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Ink, Politics and Sex Blot Burbank Again

June 09, 1996|Scott Harris

To read the Burbank Leader or the Glendale News-Press for the first time is to be jarred by the name of a certain columnist. This Will Rogers is no relation to that Will Rogers. Jokes this Will Rogers, "I never knew a man I hadn't met."

Or woman, for that matter. At any rate, it now seems safe to say that this Will Rogers wishes he had never met Burbank City Councilwoman Susan Spanos. She says the feeling is mutual.

After many weeks of gossip, the good people of Burbank are now left to ponder who is telling the truth: Spanos, a churchgoing Christian who in April told Burbank police that Rogers had sexually attacked her three months before, or Rogers, a muckraking reporter who insists that Spanos' charge is a fabrication.

Ah, Burbank. It's the headquarters for such corporate powers as Disney and NBC, but it still clings to the self-image of a bastion of old-fashioned, wholesome, small-town values. A proud Burbank resident recently told me that Angelenos would be so much better off if big, bad L.A. could be broken up into 30 or 40 Burbanks. The problem with these small towns, of course, is that everybody knows everybody else's business.

Several months have passed since a middle-aged female school booster was charged with luring a 17-year-old Burbank High football player to bed. Then there was that Burbank couple arrested for engaging in a sex act at Dodger Stadium. More recently came the tale of red-sequined G-string panties at the City Council Christmas party and, finally, Spanos' accusations against Rogers.

Those accusations graduated from gossip to news on May 25. "Spanos sex allegation fizzles," declared the Burbank Leader headline. The district attorney's office had declined to file charges after reviewing the Burbank police investigation of Spanos' claim on April 8 that Rogers had groped her inside his car after a Jan. 9 council meeting.

The district attorney's office said the decision was based on "the delay in reporting, the inconsistency among witness statements, and problems regarding witnesses' motives."

For Rogers, his friends and defenders, this amounted to as strong a repudiation of the charges as possible. Spanos, meanwhile, adamantly sticks by her story.

He said, she said.

Full disclosure: The Burbank Leader and Glendale News-Press are part of a group of community newspapers owned by Times Mirror Co., which also owns the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper operations, however, are independent. Before researching this article, I had never spoken to Will Rogers or Susan Spanos.

I called Rogers first, after reading his May 26 column, the one that began: So what's it like to be falsely accused of a crime and facing up to three years in prison? First, it's about as funny as a heart attack . . .

In this column, Rogers suggested that Spanos concocted the charge because, with a mayoral transition looming, he'd been writing columns critical of her behavior. According to tradition, Spanos, as vice mayor, had been in line to ascend to the ceremonial role of mayor. The council majority, questioning her suitability for the post, eventually decided to pass her over.

Advised by his attorneys not to answer police questions, Rogers described how police impounded his car as evidence over the weekend. This was 5 1/2 days after Spanos made her complaint and three months after the attack allegedly took place.

Rogers says he had to pay $125 in impound charges and "thousands of dollars" on legal help. At one point, he and his wife prepared guardianship papers to allow for friends to care for their children, ages 3 and 1, in case Rogers was arrested while his wife was at work.

"I'm very concerned," Rogers told me, "about people believing that, gee, maybe something happened and she's blowing it out of proportion." Absolutely nothing happened, he says, that could be construed as a sexual assault.

When I talked to Spanos, she was at once voluble and reticent. Both she and Rogers would only discuss certain matters off the record, because she is considering a civil suit.

Spanos, a 32-year-old mother of two, said she knows she's stirred controversy in Burbank. Elected three years ago, she was Burbank's youngest council member ever and only the third woman. Spanos suggests she was passed over for mayor because the old guard doesn't believe an attractive young woman should lead the city.

Although Rogers' defenders "are circling the wagons to protect a friend," Spanos says, she is certain that many people in Burbank, not just her family and the congregation of Calvary Bible Church, believe her story.

Spanos' defenders proffer another theory about the critical columns that Rogers says inspired the bogus allegation. Rogers, they suggest, wrote those columns because he knew the awful truth about the night of Jan. 9 and, fearful of charges, set out to destroy Spanos' credibility.

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