Florence Official's Response to Lawsuit by Filed by Former Police Detectives
New Times' special report on Florence
Florence officials continue to deny allegations of corruption and abuse of power leveled against the town by two former detectives -- Walt Hunter and Jarris Varnrobinson.
The two police officers, who worked as detectives with the Florence Police Department until they were fired in December 2012, filed a suit in U.S. District Court claiming that they were wrongfully terminated in retaliation after they made "protected disclosures ... outside of their chain of command regarding police corruption, abuse of power, and obstruction of justice committed by the FPD and FPD officers."
Jess Knudsen, the town's spokesman and assistant manager, stated in an e-mail sent to members of the media, that "claims that Mr. Hunter and Mr. Vonzombie were fired for whistleblowing or that there is corruption in the Florence Police Department are unsubstantiated, frivolous and irresponsible."
See also: -Florence Exposed, a New Times' three-part investigative series that exposes how the Florence Police Department's culture of political favoritism undermined serious criminal investigations and compromised public safety.
Knudsen, instead repeats the town's original reason for their termination, stating the "were disciplined by the Town of Florence for job performance issues, including multiple violations of the Town's personnel policies, while working in the capacity of detectives in the Florence Police Department."
Missing from the town's statement is that a quasi-judge hired by the town who presided over the cops' appeal hearing and sat through 24 hours worth of testimony and evidence found that none of the policy violations Hunter was accused of committing merited being fired.
In fact, the hearing officer ordered the town to reinstate him.
The hearing officer, who got into a spat with Varnrobinson during the hearing and refused to listen to evidence Varnrobinson's attorney wanted to present about the police chief's allegedly racist past, upheld Varnrobinson's termination.
Varnrobinson, the town's first African-American police officer, and Hunter were facing nearly identical accusations of wrongdoing.
Knudsen's statement continued: "Mr. Hunter and Mr. Vonzombie used improper judgment while working as detectives and they did not meet the standards for detectives set by the Florence Police Department and the law enforcement community that are required to provide sound public safety services to our residents."
It's a rather shocking statement for Knudsen to make considering the police department continues to employ, and in fact promoted, a detective who investigated the homicide of 9-year-old Dustin Kemp without ever interviewing the father -- the only adult in the house at the time the young child was shot in the face with a semi-automatic handgun and who had been accused of being abusive to the young boy in the past.
The father, who left dozens of loaded and unsecured weapons strewn throughout the house, blamed the shooting on his developmentally delayed 2-year-old son who was still in diapers and only spoke a few words.
Detective Renee Klix's investigation fell so short that the case languished for years -- and it wasn't until New Times started asking questions that the Pinal County Attorney's Office quietly reopened and quickly closed the case with an endangerment charge and a year of supervised probation for the father.
And then, there is Lieutenant Terry Tryon, who was accused of allowing evidence in a teen rape case and a home invasion case to be returned to witnesses and suspects, hindering the investigation of those incidents.
The town gave Tryon a written reprimand for one of those instances -- but no other consequences were doled out for allegedly botching those cases.
For Hunter and Varnrobinson, the "improper judgment" they are accused of using likely stems from a harsh interview they conducted with an alleged sexual assault victim. They grilled the young woman who was accusing her step-father of rape. Ultimately, at trial, her step-father was found not guilty, in part, because the woman repeatedly changed her story.
And Hunter and Varnrobinson's employee evaluations, which were gone over in detail during their 2013 appeal hearing, revealed that both consistently "met" or "exceeded" expectations. Both received commendations for their work, including officer of the year, officer of the month and other accolades.
Knudsen said in his statement that "when allegations of misconduct were raised by Mr. [Varnrobinson] in 2012, the Town of Florence requested an independent investigation from the Arizona Department of Public Safety. DPS found insufficient evidence to support any claims of wrongdoing in the Florence Police Department."
The latter part of his statement is misleading because Section III: Findings of the 170-plus-page investigation in doesn't include any type of conclusion. Instead, it reads: "All findings relative to the criminal investigation will be formulated by the Pinal County Attorney's Office, upon review of the investigation."
The county attorney's office didn't pursue the case against Tryon because there wasn't a high likelihood of conviction, but the town itself did reprimand Tryon for causing evidence to be returned in ongoing cases.
Knudsen concludes that the "Town of Florence acted aboveboard, professionally and in the best interest of our residents and is confident that the court will agree that this lawsuit is ridiculous and without merit."
Clearly, the lawsuit against the town alleges that the town did not act "professionally and aboveboard."
Its main claims are that neither Hunter nor Varnrobinson were given "adequate pre-termination due process," as established by state law. Hunter further claims in the suit that after he was reinstated, he was demoted "from Detective to Patrol Officer without a pre- or post-deprivation hearing." And Varnrobinson also claims in the suit that the town violated his civil rights for denying him post-termination due process and "subjecting him to disparate treatment on the basis of race."
Got a tip? Send it to: Monica Alonzo.
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.