Dawn’s Dark Days

As her husband, Larry Mendte, was pleading guilty to federal cyber crimes and telling the world he’d had an “improper” relationship with Alycia Lane, Fox 29 anchor Dawn Stensland had to hold it together so she could report the news every night on TV. Now, in an exclusive interview, Stensland speaks out about the e-mails she discovered, her recent miscarriage, why she’s been able to forgive her husband, and why she can’t yet forgive herself

DAWN STENSLAND KNEW for sure, on New Year’s Day 2005, that something was wrong.

It’s not that she hadn’t suspected before then. She’d heard the rumors that started back in the fall of 2003, not long after her husband, Larry Mendte, and Alycia Lane premiered as the hot new anchor team on CBS 3. She’d gotten phone messages at her office at Fox 29 — while she was pregnant with her first child — from anonymous callers who claimed that Larry and Alycia had been seen together, alone, in parking garages and restaurants and bars.

She was aware that Larry wasn’t getting home until after midnight just about every night he was on-air, sometimes not until one in the morning. Or two. She’d seen the teddy bears in his office, and the fancy new coffee machine, that he said, simply, were gifts. And she’d seen his American Express bill with a charge from Tiffany for more than $1,000.

But on New Year’s Day 2005, Dawn could no longer pretend that nothing was going on between her husband and Alycia. The Mendte family was heading to Center City for the Mummers Parade. Larry needed to stop at his office, so the kids — nine-month-old Michael, and Larry’s children from his first marriage, Jonathan, then 21, and Stacia, then 23 — drove separately to the Union League on Broad Street, where they always ate brunch before the parade, and Larry and Dawn drove to the CBS offices.

“Come up with me,” Larry said to Dawn. So she did.

While he took care of his business, Dawn sat at his desk, eventually hitting a key to wake up his sleeping computer. There, on the screen, was an open e-mail between Larry and Alycia. It was provocative, Dawn says. And it wasn’t the only one — there were several e-mails in Larry’s inbox between him and Alycia, many with flirtatious subject lines that, Dawn says, “broke my heart.”

The only thing she could think to do at the moment was to forward the messages to her AOL account. And then they left. They drove to the Union League. Standing out front on Broad Street in the cold with her family, Dawn didn’t wonder how she should address this with Larry, or if she should leave him. Instead, she did the only thing she could imagine doing. It was what she’d done since she’d heard the first rumor, what she’d continue to do for the next three years, until the FBI knocked on her front door, and what now, looking back, is the reason she blames herself for everything that happened.

“I didn’t say a word,” she says.

FOR MUCH OF the past year, two names have been on the lips of gossip-loving Philadelphians: Larry and Alycia. The soap opera-ish saga of the two former CBS 3 co-anchors — including Alycia’s arrest in an altercation with a New York City cop in December 2007 (the charges were later dismissed) and her subsequent firing by CBS 3; the stunning revelation that Larry had hacked into her e-mail accounts and had been reading her private messages for at least two years; and his statement that the two had grown “a little too close” — has dominated headlines, blog posts and watercooler conversations for nearly 14 months. Throughout, though, one player intimately involved in it all hasn’t been heard from: Larry’s wife of eight years, Fox 29 anchor Dawn Stensland.

“Everybody goes through tough times in their marriage,” she says, sitting in a Center City office where she’s agreed to talk publicly for the first time about what she’s been through. It’s been 10 days since Larry was sentenced to six months of house arrest, and Dawn is feeling relieved. She looks more delicate here than the Dawn on TV, dressed casually in a turtleneck sweater and wearing so little makeup that the tiny freckles on her cheeks show, which makes her appear much younger than 44.

To say that the past year has been trying for her is an understatement. Not only has Dawn seen her marriage strained and watched her husband lose his career, his dignity and his freedom, but as she reveals for the first time, she suffered a miscarriage in October. “We were devastated,” she says. And last week, just when she thought things couldn’t get worse, her 11-year-old dog Buddy was diagnosed with cancer. Through it all, Dawn has had no choice but to put on a brave face, reporting the news on TV every night, facing a city that was privy to some of the darkest details of her life. But now, Dawn wants to tell her own story. And it is just that — her story, her point of view, the past five years as she experienced them.

Last August, Larry, 51, stated publicly that he and Alycia, 36, had had “a flirtatious, unprofessional, and improper relationship.” Today, Dawn says she believes Larry when he says the relationship between him and Lane was inappropriately close, and included kissing, but the two did not have sex. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t an enormous amount of pain.

