Fed Up

The Justice Department investigates the county sheriff's officeagain

The U.S. Department of Justice is conducting criminal investigations into the deaths of county jail inmates Scott Norberg and Robert Butler.

Christine DiBartolo, spokeswoman for the Justice Department's civil rights division, confirms that both cases are being handled with help from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Criminal civil rights investigations could result in indictments against individual law enforcement officers. It was a criminal civil rights investigation that led to the convictions of Los Angeles Police Department officers in the 1991 beating of Rodney King.

The new federal probes are in contrast to recent civil investigations of Maricopa County's jails by the Justice Department. The Justice Department investigated the jails and sued Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the county, alleging a pattern of unconstitutional abuse of inmates' civil rights. The result was a settlement agreement last year under which Arpaio promised to make substantial, systemic changes in the jails.

But Arpaio brags that he hasn't changed a thing. The sheriff boasted recently on national television that inmates are still subjected to the use of restraint chairs and stun guns--devices that have allegedly contributed to the deaths or maimings of several inmates.

Although 70 percent of the county's inmates are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of a crime--and despite numerous investigations and civil lawsuits--the county and Arpaio have refused to improve conditions for jail inmates.

But the federal government is not letting go. Two weeks ago, the U.S. Attorney's Office began an inquiry into allegations by deputies that Arpaio's employees are subject to gestapolike tactics when they dare to criticize his methods. The Justice Department is also continuing its civil investigation of the medical care inmates receive, and Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley is holding open his probe into the death of inmate Scott Norberg. Meanwhile, dozens of civil lawsuits against Arpaio and his jails continue to make their way through the courts. Norberg's case alone has cost the county more than $340,000 in legal fees.

Much has been written about Scott Norberg, a former Tempe high school football star who died June 1, 1996, while being restrained by a dozen detention officers. Norberg's family is pursuing a $20 million civil lawsuit against Arpaio, the sheriff's office and Maricopa County.

Robert Butler's case is less well-known.
On the evening of September 9, 1996, Butler, who had been arrested on a drug-possession charge only 24 hours earlier, was found dead on the floor of his cell. Butler's body showed evidence that he had been beaten. An initial autopsy, however, found that Butler had died of a combination of factors, including heart disease and methamphetamine intoxication. A second autopsy four days later found that Butler's heart disease was mild and his methamphetamine level was nondangerous for a longtime user. The second pathologist could not determine the cause of death.

Butler, 45, was arrested by Phoenix police on September 8, 1996, after he gunned his motorcycle and fled from officers who had attempted to pull him over. Butler was caught when his bike bogged down in a dirt field at 6400 South 27th Avenue. He struggled with police, sustaining abrasions and contusions. Police found two grams of heroin, two ounces of marijuana and assorted equipment for methamphetamine production on Butler and his motorcycle.

Butler was treated for minor scrapes and bruises, then taken to the Madison Street Jail at 5:30 a.m. on September 9.

Sheriff's office investigator J.M. D'Amico describes the final 15 hours of Butler's life in a report he prepared by watching jail security videotapes.

Butler was moved to various rooms and hallways as he was searched and booked. At noon, he was put into a restraint chair where he was left for more than four hours. At 4:30 p.m., he walked to an isolation cell, D'Amico reported. An hour later, D'Amico wrote, the videotapes showed Butler pacing in his cell. At 5:32, Butler laid down and stopped moving.

At 9 p.m., guards found Butler unconscious. Paramedics were called, but could not revive him.

Bonnie Yoshimura, Butler's sister, says she tried for more than a year to get copies of the videotapes that D'Amico describes in his report. With the help of an attorney, Yoshimura finally got tapes from the sheriff's office some months ago, only to find that they were blank. She took them to an expert who told her they appeared to be erased with a magnet.

Yoshimura believes her brother was asphyxiated in the restraint chair some time before 4:30 p.m., in the same manner that Scott Norberg died. She believes detention officers moved his body to an isolation cell and pretended to discover it hours later. She thinks only the videotapes can prove her claim.

Butler's mother, Verna Butler, says FBI agent Jim Snow has been investigating her son's death for more than a year, and she says he told her the FBI has copies of the Butler videotapes, which were sent to the civil rights division in Washington, D.C.

Snow could not be reached for comment, but assistant U.S. attorney Ron Gallegos in Phoenix acknowledges that Snow has been gathering material in the criminal investigations and forwarding information to Washington.

Lisa Allen, Arpaio's spokeswoman, says the sheriff's office has received no notification about the investigations.

One thing Snow is looking for is a German television documentary of Arpaio. The film, which includes an interview with Richard Post, a paraplegic whose neck was broken when officers stuffed him into a restraint chair, also shows Arpaio shouting at inmates, telling them that he likes depriving them of basic necessities. "I'm the one who calls the shots in here," the sheriff barks. Gallegos says the FBI wants the tape because of remarks like those by Arpaio.

"It's kind of nice to know if someone in law enforcement, in particular the head of an agency, is making comments that would seem to be sanctioning civil rights violations," Gallegos says.

Contact Tony Ortega at his online address: tortega@newtimes.com

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