No apology: How NBC29 got spanked
Art Baugher has known Jesse Sheckler virtually all his life. Baugher knew that his cousin adamantly opposed illegal drugs, and yet, when WVIR-TV Channel 29 reported that police had found cocaine at Sheckler's house, Baugher believed it.
"I never knew you couldn't believe the news," says Baugher, two years later. Today, he calls himself "naïve."
A lot of other people in Greene County also believed that authorities had confiscated 50 grams of crack and 500 grams of powder cocaine at Sheckler's Stanardsville home and business. After all, that's what NBC29 was broadcasting repeatedly over two days in the spring of 2001– along with footage of Sheckler's auto repair shop and home and a handcuffed man being led away by police.
Six months later– long after a Sheckler lawyer contacted the television station to notify it that the information was wrong– WVIR-TV again broadcast the false information.
What WVIR didn't broadcast was any retraction of the original story, or an admission that, in fact, no drugs had been found at Sheckler's– even when the station reported that he had been acquitted of conspiracy November 1, 2001, in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville.
It's bad enough being indicted and arrested. "That was a small minority of the pain," says Sheckler. "But when this stuff comes on TV, and they say you've got drugs in your house, it's terrible. Your whole reputation, everything you've worked for in your whole life, is down the drain."
Sheckler decided to do something about the stain on his reputation. He sued. And on May 23, a jury, agreeing that WVIR had defamed him, awarded him $10 million in damages, the largest defamation award in the state.
It was the culmination, says Sheckler, 52, of "two years of total hell."
"I trusted people"
Jesse Sheckler's business is cars. He runs Sheckler's Garage behind his house on Pea Ridge Road in Stanardsville. He drives a wrecker.
And in 1999, he started a successful side business selling used cars on a word-of-mouth basis. When someone called him seeking a particular car, he'd go to auctions and find one, and he says that in 2000, the year before he was arrested, he sold 59 cars and grossed $230,000.
It was cars that brought him in contact with Samuel Edward Rose. Scheckler says Sam Rose made an appointment in February 1999 to have some work done on a Jeep Wagoneer. He told Sheckler he'd heard he was highly recommended.
Rose brought by four more cars for repair. Soon he was dropping in several times a week. Sheckler remembers that they'd order chicken subs from Sal's Pizza, and Rose would join Sheckler and his daughter for lunch.
Sheckler asked his new buddy what he did for a living, and Rose, well-dressed in spotless clothes, said he was a painter.
"I said, 'How can you do it dressed the way you are?' He laughed," Sheckler recalls, "and said he subcontracts it out."
Sheckler, in May of that year, Rose claimed he was building a house for his mother, but no bank would finance it until it was under roof. Rose asked Sheckler for a loan which he offered to pay back in 90 days with 10 percent interest.
Sheckler lent him $5,000, and then continued to be hit up by Rose until he'd lent him a total of $35,000. By August 1999, says Sheckler, "I didn't want to lend him any more money. I told him to get it from the bank."
An hour after being denied any more loans, Rose allegedly showed up at Sheckler's Garage and began begging Sheckler for money in front of some customers. "I got a little upset," says Sheckler. He lent Rose $2,000 more and vowed that was it.
Then just as quickly as Rose had come into Sheckler's life, he disappeared.
When Sheckler tried to collect on the $37,000 debt, his phone calls were not returned. Sheckler says that in trying to retrieve his money, he called Rose an astounding 659 times, a number documented in his phone records.
Frustrated, he sought advice from a sheriff's deputy he had known for 25 years. The officer said, "Jesse, he's a drug dealer. Go get your money, and stay the hell away from him."
Rose did eventually pay back most of the money he'd borrowed from Sheckler.
But then in November 2000, Rose was arrested for conspiracy to distribute narcotics. "He told me he hadn't done anything wrong," says Sheckler. "At that time, he was still innocent to me."
However, Sheckler believes the Drug Enforcement Agency pressured Rose to roll over on anyone he could, and the successful businessman in Greene County proved a tempting target. "He told the DEA I was lending him money to buy drugs," says Sheckler.
That's how Jesse Sheckler found himself added to the list of men– Rodney Lamont Robinson, Ladu Rahiem Bolden, and Todd Jeffery Shue– indicted along with Rose for conspiracy to possess and distribute cocaine.
Except for Rose, declares Sheckler, "I knew none of them."
On March 20, 2001, Sheckler had a wrecker call. Low on fuel, he went to the Citgo to fill up. The deputy Sheckler knew pulled up at the station and gesturing toward two DEA agents, said to Sheckler, "These two men are going to arrest you."
"They cuffed me," says Sheckler. "I kept asking, all the way to Charlottesville, 'Why are you arresting me?'"
