Below the Belt - Phoenix New Times article on Sheriff Arpaio's smear campaign against political opponent
By Paul Rubin, Phoenix New Times
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.
"I think most of us believed that Ruby Norman (Saban's adoptive mother) couldn't get her allegations out there on her own, and she got the help she needed from the chief [Hendershott] and the TV guy [Koebel]. But the judge told us to follow his instructions, and so there was no way around the way we ended up."
As for ex-reporter Koebel, another juror, who requested anonymity, told New Times, "I wanted to shower after that guy's testimony. What a liar!"
The panelists each criticized attorney Robbins as hard to follow and tedious. They did give high grades to Wilenchik for his courtroom focus but were not wowed by what they called an abrasive and cantankerous demeanor.
Dan Saban was fair game as a plaintiff in a high-profile defamation case, and Dennis Wilenchik had plenty to work with: The police chief's personal life rivals that of a soap opera character.
So it's hard to quarrel with Wilenchik's rabid cross-examination of Saban during the defamation trial. But newsworthy are the extra-legal machinations Wilenchik employed outside of the courtroom to try to ruin Saban's life.
The lawyer is as persistent as a Jack Russell terrier, and Joe Arpaio and his inner circle apparently have unleashed him to do as he wishes.
It's no exaggeration to say that if Wilenchik had his way, he would change the "b" in Dan Saban's surname to a "t."
Wilenchik's modus operandi in and out of court is to screech for as long as it takes, often baffling listeners and readers of his written diatribes with an onslaught of alleged details, facts, and connections.
In recent months, Wilenchik sent virulent anti-Saban letters to several authorities, including Governor Janet Napolitano, Attorney General Terry Goddard, the Buckeye Town Council, the Mesa Police Department (Saban's longtime former employer) and the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, the state police-certification agency known as POST.
The missives are filled with malevolent innuendo and, in many instances, outright misinformation and disinformation.
By continually tarring Dan Saban as a lying hypocrite and political opportunist who raped his mother, Wilenchik's admitted goal has been to try to get Saban fired as Buckeye police chief and to cost him his certification as a peace officer.
Case in point was his April 9 letter to Napolitano, Goddard, and Navajo County Sheriff Gary Butler, POST's current chairman of the board.
In it, Wilenchik alleged that "although allegedly a self-proclaimed man of honesty and truthfulness, Saban has purposely omitted vital information from his POST application as well as [provided] information laden with discrepancies during his pre-employment investigation [for the Buckeye job] and the polygraph examination completed by Ms. Wells of Tom Ezell and Associates, Mr. Ezell being a Saban campaign contributor."
Wilenchik was suggesting that the polygraph operator had manipulated the results in Saban's favor because her boss opposed Joe Arpaio's re-election.
Another example of Wilenchik's ruthless technique came in a June 13 letter to the mayor and town manager of Buckeye.
The lawyer titled one section of his 12-page diatribe "Saban Lives By a Double Standard, Hurting His Credibility As A Leader And As A Peace Officer."
Wilenchik wrote in bold lettering, "Saban has now admitted to having had sexual intercourse with his adoptive mother Ruby Norman, who has repeatedly and consistently claimed he raped her, and has said so under oath."
He went on to say that Saban had lied about the "shocking information" involving Norman during his 2005 job interview for police chief.
"The pre-polygraph information shows that Saban answered 'yes' to a question asking if there was 'forcible rape,'" Wilenchik wrote.
"And yet, [the POST] lawyer and representative I spoke with appeared entirely unconcerned about such information regarding a certified peace officer. Hopefully, you will not share that cavalier attitude on behalf of the Town's citizens.
"Despite [Saban's] admitting to a forcible rape," Wilenchik asserted, "we know it was not Ruby Norman he was referring to [as the rapist], but himself."
Dan Saban never admitted anything of the sort.
To the contrary, Saban broke down during his defamation trial as he described how he ? then an asthmatic, 100-pound teenage boy ? had been "groomed" sexually by Norman until she finally lured him into intercourse one night in the early 1970s.
POST executive director Thomas J. Hammarstrom analyzed Wilenchik's claims in an April 19 memorandum to Sheriff Butler. Hammarstrom noted that Wilenchik had raised nearly identical concerns in early 2006 about Saban's pre-employment polygraph and other things.
