Thunder Road

Luciano Arriaga Jr. was born defiant. Falsely arrested by a nerve-frayed cop, he'd sooner take a chance on resuming his 10-year prison sentence than accept a plea bargain
Commentary

Driving defines Phoenix the way surfing shapes Venice Beach. Here, in this blacktop desert that stretches to the horizon, we all share in the drive. Behind every steering wheel slumps a stranger. You look through anyone else's windshield and a driver's character is no more distinct than a smudged fingerprint. A cop never knows who he's pulling over.

And that's only half of the story. That uniform in your rearview mirror? There's no telling what's eating him.

This is a tale about two men in cars who crossed paths in downtown Phoenix. One man is a cop, one isn't. Their three-year-old tragedy binds tighter this week with a trial scheduled to begin later this month. The drama refuses to unwind because neither man is capable of letting go. It's not in the one man's personality and, legally, it's beyond the other's grasp. Instead, the ending lurks in a courtroom, a poor location if you're looking for common sense.

Luciano Arriaga Jr.
Peter Scanlon
Luciano Arriaga Jr.
This is the stop sign that triggered a 10-year sentence.
Peter Scanlon
This is the stop sign that triggered a 10-year sentence.
When Luciano Arriaga Jr. stopped to visit this body shop, a police officer was on his tail.
Peter Scanlon
When Luciano Arriaga Jr. stopped to visit this body shop, a police officer was on his tail.
Luciano Arriaga Jr. points to the spot where he and the police officer struggled.
Peter Scanlon
Luciano Arriaga Jr. points to the spot where he and the police officer struggled.
Luciano Arriaga's passion for cars shaped his life.
Peter Scanlon
Luciano Arriaga's passion for cars shaped his life.
Arriaga awaits the outcome of his civil suit -- and his third trial.
Peter Scanlon
Arriaga awaits the outcome of his civil suit -- and his third trial.

One man drove drunk, and, before that offense was resolved, he succumbed to road rage. He is the police officer. Although he milked the system on his DUI, he still lost what he cared about most.

The cop's victim of violence stubbornly refused to compromise. This helped put him in prison after he was pulled over for allegedly rolling through a stop sign; he was sentenced to 10 years behind bars. Even the judge believes it's a miscarriage of justice. The parents' focus on their son's innocence fueled the devastation. The family's life savings turned to smoke in the legal incinerator. Worse, mama and papa were criminalized. Incredibly, their boy has been arrested three times -- including this beef -- for aggravated assault on police officers. In the end, his innocence might be less important than the law of averages.

Of course, "the facts" are all more complicated and compelling than these few sentences. As you read this, both men are, for the third time, testifying before a jury. Yet no one in any courtroom has heard the full story. The third time won't be any different.


Officer Warren Poole's story is simple. Shortly before 9 a.m. on February 6, 2002, he observed a suspect in a blue pickup truck, Luciano Arriaga Jr., fail to come to a complete stop at the intersection of Third Street and Grant. The suspect ignored the stop sign on the corner and, in effect, did a California roll. Officer Poole made contact with the suspect, who resisted arrest and hit the policeman with a two-by-four, causing a scalp laceration that took six stitches to close.

On the face of it, this is a shocking story about street violence directed at a policeman. Who hits a cop with a two-by-four?

But Officer Poole's story changes every time he tells it.

In fact, this confrontation is a stunning example of police paranoia that nearly ended in a killing.

To begin with, Luciano Arriaga never ran that stop sign. The traffic citation was thrown out when the physical evidence clearly showed that Officer Poole couldn't even see the stop sign from where his patrol car was parked. The policeman admitted to the judge that he did not actually see a violation. Rather, he used his intuition to determine that one had occurred when he saw a second vehicle braking as Arriaga drove through the intersection.

Case dismissed.

The traffic ticket, however, was chump change. The real drama would occur in Superior Court when prosecutors charged Arriaga with resisting arrest and aggravated assault. The stakes were huge. Sentences for agg assault are drastic when the victim is a police officer.

Ignore for a second the fact that Officer Poole initially lied about the stop sign. When you examine the files and review the testimony, you have to wonder how any prosecutor could go forward when the only witness, the policeman, spun so many contradictory scenarios about the fight. Prosecutors won't tell you this on the record, but, the reality is, if you get in a fight with a cop, you're going to end up in court. Period.


