Veteran prosecutor Randy Wakefield greeted a supervisor in his office on the morning of June 4.
It wasn't unusual for Jim Blake, the Maricopa County Attorney's criminal division chief, to exchange a few friendly words with Wakefield. The pair had worked in the same shop for more than a decade.
But this conversation, in which Blake would say that Wakefield's son had been implicated in a grand-jury investigation, would have dire repercussions. It led to Wakefield's suspension, to his abrupt retirement and, on July 2, to a criminal charge against him.
City prosecutors accused Wakefield in Northeast Phoenix Justice Court of "knowingly [disclosing] to another the nature or substance" of secret grand-jury proceedings, a misdemeanor.
Specifically, he is accused of telling his daughter-in-law that his son, Craig Wakefield, was being investigated by a grand jury in an aggravated-assault case. If convicted, Randy Wakefield faces a possible jail term. He has pleaded not guilty.
A spokesman from the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys' Advisory Council says Wakefield likely is the first prosecutor in state history to be so accused.
Unpublicized until now, the recent events have stunned and angered Wakefield, a straight-talking cowboy type who earned an impeccable reputation during 20 years as an Arizona highway patrolman, then 15 years as a prosecutor.
"Jim [Blake] put me in a really tough jam between my family and my job," he says. "I tried to do the right thing, to be straight. But I don't think I've done anything wrong."
To bolster his argument, Wakefield provided New Times with the county attorney's internal report about his alleged indiscretion--including transcripts of interviews investigators conducted with him, his daughter-in-law and Jim Blake. He also provided copies of his personnel file, and of sheriff's reports in the June 1996 assault case that involved his son.
Those records and other data collected by New Times show the case against Randy Wakefield is no slam dunk. Instead, it is rife with troubling questions about what happened to him and why.
Though he says he doesn't think Jim Blake set him up, the 62-year-old Wakefield seems convinced his ex-employers had it in for him.
"I had an inkling I was a target for a while," he says. "I'm no spring chicken, and there's been a tendency to get rid of the old-timers. It's the bigger salaries, and the fact that [Maricopa County Attorney] Rick Romley didn't hire us. He'd rather have youngsters grateful for a job . . ."
Long admired for his candidness, Wakefield is fighting to keep his record clean.
"They're evil little gnomes," he says of Romley and chief deputy Paul Ahler. "Evil is a fitting word. They just care about themselves and how they're going to get more powerful."
No one from the County Attorney's Office would discuss the Wakefield matter.
Hours before Jim Blake spoke with Randy Wakefield on June 4, he'd asked a suspect at a grand jury to identify his cohort in a racially charged clash in New River.
Under a grant of limited immunity, the suspect--Richard Nero--had revealed the name Craig Wakefield, describing him as a construction worker in his mid-30s.
Blake gave his version of what happened next during a recent internal investigation.
"I went up and saw Randy and asked him if he knew a Craig Wakefield," Blake said in a tape-recorded account. "He said he did know him and that was his son, and asked, 'What has he done now?' . . . I told him an outline of the case."
An office investigator asked Blake, "During this conversation, did you indicate that this was a matter currently before an investigative grand jury?"
". . . I'm sure I would have said something to the effect, 'I was just before the grand jury, and this person gave us this name,' that type of thing."
"Okay. Did he make any comment when being informed that, one, it was a matter before the grand jury and, two, it was being turned over to the sheriff's investigator?"
"He told me not to worry, that he would not inform his son."
It was Jim Blake who uttered the words "grand jury" to Wakefield. It also was Blake who placed Wakefield in the vise grip of having to choose between family and job.
Blake could have used other means to determine whether Craig and Randy Wakefield were related. Then, he could have invoked his office's conflict of interest in pursuing a case against Craig Wakefield without having involved Randy Wakefield.
Even if Randy Wakefield was Blake's only source about the relationship, Blake didn't have to tell him about the ongoing grand-jury investigation.
"He could have just asked me, 'Is Craig your son?' period," Wakefield says. "I would have said yes, and he could have said, 'Thanks, but I can't tell you what's up.' I wouldn't have had a clue of what was going on. Sure, I would have called Craig up and asked him what he did, but I wouldn't have known about a grand jury or any of the details."
It's not clear why the County Attorney's Office also hasn't pursued charges against Blake for breaking the grand-jury secrecy laws.
Randy Wakefield admits he told his daughter-in-law--Jennifer Wakefield--about the assault investigation, but both say he never mentioned a grand jury. He says his reasons for telling her were twofold:
* Jennifer Wakefield phoned Randy Wakefield one day after Blake told him about the assault investigation. She told him that she and her husband were in the market for a new horse. He said he first told her to save their money for a lawyer, then added details in subsequent conversations.
