HIDE AND SICK THE MESA POLICE DEPARTMENT HAD TO WORK HARD TO IGNORE WHAT DICK AND LAURIE ELLIGET WERE UP TO
A SICK JOKE has been making the rounds. What is the link between the Tucson suspects in the Buddhist Temple murders case and the Phoenix suspects? Answer: They're all in Dick and Laurie Elliget's sex diary.
The sex diary has been the topic of conversation in cop shops, barrooms and lunch counters across the Valley. The diary is a key component in the cover-up by Mesa police officials and Maricopa County prosecutors of a sex scandal inside the Mesa department.
Mesa patrol officer Dick Elliget arranged for an unknown number of fellow cops, including command-level supervisors, to have sex with his wife Laurie, and kept a written account of those extramarital encounters. The diary was apparently intended in part for sexual blackmail.
New Times detailed the cover-up ("The Scandal at the Mesa Police Department") November 6. The newspaper has since learned that the scandal reaches to the second-in-command at the Mesa Police Department, that Mesa police brass were told about Dick Elliget's sexual misconduct as early as 1988 and did nothing, and that the County Attorney's Office first considered a plea bargain that may have allowed Dick Elliget to serve no prison time.
The original New Times piece described how Dick Elliget sexually assaulted his 16-year-old daughter and took pornographic photographs of her, alone and with her mother. The story told of Dick and Laurie Elliget's seduction of a neighbor boy, then 13.
New Times described how county prosecutors permitted the Mesa P.D. to investigate the Elliget case even after Dick Elliget's sex diary linked Mesa higher-ups to sexual improprieties. The story also told of sweetheart plea bargains that called for Dick Elliget's release from custody within seven years and Laurie Elliget's within one year. Finally, the story described an Internal Affairs investigation by Mesa that has been characterized by several Mesa cops as half-hearted at best.
Information gathered since the first story further reveals:
* The Mesa Police Department's second-in-command heard allegations as long ago as 1988 that Dick Elliget was involved in sexual improprieties with higher-ups in the department.
The then-wife of a Mesa cop says she told assistant police chief Del Ballentyne of wife-swapping and other extramarital activities at the Elliget household. Her allegations were not investigated, say sources in and out of the Mesa department. "I begged chief Ballentyne to investigate Dick," Cheri Staton says. "He said he'd look into it. But he didn't. If he had put a stop to it, then maybe that little girl wouldn't have been molested."
The Mesa police detective who recently investigated Dick and Laurie Elliget's criminal cases also tried to interest his department in 1988 in pursuing allegations of moral turpitude involving Dick Elliget. Detective Kay Miller's pleas similarly went nowhere, several police sources say. Coincidentally, Miller made his request about the same time Dick Elliget started to sexually molest his oldest daughter.
* Dick Elliget might not have served any prison time, under a deal contemplated by prosecutors at one point. Deputy county attorney Anne Williams told Larry Elliget--a veteran Mesa cop and first cousin of Dick Elliget--that she might strike a bargain with Dick Elliget that would call for anything from lifetime probation to 14 years in prison. Larry Elliget says prosecutors eliminated the possibility of probation from Dick Elliget's plea bargain offer after he and others vehemently complained.
* Laurie Elliget's original plea bargain would have compelled her to cooperate with the Mesa Police Department's Internal Affairs team, according to Larry Elliget, who cites prosecutor Williams as his source of information. But, for still unexplained reasons, county prosecutors eliminated the "cooperation" provision from Laurie Elliget's plea bargain.
* Mesa assistant police chief Mike Whalen declined an early opportunity to involve an independent police agency in the Elliget investigation. A state Department of Public Safety officer says he heard Larry Elliget suggest to Whalen that the Mesa P.D. should ask another agency to take over the case. Larry Elliget says he cited the "sex diary" and its reference to numerous Mesa cops--including some of Dick Elliget's superiors--as reason to ask another agency to intervene. He says Whalen told him Mesa would handle the investigation alone.
* Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley made the decision to investigate the Elliget case over the objections of some advisers, law enforcement sources say. Romley did this despite a litany of cases in which local law enforcement agencies have asked other agencies to take over investigations and avoid appearances of bias. Last year, for example, Romley avoided prosecuting the high-profile case in which two Smitty's employees were accused of killing a bad-check writer. Romley claimed his office had a conflict of interest because some of his employees moonlight for the store. The controversial case wound up on the desk of another agency.
(Romley spokesman Bill Fitzgerald insists his boss "suggested to Mesa early on that they transfer the case to another agency. It was their call.")
