Arpaio’s Busts of Illegals at Popular Valley Water Parks Are All Wet

Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas, kindred spirits in the "war" against illegal immigrants.
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Russell Pearce, the powerful East Valley lawmaker, had this to say to the New York Times in June 2008:

"It's about time and it's great. It's kind of like the shot fired at Concord in the Revolutionary War, the shot heard around the world."

State Senator Pearce was referring to Maricopa County sheriff's deputies raiding two popular water parks, Waterworld Safari in Glendale and Golfland SunSplash in Mesa, a few days earlier.

Heavily armed deputies executed search and arrest warrants at the parks after an investigation that began with a tip from a former Waterworld manager.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio's P.R. team teased local media before the raids, hinting of something juicier than yet another high-profile haul of mobile corn vendors, gardeners, and car-wash employees.

Perhaps this would lead to the first case under Arizona's strict new employer-sanctions law, which had gone into effect that January. Going after local employers, especially in this crippled economy, would've made for a hot story.

Pearce, who once was Arpaio's chief deputy, had pushed the controversial Legal Arizona Workers Act through the 2007 Legislature. Then-Governor Janet Napolitano surprised many observers by signing the measure into law.

Considered the toughest statute of its kind in the nation, it allows the government to suspend or revoke the licenses of Arizona business owners who "knowingly" or "intentionally" hire undocumented immigrants.

Police agencies, legal scholars, and immigration experts nationwide were keeping close watch on Arizona (really, on Maricopa County) to see how and when the highly publicized sanctions law would first be used.

The raids, on June 10, 2008, ended with the arrests of just nine suspected aliens, on charges of identity theft and forgery. Deputies detained a few others suspected of being in this country illegally.

The arrested were taken to the Maricopa County Jail to await disposition of their criminal cases and, then, their seemingly inevitable deportation to Mexico.

Ordinarily, they would have been called good citizens — except they weren't legally in the United States.

None of the nine workers were "dangerous" to the community, and none had warrants on other charges (though one did have a drunken-driving history going back to the early 1990s). Most were raising families in the Valley and had worked for years without incident at Waterworld. A few even owned homes here.

None of that mattered to Joe Arpaio and Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas. The duo, who have joined forces loudly and repeatedly on the illegal-immigrant issue, held a triumphant press conference a few hours after the raids.

"A new chapter in the enforcement of immigration law in Arizona has begun," Thomas said.

That chapter was to be the use of the new employer-sanctions law in tandem with toughened identity-theft statutes written, at least in part, with undocumented workers in mind. In this case, prosecutors would allege that the Waterworld employees used forged and stolen identities to get and keep their jobs.

Joe Arpaio claimed at the press conference that preliminary scanning of personnel records seized from Waterworld's Mesa-based parent company, Golfland Entertainment Inc., had revealed more than 100 "suspicious" Social Security numbers.

"We will continue to see if the owners of these [water-park] establishments have violated any of the employer-sanctions laws," the sheriff said, "or if they have conspired on these criminal violations."

So this wasn't at all the shot heard 'round the world that Russell Pearce had hoped for, but just another small-fry, Arpaio-generated immigration/ID theft case?

Thomas conceded that he wasn't ready to call it an employer-sanctions case but said his prosecutors were working on it.

Phoenix news that night showed a few forlorn Latinas in Waterworld golf shirts getting led away in handcuffs by deputies wearing sunglasses.

Within days, Thomas announced a 41-count grand jury indictment against the nine employees. But he remained evasive about seeking sanctions against Golfland Entertainment, which at the time owned three water parks in the Valley — the third was Big Surf in Tempe — and six in California.

(Golfland Entertainment sold Waterworld to an Australian firm late last year. Its new owners have renamed it Phoenix Wet 'N' Wild.)

Andrew Thomas never did make a case against parent company Golfland Entertainment. Despite the hullabaloo and expectations after the new law went into effect, his office still has not filed any sanctions in cases against employers, nor has any of Arizona's 14 other county attorneys.