* Knowing of his son's past battles with police--including a conviction for resisting arrest--Wakefield says he told Jennifer Wakefield to instruct Craig to submit calmly if detectives contacted him. (They haven't.)
Randy Wakefield says he eventually told Jennifer that authorities had identified Craig as having hit someone with a pipe at a New River convenience store. He adds that his sole source about the clash was Blake, who'd summarized sheriff's reports--which are public records.
Jim Blake concurred in a June 9 interview with an office investigator, saying he'd revealed little to the grand jury about the assault case:
"When I had [co-suspect Richard Nero] in front of the grand jury, I didn't go into the facts. I said, on such and such a day, such and such a place, were you and another person involved in an altercation? He said yes."
Randy Wakefield says his talks with Jennifer Wakefield led to crucial revelations.
"She told me that Craig was not the one that hit the man in the head with the pipe, but that Rick [Nero] was the person who had hit him," Wakefield wrote in a June 12 note to his attorney, Joe Chornenky.
"She said that Rick's girlfriend had told her that there might be a problem because Rick had hit a Mexican in the head with a pipe. Later that day, Jennifer called me at work and told me that she had just talked to Rick and that he admitted that he was the one who hit the man with the pipe . . ."
Wakefield says he was obliged to inform Blake.
"I told him, thinking I was helping with the investigation," he says. "I knew it didn't clear my son. Even now, I don't know if he did or didn't do it. And if I thought that I had done anything wrong, I'm not so dumb as to go to Blake, who I know would run straight to [chief deputy] Paul Ahler to make sure his own little butt wasn't in a sling."
Records show that's what Blake did.
On Monday, June 9, office investigator Bill Heath read Randy Wakefield his Miranda rights against self-incrimination. Wakefield waived his rights, after which Heath questioned him.
Later that day, Ahler suspended Wakefield with pay. It was a year to the day after the assault at the convenience store.
Wakefield retired one week later, not wanting to be fired and risk a fight over his retirement benefits.
"It was clear that they didn't want me there anymore," he says. "It was just simpler this way."
Neither Craig Wakefield nor suspected accomplice Richard Nero has been charged in the assault case. It now is in the hands of the Arizona Attorney General's Office because of the conflict of interest.
Randy Wakefield is more comfortable in jeans and cowboy boots than in a three-piece suit and penny loafers, happier at a rodeo than a Bar mixer.
The rangy cowhand is a member of the Maricopa County sheriff's posse, and still hones his roping skills weekly at an arena in north Phoenix.
With the disarming twang of his native east Texas and an aw-shucks manner, Wakefield has lulled many opponents into complacency during his legal career.
But those trappings mask the soul of a fighter.
On an application for employment with the County Attorney's Office in 1983, Wakefield described his greatest strength as "tenacious."
Asked to state his greatest weakness, he scribbled "too tenacious."
He also revealed something of himself in responding to the question, "It is often said that a good sportsman must be a good loser as well as a gracious victor. How do you feel about this statement as it relates to the practice of law?"
"I am a lousy loser," Randy Wakefield wrote.
Born in Dennison, Texas, Wakefield and his family moved to Tucson when he was a youngster. A father of seven now married to his fourth wife, he sums up his life this way:
"I've always gone about things the hard way, but I've been able to do a lot of things, gotten to lots of places."
Those places included the Navy, in which Wakefield enlisted in 1951 after he dropped out of Tucson High School. He served four years, including a stretch as an aircraft mechanic on a carrier off Korea during the war.
Back in Arizona with an honorable discharge, Wakefield in 1955 was a 21-year-old with a questionable future. He'd earned his GED in the Navy, and that enabled him to go to work in 1957 with the state Department of Public Safety. His starting pay was $325 monthly, plus a $25 monthly clothing stipend.
"I did the back roads of Arizona, Seligman, you name it," Wakefield says, "and I loved it. I'd like to think that I treated people the same on the road as I did as a prosecutor. I was pretty tough at times, but fair."
He was promoted to sergeant in 1966, and pondered his future. By then, he was responsible for feeding his three children and his wife's four, all from previous marriages.
That didn't stop Wakefield from pursuing new goals.
"I just wanted my degree," he says, "to make something more of myself after I retired from police work."
He enrolled at the University of Arizona, attending classes while working night shift until he earned his bachelor's degree. Along the way, Wakefield decided to become a lawyer.
"With a degree in psychology, what was I going to do, be a security guard or something? I decided to take it a little further."
