ARIZONA'S OWN J. EDGAR HOOVER

RUBEN ORTEGA USED THE PHOENIX POLICE DEPARTMENT TO PURSUE HIS PERSONAL AGENDA-AND HIS POLITICAL FOES

Officers Ruben Ortega and Ralph Milstead walked into the Bridge Tavern one afternoon to arrest a small-time addict for a burglary he had committed to finance his habit.

In years to follow, Ortega and Milstead would become two of the most powerful law enforcement figures in Arizona, heading the Phoenix Police Department and state Department of Public Safety, respectively.

But on that day in 1962, they were still neophyte lawmen, beat officers serving a warrant in the city's underbelly. The Bridge Tavern sat on Central Avenue just north of the Salt River, a mean escape beckoning derelicts from the cheap hotels and street camps that grew on the south face of downtown like Rasputin's beard.

The officers found their man on the pay phone, handcuffed him and were leading him out when a large patron--a roofer, Milstead recalls--stepped down from his bar stool and blocked their way.

The cops had picked up the roofer's coat, thinking it belonged to their suspect, Milstead says. The roofer, in no condition to enunciate his complaint, informed Ortega that the officers weren't going anywhere. Ortega told the man to move. He did not.

"So Ruben hits him smack in the face," Milstead recalls. "There was no hesitation. No discussion. Whack. All of a sudden, we've got a helluva fight going on."
As Ortega, Milstead and the roofer slugged it out in a pile on the barroom floor--with 20 or so afternoon drinkers cheering for the roofer--the handcuffed suspect fled out the front door. He was running south, across the Central Avenue Bridge, when he was rearrested by officers rushing in to quell the barroom brawl.

Thirty years later, Milstead recounts the story with the fondness some men might reserve for memories of their first car. He wasn't averse to a good fight, he says, he just wished his partner "would have given me some warning before he smacked the guy.

"But that was his style, right in your face," Milstead says. "He's not going to take shit from anyone. Ruben is a forceful person taken to direct action."
Many would learn that same lesson in the next three decades. And many would pay a painful price for stepping in the way of the man who became Arizona's own J. Edgar Hoover.

Ascending to the chief's job in 1980, Ortega controlled law enforcement in the state's largest city for 11 years. Two years ago, he resigned in a huff following criticism of his role in the loosely controlled AzScam political-corruption sting. Ortega recently became police chief in Salt Lake City, and did not return telephone calls seeking comment for this story.

During his tenure in Phoenix, Ortega established a pattern of hitting, hard and fast, those who challenged him. He became, by many accounts, the most powerful and feared man in town.

Although there were whispers and rumors throughout his reign--about unexplained wiretaps, secret vendettas and alleged dossiers on public officials--the full picture of Ortega's grasp on Phoenix is still emerging.

As his shadow recedes from the political skyline, only now will some of Ortega's targets talk about what happened to them when they crossed the chief.

Among other things, New Times has learned that:
Under Ortega, the department's internal affairs division--which is supposed to investigate alleged wrongdoing by police officers--was used to investigate civilians who were outspoken or politically at odds with the chief. One target was Jane McElfresh, a private investigator and former member of the city Civil Service Board, who learned that her friendships and dating habits were scrutinized.

Ortega bragged to at least one woman, now a state legislator, that the department maintained files on prominent citizens. "He said to me . . . you wouldn't believe the information we have in our files, or the extent to which we have information on prominent people in this city and this state," says Representative Susan Gerard. "When someone makes a comment like that to you, you remember it."

At least twice, Ortega enlisted the aid of the state Department of Public Safety, headed by his former partner Milstead, to investigate his foes, including New Times Executive Editor Michael Lacey, who had written columns critical of Ortega's tactics.

Although almost $2 million in judgments against the city were awarded to officers wrongly disciplined by Ortega, city leaders apparently never investigated his management of the department. In fact, his behavior largely went unchecked by the city manager and elected officials to whom he was presumably accountable.

Outspoken cops, union officers, journalists, minority and gay-rights advocates--anyone who crossed Ortega--risked the wrath of a man whose power could destroy lives and call down public humiliation upon his adversaries.

Virtually unchallenged by the daily press, the longtime chief presided over what many describe as one of the "scariest" periods in Phoenix history, a time when criticizing the chief was an invitation to be investigated.

"Paranoia is only a disease if they're not out to get you," says Mike Bielecki, a firefighters'lobbyist who watched Ortega at close quarters for years. "He was an unregulated police force. Nobody would challenge him."
Says one former city councilmember: "Everybody was just afraid of him. Rumors were rampant that he had hot files with everybody's life on record. He ran the police department for too long, he began to think of it as his. And that's dangerous for somebody with an armed force."

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