One likely reason, according to University of Arizona researcher Judy Gans, is the depressed economic climate.

"Those industries that rely heavily on low-skilled, often illegal-immigrant, workers has been disproportionately impacted," she says. "There are very few hires who would be covered by the law, so it's not surprising that there hasn't been a lot of action around the law. All of that may change when the economy begins to recover."

Instead of the owners, prosecutors soon turned their attention to Waterworld's food-service and catering manager, Lessie Juanita Serrano, who had hired and supervised some of the arrested employees.


Last December 18, after some noteworthy legal twists and turns, a grand jury indicted Serrano on charges of aggravated identity theft (the equivalent under Arizona law of committing manslaughter) and hindering prosecution.

"[Serrano] actively encouraged, aided, and abetted the workers' identity theft as an accomplice," a prosecutor wrote in a later motion.

The 51-year-old Glendale woman, who had no criminal record, could face almost nine years in prison if convicted but also would be eligible for probation.

County detectives and prosecutors have spent untold hours and dollars trying to make a face-saving case against Lessie Serrano. Andrew Thomas has more attorneys working on the Serrano case than he does at murder trials; three were in court for a recent hearing, including lead prosecutor Vicki Kratovil, chief of the Special Crimes Bureau.

Serrano has been free on her own recognizance since the indictment. Top-drawer Phoenix attorneys Jordan Green and Lee Stein are defending her. Neither she nor her lawyers would comment for this story, and it isn't known who is funding the representation.

But a defense attorney's spin isn't needed to conclude that Arizona v. Serrano, scheduled for trial later this year, seems an uphill legal struggle for prosecutors.

Most recently, how those prosecutors dealt with pivotal Waterworld defendant Eloiza Ayala — a onetime linchpin of their case against Serrano — has given the Superior Court judge much to consider.

Ayala's post-arrest statements to sheriff's deputies bolstered Serrano's claim that she's innocent of aggravated identity theft. But instead of making Ayala available to Serrano's defense attorneys after her indictment, authorities abruptly deported her to Mexico after she plea-bargained earlier to a reduced charge.

Ayala's defense attorney, Stephen Wallin, tells New Times he knew that what she was going to tell detectives last August wouldn't be favorable to their budding case against Lessie Serrano.

"I thought they needed to hear what Eloiza had to say as a matter of justice," Wallin says. "They were wasting resources and spinning their wheels with this case. The whole thing was entirely political. They had such a hard-on for that water park because they knew it would be a camera magnet, a media magnet."

All of the arrested Waterworld workers eventually admitted to being undocumented immigrants. But in its eagerness to convict Lessie Serrano, the County Attorney's Office allowed five of the defendants to plea-bargain to reduced charges of "criminal impersonation." (The count may be dropped later from a low-level felony to a misdemeanor.)

In return, the quintet has promised to testify against Lessie Serrano.

Court records show that Andrew Thomas subsequently approved the immediate release back into this community of the newly "cooperating" prosecution witnesses — all of them undocumented immigrants.

Records show all this happened with the agreement of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, and with a necessary stamp of approval from the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

There's more. Sheriff's Detective Darrin Frei, who headed the Waterworld investigation, told Serrano's lawyer a few months ago that ICE also has given at least two of the freed Mexican nationals permission to work in the United States, at least until the case ends.

Tens of thousands of parents and their children long have enjoyed the Valley's water theme parks as safe places to cool off and have fun.

Most of the work there is seasonal, as the parks are open from about April until October. And it's never been a secret that, in good times and bad, Arizona's economy long has been balanced on the backs of low-wage workers in this country illegally.

Golfland Entertainment Inc. on June 10, 2008, was like untold other businesses around the Valley. The firm had been employing undocumented aliens since it opened for business more than three decades ago, and many of them were anything but itinerant workers.

