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By Stephen Lemons
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Arizona's highest-ranking U.S. Customs Service official is on leave, pending the outcome of an internal investigation into allegations she assaulted a customs employee.
Awilda Villafane, who has been the special agent in charge of Arizona's customs office since 1994, is accused of confronting Sharon Sue Penrod, who does budgeting for the office. The state's customs headquarters is located in Tucson.
Arizona is one of U.S. customs' busiest locations, processing thousands of pedestrians, private vehicles and commercial trucks each day at six ports of entry. Last year, Arizona officials seized a record 179,882 pounds of heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana.
According to Penrod's account in a Pima County sheriff's report, Villafane entered Penrod's office one day last month and began yelling obscenities at her, then grabbed her above the elbows and continued screaming.
At issue, according to Penrod, was a purchase Villafane had ordered Penrod to make. The nature of the purchase is not disclosed in the report, but Penrod told authorities she had been questioned about the purchase by customs officials shortly before Villafane entered her office.
From the report: "The suspect started asking Sharon things like `Don't you remember how you told me that it would be a good purchase.' Sharon stated that she said no, that she had not told her that it would be a good purchase, she simply told her the procedure needed for the purchase; although, Sharon stated that she did tell her that it would not be a wise purchase at all. Sharon stated that the suspect became very irate and she stated 'I am still the fucking [special agent in charge].'"
The report continues: "Sharon said that after the suspect realized what she had done, she let go of her arms, and she said that the look in her eyes kind of changed, where she could tell that she had realized that she had done something wrong. She then told Sharon that Sharon was too upset to stay at work and she should leave. . . . Sharon felt extremely intimidated, and felt that the suspect was trying to intimidate her. Also, she felt as though she was not free to leave her office. She said that she felt that she was being unlawfully held there by the suspect who was also in her office."
The sheriff's department also interviewed at least two employees who heard the exchange. They told authorities they heard voices raised, but did not hear specifics of the argument or see what happened.
Penrod asked sheriff's authorities to note in the report that Villafane is a close friend of Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. The Pima County Attorney's Office declined prosecution, stating that while both parties indicated that touching took place in the incident, it was not clear that it qualified as assault. "Due to the dynamics of the underlying dispute, this is a situation best dealt with by the agency employing the parties. Therefore, this office will not bring any criminal charges in the matter," Rick Unklesbay, chief criminal deputy to the Pima County Attorney, wrote.
The sheriff's report mentions an ongoing internal investigation into the matter by customs, although customs spokesman Dennis Murphy refused to confirm the investigation. He only said that Villafane is on leave and an official from Washington, D.C., is filling in for her. It's unclear whether the internal investigation includes questioning about purchases authorized by Villafane, as Penrod suggested to sheriff authorities.
Penrod declined an interview request. So did Villafane, through her attorney, Michael Piccaretta. He described his client as a seasoned veteran with U.S. customs who worked her way up through the ranks over 18 years.
"The criminal accusation was, in simple terms, bullshit, and it was quickly determined that it didn't merit any serious consideration," Piccaretta says. "I suspect that any internal investigation will conclude the same."
He says that Villafane "tried to comfort a woman who was apparently having a psychotic breakdown."
His client is on paid leave, and is taking a "much-needed vacation," Piccaretta says, adding he believes Villafane has been singled out for ridicule because she is a woman in a male-dominated field.
"She's a strong woman in a male-dominated field and she's also one of the most high-ranking Hispanic women in law enforcement, and that sometimes breeds a lot of feelings," Piccaretta says. "In any position of authority, there always are those who are trying to cause you harm, and I think especially so when you have a woman in charge, and I think she's been the victim of unsubstantiated and unfair comments."
And as for Penrod's concerns about Villafane's acquaintance with Sheriff Dupnik?
"The sheriff had nothing to do with this. . . . When you're in a high position, you know a lot of people," Piccaretta says. "A crappy case is a crappy case is a crappy case."