The debate had been raging all day at the Dallas Morning News. On Wednesday, September 20, Metro columnist Sherry Jacobson had written a story for the next day’s edition breaking the news that Dallas Police Chief David Kunkle was dating CBS Channel 11 City Hall reporter and news anchor Sarah Dodd. Jacobson’s story confirmed the rumors that had been flying around City Hall and at Jack Evans police headquarters for days. Kunkle, who had filed for divorce from his fourth wife just a month prior, had been seen canoodling with Dodd at a number of Dallas hot spots. Now the News editors were arguing about how to handle the story.
No one at the paper would speak on the record, but it’s not hard to imagine how the debate unfolded. Was this legitimate journalism that served the public’s interest? Or was it tabloid gossip beneath the propriety of the paper founded by George Bannerman Dealey? In any other major media market, especially ones with competing newspapers, such as New York and Philadelphia, it wouldn’t even have been a question. Metro columnists there don’t tread lightly. Gossip columnists are flat-out vicious. But Dallas is different. It’s still in many respects a polite Southern town where people talk over the back fence but take offense when private matters are made public in print. The argument at the News carried on until late in the afternoon.
At 5:26 that evening, D Magazine (which has a marketing relationship with Channel 11) forced the paper’s hand, posting the following on its blog, FrontBurner:
Sarah Dodd Caught Kunkling Police Chief
We know that DPD Chief David Kunkle is getting divorced. Now we might know why. Informed sources tell us that Kunkle has had a relationship with CBS 11 City Hall reporter Sarah Dodd. Further, we are told the Morning News will have a story about the matter in tomorrow’s paper.
The seal had been broken. Just 24 minutes later, down on Young Street, Jacobson posted the bulk of her column on the newspaper’s Metro blog, Bold Types. A sample of her dish:
The Police Chief and the Reporter
You would think the hottest story coming out of the Dallas Police Department this week would concern the latest FBI’s crime stats that, once again, target Dallas as the nation’s top major city for violent crime.
But no, the police story of the week concerned Police Chief David Kunkle filing for divorce from his fourth wife, and acknowledging that he was seeing Channel 11 reporter Sarah Dodd, who covers Dallas City Hall.
Their budding romance has been the subject of rumors in recent days as the pair was seen riding a motorcycle together, eating ice cream together and looking pretty intimate together at a popular West Village restaurant. …
“I don’t know what I would call it,” [Kunkle] said Wednesday in a brief telephone interview. “We have been friends for a while, and we do things together.”
Jacobson also talked to City Manager Mary Suhm about whether the relationship violated any city rules. Parsimonious with her comments, Suhm said, “I trust the chief to keep his professional and private life appropriately separate.” She added that if she were in charge of CBS Channel 11 instead of city staff, she’d reassign Dodd.
And it was on.
An upset Kunkle called D’s executive editor, Tim Rogers, angry about the snarky headline of the blog post. Rogers agreed to tone down the headline to the innocuous “Sarah Dodd and Chief Kunkle.” Dodd, likewise upset even though she’d only heard about and not yet read the item on FrontBurner, called from an airport on her way back from vacation and threatened to sue.
Meanwhile, at the News, the debate over Jacobson’s column intensified, because it still wasn’t clear it should remain merely a blog post or be promoted to the more widely read print edition the next day. In the end, discretion prevailed.
“I have enemies,” Kunkle says. “That’s just what happens when you’re the boss. They are always looking for any weakness.”
Presumably the news that the police chief was dating a reporter who sometimes covered his department wasn’t deemed as important as, say, a feel-good front-page Metro story that ran the next day titled “Patient Gets Nice Escape to N.Y.,” about a church whose congregation took up a collection to send a sick parishioner to see a Yankees game. A three-sentence excerpt of Jacobson’s online post did run on 2B of the Metro section, under the heading “Bold Types Best of the Blog.” But seeing how many readers posted responses to Jacobson’s item online, whoever made the decision not to run the story in the paper had to be kicking himself.
By the early hours of that Thursday morning, September 21, the buzz was roaring. E-mail servers and phone lines at 1500 Marilla carried the signal. High-ranking city staff wondered if, indeed, any city rules were being violated. The chatter on the fifth-floor council offices continued into the next week, with whispers spilling over to the horseshoe. Same over at the Dallas Police Department. Cops are worse than a sewing circle when it comes to gossip. And among media folks, it was a behind-the-scenes feeding frenzy.
Still, given the limited readership of the blogs, the buzz was contained. The average person on the street probably hadn’t heard it. Heck, the man on the street likely couldn’t pick Kunkle out of a police lineup. Both the chief and the reporter declined to talk publicly. But the following week, on Thursday, September 28, Matt Pulle had a revealing story in the Dallas Observer on the questions the relationship raised. Pulle also dug up reaction from Dodd’s broadcast media peers.
And then it got weirder. That same day, Dodd gave a guest lecture to a journalism ethics class at SMU, something she’d done before at the behest of Tony Pederson, the Belo chair of the journalism school. Dodd’s talk had been on the class schedule for weeks. And the Dallas Observer was definitely well-read among this crowd. When the class was told that the topic of the relationship was open for discussion, it made many of the roughly 50 students in attendance feel awkward. Less awkward than Dodd came off, by the way. She seemed downright confident. But when Kunkle walked in the door, the awkward got waist deep. Yes, he, too, had been on the schedule to speak to the class, but that was before the story about their relationship had broken.
Kunkle and Dodd talked about reporter-source propriety, about his professional responsibilities regarding public information, about her scoops, and about how the whole story of their budding romance had become public. At the end, one student said something unexpected:
“I really hope you guys make it.”
This was six weeks after Kunkle had told his wife he wanted a divorce. Maybe five weeks since Kunkle and Dodd had started talking about how their relationship was becoming more than professional. Just eight days after Kunkle had told Jacobson he wasn’t sure exactly what he’d call the relationship.
So what exactly was going on here? these aren’t two star-crossed teenagers having their first bout of puppy love. Kunkle is a 56-year-old veteran cop four times divorced, and Dodd is a hard-charger in a field where cynicism is a virtue.
On Halloween, the two agreed to talk together for the first time about their relationship. They sat, holding hands for nearly two hours, at the head of a huge table in the spartan executive conference room just across from the chief’s office at police headquarters.
Even dressed in his open-collar uniform, Kunkle is not an imposing physical presence. Which is not to say he doesn’t appear exceptionally fit and look the part of a consummate law-enforcement officer. It’s just that, for the most part, he wears an accountant’s demeanor—all business, soft-spoken. You’d be tempted to call him shy if you didn’t know that in two years he has turned around a near-broken police force and restored morale among the rank and file.
Dodd, dressed in a pinstripe suit, comes across as perky and engaging in real life as she does on television. Her professional smile, which works so well on camera—well, it’s not that it’s unnerving in itself, but off-camera, in this room, it seems like a defense mechanism.
And why shouldn’t it? A reporter doesn’t go to police headquarters to discuss her love affair with the chief and his recent divorce. The negotiations that got the couple to sit down and talk have been odd, to say the least. At first they didn’t want to talk at all. Then, not long after they were threatening to sue D for the FrontBurner item, the two were negotiating to let Dodd tell their tale in a bylined cover story she would write. The magazine agreed—only to have the couple change their minds days before the photo shoot that would illustrate it. Told the story would be written anyway, the couple said they wouldn’t participate. Then they changed their minds again and agreed to an interview.
But love does strange things to people. And after talking a bit in the conference room, the gates open. “I do feel like I found a soul mate,” Kunkle says. “We connect emotionally, intellectually, in every way you can with another person that I never thought you could. All this stuff I never really knew existed. Things other people talked about that I couldn’t even understand, all of a sudden it made sense. This is the first time I’ve understood what it means to be in love.”
Dodd says she feels the same way: “Sometimes you fall in love with someone you don’t expect. It’s not conventional. I’ve never been with someone who treats me with such respect. David literally makes me giggle,” she says. “We never run out of things to talk about. I never knew I could feel that way about someone.”
See? Right there. You look at it in print and it comes across as sappy and saccharine. Even Kunkle admits it can sound silly when spoken aloud. And let’s be straight here: Dodd is in a business where acting is a valued skill set. A skeptic might say she’s overselling it. They’ve only been seeing each other for about six weeks at the time of this interview. But to sit across from Kunkle is to see a man who is earnestly, passionately in love. It’s hard for even a skeptic to doubt him. In that light, it’s the same with her.
Neither can say when, precisely, they fell in love. They first met more than two years ago when Kunkle was deputy city manager in Arlington and on the short list for the DPD chief’s job. A lifelong North Texas cop, Kunkle had been a Dallas police captain and a chief in both Grand Prairie and Arlington. Just a month after taking the top cop job in Dallas, in June 2004, he married for the fourth time. (Bonus Belo tie-in: one of his previous marriages had been to the sister-in-law of News Metro columnist Jacquielynn Floyd.)
At that time, Dodd had already covered stories in Iraq, Kuwait, and Guantanamo Bay. After graduating from Baylor, she’d risen almost by force of will to win a spot in 2000 as a reporter in the No. 6 media market in the country—barely stopping to put in time in smaller markets along the way. If there’s a single word her best friends and worst critics use to describe her, that word is “driven.”
After they met, over the next two years, Kunkle and Dodd say they may have gone to lunch three or four times and talked on the phone once or twice a month, if that much. Strictly business. But from early on, they say, they clicked. And somewhere along the line, in the summer of 2006, that simple click turned into a thump-thump of a quickening heartbeat.
“It was not an active friendship,” Kunkle says. “But when we’d talk or have lunch, I’d remember what she wore or something she said. There were a lot of little things like that where there seemed to be a connection.”
Here’s where it gets a little fuzzy. Dodd says the first time she really saw the chief as something more than the chief was the first week of August. She had spent the latter part of July covering a City Council trip to China. When she got back, on Saturday, August 5, she had a birthday party at Medici on Cedar Springs. She had invited co-workers and people from her beat at City Hall.
Dodd, the consummate host and networker, was in mid-conversation when she was forced to stop and do a double-take. She says that amid the dim light and dark mahoganies of Medici, Kunkle, dressed in a Burberry blazer and blue shirt, stood out. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen him in civilian clothes, but certainly it was the first time she’d taken in all the details.
“I just thought, Wow. He’s kinda cute,” she says. The chief didn’t stay long. He paused for a picture with Dodd and City Councilmember Ed Oakley but left a short time later. Today, Dodd describes the encounter with a kind of romantic and probably practiced phrasing: “It was two years we’d known each other, and then it was love at first sight.”
“I knew this would be an opportunity for anyone who wanted to say something ugly about me,” Dodd says. “But I didn’t care.”
Dodd says she wasn’t aware of it, but Kunkle says at the time he was already making some big, life-changing decisions. And he insists those decisions had nothing to do with his friendship with Dodd. “My current marital situation was not going well from my perspective,” he says.
The following Saturday, August 12, he took his wife, Kris Ankersen, and her parents out to dinner at Texas de Brazil on Cedar Springs for her 42nd birthday. Afterward they went for a drive. Ankersen says Kunkle gave her a very sweet card. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary.
The next morning, she got up early for a 10-mile run around White Rock Lake, trying out some of the new gear she’d gotten for her birthday. She says when she got back to the house, Kunkle was sitting at the kitchen table. “He told me he wanted a divorce,” Ankersen says. “It was the biggest shock of my life. In my mind, we had no marital problems at all.”
But Kunkle doesn’t see it that way. The couple had been sleeping in separate rooms for some time. Ankersen says she wanted to seek marital counseling, but he said no. The difference, Kunkle thinks, is that she thought the problem could be fixed. He didn’t.
“I got to a point in my life where you recognize you have limited years and you only get one life and you want to make it as good as you can,” he says. “We just didn’t communicate.”
Kunkle moved out of their house by the middle of the following week. He filed for divorce a few days later. Not long after that, he took Dodd to lunch at Capital Grille and told her the news.
“I didn’t even know he was having any problems,” she says. “It was all a surprise to me.”
Kunkle is clear that in his mind, the end of one relationship and the beginning of the other had nothing to do with each other. Dodd is equally adamant. But even the chief admits people will believe what they want to believe when it comes to the timeline of their story. “You can’t win that,” he says.
If things moved fast after that, it was in part because Kunkle and Dodd knew their relationship would be affected by the public attention it was certain to attract. Dodd thinks the scrutiny—and the anticipation of that scrutiny—made their relationship much more intense much sooner than was natural. Further, they knew that once they were seen out in public together, they both faced consequences.
“I have enemies,” Kunkle says. “That’s just what happens when you’re the boss. They are always looking for any weakness.”
For Dodd, meanwhile, the stakes were actually higher. Dodd did talk to her general manager at the station, who was fine with the relationship. So that wasn’t an issue. But television news is an intensely competitive business populated by people with egos equaled only by their insecurities, and anything that might cast doubt on one of their rivals—be they rivals at the station across town or the cubicle down the hall—well, that’s red meat. News people can be a cutthroat, petty lot. Here was a chance to undermine the work Dodd had done.