For example, court records show that former Waterworld defendant (now a state's witness against Lessie Serrano) Eduardo Robles worked full time performing maintenance at the park for almost 17 years before the raid. He earned about $2,600 a month, before taxes. County Assessor's Office records show that Robles, a family man, still owns a home in Glendale that he purchased in 1999 for $80,000.

Another defendant, Monica Ibañez-Aranda, told authorities that she started at Waterworld in 1995 after providing her prospective employers fake documents she purchased on a Phoenix street.

At some point, Ibañez-Aranda said, she came into possession of a Social Security number belonging to a man from the Sacramento area. The California man apparently had no idea that his identity was stolen until Maricopa County officials told him.

The mother of two was earning $1,600 a month working long hours in the kitchen at Waterworld, apparently with no overtime pay. It was difficult work, but it was a job.


Lessie Serrano is bilingual, which came in handy after she became Waterworld's food-service and catering manager in mid-2004. She was responsible for hiring and supervising dozens of seasonal workers.

After she hired someone, Serrano or another employee would give him or her an I-9 form to fill out. The federal government began issuing I-9s after passage of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. It marked the first legislative attempt to comprehensively address illegal immigration.

In concept, employers since 1986 have been quasi-immigration investigators, supposedly trying to determine whether their workers' identifying documents are fraudulent, counterfeit, or stolen. But the use of I-9s as a kind of policing mechanism against illegal workers never has amounted to much.

For one thing, many employers are willing to hire undocumented immigrants because they'll work cheaply in jobs that less-desperate people usually avoid.

Also, until the advent of the E-Verify system, even scrupulous employers usually have had no reliable way of verifying the authenticity of someone's documents.

E-Verify allows employers to compare information from I-9 forms against Social Security Administration and Homeland Security immigration databases. The Internet-based system is imperfect but is changing the lay of the land for many employers.

(Arizona law now requires that all employers use E-Verify to check the eligibility of workers hired after January 1, 2008.)

The 1986 law also called for fines against business owners who "knew" (there's that legally sticky word again) employees were undocumented at the time of their hiring. But presidential administrations, starting with Ronald Reagan through George W. Bush, perennially have given worksite employer sanctions low priority — though that may change under Barack Obama and his Homeland Security chief, Napolitano.

One thing that the immigration law did achieve was a massive long-term boost for the underground false-document industry.

To this day, an undocumented alien — or anyone, for that matter — easily can buy phony paperwork, including Social Security cards, green cards, and driver's licenses.

One piece of the sprawling 1986 legislation definitely has come into play in the County Attorney's Office's case against Lessie Serrano: It specifically bars the use by local law enforcement of data collected from I-9 forms in investigating violations of a state law.

The evidence in the Serrano case is overwhelming that Maricopa County sheriff's deputies used I-9s they seized from Golfland Entertainment in their investigation.

"Here," Lessie Serrano's defense attorneys recently argued, "the state illegally used I-9 information [collected during its June 2008 raid] to conduct its investigation and to obtain [the aggravated ID theft] count."

However, prosecutors have insisted that the seizure of the I-9s was "incidental" and unimportant to the sheriff's larger investigation at Waterworld.

Arizona business owners were spinning in the months leading up to the enactment of the state's Legal Arizona Workers Act on January 1, 2008.

There was much confusion about the particulars of the new employer-sanctions law and what would be expected of both bosses and workers.

Court records show that Waterworld general manager Mike Carlston called a meeting in October 2007 to discuss the soon-to-be implemented law. Differing versions of exactly who was present and what was said appear in those records. But Lessie Serrano undoubtedly was there, as were many full-time employees — some who later would become criminal defendants.

Imelda Castro-Villegas later told a sheriff's detective that her bosses held the meeting "to let us know that they were going to keep us there for as long as possible. They advised us to prepare ourselves that, if we didn't have valid papers, to present something so that we could work."

Castro-Villegas started working at Waterworld in 2001, before Serrano came onboard. Like many of her colleagues, she worked under a fraudulent name and with false identification papers.

