IF MARIA TORREGROSSA knows anything, she says, she knows this: That man saw me standing right in front of him, and he came at me with his car like I was a piece of nothing. I jumped out of the way, but he got me good."
Torregrossa narrowly escaped death in Paradise Valley on the night of March 15, 1988Ïher 26th birthday.
The driver had been fleeing when he'd happened upon Torregrossa. Only seconds before, he had careened into and injured bicyclist John Faust. The man in the Oldsmobile then rammed into Torregrossa's Mitsubishi while attempting to negotiate a hasty U-turn. Hoping to read the Olds' license plate, Torregrossa gave chase. A few blocks laterÏnear the intersection of Tatum and McDonaldÏshe caught up to it.
Torregrossa and other passersby who had seen what was happening boxed in the Olds with their vehicles. She stepped out of her car and approached the man. His only route of escape lay where she was standing.
Though Torregrossa tried to leap out of harm's way, the Olds clipped her hard with its side-view mirror. Her abdomen and back were injured, though she didn't yet know how badly. The man sped into the night.
Torregrossa recalled something else about the moment: The driver of the Olds had grinned at her just before he'd nailed her.
In due time, she also learned the name of the man who had nearly killed her.
He was a 46-year-old businessman named George Leckie. In a few months, Leckie would join J. Fife Symington's gubernatorial campaign and later would become its finance chairman.
But in March 1988, Leckie's name didn't ring a bell with Torregrossa. Leckie wouldn't become widely known in Arizona until his friend Symington was elected governor in 1991 and selected him as a top aide.
Since Symington's victory, Leckie has been criticized for overspending budgets, charging vacations to taxpayers and granting hefty pay hikes to the governor's top aides. Recently, he has defended his and the governor's determination to slash state programs and lay off workers. Symington and Leckie have stressed that people-and governments-have to take responsibility, no matter how much it hurts.
Last week, according to a news account, Leckie told an audience of business people, Any time you're an instrument of change, you're going to run into resistance."
On March 15, 1988, George Leckie ran into resistance on the roads of Paradise Valley. His reaction, according to eyewitnesses, was to barrel right through. He injured two people in the process. And he ran away.
Leckie's name meant nothing to Maria Torregrossa. But the manner in which Paradise Valley authorities treated the case stunned her.
Torregrossa wanted Leckie to do prison time. But she then caught on, painfully, to how justice sometimes operates in Paradise Valley, especially when it comes to prominent residents of the affluent Phoenix suburb.
The way they protected this guy," Torregrossa tells New Times, I thought, `He must be in the Mafia.'"
Leckie may not be in that Mafia. But he is a consigliere to Governor Fife Symington, and ranks as one of the most powerful individuals in Arizona government. His decisions as the head of the state's cost-cutting Project SLIM are affecting every Arizonan. He's the same George Leckie under fire recently for spending funds earmarked for state business on a vacation in Hawaii with his girlfriend.
Leckie has not returned telephone calls seeking comment for this story. Neither has Symington's office. Perhaps that night in Paradise Valley is still on Leckie's mind, however. In last Sunday's Phoenix Gazette, Leckie explained one of the Symington administration's financial gaffes to a political columnist this way:
We have a tendency to put our foot on the accelerator before we hit the brakes."
MARIA TORREGROSSA'S first taste of how some members of the Paradise Valley Police Department conduct criminal investigations came two days after her brush with death.
Detectives told Torregrossa they couldn't find the suspect because the Olds' license plate had been registered to a post-office box number.
Bedridden after a hospital stay for internal bleeding and an injured back, Torregrossa performed a little detective work of her own. It took her a few minutes to do what the cops apparently couldn't: She found Leckie's business address and called detectives, who finally interviewed him-¯three days after the hit-and-runs.
According to police reports, Leckie said he couldn't recall having hit anyone with his car that night. But he told detectives he had drunk four or five" glasses of wine within a few hours of the incidents. Leckie was never charged with drunken driving. Police agencies routinely submit even shaky cases to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office for felony consideration. The case against George Leckie for the crimes of endangerment, aggravated assault or even attempted murder seemed plausible. But Paradise Valley never submitted the case, says Bill FitzGerald, spokesman for the County Attorney's Office.
If they had, say criminal-justice experts contacted by New Times, a felony indictment against Leckie would have been likely-possibly on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. A prison term may have followed.
Paradise Valley officials allowed Leckie to plead guilty to a charge of failing to render aid" to Maria Torregrossa-a crime less serious under Arizona law than littering or loitering. Town Attorney Charles Ollinger displayed little memory of the incident during an interview with New Times. Leckie got into a hit-and-run up here? It doesn't ring a bell," Ollinger said when first told about the case. Whatever went on here was not unusual enough to easily jog my memory on it." After hearing details of the case, Ollinger said, I remember bits and pieces of it."