He earned his law degree in 1973, and served his final four years with DPS as a legal adviser before retiring in May 1977.
After three years in private practice, Wakefield and his family moved to Montrose County, Colorado, where he worked from 1981-83 as a prosecutor.
"Putting bad guys behind bars came pretty naturally to me," he says.
In October 1983, Wakefield took a job as a trial prosecutor with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. A few months later, then-county attorney Tom Collins assigned him a controversial, high-profile series of cases.
It was a strange time: Collins had won election in part because of the campaign support of the Citizens for Decency Through the Law, a special-interest group dedicated to fighting obscenity. CDL was founded by Charles H Keating Jr., chairman and president of American Continental Corporation, who would later serve prison time for securities fraud.
Wakefield's marching orders were to prosecute local adult-movie store owners under Arizona's obscenity laws. He wasn't thrilled about the assignment, but says that, as a newcomer to the office, he had little choice but to go along.
"The office asked me what I knew about porno," he recalls. "I said, 'Nothing, other than looking at it.' I look back on that era and shake my head. You'd win or lose a case almost strictly on the makeup of the jury, not on what either lawyer had to say."
Wakefield's foe in many porno trials was Phoenix defense attorney Richard Hertzberg.
"He had that cowboy appeal, and he seemed to know what he was doing," Hertzberg recalls. "He was always a squared-up guy, tougher than hell to fight against, but honest. I don't think we liked each other much at the time, but he never became a zealot, and I appreciated that."
Hertzberg expresses surprise when told of his former adversary's current legal problems.
"What's a dad supposed to do?" Hertzberg asks. "What the hell did they expect him to do? I probably would have gotten in my car and confronted my kid. They tempted fate. Family comes first, no matter what."
After two convictions, two acquittals and two hung juries in the porno trials, Wakefield says he implored a supervisor to reassign him.
From the late 1980s until he retired, Wakefield worked in a variety of units--including organized crime and charging.
Wakefield's evaluations during his 14 years with Maricopa County were excellent.
"I wish to take this opportunity to thank Randy for his cooperative spirit," special-crimes chief Bill Culbertson wrote in a March 1992 letter of commendation. ". . . The cooperative effort that Randy has shown is one which we should seek to instill in all of our deputy county attorneys."
Like Romley, Wakefield is a Republican. But he says he is "sort of apolitical," and took no part in the county attorney's winning election campaigns in 1988, 1992 and 1996.
That didn't stop Romley from issuing a letter of commendation to Wakefield after the successful 1990 prosecution of a Phoenix auto-theft ring:
"I wish to add my personal commendation to that of [the Phoenix Police Department] for the dedication and professionalism you displayed in the handling of this case, which I know is typical of your work . . ."
Wakefield's immediate supervisor, Miles Nelson, wrote in a June 1996 annual evaluation: "Randy has demonstrated to me that he understands the policies and procedures relating to the office in general as well as policies and procedures that relate specially to the [Charging] Bureau. He follows and supports these policies and procedures without exception."
Wakefield says the part about supporting office policies wasn't true.
"This has become an office in which almost every act is politically motivated--much more than with Collins," he says. "I wasn't a rabble-rouser, not hardly, but
I wasn't walking around with stars in my eyes, either. I was a good soldier, but not a real happy one about the direction."
As an example, he cites the gun policy, in which defendants who possess a weapon while committing a crime are not offered probation-eligible plea bargains.
"[It] sounds good, but it has two big problems," Wakefield says. "You send people to prison who should have been eligible for probation. So they go away and really learn to be bad. Then you have folks going to trial and walking away scot-free who should have had a criminal record."
Despite Wakefield's discontent, he says he'd planned to stay on the job until late 1998. The recent events altered that plan.
The alleged June 1996 incident at the Four Sons Market in New River could be described as a classic hate crime.
It started, sheriff's reports say, after two white men and a woman in a Chevy pickup truck drove into the parking lot. Bystanders told detectives that, without provocation, the men hurled racial epithets and obscenities at Ricardo and Hector Leon, Phoenix brothers in their 30s, outside the store.
One of the white men retrieved a three-foot-long steel pipe from the pickup. The second man restrained Hector Leon as the pipe-wielder chased Ricardo Leon.
The pursuer struck Ricardo Leon in the head with the pipe, causing a large gash and knocking him unconscious. A store clerk dialed 911, and someone noted the fleeing Chevy's license plate.
It was registered to Richard Nero, a 31-year-old Phoenix man.
An ambulance took Ricardo Leon to a hospital. He later claimed about $3,000 in medical bills, and has complained of dizzy spells since the attack.