When other cops arrived on the scene, the slightly built Arriaga was pinned but struggling under the bleeding Officer Poole. Once the suspect was handcuffed and deposited in the back seat of a cruiser, Poole was taken to a hospital where he gave Detective Ricky Newberry the following account about what transpired after Arriaga proceeded past the stop sign.

Because the Phoenix Police Department viewed Officer Poole as a victim of assault, he wasn't allowed to fill out a police report of the incident. His statement to Detective Newberry is the official record.

"He was obviously doing over 25. . . . It seemed like he was trying to move out of the area at a pretty good clip," Poole recalled, referring to the driver. "He [was] putting his foot into the accelerator."

In his account, Poole portrayed Arriaga as acting suspiciously, someone clearly bent upon fleeing.

But by estimating Arriaga's speed at "over 25" miles per hour, Poole made an important admission. The speed limit is 35 mph. Even at 30 mph, Arriaga would have been below the limit.

And Poole admitted to Detective Newberry that Arriaga came to a complete stop at the next posted intersection. If Arriaga was running, it was only in Poole's mind.

Officer Poole told Detective Newberry that he didn't activate his flashing lights until after the suspect turned into an alley. Although Arriaga was driving under the speed limit and obeying the stop signs, in Poole's mind, the events were ramping up.

"At that point, I was becoming concerned that it might be a bail-out situation," recalled Poole.

Actually, Arriaga exited his vehicle and proceeded calmly toward a body shop. And why not? Because he'd entered the alley before the squad car's lights were activated, he had no idea that there was a problem.

"He [was] beginning to walk away, and it was my impression that as soon as he got to the residence . . . I am thinking a foot pursuit."

Officer Poole never explained why he had this fantasy of Arriaga taking off. Nor was he asked why he believed this.

In any case, Poole's mind was racing through the criminal possibilities. He thought weapons and narcotics.

"He begins to walk away, and I confront him," said Officer Poole. "He turns around and kind of squares off on me. He is facing me. I said I need to talk to you."

Far from fleeing, Luciano Arriaga Jr. stopped and faced the policeman.

Instead of calming down, Officer Poole becomes more alarmed.

"You could tell by just looking at his body that he was not going to be cooperative. You could tell looking at somebody if they are going to be compliant, and, to me, his body, he had this look like he was going to run or fight."

The policeman confronted a man guilty of nothing. But that wasn't the way Officer Poole imagined it.

"[Arriaga] was thinking. He was looking at me, and he was thinking. He couldn't figure out what he was going to do. In my mind, I was thinking he has that look in his eyes that says, 'Can I run here fast enough or is this guy going to catch me?'"

Without any warning, Officer Poole attacked Arriaga.

"I then just reached out and grabbed him, and he tensed up and it is an active aggression."

Officer Poole's claim that it was "an active aggression" when Arriaga tensed is odd syntax even for the stilted argot of police-speak. But the phrase is no accident. Under police guidelines, "active aggression" is justification for putting a suspect into the deadly carotid artery choke hold. If Officer Poole was shaken by the confrontation, he still had the presence of mind to alibi strangling Arriaga.

The policeman didn't ask for Arriaga's driver's license. He didn't ask for registration. He didn't ask for proof of insurance. He didn't tell Arriaga that he'd run a stop sign. He didn't tell him he was under arrest.

Officer Poole simply imagined a crime and attacked an innocent man. Why?

Arriaga's father has a straightforward explanation.

He saw a Mexican. And the first thing he thought of was guns or drugs or both, says Luciano Arriaga Sr., a retired construction worker.

In fact, that's precisely what Officer Poole told Detective Newberry.

"I am concerned, number one, it's a weapon," said Poole. "Or he may have had narcotics. I don't know what it was."

Arriaga had neither weapons nor drugs in his possession, nor was he a member of any gang.

"We believe that this was a clear case of racial profiling and a hate crime," says Arriaga's father.

The Phoenix office of the NAACP agreed and fired off a letter to the Department of Justice asking for an investigation.

Absent more facts, however, it's unlikely that this allegation will ever amount to anything. But the record is clear on one point: When Officer Poole turned into that alley on February 6, 2002, he was under unusual stress. He had been the recent target of an internal investigation. He awaited a trial, confinement in jail, and near certain administrative and criminal penalties.


