Sideshow: The crying game

One sidelight– or sideshow perhaps– of the $10 million defamation verdict involves confusion over which reporter may have cried– or lied.

In the trial, U.S. Attorney Bruce Pagel testified that he'd met with a reporter who told his legal assistant that he'd given her permission to look at the investigative file for the criminal case. He says he gave no such permission, and when he called the reporter on the alleged deception, she "lost her composure," cried, and mentioned that her grandmother had just died.

When asked to identify the reporter in court, Pagel pointed to "Melinda or Melissa" and said, "I think that's her."

And yet, WVIR reporter Melinda Semadeni claimed she'd never met Pagel.

Jesse Sheckler's attorney, Matt Murray, knew that former Daily Progress reporter Keri Schwab was on the witness list. What he didn't know was that Schwab would admit in court that she was the reporter Pagel had dressed down.

"It was an extraordinary coincidence that these two women who looked alike were working on the same story for two different media outlets, and both had recently lost their grandmothers," says Murray.

Schwab, who left the Progress in 2002, now works as social worker for Region Ten, and she challenges the account of her testimony that appeared in the Daily Progress.

Used to dealing with the Greene County courthouse, Schwab says she had never been to the Federal Building in Charlottesville and didn't know where to go to find the Sheckler information. She had spoken to Pagel on the phone, she says, and asked if she could come to the courthouse to take a look.

When Pagel confronted Schwab and accused her of attempting to obtain access to the case file dishonestly, Schwab says, "I told him it was a misunderstanding. He was relentless in telling me what a horrible thing I'd done."

Karen Dotson, Pagel's legal assistant, testified that Schwab seemed lost the first time she came by the office, and when she came back, said that Mr. Pagel said she could look at the file.

Certainly her alleged newsgathering ploy perplexed some of her former coworkers at the Progress, one of whom admits surprise "that she would be that ambitious."

In a May 24 news article on the defamation trial, Progress managing editor Lou Hatter says the paper "neither approved nor condones Schwab's actions as described in her testimony."

But Schwab says her actions were innocent.

"I was confused," says Schwab. "It was an honest mistake."

She adds, "I was disappointed in the Progress article. No one called me about it."

As for Pagel, even today he can only describe the reporter he talked to as "being youngish," and says he's still not sure who he talked to. "I testified that I don't have any recollection of phone calls or talking to any other reporter."

Do Schwab and Semadeni look alike? Schwab declined to be photographed for this story, but allows, "We both have brown hair."

While media watchers in town buzzed about the startling Semadeni-Schwab confusion, Murray maintains it was only a remarkable coincidence. "It's a sideshow," he says, "that distracted attention from what was going on under the big top."