A Deputy's Death Opens the Door Onto a World Corruption in Sheriff Joe's MCSO
If there never had been a monitor appointed by Judge G. Murray Snow in the ACLU's big civil rights case, Melendres v. Arpaio, it's unlikely that we would know as much as we do about late MCSO Detective Ramon Charley Armendariz.
And yet, Armendariz, who the Sheriff's Office says took his own life by hanging May 8, remains a riddle, even as he points in death toward a panoply of grotesque corruption.
The 40-year-old was a member of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's infamous Human Smuggling Unit and trained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement under the so-called 287(g) program, back in the days when the federal government had given de facto approval to Arpaio's transformation of the MCSO into a mini-version of ICE.
Armendariz, an El Paso native who proudly stated in court that his first language was Spanish, participated in several of Arpaio's immigrant-hunting sweeps.
See, Armendariz testified during the 2012 Melendres civil trial, mainly because he was involved, indirectly, in the detention of Manuel Nieto Jr. and his sister Velia Meraz during a March 2008 immigration sweep in Cave Creek.
Armendariz got into a verbal confrontation with Nieto and Meraz, both American citizens, while Armendariz had two men cuffed in the parking lot of a convenience store.
Nieto and Meraz say the Mexican music blaring from their van was what drew Armendariz's attention to them. Armendariz called for backup and signaled to other cops to follow the pair after they obeyed his order to leave.
MCSO deputies stopped the van in front of the auto-repair business owned by the pair's father, drawing their weapons and pointing them at Nieto, whom they roughly pulled from the car.
The deputies eventually left without citing the pair, who later became plaintiffs in the Melendres suit.
Asked during the trial why he thought the MCSO arrested a high number of Latinos, Armendariz answered that it had to do with Arizona's being a "Latino state" and that "the majority of our population is Latino."
Currently, the total Latino population of Arizona is a little more than 30 percent.
Why were his pull-over rates so high, compared to some other deputies, plaintiff's counsel wondered?
It had to do with his "high work ethic," Armendariz replied.
Evidently, Armendariz was prolific in other areas as well.
On April 30, the Phoenix Police Department answered a residential-burglary call at Armendariz's home, according to paperwork on file in Maricopa County Superior Court.
They found Armendariz in his boxer shorts firing a pepper-ball launcher at imaginary intruders in his garage.
The PPD alerted the MCSO, whose detectives saw marijuana and drug paraphernalia in an MCSO evidence bag, according to an account filed with the search warrant.
While Armendariz was taken to a hospital for an evaluation, the MCSO searched his home, uncovering property bags containing what's believed to be cocaine, meth, heroin, and LSD.
There were multiple boxes of criminal citations, with evidence bags never submitted to the court.
Some of the bags bore Armendariz's name and dated back to 2007, when he became a deputy. There also were more than 100 license plates "from unknown vehicles" and "hundreds" of driver's licenses, ID cards, passports, credit cards, and wallets.
It's been speculated that Armendariz shook down illegal immigrants and that other MCSO deputies also were involved.
In separate closed-door sessions, Arpaio's lawyers informed Judge Snow of Armendariz's arrest on drug charges, his suicide after his release, and of a find that directly involves the Melendres case: about 540 video discs containing some 900 hours of footage shot by Armedariz during traffic stops in which he was involved.
Armendariz used both a dashboard camera in his patrol vehicle and an eyeglass camera to record stops. MCSO attorney Tim Casey showed a couple of the videos to the court as examples.
One video, which Casey labeled "problematic," showed Armendariz drawing his gun and pointing it at the passenger of a vehicle he had just stopped. This, according to ACLU attorney Dan Pochoda, who was there when the video was played.
Pochoda says it wasn't apparent what the stop was for but that the couple in the car were Caucasian, and Armendariz had asked to see their IDs. The male on the passenger's side began to get up when Armendariz pulled his weapon.
"You're looking down his arm, with his pistol in his hand," said Pochoda, describing for New Times what he saw, "with the guy three feet in front of him, facing the barrel of a pistol, and there was not the slightest indication of a reason for drawing the gun."
Pochoda says Armendariz told the man he had to assume that he had a gun, a line similar to one he used in testimony during Melendres. The unnecessary escalation of an otherwise routine situation also reminded Pochoda of the incident with Nieto and Meraz.
Armendariz, however, was not the only deputy filming his stops, as Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan told Snow during a May 14 closed-door hearing that since has been unsealed.
The chief deputy advised the court that the MCSO knew its officers were recording stops, some with dash cams and body cams issued by the department at various times and also possibly with department-issued audio recorders.
Sheridan confirmed Snow's observation that "the MCSO had no policy relating to the self-recording of traffic stops by deputies." As for eyeglass cams, deputies were allowed to use them.
What about all the evidence from these portable cameras used by deputies? Sheridan had to confess he did not know what happened to it.
Years before Snow ruled against the MCSO in Melendres, finding the department guilty of racially profiling Hispanics, the plaintiffs issued a litigation hold, demanding all evidence related to traffic stops involving Latinos.
Snow sanctioned the MCSO in 2010 over the fact that it withheld some information and destroyed vast amounts of documents from the sweeps.
On May 14, Snow ordered that Sheridan and court monitor Robert Warshaw quietly attempt to collect any video that was out there while the issue was still under seal.
But in a May 16 hearing, it was revealed that Deputy Chief David Trombi had given a heads-up "to certain advisory personnel" that a collection of traffic-stop video was under way, thus "frustrating" the plan to quietly round up the video.
Without declaring whether Trombi's action was done with malice, Snow ordered that all the material discovered thus far be turned over to both the U.S. Attorney's Office and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.
As this column is published, the MCSO's investigation of itself proceeds, under the monitor's watchful eye.
Interestingly, I've also been told that before his death, Armendariz approached a local activist with contacts at the U.S. Department of Justice, looking to spill some beans.
Local attorneys were approached about representing Armendariz, but none took the case because of various conflicts.
At one point during the May 16 hearing, Snow remarked that his order to turn over the material to federal and county law enforcement "has the benefit of protecting MCSO from itself."
But as we follow the skein left by Armendariz, I can't help wondering whether the MCSO's current leadership is traipsing down a self-destructive path of its own, a path beaten by Armendariz.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.