On June 15, 2001, months before he ever met Luciano Arriaga Jr., an off-duty Warren Poole headed to an Arizona Diamondbacks game in downtown Phoenix.

At some point that afternoon, Poole changed his mind and went instead to a strip club, Bourbon Street Circus, at 2900 East Thomas Road. Over the next couple of hours, he downed about eight beers. When he got into his car and drove east, he encountered rush-hour traffic. After a quick stop at a Jack in the Box, he decided to sit out the gridlock at the Rework Lounge at 5200 East McDowell Road, where he had another four beers. He topped off the evening with a second strip joint, the Diamond Club on Scottsdale Road, where he continued to drink.

About 9:30 p.m., Officer Poole, drunk, headed out to his car. He drove onto Interstate 10 and slammed into a highway median. He was taken to Maricopa County Hospital, where he was treated for a laceration of his left knee, abrasions to his head, and a concussion. In the hospital, a mandatory blood test showed an alcohol level of 0.15 percent.

Legally, Officer Poole didn't just drive drunk and have an accident. His blood alcohol level classified his offense as an "extreme DUI." More alarming, investigators determined that because he was scheduled to report for duty shortly after the accident, he would still have been drunk when he showed up for work.

Officer Poole was no ordinary beat cop.

He was a sniper on the Phoenix Police Department's SWAT team. In a standoff, Officer Poole is the guy who must target and execute the suspect on command. No questions asked.

Men who carry a gun for a living, whether military or law enforcement, all recognize the elite units in their midst who are called upon to face down the most dramatic situations. Police departments turn to SWAT units in body armor equipped with overwhelming firepower to take out the worst criminals and the dangerously deranged.

It's clear from Officer Poole's personnel file that he relished the challenge. In the year before he stopped Luciano Arriaga, Poole helped serve 39 high-risk search warrants and confronted 19 separate incidents where suspects had barricaded themselves. He averaged slightly better than one highly wrought episode per week.

Think about that.

"The last year, like the past seven, have been very rewarding to me," Poole wrote on his final evaluation as a member of the SWAT team. "Working with the officers of the Special Assignments Unit has been the greatest experience of my career and my life. . . . Being able to work around these officers, often under arduous and life-threatening conditions, has been the highest honor. I am honored to have been part of the team."

The greatest experience of his life came to an end with the DUI. Roughly four months before he grabbed Luciano Arriaga, Poole was transferred out of the SWAT team and put in a squad car.

Now, you get a DUI, and the police department and the state of Arizona will see that you get 12 hours of counseling about the riskier aspects of drinking. Officer Poole would eventually get a certificate to prove he'd endured such lectures.

But where Officer Poole actually needed some guidance was ignored.

Every week Officer Poole had lined up real-life refugees from Grand Theft Auto in his telescopic sight. Then, overnight, he found himself watching traffic scofflaws -- that transition he figured out on his own. There was no decompression tank for Poole to sit in and adjust his equilibrium, no certificate of normalcy. One day he was a state-sanctioned killer, the next, he was checking parking meters.

Gives you chills when you think about it.

And that was hardly the end of the matter.

When he pulled into the alley behind Arriaga, Officer Poole was still facing a criminal trial on the DUI, suspension without pay for up to 40 hours, suspension of his driver's license for 90 days, a fine, and possible jail time.

The last thing he needed in the midst of these legal and professional problems was another blemish on his record.

It's impossible to say how much pressure Officer Poole felt to embellish what occurred in the alley with Arriaga, but the record is clear that he began lying long before he laid hands on the 31-year-old Mexican-American.


As Officer Poole explained to Detective Newberry, his mind was racing with suspicion before he said a single word to Luciano Arriaga Jr.: The suspect was driving away from the stop sign at a high rate of speed, he might have had drugs, or a gun. And surely he was getting ready to run.

But there's more to this than Poole's paranoia.

He radioed that the suspect was running behind a nearby Wells Fargo Bank.

The police department's dispatcher confirmed that this was the message transmitted by Officer Poole.

Another officer on patrol in the same neighborhood confirmed that Poole broadcast he was chasing a suspect.

"Yes, a few seconds later we heard someone on the radio [saying] that there was a foot pursuit in the area of First Avenue," Sergeant Sylvester Johnson testified during Arriaga's first trial.