Castro-Villegas told the detective after her arrest that Lessie Serrano "knew perfectly well that we didn't have [legitimate] papers . . . I told her I didn't have any."

But had Serrano ever known her real name, the detective asked Castro-Villegas, the "knowing" part being critical to a successful prosecution for aggravated ID theft.

No, the woman replied with a chuckle, but "she must know it [now] just from the news, lots of news."

Castro-Villegas said former Waterworld facilities manager Keith Gilman also attended the October 2007 meeting. Gilman later would tip off sheriff's detectives to the presence of undocumented workers at the park.

Castro-Villegas alleged that Lessie Serrano told her and other employees some time after the meeting that Gilman might be causing problems and that "it was possible that Immigration could show up."

She added that Gilman "started to see us in a bad way, those of us who spoke Spanish . . . [He] would act real racist toward us." (New Times could not locate Keith Gilman for comment for this story.)


Castro-Villegas told the detective that the Waterworld workers were aware that Gilman was feuding with his bosses over money and was threatening to use their illegal presence as leverage to get what he wanted.

"He warned [Golfland Entertainment Inc.] that they were going to pay dearly," she said, explaining that the parks would be hard-pressed to find adequate replacements if the undocumented aliens were forced to leave.

"It was a lot of work," Castro-Villegas continued. "No one else would work 13 hours a day and for very little money and overtime."

Keith Gilman quit Waterworld in January 2008, shortly after the employer-sanctions law went into effect. Within a few weeks, he sent the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office an e-mail tip about illegal immigrants working at the facility.

Sheriff's Detective Darrin Frei met with Gilman on February 11, 2008.

During the interview, according to Frei's report, Gilman named seven people he suspected were in the United States illegally.

Though he turned out to be correct, Gilman's proof was scant. Detective Frei summarized the disgruntled ex-manager's evidence as "lack of English language [and] frequent trips back to Mexico."

Gilman claimed Waterworld general manager Mike Carlston told him "several times" that the park employed undocumented workers. He quoted Carlston as saying, "We're gonna ignore the new law," referring to the employer-sanctions statute.

(Carlston never was charged in the case).

Gilman added that Lessie Serrano and another Waterworld employee also had confided in him about the presence of undocumented workers.

All of this was titillating to the publicity-hungry, anti-immigration brass at the Sheriff's and County Attorney's offices.

Four months after the Keith Gilman interview, sheriff's deputies raided two of Golfland Entertainment's water parks.

At Waterworld, they targeted for arrest the workers whom Gilman had mentioned.

At the company's headquarters in Mesa (also the site of Golfland SunSplash), the deputies sought "any and all items regarding Waterworld personnel files," including the legally controversial I-9 forms.

Most of the deputies on hand that day had received training (at substantial cost to county taxpayers) from ICE, the federal immigration agency.

Their legal authority came from a controversial 1996 law known as 287(g). It allows local law-enforcement agencies to act as federal-style "immigration officers" in detaining suspected immigrants while investigating other crimes.

Police departments around the nation largely have ignored or rejected the 287(g) law, citing limited resources and their view of the role local cops should take in immigration-enforcement matters previously reserved to the feds.

But, sensing the swell of public opinion against illegal immigrants a few years ago, Joe Arpaio jumped onto the anti-illegal-immigration bandwagon. The sheriff's new "issue" led him into a shotgun marriage with the feds and 287(g).

Since 2006, Arpaio has morphed more than 150 of his deputies into "cross-trained" immigration agents. That number amounts to more than 20 percent of 287(g)-trained local cops nationwide.

But the sheriff has come under increased scrutiny and criticism for how his agency has used its 287(g) status. Last March, the U.S. Department of Justice announced an investigation of the MCSO for "allegations of discriminatory practices based on a person's national origin and unconstitutional searches and seizures."

Another way of putting that is "racial profiling," an incendiary phrase fraught with ugly undertones.

Arpaio calls the whole thing politically motivated, which sounds to his foes like a prime case of the pot calling the kettle black.

