as a reason for not offering him the post after Paulsen turned it down. According to this scenario, Dupnik decided to cite Dean's interest in UFOs. That has left the door open for Dean and his attorney, Ron Stolkin, to claim that Dupnik is violating Dean's First Amendment right to free speech.

A key piece of evidence in the case is Dupnik's sworn testimony last January 9 to the attorney general's civil-rights investigators. In Dupnik's statement, according to Stolkin, the sheriff said of Dean: "Here's a person who in my opinion has an unusual belief. I am not saying a person can't believe whatever they want to believe, and there are a whole lot of well-thought-of people--scientists included--who happen to believe in UFOs. I don't happen to be one of those people.

"And in my judgment, I am not saying it detracts, but it's just something I wouldn't want our organization to be identified with for a variety of reasons. And when I have one of my top-level people on TV on a fairly regular basis because every time this [UFO] issue arises in the community, the press knows here's a guy willing to go on camera and say things about UFOs, who will go out and investigate these incidents in the community and they identify him as a ranking member of my organization.

"And in my judgment that is not desirable from a professional standpoint. Not the kind of image we want to project. And that is one of the reasons I won't hire Robert Dean in that particular capacity [as emergency-services director]."

Dean denies that he keeps a high profile in UFO investigations around the Tucson area. He says he was surprised that Dupnik even knew of his interest in the subject.

"If I were out here on the street making a damn fool out of myself and being on the front page of the papers and being on television and acting like an idiot, yes, I can see where the sheriff might find that that would be troublesome," says Dean. "But a bunch of people decided, having examined my credentials and my having gone through the entire hiring process, that I was qualified enough to be No. 2 on a list of final selectees. They must have determined that my professional capabilities were the things they were looking at."

Stolkin says he gave the sheriff's office "an opportunity to resolve this case with no embarrassment" but that "the word from on high--the sheriff--is `no deal.'"

Well, Dean says, he's not giving ground, either.
"I'm an old retired command sergeant major, and I didn't take this easily," Dean says. "It really angered the hell out of me." With a chuckle, he adds, "I have since kind of settled down. I've copied a little cartoon out of a newspaper, with an old guru telling a guy, `Simply sit there, center yourself and sue the bastards.'"

While the legal battle continues, Dean still works as an emergency plans and operations officer and the city/county radiological training officer. Among his duties, Dean trains deputies, cops and fire inspectors and responds to hazardous-material spills.

And he must be doing something right: Last month, Dean's peers gave him an "Excellence in Emergency Management Award" at the annual training conference of the Arizona Emergency Services Association.

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Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy