Have you ever gotten behind the wheel and done a California roll you know, slowing to a crawl but not coming to a dead stop at a marked intersection? Of course you have. Luciano Arriaga Jr., 35, was accused of this minor moving violation. It cost him 10 years in state prison. No time off for good behavior, no possibility of parole. He has to serve the entire 10.
The Phoenix police officer responsible for this miscarriage of justice is Officer Warren Poole, a former member of the SWAT team. Officer Poole lied about the traffic violation in his initial report. The cop admitted in court that he could not even see the stop sign in question. The traffic ticket was thrown out of court.
Then the justice system got down to the serious business of teaching an uppity Mexican a lesson he and his family will never forget.
Prosecutors at one point offered Arriaga a sweet deal: no jail time, just straight probation. All he had to do was admit he had assaulted a police officer.
But Arriaga refused to accept a plea agreement if he had to confess guilt for something he said he didn't do.
It is February 6, 2002, and Arriaga drives his blue pickup truck to his girlfriend's house. They are going out to breakfast, but she's not ready. In fact, she's only just gotten out of bed and tells her boyfriend that it will be at least an hour before she can be seen in public.
So Arriaga drives around the corner heading to a body shop. He has completed a couple of years of study in junior college, but a university degree isn't his thing. Although he tows vehicles for cash, his passion is car restoration. He sells auto parts for classic Chevys and is known far and wide. You can find his ad in Hemmings Motor News, the bible for people who drive collectibles.
Officer Poole, however, doesn't know any of this. For all he knows, the subject of his attention is a cholo, a gangbanger, a drug dealer. One thing's for sure: He's a Mexican in the barrio. It is almost 9 a.m.
Officer Poole has so many versions of what happened next that your head spins trying to keep track. There is the version he tells the other officers who arrive on the scene. There is the version he tells two hours later to a detective investigating the incident. There is the version repeated to the grand jury. There are the versions that are spun out in three separate courthouse venues two trials and traffic court. All of the scenarios vary, and all begin with a lie.
Poole began by claiming that Arriaga rolled through a stop sign at Third Street and Grant. This lie builds to a crescendo that culminates in tragedy.
Poole told Detective Ricky Newberry that after the California roll, he observed Arriaga fleeing the scene, speeding away. He informed the detective that Arriaga was going "over 25 mph."
The level of alarm in Poole's story is startling. But it is all wrong.
Poole was new to this neighborhood and his ignorance fueled his paranoia. Of course Arriaga was going over 25 mph; the speed limit is 35.
Whether his years spent handling the tension on the SWAT team or his unfamiliarity with a barrio in the shadow of Bank One Ballpark are to blame, Poole's mind is flushed with drama.
"In my opinion, he was trying to move out of the neighborhood at a pretty good clip," Poole told Detective Newberry. "Even before I activated my lights, he was already beginning to turn into an alley. At that point, I was becoming concerned that it might be a bailout situation."
Arriaga parks his car, gets out and starts toward Miranda Brothers Body Shop, a place where he has done business for years. But this is not what Poole sees.
"He is beginning to walk away and it is my impression that as soon as he got to the residence, which backs up to the east side of the alley, I am thinking a foot pursuit," Poole explained to Newberry.
"He begins walking away, and I confront him and I say, I need to talk with you.' As I recall, he turns around and kind of squares off on me. He is facing me. I said, I need to talk with you,' and then it was my impression that he was getting ready to run. He wasn't going to be compliant. I reached out and grabbed him and that is when the struggle ensued."
Every single instinct and suspicion of Officer Poole's is wrong.
There are two stop signs between Third Street and the alley, not one. Poole, as we already know, cannot even see the first sign. By Poole's own account, Arriaga comes to a complete and legal stop at the second sign, hardly the behavior of a suspect on the run.
Arriaga does not flee the scene. In fact, he is driving under the speed limit. He has driven fewer than three blocks with two stop signs. He does not abandon his car or "bail out." He parks the vehicle and walks toward the body shop before the officer turns into the alley or activates his lights. And he is walking, not running. When the officer calls out, Arriaga stops and turns around.
But to Poole, the Mexican is "squaring off," and the six-foot, 200-pound cop immediately takes the five-foot-six, 140-pound Arriaga to the ground. It is not so difficult.
Officer Poole never asks for a driver's license.
He does not ask for registration.
He does not ask for proof of insurance.
He does not inform Arriaga that he is suspected of committing a driving infraction.
He does not tell Arriaga that he is under arrest.
Just like that, BOOM! Both men are on the ground.
Based on what? Based on a remarkable level of mind reading, according to what Poole told the investigating detective.
"You could tell just by looking at his body that he was not going to be cooperative," Poole told the detective. "You could tell looking at somebody if they are going to be compliant. . . . He had that look like he was going to run or fight. He was thinking. He was looking at me, and he was thinking. He couldn't figure out what he was going to do. In my mind, I was thinking, he has that look in his eyes that says, Can I run fast enough, or is this guy going to catch me?' He was looking at me and you could tell in his eyes as they were darting around, as he was looking at me."
It takes us longer to scan this mind-reading exercise than it took Poole to decide to physically assault Arriaga. Asked by Detective Newberry how quickly he grabbed the suspect, Officer Poole responded by snapping his fingers. Just like that.
The interview with Detective Newberry occurred two hours after the incident. Poole told two other cops at the scene something else entirely.
"Officer Warren Poole reported that when Arriaga exited his vehicle, he ignored repeated requests to cooperate by [not] producing proper identification and vehicle documentation . . . [it became] necessary to physically restrain him until the documentation was obtained and verified," wrote patrolman James Corey.
Put on the witness stand, Poole admitted that he never asked for any paperwork.
Yet a third version of the confrontation was offered by Sergeant Ronald Vasquez, who said Poole told him that the suspect ran into the body shop and that the officer tackled him from behind.
There was no flight or tackling, however, according to what Poole told Detective Newberry: "I then just reached out and grabbed him and he tenses up and it was an active aggression."
In the courtroom, Poole changed his story again, saying this time that Arriaga had initiated the brawl.
". . . He came out and punched me, or pushed me," testified Poole. "You know, he assaulted me. He pushed me . . . I grab him from behind. If you get behind them, it's a good way to control them."
Defense attorney Martin Lieberman asked about the new story.
Question: "You never told Officer Newberry that he pushed you, correct?"
Answer: "I did not say it in those words, that is correct."
Officer Poole did not say it in those words or in any other words.
On one point, Poole is consistent through all of the various reports, depositions and testimony.
"To be honest with you," Poole told the courtroom, "the thing I remember the most is just him asking me, What do you want me to do? Why are you doing this?'"
"Did you respond?" wondered the judge.
"I did not," answered Poole.
By all accounts, Officer Poole was on top of Arriaga, whose face and stomach were on the ground. The Mexican was struggling, but was pinned beneath the cop who was trying to subdue the unruly suspect with a choke hold.
Arriaga will later tell anyone who will listen that he thought he was going to black out and die.
Arriaga then did something he will regret the rest of his life.
Lying flat on the ground, choking, with the 200-pound Poole on top of him, Arriaga reached out, grabbed a piece of two-by-four that littered the alley, swung it backward over the top of his head and clipped the police officer in the skull.
The movement was so awkward and, frankly, feeble that even Poole recalled he was "clumped" on the head.
Nonetheless, Arriaga had assaulted a police officer with a deadly weapon. It will take six stitches to close the cut.
"I was going to shoot [Arriaga] in the base of the neck where the skull sits on the spine," Poole told the detective. "I was all prepared to start shooting him in the head, and then the stick falls away."
Arriaga is finally subdued and handcuffed when other officers respond. He does not have guns, drugs, large sums of cash, gang tattoos or outstanding warrants. The paperwork on his car and his license are all in order.
Poole's various versions of the traffic stop were defended in court by an expert witness, another cop, who said the inconsistencies in his stories are what happens in "the fog of war."
The same expert claimed that there was nothing irregular at all in the physical way Officer Poole dealt with this traffic violation. This isn't about a California roll, it's about a war.
Poole himself explained his conflicting accounts of the arrest to the jury in words that were both sympathetic and mystifying: "I had just been through a traumatic experience, and I had a lot of things coming at me. And it's like trying to take a drink of water out of a fire hose. . . . The memories won't change, but what you remember will."
In the end, the jury found Luciano Arriaga Jr. guilty of aggravated assault of a police officer with a deadly weapon. He pulled a mandatory sentence of 10 years, six months.
In the end, all the policeman's lies and all of his brutality were wiped away by Officer Warren Poole's memory of how he felt as Arriaga was put safely into a squad car.
"It was good to be alive."
The judge, who was required to give Arriaga the stiff sentence under state sentencing guidelines, filed a 603 L notice with the courts which announced that he believes the prison term is excessive. This allows Arriaga to file an appeal with the Board of Executive Clemency.
I know you are reading this and asking yourself: What was Arriaga thinking? Why would anyone, under any circumstance, strike a cop?
You must understand that these events do not happen in your neighborhood, but they do in Arriaga's. And it is naive to think it is only the police who overreact. Twice, as a kid, Arriaga had run-ins with the cops that ended in arrest.
Yet while each incident was relatively trivial drag racing and the suspicion of graffiti-painting in both instances Arriaga was overcharged with aggravated assault. Because the arrests go back more than 10 years, the judge in the most recent case kept them out of the trial.
But the history, on both sides of the law, was on everyone's mind on the morning of February 6, 2002.
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Surely you remember the publicity surrounding teenager Eddie Mallet, the double amputee who died in a similar police choke hold in 1994. The jury in the wrongful-death lawsuit came back with the largest civil judgment ever against the Phoenix Police Department, $50 million.
Eddie Mallet was a kid who hadn't committed any crime, either, when he was stopped. He still ended up dead. Because he liked customized Chevys, Eddie and Luciano were good friends. Luciano spoke at Eddie's funeral.
He carried the casket that held Eddie Mallet's body.
And on February 6, 2002, in an alley in downtown Phoenix, Luciano Arriaga Jr. thought he was next.