The director wrote that the person who had conducted Saban's pre-polygraph interview recalled later that "Ms. Norman was the person who initiated force to have intercourse with Saban, not the other way around."
Hammarstrom said, "Documents provided by Mr. Wilenchik in February 2006 indicate a greater likelihood that Mr. Saban was the victim, not the perpetrator, in the incident involving sexual intercourse with Ms. Norman."
In rejecting Wilenchik's second run at trying to get POST to stick Dan Saban's head on a platter, Hammarstrom concluded that Saban had been telling the truth "in all of his responses during his pre-employment polygraph examination, including questions relating directly to the accuracy of his application [to Buckeye], and relationship with Ms. Norman."
On yet another front, Wilenchik on June 14 asked Mesa Police Chief George Gascon to initiate an obstruction-of-justice investigation against Saban for alleged wrongdoing after an unfortunate incident at a February 2004 party.
The incident happened during a roast in Saban's honor after his retirement from the Mesa department. Rick Davis, one of Saban's old cop pals, told an off-color story over the public-address system that referred to a time, years earlier, when the pair roomed together.
Davis described how Saban once had exposed himself to Davis' 5- or 6-year-old son. Davis later said the event never happened; he simply was telling a stupid joke about penis size at the adults-only function.
Two members of the sheriff's office were in attendance at the party that night. It is uncertain if they reported Davis' comments to Mesa police authorities, but that department soon opened an investigation.
A few weeks later, Mesa concluded that its recently retired commander had committed no crime, that "there is insufficient evidence to establish that [the boy, who was 18 when detectives interviewed him and said he didn't recall the incident] was a victim of an indecent exposure."
Mesa sent its report to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. On September 7, 2004, a sex-crimes prosecutor informed a detective that the office would be filing no charges because "no crime [was] committed."
However, as the Saban civil trial neared this summer, Dennis Wilenchik wrote to Mesa chief Gascon, "It has come to my attention that former Mesa PD Commander Daniel E. Saban may have illegally tampered with [that] investigation."
Wilenchik claimed Saban illegally "tipped off" Rick Davis about the Mesa investigation and suggested that could merit a criminal charge of obstructing justice.
Wilenchik urged Mesa to reopen the case and also to invite the county attorney -- Wilenchik's friend and former law firm employee Andy Thomas -- to investigate whether Saban had broken the law.
"I am nothing short of appalled," Wilenchik wrote in typical hyperbole.
In this instance, Wilenchik got something for his trouble.
Citing a conflict of interest, the Mesa cops asked the Arizona Department of Public Safety in late June to look into the so-called case. That soon led Wilenchik, according to sources familiar with the situation, to complain that the state cops might have their own conflict.
The alleged conflict was this: Sharon Knutson-Felix, executive director of the 100 Club of Arizona (a nonprofit organization that financially assists police, firefighters, and their families) is married to DPS Deputy Director David Felix. Knutson-Felix publicly supported Dan Saban over Joe Arpaio in the last election.
Not long ago, the DPS punted the Mesa case to the Yavapai County Attorney's Office, asking it to take a look at the dirty joke incident that Wilenchik keeps harping about.
At the recent trial, Judge Houser surprisingly allowed Wilenchik, over Joel Robbins' loud objections, to continually raise the Mesa indecent-exposure yarn in front of the jury.
After the trial, one juror told New Times, "We couldn't make heads or tails of that whole thing in Mesa, other than to think that Mr. Saban has some really inappropriate friends."
Though Dennis Wilenchik has been licensed as an attorney in Arizona since June 1978, he didn't become a high-profile legal player until after the 2004 election of Andrew Thomas as Maricopa County attorney.
Previously, Wilenchik earned his stripes -- and lots of money -- as an attorney in the lucrative practice of construction-defect and mold litigation. In 1991, he and his wife, Becky Bartness, opened Phoenix firm Wilenchik & Bartness, which has flourished.
Through the years, the firm occasionally represented government entities.
In 2001, according to county records, the couple purchased a 4,000-square-foot Paradise Valley home for $2.3 million.
