CBS Insiders Baffled by Alleged Extortionist

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From left: Steve Hirsch / Getty; CBS / AP

Robert (Joe) Halderman, left, at his arraignment for an alleged blackmail plot against late-night host David Letterman in New York on Oct. 2, 2009

One of the biggest surprises in the strange David Letterman blackmail case is the man who has been arrested for the crime. Robert (Joe) Halderman is no shadowy underworld figure. He is a respected producer on another CBS show — 48 Hours — who has won several journalism awards.

CBS staffers who know him said they were baffled by his arrest on Thursday on a charge of attempted grand larceny after he allegedly tried to get Letterman to pay him $2 million for a "screenplay" he was writing about the late-night host's sexual affairs. Halderman has pleaded not guilty to the charge, which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

While none of his colleagues would speak on the record, several people indicated that Halderman was well-known around the news division and respected for his hard-charging ways and willingness to take on tough stories. "He's like somebody everyone looked up to," said a CBS News employee who did not want to be named. "48 Hours is a crime show. What could he have been thinking?"

Some colleagues said that his personal life, which was always complicated, had become extremely difficult. Halderman, 51, who goes by the nickname "Joe," lives in Norwalk, Conn., and has two ex-wives and two children. At some point he shared his Norwalk address with Stephanie Birkitt, 34, an assistant to Letterman who has appeared on her boss's show.

During the taping of Letterman's show on Thursday, the comedian revealed to the audience the extortion plot and confessed to having sex with women on his staff. Birkitt, who is widely believed to be one of those women, has not made any public statements since the show aired or since Halderman was arrested yesterday outside the CBS building in Manhattan.

Patti Montet, who divorced Halderman in 2004 and lives in Colorado with their sons, ages 11 and 18, told local newspapers that she was saddened by the news. In 2007, Halderman was ordered to pay Montet $6,800 a month in child and spousal support until 2011, when the payments would be reduced to about $6,000, according to papers filed in Stamford Superior Court in Connecticut. His salary at the time was about $214,000.

As recently as August, Halderman was the featured speaker at the Nashville conference of National Information Officers Association, a group that represents first responders and public safety information officers. In 2006, he directed Three Days in September, a Julia Roberts–narrated documentary about the botched rescue of schoolchildren in Beslan, Russia, who were being held hostage by Chechen rebels. It was nominated for an Emmy and won an Edward R. Murrow award.

"Somebody who has done as many stories on tough subjects as he has should have known what was going to happen," says a producer at a competing network. "Everyone's mystified. It's mind-boggling."

The last word perhaps belongs to former CBS news anchor Dan Rather, who knew Halderman from his time at the network. "This is obviously a tragedy," Rather told the website the Daily Beast. "Frankly, I couldn't be more astonished ... than if you came riding through my apartment on a hippopotamus."