ARIZONA'S OWN J. EDGAR HOOVER
Officers Ruben Ortega and Ralph Milstead walked into the Bridge Tavern one afternoon to arrest a small-time addict for a burglary he had committed to finance his habit.
In years to follow, Ortega and Milstead would become two of the most powerful law enforcement figures in Arizona, heading the Phoenix Police Department and state Department of Public Safety, respectively.
But on that day in 1962, they were still neophyte lawmen, beat officers serving a warrant in the city's underbelly. The Bridge Tavern sat on Central Avenue just north of the Salt River, a mean escape beckoning derelicts from the cheap hotels and street camps that grew on the south face of downtown like Rasputin's beard.
The officers found their man on the pay phone, handcuffed him and were leading him out when a large patron--a roofer, Milstead recalls--stepped down from his bar stool and blocked their way.
The cops had picked up the roofer's coat, thinking it belonged to their suspect, Milstead says. The roofer, in no condition to enunciate his complaint, informed Ortega that the officers weren't going anywhere. Ortega told the man to move. He did not.
"So Ruben hits him smack in the face," Milstead recalls. "There was no hesitation. No discussion. Whack. All of a sudden, we've got a helluva fight going on."
As Ortega, Milstead and the roofer slugged it out in a pile on the barroom floor--with 20 or so afternoon drinkers cheering for the roofer--the handcuffed suspect fled out the front door. He was running south, across the Central Avenue Bridge, when he was rearrested by officers rushing in to quell the barroom brawl.
Thirty years later, Milstead recounts the story with the fondness some men might reserve for memories of their first car. He wasn't averse to a good fight, he says, he just wished his partner "would have given me some warning before he smacked the guy.
"But that was his style, right in your face," Milstead says. "He's not going to take shit from anyone. Ruben is a forceful person taken to direct action."
Many would learn that same lesson in the next three decades. And many would pay a painful price for stepping in the way of the man who became Arizona's own J. Edgar Hoover.
Ascending to the chief's job in 1980, Ortega controlled law enforcement in the state's largest city for 11 years. Two years ago, he resigned in a huff following criticism of his role in the loosely controlled AzScam political-corruption sting. Ortega recently became police chief in Salt Lake City, and did not return telephone calls seeking comment for this story.
During his tenure in Phoenix, Ortega established a pattern of hitting, hard and fast, those who challenged him. He became, by many accounts, the most powerful and feared man in town.
Although there were whispers and rumors throughout his reign--about unexplained wiretaps, secret vendettas and alleged dossiers on public officials--the full picture of Ortega's grasp on Phoenix is still emerging.
As his shadow recedes from the political skyline, only now will some of Ortega's targets talk about what happened to them when they crossed the chief.
Among other things, New Times has learned that:
Under Ortega, the department's internal affairs division--which is supposed to investigate alleged wrongdoing by police officers--was used to investigate civilians who were outspoken or politically at odds with the chief. One target was Jane McElfresh, a private investigator and former member of the city Civil Service Board, who learned that her friendships and dating habits were scrutinized.
Ortega bragged to at least one woman, now a state legislator, that the department maintained files on prominent citizens. "He said to me . . . you wouldn't believe the information we have in our files, or the extent to which we have information on prominent people in this city and this state," says Representative Susan Gerard. "When someone makes a comment like that to you, you remember it."
At least twice, Ortega enlisted the aid of the state Department of Public Safety, headed by his former partner Milstead, to investigate his foes, including New Times Executive Editor Michael Lacey, who had written columns critical of Ortega's tactics.
Although almost $2 million in judgments against the city were awarded to officers wrongly disciplined by Ortega, city leaders apparently never investigated his management of the department. In fact, his behavior largely went unchecked by the city manager and elected officials to whom he was presumably accountable.
Outspoken cops, union officers, journalists, minority and gay-rights advocates--anyone who crossed Ortega--risked the wrath of a man whose power could destroy lives and call down public humiliation upon his adversaries.
Virtually unchallenged by the daily press, the longtime chief presided over what many describe as one of the "scariest" periods in Phoenix history, a time when criticizing the chief was an invitation to be investigated.
"Paranoia is only a disease if they're not out to get you," says Mike Bielecki, a firefighters'lobbyist who watched Ortega at close quarters for years. "He was an unregulated police force. Nobody would challenge him."
