Affidavit Versus Goliath

A former lieutenant accuses top sheriff's officials of misconduct in firing of "dime dropper" deputy

New revelations in the case of a fired deputy are rippling through the ranks of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and could spark a closer look at the way Joe Arpaio runs his agency.

An affidavit by former Lieutenant Robert Wetherell accuses high-ranking sheriff's officials of gestapolike tactics in the 1996 investigation of fired Sergeant Mark Battilana, who has spent the past two years appealing his discharge to the county's law enforcement merit commission. Last month, after hearings in the case, a commission hearing officer recommended that Battilana's firing be upheld.

The commission itself has yet to rule, and Battilana's attorney hopes to convince the panel to reopen the hearings based on Wetherell's information. The commission is expected to decide that issue on December 2.

The hard-hitting affidavit details a complex "sting" aimed at Battilana, once a trusted deputy who Arpaio came to believe was secretly giving New Times information about the department. "We have to protect the sheriff from dime droppers," Wetherell says he was told by Director David Hendershott, Arpaio's chief assistant.

The affidavit says two deputies were promised any jobs they wanted if they implicated Battilana in leaks to the press. Wetherell contends it was made clear to him that if he didn't go along with the investigation, his job would be at risk.

He describes a clandestine meeting with Hendershott in which the men sat in their cars, door to door, in the parking lot of a Circle K. Hendershott, according to the affidavit, told Wetherell they couldn't risk being seen together.

Wetherell says Hendershott ordered him to doctor statements given by the two deputies involved in the sting to make them more damaging to Battilana. Hendershott said he needed to "make an example" of Battilana "so the dime droppers will keep their fucking mouths shut."

Wetherell also says that Hendershott and Chief Deputy Jadel Roe, the head of internal affairs, lied in testimony to the merit commission about Battilana, apparently to sidestep what could have been seen as improprieties with the investigation.

Wetherell, who recently quit the sheriff's office while he, too, was being investigated for misconduct, was the lead investigator in the sheriff's case against Battilana. He came forward three weeks ago with the new information, soon after he was forced to resign.

Arpaio and his attorney denied the veracity of the affidavit, questioned the integrity of its author and dismissed the incident's importance.

Arpaio's employees, however, tell New Times that the Wetherell affidavit could bode ill for "America's toughest sheriff." Deputies say they expect other sheriff's employees, emboldened by Wetherell's comments, to come forward with similar reports. They also believe the affidavit could prompt outside law enforcement agencies to begin taking a hard look at those claims.

Spokesman Bill FitzGerald says that County Attorney Rick Romley is aware of the contents of Wetherell's affidavit, but that his office has made no "decisions or announcements" about the case.

Battilana's attorney, Phil Flemming, says that he and his client are not meeting with the state Attorney General's Office to discuss Wetherell's accusations, despite rumors among deputies that the AG has gotten involved. Meanwhile, Flemming says he is considering filing a federal civil suit on Battilana's behalf.

Five years ago, Battilana was a deputy on whom Arpaio counted to burnish his image as a tough crime fighter. A 1994 Village Voice story featured Battilana as the deputy overseeing Arpaio's posse operations, which included making splashy arrests of prostitutes on Van Buren Street.

Deputies complained to New Times, however, that the posses were not the money-saving and effective crime-fighting force that Arpaio promoted.

An April 1996 New Times story ("Mutiny at the County") showed that Arpaio's emphasis on his volunteers had forced a massive shift of resources to the posses. Rather than saving the county millions of dollars, the posses were draining millions. Arpaio's policies, deputies charged, were intended solely to get him publicity, and not fight crime.

New Times found that the sheriff's most severe critics weren't members of the ACLU or prisoner advocates, but Arpaio's own employees. After the article appeared, Arpaio and Hendershott pushed for a massive internal investigation to determine which deputies had talked to New Times.

Two weeks later, the sheriff's office began an internal investigation of Battilana, accusing the sergeant of encouraging other employees to talk to New Times.

Wetherell was temporarily assigned to the internal affairs section to lead the investigation. He had worked under Hendershott in enforcement support, the division that oversees posses. Deputies say the message was clear: Hendershott brought in his own trusted officer to oust a deputy whom Arpaio suspected of leaking news to the press.

Battilana was fired as a result of Wetherell's investigation, and appealed his dismissal. Hearing officer Conrad Sanders recommended that Battilana's termination be upheld.

But before the commission had ruled on the case, Flemming asked that hearings be reopened based on Wetherell's accusations.

Wetherell himself ran afoul of Arpaio and Hendershott, and became the target of an internal investigation earlier this year. After completing the Battilana investigation, he was assigned to the aviation division, where he oversaw the sheriff's helicopters. On August 31, Wetherell learned that the sheriff intended to fire him. He was accused of misusing government property, harassing employees, providing false information on insurance documents and inappropriate use of the helicopters.

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