“I hope there’s some good that somebody can garner from this,” she says. “To just gain strength. And be empowered.”

TWELVE YEARS AGO, Dawn Stensland was wondering what she should do about this Larry Mendte guy she’d just started dating. They’d known each other for four years, ever since she showed up at WBBM in Chicago, 28 years old and ready for her first big break as a reporter. Larry had been hired the year before to be the station’s high-profile investigative reporter.

From the very start, they knew “we had something for each other,” she says, but nothing came of it. Larry was married, though going through some tough times with his wife, and Dawn would never have interfered. She was raised as a Bible Belt Christian, after all, and was just a child when she was born again at Bay Leaf Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina, dunk tank and all. But when Larry’s marriage fell apart, the two started calling each other. By then, Dawn was anchoring in Cleveland, and Larry was hosting Access Hollywood in Los Angeles, while taking care of Jonathan, then 12, who had moved there with him, while Stacia was in Philly with her mom. Pretty soon, Dawn started flying out to L.A. to visit. Then, in 1997, after Larry had become main anchor at Channel 10 in Philadelphia — his hometown — she moved here, too, to be an anchor at CBS 3.

Larry moved into the house Dawn picked out for them to live in when they got married, a manse on Bells Mill Road in Chestnut Hill, with a wrought iron gate out front and woods out back and a 250-year-old scarlet oak in the yard, which Dawn loved most of all. But until they exchanged vows at St. Philomena’s in Lansdowne on June 10, 2000, Dawn stayed in her apartment in Lafayette Hill. She was taking the stepmother role very seriously, not wanting to set a bad example for Larry’s kids.

“I knew that if I made a commitment to this man, I was making a commitment to Jonathan and Stacia as well,” Dawn says. Plus, they were the only children she thought she’d ever have. Years earlier, after being diagnosed with severe uterine fibroids, she was told she might not be able to get pregnant. That didn’t stop her and Larry from trying, eventually resorting to fertility treatments for a year, to no avail. When she started taking Clomid, she got pregnant, only to be crushed by a miscarriage not long after. What’s wrong with me? she thought. In the summer of 2003, they decided to try in vitro. It worked.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Dawn had already moved from CBS to anchor at Fox 29, in 2001, but now Larry was making a big career move himself — leaving his sweet main anchor gig at NBC 10 to kick off a new regime at CBS 3. He’d be the experienced Philly-born newsman coupled on the anchor desk with a “smokin’ Latina bombshell,” as the media described Alycia Lane, the new girl in town. She was also in the final stages of a divorce. The Mendte/Lane dream team debuted on CBS on September 15, 2003.

At first, when Larry started coming home from work late, Dawn didn’t think anything of it, though in six years of doing the 11 o’clock broadcast at NBC with co-anchor Renee Chenault Fattah, “He was always home before midnight.” She figured he was just working hard, as he was known to do. Plus, whenever she asked, he’d tell her, “The post-show meeting went late,” or “Everyone went out after work.” But as the fall of 2003 wore on, his schedule never let up. He was spending more and more time at work, coming home later and later. Dawn figured he was pulling away from her because she was so focused on her pregnancy, which had become extremely painful due to her fibroids; by this point, one had grown to the size of a melon.

“I trusted him,” Dawn says. “I just felt like maybe I was being hormonal and paranoid.” Even so, she couldn’t stop herself from calling the station at midnight, at one, asking if Larry was there.

“Everyone left a while ago,” she was told, again and again.

When she asked Larry why he and Alycia were having dinner every night between newscasts, he explained: “Well, Alycia’s going through a lot right now with her divorce.”

“Well,” Dawn replied, “I’m … um … five months pregnant!”

Dawn wasn’t the only one wondering what was going on. Co-workers started asking her strange questions — “How are you and Larry doing?” “How’s your marriage?” — which seemed much less strange once she started to hear the rumors herself. There was the one about Larry and Alycia being spotted alone late at night in a parking garage. The one about Alycia putting on her makeup every night using the mirror in Larry’s office. The one about Larry and Alycia being seen in the middle of the night on Market Street, arguing, Alycia breaking into tears and Larry running after her.

“I wanted to believe the best of my husband,” Dawn says. “I wanted to believe that none of this was true. I made the choice to just say, ‘You know what? I’m not going to believe that.’ I do that in my life. I just focus on the positive. I was pregnant. I was going through a tough pregnancy, and I had to stay positive.”