During the raid on June 10, 2008, sheriff's deputies arrested four Waterworld workers before the park opened for business at 9 a.m. They nabbed a fifth suspect as he tried to hop a fence with two female co-workers.

One was a woman whose real name was Eloiza Ayala, though she most recently had been working at the park under the name Blasa Reyes. Reyes is the name of a Texas resident whose identification had been stolen and apparently sold to Ayala on the street in central Phoenix.

Ayala wasn't among the workers Keith Gilman had named, but the deputies took her into custody on suspicion of being an undocumented alien.

Ayala told a detective that she was a 36-year-old native of Ciudad Obregon, Mexico. She had possessed a legitimate tourism visa in 2001 or 2002 that allowed her to be in the States for six months, but she had no documentation more recent.

The mother of one said it was the first time she had been caught by immigration authorities. Afterward, local authorities locked up Ayala on an "immigration hold" until further notice.

Another detective spoke with Maria del Pilar-Baez, who had been working at Waterworld for just a few months.

Pilar-Baez said she had "found" an Arizona driver's license and Social Security card in a woman's purse that someone had dumped into a garbage bin near a Food City store. Later, she had used the pilfered ID's when she applied for work at Waterworld.


"Does the company know that you are here illegally?" the detective asked her, trying to nudge his subject into the employer-sanctions realm.

"The company didn't know," Pilar-Baez replied, which is what her fellow workers were saying to other detectives.

The sheriff's investigators regrouped after interviewing the arrestees. They pored over the paperwork they'd picked up in the raid, finding something that especially interested them: Two Waterworld personnel files contained photos of the same person, but with two vastly different Hispanic-sounding names.

A woman who went by the name of Lorenyia Hernandez had completed two I-9 forms at Waterworld (the first one in April 2005) before she was fired in late 2007 for having "bad paperwork."

Then, in early 2008, "Blasa Reyes," whose papers said she was 62 years old, signed on as a new employee.

Lessie Serrano had signed Reyes' I-9 form, which effectively said that, as far as she was concerned, Reyes was here legitimately.

But Lorenyia Hernandez and Blasa Reyes actually were the same person, Eloiza Ayala, the woman arrested by sheriff's deputies on June 10.

Authorities came to believe that Serrano had aided Ayala by processing what she supposedly knew were fraudulent or stolen identification papers, and that Serrano had done so to allow the illegal Ayala to keep her job at Waterworld.

It was crucial to the prosecution case that Serrano had rehired Eloiza Ayala on Waterworld's behalf after January 1, 2008. Besides being the first day of the new employer-sanctions law, it also marked the start of Arizona's strengthened law against "aggravated" identity theft.

And so Lessie Serrano, not Golfland Entertainment Inc., would become Andrew Thomas and Joe Arpaio's prime target.

In late July 2008, sheriff's detectives met at the county jail with Waterworld defendant Maria Pilar-Baez and her attorney for a "free talk."

Such meetings are held when prosecutors may need the testimony of someone already in trouble to help make a case against another person.

In return for hearing what someone has to say, the authorities usually promise not to use anything self-incriminating that may arise during the session. If the information potentially has value, the cops may urge prosecutors to swing a plea deal. If it doesn't, well, tough luck.

Through an interpreter, Pilar-Baez told Detective Frei that a "lady from the [Waterworld] office" — not Lessie Serrano — had given her an application for employment earlier in 2008 and that Serrano interviewed her later.

Pilar-Baez said she had bought a driver's license with another person's name on it from an ID hawker at 16th Street and McDowell. She's in her 30s; the person's age on the license was 51.

"Did Lessie know that this was not your identification?" Frei asked.

"No, she didn't know," Pilar-Baez said, hardly what the detective wanted to hear.

But the woman came around as the questioning continued, saying, "I think that Ms. Lessie must have known about me because there is a big difference in the age, but she never asked me anything about it."

Frei continued to grill Pilar-Baez about Serrano.

