Blazing File Folders

Was the state Department of Insurance out of line when it staged an armed raid on office workers in Chandler?

Bill Perschetti was typing a letter when he found himself looking down the barrel of a gun.

The office manager of Summerville and Associates had heard the front doors of the offices crash open, and someone yelling, "Police! Police!" He thought it was just a joke. Then he looked up and saw a six-foot-tall man wearing jeans and a bulletproof vest, aiming at his head.

"Step away from the computer," the man, who turned out to be a cop, told him.

"I thought it was just somebody screwing around," Perschetti says. "The furthest thing I could imagine was a police raid until I saw a .9 mm pointed at my head. Then I was praying it was a police officer."

Perschetti doesn't generally get a lot of guns pointed at him. Summerville and Associates is a Chandler insurance subrogation agency, in essence a collection agency for insurance companies. Most of the time, the only sounds in the office are voices speaking into phones, the tapping of fingers on keyboards.

On Wednesday, April 29, however, the usually quiet office was the scene of a full-scale raid.

Investigators from the state Department of Insurance fraud unit aided by officers from the Department of Public Safety, and the Mesa, Gilbert and Chandler police departments, confiscated hundreds of files and papers, computers, and even pay stubs from one employee's desk.

Perschetti and his three co-workers who were in the office at the time were covered two-to-one by officers with drawn weapons, screaming orders at them, all in search of papers that might prove insurance fraud.

Maria Summerville, the owner of the agency, has filed a motion to have her files returned and the search warrant thrown out.

"You don't go bursting into an insurance office in the Valley National Bank building like they're going to kill you," Larry Debus, an attorney for Summerville, says. "If you're on East Van Buren doing a drug bust, that's different. . . . But these guys were just cowboys."

Two months after the raid, Summerville has not been charged with any crime. The Department of Insurance says it has turned the case over to the Attorney General's Office, which says it is still reviewing the facts.

But the path that brought the police to the door of an insurance agency with guns drawn is a twisted one.

The AG's Office and DOI pass the buck when it comes to explaining why the cops came in with guns drawn. They blame it on DPS, which in turn says it was DOI that told the officers Maria Summerville could be violent. Summerville, however, wasn't even in the office at the time of the raid.

Moreover, the search warrant the cops were executing has its roots in a tangle of civil litigation between Summerville and Farmers Insurance, the national insurance company that she used to do some work for. Summerville and her attorneys suspect Farmers instigated criminal charges and the raid in order to get its hands on files it hasn't been able to get through its civil lawsuit. Farmers' attorneys won't comment on that theory.

Now, the AG's Office appears to be backing down, returning some of the papers to Summerville. And the severity of the raid raises the question: Should the Department of Insurance be acting like gangbusters?

Standard procedure doesn't require the kind of entrance the police officers made at the Summerville insurance agency; whether to go in with guns drawn is a judgment call, made on a case-by-case basis.

In fact, the officer in charge of the raid says it's the first time he's drawn his weapon while serving a Department of Insurance search warrant. The AG's Office and DOI can't offer another example of when guns have been out while serving a fraud warrant.

"This is the most outrageous thing I've ever seen as a lawyer, and it frightens the hell out of me," Carol Cure, Summerville's civil attorney, says.

But finding out why the call was made to bust into an office with guns out isn't easy. The agencies responsible for the raid blame each other for the decision.

Summerville and Cure met with James Norwood, the DOI's lead investigator on the case, and Nicholas Cornelius, the assistant attorney general assigned to the case, after the search warrant was served. When she asked why the police came in with guns drawn, she says Cornelius blamed it on DPS.

"I asked him, why the guns? He just said, 'That wasn't us,'" Summerville says. (Cornelius confirms that he said this.)

That's the standard answer for everyone involved. Cornelius says it was up to DPS. Terry Cooper, chief of the fraud unit for DOI, says the same thing.

"The only person that can answer [for the decision to draw weapons] is DPS," Cooper says. "I would assume they have great reasons to do what they did. Usually, when you go in with guns drawn, you believe that there's some threat to the lives of the officers."

DPS Sergeant Ramon Figueroa, who was in charge of the raid, said he decided his team should unholster their weapons because Norwood, the DOI investigator, told them that Maria Summerville had a history of violence and access to weapons.

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