Says one former city councilmember: "Everybody was just afraid of him. Rumors were rampant that he had hot files with everybody's life on record. He ran the police department for too long, he began to think of it as his. And that's dangerous for somebody with an armed force."
@body:Although he was a scrapper on the streets, Ruben Ortega spent little of his 31-year Phoenix career in the grind of daily police work. Promoted to sergeant in 1967, seven years after joining the force, the ambitious officer began working his way up the department ladder, moving ever farther from the rank and file.
The bulk of Ortega's career was spent in community relations, acting as the department's spokesman and emissary, mingling with elected officials, civic leaders and the press, trying to cast the police, and himself, in the best public light.
"I never heard of Ortega [at the time]," says Gordon Lange, who was president of the police union, the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, when Ortega was named chief in 1980. Lange would become one of the new chief's first targets. "I don't remember him as ever doing any type of field supervisory work. In fact, when I was president and they were thinking of making Ortega chief, I had to ask around to see who he was."
Lange and the police union would soon know all too well who Ortega was. The movers and shakers of Phoenix already did, observers say.
Ortega had spent years ingratiating himself with the Phoenix 40, Chamber of Commerce, leading business people and civic leaders, say many who watched Ortega's star rise.
When then-chief Larry Wetzel stepped down in 1980, Ortega was one of nine finalists for the top post. He ascended just as the balance of power in Phoenix was teetering between the old guard and a new order. Labor unions--for police, firefighters and other city workers--had won the power of collective bargaining.
The decades-old system of electing city councilmembers at large--a system effectively ensuring that a small group of business people controlled City Hall--was under attack. The growing influence of the firefighters and police unions would soon play a key role in replacing the at-large council system with single-member district elections. The blossoming populism threatened the very roots of the power tree Ortega was climbing.
The first showdown between the new chief and the unions came in early 1982, in the aftermath of what by now is the Phoenix Police Department's most storied going-away party.
Early on February 27, 1982, six police officers, two sergeants and one civilian tagalong gathered under the Seventh Avenue bridge near downtown--just seven blocks from where Ruben Ortega had punched a roofer 20 years before--to hoist a few beers and toast the impending transfer of Sergeant Jerry Giffin to a new post. The party's lubricants--beer and a bottle of Scotch--had been purchased after hours from a liquor store owner who would sell to cops after legal closing time.
As the party progressed, some of the officers threw their empty beer bottles into the nearby vacant lots and urinated under the bridge. At least two of the officers noticed a transient sleeping in the back seat of his car nearby. The two officers tried to convince the transient to leave, testimony would show. They harassed the man, spraying Mace on his car, letting the air out of his tires and eventually prompting him to flee and call the police for help, according to records of the case.
Ortega's reaction to the party would come to define his years of combat with critics and his own officers.
By late the next afternoon, without waiting for his internal affairs department to finish its investigation, Ortega had ordered that separation papers be drawn up for seven of the officers. Ortega publicly branded the men, who became known as the Seventh Avenue Seven, as a band of drunken thugs unfit to serve on the force.
The problem, later testimony would reveal, was that not all of the officers had participated in, or even been aware of, what was being done to the transient. After-hours liquor purchases, though illegal, were not uncommon within the department, nor were early morning parties in abandoned sections of town.
Three years later, after appeals and court cases, Ortega's decision to fire the seven men was reversed by the city's Civil Service Board, which reviews appeals by city employees of disciplinary action. All of the officers were reinstated, after the board found that Ortega's firing decision had been arbitrary.
But the seven officers paid a heavy price for enraging the chief. "It brought my career to a screeching halt," says Giffin, who retired from the force in 1991 still a sergeant. "Prior to that, I had a good shot at a career path within the department. I would have made some more rank. And my personal reputation went down the drain with that incident. Regardless of how much vindication you get, once the headlines declare such and such, that's the image a whole lot of people are going to keep."
In addition to getting their jobs back, Giffin and fellow Sergeant Murl King won an $800,000 judgment against the city after suing Ortega for slander.
Giffin, who now works for the sheriff's department, says Ortega "overreacted . . . One theory is that, in the interest of grabbing headlines, he decided to make a statement at seven cops' expense."
The Seventh Avenue Seven case won Ortega headlines. It also plunged the chief into a vicious battle against the police and firefighters unions, which sprang to the defense of the fired officers.
Ultimately, the presidents of both unions would be indicted on dubious criminal charges, of which they were later cleared, and the city's fire chief would find himself under investigation.
