Tale of the Tape

The former Channel 5 news reporter Amy Jacobson saw her career and personal life derailed after a video showed her in a bikini at the home of a man under investigation after his wife’s disappearance. Now she hopes her lawsuit against Channel 2—the rival station that turned that visit into a sensational news story—will win her a measure of redemption

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Jacobson behind the apartment where she now lives. She has acknowledged that swimming in Craig Stebic’s pool after trying to land an interview with him was a “horrible mistake.”
Jacobson behind the apartment where she now lives. She has acknowledged that swimming in Craig Stebic’s pool after trying to land an interview with him was a “horrible mistake.”  Photo Gallery »

Chicago was stewing that Friday, overtaken by humid weather and a heat index in the 90s. But nothing was steamier on July 6, 2007, than the gossip burning up the phone lines of the city’s TV journalists. The juicy chatter involved a hot tub or a pool party, perhaps sex, possibly an affair—it all depended on who was talking. One theme ran through the variations, though: “There’s this incredible video,” one newsman recalls hearing, “of Craig Stebic and Amy Jacobson in his backyard.”

Even for a rumor, it was shocking—not least of all to Jacobson, the striking and successful NBC-5 reporter. Stebic, after all, was the estranged husband of a missing woman—a hot news story Jacobson had chased in recent weeks. Like everyone else, she heard the dirt that afternoon, too—when her phone rang as she drove home from Stebic’s house. Her friend Juan Carlos Fanjul, then a Channel 9 reporter, was on the line. “Jacobson,” she remembers him saying, “what were you doing today?”

Seventeen months later, the infamous footage—which eventually aired on CBS-2 news—can still be seen on the station’s Web site. For all the controversy, the grainy six-minute video rivals a department-store surveillance tape in its monotony: Mostly, Jacobson stands behind a glass door talking on the phone, wearing a halter swim top with a beach towel wrapped around her rib cage. Yet the pictures won’t go away—nor, it seems, will the bad fortune they heaped on the reporter. NBC-5 fired her the day the tape aired, and she hasn’t landed a new job since—despite paying her way to interview in five states (one news director, she says, called her “toxic”). Without her $100,000-plus salary, she and her husband, Jaime Anglada, had to sell their 4,300-square-foot house in the Lake View neighborhood, decamping to an apartment across the street. Then, over this past Labor Day weekend, Anglada had his wife served with divorce papers. That day Jacobson, in tears, told Chicago, “I just keep telling myself, ‘Nobody’s died.’”

But if she seems beaten down, her lawyer is positively pugilistic: In July, she filed a multimillion-dollar lawsuit on Jacobson’s behalf. It accuses CBS-2 and Tracy Reardon, a neighbor of Stebic’s who allegedly helped Channel 2 shoot the video, of defamation and invasion of privacy, among other claims. Much of the suit centers on whether Jacobson had a “reasonable expectation of privacy” in Stebic’s fenced-in backyard. “Our position is that before you even get to Amy Jacobson’s behavior, or whether she was wearing a swimsuit, making the tape was an invasion of her privacy,” says Jacobson’s lawyer, the Oak Brook–based Kathleen Zellner.

CBS-2 tells Chicago it plans to “vigorously” defend itself. But the station has hardly emerged from the controversy unscathed; nor has it improved on its status as the also-ran of Chicago network news affiliates. In October the station booted its general manager, Joe Ahern, who had presided over six years of dismal ratings, including in July 2007, when CBS-2 finished a distant third behind Channels 7 and 5—despite its sensational play of the Jacobson tape.

Jacobson, now 39, is no wallflower:  She swam at the home of a source, a man who many people think was involved in his wife’s disappearance. And her hard-charging tactics had raised concerns before. But rather than some unscrupulous reporter who stoops to seductive techniques—“bikini journalism,” as one tabloid put it—she seems, to friends, co-workers, and even those she covered, a more old-school type: a never-off-the-clock newshound, one whose competitive nature garnered scoops for her station and grumbling from rivals.

