Recent events lead me to believe that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio may again be abusing his police powers for political purposes. That is, the paranoid and increasingly disoriented Arpaio is turning up the heat on some of us who have landed on his enemies list.
In the past month, county deputies have conducted searches of homes and a business of two of Arpaio's political rivals, and it was announced that the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office is seeking felony charges against me for a column I wrote last July.
At the same time, the MCSO, without conducting a proper investigation, cleared Arpaio of wrongdoing in a mysterious April 2 one-vehicle accident in which he totaled his county-owned police cruiser.
These are the latest examples in a pattern of such behavior by Arpaio and his deputies during his 13-year run as sheriff. His modus operandi has been to attack enemies and protect friends.
It's scary, but the 72-year-old sheriff is the most powerful politician in the nation's fourth-largest county. What other pol in the Phoenix area can get away with dispatching a police force to search property, seize records and threaten political rivals with jail?
What other pol can deploy his own deputies to clear him of wrongdoing when he gets in a jam?
Deputies have been involved in three criminal investigations since March 31 that underscore how Joe Arpaio prefers to operate the MCSO.
On that date, sheriff's deputies raided a Mesa towing business owned by Lee Watkins, a prominent political operative who supported Arpaio's opponent, W. Steven Martin, in the November general election.
On April 14, the MCSO raided the Glendale home of Chuck Carpenter, a Republican party official who strongly supported Arpaio's rival, Dan Saban, in the Republican primary.
On April 18, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office notified me that I was under criminal investigation -- at Arpaio's request -- because I published the sheriff's home address in my column and it wound up on the "World Wide Web" last July.
In the first two examples, other police agencies were either conducting or had conducted investigations into the allegations that led the MCSO to launch the raids. Arpaio should have stayed out of both cases.
In addition to these politically tainted criminal probes, there is a disturbing development in the fledgling campaign to get enough signatures for a recall election that would kick Arpaio to the curb.
On the weekend of April 16, the office of the Recall Arpaio campaign committee was burglarized. A computer with hundreds of e-mail addresses of recall supporters was stolen. Numerous other valuable items were left behind.
Recall leaders contend they were the target of a Watergate-style break-in orchestrated by the MCSO or Arpaio supporters. It's not like similar hanky-panky hasn't happened before.
"I feel this was a counterattack measure," recall leader Linda Saville said in an e-mail to supporters. Arpaio and MCSO officials didn't respond to my requests for comment about the incident.
Now about that one-vehicle accident involving our doddering sheriff . . . perhaps the best way to judge a law enforcement agency is to assess how it handles investigations of top officers. The MCSO had the golden opportunity of proving to the public that it is completely aboveboard, that it treats even the sheriff just like anybody else.
It flunked this litmus test.
Shortly after 10 a.m. on Saturday, April 2, Sheriff Joe Arpaio decided to do a little shopping on a day off from work.
Arpaio hopped in his fully loaded, county-owned, 2001 Crown Victoria police cruiser and headed to the Osco drugstore near his home in Fountain Hills.
Unlike most of us who must shell out hundreds of dollars a month in car payments, gasoline, repairs and insurance, Arpaio has no such worries. Maricopa County taxpayers pick up the tab for all expenses related to his police car, which doubles as a family ride for him and his wife, Ava.
Arpaio turned off East Palisades Boulevard and steered the unmarked police cruiser into the Osco parking lot.
He scoped out a parking space and made his final approach.
But then, something inexplicable happened.
Instead of stopping, Arpaio's vehicle sped across the parking lot, careened over a curb, crashed across a large boulder and finally came to a stop on a sidewalk.
There were two flat tires, the front wheels were damaged, the radiator was leaking, the front bumper was crumpled, the air conditioner was mangled, the front suspension destroyed and the rear driver side quarter panel was dented.
Arpaio's car had smashed into the curb and boulder with such force that the drive shaft snapped.
Within seconds, a witness called 911, and MCSO deputies were dispatched to the scene. At first, no one knew the driver of the runaway vehicle was Mr. Law-and-Order himself.
But MCSO Deputy Roger Bierwalter instantly recognized the driver of the car when he arrived on the scene about 10:40 a.m.