@body:During the 1980s, politics inextricably linked the firefighters and police unions in a joint battle with the city power structure, even as Ortega was assuming his place in it.
It had only been a few years since city labor groups had won the right to collective bargaining, and relations were still tense between the police chief and the union (PLEA).
The unions, most notably the firefighters, were working for passage of a ballot initiative that would require city councilmembers to be elected from districts, instead of at large.
Gordon Lange was PLEA president, one of the original founders of the fledgling union that had only recently bested the old-line Fraternal Order of Police to become the bargaining agent for officers.
Pat Cantelme headed the firefighters union and was a rising political star, a man many believed could someday win the mayor's seat.
Ortega's mass firings in the Seventh Avenue Seven case galvanized PLEA, and Cantelme jumped into the fray.
Unionists saw the hasty dismissals as "another incident of Chief Ortega losing his temper," Lange recalls. "There's a complaint, and the next day we've got guys that are arbitrarily fired. There's really no investigation that we can see."
Two union officers--grievance chairman Mike Petchel and newsletter editor Joe Petrosino--wrote articles criticizing the chief's handling of the case in the union newsletter. Ortega threatened to fire both of them, too.
When Lange tried to discuss the situation with Ortega, his job was also threatened.
Lange says he tried to tell Ortega that the First Amendment protected the officers from being fired for expressing their views. "The bottom line in that meeting was I said, 'We're going to go to battle over this issue.' I said he could not fire our editor for what was said in that paper just because he didn't like what was said," Lange recalls. "Then he made the statement that, by the end of the year, either him or I was going to go over this issue."
Ultimately Lange would go--fired over charges that later proved untrue.
At the time of the Seventh Avenue Seven case, Lange and other union leaders called for a march on police headquarters to protest Ortega's dismissal of the officers and his threats against Petchel and Petrosino. Several hundred officers gathered one Saturday for an unprecedented show of union strength in Phoenix.
They rallied at the American Legion Hall on Seventh Avenue near downtown, then marched to the police building. Lange walked at the head of the march. Joining him, in a show of support, was firefighter Cantelme.
"Ruben was sitting on the top floor [of the police station] and he saw this union march going to the police headquarters and he just went livid," says Duane Pell, former city councilmember and one of the founders of the firefighters' labor movement. "He was going to put a stop to that."
It did not take long for Ortega's wrath to rain down on the unions and the fire department.
The vote on single-member district elections was approaching in 1982 when, out of the blue, more than a dozen firefighters--including Cantelme--were arrested on cocaine charges.
"The headlines were firefighters involved in major drug trafficking, a system of drug trafficking that, because of the convenient location of fire stations throughout the city, made perfect locations for firefighters to distribute cocaine," says Pell, describing the allegations.
Most of the firefighters were cleared and no major drug ring was ever found. Cantelme's case, based on a thin allegation that someone may have once seen him present when cocaine was being used, was never even brought to trial, even though Cantelme demanded a trial to clear his name.
Cantelme retained his union post, but his political star was forever tarnished.
Despite the preelection assault on the firefighters' union, city voters approved the new council-election system. However, it would prove little threat to Ortega's power. He would continue to pursue charges against Cantelme in the future. Failing to nail Cantelme at the time, Ortega turned his sights on Fire Chief Al Brunacini.
Unlike the police chief, who left the streets for administration early in his career, Brunacini spent years sweating his way up through the fire ranks. Brunacini was respected by his men, and enjoyed a friendly relationship with the firefighters' union. (Brunacini later would author one of the nation's definitive textbooks on fire command.)
The fire department handled its problems pretty much in-house, observers say, because of the natural rapport between Brunacini and his men.
"Ruben couldn't handle that," says Pell. "He thought that was the most terrible thing in the world, that management would even sit down and allow employees to have any input into discipline or whatever else the problem was."
Getting along with the unions was not a popular stance with Ortega and his old-line backers, Pell and others say. Ortega set out to show that he could play hardball not only with his own union, but with union sympathizer Brunacini as well.
"Because of the sentiment of the city, not wanting the unions to get too strong, Ortega kind of took it upon himself to bust the unions," Pell says.
Police suddenly developed a mystifying curiosity about the contents of the fire chief's garage. Years before Ortega became chief, Brunacini had purchased a surplus fire truck from the city. It was a 1952 Mack, the truck Brunacini had first worked on when he joined the department. Firefighters can be sentimental in odd ways, and Brunacini waited for the truck to come up for auction when the city no longer needed it. He paid $500 for it, and brought it home.
