Doubting Thomas

Tom Bearup helped elect Joe Arpaio and mold the myth of "America's Toughest Sheriff." Now the former executive in the Sheriff's Office is convinced he was wrong.

Tom Bearup was once one of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's most trusted aides, a political operative who, until his fall from grace earlier this year, played a key role in creating the myth of the self-proclaimed "America's Toughest Sheriff."

Bearup now regrets taking part in that project, which he characterizes as a campaign of lies and half-truths.

And since coming clean recently in court testimony, Bearup is now willing to detail a series of stunning admissions:

* That not all money raised by Arpaio's posses can be accounted for, money that was entrusted without oversight to David Hendershott, a high-ranking officer with a checkered financial history. The Posse Foundation's statutory agent and accountant admits that money may be missing.

* That another law enforcement agency has contacted Bearup and appears to be investigating the missing money and Hendershott's involvement. He refused to identify the agency for publication.

* That Arpaio uses his posses for political purposes, particularly in the sheriff's current unannounced campaign for governor. If Bearup is correct, those activities may violate election laws which prevent supposed tax-exempt nonprofit organizations from raising money for candidates.

Bearup's testimony also bolsters deputy accounts of Arpaio's megalomania, his oppression of employees who dare to disagree with him, and his precarious state of mind.

"People in law enforcement perceive Arpaio as a joke," Bearup says.
The defection of one of his highest-ranking employees could not have come at a worse time for Arpaio. Several high-profile civil lawsuits alleging inmate abuse and employee mistreatment are making their way to trial, and, in Bearup, the attorneys bringing those cases suddenly find themselves with a star witness.

Two of those attorneys, Joel Robbins and Nick Hentoff, wasted no time deposing Bearup after they learned that he had left the Arpaio fold.

Transcripts of Bearup's testimony were obtained by New Times, and, confronted with them, the former aide agreed to discuss his views about his journey, which took him from one of Arpaio's most fervent supporters and key advisers to a man determined to expose Arpaio.

"Someone has to stand up," he says, "and show the sheriff's true colors."

Tom Bearup lives in a church. Through most of his tenure as Arpaio's aide, Bearup has worked part-time as the minister of Family Bible Fellowship in north Phoenix. He has been ordained since 1994.

Family Bible Fellowship seems to be a work in progress. Although the church on Greenway Road has stood for eight years, it's clearly still evolving: A baptismal hot tub sits uninstalled on the altar.

Bearup explains that it's just one of many things he hopes to get to when and if his fortunes improve.

He's owned and lived at the church for three years. Bearup and his wife Adele and five of their children live in three rooms in the annex next door. They share a single, small bathroom.

The largest room in the annex is filled with chairs and is used for church functions, some of which require Adele to feed many people. That's inspired her to start a catering business, and Bearup says he's trying to help it get off the ground.

Neither the church nor the catering business is a going concern. In three months, Bearup estimates, the family will run out of money.

He doesn't expect much sympathy.
Only months ago, Bearup enjoyed a salary of $80,000 as an executive officer in the Sheriff's Office. At one time, as Sheriff Arpaio nurtured his image as a crime fighter, Bearup was among his most trusted employees.

Bearup was a trouble-shooter. He solved political problems for Arpaio. He acted as a buffer between demoralized patrol deputies and the sheriff who continually embarrassed them. He managed the steady flow of publicity stunts for a sheriff with an insatiable appetite for press. Within the office, he was called on to do dirty work--firing an employee, for example--for a sheriff with little spleen for conflict.

But over time, Bearup fell out of favor as Arpaio put more of his trust--and increasing power--in the hands of David Hendershott, who holds the title of Director of Operations and Development.

By July, Bearup's pay had been slashed by $24,000, and Arpaio had moved him to an inconsequential post at the Madison Street Jail.

So, on September 8, Bearup quit.
And now, after attorneys who have brought lawsuits against the sheriff jumped at the chance to depose Bearup, Bearup is willing to talk about what he saw at the Sheriff's Office that led him to lose respect for Arpaio, a man he once admired.

He knows that it will probably make him a political untouchable. And he says jumping Arpaio's camp has made it difficult to find employment. He also blames past New Times reporting for his troubles landing a new job. Recently, Bearup says, he was up for a business management position until the Alaska firm that planned to hire him obtained a New Times article ("The Shadiest Guns in the West," June 27, 1996) which detailed Bearup's problems as the Tucson manager of the federal Housing and Urban Development agency. In 1989, HUD investigated Bearup for several alleged misdeeds, including his not paying on a HUD-assigned mortgage after becoming an employee at the agency. Following the investigation, Bearup was fired.

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