The Trial

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

I've been here too many times before to muster much outrage or amazement. Watching Joe Arpaio's guys dismantle a little guy through gross abuse of police power has become a routine event in this county. The banality of evil, played out methodically over never-ending seasons, does that to a human. Like chronic back pain, it simply becomes the way it is.

That's why the slamming of a courtroom door by a 17-year-old kid last Friday was so damn refreshing. Bam! Wake up, people! While the rest of us took the sentencing of Jim Cozzolino in muted stride, so it goes, the naive little kid, Cozzolino's oldest son, was actually incensed that punishment in Joe's county often has nothing to do with justice.

The door slammed as deputies escorted Cozzolino, co-founder of the anti-Arpaio Web site arpaio.com and one of Joe's most vocal critics, away for four months in Joe's jail. Yes, kid, you're right. This is an outrage.

He slammed the door hard enough that dust shook loose from the recessed ceiling lights of Judge Mark Aceto's courtroom.

Many on Joe's command staff and "Threat Squad," known more for manufacturing bogus threats than finding real ones (reference the Seville case), were here for the sentencing. I sat to the right of Jack MacIntyre, Joe's erudite spinmeister spokesattorney, and behind Dave Hendershott, Joe's Jabba the Hutt-size double-dipping chief deputy of pink-underwear-scam fame. Jack read a magazine for four hours. Dave just looked deathly ill for four hours. He looks to be rotting from the inside out.

After the sentencing, Jack apparently returned to the office and force-fed a bogus accounting of the Cozzolino case to the Arizona Republic. The resulting story in Saturday's paper was so wrong, so out of context, it would be libelous if it hadn't been attributed to Joe's spooks, who are immune to such things.

"A man who fired a handgun at a business associate through a closed door in May 2002 was sentenced Friday to four months in jail and five years probation, according to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office."

The story continued: "James Cozzolino also was ordered to undergo mental health evaluations and cease contact with Sheriff Joe Arpaio after pleading guilty to aggravated assault in the incident at the Fountain Hills Bowling Center."

"After his arrest," the story claimed, "Cozzolino, 50, admitted making death threats against Arpaio over a Sheriff's Office radio frequency in 1999."

Strike all that from the record. It's nothing but a calculated smear by an elected official against a man who exercised his First Amendment right to voice his dislike of an elected official.

Jim Cozzolino did not plead guilty to aggravated assault. He pleaded guilty to the discharge of a firearm at a structure (a clearly accidental discharge, by the way). He did not fire the shot at the business associate. And he maintains his innocence in the late 1990s death threat case, a case which, New Times writer Tony Ortega documented at the time, was clearly Arpaio and his men's first attempt to set up and disappear a hated critic.

I've been following this case since the morning after the bowling alley incident. I've talked to the people there that night. I've suffered through the mountains of documents the case generated. It's the same old stuff. A clear abuse of power and waste of taxpayer dollars.

Here's what actually happened that night. And the weird crap that followed.

Cozzolino was manager of the Fountain Hills bowling alley. That night, after closing, one of the alley's employees, Bob LaChance, got into a fight with another employee, Melody Nordman.

LaChance was drunk, and when drunk, he's a self-admitted belligerent thug. LaChance is a 240-pound bulldog with eight years of boxing experience. I know because he sat to my left at the sentencing and chatted about what a huge jerk he can be.

Cozzolino, by the way, is maybe 5-foot-4 in boots.

That night, LaChance became enraged at Nordman. Cozzolino came out of his office to see what was going on. The fight escalated and LaChance grabbed Nordman by the throat and pinned her against a wall.

Cozzolino jumped between the two and broke LaChance's grip. Nordman bolted across the bowling alley heading for a door.

LaChance threw Cozzolino down and headed after her.

"She's pretty damn fast," LaChance whispered to me as Nordman recounted the scene for the judge.

"I wouldn't have gotten away if Jim hadn't helped me," Nordman told the judge. "I am not the victim. Bob is not the victim. Jim Cozzolino is the victim."

Cozzolino ran to his office for his handgun. He confronted LaChance, screaming at him to settle down. LaChance threw Cozzolino against a wall, then tossed him like a midget across a dance floor.

LaChance went outside. Cozzolino thought LaChance was going to chase down Nordman. Again, Cozzolino confronted him with the gun.

LaChance called the bluff. "I knew Jim wasn't going to shoot anyone," LaChance told me. He grabbed Cozzolino's hand and pulled the gun to his own chest. "Shoot me! Go ahead. Shoot me!" LaChance yelled.