Ten years later, Brunacini found himself the target of a police investigation into his purchase of the truck and other surplus equipment he had bought for his memorabilia collection.
"He [Ortega] was grasping at every straw he could possibly find to nail anybody connected to the fire department," says Pell.
Upon learning that he was under investigation, Brunacini says, he gathered up the paperwork showing what he'd bought and when he'd bought it and took it to Ortega personally.
"I went in to the chief and showed him all the documentation I had on the truck," Brunacini recalls. "I bought it in a very open kind of way. Hell, how do you hide a fire truck? Goddamn, it's 26 feet long."
Nonetheless, Brunacini says, investigators spent months on the case. Fire department records were scrutinized. Police used a search warrant to raid the workshop where Brunacini kept the truck. The fire chief and some of his men were followed by police.
Although he had to hire an attorney and endure months of scrutiny, Brunacini says, no charges were ever filed in the case.
Brunacini believes he was targeted solely because he headed the fire department. "I don't think Chief Ortega had much admiration for the Phoenix Fire Department or the union . . . He didn't make any secret of that.
"I didn't realize how much discretionary power that police chief has, and you don't know that until it's directed toward you."
A few months later, Gordon Lange learned that lesson also. He was driven from his union post for good and fired from the police department after another months-long police investigation spawned a curious fraud charge against him.
As part of its normal fund-raising activities, PLEA used telephone solicitors to sell advertising in its newsletter or hustle tickets for police functions. At times, the union would donate some of the proceeds from its telephone bank to Silent Witness, the anonymous-informant program, and telephone solicitors would tell potential donors that some of their money would go to the program.
In early 1982, the Silent Witness board of directors rejected a $250 donation from the union, because it had not given prior approval for its name to be used in telephone solicitations.
At that time, Lange says, he ordered the solicitors to stop mentioning the Silent Witness program in their sales pitch. But a former employee, Lange says, complained to the police department that the union's telephone-bank workers continued to tout Silent Witness.
An investigation ensued, seemingly disproportionate to the gravity of the allegation. Union records were seized, Lange says, and the investigators planted an undercover officer in the union's telephone room.
In mid-December, Lange was indicted on a fraud charge. No one else--including the paid telephone workers who allegedly made the unauthorized pitch for Silent Witness--was ever charged.
Lange was fired, and spent the next several years battling the charges. Twice, the indictments were thrown out by a judge. The third time, Lange went to trial and was quickly acquitted.
Three years after the firing, Lange won reinstatement as a patrol officer when the Civil Service Board could find nothing that Lange had done wrong.
"No evidence of [wrongdoing] was ever presented at the hearing," says Mike Sophy, who chaired the board at the time. "The Lange hearing was just an absolute classic of what this whole controversy [with Ortega] was about, because they'd come in and make conclusory charges, but then they'd never present any evidence to support them."
The damage was done for Lange. He worked as a janitor during his years off the force. Mopping and cleaning 12 hours a day helped him drain away his frustration.
"I [was] pretty much labeled a thief, and I'm gone. Once you're gone from the police department under those conditions, all of a sudden you don't have any friends," says Lange.
"I asked people if they wanted to hire me, and it really came down that I was just a political hot potato," he continues. "As soon as he [Ortega] got me indicted, he accomplished what he set out to do."
Lange, now out of union politics, says he has no doubt that the investigation was Ortega's way of getting even with him. While fighting his dismissal, Lange says, he learned that Ortega was regularly briefed on the progress of the Lange probe.
Ortega had one last shot for the two unions, and he fired it in 1983. Both the police and fire unions had contributed $20,000 to the campaign for single-member districts. The unions had waited until the last moment to donate the money, so their contributions would not show up on campaign finance reports until after the election, a ploy to prevent union support from becoming an issue in the campaign.
A year after the campaign, a grand jury was empaneled by then-attorney general Bob Corbin to probe the legality of the donations. Again there were subpoenas and investigators crawling over the two unions. Corbin later acknowledged that he launched the probe as a personal favor to Ortega. The grand jury found that no laws had been broken.
In 1983, Terry Goddard and a whole new slate of councilmembers were elected in the first races conducted under the single-member district system.
@body:Shortly after Mayor Goddard took office, the city council appointed attorney Mike Sophy, who had run Goddard's campaign, to the Civil Service Board.