There was no foot chase.

Officer Poole told Detective Newberry a version of the confrontation, which differed wildly from the version he transmitted over the police radio. The detective never heard word one about a foot chase behind a bank.

Poole offered a third version to another officer who arrived on the scene of the confrontation.

"Officer Warren Poole reported that when Arriaga exited his vehicle, he ignored repeated requests to cooperate by [not] producing proper identification and vehicle documentation. [It became] necessary to physically restrain him until the documentation was obtained and verified," wrote Patrolman James Corey in his report.

Poole admitted under oath that he never asked Arriaga for any paperwork.

Poole described to Sergeant Ronald Vasquez yet a fourth version of the brawl with Arriaga.

On the witness stand in the first trial, Arriaga's attorney asked Sergeant Vasquez to recall what Poole had said at the scene.

Question: "And he told you that Louie had -- I'm sorry, Mr. Arriaga -- had all of a sudden run into the body shop; is that correct?"

Answer: "Yes! He turned and ran into the body shop."

Officer Poole chased Arriaga, tackling him from behind, said Vasquez.

Every version of Arriaga's arrest involving a foot chase is a lie. But each lie is meant to justify what happened, just as "active aggression" (merely tensing up) is meant to justify a carotid artery choke hold.


What do we know? We know that Louie Arriaga's ticket for rolling through a stop sign was thrown out of court after the judge determined that the officer lied about what he saw.

We know that Officer Poole imagined Arriaga fleeing the scene of the crime when, in fact, there was no crime; Arriaga was driving under the speed limit, obeyed all stop signs and stopped when confronted.

We know the officer never turned on his siren, according to his own testimony, and that the patrol car's flashing lights weren't activated until after Arriaga had turned into the alley and was unable to see them.

Based upon absolutely no evidence and no behavior by Arriaga, Poole worried that he might have an armed drug abuser on his hands. This apprehension was compounded by the unfounded assumption that Arriaga intended to run.

Poole violated the Phoenix Police Department's own guidelines for traffic citations. He did not ask for a driver's license, car registration or proof of insurance. He did not inform the driver of any traffic violation. In his own words, he simply reached out and grabbed Arriaga and then blamed the victim for "tensing up."

Poole forced Arriaga to the ground.

In court, Poole testified that Arriaga kept yelling throughout the violent struggle: "The two statements I remember during this entire confrontation is [sic], 'Why are you doing this?' and 'What do you want me to do?'"

Poole put Arriaga into a choke hold.

This also violated departmental rules. The escalation of force guidelines used by the police dictate a series of responses before an officer can resort to the deadly carotid artery grip.

Beyond all of the things that Poole imagined about Arriaga's running away, beyond the unprovoked use of deadly force, there are the policeman's contradictory statements to fellow cops.

He gives at least four entirely different accounts over the police radio, to officers arriving on the scene and to the detective investigating the incident.

Poole's widely varying accounts go beyond lying and beg the question: Why did prosecutors take this case to court? Why did Arriaga get sentenced to 10 years and six months in prison?


At first glance, there is a deceptively apparent reason that Luciano Arriaga Jr. went to prison.

As Arriaga and Officer Poole struggled on the ground, the suspect reached out with one hand and grabbed a two-by-four lying nearby. In an awkward motion, Arriaga -- belly in the dirt with the much larger cop on his back -- swung the board blindly over his head in a backward arc.

Poole said the blow "clumped" him. The wound took six stitches to close.

For law enforcement, this is an open-and-shut case of aggravated assault on a police officer. It was open and shut when it happened, and nothing has changed.

Except nothing about this case is open and shut.

Ask law enforcement about all of Poole's paranoid images of Arriaga's flight, his imagined concerns about guns and drugs, the cascade of wildly different stories told to fellow police officers.

Ask and law enforcement has a ready answer.

According to an expert witness for the prosecution, a fellow police officer, everything Poole imagined, every cock-and-bull story he concocted, all of it was simply "the fog of war."

And surely there is some truth in that cliché. But the facts here don't show some mild variation that's easily explained by the stress of combat. You have an innocent citizen who was attacked without cause, according to the officer's own words.

The "fog of war" is not something limited to police officers, either.

Arriaga said he felt himself passing out from the choke hold, and that's when he reached for the two-by-four in desperation.

"I thought I was dying," Arriaga said in a recent interview.