DAWN DID PRECISELY that — focusing on work, and on the pregnancy, which, in the end, became so painful she could barely walk. The rest of it she put on the back burner, not talking about it with anyone. She knew she worked in a vicious business, and that one word from her to anyone, even someone she considered a friend, could be repeated, even twisted into another rumor. Mostly, though, she kept quiet because she didn’t want anyone to think badly of her husband. The best she could do was to sit on her back porch and tell everything to the dog and the oak tree.

One night in late March 2004, not long after she got home from work, Dawn’s water broke. The baby wasn’t due for three and a half more weeks, but Larry rushed her to Lankenau Hospital, where she started her 23 hours of labor, finally giving birth to Michael Lawrence on April Fools’ Day.

Barely a week after they brought Michael home from the hospital, he was having such trouble breathing that they rushed him to CHOP, where he was placed on a portable breathing monitor. Dawn spent the five months in which he wore the monitor sleeping with him on her chest in the white chair in his nursery, which left her exhausted. Luckily, her parents were able to fly in from Chicago and help out during her leave. Dawn needed help, since Larry had resumed his old schedule, not coming home until the wee hours of the morning.

“You wouldn’t have to be a rocket scientist to realize that something was going on,” says Dawn’s mother, Rosemary Stensland. But Rosemary was torn, struggling with what was her business and what wasn’t. She started off gently, asking Dawn, “Where’s Larry?” Dawn answered: “His post-show meeting probably went late.” Rosemary wasn’t convinced. She began to show her unease in little ways, like serving plates of dinner to everyone except Larry. But eventually, she addressed it head-on.

“Dawn,” she said, “Larry is coming home too late. These business meetings he’s saying are happening can’t be going on until three o’clock in the morning.”

“You know Larry’s a workaholic,” Dawn explained, though she knew herself there had to be more to it, especially after she saw Larry’s American Express bill from May. There was a charge from Tiffany for more than $1,000. Wow, she thought to herself. I didn’t get any Tiffany jewelry. Her very first Mother’s Day had just come, and gone, with no robin’s-egg-blue box. Larry had given her flowers.

“What’s this?” she asked Larry, pointing at the credit-card statement.

“Dawn, that was for Stacia,” he said, though Dawn knew Larry’s daughter hadn’t received any big gifts from her dad. Still, Dawn says she was “too chicken to really confront him about it.” Later, after she went back to work in August, she brought it up again, and this time he admitted it was for Alycia.

“We had this bet, and I lost and had to buy her something,” he said.

“For a thousand dollars?

But again, Dawn forced herself to refocus. She had a sick baby to care for.

“I put it in God’s hands,” she says. “I just hoped and prayed that whatever this was, if nothing at all, it would just go away.”

But it didn’t go away. And she knew that for certain on New Year’s Day 2005, sitting in Larry’s office at CBS 3, seeing it in black and white, with her own eyes. Now she had real choices to make.

“I just think sometimes the best thing to do to save your marriage is to walk away and pretend it’s not happening and to be the great wife you are and the great mother you are,” she says. “To just have faith that everything’s going to be okay.”

Still, Dawn knew there was a good chance it wasn’t going to just disappear. She’d sent those e-mails between Larry and Alycia to her AOL account, an account she shared with Larry. That day when they got home, Larry saw them first. Later that evening, when Dawn checked her e-mail, there was a message waiting from him: “I don’t know what you think you found, but I love you. This is nothing.”

“Whatever it is or it isn’t, end it,” she said to him, finally, this time to his face. Larry told her how sorry he was. Dawn didn’t want details, and Larry promised her he would end it. He remembered an e-mail Dawn had sent him that fall, about a quiz she’d taken in a women’s magazine. One of the questions asked, “What would you do if you came home unexpectedly and heard your husband with another woman? Would you: A. Go in and confront him? B. Call a girlfriend? C. Leave the house and never say a word?” “I’m C,” she wrote in the e-mail.

“Was that your way of telling me you knew something?” he asked her now.

“Yes,” she said.

And that, she thought, was the end of it.

IN A WAY, it was. Larry started coming home much earlier. Dawn stopped hearing the gossip, other than the Daily News reporting in late 2005 that Larry and Alycia’s relationship at work had gotten a bit testy. Larry and Dawn decided to have another baby. After trying in vitro two more times, which ended in two more miscarriages, Dawn suddenly got pregnant naturally. The Mendtes welcomed Lawrence David II in September 2006. Dawn felt things were back to the way they used to be.