The five-member panel is the city's in-house court of last resort for disciplined employees. Although workers can appeal to the state Superior Court if they are unhappy with the Civil Service Board's findings, it is nonetheless one of the most powerful citizen boards in Phoenix.
In the new political climate of Phoenix, Sophy and other former board members say, the Civil Service Board would become one of Ortega's frequent battlegrounds, and its members among his targets. The private lives of members were investigated, and Ortega would not hesitate to publicly lash out at them.
Why would an unpaid group of citizen volunteers merit such attention from the chief? Because it was the only body in town that could expose Ortega's authoritarian rule of the police department, former members say.
Time and again, Sophy says, employees fired or disciplined by Ortega would come before the board with astounding stories.
During the 1980s, Ortega's ire at the board would increase, as it repeatedly reversed or reduced discipline that Ortega had meted out to officers.
"The biggest single problem was that there simply wasn't any substance to the charges as they were laid on us," Sophy says. "As time went on, we'd scratch our heads and wonder, 'What in the world is going on over at the police department?' One of the conclusions I know many of us had, simply from the way the cases looked, was that Ruben would act first and then think about it and try to justify it afterwards.
"He'd get angry at officer so-and-so and fire him, but then somebody had to try to create a plausible reason the chief had the right to do so. Those were big jobs because they couldn't very often do it."
One moment during his three years on the board, Sophy says, offered a chilling glimpse into the inner workings of Ortega's department.
"The police department had one of its own people under surveillance for a period of time," Sophy recalls. "The longer we heard the case, the more problematic it was why they had him under surveillance. I remember asking the head of internal operations 'Why did you have this officer under surveillance?' His answer to me was, 'Because we didn't know what he thought.' I found that terrifying."
Anna Ochoa Thorne, a local attorney, reached similar conclusions after serving on the board from 1987 to 1990. From 1985 to 1990, the board reinstated 17 of the 29 police officers Ortega fired.
In the three years Thorne was on the board, it handled 33 police disciplinary cases. In eight of them, the board threw out the discipline completely for lack of evidence, and in 12 others, it decided the discipline imposed by the chief was excessive and reduced it.
Current PLEA president Mike Petchel says the union tried to keep track of how much money Ortega was costing the city in judgments from successful lawsuits filed by people unfairly disciplined by the police chief.
"We stopped keeping track around 1986, when the figure was approaching $2 million," Petchel says. "Nobody seemed to care that it was costing so much."
Thorne was not surprised there were so many successful lawsuits.
"We'd hear testimony that cases emanated from personality conflicts," Thorne, now an immigration lawyer, recalls. "So and so had pissed the chief off, or was an ally of the chief's enemy or was the chief's enemy.
"Sometimes, we got the feeling there was a hit list. I hesitate to put it that strongly, but it started to appear that way."
The board's challenge to his authority brought out the barroom fighter in Ortega. He publicly attacked Sophy, Thorne and other board members for voting to reinstate officers he fired.
He castigated the panel for making him rehire officers he described as "dopers, liars and thieves." His protestations found a warm reception at the state's largest newspaper, the Arizona Republic, which obligingly reported that a runaway Civil Service Board was crippling the chief's ability to manage his own department.
"Ruben became so incensed that the Civil Service Board was basically becoming fair that he goes out and mounts a media campaign," Pell says. "He goes down and meets with the [Republic] editorial board and the next thing you know they're coming out with big editorials and articles in the paper about how the district system has again proven that strong management styles don't work.
"Poor Ruben can't run the police department anymore because the Civil Service Board is throwing out all his cases."
But Ortega did more than just play political hardball.
According to Thorne and Jane McElfresh, who served on the board in the mid-1980s, Ortega's department investigated board members.
McElfresh, a private investigator with the law firm of O'Connor Cavanagh, stumbled upon the tracks of Ortega's snoops when she went to review her private investigator's license file at the state Department of Public Safety in 1988.
Like all private eyes, McElfresh had filled out a lengthy application before obtaining her license. The application demands a host of personal background information--like lawsuits, previously used names, criminal records and so forth. Parts of the file are public record, and other portions are not, although police investigators may see the sealed portions, she says.
When she reviewed her file, McElfresh says, the clerk accidentally also handed her a cover sheet that lists anyone who has signed the files out. On the list was the name of a police internal affairs investigator.
"He [Ortega] was doing background checks on me," McElfresh says. " . . . I had nothing to hide, but it really bothered me that he did that."