* Rank-and-file sources at the Mesa Police Department express dismay that the Maricopa County Attorney's Office is now reviewing the Mesa Police Department's internal handling of the Elliget case. Their concerns center on the soft plea bargains that prosecutors offered Dick and Laurie Elliget, and that County Attorney Romley allowed Mesa to investigate the Elliget case in the face of clear conflicts of interest.
* The Mesa Police Department has resurrected its internal investigation into the Elliget affair, police sources say. "The word before the New Times story came out was that the Internal was over," says one officer, who requested anonymity. "But the people on top realize their own heads could roll if things don't go their way."
UNTIL A FEW WEEKS AGO, the cases of Dick and Laurie Elliget seemed on the surface to be moving along smoothly. Their soft plea bargains were dutifully reported without analysis by local media, and the chiefs at the Mesa Police Department were primed to put this sordid chapter behind them.
That's all changed now.
In the wake of negative publicity about their handling of the case, county prosecutors recently asked Superior Court Judge Steven Sheldon to sentence Dick Elliget to the maximum of 14 years. (That would mean fewer than seven years to serve in real time, because prosecutors technically consider the charges Elliget plea-bargained to "nondangerous" and "nonrepetitive.") But on November 14, Sheldon went a giant step farther than prosecutors had requested. The judge told Dick Elliget that he may order a much longer sentence than prosecutors have asked for. If he decides to ignore the provisions of the plea bargain, Sheldon told Dick Elliget, he'll offer Elliget the opportunity to withdraw his plea.
What has fascinated the public more than the legal machinations, however, is the sex diary. Why did Dick Elliget keep the diary? A strong hint that Elliget might have been sexually blackmailing his peers was apparent in a letter then-Mesa cop Russ Staton wrote to his wife Cheri in 1988.
"I had an affair with another police officer's wife, which I know now was a setup deal which . . . he has tried to use against me," Staton wrote in part. The other officer was Dick Elliget, who had described his wife's encounter with Russ Staton in his pornographic diary.
Cheri Staton tells New Times what happened after she confronted Laurie Elliget in a telephone call. "Laurie said it wasn't true and that Russ was wrong," she says. "I said, `Why would a husband make something like this up?' I told her that I knew from Russ about their wife-swapping and all the other perversion. I had asked Russ why he never had said anything to his bosses about what was going on at the Elliget house. He told me, quote, `They're part of it.' He was talking about his bosses. Dick came on the line and tells me how him and Laurie are God-fearing Christians, and they wouldn't do anything like I was accusing them of. I didn't buy it."
Cheri Staton says she met with Mesa detective Kay Miller at a city park after investigators learned of her husband's letter. "At the time, I wanted to protect my kids from going through a trial and all that," says Staton, a Mesa resident who has six grown daughters.
"I trusted Kay and I still trust Kay. If he bungled anything, it was because he wasn't allowed to do things proper. I told him I knew nothing could be done to save Russ' job, but there were things he should know about Dick Elliget. Kay told me that every time he tried to get something going on Dick, nothing happened. I told him I was going to see [assistant chief] Del Ballentyne."
Miller would not discuss specifics of his contacts with Cheri Staton, but he tells New Times, "Cheri is a very honest person." As for his own work on the Elliget case, the detective says, "I did the best job possible. I know I did my job."
Cheri Staton says the details of her conversation with Del Ballentyne are as clear to her as if they happened yesterday.
"I told him about everything I knew about the Elligets and I named names," she says. "My sole intent in coming forward was not to protect my husband, but to let them know the guy they were protecting--Dick Elliget--was another person they should be investigating."
After Dick and Laurie Elliget were arrested in late July, Cheri Staton says, she again spoke with Kay Miller. "I asked Kay if he remembered back in 1988 when I mentioned going to meet with Chief Ballentyne," she says. "Kay said that of course he remembered. Then he asked me, `Do you remember how I told you I'd written a memo about Dick and nothing happened?' I did remember that."
Asked to confirm the existence of the memo, Kay Miller says, "I can't comment on all that right now," emphasizing the last two words.
Two Internal Affairs investigators interviewed Cheri Staton after the Elligets' arrests. "I told them just what I had told Ballentyne," she says, "and I think I told them that Dick probably wouldn't have done that awful stuff to his daughter if things had been right at the department."
She says she demanded a meeting with Mesa police chief Guy Meeks and assistant police chief Del Ballentyne after the New Times story was published earlier this month. Meeks met with Cheri Staton, but assistant chief Mike Whalen sat in, not Ballentyne.
Says Mesa police spokesman Chuck Kennedy: "The word is that no comment will be made on anything, including this issue, until after the county attorney completes his investigation."
