KSTP's million-dollar mistake

Station loses biggest defamation case in Minnesota history

Cameras rolling, the news crew pulled up to Susan Anderson's horse ranch on a cold March afternoon. KSTP reporter Jennifer Griswold charged up to the property with a producer and cameraman in tow. Griswold, a fit 31-year-old whose soft Midwestern features project a younger image on screen, had driven from KSTP's newsroom to Hudson, Wisconsin, in pursuit of a sensational story.

The station had received a tip on its hotline from a local woman, Cheryl Blaha, who shared a camera-ready tale of life and death. Nearly two weeks after sitting down with Blaha and her husband, Griswold barged unannounced into the Healing Arts Wellcare Center to report Anderson's side of the story.

"Are you Sue?" Griswold asked a tan, fit woman in her fifties, a Blackfeet and Dakota Native American.

KSTP reporter Jennifer Griswold (above) accused Susan Anderson (bottom) of causing Cheryl Blaha to attempt suicide
courtesy of the Dakota County court
KSTP reporter Jennifer Griswold (above) accused Susan Anderson (bottom) of causing Cheryl Blaha to attempt suicide
Susan Anderson turned to defamation attorney Pat Tierney for help with KSTP
Mark N. Kartarik
Susan Anderson turned to defamation attorney Pat Tierney for help with KSTP

"Yeah," Anderson answered, explaining that she was with a client.

"Sue," Griswold interrupted, "do you know that a woman almost died because of the advice you gave her?"

An attractive blonde with a nervous smile, Cheryl Blaha delivered her second child, Brock, in October 2006 after a difficult pregnancy. Birthing Brock taxed Blaha's body and left her with severe anxiety, panic attacks, and pain.

Her husband, Eric, a skinny software engineer at Medtronic, called Anderson, a practioner of holistic medicine, on a friend's recommendation. Anderson initially declined to see Cheryl, who had a reputation for being "hysterical," according to Anderson.

"She lived in this town for a long time, and I'm from this town," Anderson says. "We're fully aware of what each other's personalities are like."

Despite her initial refusal, Anderson softened when Eric told her that he was concerned Cheryl might "kill the baby."

Eric denies ever fearing for his child's safety, but no one disputes that Cheryl was in desperate need of help. She was crying constantly and threatening suicide. Anderson began seeing Cheryl in February 2007.

At their first meeting, Cheryl signed a form acknowledging, "I will always seek medical advice for medical treatment."

The waiver also says that "diagnosis or treatment of any kind of disease is outside the scope and practice of natural health."

Cheryl met with Anderson about once a month until her final appointment in July 2007. Anderson says she ended her sessions with Cheryl because she had taught Cheryl everything she could.

"If I teach you something I'm not going to reteach it to you," Anderson says. "Especially if I don't think you flunked."

At their last meeting, Anderson remembers, Cheryl gave the naturopath a big hug.

"Thank you for everything you did," Blaha said, according to Anderson. "Without this, I wouldn't have survived."

After KSTP's Mike Maybay hung up with Cheryl Blaha, he went to investigative news director Sam Zeff to discuss the story. Zeff directed Maybay to "get the medical records." Zeff later testified that he cannot recall anything else about the reporting, although he did remember snacks at investigative meetings.

Maybay, a producer at the station for 16 years, screened the story for broadcast. Cheryl claimed that Anderson diagnosed her with "baby blues" and told her to get off Klonopin, an anti-anxiety drug, because it was hard on her kidneys.

That allegedly sent Cheryl into a downward spiral. Her depression culminated in April 2007, around Easter, with her threatening to jump in front of a truck on Highway 35 in Hudson.

"I'm taking my life right now," Cheryl told her husband. "I can't do this anymore. You raise the kids. I can't do this. I can't live like this."

Eric claims to have called Anderson to ask for advice on how to deal with his suicidal wife. He alleges that Anderson told him to "let her go."

Instead, Eric went after Cheryl, who was pacing in their driveway.

Eric took his wife back inside the house and comforted her. She didn't get anywhere near the highway.

The couple continued seeing Anderson and kept the alleged suicide attempt to themselves, not mentioning it to the naturopath or Cheryl's regular doctor. Then, a year and a half later, the Blahas reached out to KSTP and shared the story of the alleged suicide attempt, which they blamed on Anderson.

Cheryl turned over 10 pages of medical documents beginning in February 2007 to the TV station in support of her story. But Cheryl's medical records didn't match her assertions.

During her interview with KSTP, Cheryl claimed that she went off Klonopin without telling her doctor. But the medical records showed that her physician, Dr. Mark Stannard, knew she was quitting the drug.

"She may decide to wean down her Klonopin as she deems necessary," reads one entry from Stannard, dated April 16, 2007.

KSTP also knew that Cheryl had a long history of psychiatric problems. She told the station that she had previously been institutionalized in a psychiatric ward and that she was suicidal before she ever met Susan Anderson.

After the station sat down with Cheryl, they didn't pursue a similar interview with Anderson. Instead, Griswold showed up at Anderson's ranch and accused her of causing a woman to "nearly die."

Anderson asked the station to bring Cheryl and get a waiver authorizing Anderson to discuss her former client. Griswold never returned. Instead, KSTP began airing promos.

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