Trick or Threat

On Halloween, Joe Arpaio and his men set a new low for police harassment

Like a serial killer, Joe Arpaio is getting cockier and dumber with each hit.

This time, Arpaio cited Joe Arizona, the pitchman for Proposition 201, with a class 1 misdemeanor for impersonating a highway patrol officer at a downtown restaurant on Halloween. Arizona, whose real name is Nick Tarr, was wearing an outdated Department of Public Safety shirt with two kiddie sheriff's badges draped loosely over an "I Love Arizona" tee shirt. He was wearing a park ranger hat, hiking boots and a pair of Sheriff Joe's famous pink boxers.

It was Halloween. People dress up funny on Halloween.

And if this is "impersonating an officer," we must have some ridiculous-looking officers in this state.

The scene was certainly ludicrous: sheriff's deputies, directed by Arpaio's top henchman, David Hendershott, mulling around for an hour trying to figure out a crime they could charge Tarr with.

But despite the media's giggling, the scene is not hilarious. The core issues here are far too serious.

Slapping Tarr with a criminal citation was nothing more than a political hit by Arpaio. And it is just the latest in Arpaio's disturbing litany of using his police powers to harass or destroy political opponents.

Tarr is guilty only of being the pitchman for the Indian gaming initiative that opposes Joe Arpaio's Indian gaming baby, Prop 202.

As you read two months ago in this column, Jon Beydler, the mayor of Fountain Hills, was guilty only of questioning whether his city was getting a good deal paying Arpaio $1.5 million a year for law enforcement services. For that, Arpaio's deputies show up to arrest Beydler for child endangerment. Beydler's young daughter, angry at her sister, wouldn't get out of Beydler's car when he reached his business in Fountain Hills. He stepped out of the vehicle to answer a cell phone call; sheriff's deputies quickly arrive and accuse him of endangering his daughter.

Tom Bearup was guilty only of running against Arpaio in the last election. For that, Arpaio illegally had Bearup's phones tapped and had him tailed. Bearup's son continues to be tailed by sheriff's deputies.

Chris Gerberry, a Maricopa County Sheriff's Office detention officer, was accused of handing over a jail medical log to reporters. The log was public record, even if Gerberry had been the one who passed on the information. He was run out of the department with a bogus lie detector test and other tricks Joe uses to frame people who question him.

The list of retaliation victims continues into the dozens, if not hundreds. They join the long list of men and women maimed or killed by detention officers or fellow inmates amid jail conditions Joe proudly makes substandard and dangerous.

Scott Norberg, Charles Agster, Eric Vogel, Jefferson Davis McGee -- the dead and wounded continue to pile up.

Of note: An appeals court recently upheld the damning verdict in Flanders v. Maricopa County, a 2000 case in which a jail inmate was awarded $635,000 in damages after fellow inmates severely beat him with tent stakes. In essence, county taxpayers lose money because, as a judge wrote, "the jury could determine that the Sheriff was callously indifferent to the Eighth Amendment's requirements and to the exposure of Tent City inmates to serious injury."

It's not just the Eighth Amendment that Joe finds so repugnant.

In Nick Tarr's case, Joe found humor in trampling on the First Amendment.

Here's how the deal went down:

On Halloween, Tarr, a.k.a. "Joe Arizona," decided to dress up in a costume for a string of appearances to promote Proposition 201, the Indian gaming ballot initiative for which he is the spokesperson.

Nick Tarr and Arpaio had traded barbs over the issue.

Tarr went to his dresser and found a five-year-old pair of Arpaio's infamous pink underwear. Tarr had bought the pink underwear at Kmart back when Arpaio was selling the underwear to raise money for law enforcement programs.

Or so Arpaio claimed. As reported by New Times' Tony Ortega, hundreds of thousands of dollars of pink underwear donations seemed to have disappeared after passing through the hands of chief deputy Hendershott.

Tarr put on his campaign's goofy "I Love Arizona" tee shirt, a Smoky Bear-type hat and two fake-copper Old West sheriff's badges, the kind of children's badges you can buy at any Arizona tourism shop. Then, over the tee shirt, he draped an old Department of Public Safety shirt he bought years before at a uniform shop.

Tarr is an actor and standup comedian. He has a large collection of outfits for skits and plays.

Tarr's first stop was Tom's Tavern in downtown Phoenix. The restaurant's owner, who supports Prop 201, had asked Tarr to make an appearance.

Tarr walked in and began greeting patrons with his Joe Arizona shtick.

