Playing Detective

Written by Craig Outheir Category: People Issue: August 2013
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The Valley’s most decorated investigative reporter embarks on a second career as a private eye.

The spunky West Valley divorcee with a passion for ballroom dancing is in a grateful mood. Yes, she’s broke. Yes, a Nigerian flimflam artist stole her heart and cleaned out her bank account. But things could be worse. She might not have met Paul Rubin.

“I’m pretty stable right now – but I wasn’t when Paul entered the picture,” the grandmotherly victim says, nodding to the ex-Phoenix New Times reporter seated nearby in her tasteful Surprise patio home – sadly, the home she will probably lose after forking over $400,000 to a handsome headshot she met on dating website eHarmony.com.

Now working part-time as a private investigator, Rubin unraveled the scam, exposing the dashing, allegedly German suitor – whom his client never met face-to-face but fell in love with over the phone and via email – as just another scheming Internet catfisher in Lagos. He was also able to retrieve some of the divorcee’s lost fortune, marshaling the investigative skills that helped him win three Arizona Press Club Journalist of the Year awards before the New Times cut him loose last August. “This was probably the first [case] that I’ve overseen from beginning to end,” the 60-something gumshoe says. “The first one that obsessed me like the stories I used to write.”

 His client smiles sympathetically – acknowledging, perhaps, that the collective misery of the Valley’s print media industry has become her own good fortune.

In a city teeming with improbably unemployed reporters, editors and photographers, Rubin might be the most improbable of them all. Though late to the party – he was almost 30 years old before scoring his first full-time newspaper gig, as a courts reporter for the Sierra Vista Herald in 1981 – the Connecticut-bred scribe made a spectacular success of himself in the salt mines of local journalism. Recruited by famously pugnacious New Times founder Michael Lacey (“For such a bully of a man... he was a fantastic editor,” Rubin says) in 1985, Rubin went on to write some of the alternative news weekly’s most celebrated long-form journalism. His months-in-the-making “deep people” piece on an indigent graveyard in Tempe run by jail inmates won awards, as did his 2004 exposé of a $500 million organ-for-cash insurance scam, in which he went undercover and was “chased around by Vietnamese gangsters.” A self-described “copy machine,” he spent a full year embedded with homicide detectives, dashing off to crime scenes while meeting his regular quota of New Times cover stories from the Phoenix PD coffee room.

Rubin – a personable, laid-back fellow who occasionally betrays the barest whiff of East Coast  swagger – estimates he wrote more than 300 feature stories in his 27 years at the New Times, amassing the respect of sources in politics and law enforcement who saw a tough but straight-shooting pro who could be trusted.

Rubin stuck with reporting while most of his contemporaries fled the industry or moved on to editing jobs and became something of a newsroom shaman at New Times. Not the boss of the paper, but maybe its soul.

“He raised me as a journalist,” says New Times managing editor Amy Silverman, who joined the paper as a staff writer in 1993. “I could count on one hand the number of times we went to lunch, but it had nothing to do with getting along. His thing was, ‘Don’t go to lunch with me. Go to lunch with people who can get you stories.’ He’s a reporter’s reporter.”

Nonetheless, well-paid Rubin was not immune from the ad revenue contraction that decimated the Valley’s newspaper industry. Ironically, just weeks after his dismissal, he scored his 13th Journalist of the Year nomination from the Arizona Press Club. 

“Let’s put it this way: [New Times] knew I wasn’t dialing it in with my emeritus status as the storied old man,” Rubin says cheerfully. “You know, smoking my pipe and petting my setter and holding court at Durant’s.”

The day of his dismissal, Rubin broadcast a farewell email to the hundreds of colleagues and acquaintances on his contact list. One email recipient was former Arizona Republic and KPNX-Channel 12 reporter Rich Robertson, who left journalism in 2000 to launch R3 Investigations in Mesa. Specializing in legal support, and staffed by several former law enforcement pros and ex-reporters, including KPNX Emmy-winner Lew Ruggiero, the firm seemed like a natural destination for Rubin. “I made him an offer he could easily refuse,” Robertson says half-jokingly.

Rubin says he received a handful of journalism job offers immediately after the layoff, but none compelling enough to forego the intrigue of PI work. He knew he had the connections, kept fresh via his once-a-day habit of randomly phoning a name in his Rolodex, just to “catch up.” He also knew how to navigate the legal system and the fjords of public records. And he knew how to get the facts. “Listening well, knowing how to ask follow-up questions, doing your homework ahead of time... all those things come into play here at R3,” Rubin says. “The skill set is the same.”

Robertson agrees: “This business is full of former [cops], and they’re trained for action. They shoot bad guys and drive cars fast. But after somebody is arrested and gets into the legal system, it’s all about words. Our clients, attorneys, value words more than action.”

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Rubin’s first case, in October, found him tracking down jurors and poring over transcripts from a 15-year-old murder trial – part of an effort to prove “ineffective assistance of counsel” on behalf of an Arizona death row inmate. He also investigated a felony murder case in Flagstaff, poking around for holes in the police investigation, or lack thereof, to help the defense attorney design a trial strategy. Rubin says he approaches each case as he would a story. Though the work is client-based, and often on behalf of unsavory souls, ferreting out the facts is paramount. “Having 32 years experience in criminal defense matters definitely helps me,” he says. “I know how the criminal justice system is designed to work. I’m not saying it works, mind you.”

Though he doesn’t explicitly say so, Rubin clearly keeps a special place in his heart for the rare regular-Joe case that crosses his desk – like the lonely-hearts scam perpetrated on the Surprise divorcee. Tapping into his network of contacts, Rubin was able to mobilize the U.S. Postmaster in Phoenix, who helped interdict several automobiles the Nigerian lothario had purchased with his client’s money and was shipping out of Georgia.

“I think it was your contacts that really made it happen,” she says to Rubin. She hopes to recover the money from the seized vehicles this summer.

Leaving his client’s home, Rubin – who currently teaches a journalism class at ASU – admits he wants to tell the full story of the widow’s lonely-hearts mishap. She’s all for the idea. “I’ve pitched it to a couple of national magazines,” he says. “No matter what happens, I’ll never stop writing. It was what I was meant to do.”

Interrogating Rubin

If you had P.I. theme music, what would it be?
“Maybe the Jeopardy theme. It’s always going through my head, reminding me to ask questions.”

What was your favorite story?
“It’s impossible for me to answer that. But one of the weirdest stories was a Valley guy who thought his Lincoln Continental had healing powers. It was like the opposite of [the Stephen King book] Christine. That was an evil car. This was a Jesus car.”

I understand you’re an avid softball player and a member of the Arizona Softball Hall of Fame.
No. The Arizona Fast Pitch Softball Hall of Fame. There are two halls. I’m in that one.