By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
HATE SQUAD ON HOLD
I'm not sure which news emanating from the Phoenix Police Department is more disturbing: the fact that hate crimes were up nearly 30 percent in Phoenix in 2009 from 2008, or that PPD muck-a-mucks have decided to do away with their most effective tool in tackling white supremacists and others who commit hate crimes, the Career Criminal Squad.
The stats I recently obtained from the Phoenix PD for 2009 tell a frightening tale, even more chilling for the fact that nearly all experts in such matters will tell you that hate crimes go largely unreported.
In 2009, there were 115 crimes categorized as bias-related by the PPD, most of them perpetrated against blacks and Hispanics. This is up from 89 reported to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program in 2008. The trend is upward for hate crimes in Phoenix. In 2007, 80 hate crimes were reported.
The 2008 numbers reflected an 11.25 percent increase. The 2009 numbers, a 29.21 percent increase over 2008.
Although the Phoenix PD has a Bias Crimes Unit, the reality is that the unit is reactive, not proactive. Nor does Bias Crimes go undercover to solve crimes and bring the perps to justice. For the two years, that responsibility has lain with the Career Criminal Squad, a unit of four detectives and one sergeant operating out of the department's Major Offender Bureau.
The CCS was formed in 2008 by Lieutenant Heston Silbert, then serving under MOB Commander Frank Milstead. (Silbert now serves as the head of the Phoenix PD's Ahwatukee-Foothills substation.)
Milstead's name may be familiar to you as the newly appointed chief of the Mesa Police Department. The men in the CCS are hand-selected law enforcement veterans. Their mission has been to go after street-level violent crimes committed by the likes of white supremacists and neo-Nazi skinheads.
Since 2008, CCS detectives have been involved in 400 investigations resulting in 150 felony arrests, the issuance of 53 search warrants, and 180 weapons and explosives seized.
But the stats do not begin to describe the amount of work done by the small squad, which was informed last week that it will be disbanded by April 5 as a cost-cutting measure. This, barring an about-face by Public Safety Manager Jack Harris.
The squad has become legendary for breathing life into cold cases. One of those involved a wolf pack of white supremacists, including a lowlife named Chad Kerns, a neo-Nazi so devoted to the cause of white supremacy that he has Adolf Hitler's face tattooed over his heart.
In 2007, Kerns and about four or five other racist skinheads participated in two brutal attacks: one on a Hispanic man wearing an anti-Nazi T-shirt at the Phoenix bar Rogue West; the other on a black man outside a Walgreen's at 34th Avenue and Dunlap.
They jumped the Hispanic man, beat and punched him, and cracked him with a bar stool, leaving him with gaping wound on his head.
The black man nearly lost his life. Kerns pulled a knife and stabbed him twice, puncturing his bowel and injuring his liver. Earlier, Kerns' white supremacist pals had called the man a "fucking nigger."
Five men involved in these attacks were prosecuted, with Kerns getting the most time. Were it not for the CCS, Kerns would not be stewing in the state pen for 10 years. Before CCS picked it up, the case was deader than George Lincoln Rockwell.
This is but one case in which the CCS has proactively built cases against those committing hate crimes. Another involved an attack on a Hispanic gay man by members of the Duppa Villa Projects Gang outside a gay bar in Phoenix.
Though the ringleader, Thomas Mitchell, was arrested at the scene, the charges were later dropped. A member of the CCS followed up with the victim and found that the gang members were looking to rob him of his wallet, as well as beat him down. The case was re-filed because of CCS' work.
Mitchell told investigators that he "just hates faggots," according to court records, and that he and his "homies" had sought out a gay man to assault and rob. Mitchell ended up pleading guilty and pulling 4½ years in prison.
There are numerous other examples, like neo-Nazis the squad's busted on weapons charges, taking them off the streets for years at a time.
In addition, the squad has worked various murder-for-hire cases, everything from the case of Cigar Warehouse chain owner Dimitri Rozenman, currently on trial for allegedly seeking a hit on his wife, to that of David Elms, owner of an Internet prostitute-rating biz called the Erotic Review, accused of seeking a hit on a 32-year-old woman.
With this sort of productivity, why would the Phoenix PD even consider ridding itself of the unit?
Commander Charles Miller, a spokesman for the department, explained that the squad would be disbanded because of budget cuts requested by the Phoenix City Manager's Office.
The men themselves would be reassigned within the department, perhaps even sent back to patrol. He insisted that their current functions would remain the responsibility of the Major Offender Bureau, but he could not say how these jobs would get done.
"I could not tell you," he said, "that there's going to be a dedicated squad of five people that'll be going after white supremacy or hate-group stuff, those types of things."
That's disappointing news to Bill Straus, regional director of then Arizona ADL, who says he recently met with Phoenix PD higher-ups, such as Assistant Chief Joe Yahner, to argue that the squad should remain.
"They told me the work would be done by someone else," explained Straus of the meeting. "But the fact is, we've got a squad that's put it all together . . . If it's not broke, don't fix it. That's my opinion."
