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

After a time, Romley moved over to run the drug unit, which afforded him public recognition during the cyclical mid-1980s wave of "tough-on-dopers" sentiment.

By that time, Romley finally had found a new life partner. A friend had introduced him to his future wife, Carol, in 1984, and the two single parents instantly connected.

"I hated being single, hated it," Romley says. "You're out there on the prowl, but you just want someone to be alone with, spend time with. But making the match is hard."

The Vietnam-era Rick Romley.
The Vietnam-era Rick Romley.
Romley congratulates his top aide, Paul Ahler, at a recent function.
Jackie Mercandetti
Romley congratulates his top aide, Paul Ahler, at a recent function.

Carol had been a working single mom of a teenage son, Darin, for about five years when she met Romley. He still was raising his boys, also teenagers.

"He took my son to breakfast by himself and asked for permission to marry me," says Carol, an articulate woman with unyielding loyalty to her husband.

The couple got married in July 1985, and she moved into his home in north central Phoenix.

"Here I was, the new woman in the house, but Rick had everything so regimented that I didn't have to worry about anything," Carol Romley says. "He's a proud man. Macho. And that's probably why he's walking. He says people don't know what they have inside of themselves until they dig deep."

In early 1988, Tom Collins announced he wouldn't be seeking reelection. The race was wide open, with several well-known Valley lawyers interested in the post.

Romley, a Republican, announced his own candidacy fairly late in the game.

"I'd never been to a political meeting in my life," he says. "I was so dumb. And I won. I don't really know how."

As badly as he wanted to win, Romley never mentioned during his first political race that he was a decorated war veteran who had been wounded in action.

"Not my thing," is all he'll say about that.

Romley won a tough Republican primary, and squeaked past the formidable Georgia Staton in the general election.

It would be the only truly contested political race of his 16-year run.

Rick Romley stepped into a legal and political thicket in his first years in office.

First came AzScam, the biggest political corruption case in Arizona history.

Organized by Romley and then-Phoenix police chief Ruben Ortega, the sting was pulled off by an ex-gangster turned undercover operative named Joe Stedino -- who had persuaded legislators, lobbyists and others to accept bribes in exchange for their promises to support legalized casino gambling in Arizona.

"I want to die rich," one state legislator secretly was videotaped telling wiseguy Stedino, who was portraying a Nevada mobster.

In the end, 18 people were indicted and six elected officials resigned from office (another was expelled). Several greedy politicos served time behind bars.

Still, Romley says a veteran politician told him after the big bust that his career was toast. He was just getting started.

"If my political career had been finished because of AzScam, so be it," Romley says. "I thought what those people did was disgusting."

On the heels of the AzScam headlines came the worst mass slaying in Arizona history, the 1991 shooting deaths of nine people at a Buddhist temple west of Phoenix. The victims included six Thai monks, a monk in training, a temple helper, and a nun.

International pressures to solve the case were intense, and the subsequent arrests of the Tucson suspects were greeted with sighs of relief.

But Romley listened hard as key staffers raised serious questions about the weakness of the suspects' confessions.

Soon, he let everyone know that, short of a stunning turn of events, he'd be asking the court to release the perceived killers.

The sheriff at the time, Agnos, remained adamant that the Tucson suspects somehow had been in cahoots with two Valley youths who turned out to be the real killers.

Agnos convened a group of leading attorneys and retired cops to do an emergency examination of the case, hoping Governor Fife Symington III would wrest it from Romley. Heading the committee were former United States attorneys Mike Hawkins and Mel McDonald.

"Our analysis was sympathetic to Agnos, and Romley got really mad, really mad," recalls McDonald. "You have all these people murdered, and he makes the decision that he wasn't going to charge the guys who confessed? The sheriff's office was going nuts, but Rick turned out to be absolutely right, and we were wrong."

Symington declined to get involved in the Temple case, leaving Romley to sink or swim.

Romley swam.

The case also directly led to Sheriff Tom Agnos' defeat in November 1992 by a retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent named Joe Arpaio.

It didn't take long for elected officials Romley and Arpaio to get crossways with each other.

Arpaio's now-infamous public relations machine began to rev up. Pink underwear, green bologna and chain gangs for inmates were just what a crime-weary public and a lapdog media seemed to crave.

But Romley's prosecutors soon started to complain about the uneven level of investigation by some of Arpaio's people. They also questioned why Arpaio routinely tried to drum up media interest in his cases.

Then, in June 1996, a troubled jail inmate named Scott Norberg died a terrible death as sheriff's detention officers held him in a restraint chair.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Phoenix Concert Tickets