"Did Lessie know that the documents you presented were fake?"

"I say that she did know," the woman said, but repeated that Serrano never knew her real name.

Imelda Castro-Villegas told Detective Frei during her free talk that "[Serrano] didn't really investigate the [identification] cards that someone would take her."

In early 2008, Castro-Villegas said, Serrano rehired Eloiza Ayala, "the same person [who'd previously] presented herself with another name."

The detective then pulled an old trick of investigators by trying to turn Castro-Villegas against Lessie Serrano.

"Lessie said that you were bringing in people with bad documents," Frei said, though Serrano had said nothing of the sort. "So I don't want you to think that you have to protect Lessie for any reason."

He followed that by asking, "Did Lessie know that she was hiring people with fake or false documents?"

"Yes, Lessie knew," Castro-Villegas said.

Another Waterworld defendant, Eduardo Robles, said something during his free talk that not even the most optimistic detective would have predicted.

He told detectives that Lessie Serrano had gotten on a loudspeaker and warned in Spanish that deputies were raiding the water park. That allegation is the basis for the "hindering prosecution" count now pending against Serrano.

But Robles continues to be the only person, including his co-workers and the 30-plus deputies at the water park, who says he heard Serrano or anyone else on the P.A. system that morning.

Serrano defense attorney Jordan Green asked Detective Frei during an interview last April, "No MCSO deputy that you know of heard this supposed P.A. announcement by Serrano that said something to the effect, 'Law enforcement is here! Run away and hide'?"

"Correct," the sheriff's detective replied.


Last August 11, Frei met with Eloiza Ayala and her attorney at the jail. Ayala's alleged "conspiracy" with Lessie Serrano had become central to the prosecution's evolving criminal case against the food-service manager.

The detective told Ayala he was "aware" that Lessie Serrano had known her as someone else before Waterworld rehired her in March 2008.

"Is that true, Eloiza? Did Lessie know you?" defense attorney Stephen Wallin asked her.

"Not from before," Ayala replied, three words that continue to have significant implications in this case.

If Serrano truly hadn't known her "from before," then any conspiracy case against the manager for helping Ayala to keep her job with phony paperwork could be in serious jeopardy.

"Not from before, okay," the detective repeated. "Did Lessie know that the identification — the residence card, the Social Security card — that you presented for employment was not your true name?"

"I don't know," Ayala said. "I just showed it, and they called me to work."

Frei tried hard to pin down Ayala as to when she first met Serrano.

"I don't remember," the woman answered. "The first time I went to work there with that name [Hernandez], it was a different manager — her name was, like, Francine."

Defense attorney Wallin says his client "wanted nothing more than to see Phoenix in a rear-view mirror as fast as possible, but she wasn't going to lie about anything. I thought the MCSO would come to the conclusion that, 'We don't want her; we don't need her. So let's get rid of her.' Or, in the alternative, they would keep her locked up until they thought they could get her to say what they wanted."

The deputies chose the latter and kept her incarcerated for three more months.

As Ayala remained behind bars, five of the other Waterworld defendants (a few others already had been deported) agreed to testify against Serrano in return for getting released after plea-bargaining.

But Eloiza Ayala never did change her story to appease her captors, and she remained incarcerated well after the "cooperating" Waterworld employees were freed.

Then, late last October, sheriff's deputies turned over Ayala to ICE for deportation within a few days after she, too, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of criminal impersonation.

As for the witnesses against Serrano, defense attorney Green asked Detective Frei during the April 20 interview, "You advised someone at ICE, somebody in the government, that you wanted these people [the 'cooperating' prosecution witnesses] to stay?"

"Correct," the detective replied. "When they became material witnesses, they were given a notice to appear and released on their own recognizance."

Green continued, "And do any of them or all of them also have permission to work in the United States?"

"I believe, right now, two of them have permission," Frei said. "Request was submitted to ICE."

As for Eloiza Ayala, however, Frei said coldly, "She had no information that we found valuable to our investigation."