Within two to three minutes, he says, he was confronted by two sheriff's deputies.

"It was amazing how fast it happened," Tarr told me. "They said: You've got to step outside.'"

Tarr asked: "What's the problem, officers?"

"They didn't say anything," he says. "All of a sudden, they were all on their cell phones. It was the weirdest thing I've ever seen."

Unbeknownst to Tarr, the scene was being orchestrated from back in the restaurant.

Arpaio's chief deputy, David Hendershott, the conduit for all those missing pink underwear proceeds, was lunching at Tom's Tavern when Tarr walked in. According to witnesses sitting near Hendershott, Hendershott immediately began making calls on his cell phone once Tarr stepped in the restaurant.

(Neither Hendershott nor Arpaio would return my calls regarding the incident.)

"I never saw Hendershott," Tarr says. "But he obviously saw me."

But Greg Cole, who I interviewed Sunday, did see everything. Cole, a spokesperson for the Prop 201 campaign, was having lunch with his father 15 feet from Hendershott's table. Cole says he had no idea Tarr would be coming to the restaurant.

"You got Hendershott way in the back of the restaurant," Cole says. "Every few minutes, he stands up, walks over and peeks around a pole to see what's happening outside. Then he gets on his cell phone. He and all these other deputies were always on their cell phones.

"And Hendershott had this runner, some deputy he kept making run back and forth to the scene. Hendershott clearly was the quarterback for the activity."

But Hendershott and his deputies clearly weren't sure what charges they could drum up on Tarr.

Soon, more deputies came. More cell phone calls. Finally, one deputy ran over from the sheriff's office with a book detailing Arizona's criminal statutes.

"They're all hovering over this statute book," Cole says. "One of the guys is sitting there licking his fingers thumbing through the statute book. They were whispering and all excited."

All the time, Tarr was contrite. He offered to take the DPS shirt off several times.

Finally, deputies found statute 41-1754, "Impersonation of a highway patrol officer."

The statute reads: "A person is guilty of a class 1 misdemeanor who either: 1. Without authority, wears the badge of a member of the highway patrol or a badge of similar design that would tend to deceive. 2. Impersonates a member of the highway patrol with the intent to deceive."

Tarr says two DPS officers also arrived. He says it sounded like deputies and MCSO officials were trying to convince the DPS officers to cite Tarr for impersonating an officer.

But, to their credit, the DPS officers drove off. And a DPS source who wished to remain anonymous confirmed to me that the DPS officers at the scene were angry that they were asked by MCSO to waste their time on such a frivolous issue.

And DPS officials publicly disputed Hendershott's claim that it was illegal to own an old DPS shirt displaying a DPS patch.

"There's nothing illegal about owning a DPS patch and probably anybody could wear one of these patches," DPS spokesman Steve Volden said last week.

Unbowed when confronted by competent law enforcement, sheriff's deputies just wrote Tarr the citation themselves.

Tarr is looking at up to a year in jail.

"I'm just scared now, plain scared," Tarr says. "And who knows, will they do something to me somewhere else? I'm afraid to drive anywhere.

"I feel like I've just completely had my civil rights trampled," he says. "I still can't believe it."

County attorney officials said they could not comment on whether they plan to pursue the charge against Tarr.

However, sources in the county prosecutor's office indicate they, like DPS officials, also see this citation for what it is: pure, dirty politics.

Although it is unclear if Hendershott was working under Arpaio's orders at the scene, Arpaio defended the actions of his men the next day at a press conference. The press conference, ironically enough, was to promote Ford's redesign of the Crown Victoria gas tank, which has been blamed for the deaths and severe injuries of several officers around the country.

None of Arpaio's men have been killed because of the flaw. But that didn't stop Arpaio from using the press conference as a platform.

Responding to questions about Tarr's citation, Arpaio became angry:

"Men have died in that uniform!" he exclaimed.

I don't know of anything more grotesque than a cop covering up his own crimes with the bodies of fallen comrades.

Let's recap:

A known political figure walks into a restaurant on Halloween in what is clearly, to any thinking human, nothing more than a goofy Halloween costume.

At least 10 Maricopa County Sheriff's Office employees spend an hour trying to figure out a way to throw the political figure in jail for wearing a Halloween costume.

Now, an American citizen is looking at a year in jail for trying to express his First Amendment right to free speech.

Is this funny? While most of the Valley's media have laughed the incident off, I don't see the humor here.

All I see is a new low for America's most abusive law enforcement department.

All I see is a sheriff and his posse gone mad with power.

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