Only recently, McElfresh says, she learned that during the same time period an internal affairs investigator called one of her co-workers to ask about McElfresh's friends, her love life, what kind of employee she was.
"That's why I know they did background checks on all civil service volunteers," she says.
State Representative Susan Gerard says Ortega told her pointblank that his department compiled files on community leaders.
In 1987, Gerard says, she was appointed to chair a city task force on AIDS. As the task force was doing its work, news reports surfaced that the police department kept lists of people it knew or suspected were gay, presumably so officers could protect themselves from possible AIDS exposure if they arrested one of them.
"In one of the meetings I had with Ortega, he was talking about 'We need to have all the information we can in our computer on people.' In the process of this conversation, talking about how they wanted to identify every prostitute that might be HIV-positive, he just made the comment, 'You wouldn't believe the information we have in our files, or the extent to which we have information on prominent people,'" Gerard says.
Startled by the chief's boasting, Gerard asked if there was a file on her.
"He said, 'Well, have we ever had any reason to talk to you about anything?' I said, yes. I've had stuff ripped off out of my mailbox once. He said, 'Did you file a report?' I said, yes. He goes, 'Well, then sure we've got a file on you.'
"After that," Gerard says, "it made me understand why it always seemed that the city council was in such awe and fear of ever challenging Ortega on anything."
The file on attorney Thorne apparently came into play in early 1990, when Ortega was on a tear about the board. Largely because of his complaints, the Arizona Republic ran a lopsided series of stories questioning the board's reversals of city-employee discipline.
Thorne, then-board chairman, was called before the council to explain the board's process. After she had finished, Ortega took the mic, and accused Thorne of abusing her position on the board by threatening a meter maid and trying to beat some parking tickets.
All Thorne could remember was an incident more than a year earlier when she had asked a parking officer to hold off on towing her car while she went and got her checkbook to pay some outstanding tickets.
"I told the meter maid, 'I'm at a Civil Service Board meeting. Can you wait?'" Thorne recalls.
Thorne had all but forgotten the incident, but a year later found herself sitting in a city council meeting as the chief of police held it up as an example of Thorne's abusing her position on the board.
"Chief Ortega turned it into a coliseum-type atmosphere and charged that I personally had abused my discretion," Thorne says. "By threatening a meter maid? By having a number of outstanding parking tickets?
"You kind of wonder how that incident, so minimal [on that] day . . . how something like that got to the chief's attention. Like, was there a secret police there watching enemies of Chief Ortega?"
The council, in an act observers say was true to form when it came to Ortega, empaneled a task force to investigate the Civil Service Board for the bias Ortega claimed existed in favor of disciplined employees. After several months, the panel concluded that no such bias existed.
Logic would indicate that, if there was no bias on the board, there might be a problem on the other side of the equation, perhaps at the police department. The council never instructed anyone to find out, former councilmembers and observers say, because they knew full well what the answer was.
Throughout Ortega's tenure, insiders say, the city council and former city manager Marvin Andrews, the only man with the authority to fire the police chief, would not challenge Ortega publicly.
Behind closed doors, they say, the chief was occasionally reined in. When his attacks on the Civil Service Board became too strident, Pell says, Ortega was "told by the city manager that he had to tone down some stuff, that he was going too far."
For the most part, however, the council--without a majority willing to cross the Rubicon and engage Ortega--timidly allowed the chief to run his own show because he was simply too powerful to take on publicly.
Pell says that, in private meetings, he would urge his fellow councilmembers to hold the chief accountable. "My position at the time was that it was not like Ruben Ortega was appointed czar or God or something," Pell says. "He was a city employee like 15,000 other people and everybody that's a city employee has to answer to somebody. Not Ortega."
McElfresh says that, when the attacks on her and other Civil Service Board members became outlandish, she was among a group of Ortega's foes who went to Mayor Terry Goddard asking that the chief be called to task.
She left the meeting frustrated, she says, because Goddard's reaction was, "We know he does these things and there's nothing we can do about it."
"That's history as far as I'm concerned," Andrews says. "Very briefly, I think he did an excellent job as chief. Period."
@body:During the last few years of his tenure, Ortega found himself fighting wars on many fronts. Gay leaders were challenging the department's perceived harassment of homosexuals. They were angered by reports that, when asked once how much gay-bashing occurred in Phoenix, Ortega responded, "Not enough."
Black leaders were also facing off with the chief over reports of excessive police force being used against minorities.
