Longform

Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf Man?

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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."

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.