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Profile: Jaxon Van Derbeken, Crime Reporter 

By Ashley Harrell

Photograph by Frank Gaglione

Anybody who regularly reads crime reporter Jaxon Van Derbeken's stories in the San Francisco Chronicle knows that his true home is the city's Hall of Justice at 850 Bryant.

From his post on the building's third floor, Van Derbeken has been breaking balls and stories for the Chron for 13 years. It's not that he loves crime. But if he's going to be writing about it, he wants to be doing it in San Francisco, a bizarre and complicated city practically begging for somebody to figure out what the hell is going on.

"It has a lot of elements that are interesting and contradictory," Van Derbeken says, reclining in his office chair, hands folded behind his head. "It's a big city and a small town combined."

The city's eccentricities have allowed Van Derbeken to work on a broad range of stories with ridiculous casts of characters. In April, he wrote about how hundreds of drug cases had to be dismissed after Deborah Madden, a crime lab technician, skimmed cocaine from evidence containers. That was almost unbelievable. A week later, he followed that with a report on how feral cats had taken over part of that same crime lab.

Really, it's that winning combination of zany people living in a city with systemic problems that creates endless potential for great stories. What other city can boast headlines like Van Derbeken's "S.F. Repeat Cop-Biter Avoids Felony Conviction" or "Father, Son Beat Pot Charges"?

Van Derbeken sees one story that has intrigued him over the years as perhaps the most emblematic of life in San Francisco: the 2001 dog mauling that involved two lawyers, Robert Noel and Marjorie Knoller; their adopted son, prison inmate Paul "Cornfed" Schneider of the Aryan Brotherhood; and his Presa Canario dogs, Bane and Hera. The couple were taking care of the dogs as a favor to Schneider when they got loose and fatally attacked Diane Whipple, a lacrosse coach, in her apartment building. Schneider apologized. Noel and Knoller blamed Whipple. The rest of the country watched the whole crazy saga with disgust. "It was a perfect storm of elements that showed the good, the bad, and the ugly about the city," Van Derbeken says.

The other thing Van Derbeken can't help noticing is that people in general (and juries in particular) are extremely forgiving here. Scofflaws get away with all kinds of things, and as far as he can tell, San Franciscans prefer it that way. That laissez-faire attitude sometimes gets to him, particularly when he writes a story that he thinks will horrify people and instead they don't care. "It's like everything is acceptable," he says. "There's not a lot of outrage."

Then again, that's part of what draws people to San Francisco. "There's a line on USA Network that says, 'Characters welcome,'" Van Derbeken says. "I think of that as San Francisco's calling card."

You just don't get stories in Walnut Creek or Belmont like the ones you get here. "This is a city that welcomes people who are different, so different people come here," he says. "In many respects, that adds to the complexity of the crime equation."

(Sorry, no information is currently available for other years in this same award category.)


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