Stensland speaks from the bull's-eye

REBECCA BARGER-TUVIM / Staff photographer
REBECCA BARGER-TUVIM / Staff photographer
Posted: November 16, 2009

IT'S A LITTLE surprising to hear former Fox 29 anchor Dawn Stensland describe herself as feeling "empowered" these days.

In the last 18 months, she lost her TV anchor job, suffered a miscarriage and watched as a sexually charged public scandal humiliated her TV anchor husband Larry Mendte and led to his firing, conviction and house arrest.

"We all have our cross to bear. No matter what a person is going through," she says, as her voice breaks and she wipes tears away. "For women, put on your best game face, put on your best girdle and you just gotta go."

What has provided the Chicago native with that strength to go on? Facebook. And Twitter.

She says she's received more than 3,000 messages through e-mail, Facebook, texts and Twitter from family, friends and viewers. Many of those who contacted her and people she sees on the street ask what they can do to get her back on the air.

"It's so empowering to feel that kind of love and support from people," the 45-year-old Stensland said recently, as she enjoyed a coconut-shrimp appetizer plate at the Chestnut Grill on Germantown Avenue. (It's her favorite indulgence). "A lot of the messages going back over the past year until now with me losing my job are probably from people who are in their own struggle."

They don't even know the half of what Stensland has endured.

In addition to her publicized woes, Stensland's 67-year-old mother Rosemary is suffering from a progressive motor-neuron disorder similar to Lou Gehrig's disease. She's been confined to a wheelchair for more than a year.

Her white German shepherd succumbed to cancer in January, on Mendte's birthday.

Meanwhile, Fox 29's announcement last month that it would not renew her contract came almost to the day of the anniversary of Stensland's Oct. 17, 2008, miscarriage.

And her husband, the former CBS 3 anchor, is also jobless after recently completing six months house arrest, the result of pleading guilty to a felony federal charge in connection with hacking former co-anchor Alycia Lane's e-mails.

"There's a tendency that we all feel alone," said Stensland, who says she turns to her Bible verses for strength and comfort. "[But] with that many thousands of people writing you, you don't feel alone."

One Facebook poster's comments reflected many on Stensland's Facebook pages: "I was so sorry to see your [sic] gone from Fox!," wrote one woman. "It saddens me your [sic] not there. You did a GREAT job and I loved watching you every night :)"

"I read through them all sometimes at night and cry," Stensland said. "It feels so emotional, it's like a big group hug."

And, lately, Dawn Stensland has needed a big Philadelphia hug.

The mother of two, who wants to be known from here forward as Dawn Stensland Mendte, calls herself and her children "the innocent victims" of the Mendte-Lane scandal of 2008 that continues in litigation to this day.

"And that is the truth," Stensland said, in a rare sassy moment.

But, she'll be the first to tell you: "I'm not angry at all. I don't want to get revenge, but I do pray that the full truth comes out."

As for Mendte, she stands by her man.

"I love him more today than I ever have. Has he made mistakes? Sure, yes he did. Do I think they rose to the level of a federal crime? No, I don't. I think that is ridiculous."

For those living under a vow of news-celibacy in recent years, Mendte, 52, and Lane, 37, were the hot new anchor team in fall 2003 at CBS 3, right around the time Stensland was pregnant with her first child.

Stensland had had difficulties conceiving and had undergone fertility treatments over the years, she said. "Any fertility doctor will tell you, it's very hard on a marriage to go through years of fertility treatments."

Then, she noticed little things. Mendte told her, "I'm helping my new co-anchor with her 401(k)."

"I said, 'You guys make enough money, why don't you spend time with your pregnant wife?'" she recalled. "Things like that began to build."

Things like late-night dinners, coming home later and later. Unexplained expenses. Stensland said she found a credit card statement from Tiffany's right around the time she began getting phone calls from friends at CBS 3 (Stensland had worked there from 1997 to 2001) about Larry and Alycia. They were seen embracing and kissing in a parking garage, the friends told her. Lane was known to put on her makeup in Mendte's office. The rumors swelled, but Stensland didn't believe them.

Until she uncovered some e-mails between Larry and Alycia.