Then, on the morning of Thursday, May 29, 2008, there was a knock on their front door. Dawn’s father answered it. Her parents had flown in to spend a long weekend with the family at their condo at the Shore. The minivan was already packed, but Dawn was still in her pink PJs, drinking coffee in the kitchen, waiting for Michael to wake up so they could get on the road.

The next thing she knew, a dozen FBI agents were standing in her foyer, which was decorated, on every wall, with portraits of Dawn and Larry and their kids. Outside, in the driveway, was a paddy wagon.

“You have the wrong house,” Dawn said. “What number are you looking for?”

When the agents said they were from the cyber crime unit, Dawn looked at Larry and assumed he was thinking what she was: “Jonathan went on that Napster!” Either that, or she and Larry were being “punked.” But when several agents escorted Larry into the family room, she realized this was real. And serious.

“What’s this all about?” she asked an agent, when they were standing alone in her dining room.

“Do you know anything about your husband going into Alycia Lane’s e-mail account?” the agent asked.

“Absolutely not!” Dawn said. “Larry can’t even hook up the VCR. You think he’s going into someone’s account? That’s insane.”

But she knew it wasn’t when, minutes later, she saw Larry in the hallway. He grabbed her hand.

“I’ll explain everything,” he said. “I’m so sorry.” Uh-oh, Dawn thought. While agents spent hours copying files from the computer in Larry’s office, Larry pulled Dawn outside onto the back porch and came clean.

“This is all my fault. They are here because of me,” he said. Then he admitted to her that he’d looked into Alycia’s account. He had been worried about losing his job, he explained, and he told Dawn he’d heard rumors Alycia might write a tell-all book.

Dawn decided that weekend needed to be a “Come to Jesus” weekend. She’d insist Larry tell her everything, even though she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted him to. She didn’t want to be able to picture it in her mind.

“Do you love her?” she asked.

“No, Dawn, I love you.”

“Did you kiss?”

“Yes, we kissed, but never had sex,” he said. “I love you.”

Dawn didn’t sleep all weekend, and cried through most of it. Dawn’s mom suggested that the whole thing seemed biblical. Like Job. Like they were being tested. But that didn’t make it any easier for her.

“I felt like an idiot,” she says. “How can you not know your husband is looking in someone’s e-mail file? How can you not know the other things?”

The following Monday, she had to go to work at Fox 29, where they’d been covering this story like the big news it was. She went to the office of general manager Mike Renda.

“She told me, ‘Look. I’m here to do my job,’” Renda says. “And I told her, ‘That’s what we want you to do.’” Of course, she recused herself from covering the news about Larry. But she had to be on the air in front of tens of thousands of people who’d just found out that her husband had been accused by the feds of hacking into his co-anchor’s e-mails and leaking information from them to the newspapers.

That night, Larry’s sister, who lives in the area, sent Dawn an e-mail: “I tuned in to see if you were there and I saw that you were and it let me know that everything was going to be okay.” Dawn thought: As long as I’m on-air, maybe that’s my statement. That life goes on.

And so every night, she was on the air.

She was on the air the day she walked into Starbucks and broke into sobs when a patron recognized her and asked how she was doing. And the day she came home to find a parade of news vans outside her house, including one driven by her good friend from work, Mark LaValla, because the stations had received tips that Larry was going to be arrested that day. (He wasn’t.) And on the day Larry lost his job.

She was on the air the day Larry was officially charged with logging onto Alycia Lane’s accounts beginning in March 2006 — accessing those accounts more than 500 times from January 2008 to May 2008 alone. But, perhaps most difficult of all, she was on the air the night after Larry’s hearing on August 22, 2008, when he said, in a press conference, that his relationship with Alycia Lane had been “flirtatious, unprofessional and improper.”

Earlier that day, after Larry’s hearing, she’d made her first public comment to a reporter standing outside the courtroom: “I love my husband. He is a good man.”

And those weren’t just words. She believed them.

“If you love someone, and you believe in them, then you look at the total person. That’s how I look at Larry. I look at him as this wonderful, loving man who is so good and … just a great father and a great husband,” Dawn says. “I love him more now than I ever did. … I feel bad for people who don’t know this kind of love for someone.”

Though Dawn was willing to forgive Larry, not everyone in her life was. Lots of her friends were furious for her.

“I was thinking, ‘This can’t be real,’” her friend, singer Lauren Hart, says of Dawn’s unwavering stand-by-him stance. “I find that incredibly strong. And unusual. But it’s just her way.”

