The Plot To Assassinate Arpaio

It was a diabolical scheme. Problem is, most of it was hatched by the Sheriff's Office.

The Victim

Sheriff Joe Arpaio stood on the front porch of his home, grinning, patiently waiting for a television news team to begin yet another interview.

The 67-year-old sheriff rehearsed the lines he uses to buff his image as the self-proclaimed "America's Toughest Sheriff." He reminisced about his federal Drug Enforcement Administration days and his "gun battles in Turkey and all that" before segueing into the subject at hand -- the countless death threats he's received.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio puts on his tough-guy show for the press.
photos by Paolo Vescia
Sheriff Joe Arpaio puts on his tough-guy show for the press.
James Saville was out of prison one day before being arrested.
Paolo Vescia
James Saville was out of prison one day before being arrested.

"I'm getting so many of these. It's really the ones you don't know about that I worry about," Arpaio said.

"How do you feel?" the KTVK-TV Channel 3 reporter asked on the evening of July 9.

"I feel great," the sheriff said.

"Really?" the reporter asked. Even in the wake of the arrest of 18-year-old James Brian Saville, who just hours earlier had allegedly plotted to put a pipe bomb on your armored car?

"I don't like it, but I'm used to these threats," said Arpaio. "At least we knew who this one was."

The sheriff amplified his tough-guy act, using his best John Wayne inflection to describe the televised arrest of Saville in an elaborate sting operation that culminated that afternoon in the parking lot of the Roman Table Restaurant. Arpaio was inside, sipping tea, when the bust went down.

"Well, we took this guy off the street," Arpaio said of Saville, who was released from prison the day before his arrest. ". . . So we got him. That's what I'm happy about. He's back in prison where he belongs."

Actually, Saville was in Arpaio's jail as a criminal suspect, not in prison. But that such distinctions are lost on Arpaio has been clear for some time.

In any case, Arpaio was just getting warmed up. He said Saville's alleged murder attempt and similar such threats don't intimidate him. He promised to keep walking tall in the face of mortal danger.

"And the day that comes when I can't go to the public, that I'm afraid to talk to the public, is the day I leave this job," he said.

"So that's not going to happen. I'm still going to the public. If they think they are going to scare me away with bombs and everything else, it's not going to bother me."

Saville's arrest made great television footage for the 5 p.m. news. The Sheriff's Office actually tipped off KSAZ-TV Channel 10, which was rolling tape as sheriff's deputies swooped in to arrest Saville at 3 p.m.

The arrest was followed at 4:15 p.m. by a news conference held by MCSO chief deputy David Hendershott. TV news reporters worked on a very tight deadline. The bomb Saville allegedly had built was displayed, as were drawings allegedly confiscated from Saville's prison cell and undercover video footage of Saville building the device.

"This subject is predisposed to make explosive devices to kill people," Hendershott announced.

Hendershott, the No. 2 official at the Sheriff's Office, was so interested in Saville's arrest that he was at the scene, wielding a gun, long after the unarmed suspect had been taken away.

News of the attempted assassination sent reporters scurrying to interview Arpaio, who had returned to his Scottsdale home to "comfort his wife," according to Hendershott.

Channel 10 repaid the Sheriff's Office for being invited along for the bust, airing an interview with the sheriff and his wife, with news anchor John Hook commenting on Arpaio's bravery.

Channel 3's interview with Arpaio ended with the sheriff extolling the virtues of his $70,000 armored car, which, he boasted, "is supposed to be missile proof, bomb proof and gun proof."

"I took some criticism [for] using dope-peddlers' money to buy that armored car," he says incredulously. "Criticism. Even if the bomb did go off . . . I presume I would have been protected in that car. Isn't that great timing? No pun intended."

Score another media coup for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, whose primary and enduring mission has become to generate the most publicity possible for Arpaio -- local, national and international -- at any cost.

Even if it requires setting up a troubled, impressionable and scared kid who was recruited by a mentally ill prison snitch and coached into committing a "newsworthy" crime that could bring a life sentence.

As Channel 3 wrapped up its interview with Arpaio, a few miles across town, Maricopa County sheriff's detective Antone Jacobs was conducting a three-hour interrogation of Saville.

About halfway through the interview, Saville had had enough.

"Shit, man, where's the fucking lawyer?" Saville asked.

Jacobs ignored Saville's request for an attorney -- his constitutional right -- and plowed forward.

Seconds later, Saville began to weep, saying he never intended to kill anyone but that he's a "pyromaniac" who built a contraption based on a design he drew up after watching a television show.

Saville told Jacobs he never intended to complete the bomb, which he says was never armed with explosives. He agreed to the idea after a sheriff's undercover officer offered him $4,000 to build it, including a $2,000 payment before the weapon was even complete.

Instead of the cold-hearted killer described by Hendershott, transcripts of Saville's interrogation portray a deeply insecure kid who literally cries out for psychiatric help. A tearful Saville tells Jacobs he believes he belongs in "a mental institution." He admits he'd rather serve prison time than face the temptations that come with probation.

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