At an impromptu press conference yesterday, former executive editor of the Santa Barbara News-Press Jerry Roberts vehemently challenged a Sunday News-Press article linking him to a newsroom computer that was found to contain images of child pornography.
“Today’s front-page story smear is, as regards to me, utterly false, defamatory and malicious — and published with knowledge that, as to me, it is completely untrue,” Roberts, current Daily Nexus publications director, said. “My family and I are outraged beyond measure at this desperate attempt to ruin my reputation.”
While the article did not directly accuse Roberts of downloading the images — and in fact showed that a Santa Barbara Police Dept. investigation found no viable suspect — Roberts and his attorney Dennis Merenbach suggested they may seek legal redress due to the near “defamatory” language used, but did not specify when such a decision would be made.
“As a journalist, it is notable that this cowardly story was published without a byline, and without any attempt to contact me for comment in advance of its publication,” Roberts said.
The article, “News-Press Seeks Exam of Computer Used by Ex-Editor Roberts Containing Child Porn,” states that Ampersand Publishing, official owner of the News-Press, had sent the hard drive of the computer Roberts had used while at the paper to a data retrieval service to uncover files that had supposedly been deleted before he resigned in July. During the scanning, the company — DriveSavers — discovered images of children in sexual poses and situations.
Santa Barbara police took the hard drive in August and found 15,000 images of adult and child porn out of the 250,000 images they examined. However, a March 2 letter from the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s office to the city’s police department stated that there was insufficient evidence to warrant charges against any individual for the illegal images because the computer in question had multiple owners and users while at the newspaper, and was not password protected.
Additionally, the computer — a Power Mac G4 — had been purchased by the News-Press from yet another owner.
“We will not be conducting any further investigation,” Chief Trial Deputy Eric Hanson of the District Attorney’s office wrote in the letter to the police department. “Given that multiple persons had either access to or use of the computer during its several-year existence at the News-Press, there appears to be no single viable suspect.”
The News-Press filed papers in Superior Court last week to retrieve the hard drive in question from the Santa Barbara police in order to “conduct forensic tests” on it, despite the fact that the police department considers it contraband. Currently, the FBI is reviewing the drive’s content.
Merenbach said the New-Press has no hope of getting the hard drive back though, since it is considered contraband, and that the article and the papers filed in court are an attempt to smear Roberts in public
At the press conference, Roberts backed up Hanson’s memo with sworn statements by Raul Gil, the former computer systems director for the News-Press and Jon Berryhill, a computer forensic analyst, both agreeing that there was not enough credible evidence to make any accusations. Roberts’ attorney Merenbach also issued a sworn statement relating a conversation he had with Officer Chad Hunt, an investigator from the SBPD, wherein Hunt said no one would be or could be prosecuted for the data found on the hard drive.
After declaring his innocence at the press conference, Roberts and his attorney accused the News-Press of unscrupulous tactics, and of attempting to destroy Roberts’ personal and professional reputation.
Merenbach compared Ampersand Publishing to the Hearst Corporation of the early 20th century, attempting to crush opposition and detractors and “stomp on them like trying to extract juice from a grape.”
Roberts resigned from his post at the News-Press last summer because of the management’s alleged attempts to influence the newsroom. Ampersand Publishing has since sued Roberts for $25 million, alleging breach of contract. Since his resignation, at least 40 News-Press employees have resigned or been fired.
On July 6, the day Roberts resigned, his computer was removed from the newsroom. According to the News-Press article and Gil’s sworn statement, technicians later discovered a large amount of deleted information on Roberts’ hard drive but apparently could not decipher it. Ampersand’s head of security Nick Montano asked Gil to send the drive to a company that specializes in extracting deleted data.
The company discovered the child pornography on or around July 24, and alerted the News-Press. Gil, who said he was surprised by the information, learned that the computer had had several previous users within the News-Press, and may have been purchased used. According to Gil’s sworn statement, he contacted Roberts six months later and told him about the images, worried that the News-Press would attempt to smear Roberts.
“I make this declaration voluntarily because I beliefe[sic] the News-Press is preparing to use heinous information of dubious source to ruin the reputation of Jerry Roberts, who I believe is an honorable and decent man who left the paper because of his concerns over journalistic ethics and management,” Gil said in his sworn statement.
According to Roberts’ sworn statements, on January 29, Montano asked Gil to draft a statement about the sequence of events relating to Roberts’ hard drive. After Gil submitted his statement, Montano requested that Gil remove a paragraph indicating his “uncertainty” regarding the chain of custody of the computer. Gil did not comply, and submitted the statement in its entirety. Two days later, Ampersand Publishing management confronted him about talking to Jerry Roberts, and Gil submitted his resignation.
Roberts and his attorney said they will ask for a retraction, but have not yet decided whether or not to sue for defamation.