However, Leckie's near-lethal encounter with Maria Torregrossa and bicyclist John Faust remains a vivid, terrifying memory to those who were there.
People go to prison for stuff like this," says Torregrossa, speaking reluctantly to New Times because she fears reprisals. I'll bet you if you or I had hit George Leckie, we'd be in prison right now."
THAT PARADISE VALLEY treated George Leckie gently is hardly debatable. The case against him included compelling eyewitness and first-person testimony of two hit-and-run incidents, physical evidence, injuries to the victims-serious enough to require hospitalization in one instance-and Leckie's own admissions to detectives of having consumed alcohol on the night in question.
In March 1988, George Leckie was a fairly prominent Paradise Valley metal-door manufacturer. He was a close associate and friend of Fife Symington, who already had staked his claim as a major player in Republican party politics. The hit-and-runs were before Symington formally announced a bid to be governor of Arizona and before Leckie officially became Symington's campaign-finance director.
Paradise Valley police investigator Brian McFarland, on the other hand, had been awash in public controversy before he investigated the Leckie case. The 43-year-old McFarland had been fired by several police agencies, including Paradise Valley's-which was forced by a Town Personnel Board in the early 1980s to reinstate him.
According to an affidavit in a lawsuit brought by Phoenix private investigator Paul Huebl against McFarland and others stemming from a 1987 incident, McFarland habitually and routinely exhibits unprofessional conduct while discharging his duties as a Paradise Valley police officer... . He has falsified evidence in the past and continues to do so."
The affidavit was signed by John Corcoran, a fellow Paradise Valley cop.
McFarland had arrested Huebl after a shooting clash involving a Paradise Valley resident upon whom Huebl was trying to serve papers. Huebl later was acquitted and sued McFarland and others in Paradise Valley, alleging, among other things, that McFarland invented evidence against him. (A judge has dismissed McFarland from the suit.)
McFarlandÏnow a sergeantÏhas been accused in several cases of slanting his criminal investigations to favor Paradise Valley residents over out-of-towners. Those cases include the Huebl case, the 1991 case of National Football League player Marcus CottonÏa Paradise Valley resident accused of rape by an Arizona State University co-ed (In Paradise Valley, Cotton Is King," New Times, April 15)-and the George Leckie case.
(McFarland has denied allegations in the Huebl and Cotton cases; he did not return telephone calls seeking comment on the Leckie case. Paradise Valley police sergeant Ron Warner tells New Times that his department does not allow its officers to discuss individual cases.)
Town prosecutor Ollinger tells New Times that he doesn't recall specifics of the Leckie case; he does, however, offer his memories of the case of businessman Rudy Miller, who was found guilty of felony charges and was fined $150,000 after a December 1989 chase through Paradise Valley.
In the Miller incident, the businessman's wrath was focused on police officersÏhe tried to run them down. Ollinger recalls submitting that case for felony prosecution. No one was injured in the Rudy Miller case-unlike the Leckie case.
AIR FORCE VETERAN John Faust was in training as a long-distance bicyclist in 1988. Then 30 years old, he says he would ride almost 30 miles from his Mesa apartment to work at a west Phoenix bike shop every weekday.
Because he biked so often, Faust was no stranger to close calls. That's why he always wore bright colors, reflectors and a helmet. But nothing that's happened to him before or since matches the terror he says he felt on the night of March 15, 1988.
I was lit up like a Christmas tree, driving along Lincoln Drive," he tells New Times from his home in West Des Moines, Iowa. This guy in a big car drives up behind me and starts honking very obnoxiously. Honking and honking. I couldn't get out of his way and I couldn't figure why he wouldn't go into another lane and get on his merry way."
Pete Carpenter Jr., then a senior at Scottsdale Chaparral High School, was an eyewitness to what happened next. He was nearby in a pickup truck.
The bike guy was in the right lane, doing nothing wrong," recalls Carpenter. This car is weaving, driving down the middle of the yellow lane and then swaying behind the bike. Finally, he just hits the bike guy and takes off."
Carpenter rushed over to see how Faust was doing. I was on a bike for 600 miles a week at that time," Faust recalls, or the contact would have sent me flying."
Faust suffered a badly bruised hip and skinned knuckles. He and Carpenter quickly decided to chase the seemingly crazed driver. Faust tossed his bike in the back of Carpenter's pickup truck and the two gave chase.
I personally wanted to physically injure the guy because I had seen him almost kill a guy for no reason," Carpenter tells New Times. It was terrible."