One of Arriaga's best friends was killed by the police in the very same carotid artery choke hold.

Like Arriaga, Eddie Mallet was a kid who liked to rebuild cars. And like Arriaga, Mallet was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

When officers stopped Mallet, a double amputee who'd done nothing wrong, the confrontation ended in a choke hold, and Mallet died. Arriaga spoke at the funeral and carried the casket in 1994.

The death rocked Phoenix, created a huge media outpouring, and ended with the largest civil judgment against the city in its history.

Arriaga had every reason to believe he was next. He almost was. After being clubbed, Poole reached for his gun and testified that he intended to shoot Arriaga in the back of the head.

You would think someone in the prosecutor's office would've examined the facts in this case and walked away.

But you would be wrong.

The county attorney told Arriaga's lawyer before the first trial that unless his client would admit guilt, and do three years in prison as part of a plea agreement, the office would prosecute him for resisting arrest and aggravated assault on a police officer and go for the full 10 years in prison.

Which's exactly what the County Attorney's Office did when Arriaga refused to do jail time.


No one person set out to get Luciano Arriaga Jr. But when you read the thousands of pages in this case, you understand that the system doesn't need a conspiracy to wreak havoc.

It began with a grand jury that issued the original indictment. Detective Newberry's testimony shades Officer Poole's statement just enough to give an impression that's entirely wrong. He informs the grand jury that the cop car's flashing lights were activated before Arriaga turned into the alley, falsely suggesting that Arriaga ignored the flashing signal. The detective told the grand jury that Arriaga attempted to flee the scene.

"The subject then turned around and tried to go further into the alley and into an open gate. At this point, Officer Poole grabbed this subject from behind and they went to the ground," Newberry testified.

In court, Poole would eventually acknowledge that Arriaga never fled.

"I was afraid he was going to run," testified Poole. "But at no time did Mr. Arriaga run from me."

In Arriaga's first trial, he was convicted of resisting arrest, but in a rather startling turn, the jury hung on the question of aggravated assault. The majority of jurors voted to acquit.

And so, prosecutors filed aggravated assault charges a second time. Arriaga was found guilty.

But in the second trial, prosecutors had played a dubious ace. They told the jury that Arriaga was a convicted felon. They neglected to explain that the felony, resisting arrest, stemmed from the same incident.

Arriaga went to prison and began serving the sentence of 10 years and six months. No time off for good behavior, no eligibility of parole.

Even the judge, Crane McClennen, seemed to think it was ridiculous. Following the conviction, McClennen wrote an unusual letter.

Judge McClennen ordered Arriaga to petition the Board of Executive Clemency for a commutation: "[The] sentence the law requires this Court to impose is clearly excessive. [The] Defendant did not rationally pause and contemplate the use of the dangerous instrument or contemplate the possible results of the serious physical injury he might inflict; instead he acted on the spur of the moment fearing for his own well being. [It] was just a struggle that got out of hand. [If] this Court had the discretion, this Court would have considered placing the defendant on probation."

The judge's letter was ignored. The commutation board rejected Arriaga's appeal to have his sentence reduced.

Arriaga stayed in jail.


The same County Attorney's Office that took Arriaga to court also charged Officer Warren Poole with DUI. But if the system went after Arriaga with a vengeance, the same cannot be said of its treatment of Poole.

On October 2, 2001, the Maricopa County Attorney filed two charges against Poole. But prosecutors opted not to file the "extreme DUI" count despite the 0.15 blood test and the accident. Like most first-time defendants, Poole faced a pair of simple Class 1 misdemeanors.

Four months later, on February 6, 2002, when Officer Poole attacked Arriaga, the policeman still had not gone to court. When he did face a judge fully one year after the DUI charges were filed, he caught an unprecedented break.

In his plea agreement, the second charge was dropped altogether, and Poole's wrist was slapped with a fine of slightly more than $400. His license was suspended for 30 days, and for the next 60 days after that he could only drive to work.

But here is the interesting part.

The law calls for, and the judge ordered, Officer Poole to serve 24 hours in jail. This is not a lightly regarded provision of the statute. The population of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Tent City is filled with men and women serving their 24 hours' jail time. When singer Diana Ross was arrested on DUI allegations in Tucson two months after charges were filed against Poole, she had to serve her 24 hours in an Arizona jail cell, despite high-priced legal efforts to avoid incarceration. She was forced to return to Arizona from New England to do her time. There are no exceptions to this statute.

