June 17 2014 06:57 PM

Local news vet recalls his biggest scoop

Photo by Joshua Emerson Smith

"Yeah, bourbon will kick your ass if you stay with it too long," Mark Sauer told me, sitting at a table at K'nB Wine Cellars in Del Cerro. "It can be a cruel mistress. That's why it's nice with the small-batch, because it's sipping whiskey."

As I listened to KPBS's senior news editor, I couldn't help but stare behind him at an immense wall of bottled booze, complete with a ladder and stretching to the ceiling. 

"This place is something," I remarked, as the liquor store-turned-restaurant hummed with patrons nibbling on gourmet sandwiches and quaffing fancy beers, of which there are 31 on tap.

Being close to the public radio station, Sauer explained, he and his staff occasionally stop by the establishment, which recently starting serving spirits.

After some deliberation, Sauer ordered a Blanton's on the rocks, an award-winning single-barrel bourbon whiskey well known among connoisseurs.

"Oh, that's nice," he said, chuckling with genuine satisfaction. "This is very smooth. Bourbon can be too sweet sometimes, but this is just a hint. You could drink this neat. I prefer ice."

I ordered El Mayor Tequila backed with a Ballast Point Sculpin IPA. The beer was spicy and strong, completely washing down the ultra-smooth cactus juice that boasted a brown-sugar note. 

After a few sips, I asked Sauer if he had any good barroom yarns, and he rattled off a few good barroom-brawl anecdotes. However, his eyes lit up when we started chatting about his time at the San Diego Union-Tribune, where he worked for 27 years before it was taken over by the current ownership.

"The other case that we exposed as a complete hoax was the Stephanie Crowe murder case," he said with the rapid-fire cadence of a passionate reporter. "That was in January of 1998. A family wakes up at 7 o'clock in the morning on a school day and finds their 12-year-old girl stabbed to death in a pool of blood on her bedroom floor."

At the time, Escondido police decided to interrogate the murdered girl's then-14-year-old brother for more than a dozen hours, which resulted in the boy's confession.

"I had happened to be working on a book project with an expert on false confessions, and this case was absolutely laid down as a false confession," Sauer said. "So we raised all these questions, even though all these other reporters at the paper were buying the prosecutor and cops' line—hook, line and sinker." 

After writing a series of stories exploring the case and the coerced confession, Sauer received a call from his writing partner, John Wilkens, on the eve of the trial.

"I was right over here across the street," he remembered. "My daughter was in fast-pitch softball. We used to come down at night and practice her pitching. And my beeper goes off. This was before cell phones."

According to a tip, the defense attorney had just received DNA evidence that the victim's blood was found on the clothes of a transient seen at the scene of the crime the night of the murder. Racing to the office, Sauer got on the horn with the attorney and confirmed the tip.

"Next day, banner headline: 'Bombshell evidence in Crowe case,'" he said, the excitement palpable in his voice. "And they had to drop the case—that was it."

For a moment, he paused, sipping his top-shelf bourbon and wincing at his beloved Detroit Tigers on the screen behind me.

"It was one of the most exciting moments in my journalistic career," he said. "t was an old-fashioned newspaper scoop. We were just trembling typing the story. We just couldn't believe it. It was one of those days where literally you took the paper off the press to read the headline."

Write to joshuas@sdcitybeat.com or follow him on twitter at @jemersmith.


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