What he didn't say was that Ayala certainly would have been "valuable" to Lessie Serrano's defense, had her attorneys been able to interview her.

It took the Maricopa County Attorney's Office until December 18 to get its indictment against Lessie Serrano for aggravated identity theft and hindering the prosecution.

To win a conviction on the count of aggravated ID theft, prosecutors will have to prove Serrano knew that Eloiza Ayala was using another person's ID to work at Waterworld.

A conviction on that charge alone can carry a sentence of up to seven years in prison, with probation an option.

The grand jury proceeding, parts of which have been disclosed in court documents, included pointed questions for Detective Frei. One juror asked him whether Serrano had known the real names of the Waterworld workers who were using false identities.

"I don't know," Frei answered.

He should have.

Defendant Maria Pilar-Baez, for one, clearly told the detective during her "free talk" that Serrano never knew her real name.

Beyond that, Frei told the grand jury that Eloiza Ayala had not provided any information to sheriff's investigators.

That was grossly inaccurate.

Crucial to the defense of the aggravated identity-theft charge against Serrano, Ayala had told Frei that Lessie didn't know her "from before," when she worked at Waterworld under her first of two false names.

True or not, Ayala's comment would have proved a godsend to Serrano's future defense team. Instead, the grand jury was left with the inaccurate impression that Eloiza Ayala hadn't said anything, one way or the other.

Serrano's attorney Jordan Green and his colleague, Lee Stein, later blasted prosecutors for the flawed grand jury presentation and for the use of the employees' federal I-9 forms by sheriff's detectives.

On April 27, Green also wrote in a document filed with Judge McMurdie that Andrew Thomas' prosecution team allowed Eloiza Ayala to be deported "beyond the power of the court and beyond the reach of Serrano's defense counsel," knowing she "would have provided evidence helpful to Serrano."


McMurdie considered that and other issues during a June 22 hearing where the defense asked him to dismiss the identity-theft charge against Serrano, or to remand the case to the grand jury for reconsideration.

The judge often seemed surprised and exasperated at how prosecutors responded to his questions, especially about the deportation of Ayala in light of her statements to detectives.

Prosecutor Scott Doering insisted that Ayala's free-talk statements to sheriff's investigators last August had been "inconsistent" and, therefore, unreliable. But Green laid waste to that by reading the relevant portion of the August 2008 interview aloud to the judge.

The prosecutor then suggested with a straight face that if Serrano's defense lawyers want so badly to speak with Ayala, they should track her down in Mexico — where Ayala presumably now is — and persuade her to come back across to Phoenix to testify.

A former longtime prosecutor, McMurdie asked both sides what the legal cure might be for the government's apparent mistakes, short of dismissing the aggravated ID-theft count against Serrano.

Jordan Green replied that there is no "cure," a point with which County Attorney Thomas' prosecutors strenuously disagreed.

The judge's questions may have signaled which way he is leaning. He is expected to rule on the critical motion in the next few weeks.

Eloiza Ayala's attorney says he hasn't communicated with her since her sentencing last October.

"Yes, my client was here illegally and she broke the law by using bad IDs and all that," Stephen Wallin says. "But does anyone in this community actually feel safer because of that entire exercise at Waterworld and at all of those other places that Joe [Arpaio] has been hitting? As for the case against the manager [Lessie Serrano], it seems very weak from where I sit."

Perhaps. But if Serrano eventually does have to face a jury at trial, all bets are off.

This is Maricopa County, Arizona, home to a majority of voters who have supported Joe Arpaio and what he represents (his supporters would say "law and order"; his detractors would say "racism and self-promotion") for nearly two decades.

It also is a jurisdiction where Andrew Thomas first won office as county attorney in 2004 after running on a quirky, but prescient, campaign of "stopping" illegal immigration.

Could 12 jurors find Lessie Serrano, who finds herself caught in what appears to be a politically motivated prosecution, guilty as charged?

Sure they could.

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