Paper Machete

After a drug bust at his home, Yuma publisher creates a newspaper to investigate cops

Most people who feel they've been wronged by the cops file a lawsuit or a complaint, or ignore the incident. Joe Soldwedel created a newspaper.

The Tiempo-Timeswon't roll off the presses 'til March, but it's already making news in Yuma County -- both for its news-gathering methods as well as its publisher's motivation.

Last May, Joe Soldwedel's wife, Pamela, was arrested by Arizona Department of Public Safety officers who -- acting on an anonymous tip -- searched the Soldwedels' home, with Pamela's permission. According to the police report, cops found a long list of drug paraphernalia, as well as methamphetamine and marijuana. Pamela's 16-year-old son was at the house at the time, but was not taken into custody.

Billboards like this one appeared in Yuma County from October to December, soliciting information on law enforcement.
courtesy of Yuma Daily Sun
Billboards like this one appeared in Yuma County from October to December, soliciting information on law enforcement.

The case was subsequently dismissed by the Yuma County Attorney, but is still under review, according to Andrew Gould, the office's chief civil deputy. Because the case was dismissed "without prejudice," charges can still be filed. That will depend on whether a state lab finds fingerprint matches on drugs seized at the Soldwedel home, Gould says.

The police report describes a fairly typical, uneventful drug bust; Soldwedel says he's unhappy with the way the cops handled it. That's all he'll say, Soldwedel explains, because charges might still be filed. But he freely admits that the incident prompted him to create a newspaper devoted solely to investigating law enforcement in Yuma County.

Soldwedel, along with his family, owns Western Newspapers, a chain that runs small weekly and daily newspapers all over the state, and owns shares in radio stations and a billboard company in Yuma.

Joe Soldwedel and his reporters -- recruited from other Western Newspapers publications for this special assignment -- have pursued law enforcement with vigor.

In October, Soldwedel began running radio ads and posting billboards soliciting complaints about law enforcement in Yuma County.

The Tiempo-Times blanketed the Yuma County Sheriff, Yuma Police Department and neighboring cities of San Luis and Somerton with comprehensive public records requests. For example, the city of Yuma public records request asks for -- among other things -- Uniform Crime Reporting statistics; arrest statistics based on age, race and gender; citizen complaints; internal investigations; reports on discharge of firearms and use of physical force; and annual budgets for the past five years. The request, dated October 17, asks that the documents be provided for examination by October 20.

While all of the agencies have partially filled the requests, the cities of Yuma, San Luis and Somerton are suing to protect some documents, particularly some internal investigative materials and personnel files.

Yuma County has not sued, and is still in the process of reviewing documents, says Gould, the deputy county attorney.

It hasn't been easy, according to Gould. "His [Soldwedel's] paper has almost shut down the civil division of the County Attorney's Office in responding to the public records request," he says.

Yuma city officials refused to comment on the details of their lawsuit. Attorney Glenn Gimbut, who represents San Luis and Somerton, is pointed in his comments about the Soldwedel family and its newest newspaper.

Gimbut calls Joe's father, Don, who at one time headed Western Newspapers, "one of the finest human beings that God has ever created. An extremely good corporate citizen, a very conservative person who has been most generous to the Yuma community and a guy who, as far as I'm concerned, practically walks on water.

". . . Joe, by his own description, by his own words, is a spoiled rich kid with a silver spoon in his mouth. And he's got . . . a little more gumption than he has brains, and this is one of those situations."

In a press release dated January 11, the Tiempo-Times outlines its public records request efforts and legal action to date and quotes Joe Soldwedel: "The public has a great interest in knowing how police officers do their jobs and whether they conduct themselves in a manner in which all citizens are expected to. Like all government officials they should be held accountable for their actions."

Gimbut insists that's not Soldwedel's motivation at all. "Joe is simply throwing away money on a personal grudge," he says.

The Tiempo-Times (so named because "tiempo" means "times" in Spanish, and the paper will be bilingual) will not accept advertising. Soldwedel says the expense will be significant, but no more than $200,000. He does not yet know how long the paper will be published; he says it will depend on community response and pending records requests.

To detractors who say he's simply on a witch hunt, Soldwedel replies, "If it was purely personal, there's no way I would basically risk my life to do this. I would simply do it the American way, file a lawsuit like everybody else does, and I could have done that, and I might still file some type of action. But I'm really going out on a limb, taking a huge risk on my life. I don't mean financially. I've received threats. There's been a lot of harassment and intimidation in the last six months."

Soldwedel says he's changed his home phone number and has received anonymous threats at work, too.

But is this objective journalism? Sure, Soldwedel says.

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