KSTP's million-dollar mistake

Station loses biggest defamation case in Minnesota history

"A self-proclaimed natural doctor seemed to have all the answers," the teaser began. "But did the doctor's orders almost turn deadly?... Now 5 Eyewitness News is asking the tough questions."

Anderson's receptionist, Janet Reppe, heard the promos and couldn't believe what was happening, so she called her boss.

Alarmed and confused, Anderson turned to a former neighbor, St. Paul attorney Bill Tilton, who was stunned by what he called "ambush journalism at its most scurrilous."

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

"KSTP decided that they had gotten the new, Midwestern Dr. Kevorkian or something, that this natural practitioner in Hudson was leading Minnesotans to their death," Tilton recalls. "It was ridiculous."

Tilton fired off a letter to the station alerting them that their story was incorrect. He chastised the station for failing to return to Anderson's ranch for an in-person interview.

In response to the letter, and just a couple of hours before the story aired on the 10 p.m. news, KSTP sat down with Anderson at Tilton's law office.

Tilton warned them that the story wasn't true, that Cheryl was mentally ill and had severe problems before she ever met Anderson. Anderson denied ever telling Cheryl to wean off the Klonopin.

None of that slowed KSTP down. The report pointed out that naturopathic medicine is unregulated in Wisconsin and centered on Cheryl's "story of pain, anxiety, naturopathy, and a suicide attempt."

Anderson didn't return home until 9:30 p.m., half an hour before the broadcast, and considered skipping the story. But she watched, and as she sat through the program, became emotional.

"The hype was more important than the truth," Anderson says. "I just cried and cried and cried."

Anderson fumed on her blog the next morning.

"The jackals at KSTP5 news tried to defame us with a story of near death by using a seriously mentally ill former client of ours," Anderson wrote.

A week later, she was still indignant about the report.

"No one has the right to walk into your life and make false claims and outright lies and fabrications to drum up sympathy for a self-proclaimed master victim, nor do the jackals of the news media have the right to publish it without even the most minimal foundation," Anderson blogged.

Tilton referred Anderson to his friend Pat Tierney, a veteran St. Paul attorney.

"It's impossible for a lawyer who represents a defamation victim to know whether it's a good case or not until we know what the TV station knew," Tierney says. "It's a guessing game. You have to size up clients, and it's a gut call which case you take."

Tierney decided to take Anderson's case on, believing that she had been wronged by KSTP. He began drafting a summons and complaint.

But before Tierney could serve the station or the Blahas, Anderson was served with a lawsuit herself.

Cheryl Blaha filed a complaint in St. Croix County alleging nine counts against Susan Anderson. She claimed invasion of privacy as a result of Anderson's blog posts and alleged that Anderson misrepresented herself as a "doctor."

Tierney thought it telling that the couple didn't sue for defamation.

"They would have had to prove that what Sue said wasn't true," Tierney says. "They couldn't prove that so they tried invasion of privacy."

Anderson fought the Blahas all the way to court in April 2011. Cheryl waived her right to a jury trial and Judge Eric Lundell heard testimony in the case for two days before ruling in Anderson's favor.

In his findings of fact, Lundell found that Cheryl "has a history of psychiatric and psychological problems beginning at age 12 and has received ongoing psychological and psychiatric treatment ever since she was a teenager."

He found that Anderson didn't de-prescribe Blaha's Klonopin or misrepresent herself as a doctor. Ominously for KSTP, Judge Lundell declared that the station "falsely accused Susan Anderson of being responsible for Cheryl Blaha's April 2007 suicide attempt."

It was a total victory for Anderson.

"Every single detail, every single count, every single issue," Anderson boasts. "We won it hands down."

As the Wisconsin lawsuit began winding down, Anderson went on the offensive, filing a lawsuit against KSTP and the Blahas alleging defamation. That meant another round of bruising depositions.

Cheryl Blaha refused to state her name for the record when Pat Tierney tried to take her deposition in Anderson's lawsuit against KSTP.

"Oh, come on," Blaha protested in her attorney's office.

It was the first time she had been face to face with Tierney since the Wisconsin lawsuit was adjudicated.

"We've been coming to this same party for years," Blaha said, calling the process "depressing."

Wound up, Blaha blew off her own attorney when he asked her to state her name.

"No," Blaha shot back. "You got it. Don't you got it? We've been meeting for years. You haven't got my name yet?"

Blaha bristled when Tierney threatened to take her before Dakota County Judge Richard Spicer for sanctions.

"Before you fluff your feathers too much, Tierney, I'm going to tell you why you won that case," Blaha spat.

She launched into a rambling speech claiming she was destined to lose her lawsuit against Susan Anderson due to a previous dispute she had in the court over a child custody case before Judge Lundell.

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