The taint of guilt
Sam Rose and Rodney Robinson are serving 48 months in federal prison. Rose, now incarcerated at Seymour Johnson Federal Prison Camp in Goldsboro, North Carolina, was not available for comment for this story. Todd Shue was sentenced to 15 months. Ladu Rahiem Bolden was on the lam until he was arrested in New York January 6 of this year. In March, Bolden pleaded guilty and was scheduled to be sentenced earlier this week.
Sheckler's case turned out differently. He went to court, and on November 1, 2001, a jury acquitted him of the federal conspiracy charge. "One of my lawyers said, 'You're the only one charged with a drug conspiracy to walk out of here innocent,'" remembers Sheckler.
But that didn't end Sheckler's nightmare. Even though he had been acquitted, he says his neighbors still thought of him as a drug dealer.
"I went grocery shopping at 10 or 11 at night because I didn't want to be around people," he says. His says his garage and house became a prison because he couldn't go out and face the accusing stares.
"I've known him for 15 years," says Charlottesville attorney Benjamin Dick. "I've never seen somebody change so much. And in a small community like Stanardsville, you're guilty until proven innocent."
Even after acquittal, Art Baugher says the folks in Ruckersville and Stanardsville had a negative opinion about his cousin. "Around here, they say if there's smoke, there's fire."
And it wasn't just Sheckler who suffered. He says his wife became depressed, and his two daughters also bore the burden of his ordeal. "It had a negative effect on everybody in the family," says Baugher, "not just his immediate family."
A psychiatrist diagnosed Sheckler as having post-traumatic stress disorder. He'd always had stomach problems, but after he was called a drug dealer on TV, the acid reflux "set me on fire," says Sheckler. Three of his teeth broke off after the trial, which his dentist attributed to the stress.
"I was about ready to commit suicide," says Sheckler. "I'd concentrated so much on the first trial, I thought it would go away. Instead, I kept getting more and more upset about it. I knew I had to do something, or it was just a matter of time..."
The WVIR reports were unequivocal that authorities had found cocaine in his house. "They didn't say 'alleged' or 'maybe,'" fumes Sheckler.
He can understand that the station might make a mistake, but what really riled him was its refusal to correct the error.
When Channel 29 first ran the drug bust story on April 6, 2001, a Friday, it used a stock image of a handcuffed man being led away by police. "They were insinuating that was me," says Sheckler. "That hurt me."
In segments that aired three times on April 6 and three more times on April 7, Channel 29 reporter Melinda Semadeni reported as fact the claim that police had confiscated 50 grams of crack cocaine and 500 grams of powder cocaine at Sheckler's house.
"The public sees that and comes to the conclusion I was arrested at my house," says Sheckler.
Sheckler called the station. "You've got to go through one of those things where you press buttons," he says. "I couldn't get through and didn't know who to call.
"I was sitting here crying," says Sheckler, who then asked his criminal defense attorney, Denise Lunsford, to call WVIR.
"I called Saturday morning," says Lunsford, "and left a message that they had their facts wrong. I got a call back that morning from– I think it was Melinda Semadeni– and I asked where she got her information." Lunsford was told Assistant U.S. Attorney Bruce Pagel was the source of the confiscation report.
On Monday, April 9, Lunsford says, she called Pagel, who told her there had been no search and seizure, so Lunsford called WVIR back. This time she spoke to producer Nordia Higgins and told her the story was wrong.
"I don't remember using the word 'retraction' or 'correction,'" says Lunsford. "I told them it was wrong. I expected that the honorable thing to do was a correction."
There was no correction. Instead, when Sheckler's trial approached in the fall of 2001, Channel 29 used the erroneous information again in October 29 and 30 broadcasts.
"We don't do retractions"
Defamation cases have a one-year statute of limitations. In March 2002, Sheckler hired attorney Benjamin Dick. "He said he was living in hell and looking at himself through the eyes of others," Dick says.
The lawyer called WVIR general manager Harold Wright to request a retraction.
Dick testified in court that Wright told him the station intended to stand by its story and reporter. "We don't do retractions," Dick says Wright told him and then added, "We face these complaints all the time. We have the greatest lawyer in the world and all the money in the world to fight this, so if your client wants to sue, tell him to bring it on."
Wright did not return phone calls from The Hook.
"I said, 'Jesse, if you want to get it right, you may have to sue,'" says Dick. He warned Sheckler that it's very hard to win a case against a media outlet. The one thing in Sheckler's favor was that WVIR had aired a false story. "One can win that," says Dick, "especially if they've been reckless."
He also told Sheckler he'd need a good defamation lawyer.
Sheckler went to Matt Murray, who had won a precedent-setting case against the Daily Progress in 1985: Matthews v. Charlottesville Newspapers, Inc.