Within minutes, a battalion of deputies swooped into the Osco lot to tend to their rattled leader. The Rural/Metro Fire Department dispatched an ambulance.
The Department of Public Safety received a call to dispatch an officer, but the MCSO quickly waved off the state police. This was an investigation that was best kept in house.
Curious bystanders began gathering to gawk at the scene. A source informs me that folks began taking photographs of the shaken sheriff and his wrecked car, which triggered a harsh rebuke from deputies. The source said the deputies told bystanders not to take more photographs and confiscated onlookers' film.
The MCSO wouldn't respond to questions about this incident either.
According to Deputy Bierwalter's report, which I obtained under the Arizona Public Records Law, Arpaio offered a vague explanation for the mayhem:
"Mr. Arpaio said he had pulled into the parking lot of the Osco Drug store and was going to park his vehicle in a space on the north side of the parking lot when his vehicle would not stop."
In other words, Arpaio blamed the accident on the car -- which apparently seemed reasonable to Deputy Bierwalter.
He noted in his report that the sheriff didn't appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But there is no indication that Bierwalter conducted a sobriety test, much less asked Arpaio if he was taking drugs, prescribed or illegal.
Rather than conducting a thorough investigation to determine how fast Arpaio was traveling when he smashed into the curb, Bierwalter drew up a rough sketch of the accident site and called for a tow truck.
Arpaio refused medical treatment from the fire department but was taken to a hospital where he was treated for aches and pains.
The MCSO and Arpaio hoped this would be the end of the story.
But I think it should be just the beginning.
Did Arpaio's Crown Victoria -- the same model that is infamous for exploding in accidents -- really have a mechanical failure that somehow kept it from stopping?
I seriously doubt the vehicle suddenly threw itself in drive. It's far more likely that Arpaio, for whatever reason, lost control of the police cruiser.
It's well-known that Arpaio gets easily rattled and confused.
Last summer I approached him in a parking lot following a Scottsdale campaign appearance and asked why he drove his county police cruiser to political events. He became so flustered that he inadvertently turned on his flashing police lights while he was backing up.
My hunch is that Arpaio simply became confused when he pulled into the Osco lot and hit the accelerator instead of the brake. Why is anybody's guess. Maybe it's just because he's old.
The MCSO's whitewash doesn't stop at the accident scene.
County procedures require an internal investigation any time a county employee is involved in an accident while driving a county vehicle. In the case of the sheriff's office, a disciplinary review board assesses the situation.
If an employee is found negligent, he or she could be held financially responsible for damage to the vehicle.
I sent an e-mail to Lieutenant Paul Chagolla, an MCSO spokesman, asking whether such a disciplinary review board would be convened to review Arpaio's accident. Chagolla hasn't responded.
Launching politically motivated criminal investigations would be nothing new for Arpaio.
Last summer, he dispatched members of his "threat assessment squad" to interview a woman who claimed she had been raped 30 years ago by her stepson, then running against Arpaio in the upcoming Republican primary.
Despite the dubious nature of the claim and the fact that it involved Arpaio's political rival, MCSO deputies initiated a criminal investigation of Dan Saban. The department quickly provided a copy of its criminal inquiry to a Phoenix TV station.
Channel 15 broadcast a news story stating that Saban was under investigation for raping his stepmother, an allegation he vehemently denied. However, the damage was done.
Immediately after the Channel 15 broadcast, the MCSO did what it should have done from the outset -- send the case to another police agency because of the obvious conflict of interest. The Pima County Sheriff's Office dropped the case because of lack of evidence and the fact that the statute of limitations had expired.
There's the same odor of politics in MCSO's March 31 raid of Cactus Towing in Mesa.
Cactus owner Lee Watkins is a longtime political operative who supported W. Steven Martin in his failed run as an independent against Arpaio in the November general election.
No charges have been filed in the case, but the raid came at the same time Cactus Towing was renegotiating a lucrative and contentious towing contract with Mesa.
Search warrants show that the MCSO is investigating Cactus on suspicion of using police towing contracts to gouge car owners by tacking on illegal charges, keeping a second set of billing records and defrauding insurance companies.
