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Attorney Demands ABC 15 Retract Story Accusing Police Officers of Botching Cases

Walt Hunter and Jarris Varnrobinson
Walt Hunter and Jarris Varnrobinson

An attorney is demanding that ABC 15 retract a story accusing her clients -- two Arizona police officers -- of making mistakes during investigations that prompted the Pinal County Attorney's Office to drop those cases.

Television reporter Navideh Forghani, reporting on how former Florence police detectives Jarris Varnrobinson and Walt Hunter handled a 2010 rape case, told viewers that there were five other cases the county attorney's office had to drop because of the officers' mistakes.

Attorney Lynne Bernabei, representing the cops, wrote to ABC 15 News Director Pat Costello demanding "a retraction of the false and unsupported statements about Mr. Hunter and Mr. Varnrobinson made in the story, which Ms. Forghani knew were false, or which she made with reckless disregard for the truth."

We've left a message for Costello seeking comment.

See also: -Half-Baked ABC 15 Report Misses the Complete Story on Florence Cops -Florence Exposed: A three-part investigative series on the Florence Police Department -Cops Fight to Maintain Good Reputations as Florence Officials Try to Discredit Them

More from Bernabei's letter:

On March 6, 2014, ABC15 aired a story by reporter Navideh Forghani captioned "2 Florence police officers investigated over rape case," and posted an article reiterating the story on its website.

In her story, Ms. Forghani describes an Arizona rape trial in which my clients interviewed the seventeen-year-old alleged victim. Ms. Forghani attributes various investigative errors to our clients in that case, and goes on to state: "The mistakes didn't stop at this one case. The [Pinal] county attorney's office says it had to drop five cases, blaming mistakes by both Hunter and Varnrobinson." This statement is false, and Ms. Forghani knew it was false or made the statement without regard for the truth.

The Pinal County Attorney's Office denies ever telling Ms. Forghani it had to "drop five cases" because of our clients. In fact, the office denies ever speaking with Ms. Forghani about these allegations.

 

Bernabei references a New Times ' article, "Half Baked," in which a spokesman for the PCAO states that the office didn't confirm or deny there were five botched cases to ABC 15 because "just to be perfectly frank ... we were not aware [of them.]

The reporter told New Times that she stood by her work.

The 2010 rape case involved a 17-year-old who accused her step-father of having sex with her in their home while her mother was putting her younger brother to bed.

After Hunter and Varnrobins interviewed the young woman, then-deputy county attorney Susan Crawford raised concerns about the pair asking "biased" questions and not believing the alleged victim. The matter was settled with the officers getting more training, but it was reopened by Florence Police Chief Dan Hughes when he embarked on a mission to fire the investigators.

An 8-day trial in March over that rape case ended with a not-guilty verdict after jurors deliberated less than an hour.

The attorney representing the step-father said that the young woman changed her story significantly on the stand during the trial, and denied making statements she's previously made -- even when shown transcripts of her recorded interviews with police.

Bernabei also wrote:

We alerted [Forghani] that any allegations against our clients were fabrications by the FPD in retaliation for our clients' reports of illegal conduct by other officers.

We explained that the FPD had fired our clients in retaliation for their whistleblowing, and directed her to a series of articles published in the New Times tracking the FPD's history of retaliation against our clients.

We explained that the bulk of the FPD's allegations of misconduct against our client were discredited at their reinstatement hearings before a judicial officer in 2013, and that our office was about to initiate a federal lawsuit against the FPD based on the FPD's unlawful actions.

Ms. Forghani was aware of the FPD's smear campaign against our clients, and nonetheless relied exclusively on information provided by someone in the FPD in her story.

Specifically, Ms. Forghani appears to have relied on a memorandum of allegations against our clients created by FPD Chief Dan Hughes -- the same memorandum that Hughes used to justify terminating our clients from the FPD in 2012.

This memo was fully discredited during our clients' reinstatement hearings in 2013.

During the hearings, Hughes' allegation that the Pinal County Attorney's Office "dropped" five cases because of our clients' errors was found unsupported by the judicial Hearing Officer.

(A former attorney with the Pinal County Attorney's Office, who allegedly initially made the statement to Hughes back in [2012], could not actually identify any such cases and so the office did not stand by the statement.)

We demand that ABC15 retract its misstatements immediately. Otherwise our clients will be forced to pursue their formal legal remedies.

Got a tip? Send it to: Monica Alonzo.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX. Follow Monica Alonzo on Twitter at @MAD_Blogger.


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