Long active in the local Republican Party, Wilenchik is listed on John McCain's Web site as a member of the senator's Arizona finance team. (One wonders what chance Dan Saban has of winning McCain's endorsement again if he runs against Wilenchik client Joe Arpaio in 2008).
Records show that Wilenchik donated $3,300 to McCain's campaign this year. Hedging his bets, Wilenchik also donated $1,000 to the presidential campaign of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.
In 2003, the lawyer had the foresight to hire Andy Thomas to work at his firm of about a dozen lawyers. Thomas then was gearing up a run for Maricopa county attorney, an office about to be vacated by Rick Romley after 16 years.
While Wilenchik later insisted that Thomas carried a full-time caseload during his months at Wilenchik & Bartness, the ultra-conservative Republican spent much of his time there campaigning for office, which he won in November 2004.
Soon after Thomas was sworn in, the County Attorney's Office began to funnel scads of business to his former employer's firm.
Wilenchik became a virtual mouthpiece for Thomas on such varied hot-button topics as illegal immigration and the death penalty.
The attorney's aggressiveness didn't escape the notice of Sheriff Arpaio's top associates, most importantly Chief Deputy Hendershott. In February 2006, Hendershott requested that Thomas appoint Wilenchik to defend the sheriff's office in all future civil cases.
"I haven't written a letter complimenting a lawyer before," the chief wrote to a deputy county attorney, "but I thought it's important to let you know how pleased the sheriff and I have been with Dennis Wilenchik's representation of our office."
As of July, Wilenchik's firm had collected about $1.3 million from county taxpayers for working on behalf of the County Attorney's and sheriff's offices.
The firm almost certainly will add hundreds of thousands of dollars to its coffers after it gets paid for work on Saban vs. Arpaio. Its bills for three weeks of trial work and months of preparation had not been submitted to the county by press time for this story.
At trial, Wilenchik's legal team consisted of four full-time attorneys, including Wilenchik, and two aides. One of the attorneys was former Superior Court Judge William French, who sat totem pole-like behind the defense table for the entire trial, doodling on a yellow notepad.
Wilenchik also has expanded his niche as a go-to private attorney for law enforcement agencies around the state.
The La Paz County Attorney's Office has appointed him special prosecutor in a high-profile drunken-driving case against a state legislator from nearby Lake Havasu City. Wilenchik's contract in that case calls for him to be paid no more than $255 an hour.
More recently, on July 11, the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors quietly approved the appointment of Wilenchik, French, and the other two trial attorneys in the Saban case (Adam Polson and Michael Robert Somers) as special deputy county attorneys in a potential criminal case against New Times.
In other words, the county appointed Team Wilenchik to prosecute the company that owns New Times. Lawyers for New Times believe that the statute on which the possible case is based is unconstitutional and that the threatened prosecution represents an abuse of power.
The alleged crime: this newspaper's "revealing" Joe Arpaio's home address on its Web site in a July 8, 2004, column by then-staff writer John Dougherty. The law that New Times allegedly violated makes it illegal to publish home addresses of law enforcement officers on the Internet but makes no such provision for publication in print or on television.
Arpaio's home address already had been published on numerous Web sites before the Dougherty column ever appeared -- including on the sites of the Arizona Corporation Commission and the County Recorder's Office. Dougherty illustrated the paradox of Arpaio's using the law to keep private the addresses of his commercial property in public documents while providing his home address to entities that published it on Web sites.
The quirky case originated almost three years ago in Andy Thomas' office. But Thomas later claimed a conflict of interest.
A source tells New Times that Thomas cited his being the subject of continuing criticism by New Times as a reason why his office should not prosecute any such case against this publication. It is unknown why there is no longer a conflict of interest in pursuing the case through Thomas' friend and legal colleague Wilenchik.
Though the minutes of the supervisors' special session on July 11 do not mention New Times by name, it becomes readily apparent that the topic on the table was the Arpaio home-address case.
First, Chris Keller, chief counsel at the County Attorney's Office, expressed his appreciation to the four county supervisors for meeting on such short notice (actually, the meeting took place over the telephone, and Mary Rose Wilcox was the only supervisor who wasn't on the line).