With a head start of several seconds, George Leckie made a right turn onto Tatum. Faust and Carpenter saw him try a U-turn and drive up on a curb on the east side of Tatum. They also saw Leckie sideswipe Maria Torregrossa's car.
Everything was happening very quickly. By the time Faust and Carpenter reached Tatum and McDonald, Maria Torregrossa already had left her car and been run down by Leckie.
The reason I got out of my car," she says, was that I thought the guy had had a seizure or something. Nobody does something like what he was doing. Then he comes at me, smiling. He didn't care what he left in the way. He just wanted to get out of there."
Someone called the Paradise Valley police, who responded promptly. They were very considerate and professional," Torregrossa says. I was really shook and hurting, but they made me feel better."
Paradise Valley Officer R.J. Eck asked Torregrossa if she wanted to go to the hospital. Her stomach was cramping badly-she figured it was nerves-and her back hurt, but she declined, saying she'd go to her doctor in the morning.
The following day, Eck wrote a report of the hit-and-runs. He listed the case as an aggravated assault, motor vehicle"-a possible felonyÏand sent the paperwork over to detectives.
Detective Brian McFarland then took over the case. His reports indicate he didn't do much work on it until three days later-after, Maria Torregrossa says, she tracked Leckie down through her own sleuthing and informed Paradise Valley by telephone.
McFarland and fellow detective Mark Fischer made contact" with Leckie at his business office, according to reports.
At first McFarland seemed to be doing the right thing. His report indicates he checked out Leckie's Oldsmobile in a parking lot: It had gouges in the right front fender, a scratch running down the right side and a broken side-view mirror.
Leckie told the detectives he had hit Torregrossa's car as he made his aborted U-turn. But he said he couldn't recall hitting the bicyclist or the woman. Leckie said he had fled because he was in fear of a carload of young people that pulled up next to him and started yelling."
Leckie told the cops he had been at a business meeting that night and admitted to drinking four or five glasses of wine with dinner.
The detectives had Leckie's car taken to the Paradise Valley Police Department, where they photographed it. A few days later, Leckie called Detective McFarland with some new information: Now he did remember seeing a bicyclist on Lincoln Drive, but he still did not recall hitting him.
Around this time, John Faust brought his bike to the Paradise Valley Police Department. The detectives matched the paint marks and scratches on Leckie's car to the bike.
Maria Torregrossa gave McFarland photographs of the deep bruises to her abdomen and left hip. The detective noted that the injury was the same height as the right side-view mirror, which is broken... ."
Torregrossa wasn't doing well. Hours after Leckie had hit her, she says she felt great pain in her abdomen-it was distended and discolored. And her back was killing her.
She went to her doctor first thing in the morning. He hospitalized her immediately for internal bleeding. The normal route at this point would have been for the town's public-safety officials to decide whether to submit the case to the County Attorney's Office for consideration as a felony.
If it's pretty obvious, it will go directly to the county attorney without me looking at it," says Town Attorney Ollinger. If there's any doubt, they come and talk to me about it. The rule is: When in doubt, submit it."
That's the general procedure, Ollinger adds, but he says he doesn't recall whether police officials consulted him on the Leckie case.
According to Jim Goodwin, a retired Phoenix police sergeant considered an expert in accident-reconstruction cases, most police agencies follow similar procedures. You submit it, and the county prosecutor decides on the charges," he says.
(New Times asked Goodwin for his opinion of the case, without revealing the names of the suspect or the victims. Goodwin says he doesn't know Brian McFarland but he praises other Paradise Valley cops. I work with Paradise Valley and some of their investigators are super-good friends of mine," Goodwin says.)
After being told the facts of the Leckie case, Goodwin says the first two incidents-hitting the bicyclist and ramming into the woman's car were nothing felonious."
Where I'd have been concerned," he tells New Times, is when he runs down the person after she gets out of the car. In Phoenix, I would have submitted it, based on the information you're giving me."
In real life, however, Detective Brian McFarland cited Leckie for misdemeanors and returned the Oldsmobile to him. Leckie faced two charges each of hit-and-run, failing to render aid, and failing to control his car, and a single count of driving on an expired license.
I have a difficult time accepting that an established law enforcement agency would do what you're telling me they did," ex-cop Goodwin tells New Times. It sounds like there's something missing, whether it's your story or their story. If it could be shown that the guy knew he'd run a second person down, that would start to change things."
Marc Budoff, now a well-known Phoenix defense attorney, speculates what might have happened if Paradise Valley had submitted the Leckie case to the County Attorney's Office-where Budoff used to work. (Budoff was not told the names of the people involved in the case before he gave his opinion.)
