The Trial

Existential nightmare? Nah, just Joe Arpaio destroying a political enemy

It looked too good to be true and, unsigned, was worthless anyway. The weird thing, though: In time, substantial parts of the letter proved to be true.

For example, in a deposition of one of the investigators, Ferragut casually asked about audio tapes of the interviews with Nordman and LaChance.

The investigator, apparently uninformed about the company line on the tape issue, responded that he had in fact made numerous audio tapes and made copies of the tapes for MCSO and the County Attorney's Office.

Rand Carlson

"This was on a Friday," Ferragut says. "When Monday morning came, all of a sudden they had a new deal on the table. All they wanted was the discharge of a weapon. Jim would be probation-eligible."

Cozzolino, worn out and broke, decided to take his family's advice to plead guilty. They figured that with probation only, he would be able to keep his job and keep the family from losing its house. And, after all, whatever the circumstances, he did discharge a firearm.

"The gun did go off -- period," Cozzolino told me. "Who knows what happens with a jury."

Bad idea. After he entered the guilty plea, Arpaio sent a letter to the sentencing judge saying he feared for his life, claiming Cozzolino was guilty of those old death threats against him. Arpaio suggested the maximum prison sentence possible.

"On May 11, 1998, James Vincent Cozzolino interrupted official Maricopa County Sheriff's Office radio communications to broadcast his unequivocal intent to murder me."

Pure fantasy.

Arpaio ended the letter with grand megalomaniacal bluster:

"The threat of assassination, like assassination itself, should not be taken lightly. In addition to the fact that murder is ruthlessly and calculatedly committed, there is yet a further harm which strikes at the very heart of a democratic form of government. The assassin takes it upon himself to remove from the hands of the electorate the decision regarding who should serve in government, destabilizing government in the process. Therefore, I urge the Court to impose the maximum sentence upon James Vincent Cozzolino, not only to protect me and my family from mortal harm, but also, as an elected official, to protect the integrity of government itself."

Somebody's been reading too much Cicero.

Realizing he was being set up for a hanging, Cozzolino asked to rescind his plea, a request the judge denied.

So, on December 12, Cozzolino walked into by far the weirdest sentencing hearing I've ever seen.

There was the victim explaining why she wasn't a victim and why the guy being sentenced was the actual victim and, in her mind, the actual hero.

There was the victim condemning investigators for not arresting the guy who actually assaulted her.

There was the guy who actually assaulted her sitting in the courtroom amid seven top MCSO officials and one journalist fully admitting he was the one who did the assaulting.

As he took a beating from witnesses for being a violent drunk, Bob LaChance leaned over to me and whispered:

"Holy crap. I'm starting to feel like these assholes are going to arrest me right here on the spot."

"Oh, settle down," I told him. "They don't want you. They want Cozzolino."

And they got their man. The judge gave him four months. It could have been much worse. Arpaio wanted him to get several years.

But interestingly, the four-month sentence, as the Cozzolino family stated to the judge, should be just enough to get him fired from his job and completely drain the family's depleted bank account. Most likely, Cozzolino's wife says, she and her four kids will have to move back with her family in Canada.

Nice job, Judge Aceto. You really stuck it to the wife and kids.

"They're devastated," Elaine Cozzolino told me on Wednesday. "They just want a normal home life. And these guys have taken that from them."

Then the door slammed and the dust fell and Cozzolino was shipped off to maximum security at Joe's Madison Street Jail, the place where so many of Joe's inmates have gotten their asses kicked by guards and inmates for being far less mouthy than Jim Cozzolino.

Last Wednesday, I received a one-page note from Cozzolino. It was good to hear he was still alive. You just never know. He said he was being moved from maximum to the tents, which are pleasant this time of year if somebody's not shanking you.

"Well, there we have it," he wrote. "Fucked at last."

Ah, that casual, ironic tone of a man at peace with the inevitability of injustice in Maricopa County. I hope his son can pick up that tone quickly enough. Because if he keeps slamming doors at injustice, he's very likely to find himself framed like dear old dad.

E-mail, or call 602-744-6549.

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