Balls in the Air

Steely County Attorney Rick Romley's going, but he's not gone. He'd like to take the governor's office from Janet Napolitano

As always in public, Romley is impeccably dressed, this time in a crisply pressed dark suit and red tie. In terms of appearance, he may be the neatest man in Arizona.

His mustache is clipped to precision, every hair is in place, and his evenly tanned face is remarkably unwrinkled. He doesn't seem to have an ounce of fat on him, though he claims to be two pounds over his fighting weight.

Romley works the room before the luncheon starts, remembering names, asking after folks, and smiling continually. The women are gushing over their recent trip to New York City for the Republican National Convention.

Rick and Carol Romley served turkey to the homeless at a south Phoenix shelter last month.
Peter Scanlon
Rick and Carol Romley served turkey to the homeless at a south Phoenix shelter last month.

"Sounds like a great time," Romley tells a gaggle of excited dowagers. "Wish I could have been there."

When the time comes for him to speak, Romley stands up without notes, and apologizes for the absence of his wife, Carol, who's vacationing with her sister.

Carol Romley is a quietly powerful presence in her husband's life, and he'd love to have her there at his side.

But Romley does fine, easily fielding questions about high-profile criminal defendants his office has prosecuted over the years.

He also responds to inevitable questions about Joe Arpaio ("He does his thing and I do mine"), the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal, and the Temple murder case.

"I didn't believe they were guilty," Romley says of the Tucson suspects. "I had people telling me, including good people from my office, 'Leave 'em in jail until we get the evidence.' I said, 'Have you forgotten that we don't arrest people hoping to get evidence on them after the fact?' But even then, I was bright enough to realize, 'What if I'm wrong?' Thank God I stood my ground. You don't want a society where if you make any mistake, you're going to have a Rick Romley at your door getting in your face."

The group applauds him warmly as he sits down.

Club member Kay Van Sant thanks Romley "for the 16 years and for whatever you may do in the future."

Cindi Nannetti, head of Romley's crack sex-crimes unit for 13 years, says she's always cherished the boss's empathy for victims of crime, especially children.

"One of Rick's first questions on our cases always is, 'How's the victim doing?'" Nannetti says. "Then he'd follow up with questions about the strengths and weaknesses of a case. Our unit tends to have high-profile cases, sometimes with multiple victims, and Rick always took an intense interest in how the kids, the victims, were making it."

It may stem in part from Romley's upbringing in what now would be called a dysfunctional family.

He was the youngest of three children born into a pioneer Arizona family. It was anything but a cozy existence.

"I think we were middle-class," says Romley, not too keen to relive this part of his life. "Everybody worked. We had food, but it never seemed to be enough. Part of the Romley family was 'rich,' but not my part."

Romley's father, Henry, managed a toy-import business for a time, and later owned an infamous saloon on West Van Buren Street before dying in 1985.

"My dad drank quite a bit, and those types of things," Romley says, averting his gaze for several seconds. "Things were not easy at home, ever."

His parents got divorced when he was a youngster, but that was only the half of it.

"My mother disappeared from my life, pretty much forever," he says. "She didn't even visit me at the hospital after I got hurt in Vietnam. I never have understood why."

Born into a Catholic family, Romley regularly had attended church as a youth and served as an altar boy for a time. But he says he'd lost interest by the end of high school.

As a teen, Romley was a lean, good-looking kid with an eye for the young ladies, and a love of gymnastics and boxing. But he had little, if any, inclination toward the books. Partying whenever and wherever was more like it.

By then, he'd moved over to his grandparents' home on Third Street just south of McDowell Road, then to an aunt's house after his grandmother died.

Romley had little direction after he graduated from now-defunct West High School in 1967. He went to work for a construction firm. "I did grunt work, making the 'mud,'" he recalls.

Romley says he and best friend David Schaffer played hard and wondered what to do with their lives.

Romley enrolled at Phoenix College but dropped out before his first semester ended. In the spring of 1968, he and Schaffer joined the Marines together.

"I was working, but barely making it, and I was screwing up right and left," Romley says. "I said, 'Shit, go into the service, get some time under your belt.' I didn't really think about Vietnam. I wanted to get out of my rut."

That June, Romley married his high school sweetheart, Patti, shortly before getting shipped to Vietnam with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division.

Then, eight months into an often fierce tour of duty, his life nearly ended in the jungle south of Danang.

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