Insider Account

One of sheriff's former henchmen tells of dubious tactics

During Sheriff Joe Arpaio's tenure, several of his employees have come forward with damaging information about what really goes on in the offices of "America's Toughest Sheriff." But of Arpaio's former trusted troops, none has done more damage by coming clean than Robert Wetherell.

The former lieutenant's November whistle-blowing affidavit rocked the sheriff's office with accusations that Arpaio and his chief aide, David Hendershott, used intimidation and evidence-tampering to rid the office of sergeant Mark Battilana, whom they suspected of talking to New Times.

Wetherell's statements sparked a federal investigation into the matter and have emboldened other sheriff's employees to feed the FBI and the press with information of their own about Arpaio and Hendershott.

Wetherell himself has said nothing publicly about his accusations since he made them last fall.

Until now. Wetherell and his attorney, Carolyn Crook, discussed the case with New Timesthis week.

Monday, Wetherell filed an amended complaint in a $5.3 million lawsuit against the sheriff, the county, Hendershott, and attorney Ron Lebowitz, who represented the sheriff.

After completing the investigation that resulted in the firing of Battilana, Wetherell was appointed head of internal affairs, then moved to the aviation division, where, in May 1998, Hendershott gave him a glowing review. "Bob's work and determination has been nothing but outstanding," Hendershott wrote.

Two months later, Wetherell was informed that he himself had become the focus of an internal investigation. On August 31, 1998, Wetherell learned that the sheriff's office intended to terminate him for, among other transgressions, allowing a sheriff's copying machine to be used by a company that had lent the aviation division hangar space. Wetherell claims that Arpaio and Hendershott had put together a shoddy investigation to get him fired, just as they had used Wetherell himself to gather questionable data on Battilana.

Rather than fight the termination, Wetherell retired on October 18.
Now he's suing, claiming that the sheriff ruined his reputation and forced him prematurely out of his job with the groundless internal investigation. Wetherell also will attempt to show that the sheriff's treatment of him fits a larger pattern of behavior.

For years, he says, Arpaio and Hendershott have used unethical and illegal techniques to silence deputies who might otherwise go public with the truth: that Arpaio's carefully crafted image as an innovative, cost-cutting lawman was built on lies.

"It's a facade," he says. "I mean, he knows what the people want to hear, and that's what he's saying. But what happens behind the scenes is a whole different thing."

Other deputies have long felt the same way, and several spoke to New Times for a 1996 story, "Mutiny at the County," which relied on sheriff's records to show that Arpaio's posse program was a huge drain on resources.

Arpaio and Hendershott were incensed by the story, and were eager to find out which deputies had served as sources. They came to believe that Battilana, who had coordinated much of the early posse activity, had been a source. (New Times does not confirm or deny the identity of anonymous sources.)

Wetherell was asked to lead an investigation of Battilana, and was temporarily assigned to the internal affairs division.

"I didn't want any part of it. I didn't ask to be assigned to it. But once they put me in it, Arpaio and Hendershott made daily calls to me about what they wanted done. And you don't cross them," he says.

"A lot of time and manpower was put into chasing any possible piece of information that would incriminate Mark Battilana in order for them to justify firing him. They were bent on getting rid of this guy. I don't think anybody deserves that kind of witch hunt."

Wetherell reiterated the stunning accusations contained in his November affidavit. He accuses Hendershott of ordering illegal, undercover spying on Battilana. He says Hendershott set up a clandestine meeting with Wetherell in a Circle K parking lot so Wetherell could show him witness statements before they were submitted to former chief deputy Jadel Roe, who would decide whether to proceed with an official investigation. Wetherell claims that Hendershott, after seeing the statements, demanded that they be altered to appear more damaging to Battilana, and provided wording that he wanted to see in the statements. Hendershott's wording was then added. (Battilana's attorney, Phil Flemming, tells New Times that in a March deposition, Hendershott admitted that the meeting took place. But he denied that it was held for the purpose of reviewing the witness statements.) Wetherell also accuses Hendershott of promising cooperative witnesses plum assignments while threatening uncooperative ones--those who didn't have dirt on Battilana--with termination unless they came up with some.