“I knew this would be an opportunity for anyone who wanted to say something ugly about me,” she says. “But I didn’t care.”
The thing is, though, some of her fiercest competitors have the nicest things to say. They say the allegation of a conflict of interest is a red herring from people jealous that she’s broken some of the top stories in the city in the last two years. Dodd was the first to report on the FBI investigation into corruption at City Hall. She broke the story that Mayor Laura Miller wouldn’t seek reelection. Say what you will about the softball questions once she got there, Dodd was still the one in the mayor’s living room while the competition was out on the front lawn, scrambling for scraps. Dodd has been nominated for Lone Star Emmys, and she won a 2006 Edward R. Murrow Award.
“She’s driven. She’s a great reporter,” says Rebecca Aguilar, Dodd’s counterpart over at Fox Channel 4. “Sure, being blonde doesn’t hurt, but that’s not how she’s getting these stories. She’s tenacious. Look at her work. That tells the tale. She was breaking great stories long before she started dating the chief.”
“The people who are criticizing her now are people who didn’t like her before anyway,” says J.D. Miles, the reporter who actually covers the police beat for CBS Channel 11. “You can’t be a good beat reporter and be unethical, and she’s a good reporter.”
It’s only off the record that the knives come out. Dodd’s critics condemn the affair as a major conflict of interest. They say it’s representative of the kind of inappropriate familiarity she has always cultivated. They talk about how she’s too cozy in her dealings with officials, ending phone conversations with a cutesy “Who’s your favorite reporter?” They seized on her relationship with the chief to question her past work. They claim she has sabotaged other reporters’ stories, thrown fits about not being included in award nominations, claimed exclusives that weren’t. One female journalist says that Dodd embodies all the worst stereotypes of a female reporter.
Again, though, none of Dodd’s critics will talk on the record, which colors the complaints—which can’t be independently verified—with the green tint of jealousy. Dodd did come off the City Hall beat at Channel 11, but station management was working her away from that beat and toward the anchor desk anyway. If anything, the flack just accelerated the transition.
Against this backdrop, anticipating the possible fallout, the chief and the reporter were still trying to figure out where they stood in their relationship.
“It was a strange dating relationship,” Kunkle says. “Before we really could go out in public, we had to be more committed than you typically would on a first date. We often thought if that had been a first date without a second date, people would have put us together anyway. It would have just been so weird. We had to have a recognition and commitment more than you normally have on a first date.”
But for a couple who knew how fraught their first date would be, it’s strange that they aren’t sure when that first date was. Maybe it was a dinner at Mi Cocina, after the gay pride parade, where they ran into Chris Heinbaugh from ABC Channel 8.
Maybe it was the night the two went to dinner with Dodd’s mother at Al Biernat’s on Oak Lawn. The threesome had spent the afternoon at an art gallery in the Design District, lazily taking in the scene and getting to know one another. At dinner, Kunkle and Dodd sat on one side of the booth, her mother the other. The two held hands, going on like teenagers about what to order and what they’d share.
City Councilman Mitch Rasansky and his wife spotted the threesome and invited themselves over to sit down, ordering dessert for all. Rasansky joked about the chief’s intentions with “this young lady.” That’s not a date? When even old Mitch Rasansky sees it? Kunkle himself says it seemed strange at the time that the Rasanskys would assume it was any kind of serious relationship, when in fact he and Dodd hadn’t figured it out themselves.
Today, Kunkle says that time will tell whether he and Dodd are doing the right thing. He may be smitten, but he knows that his track record invites speculation.
“You know, if we’re still together in 20 years, we’ll know we were right,” he says. “If we’re divorced in two years, we’ll know the critics were right.”
As D Magazine was going to press in late November, Dodd was moving into the M Streets house that Kunkle once shared with wife No. 4, and the two were planning to get married. The wedding was scheduled for December 8, a sunset ceremony on the beach at Jumby Bay, a Rosewood resort, near Antigua, West Indies. She’ll wear a wedding gown. He’ll wear an ivory dinner jacket and tuxedo pants. With Dodd’s mother and a family friend as witnesses, their bare feet in the sand, they plan to recite vows they will write.
That’s a little more than 16 weeks since Kunkle told his wife he wanted a divorce. Just more than 11 weeks since the news of their relationship broke, and he told the News he didn’t know whether they were really dating. Just six weeks after his divorce was finalized.
Fast? A cynic might say unbelievably so. But a romantic says love knows no bounds.