The chief responded in form, by investigating those who rose up to challenge his department. When the Reverend Oscar Tillman of the Phoenix NAACP began challenging him, Ortega had investigators contact police in Tacoma, Washington, where Tillman had previously worked, to check his background.
Tillman, now working with the NAACP in Denver, says Ortega tried to have him fired from his job after Tillman publicly demanded the chief's resignation.
"The bottom line is, he was a direct clone of J. Edgar Hoover style of management," Tillman says. "Management through intimidation and management by fear. And the most important thing, management by files."
Journalists whose news reports questioned the chief were hardly immune from Ortega's scrutiny.
Elizabeth Vargas, a former reporter with Channel 3, and Michael Lacey, executive editor of New Times, each learned that lesson personally.
In early 1988, New Times was preparing to publish the results of a lengthy investigation into crack sales and drug dealing at Keys Market on Broadway and 24th Street. Brazen drug sales and lax law enforcement had made the corner the most dangerous in Phoenix.
The day before the New Times article was to appear, a host of Phoenix police officers--with invited reporters in tow--descended on the corner to make arrests as television cameras rolled.
Ortega denied that the raid was related to the newspaper story. But the showy bust did, indeed, turn out to be more than a coincidence. Television reporter Vargas later learned that Ortega had ordered an expedited sweep at the corner to preempt the New Times story.
Vargas, now working for a Chicago station, says undercover narcotics officers who had already been investigating drug activity at Keys Market showed her a memo from the chief ordering the quickie raid.
"His own undercover cops were calling him a liar," she says. "The undercover narcs thought that he jeopardized the investigation by making them speed up the investigation."
When her reports aired, Vargas recalls, Ortega attacked, demanding a meeting with her bosses to question the reports.
"He accused me of changing the memo," she says. "He accused me of sleeping with these guys, which was ludicrous. He very clearly went out of his way to try to ruin me professionally."
Vargas was not the only journalist Ortega targeted.
Sometime in late 1987 or 1988, Ortega asked his long-ago partner Ralph Milstead to have the state Department of Public Safety investigate New Times' Lacey for alleged cocaine smuggling.
Milstead, who confirmed that DPS investigated the New Times editor, said Ortega did not want the Phoenix Police Department's "fingerprints" on the case because Lacey was a frequent critic of the chief.
According to Milstead, Ortega justified the investigation by claiming that Lacey might be a cocaine smuggler. The police chief told Milstead that his information came from Arizona Republic reporter Randy Collier.
(Collier denies making the allegation, and says it was Ortega who asked him if Lacey was dealing drugs. In an observation somewhat unusual for a journalist, Collier also notes that Lacey shouldn't have been surprised that he was investigated. "He was always writing bad things about the cops and then expected them to treat him nice?" Collier says. "Well, this is how they get their sweet revenge. He ought to know that. I think it's a feather in his cap that he was investigated and they didn't come up with anything.)
Richard Shaffer, who headed the DPS Criminal Investigations Bureau at the time, says that at Ortega's request, investigators spent about two weeks trying to determine if Lacey was involved with cocaine.
New Times had recently purchased a weekly newspaper in Miami, and Lacey began making occasional trips to Florida in the late 1980s.
State agents tailed Lacey around Phoenix, and according to Shaffer even followed him to Miami on one occasion. Investigators also worked up a financial profile of Lacey, to see if he was living beyond his means, the source says.
Shaffer, now retired, says he cannot recall the exact time of the probe. All records of the investigation were destroyed, Milstead says, a routine practice when an investigation turns up no evidence of criminal behavior.
Lacey was completely cleared in the investigation, Shaffer says, but it was neither the first nor the last time Ortega would try to link Lacey to drugs.
Also in 1988, Ortega met personally with a small-time criminal named Ernie Toscano. Toscano knew Ortega's wife, and the two had once discussed the chief's distaste for New Times.
Toscano sometimes hung at out at the Casa Blanca bar near the State Capitol, a watering hole for legislators and power brokers where Lacey could also occasionally be found.
Toscano says Ortega asked him if he knew of any drug use by Lacey. "He said, 'Well, do you know if he does drugs?' I said, 'I don't know.' He said, 'Do you think you could find out, or could you make a sale? Could you get that close to find out if he's doing coke, or anything?'" Toscano recalled in a jailhouse interview with Lacey earlier this year.