Wetherell says that Hendershott also spun elaborate conspiracy theories about Battilana.

"Dave Hendershott visualized himself as a Don Corleone," Wetherell says. "Everything's a major conspiracy." He says that Hendershott and Ron Lebowitz, the attorney who represented the sheriff in Battilana's appeal, theorized that Battilana had been at fault in the death of his former wife, who had committed a murder-suicide in 1995. Battilana was out of town on a camping trip when Chrystelle Battilana, whom he had divorced several months earlier, shot Deputy Ric Falls in his sleep and then killed herself.

Wetherell says Hendershott hoped to find evidence that Battilana had actually caused both deaths.

"Wow. They even tried that angle. I had nothing to do with it, obviously. These guys will go to any depths, I guess," says Battilana, who now works in corporate security after being fired from the sheriff's office in 1996. His appeal has yet to be decided upon by the county merit commission.

With Arpaio making daily political appearances and speeches, it's the powerful Hendershott, deputies say, who really runs the sheriff's office.

"I don't know if there's anybody in that office that trusts Dave Hendershott or has for years," Wetherell says. "Obviously, everybody's huddled around him now because he's the power man and now they're his best friend to stay in his good graces. But he's truly a laughingstock outside of his earshot."

It was Hendershott, he adds, who believed that the sheriff's office was bugged, and called for a particularly sensitive meeting to be held at an outside location.

It was July 1996, and the Battilana investigation had concluded. Wetherell says Arpaio, Hendershott, spokeswoman Lisa Allen, former political aide Tom Bearup and several other top-ranking officials met at a hotel on East Van Buren Street to discuss making massive changes in personnel. Bearup tells New Times he distinctly remembers the meeting and the employee transfers that followed it.

Wetherell says he was instructed to bring a list of deputies that Hendershott had identified as being of questionable loyalty.

"The meeting was held to reorganize the office to put the team players in key positions and move malcontents where they couldn't do any harm. That's when these people got these crummy assignments like a lieutenant supervising a telephone that never rings. . . . They had me bring the list of names from the Battilana investigation to that meeting, Hendershott did, to make sure they highlighted those folks for undesirable assignments," he says.

At the time, New Times noted that deputies were calling in a flood to say that the large number of transfers, 74, was clearly meant as a message to the rest of Arpaio's sworn employees that they would be punished severely for revealing the department's secrets.

Wetherell was himself one of the deputies to receive a transfer. As a reward for his work in the Battilana case, Arpaio made him permanent commander of internal affairs.

Less than 60 days later, however, Wetherell received a phone call from an anonymous source who complained about Hendershott's handling of the money being raised by posses through the sale of pink underwear. Wetherell says he relayed those concerns to Roe and Allen.

"The next thing I know, I'm out of there," Wetherell says.
Less than two months after getting his "permanent" assignment, Wetherell found himself in the aviation department.

There he found numerous abuses of aircraft by posse members, but he says his complaints to Hendershott fell on deaf ears. "There's a lot of shady stuff going on, as far as the posse goes. These guys were filling the helicopter up with gas and blazing out of there, and we don't know what they're doing. . . . I wrote up a big thing on how many hours they had put on that aircraft, and how many hours they actually went out and did police missions and how much fuel was consumed. It was crazy. If they got four hours of service time out of 100, it was a lot," he says.

Wetherell points out that it's part of a pattern at a sheriff's office that values image over substance.

"Everything drops for anything publicity-related. Then if something new with publicity comes along, you drop the previous project and go to the new one," he says.

"We're supposed to be putting bad guys behind bars. Instead of protecting the public, this administration is focused on publicity and going after people internally who they perceive aren't part of their team. It's the wrong focus."

Arpaio, Hendershott and Lebowitz all did not return calls for comments on this story.

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

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