Her detour to the Stebic pool that afternoon has fueled both measured commentary and cable-TV squawking about journalistic ethics—hers (“This is an attempt at seduction for editorial purposes,” Geraldo Rivera harrumphed as he watched the video) but also CBS-2’s in obtaining and airing the tape. With these issues now likely to play out in court, Jacobson will almost certainly face questions about her hard-charging style—one that led her to a backyard pool on a suburban street, a place that makes Wisteria Lane look downright placid.

***

A dark undercurrent ran through Red Star Drive in Plainfield, Illinois, long before Lisa Stebic disappeared on April 30, 2007. Neighbors there told the Naperville Sun that Lisa sometimes feared her husband would kill her. While visiting at the house of a friend, Amer Zegar, Lisa confided that she was seeking counseling at a domestic violence center. “If anything ever happened to me,” she told Zegar, according to the Sun, “look towards Craig.”

After his wife disappeared, Craig Stebic claimed innocence. For the first few days of the investigation, he spoke freely to reporters—including Jacobson and Mike Puccinelli, CBS-2’s Naperville bureau chief. Then a midnight police raid on his house netted 24 guns. His neighbors grew uneasy. “I don’t want to blame someone who’s innocent,” Zegar told the Sun. “[But] we’re scared; we really are.”

Gathered for a barbecue in late June 2007, the neighbors talked among themselves about Stebic’s demeanor, which they believed was growing darker. They worried that he might become violent. One visitor that evening was Leigh Harris, a former TV producer volunteering as media adviser to Lisa Stebic’s side of the family. She says she told the neighbors to put heavy curtains on any windows that faced Stebic’s house, and she advised them to keep loaded and charged video cameras at the ready—to document anything that might erupt.

A few days later, on July 5th, things got especially tense for one neighbor. Tracy Reardon, a petite 35-year-old, lived in a neatly kept house directly behind Stebic’s. Though a six- to seven-foot-tall privacy fence surrounded Stebic’s backyard and pool, this fence had failed to make good neighbors. Although Reardon had been friendly with Lisa, she didn’t like Craig. “They’d had a long-running feud,” says Melanie Greenberg, a cousin of Lisa’s.

Reardon was working in her backyard on July 5th when, she would tell police, Stebic and his sister, Jill Webb, made her uncomfortable by staring at her from over the fence. She moved to the front yard, but soon Webb appeared on the sidewalk with a camera, taking photos of her. Later that evening, Reardon told police, she saw Stebic shooting fireworks toward her house—an act that had caused friction in the past between the neighbors.

The next day, July 6th, Reardon called the police. That morning, she had found a six-inch cylindrical explosive in her yard. By 10 a.m., a police detective had confiscated the explosive and interviewed her about the previous day’s problems. “The device contained gunpowder used in a 50- or 70-caliber gun,” the detective would write in her report. “It appeared someone attempted to light the wick.”

That same morning, Jacobson knocked on Stebic’s front door.

***

As Jacobson explained repeatedly after she was fired, she had been driving to the East Bank Club to swim with her two sons, aged two and three, when Jill Webb called. Webb, visiting from Iowa with her husband and three children, was leaving the next day—but she invited Jacobson to the Stebic house “so we can talk about the case,” as Jacobson recalls. “[Webb and Stebic] were very upset with Mike Puccinelli, and I thought, ‘Here’s my opportunity.’” Though it was her day off, she hoped showing up would lead to an on-camera interview with either sibling. “We hadn’t heard from that side of the family much,” Jacobson says, “and I like to get both sides of the story.”

Jacobson replied that she had her two sons in tow; Webb didn’t care. “I live in Iowa,” Webb told Chicago. “It’s laid-back and family-oriented. I’m an emergency room nurse; I’ve had to bring my kids to work, too.” Jacobson turned the car toward Plainfield.