Our county prosecutors don't hesitate to claim that a vehicle is a deadly weapon," Budoff says. When they want to go after somebody, they do it. They've gone a lot farther with a lot less than this. The conduct is no less egregious because the victims didn't die. It's the kind of case a prosecutor would love to have."
In Maria Torregrossa, prosecutors also would have had a convincing and sympathetic victim.
After George Leckie injured Torregrossa, she says her back troubled her so much that her future husband often had to carry her to the bathroom. She had to wear a brace and underwent more than a year of chiropractic treatments. The pain, she says, was constant.
THE PARADISE VALLEY Town Court mailed subpoenas to the victims and eyewitnesses of Leckie's mayhem less than a month after the incidents.
Many people don't know the difference between superior courts-where major crimes are adjudged-and city courts-which hear misdemeanors.
I just knew we were going to trial," Maria Torregrossa recalls, and I wanted to have my day in court."
But several events of consequence took place before Leckie's trial. He hired Phoenix defense attorney Larry Kazan, an expert in vehicular law. (Kazan declined to discuss the Leckie case.)
On another front, Leckie's insurance carrier offered Torregrossa and bicyclist John Faust out-of-court settlements for their injuries. Both settled-Torregrossa for an undisclosed sum she says covered her medical bills and little else, and Faust for all of $200.
They bought me off," Faust says. But I still told the guy's lawyer that I'd like to see him in jail for what he did. He told me, ~`It's flat-out not gonna happen.'"
Torregrossa and Faust went to the Paradise Valley Town Court in April 1988 expecting to testify at George Leckie's misdemeanor trial. Also ready to testify was Pete Carpenter Jr., the high school student who had come to Faust's rescue after Leckie had knocked the bicyclist down.
At the courthouse, Torregrossa says, Town Attorney Charles Ollinger walked up to her. He told me I had no case," she recalls. I said, `No case? What do you mean?' I was in tears out in the lobby. He said, `Just trust me on this.'" (Ollinger says he recalls no such conversation.)
She had been living in Arizona for only a year at the time. I didn't know how things worked out here," says Torregrossa, a streetwise native of Brooklyn. I told myself, `There's something really wrong going on.' A guy who should have been raked over the coals, and my prosecutor is telling me I have no case?"
George Leckie's last-minute plea bargain allowed him to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of failing to render aid" to Maria Torregrossa. Both hit-and-run charges were dropped. In fact, all charges stemming from Leckie's hit-and-run of bicyclist John Faust were dropped.
Leckie was ordered to attend defensive-driving school and to pay a $215 fine.
He looked pitiful," Torregrossa recalls. His hair was messed up and he was real tired-looking. He walked by me and he said, `I'm really sorry.' So was I, but maybe not for the same reason."
To this day, Pete Carpenter Jr. has no idea who George Leckie is. But Carpenter does recall his own feelings that day in court.
I was really pissed off," he says. I wanted to say something to the judge, but it wasn't my place. He could have killed that guy on the bike so easy. I don't know what was going on behind the scenes up there. I don't know why they did it that way."
Carpenter's dad, Pete Sr., says he had to do what he calls fatherly footwork" with his son afterward.
He was a young man who reacted as a good citizen and then watched the law let somebody go who should have been punished severely," says Carpenter Sr. All we heard was that the guy was very prominent. I tried to tell my son that he had done his duty, even if the authorities hadn't."
A FEW MONTHS after his bout with vehicular madness, George Leckie signed on with Fife Symington's gubernatorial campaignÏthen in its formative stages.
The pair had met while Leckie was serving on the Board of Trustees at the Phoenix Country Day School, which is located in Paradise Valley. After Symington defeated Terry Goddard in early 1991, he hired Leckie as his deputy chief of staffÏat a salary of $85,000 a year.
Leckie's salary dipped to $76,000 last February after angry state employees protested the lofty pay of Symington's brain trust. After accusations of fiscal mismanagement, the governor appointed Leckie director of Project SLIM, his cost-cutting panel.
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The governor has stood by Leckie despite new reports of financial improprieties. A few weeks ago, for example, Leckie reportedly repaid a gubernatorial fund more than $1,300 for a stopover in Hawaii with his girlfriend that reporters discovered was unrelated to state business.
Leckie's driving record since that wild night in March 1988 includes three speeding tickets, two of them in Paradise Valley, the home of photo-radar. Maria Torregrossa says she's feeling better these days. An upbeat person by nature, she got married about a year ago and is working hard as an executive in the tourism industry.
Bicyclist John Faust has moved back to his native Iowa, where he takes long rides around the cornfields instead of on the Valley's hazardous roads. He asks if the driver who hit him is famous. Told the man is one of the most important government figures in the state of Arizona, Faust whistles into the telephone.
Is that right?" he says. He impressed me as being a bad dude.