Officer Poole, however, found an exception.

The justice of the peace hearing his case, former Lake Havasu City police chief Victor Wilkins, allowed Officer Poole to serve his 24 hours of jail time at home.

Luciano Arriaga maintained that Poole never should have been driving a squad car after the DUI and the accident. He argued from the start that Poole's driving record ought to have been admitted in his trials.

Judge McClennen disagreed, noting in chambers that the Phoenix Police Department had, after the Arriaga incident, apparently promoted Officer Poole: "There is no indication that that [the DUI] caused him to leave the [street patrol unit]. To the contrary, the indication was he left to go to a different position which was a highly competitive position."

Hell, he wasn't simply kicked upstairs, he was selected by the police department to be a leader of men.

You see, while Officer Poole was indeed transferred out of his beloved SWAT unit (the liability to the city with an officer who chose to be drunk when he was supposed to be on call as a sharpshooter was simply too great), he didn't remain in a patrol car for very long.

After his DUI and accident, after the misconduct investigation revealed he would have been legally drunk when he was scheduled for SWAT team duty, after it was revealed that he lied about Arriaga's traffic stop, after the city knew that he'd attacked a citizen without provocation, after the police department understood that he'd told four different versions of the same confrontation, Officer Warren Poole was promoted to teach recruits the finer points of law enforcement as an instructor at the Police Academy.


After 41 years as a union sheet metal worker, with 29 of those years devoted to teaching apprentices, Luciano Arriaga Sr. retired on February 1, 2002. Five days later, his son was confronted by Officer Poole in the alley.

"What a mess one stupid person has created," said the retiree.

The father had already erected a chain-link fence around a small plot of dirt so that he could begin to build a retirement home for himself and his wife, Lydia.

"We planned this house from way back when," said the father. "I wanted to have a couple of German shepherds, a garden, a few pecan trees. An acre is not that much, but there was plenty of room for our home."

Their son's arrest killed those dreams.

They sold the land to raise money for lawyers and investigators. They also mortgaged the home they'd owned free and clear. They've spent well over $100,000 defending their boy.

The decision to spend every penny to make sure that their son had more than a public defender was hardly a choice. That's clear when you talk to the mother.

"I have never been without Louie," explained Lydia Arriaga of her family life before the arrest. "Both of my boys live at home. I would give my life for them. I don't want them out there in some apartment. Lots of stuff happens in apartments. I tell them, when they find the right girl, they can move out."

Creating a sheltering environment comes naturally to Lydia, a retiree who worked making floral arrangements. Their home radiates an attention to color, harmony and tranquility wherever the eye lands. Her entire life has pointed in the direction of middle-class respectability.

"My parents were very strict with me. No dates, no movies, I could not go downtown. Nothing," said Lydia, describing her childhood in Phoenix. "My husband's parents were the same way. All my life has been planned. I waited five years to have my first kid. I would not get pregnant until I had a home and a roof over my head."

It's not surprising, then, that a threat to one member of this tight-knit family is taken up by all. Once their son was arrested, every lawyer ever associated with this case learned that the parents were part of the defense team. This level of commitment was not without consequences.

The most benign impact happened inside the home, which was turned into a communications post. The parents have written and faxed all of Arizona's legislators, the state's congressional delegation, the governor and a host of minority leaders. The Arriagas have files stuffed with responses of polite nonchalance.

For the Arriagas, this was just more evidence of the dark and uncontrollable world they'd been dragged into. They suddenly noticed that the police were everywhere they looked.

The police showed up at their home to ask Louie's father about an accident involving a car registered to their address. Then Louie's girlfriend, who'd testified in the stop-sign ticket hearing, said that after the citation was thrown out, the police called where she worked repeatedly. After his first trial, Louie arrived home one night and found a motorcycle officer parked across the street who ticketed him for speeding. When Louie argued over the ticket, he was handcuffed in his front yard before being released.

After the Arriagas wiped out their savings and sold off their retirement plot, they refinanced their home last year to stave off the escalating legal bills. Even this simple transaction drew police attention.

A spokesman for Keys Mortgage confirms that Phoenix Police Detective Paul Hill called the mortgage office repeatedly demanding to see the Arriagas' signatures on the new papers, wanting to compare them to the elderly couple's driver's licenses.