As it turned out, Puccinelli had already shown up at the Stebic house that morning. The handsome reporter—who had worked as a teacher and swim coach before pursuing a broadcast career—knocked on the front door, hoping to get a quote for his story about a search for Lisa. But Puccinelli had irritated Stebic and his sister with a recent report hinting that the police might soon name Stebic a person of interest in his wife’s disappearance. (The police did just that, on July 12th.) “My husband knows I’m not fond of Mike Puccinelli,” Webb says. “So he turned him away.”

Jacobson and her sons, meanwhile, were welcomed inside. Stebic asked what she knew about the Puccinelli report. “Then Jill told me some things about Lisa, and what was really going on in [Lisa’s] relationship [with Stebic],” Jacobson recalls. At some point, Stebic disappeared. The reporter retired to a bathroom to take off her shorts and top (her swimsuit was underneath), and she and Webb jumped into the pool with their five kids. At no time, according to the lawsuit, were she and Stebic in the pool together.

During the course of her 90-minute stay, Jacobson says, she asked if either Stebic or Webb would do an on-camera interview. “They didn’t want to do it that day,” she says. “I said, ‘Okay.’ It was building a relationship. Then we talked a little more, about her work, and his line of work, and then the kids all ate hot dogs.”

In a radio interview after she was fired, Jacobson said that spending time at Stebic’s pool in a swimsuit was a “horrible mistake”—made, she says, in an attempt to juggle mom and work duties. News reporters are essentially always “on”—expected to jump when news breaks. But codes of ethics dictate that journalists avoid even the appearance of impropriety, and most observers agree that the images of Jacobson in her bikini top made her look far too cozy with people at the heart of a story she was reporting.

Outside, Channel 2’s Puccinelli was still working in the neighborhood. Red Star Drive was familiar territory; in the two months since Lisa’s disappearance, he and Jacobson had interviewed scores of neighbors and filed numerous stories, establishing themselves as lead reporters—and intense rivals—on the story. Now, spotting an unfamiliar car in Stebic’s driveway, Puccinelli called its license-plate number in to the CBS-2 assignment desk for a check, according to the lawsuit; when it came up as Jacobson’s, a CBS-2 staffer allegedly said: “Why is she there and you’re not? Go get her.” (Calls made to Puccinelli and CBS-2 executives were referred to the communications department, which said in a statement that the station “stands by its reporting.”)

Then, according to the lawsuit and a report on the CBS-2 evening news, Puccinelli and his cameraman paid a visit to a nearby house; the lawsuit says it was the home of Tracy Reardon, Stebic’s aggrieved backyard neighbor. They left with the now-infamous videotape, took it back to their news truck, and beamed the images back to the newsroom in Chicago. There, the video was an instant hit.

“I heard this commotion,” Gerald McClain, a freelance cameraman working at CBS-2 that day, told Chicago. “They were looking at [what] looked like a surveillance tape or something. They said, ‘It’s Amy Jacobson.’ I said, ‘No, it can’t be.’ There were maybe five or six people watching it. They said it had just been fed in. They seemed to be enjoying it. ‘Enjoying’ might not be the right word. They seemed to be looking at it like, ‘Okay, we got her now. She’s done other stuff like this.’ Kind of negative. I just left. I’m a colleague of hers, and I didn’t want to get pulled into it.”

Within an hour, word of the video buzzed through Chicago’s journalism community. Jacobson, driving past Soldier Field when her Channel 9 friend called, promptly phoned Frank Whittaker, NBC-5’s vice president of news. “I knew I didn’t do anything wrong,” she says. “I thought he’d be proud of me, that I was working on my day off, being aggressive. But I was worried about the perception it could create.” Whittaker called back an hour later, suggesting she get representation and not come in to work on Sunday. “That’s when I knew something was wrong,” Jacobson recalls.

 

Photograph by Katrina Wittkamp

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