Toscano says Ortega asked him to set up Lacey for a drug purchase. Through an intermediary, Toscano tried to contact Lacey, claiming he had a story idea for New Times, but Lacey says he was not impressed with the proposed story and the meeting never took place.
Toscano's brother, Jay, an officer at Valley National Bank, says he remembers his brother telling him about the conversation with Ortega shortly after it occurred.
Ernie Toscano, his brother says, agreed to help Ortega because he wanted to curry favor with the chief.
Despite the best efforts of himself and the state's most powerful law enforcement agency, Ortega never found any evidence that Lacey was involved with cocaine.
Lacey says he is outraged by the investigations, and calls Ortega's efforts to link him with drug trafficking "a fundamental abuse of power."
"I was never involved in cocaine smuggling. I am not involved in cocaine smuggling," Lacey says. "The entire thrust of what Ortega was up to was simply a matter of trying to punish a critic."
The chief would take one more swipe at Lacey--and longtime foe Pat Cantelme of the firefighters union--in the investigation that would ultimately bring his years as police chief to a close.
@body:From the moment it broke, wary observers of Ruben Ortega say they knew the AzScam political corruption sting was the most flagrant example of a police chief run amok.
During his tenure, Ortega had spearheaded a series of sensational investigations that produced great headlines but few results, including a much-publicized probe of alleged cocaine use by the Phoenix Suns basketball team.
At an April 1987 press conference, Ortega and then-county attorney Tom Collins announced that 13 men--including five current or former Suns players--had been indicted on drug counts, the result of an investigation into charges that the Suns had shaved points in a game with the Milwaukee Bucks.
The sensational charges quickly crumbled under scrutiny, as the state's key witness began to backpedal. Most of the charges were dropped, and no one ever went to jail.
Headlines sprouted again in 1991 when Ortega, allied with County Attorney Rick Romley, unleashed a questionable undercover agent, Joseph Stedino, to try to induce state legislators to take bribes in exchange for support of legislation to legalize gambling.
Some of the legislators took the money, and went to jail. But in the little-noticed undercurrents of AzScam, Pat Cantelme and Michael Lacey were again targets of Ortega's investigation.
Stedino repeatedly tried to get close to Cantelme to snare him in the AzScam net (AzScam's Real Target," December 30, 1992). Lacey was again pursued for alleged cocaine activity that was never found to exist.
But AzScam would be Ortega's last hurrah. Stunned by the heavy-handedness of an investigation launched with no obvious probable cause, the city council finally began to question Ortega's unbridled power.
At an executive session shortly after AzScam broke in 1991, councilmembers began asking that the chief be held more accountable.
Ortega exploded. On a Sunday evening, he began the bizarre dance that would constitute his final days in office by telling Republic reporter Collier that he was going to quit if the council did not back off from its efforts to hold him accountable.
The next day, Ortega emerged from a meeting with city manager Frank Fairbanks to say he would stay. Fairbanks and the council appeared to be caving in to his demands.
But not councilmember Linda Nadolski. Nadolski praised the chief for keeping the citizens of Phoenix safe, but told reporters, "We also need to know that we're safe from Chief Ortega."
The chief's erratic behavior did not surprise Duane Pell, who by that time had left the city council and had become the state fire marshal. Pell, in fact, was sitting in his office when he heard Nadolski's comment about Ortega broadcast on the radio.
After years of watching Ortega work, and waiting for someone to publicly take him on, Pell says he finally heard a voice of reason raised in opposition to the chief.
Pell got up, drove directly to City Hall where the council was meeting.
"I had somebody go in there and get her out," Pell says. "I shook her hand and gave her a kiss and I said I have never seen another politician who had the guts to stand up and say what you did."
Jane McElfresh, the private investigator whom Ortega had investigated while she was on the Civil Service Board, still keeps a newspaper clipping with Nadolski's quote on her office bulletin board.
After his resignation, Ortega tested the waters for a possible bid for the mayor's office, but the support wasn't there, political insiders say. He slipped from public view before taking the top police job in Salt Lake City a few months ago.
But Ortega's gaze has not completely left Phoenix. Roger Rea, an attorney and gay-rights activist who had been critical of Ortega, got a call from the ex-chief after Ortega arrived in Salt Lake City.
Rea had been interviewed by Salt Lake City reporters curious about their new chief. Rea told them he thought Ortega was homophobic.
Ortega read the quotes and called Rea in a fury. Rea says, "He said that I hadn't heard the last of him yet.
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.