Straus is not the squad's only supporter. Former MOB commander and Mesa Police Chief Milstead is another. In fact, Milstead's so keen on the work of the CCS that he wants to create a unit like it in the Mesa PD to investigate the same sorts of crimes.
"They're very highly skilled guys," Milstead said. "They work tirelessly on these cases.
"Not only is it a necessity for any major city to have a squad that deals with [such offenders]," he continued, "but as large as the Phoenix Police Department is, it seems there would be some way to save [the Career Criminal Squad], looking at all of the things that [it's] doing."
There's no doubt that the squad eats up overtime. Hunting down such criminals can require hours of undercover surveillance.
But the CCS has a sponsor, of sorts, in the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, which is currently partnering with the squad on scores of cases. According to ATF spokesman Tom Mangan, the ATF is helping pay for CCS overtime, as well as offering money to do gun buys, and giving other crucial support.
"We want to target the worst of the worst," said Mangan of ATF's involvement, explaining that many of the criminals CCS chases end up purchasing firearms, thus falling into the ATF's purview.
"These aren't traffic offenses," explained Mangan. "These [criminals] are the people who are going to crawl into your bedroom window in the middle of the night."
Add to this support the fact that the Phoenix City Council recently passed a 2-cent sales tax on food, ostensibly to protect positions like these in the CCS. Phoenix cops have also taken a 3.2 percent pay cut as a concession to the city's budget woes.
If disbanding the CCS seems inexplicable, Commander Miller at least offered up the possibility of a reversal.
"Between now and April 5, when this new budget comes on line, anything can happen," he acknowledged. "We've got three weeks to see if something shakes out."
A trip to Goodyear's Perryville Prison can be a deceiving experience. On any given Sunday, family members visit moms, sisters, and daughters warehoused at Perryville. The female convicts in their orange jumpsuits seem happy for the respite from serving their time, short-lived though it may be.
Even Courtney Bisbee, who is doing 11 years on bogus child-molestation charges detailed in my October 2008 New Times cover story "Nursing Injustice," seems pleasant and untroubled at times, even though she's still fighting to clear her name.
In 2006, Bisbee, then a school nurse, was convicted in a bench trial of touching 13-year-old Jon Valles inappropriately. The case of he said/she said was heard by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Warren Granville.
Granville believed Bisbee's accuser. But Jon's brother Nik Valles — a key prosecution witness — has since recanted his testimony, saying his mother put Jon up to lie on the stand.
Still, despite a petition for post-conviction relief, which documented many of the problems of the case and introduced new evidence arguing for Bisbee's innocence, Granville refused to reverse his finding of guilt. Bisbee's challenging his ruling before the Court of Appeals, asking for a new hearing, possibly a new trial.
The appeals court probably will rule on Bisbee's challenge later this year. Meanwhile, Bisbee waits and fights in court to have a relationship with her daughter, Taylor Lee, who lives with her father and has had no contact with her imprisoned mother or her maternal grandparents for more than four years now.
If Taylor Lee ever sees her mother again, Bisbee will look different. Not only will she be older, there may well be a 2½-inch scar running from her scalp to her left eyebrow.
The gash, which is on the mend, went all the way to her skull, severing muscle and causing nerve damage. Bisbee suffered it March 1, as she was putting away equipment from an aerobics class she teaches at Perryville.
Another inmate, whom Bisbee had not dealt with before, called her from behind. Bisbee turned and was immediately punched in the face. Bisbee's assailant then grabbed her and flung her off her feet and into a metal door, opening up a gaping head wound. Bisbee was treated with 11 stitches at a hospital.
Two weeks later, when I visited her at Perryville, Bisbee's eye was still bruised and swollen, and the head wound was shockingly thick.
"They were big stitches, not the little kind," Bisbee said, pulling back a lock of hair to show me. Bisbee explained that the doctors wanted room for the wound to drain.
Though she was given painkillers at the hospital and was prescribed more, she says she's received none in prison. The left side of her scalp is still numb from the injury, she says, and she has painful headaches. Her left eye is also sensitive to light, and her eyesight has not fully recovered.
But she's more concerned about receiving the prescribed ointment Mederma, which is supposed to lessen scarring. This, too, prison authorities have withheld, though Bisbee's parents are willing to pay for it.
She playfully chastises her mother, Camille Tilley, for referring to the wound as a "Frankenstein scar" in an e-mail to Bisbee's hundreds of supporters. The wound might fit the description if Bisbee's bangs didn't hide it.
Fortunately, the attack on Bisbee was carried out in plain view of a Perryville guard, who immediately arrested the other inmate.
Why was she attacked? The scuttlebutt is that her assailant wanted to be written up and transferred to a high-security yard, where the assailant's girlfriend was assigned.
Bisbee says she gets along with most of the other inmates but says there is a small group whose members might think badly of her because she maintains her innocence.
"I don't fit in," she told me. "It's like I have one foot in this world, and one foot in the outside world."
Bisbee contends she's "feisty" and can tough out the situation. She doesn't have much choice.
The recent attack should light a fire under those who believe she's innocent and, at the very least, deserves a new trial. Until she's released, all those concerned for justice in her case can only hope for her safety.