Below the Belt

It came as little surprise to most people in the know that Buckeye Police Chief Dan Saban lost his recent defamation trial against Sheriff Joe Arpaio and company.

That's not to say that Saban didn't have legitimate gripes with how key members of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office had worked with a Channel 15 reporter in 2004 to smear him with an "exclusive" about an unproven rape allegation made while Saban was the sheriff's main political opponent in the Republican primary.

What made the publicized allegation particularly inflammatory was that the supposed rape victim was Saban's adoptive mother, an Apache Junction woman who claimed the incident had occurred more than 30 years earlier, when Saban was a teenager.

The rape allegation remained just that — an allegation — as no charges were ever filed against Saban. But countless thousands of Maricopa County residents saw Channel 15's story about the vicious and unsubstantiated claims, which is precisely what Arpaio's people wanted.

New Times wrote about Dan Saban's civil case in "Boob's Tube," (January 25). The article described how Arpaio's powerful top aide, Chief Deputy Dave Hendershott, had manipulated Ruby Norman's rape allegations against political foe Saban into a media hit piece through Channel 15 reporter Rob Koebel.

That New Times article also noted that, as odious as the actions of Hendershott and others were, a Saban win at trial was a long shot because of one loaded word: damages.

Certainly, Koebel's "exclusive" story on April 30, 2004, was just what Arpaio's spin doctors had ordered. But the key question legally was how, exactly, Saban had been damaged by the ugly affair.

The TV story didn't mortally wound his campaign against Arpaio. Saban's poll ratings actually improved in the months before the September 2004 Republican primary, probably because of the ringing endorsements of several law-enforcement organizations and Senator John McCain. (Arpaio's payback came earlier this year when he backed McCain rival Mitt Romney for president.)

Saban also could not claim economic loss because Buckeye hired him in early 2005 as its police chief for about as much money as he had been earning as a Mesa police commander before retiring to run for sheriff.

Joe Arpaio won his fourth term in 2004 with almost 56 percent of the vote. The sheriff's margin of victory over Saban was more than 10 percent, a good-sized win but his narrowest since first being elected in 1992.

A nine-person panel voted seven to one against Dan Saban's defamation claim on the afternoon of September 7, with one juror undecided.

It truly was a "trial of hate," as one of Joe Arpaio's aides put it one morning outside Superior Court Judge Robert Houser's courtroom.

"Is there anyone in this world that you don't like?" Saban's attorney, Joel Robbins, asked Chief Deputy Dave Hendershott on the witness stand. "Maybe me?"

Hendershott replied, "Well, no, counselor. I don't like you, sir."

That was definitely an understatement. Arpaio and his camp hate Robbins and Saban. And, since 2005, Maricopa County has been using private Phoenix attorney Dennis Wilenchik to act as the sheriff's legal hit man in and out of court.

Wilenchik's extra-legal activities on behalf of Arpaio — which will be examined in this story — show the lengths he will go to destroy the reputation of one of the sheriff's political enemies, in this instance, Dan Saban.

Wilenchik's own ill will toward Saban and Joel Robbins revealed itself in e-mails he wrote this year to Rob Koebel, the former Channel 15 reporter. Robbins placed those e-mails into the record near the end of Saban's defamation trial.

Wilenchik wrote to Koebel that Robbins "is like a blithering idiot programmed to just blurt out shit regardless of what is asked. They [he and Saban] are pathetic, and if there is any justice, they will be found out for the lying sacks of crap they really are."

Robbins has a similar loathing for Wilenchik, as he admitted to Judge Houser in one of the many sniping sessions out of the jury's earshot during the recent trial.

Though his side prevailed, Wilenchik apparently did not succeed in convincing the jury that the plaintiff and counsel were the "lying sacks" he had called them in his e-mail.

Remarkably, in light of their verdict, a trio of jurors interviewed separately by New Times after the trial said they may vote for Dan Saban if he opposes Joe Arpaio in 2008.

In fact, the three panelists said they did not trust much of the testimony of Chief Deputy Hendershott, trusted ex-reporter Koebel's testimony even less, and yet believed much of what Saban said on the stand.

"In the real world, it probably would have been a whole different kettle of fish," said juror Stan Koch, a 54-year-old Tempe man.