While these may be legitimate issues to probe, the MCSO is not the right agency to be involved in the case because of Watkins' close connection to one of Arpaio's political rivals.
Cactus Towing already was under investigation by the state Attorney General's Office.
Two weeks after the Cactus raid, deputies showed up at the home of Republican party activist Charles "Chuck" Carpenter and seized two computers, CDs and a video card.
The raid came nearly two months after his son, Mark Carpenter, allegedly told an MCSO detective during a job interview for a position as a detention officer that he repeatedly viewed child pornography in 2003.
Rather than arresting Mark Carpenter on January 28 at the time of this rather incredible admission, the MCSO waited seven weeks to obtain a search warrant and seize the computer equipment. Mark Carpenter has never been charged.
Chuck Carpenter says he thinks the MCSO wasn't interested in the case until investigators discovered that Mark Carpenter was his son.
Carpenter was a leader in last year's Republican party rebellion against Arpaio. It was Carpenter who made a motion for the Republican party to endorse Saban rather than incumbent Arpaio in last September's primary.
"I was on their hit list and they hit me," Carpenter tells me. "I have been a very outspoken critic of our idiot sheriff."
Once again, Arpaio could have avoided the appearance of a politically motivated investigation if the MCSO had referred the case to another police agency.
Two days after the raid on Carpenter's home, the Recall Arpaio headquarters was burglarized.
Recall organizers are convinced that the break-in at the law offices of prominent Phoenix attorney Joel Robbins is linked to the MCSO.
"I firmly believe the sheriff's office had something to do with it," recall leader Linda Saville tells me.
She has good reason to be concerned. Her brother, James Saville, spent four years in county jail after he was entrapped by MCSO deputies in a phony 1999 plan to kill the sheriff ("The Plot to Assassinate Arpaio," August 5, 1999).
James Saville was busted in a televised arrest and charged with conspiring to build a car bomb to kill the sheriff. James Saville was eventually acquitted of the charges and released from jail. He has since filed a civil suit against the MCSO.
His struggle spurred Linda to launch a political action committee called Mothers Against Arpaio that supported Saban in last fall's primary. Soon after Arpaio won reelection, Linda Saville began organizing the recall drive.
On the Monday following the break-in, April 18, I received a voice mail message from John Stolze, a criminal investigator from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. Stolze said he wanted to discuss my column in which Arpaio's home address was published.
I haven't talked to Stolze, but New Times' attorney Steve Suskin has. Stolze told Suskin he is conducting a criminal investigation to determine whether I committed a Class 5 felony for disclosing Arpaio's home address. State law prohibits the publishing of a peace officer's home address on the "World Wide Web" if the author knows that it poses an "imminent and serious threat" to the officer's life.
The events leading to the publication of Arpaio's home address began early last summer when I went to the Maricopa County Recorder's Office to gather information on about a dozen of Arpaio's commercial and personal real estate investments.
To my surprise, I found that nearly all of Arpaio's real estate records -- records that for anybody else are available for public inspection -- had been removed from the recorder's files.
I soon learned that Arpaio had redacted the records based on the state law.
I asked the recorder's office to release Arpaio's real estate records and simply black out any home addresses and phone numbers. The recorder's office refused. So did Arpaio.
Luckily, the recorder's office missed redacting a few of Arpaio's records. And what I found was troubling. The records showed that the sheriff had invested more than $790,000 in cash in just three commercial real estate projects since 1995.
That seemed like a pretty hefty amount to plow into property for a guy on a civil servant's salary.
In the July 8, 2004, column in question, I slammed Arpaio for refusing to release the commercial real estate records.
I found it ludicrous that he could withhold from public inspection a real estate portfolio easily worth more than $1.5 million under the guise of protecting his home address.
Especially since that address is readily available from a number of sources, including the Maricopa County Clerk's Office, the county elections department and the state Corporation Commission.
If Arpaio's address is already on the public record, I saw no reason not to publish it.
For those of you curious about where the sheriff lives, check out the elections department's Web site at http://126.96.36.199/CampFinDocs/pdf/2004_17747.pdf
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