Keller then said the County Attorney's Office would be unable to advise the sheriff on an unspecified criminal matter because of a conflict. He explained that, normally, his office would have asked a neighboring jurisdiction to handle the case, but "those entities have expressed concerns specifically with staffing issues."
According to the minutes, County Supervisor Don Stapley said "he had personally spoken with County Attorney Andrew Thomas about this matter." Supervisor Stapley vouched for the county attorney's proposal, explaining that "this is an unusual case and situation that warrants the appointments of these special prosecutors."
Stapley also has been taken to task in numerous New Times stories over the years (including "Educating Don," March 15, 2001, and "Crack Addicts, Political Shenanigans and Indian Relics," May 9, 2002).
If Dennis Wilenchik pursues the New Times case, he hardly will be able to demonstrate impartiality, either.
Wilenchik was the subject of two scathing columns in this publication by John Dougherty about the attorney's lucrative professional relationship with Thomas ("Doubting Thomas," June 8, 2006, and "Bully Pulpit," June 29, 2006). In the past five months, Wilenchik has been criticized in two more New Times columns ("King of Pain," April 26, and "Pot Kettle Black," July 5).
Beyond that, in a July e-mail to fired TV reporter Rob Koebel, Wilenchik referred derogatorily to reporter Dougherty, who resigned from New Times last year but has done freelance work for the paper:
"Dougherty is out there working for [Phoenix personal-injury attorney Michael] Manning now as a freelance [private investigator] poisoning witnesses with his crap."
Indeed, Dougherty has done occasional detective work for Manning. And as can be gleaned from this e-mail, Manning -- who has won millions of dollars in judgments from Arpaio's office for families whose loved ones have died in county jails -- is also on Wilenchik's enemies list.
Dan Saban could have been content to tackle his new job as Buckeye's police chief and, in his spare time, lay the groundwork for a second run against Joe Arpaio in 2008.
But Saban couldn't abide letting Arpaio get away with the dirty trick the sheriff's office had pulled on him.
Saban and his wife, Donna, decided in April 2005 to sue the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, Arpaio, Chief Deputy Hendershott, three other sheriff's employees, Rob Koebel, and Koebel's former employer, Scripps Howard Broadcasting Company, which owns Channel 15. (The latter two later were dismissed from the suit.)
The lawsuit originally was kitchen-sink, alleging invasion of privacy, negligence, intentional infliction of emotional distress, abuse of process, and defamation.
But by the time the jury considered Saban's claims, Judge Houser had eviscerated the case until the only remaining issue was this: Did Hendershott make a false and defamatory statement about [Saban] to reporter Koebel?
Legally, a defamatory statement "tends to bring a person into disrepute, contempt, or ridicule or to impeach the person's honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation."
Saban had the burden of proving, by clear and convincing evidence, that Hendershott "knew the statement was false when made or acted in reckless disregard of whether the statement was true or false."
As it turned out, those burdens would be too much for Saban to bear at trial.
The filing of the lawsuit allowed Dennis Wilenchik to delve into every aspect of Dan Saban's mercurial personal life, including his awful experience in the early 1970s with his adoptive mother, Ruby Norman.
As the case neared trial, an out-of-court settlement wasn't on the horizon.
Saban earlier had promised to drop the suit -- in which he asked for no damages -- if Joe Arpaio resigned. Fat chance.
Naturally, Saban was angry at everyone responsible for the story that aired on Channel 15 on the evening of April 30, 2004.
In the story, Ruby Norman accused Saban of raping her more than 30 years earlier, when he was in his teens. She first had gone to the East Valley Tribune to tell her tale, but a reporter there passed on it.
In early April 2004, Norman had e-mailed the sheriff's office with her name and phone number, claiming that her adoptive son, then Arpaio's opponent in the GOP primary, had done some "not so honorable" things in the past.
As vague as that was, a sheriff's lieutenant left a printed copy of the e-mail with Hendershott, the county agency's day-to-day boss.
Hendershott soon spoke by phone with Norman for a few minutes and, according to his trial testimony, she sounded "credible." The chief deputy admitted taping his chat with the woman, but after Saban's attorney asked for a copy, he said he had erased it.
Almost immediately after speaking with Norman, Hendershott had his public-information department contact Channel 15's Rob Koebel.