Then LaChance marched back into the bowling alley through a side door.

Cozzolino followed, saying he was worried LaChance might ransack or burn down the building. As Cozzolino describes it, he grabbed at the door thinking it was open. But LaChance had locked it. As he yanked, his hand slipped from the handle and he fell back; his gun went off.

Ballistics would seem to support Cozzolino's version. The bullet went into the door from a low angle, about three inches from the door's lock.

After the gun went off, Cozzolino yelled into the bowling alley asking LaChance if he was okay. He was. LaChance was about 20 feet from the bullet's trajectory.

LaChance then called 911 from inside. Police and deputies responded. By then, the two men had calmed down and LaChance was contrite.

Then sheriff's deputies began their investigation.

Nordman was interviewed. She explained that LaChance had attacked her. She explained that Cozzolino had intervened to protect her.

LaChance was interviewed. He explained that he had been the troublemaker, the aggressor. He scoffed at the idea that Cozzolino was a threat to him.

But both LaChance and Nordman say it quickly became clear that sheriff's investigators weren't interested in anything but nailing Cozzolino.

"It was amazing," Nordman told me. "They kept redirecting what I said, kept trying to put words in my mouth. Bob was the one who attacked me, Jim was the one who tried to save me. But they made it clear they would have none of that idea. It was clear they wanted Jim's head."

According to LaChance, the MCSO detective began his questioning of him by saying, "You're lucky that punk Cozzolino didn't shoot you in the back."

Three people involved in an incident describe the exact same scene. A woman says she was attacked by a man. A man freely admits he attacked the woman as well as the guy who tried to stop the attack.

Then, when the interviews were over, the guy who tried to stop the attack was charged with attempted murder and aggravated assault. His bond was set at $450,000.

Sheriff's deputies raided Cozzolino's house, told his wife and four kids to leave and proceeded to tear apart the house and confiscate many of the family's belongings. Many of those belongings, including family pictures, Cozzolino's Vietnam medals and the children's computer, have not been returned by MCSO.

The sheriff's department even impounded Cozzolino's 1974 Pantera, an extremely rare classic sports car he invested in with the intention of restoring it. He wasn't even driving the car that night.

Cozzolino spent $8,000 on attorneys' fees to get the car back. Why so much? After impounding the car, MCSO made bizarre claims that the car was obtained and financed illegally. Cozzolino was several times forced to present in court lengthy documentation to refute the charges. Then he had to find the vehicle. At one point, MCSO had even handed the car off to U.S. Customs.

Of course, when he got the car back, it had extensive body damage.

Regarding the bowling alley incident, prosecutors quickly dropped the attempted murder charges, but, at MCSO's urging, held firm on the aggravated assault charges. The sheriff wanted prison time for Cozzolino, a lot of it.

So Ulises Ferragut, his attorney, prepared for trial. As part of his discovery, he asked for video and audio tapes of the interviews of Nordman and LaChance following the incident.

Oddly, when he got the videotapes of the interviews, large chunks of the interviews were missing, particularly the parts where Nordman and LaChance say they explained to investigators what actually happened.

So Ferragut says he asked MCSO for the audio back-up tapes of the interviews, something investigators always make. MCSO officials told him they hadn't made any audio tapes.

As he prepared for trial, Ferragut and the original judge in the case received a strange, anonymous letter from "a concerned detective at MCSO." Ferragut says he didn't pay much attention to the letter because it was anonymous. "It could have been written by anyone," he told me.

But as preparation for the trial rolled on, Ferragut began to believe the letter was legitimate.

"From the beginning," the letter said, "it was ordered by Arpaio and Hendershott that Mr. Cozzolino was to be charged with anything he could be charged with regardless if it could be proven.

"I watched them tamper with the taped video recordings of the victim and witnesses taken after the incident, I watched them change the statements in their reports and lie about what actually happened at Fountain Hills Bowl that night.

"I have watched them take without warrant or due process his automobile that was at a repair shop.

"I know they have had him and his family under surveillance starting years ago, have illegally wire-tapped his home phone over the years, taken his trash from his home and have illegally invaded his privacy over and over again with reckless disregard of his rights. Unfortunately, I have taken part in some of these actions."

The letter writer claimed he could not identify himself because "I have a few more years until I am to retire from the Sheriff's Office. I have too many years invested in my job to let it all be destroyed at this point."

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.

"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 robert.nelson@newtimes.com, or call 602-744-6549.

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