A few weeks after the one-sided clash, sheriff's detectives interviewed the Leon brothers. The brothers' accounts of the assault were consistent, as were their visual recollections during separate photographic lineups.
Ricardo Leon picked Rick Nero out of his lineup, according to a detective's report: "This was the suspect who was pushing and restraining his brother Hector, while the other suspect struck him with the pipe."
Hector Leon also chose Nero from a separate lineup, but was less sure: "He pointed to [Nero] and stated that this subject looked familiar, but could not be certain. He believed this was the subject who had physically restrained him."
Both men implicated Nero's unnamed accomplice as the person who'd assaulted Ricardo Leon.
The investigation stalled inexplicably after the Leon interviews. Sheriff's investigators apparently made no effort to question Rick Nero--the only suspect initially identified by name--until January 1997. That month, a defense attorney told a sheriff's detective that Nero would decline to be interviewed.
Last spring, the unsolved case reached prosecutor Jim Blake in his capacity as chief of the office's Hate Crimes unit.
Blake asked Nero's attorney if Nero would identify the other suspect--the alleged pipe-wielder. After the attorney said no, Blake subpoenaed Nero before an investigative grand jury.
"[The attorney] said that Mr. Nero would invoke his rights," Blake later told office investigator Heath, "and therefore there would be no purpose to the grand jury. We had anticipated that all along, so we informed him that if he invoked his rights, we would then grant [Nero] use immunity and impel him to testify . . ."
"Use" immunity promises that anything a witness says on the stand cannot be used against him or her. Prosecutors use the legal mechanism at times to get limited but vital information.
In a brief June 4 appearance before the grand jury, Rick Nero implicated Craig Wakefield in a vaguely described "altercation" in New River. Nero also provided Wakefield's phone number, place of employment and approximate home address.
"The minute I heard 'Wakefield,' it piqued my interest . . . that there could be a possible conflict," Blake said later to investigator Heath. ". . . I went up and saw Randy . . ."
Heath asked Blake, "Do you think he [Randy Wakefield] was talking to you as a friend or as the deputy county attorney that had taken this to the grand jury?"
"Probably both," Blake replied.
The reason for the grand-jury secrecy laws is spelled out in legal texts. Secrecy is said to protect innocent people from being identified as subjects of an investigation; it protects witnesses from being pressured or threatened by potential defendants; and it protects the government's interest in conducting unfettered undercover investigations.
Secrecy, however, sometimes is an end unto itself, which has led to relaxation of the laws that govern the federal grand jury. Witnesses in federal proceedings may speak with whomever they want after testifying.
Not so under Arizona's grand-jury laws, where the degree of secrecy is more stringent. The law in Arizona says:
"A person commits unlawful grand jury disclosure if such person knowingly discloses to another the nature or substance of any grand jury testimony or any decision, result or other matter attending a grand jury proceeding which is required by law to be kept secret, except in the proper discharge of his official duties . . ."
Bill Heath concluded Randy Wakefield violated that law.
"Based on evidence disclosed . . . ," he wrote in his investigative narrative, "I feel there is sufficient information to charge Randy Wakefield . . ."
But charging someone is easy. Proving it in court often isn't. Several attorneys familiar with Wakefield's case--including some who barely know him--say he has an excellent chance of beating the rap.
"Randy may have, repeat, may have technically violated the law," says a county prosecutor who requested anonymity. "But look at the facts in context. I think a jury would conclude that a conviction would be terribly unjust. Randy didn't run to his son. Something came up with his daughter-in-law and he felt obliged to say something to her. Wouldn't you?"
Rumors about Wakefield's departure run the gamut. New Times spoke with many courthouse denizens and heard variations on the theme that Wakefield has jeopardized a felony case by talking out of turn.
That disturbs Wakefield.
"I don't think I've jeopardized jack," he says. "If they can prove my son or anyone else is guilty of hurting someone, go for it. But they never tried to interview Craig after they got his name. They never tried to interview my daughter-in-law after I reported that Rick Nero told her he'd used the pipe. They never interviewed Rick's girlfriend, who saw everything from the pickup. And they never tried to talk with Nero for months. . . .
"When you think about it, the only guy that got bagged in this case is me."
As Wakefield awaits his own trial on the grand-jury charge, he's seeking clients as a defense attorney. But to many around the courthouse, the concept of this career lawman in his new role does not compute.
"I know I'm known for being a prosecutor," he says, chuckling. "All I can say is I'll fight for my clients like I fought for the state of Arizona. And I'll be honest about it.
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.