Now living in Florida and out of the news business, Koebel was considered the coziest of all local reporters with the publicity-driven sheriff. In a broadcast media market hardly known for in-depth reporting, such an unofficial designation takes some doing.
Koebel lost his job a few months after his big scoop hit in late April 2004, when the embittered Saban camp informed Channel 15 that the reporter had donated money to Arpaio's re-election efforts that February. Of course, reporters are not supposed to show such bias toward the people they cover.
But putting aside Koebel's campaign contribution, his stories about "America's toughest sheriff" and his minions were more propaganda than journalism. Sheriff's officials had even considered hiring Koebel as a public-information officer after Channel 15 fired him, trial testimony revealed.
Koebel had been the obvious choice to Dave Hendershott for leaking the news about the budding Saban rape allegation. In hindsight, however, it is curious that that the chief did not keep an arm's length from the reporter and from Ruby Norman.
"Mr. Hendershott doesn't like to interfere with media relations at all because he hates reporters," Lisa Allen, Arpaio's director of communications, testified during the Saban trial.
Saban's lawyer, Robbins, asked Allen if it would surprise her to learn the chief had spoken to Koebel for a total of about 45 minutes on 10 different occasions during the week or so before Channel 15 aired the Saban rape story.
"There are times when reporters are embedded with stories [and] he might have to talk with them," Allen replied, not missing a beat.
Hendershott played his tape-recorded discussion with Ruby Norman over the phone for Koebel even before sheriff's investigators had interviewed the woman.
The chief told Koebel to file a public-records request so that the sheriff's office could immediately release an "incident report" on a case that hadn't even officially started.
In fact, nobody from Arpaio's office even had laid eyes on Ruby Norman by that time -- didn't even know if she had a legitimate complaint or was a crank caller. Two detectives from the agency's Threat Assessment Unit (now the Selective Enforcement Unit) soon went out to interview Norman at her home in Apache Junction.
The detectives then returned to the sheriff's headquarters in downtown Phoenix to write their report, which was transcribed by a secretary on the spot. The four-page document listed Dan Saban as a "suspect" in the rape of his adoptive mother more than three decades earlier.
"We basically will take an initial report, and it doesn't matter who it is," Hendershott later told the Saban jury. "Whether it's Mr. Saban or the cow in the dell, we're gonna take an initial report."
Mike Worley, a retired police chief who operates Police Practices Consulting in Louisville, Kentucky, says Hendershott's actions were reasonable, at first.
"What you have here probably was okay in the initial part," Worley said. "You had someone making a claim that she was assaulted by someone who was fairly prominent. I can see where a lot of law enforcement agencies would do some follow-up."
But when told that Hendershott had played the tape of his interview with Ruby Norman for a TV reporter before investigators had interviewed the woman, Worley said, "Oh, boy. When you leak a report and contact friendly media to actually involve them in the ongoing investigation to this extent, it puts things in a whole different light. That was a significant breach of acceptable conduct, under any theory."
Koebel would testify at Saban's trial that Hendershott personally had handed him the expedited sheriff's report within hours of the chief's interview with Ruby Norman and urged the reporter not to reveal to anyone how he first heard about the rape allegation.
Under oath, Hendershott denied it all, claiming he didn't know how Koebel physically got the sheriff's report. No matter, the speed with which the sheriff's office turned over the Saban report probably set a record for dissemination of a public record by the agency.
The MCSO is infamous in local media circles for delaying the release of requests for information -- especially from outlets critical of Arpaio and his policies.
In a strategy many journalists in attendance at the trial found laughable, Dennis Wilenchik told jurors that the sheriff's office is a beacon of upholding Arizona's public-records law.
That is why, the attorney said, Rob Koebel had gotten the incident report so promptly.
Wilenchik did not mention that it took the sheriff's office 144 days to release the same report to New Times or that an investigator for Saban never did get the document after filing his own public-records request.
Another irony is that the sheriff's office's ongoing attempt to have New Times prosecuted criminally sprung from a reporter's request for Arpaio's real estate records, the release of which are mandated by the state public-records law. Those records are still being withheld by Arpaio's office.
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."
This article was orginally published by the Phoenix New Times on September 20, 2007. Reprinted with permission.
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