By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
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Charles Leaf sees a correlation between the five years he spent in the Marine Corps and his current work as an investigative reporter for Fox-owned Channel 31. "I believe it's an important calling to serve the public, whether it's serving your country or your community," he says.
As these remarks demonstrate, Leaf, who's in his mid-thirties, sees himself as a crusader. Yet several previous on-the-job incidents raise questions about his aggressive style. During a stint at a station in Mobile, Alabama, he was the focus of a 1999 lawsuit that impugned him for a "willful physical attack" against a local councilwoman; the case was eventually settled. Two years later, while working in Detroit, a man told police that Leaf spewed homophobic obscenities and tried to attack him after the reporter was pelted with eggs while covering a story. And Bobbi Barrow, spokeswoman for Denver Health Medical Center, believes Leaf misrepresented himself to get an interview with her boss, Dr. Patricia Gabow, at an event last November. "What he did was unprofessional," Barrow says.
Leaf denies this last accusation and insists that he did nothing wrong during the Mobile and Detroit episodes. Indeed, he views himself more as victim than victimizer. "If what took place in Mobile hadn't happened, you wouldn't be talking to me about someone in Detroit throwing eggs at me," he says.
Becoming a Marine was "the greatest achievement of my life," Leaf notes. But he also aspired to become a journalist, and in 1998, a few years after graduating from Syracuse University, he landed at Mobile's WPMI. At first he got good press, but that ended after November 8, 1999, when he covered a council meeting in a town where residents were upset by the impending exit of their police chief. As tempers rose, councilmembers gaveled the session to a close and fled the room. Leaf and a cameraman trailed one official, Frela Wojciechowski, to a car waiting to pick her up in the parking lot. The car departed within seconds, but not before Wojciechowski was squashed in the passenger-side door. Her lawsuit, which was pushed after local authorities chose not to press charges against Leaf, stated that she sustained bruises to her arms and legs.
What happened? Leaf says that when Wojciechowski attempted to enter the car, she swung the door out so violently that it bounced off him and back at her. It takes an active imagination to believe such a carom could injure Wojciechowski, since the door hit a person and not a giant SuperBall. But Leaf stresses that he was stationary, neither pushing the door nor walking, running or stumbling against it. He believes videotape shot by his cameraman would have supported his contention if it hadn't been recorded over before the lawsuit was filed.
Attorney Joseph M. Allen Jr., speaking for Wojciechowski, confirms that he and his client were "very pleased" by the settlement, but otherwise stays mum. As for WPMI general manager Sharon Moloney, she wouldn't address the lawsuit or a December 1998 dispute between Leaf and a station photographer to which police were called. The Mobile Register described the altercation as "physical," but Leaf says only harsh words were exchanged, and no charges resulted.
When asked if these two occurrences played a role in his departure from WPMI weeks after the lawsuit was filed, Leaf replies, "That's officially what the company and I have agreed to -- that it didn't have anything to do with it." He adds that he "didn't pay a dime" of the settlement, which was reached by WPMI after he moved on.
These experiences didn't make Leaf unemployable. He went from a Fox station in Kansas City to WJBK, in the larger Detroit market. There he earned an Emmy for a report about child abduction; the recommendation that brought him to Channel 31 last June; and unwanted ink from the Metro Times, a Detroit weekly, related to an October 26, 2001, visit to a run-down building where residents were being evicted in advance of renovation.
As Leaf and his cameraman arrived at the building, Sebastian Graham, the owner of a nearby home business, jeered them; Graham says he felt Fox was unfairly vilifying the landlord, whom he calls a sincere person upgrading a dangerous eyesore. The newsmen conducted some interviews, and as they were getting ready to leave, several young people allegedly unhappy with Fox for an unrelated reason -- its coverage of the war in Afghanistan -- expressed their displeasure by smashing an egg on Leaf's head and tossing others at him. When one hurler appeared to enter the back of Graham's house, Leaf went to the front door because, he says, he wanted to pinpoint the miscreant's location for police, whom his cameraman had already phoned. As Leaf tells it, Graham opened the door and shouted at him, but he didn't rise to the bait.
For his part, Graham says that Leaf, accompanied by the cameraman and a source from the building, assumed he had been part of the egging and went off on him: "He called me a &'cocksucker' and a 'faggot,' and his cameraman hit me. He tried to hit me, too, but he didn't make contact." Graham maintains that the trio left only after he reacted to a haymaker from the third man by kicking him in the stomach. Afterward, Graham told cops to check for video of the incident, because the camera's light was on during the melee, but the TV folks swore nothing had been taped.