By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Have you ever gotten behind the wheel and done a California roll – you know, slowing to a crawl but not coming to a dead stop at a marked intersection? Of course you have. Luciano Arriaga Jr., 35, was accused of this minor moving violation. It cost him 10 years in state prison. No time off for good behavior, no possibility of parole. He has to serve the entire 10.
The Phoenix police officer responsible for this miscarriage of justice is Officer Warren Poole, a former member of the SWAT team. Officer Poole lied about the traffic violation in his initial report. The cop admitted in court that he could not even see the stop sign in question. The traffic ticket was thrown out of court.
Then the justice system got down to the serious business of teaching an uppity Mexican a lesson he and his family will never forget.
Prosecutors at one point offered Arriaga a sweet deal: no jail time, just straight probation. All he had to do was admit he had assaulted a police officer.
But Arriaga refused to accept a plea agreement if he had to confess guilt for something he said he didn't do.
It is February 6, 2002, and Arriaga drives his blue pickup truck to his girlfriend's house. They are going out to breakfast, but she's not ready. In fact, she's only just gotten out of bed and tells her boyfriend that it will be at least an hour before she can be seen in public.
So Arriaga drives around the corner heading to a body shop. He has completed a couple of years of study in junior college, but a university degree isn't his thing. Although he tows vehicles for cash, his passion is car restoration. He sells auto parts for classic Chevys and is known far and wide. You can find his ad in Hemmings Motor News, the bible for people who drive collectibles.
Officer Poole, however, doesn't know any of this. For all he knows, the subject of his attention is a cholo, a gangbanger, a drug dealer. One thing's for sure: He's a Mexican in the barrio. It is almost 9 a.m.
Officer Poole has so many versions of what happened next that your head spins trying to keep track. There is the version he tells the other officers who arrive on the scene. There is the version he tells two hours later to a detective investigating the incident. There is the version repeated to the grand jury. There are the versions that are spun out in three separate courthouse venues – two trials and traffic court. All of the scenarios vary, and all begin with a lie.
Poole began by claiming that Arriaga rolled through a stop sign at Third Street and Grant. This lie builds to a crescendo that culminates in tragedy.
Poole told Detective Ricky Newberry that after the California roll, he observed Arriaga fleeing the scene, speeding away. He informed the detective that Arriaga was going "over 25 mph."
The level of alarm in Poole's story is startling. But it is all wrong.
Poole was new to this neighborhood and his ignorance fueled his paranoia. Of course Arriaga was going over 25 mph; the speed limit is 35.
Whether his years spent handling the tension on the SWAT team or his unfamiliarity with a barrio in the shadow of Bank One Ballpark are to blame, Poole's mind is flushed with drama.
"In my opinion, he was trying to move out of the neighborhood at a pretty good clip," Poole told Detective Newberry. "Even before I activated my lights, he was already beginning to turn into an alley. At that point, I was becoming concerned that it might be a bailout situation."
Arriaga parks his car, gets out and starts toward Miranda Brothers Body Shop, a place where he has done business for years. But this is not what Poole sees.
"He is beginning to walk away and it is my impression that as soon as he got to the residence, which backs up to the east side of the alley, I am thinking a foot pursuit," Poole explained to Newberry.
"He begins walking away, and I confront him and I say, I need to talk with you.' As I recall, he turns around and kind of squares off on me. He is facing me. I said, I need to talk with you,' and then it was my impression that he was getting ready to run. He wasn't going to be compliant. I reached out and grabbed him and that is when the struggle ensued."
Every single instinct and suspicion of Officer Poole's is wrong.
There are two stop signs between Third Street and the alley, not one. Poole, as we already know, cannot even see the first sign. By Poole's own account, Arriaga comes to a complete and legal stop at the second sign, hardly the behavior of a suspect on the run.
Arriaga does not flee the scene. In fact, he is driving under the speed limit. He has driven fewer than three blocks with two stop signs. He does not abandon his car or "bail out." He parks the vehicle and walks toward the body shop before the officer turns into the alley or activates his lights. And he is walking, not running. When the officer calls out, Arriaga stops and turns around.