By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
It started, sheriff's reports say, after two white men and a woman in a Chevy pickup truck drove into the parking lot. Bystanders told detectives that, without provocation, the men hurled racial epithets and obscenities at Ricardo and Hector Leon, Phoenix brothers in their 30s, outside the store.
One of the white men retrieved a three-foot-long steel pipe from the pickup. The second man restrained Hector Leon as the pipe-wielder chased Ricardo Leon.
The pursuer struck Ricardo Leon in the head with the pipe, causing a large gash and knocking him unconscious. A store clerk dialed 911, and someone noted the fleeing Chevy's license plate.
It was registered to Richard Nero, a 31-year-old Phoenix man.
An ambulance took Ricardo Leon to a hospital. He later claimed about $3,000 in medical bills, and has complained of dizzy spells since the attack.
A few weeks after the one-sided clash, sheriff's detectives interviewed the Leon brothers. The brothers' accounts of the assault were consistent, as were their visual recollections during separate photographic lineups.
Ricardo Leon picked Rick Nero out of his lineup, according to a detective's report: "This was the suspect who was pushing and restraining his brother Hector, while the other suspect struck him with the pipe."
Hector Leon also chose Nero from a separate lineup, but was less sure: "He pointed to [Nero] and stated that this subject looked familiar, but could not be certain. He believed this was the subject who had physically restrained him."
Both men implicated Nero's unnamed accomplice as the person who'd assaulted Ricardo Leon.
The investigation stalled inexplicably after the Leon interviews. Sheriff's investigators apparently made no effort to question Rick Nero--the only suspect initially identified by name--until January 1997. That month, a defense attorney told a sheriff's detective that Nero would decline to be interviewed.
Last spring, the unsolved case reached prosecutor Jim Blake in his capacity as chief of the office's Hate Crimes unit.
Blake asked Nero's attorney if Nero would identify the other suspect--the alleged pipe-wielder. After the attorney said no, Blake subpoenaed Nero before an investigative grand jury.
"[The attorney] said that Mr. Nero would invoke his rights," Blake later told office investigator Heath, "and therefore there would be no purpose to the grand jury. We had anticipated that all along, so we informed him that if he invoked his rights, we would then grant [Nero] use immunity and impel him to testify . . ."
"Use" immunity promises that anything a witness says on the stand cannot be used against him or her. Prosecutors use the legal mechanism at times to get limited but vital information.
In a brief June 4 appearance before the grand jury, Rick Nero implicated Craig Wakefield in a vaguely described "altercation" in New River. Nero also provided Wakefield's phone number, place of employment and approximate home address.
"The minute I heard 'Wakefield,' it piqued my interest . . . that there could be a possible conflict," Blake said later to investigator Heath. ". . . I went up and saw Randy . . ."
Heath asked Blake, "Do you think he [Randy Wakefield] was talking to you as a friend or as the deputy county attorney that had taken this to the grand jury?"
"Probably both," Blake replied.
The reason for the grand-jury secrecy laws is spelled out in legal texts. Secrecy is said to protect innocent people from being identified as subjects of an investigation; it protects witnesses from being pressured or threatened by potential defendants; and it protects the government's interest in conducting unfettered undercover investigations.
Secrecy, however, sometimes is an end unto itself, which has led to relaxation of the laws that govern the federal grand jury. Witnesses in federal proceedings may speak with whomever they want after testifying.
Not so under Arizona's grand-jury laws, where the degree of secrecy is more stringent. The law in Arizona says:
"A person commits unlawful grand jury disclosure if such person knowingly discloses to another the nature or substance of any grand jury testimony or any decision, result or other matter attending a grand jury proceeding which is required by law to be kept secret, except in the proper discharge of his official duties . . ."
Bill Heath concluded Randy Wakefield violated that law.
"Based on evidence disclosed . . . ," he wrote in his investigative narrative, "I feel there is sufficient information to charge Randy Wakefield . . ."
But charging someone is easy. Proving it in court often isn't. Several attorneys familiar with Wakefield's case--including some who barely know him--say he has an excellent chance of beating the rap.
"Randy may have, repeat, may have technically violated the law," says a county prosecutor who requested anonymity. "But look at the facts in context. I think a jury would conclude that a conviction would be terribly unjust. Randy didn't run to his son. Something came up with his daughter-in-law and he felt obliged to say something to her. Wouldn't you?"
Rumors about Wakefield's departure run the gamut. New Times spoke with many courthouse denizens and heard variations on the theme that Wakefield has jeopardized a felony case by talking out of turn.
That disturbs Wakefield.
"I don't think I've jeopardized jack," he says. "If they can prove my son or anyone else is guilty of hurting someone, go for it. But they never tried to interview Craig after they got his name. They never tried to interview my daughter-in-law after I reported that Rick Nero told her he'd used the pipe. They never interviewed Rick's girlfriend, who saw everything from the pickup. And they never tried to talk with Nero for months. . . .