“It’s a testimony of her faith,” says Dawn’s mother, Rosemary. “I just think she’s a woman that has God’s love dwelling in her, and that helps her to be strong and forgiving.”

Plus, by the time Larry made his statement to the public, he and Dawn were feeling things might not be as bad as they seemed. They’d just received some good news. Dawn was pregnant again.

WHEN THE CRAMPING started on October 17th, Dawn knew exactly what was happening inside her. Though she thought she was far enough along to be out of the woods, she couldn’t ignore these signs.

Larry rushed her to the hospital, where the doctor confirmed it — Dawn had had a miscarriage.

“It was a boy,” she says.

Dawn was crushed. She had to struggle even harder to stay positive. Larry’s sentencing on November 24th was approaching, and she didn’t know if he’d be carted away to jail for five years, which was the maximum punishment possible. She didn’t know if her job was secure, since over the spring and summer, just about the entire team that worked with her — co-anchor Dave Huddleston and sportscaster Don Tollefson — hadn’t had its contracts renewed. She didn’t know what would come of the civil suit Alycia’s attorney, Paul Rosen, had filed, accusing Larry of ruining her career. And she didn’t know if her family would be able to sit down to Thanksgiving dinner together, which was why, on Sunday, November 23rd, the day before the sentencing, she invited the whole Mendte clan over and cooked a big turkey.

Suddenly, they heard what sounded like an earthquake. Dawn ran to the window. She couldn’t believe what she saw. Her beloved 250-year-old scarlet oak tree had toppled to the ground.

“It’s an omen!” Dawn yelled.

“Don’t say that,” Larry said. “It didn’t crash into the house, so maybe it’s a good omen.”

The next afternoon, the federal courtroom was standing-room-only. There was a huge contingent in support of Alycia Lane, who sat in the front row. Larry sat at the defendant’s table with his attorney, bolstered by his supporters arrayed behind him — Jonathan and Stacia, his siblings, his minister, his in-laws. And, of course, Dawn, dressed in a black pantsuit, looking exactly the way she looks every night on TV. Dawn had come into the courtroom last, and as she walked in front of the first row of seats, she looked down at Alycia, smiled kindly, then whispered, “Hi, Alycia.”

Dawn didn’t look as nervous as she was. Just 20 minutes earlier, Larry’s attorney had asked her to take the stand on Larry’s behalf. She walked up to the witness box, her hands and knees shaking as she asked the judge for mercy for her husband, whom, she said, she knew better than anybody: “He’s just a man, a good man, a very good man, who did a bad thing.”

But it wasn’t until she addressed Alycia directly, craning her neck so she could see her, that she started to cry. “I want you to know, Alycia, how sorry he is,” she said. “And I hope that you can look into my eyes and know that in our home, there is nothing but sadness and sorrow over this.”

After Larry made his case and the prosecutors made theirs, the judge announced her decision. Larry was sentenced to six months of house arrest, and three years of probation. Dawn breathed an audible sigh of relief.

TEN DAYS AFTER the sentencing, in the office in Center City, it seems like things, for the first time in a long time, are okay for Dawn Stensland. Her job appears to be secure. Her dog is scheduled for chemo, which is expected to work. Christmas is right around the corner. She’s lost some weight, which she’s very happy about. And, of course, Larry’s home, still feeling humiliated by it all, but glad to have so much time to spend with his little boys.

“The only people who love house arrest are the kids,” Dawn says.

Clearly, the past couple months have been devastating for her. But that, really, wasn’t the worst of it — the public part, with the federal accusations and courtroom speeches, and her private life in newspaper stories, it seemed, every day.

“Going through the pregnancy [with Michael] and living through the whispers — that was the hardest part,” she explains. “It’s just you. You, the dog and the tree. Who do you tell when you’re in the public eye? You have to be so careful. … And when the tree fell and the dog got cancer, I thought, ‘What? Is this a sign from God?’”

Maybe it was.

Because there is one thing that still plagues Dawn — not that she doesn’t worry every time she sees Larry sitting in front of the computer, or doesn’t remind him whenever he hesitates to spend money on something, “You spent more than $1,000 on that jewelry.” But she can’t help but blame herself.

She wonders how things might have been different if she hadn’t confided in just the dog and the tree. Would it have changed the path? Would it have stopped one thing from leading to another? What if, at the parade, she’d chosen to say something? What if when she first heard the rumors, she hadn’t ignored them?

She thinks about this all the time.

“I wish I had gone into his newsroom and fully confronted him,” Dawn says. “Loudly."

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