"I confronted him about the e-mails, which were salacious in nature, which broke my heart," she said.

It was Jan. 1, 2005, right before she and her husband were headed to Jacksonville to watch the Eagles in the Super Bowl.

Mendte "then broke it off" with Lane, she said.

Through her attorney Paul Rosen, Lane, now a weekend anchor/reporter at KNBC in Los Angeles, denied in August 2008 that she ever had an affair with Mendte.

But two months earlier, in an interview with the FBI, she admitted to agents that "the relationship started to become affectionate," according to court documents.

Lane also admitted to accepting a platinum Tiffany's necklace from Mendte and kissing him, but that "the relationship never got to the point of touching bodies," the documents said.

The end of the relationship began a different chapter in the Mendtes' lives, Stensland said.

"Unfortunately it created a nightmare scenario at work," Stensland said. "The cozy happy days were over and it was going to turn ugly."

On both sides.

Mendte alleges that Lane got him taken off CBS 3 projects. And Mendte, as the FBI soon found out, accessed Lane's e-mail accounts at least 537 times, federal investigators have said. His spying began, he said, after he'd seen an e-mail on Lane's newsroom computer screen that bad-mouthed him to CBS 3 management.

In November 2008, Mendte pleaded guilty to a felony charge, but his attorney Julia Morrow is asking the court to reduce the charge to a misdemeanor. The Justice Department is investigating how the local U.S. Attorney's Office handled the case, court documents show.

Stensland, who along with Mendte's then-lawyer Michael Schwartz, had urged her husband's public apology, believes Mendte was demonized by the media.

"He was painted by the media with information that the FBI's own information refutes," she said, referring to Lane's admission of an affectionate relationship. "You know, it takes two to tango."

Some women have questioned Stensland's judgment in staying with Mendte. She wonders why some women would judge her.

"That's a sad part of our society, this idea that marriage is not until death do us part but rather something that's disposable," said Stensland, who has been married to Mendte for nine years. "That's not the way it should be. . . . You know, I'm sticking by my man and I know that Larry is a good man."

Just as Stensland thought she and her beloved family - tots David, 3, and Michael, 6, and Mendte's children from a previous marriage, Stacia, 26, and Jonathan, 25 - had weathered the worst of a hellish 2008, more bad news came this year.

Their dear German shepherd, Buddy, died at age 10.

"He was just a part of the family," she said.

Then the news veteran got sucker-punched when her station announced Oct. 21 that it would not renew her contract.

Inside the Fox 29 newsroom, Stensland's colleagues were shocked to learn about her departure from an article on philly.com, sources said. Station officials had released a statement to local media outlets, but not informed Stensland's co-workers, they said.

Stensland wanted her family, friends and viewers to hear the news from her so she turned to Facebook and Twitter, where she wrote, "Fox is not renewing my contract. I wanted you to hear that directly from me. Thank you for all your love and support over the years."

Stensland, meanwhile, pressed on, writing her script for that night's broadcast. It aired late because the Phillies won the National League Championship Series that night. It was her last newscast.

Stensland, a 20-year-plus veteran of broadcast news who arrived in Philadelphia in 1997, didn't get the chance to say goodbye to Fox 29 viewers, stations sources said. Her chance to connect one last time with her viewers had passed.

Dawn Stensland was just - poof! - gone.

Yet Stensland focuses on the positive - such as more time with her sons. She also continues her work with local charities. She declined to offer specifics, but says she and her husband are reinventing themselves for possible new careers.

"I'm sad and I'm hopeful for the future," Stensland said. One thing's for certain - Philadelphia is home.

"We love it here."

Stensland says she holds no bitterness, that in fact, she appreciates her former employer.

"I'm grateful to Fox and Roger Ailes [the head of Fox's news division] for my employment," she said. "I love the people there and I wish everybody well."

Fox 29, in turn, released a statement last week: "Fox 29 appreciates Dawn's hard work and dedication during her time with the station."

And Stensland being Stensland, she notes all the other staffers who have been laid off at Fox 29 and companies everywhere. "I guess we're like 10 percent of Americans right now.

We're all in the same boat."

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