Unlikely Unabomber

One of Arpaio's grandest busts faces a serious legal challenge

A lawyer for a man accused of plotting to kill Sheriff Joe Arpaio will use the entrapment defense to challenge what was one of the top county lawman's grandest public busts.

Defense attorney Ulises A. Ferragut Jr. will employ the defense next month in the long-awaited trial of James Brian Saville, who was 18 when he was arrested in July of 1999, for allegedly planning to do in Sheriff Joe with a rudimentary car bomb. The televised arrest came a day after Saville's release after serving an 18-month prison sentence for attempting to blow up an unoccupied high school.

The initial news accounts of the alleged plot against Arpaio were based primarily on statements by the sheriff and his chief deputy, David Hendershott. The two practically described Saville as the next Unabomber and claimed he was intent on killing Arpaio as soon as he was let go.

James Brian Saville faces 28 years to life in prison.
James Brian Saville faces 28 years to life in prison.

Yet there appears to be more to the story than the blustery rhetoric of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office would lead anyone to believe.

Ferragut last month stated in court filings that sheriff's detectives, a prison informant, and an undercover sheriff's deputy posing as a Mafia hit man conspired to entice Saville into making threatening statements about Arpaio and into starting to build a bomb in exchange for a promised $4,000.

"The conspiracy to murder Sheriff Arpaio was created, initiated, and orchestrated by the Sheriff's Office with the assistance of [its] informant/agent Thomas Morgan," Ferragut argued in a November 27 motion to dismiss the case, which is scheduled to go to trial on January 6.

Prosecutors contend that Saville admitted after his arrest that "he talked about killing a judge, a prosecutor, and Sheriff Arpaio."

The stakes in the case are high. Saville faces 28 years to life in prison if convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. But the evidence presented so far raises serious questions about the conduct of Arpaio's office in the investigation that led to Saville's arrest.

At the heart of the case are 120 audio tapes of prison-cell conversations between Saville and Morgan that the sheriff's office secretly recorded. Detectives bugged Saville's cell after Morgan had sent a letter to his pastor claiming that his cellmate, Saville, was intent on killing the prosecutor and judge in the case that sent Saville to prison. Morgan's letter also stated that Saville had expressed a desire to kill Arpaio.

After the pastor turned over the letter to the sheriff's office, its upper echelon sprung into action. Arpaio has treated alleged death threats, no matter how far-fetched and unlikely, as a very high priority, even offering $10,000 rewards for information. At the same time, Arpaio has deftly used the media to report the threats -- further cultivating his coveted image as America's toughest sheriff.

Immediately after receiving Morgan's letters, sheriff's detectives were dispatched to the Perryville prison, where they began a series of meetings with Morgan. A chronic criminal who has spent years in prisons in Missouri and Arizona, Morgan is an experienced informant. On two previous occasions, he had provided information to prosecutors that helped lead to convictions. David Powell, the prosecutor on one of these cases, is also the prosecutor in the Saville case.

For his help in the past, Morgan had received reduced sentences. Court records show that Morgan, who claimed to be very sick from AIDS, was desperately seeking early release from prison (he was last incarcerated after a fraudulent-schemes conviction) when he sent the letter to his pastor.

Detectives held their first meeting with Morgan on June 30, 1999 -- 10 days before Saville's scheduled release from prison. During the session, Morgan claimed Saville had said "he'd be a hero if he blew up Sheriff Joe" but that Saville had "never said that I'm gonna go and do this tomorrow."

Morgan also told detectives that he thought Saville was "psychotic" and that Saville was so obsessed with explosives that he drew bomb diagrams.

After the meeting, sheriff's detectives began to monitor conversations between Morgan and Saville. But during 18 hours of eavesdropping, Saville never suggested any plan or desire to harm -- much less murder -- Arpaio, the judge or the prosecutor, Ferragut stated in pleadings.

"In fact, the only person [who] is heard making derogatory or threatening remarks toward the Sheriff's Office is Thomas Morgan," Ferragut said.

In another meeting with Morgan on July 3, 1999, detectives told him to suggest to Saville that he had a friend who could set Saville up with a post-release apartment. The friend, whom they called "Yancey," was really an undercover sheriff's deputy.

Morgan went back to the cell, where authorities overheard him telling Saville that he would be a "national hero" and that there would be a "parade" and "movie" about him if he killed the sheriff. "If you kill the judge and kill the prosecutor . . . and then kill Sheriff Joe, you will go out in a blaze of glory," Morgan told Saville.

On July 6, 1999, detectives met again with Morgan, telling the informant that they needed "to build a criminal case" against Saville. At that time, Morgan reported that Saville seemed more intent on going after the prosecutor in his case, Jim Blake.

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