"He scared the shit out of me," said the agent, who asked not to be identified. "The first thing you think of was there must be some sort of fraud. I called the Arriagas, and they called a lawyer. After that, I didn't hear from the police department anymore."

After his conviction for aggravated assault in the second trial, Luciano Arriaga Jr. entered prison, and his parents' lives shifted yet more deeply into the criminal justice system.

Over nearly a two-year period, they visited their son at the Buckley Lewis prison every weekend, twice on holiday weekends.

"I hated to go there," said his mother. "You'd meet in this big room, bigger than this entire house. I took $20 in quarters every visit for the vending machines. You had to have a clear purse that the guards could see through. I got mine at Wal-Mart."

She still has the plastic change carrier.

"He'd be dressed in orange tee shirt, orange trousers, tennis shoes," remembered his father. "In the winter, he had an orange jacket." As if it wasn't difficult enough seeing their son in prison garb, the Arriagas soon found themselves targeted once again.

On Memorial Day weekend last year, contraband dogs at the prison honed in upon the father. This happened twice, and the warden banned Louie's dad.

Today, a year later, the father is still outraged.

"I worked at Palo Verde nuclear plant," said the senior Arriaga. "I took drug tests all the time. I passed FBI screening. I've never done drugs in my life, and I never will. I am willing to take tests 24/7."

After he'd served just short of two years in prison, Luciano Arriaga Jr. was notified by the appellate court that he'd won a new trial. He was released from custody on October 29, 2004, the 43rd wedding anniversary of his mom and dad.

The memory of receiving the news that Louie was coming home made both parents smile.


Louie did not become a sheet metal worker like his dad, and his parents could see why. Cars . . . even as a toddler, it was all about cars.

"He had a bunch of Matchbox cars all lined up in the sand," said his mother. "He couldn't have been more than 3 or 4 years old. I'll bet he had 50 of them. He needs to take a bath, so his dad goes out [to bring him inside]. You could hear this little kid screaming. He wanted to be with his cars. And he was so strong-willed."

A passion for cars and a will of steel merged with another instinct, a refusal to back down. These elements shaped Arriaga's character. These were the things Officer Poole couldn't know. Not gang affiliation, or guns or drugs.

His parents recall proudly that after joining a boxing club as a youngster, Luciano Jr. learned to stand up to neighborhood bullies.

He was in that fateful alley on a Sunday morning because he had an errand at a local body shop. Growing up in Maryvale, he had fallen in love with low-riders.

"If you wanted a hot chick, you had to have a hot ride," Arriaga explained recently.

In the early '80s, when he attended Maryvale High School, the campus was open, and, at lunch, kids fled school and cruised the neighborhood.

"The Spirit Car Club was the biggest in Phoenix at the time. You had clubs that only had '77 to '79 Cadillacs, Lincoln Mark Vs or Pontiac Bonnevilles. The Monte Image was all Monte Carlos," Arriaga recalled.

Friends taught him how to install hydraulic lifts so that cars could hop. For years, Arriaga supported himself doing custom installations for guys who were on the car-show circuit or who simply wanted to strut their street style.

His customers and his friends caught the eye of the police.

"They singled us out as gangsters, guys with guns, drugs or beer."

As a kid, Arriaga was arrested twice for aggravated assault. This rap sheet would've been devastating if it had been admitted in court, but the judge denied its entry into evidence because of his youthful age at the time of the arrests and because the charges were dropped.

But the previous incidents are revealing. In one report, the police said Arriaga was drag racing on Central Avenue in 1986 and tried to run down a police officer. Arriaga admitted in the recent interview that he shouldn't have been drag racing. But he denied ever trying to hit a cop. He said an officer who'd pulled another kid over had stepped out into the street and hit Arriaga's car with his flashlight as it raced past, injuring his hand. Arriaga pleaded to a misdemeanor when the agg assault charge was dropped.

In a second arrest, in 1992, the police report noted that Arriaga violently refused to allow an officer to frisk him. The police were looking for guys spray-painting on the west side. The report noted that, as a cop attempted to frisk Arriaga, he "knocked his hand away." Twice.

Not only did Arriaga deny this in a recent interview, but a witness to the incident said the police clearly jumped Luciano.