In that case, Debra Matthews sued the Progress when it ran an article in 1982 about a rape trial that identified her as the victim, referred to her as "Miss Matthews" seven times even though she was married, and noted that she was pregnant at the time of the alleged rape.
Opposing council in that case was Tom Albro. Eighteen years later, the two attorneys would face off in court again, with Albro representing WVIR's parent company, Virginia Broadcast Corporation, which is owned by Waterman Broadcasting in Fort Meyers, Florida.
Albro is no slouch in defamation cases. In 2000, he secured a $650,000 settlement in a suit– O'Hara v. Byerly Publications Inc.– against an Emporia newspaper that faithfully quoted a distraught woman when she said a judge "was bought off."
"Tom is a widely respected defamation lawyer," says Murray.
And Albro represented WVIR in the blockbuster local libel case of the 1990s. In that 1993 case, he defended the station when it was sued by Toy Lift organizers Tom Powell and Gail Weakley.
In the Toy Lift case, then-Salvation Army Captain G. Steve Smith alleged that Toy Lift was hoarding the toys it had collected to share with the Salvation Army and distribute to children for Christmas. WVIR ran a story narrated by longtime anchor Dave Cupp claiming that the organizers were stealing the toys. Powell was hospitalized days later with a stroke, allegedly caused by stress from the accusation.
In a deposition for the Sheckler case, Cupp, now the station's news director, said that in 20-plus years, Channel 29 had retracted one story, according to Murray. That retraction was in the Toy Lift story. Powell and Weakley ultimately settled with the Salvation Army and Smith, and they dropped their suit against the station.
In the current case, with not a flake or rock of cocaine found on Sheckler's property, how did a Channel 29 reporter go so wrong? Reporter Melinda Semadeni, who has left the station and now lives in Northern Virginia, did not return The Hook's phone calls.
She testified in the May 2003 trial that assistant U.S. attorney Bruce Pagel had been the source of the bogus information.
"That didn't happen," counters Pagel. "If we had claimed we'd seized drugs, we'd have had to produce them."
The error has led to a lot of speculation in media circles. No one thinks Semadeni, a Brigham Young University graduate, simply concocted the information. "She was one of their more careful reporters," says a print journalist who declined to be identified.
Was it inexperience with legalese? After all, the indictment does charge Sheckler not only with conspiracy to "distribute" but also conspiracy to "possess" with intent to distribute "50 grams or more" of crack cocaine, and "500 grams or more" of powder cocaine. In her reports, Semadeni claimed that authorities found 50 grams of crack and 500 grams of powder at Sheckler's home and business.
Despite the time-worn image of officers emerging from drug dens toting plastic bags, Pagel points out that evidence in drug cases can rely merely upon witness testimony, what authorities call "historical evidence." "A conspiracy count can be based on historical or physical evidence," says Pagel. "You don't know that, looking at the indictment."
$10 million worth of defamation
Murray says the $10 million in damages awarded Sheckler is the largest defamation award in Virginia and one of the top 20 in the country. Previously in Virginia, after appeals, $2 million is the largest award that has stuck.
Channel 29 attorney Albro declined to comment for this article, but he has until June 13 to file a motion to set aside the verdict.
"I won't be surprised to see Tom Albro take this to the Virginia Supreme Court," notes Dick.
Robert O'Neil, head of the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression, says he cannot predict the ultimate outcome.
"It seems improbable a journalist would fabricate," he says. "In the event of conflicting testimony, the jury would believe the U.S. attorney, as in this case."
O'Neil calls Virginia a "relatively media-friendly state," even as he declines to speculate on the ultimate outcome. "Some factual issues may make the Supreme Court disinclined to take it," he says. "I think I'll wait and see what happens in the Court of Appeals."
To Jesse Sheckler, Channel 29 still doesn't understand that it "did a man wrong."
He describes the scene in court: "They thought they had the case won. Channel 29 people were loud and laughing, and they were ready to party. They've done all this stuff and destroyed a man, and they're ready to party?" he asks incredulously.
And he still finds it hard to believe that in all the depositions and court appearances, he has never heard an apology. "They never said they're sorry, even today," he says.
Sheckler says he still has nightmares every night. He used to have a nest egg, he says, and now he's working day to day to pay his bills. "No money can give me my life back, my reputation back, and my pride back, and everything I've worked for. I'm 52. How do I start all over?"
And while he's glad to hit WVIR in its pocketbook, he says he didn't sue the station just for the money. "It hurt me terribly," he says. "I wanted to stop it so it wouldn't happen to anyone else."
Sheckler realizes that "anybody can make a mistake." What matters he says, is "whether you correct it."
And would there have been a lawsuit if Channel 29 had corrected the mistake after it first aired? "No," says Sheckler. "I'd have walked away."