Thrust and Parry

When a Tempe cop was accused of a brutal sexual assault on an ASU student, the City of Tempe responded with an assault on the state's public-records law

The story is the kind no one wants to believe, but everyone hears about.
In June, an ASU student accused a Tempe police officer of the worst kind of betrayal of his badge, the worst kind of violation of another person.

Alvin Yellowhair says Officer John Ferrin dragged him out of a police transport van, clubbed him on the head, sprayed him with mace and then shoved a nightstick up his anus in an attack reminiscent of the much-publicized 1997 incident where a New York police officer sodomized a Haitian immigrant with the handle of a toilet plunger.

The aftermath has engulfed more than just the two men. Yellowhair filed a $10 million claim against Ferrin and the Tempe PD. The Maricopa County Attorney, after an investigation by the Glendale Police Department, declined to press charges against Ferrin, who remains on duty.

Ferrin and the city deny Yellowhair's accusations, and the battle over the charges looks to be long and bitter.

It's just the latest bit of bad press for Tempe, which has enjoyed a reputation as a progressive oasis in the middle of the conservative desert. Recently, a Tempe jailer was accused of punching a prisoner in the face by another jailer who witnessed the incident. The charges brought a good deal of ink and airtime to Tempe--none of it flattering.

Now, Tempe is striking back at the press. In a highly unusual move, the City of Tempe sued the Mesa Tribune and KPNX-TV rather than give them Ferrin's personnel file as required by the state's public-records law.

City leaders say they plan to go even further and change city policy to keep information on disciplinary action against employees secret. Yet Tempe officials concede they know of no specific harm that has come--or would come--from the public being privy to disciplinary records.

Instead, the City of Tempe maintains that the public has no right to intrude in the privacy of employees like Ferrin--even when those city employees are accused of intrusions against the public.

What happened--or didn't happen--in the minutes when the men were alone together in the early morning hours can't be resolved by the physical evidence alone: Yellowhair has medical evidence of a wound, but, according to two doctors, there's less damage than they'd expect to see from what Yellowhair has described.

Ferrin's nightstick has been tested, and has no traces of blood or fecal material, but the tests were conducted almost five months after the incident allegedly occurred.

Even polygraph results are no help: Both men passed the tests, according to the Glendale report, even though their stories are diametrically opposed.

Through their attorneys, Yellowhair and Ferrin both declined to be interviewed for this article. However, both have given their accounts of the incident, which were made available as part of the investigation done by the Glendale Police Department. The Glendale PD handled the inquiry to avoid a conflict of interest, and prepared a 452-page report that was released to New Times.

It began with a late-night party at Yellowhair's apartment in Tempe on March 1.

Yellowhair, an Arizona State University biochemistry student, had had a few too many. Make that way too many. His blood-alcohol level was .26--more than twice the legal limit--when police tested it after his arrest.

According to police reports, Yellowhair punched a girl in the face during an argument over Yellowhair's flirting with her friend. Another fight ensued when a man at the party tried to stop him from hitting the girl. When the girls started to drive away, Yellowhair jumped into the back of their truck, and broke out the rear window, police reports say.

The Tempe police arrived around 6 a.m., just in time to see him in the back of the truck.

But Yellowhair, according to his claim filed with the city, was the one who had called the cops in the first place, apparently because he wanted the partyers to leave.

The police took Yellowhair into custody. They say they had to mace him, cuff his hands and hobble his feet before they could bring him in. Yellowhair's kicking and screaming woke neighbors, and the officers added disturbing the peace to the charges of endangerment and disorderly conduct he'd already racked up.

Yellowhair, in his statements to the Glendale investigators, disputes that he was violent toward the officers. He says police maced him after he got out of the back of the truck.

The cops called for a police transport van to take Yellowhair to the hospital to stitch up a cut above his eye, which the police say he sustained in his scuffle at the party.

Ferrin, an officer for 13 years with the Tempe PD, wasn't even supposed to be driving the transport van that night. He was just coming on shift when he was asked to drive the van out to the scene. The regular driver wouldn't be on duty for another hour, so Ferrin took the keys.

Yellowhair tells this story in his claim and statements to investigators:
In the back of the van, Yellowhair began moaning loudly. He heard the van leave the road--it began "crunching over dirt," he later said--and stop in an isolated area. Yellowhair thinks it was near the Rio Salado, under the Mill bridge.

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