"I was outside watering my yard," said Luke Church. "I saw the whole thing. The cops pulled up in a car and started questioning this kid. It just seemed they jumped on him. I didn't see him act aggressive. They were talking for a few minutes, and then the police just were on him, shoving him."

Did Arriaga slap the officer's hand away?

"No," said Church. "I didn't see him motion toward them or strike them."

Church, who didn't know Arriaga at the time, said he's since moved into a new neighborhood. At the time of the arrest, he recalls, Maryvale was the center of intense police scrutiny because of gang activity.

"You saw cops all the time, which wasn't a bad thing," recalled Church. But, he added, they could be very aggressive.

You get a kid who's charged with aggravated assault for slapping an officer's hand -- and falsely charged, at that -- and you will have a kid with an attitude.

The level of outrage that Arriaga and his parents feel over what happened with Officer Poole cannot be overstated.

After the first trial ended with a hung jury on the aggravated assault charge, prosecutors approached Arriaga's lawyer. They offered a plea agreement that stipulated no jail, simply probation, if he would plead guilty to a lesser charge and pay a fine. His lawyer at the time endorsed the settlement.

Arriaga absolutely refused to consider the deal.

Both parents were also adamant.

"If a man is innocent, why should he plea bargain?" asked his father recently.

Arriaga endured two trials, appellate court, a commutation hearing, and traffic court, not to mention prison. His family paid for two private investigators and five lawyers -- more than $130,000, by their estimate. His parents' dreams of retirement were shattered.

All of that agony is on the line as the trial is scheduled to begin as this article hits the streets. If Arriaga loses again, he will go back to prison to finish his 10 years.

Prosecutors were getting ready to offer the Arriagas a third deal to avoid another costly trial when tragedy intervened offstage. Surely, prosecutors reasoned, the death of a police officer killed after a traffic stop would make it clear to the Arriagas that they would be tempting fate to insist on another trial.

This development came about last month when potential jurors and all of Arizona were reminded once again that an officer never knows who he's pulling over when he turns on those flashing lights.

Two methamphetamine dealers shot Officer David Uribe in the head and neck on May 10 after he approached their car. Thousands of mourners packed the church for the funeral service, which dominated the news. The funeral procession was estimated at 24 miles long.

Citizens throughout the state sat transfixed in front of their television sets as bagpipes played at the service. A flight of helicopters flew past in the slain officer's honor. Over the police radio, a dispatcher could be heard summoning Officer Uribe to his graveside.

"This is the last call for Officer David Uribe, Number 4276. . . . Goodnight, sir. You will be deeply missed."

Arriaga's lawyer will never find jurors who weren't touched by the haunting tribute to Officer Uribe. And it was in this volatile atmosphere that prosecutors suggested the way out for everybody.

And yet Arriaga still refused to consider the prosecution's last offer two weeks ago to plead guilty to a lesser charge and walk free on probation.

Arriaga's attorney, Chad Shell, thought it was a reasonable offer, but the family and the victim's sense of outrage trumped a safe choice.

"The city should have accepted responsibility for allowing a discredited police officer to patrol," said Arriaga recently. "I'm going to put up a Web site. We can do this the easy way or the hard way. I ain't signing nothing. They need to back off and leave me alone. I need to get paid. I ain't going away until I get paid. I need to get my money back."

Arriaga has filed a civil suit against the city and the police department seeking unspecified damages.


As you drive around the Valley of the Sun, you can't help but stumble across a song on the radio that celebrates cars and the freedom they represent.

Cars seduced Luciano Arriaga Jr. at a tender age. He particularly liked the kinds of rides that celebrated La Vida. As he closes in on 40 years old, cars are still at the center of his life. Freed from prison, he resumed towing custom low-rider cars to competitive shows.

Facing a 10-year prison sentence, he remains defiant. Is anyone in a Springsteen song more defiant?

His lawyers think he's crazy.

But really, what else could Luciano Arriaga do? Qué corazón.

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1 comments
arizona
arizona

anyone who lives here in phoenix can honestly agree that the justice system and/or police department rarely can be considered fair and just. and once you try to challenge them against a wrongful coviction your everyday lives suddenly gets severly scutinized and investigated. sure there are bad guys out there but if your innocent should'nt you be innocent even if the guilty wrong doer is a policeman?

 
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