That stance does not sit well with Cheri Staton.
"The chief convinced me that he sincerely wants to get to the bottom of this mess," she says, "but he told me Del Ballentyne doesn't recall ever meeting me. I remember Chief Meeks saying he'd try to jog Del's memory on this. I'm very upset by this."
LARRY ELLIGET WAS preparing to barbecue on the evening of July 28 when the telephone call came in. It was his cousin Tim's wife, B.J., and she blurted out that Dick Elliget had been molesting his daughter.
DPS officer Bill Hansen happened to be visiting that night, and the two veteran cops rushed over to Tim and B.J. Elliget's home in east Mesa. Minutes after he arrived, Larry Elliget tried unsuccessfully to call Mesa police chief Guy Meeks and then assistant chief Del Ballentyne. Finally, he reached assistant chief Mike Whalen.
Hansen recalls what happened next. "I heard Larry tell his assistant chief that Dick had been molesting his kid," Hansen tells New Times, "that there were hundreds of nude photographs, and there was a diary with the names of officers in it. I remember Larry saying it was a bucket of worms, and that it sure sounded like a case for another agency. I thought it would be an easy call to make. Larry said he had someone standing right here who could get the ball rolling over at DPS."
Larry Elliget describes how assistant chief Whalen responded to his suggestion: "He told me in the strongest terms that Mesa was going to handle this one within the department. That was that. When an assistant chief tells you something, there's not much argument you can make."
After the Elligets' arrests, the two youngest of their four daughters moved in for a time with Larry Elliget, his wife Kathy, and their two children. Despite the family ties, Larry and Kathy Elliget resolved to do what they could to make sure Dick and Laurie Elliget both received long prison terms.
"When a little 9-year-old girl tells you that she saw her mom having sex on her living-room floor with a man," says Kathy Elliget, "and that she saw her mom making out in the kitchen with Rick Heath--her damn husband's lieutenant--it makes you want to strangle a whole bunch of people."
Larry Elliget gets livid when he recalls a conversation during which prosecutor Terry Jennings allegedly promised him Dick Elliget would be treated as severely as possible.
"Terry said in so many words that he was gung ho about sending Dick away," Larry Elliget says. That's not what has happened. Under the deal he agreed to, Dick Elliget was to face a prison sentence of about 5 to 14 years, but it was to be "soft time"--he'd have to serve only half of his term before being eligible for parole. In a separate plea bargain, Laurie Elliget pleaded guilty to one count of child abuse and faces up to a year in jail at her sentencing next month.
Neither plea bargain required Dick or Laurie Elliget to speak to Mesa Police Department Internal Affairs investigators. That meant the department's dirty laundry could remain hidden. Nor did the plea bargains require either Elliget to take the stand in the event that other Mesa officers are prosecuted.
Larry Elliget recalls a telephone call he received in September from prosecutor Anne Williams.
"She said things weren't set in concrete," Larry Elliget says, referring to notes he made of the conversation, "but her office had decided to let Dick plead to charges that could mean lifetime probation or up to 14 years in prison. Laurie was going to plead to child abuse and would serve no more than a year in jail, and she'd have to talk to the Internal Affairs people at Mesa about everything."
He was outraged by the proposed deal and he let prosecutor Williams know about it.
"I told her she was out of her damned mind and that it was bull if they thought Laurie was a victim of Dick," Larry Elliget says. "I said she's no victim and that she and Dick should be going down for this in a big way. Anne said she didn't want to make an example out of Dick. She asked if I thought a cop should be treated worse than someone else, and I said that he ought to be serving a long, long prison term. These days, all of a sudden, she's playing hardball in the press and she's denying she ever said any of this to me. But I swear to God she did."
Neither Terry Jennings--head of the County Attorney's Office sex-crimes unit--nor prosecutor Anne Williams responded to telephone calls from New Times. However, Paul Ahler, head of the agency's trial bureau, bristles at the accusation that "Terry Jennings or anyone else from our office was in bed with the Mesa Police Department. That just isn't true. We were going to go in and argue for an aggravated sentence from the start."
Kathy Elliget says she enlisted the help "of everyone and their dog" to bombard the County Attorney's Office with calls of complaint about Dick and Laurie Elliget's proposed plea bargains. Adds husband Larry, "It appeared as if they were giving Laurie a deal in order to help the Mesa Police Department with their internal investigation. I thought that they could nail her hard and force her to talk to Mesa. Come to find out that the bitch gets the same deal without having to talk to anyone."
Larry Elliget says Mesa assistant chief Mike Whalen ordered him into his office the day after the telephone-calling spree. "He told me the county attorney was complaining about my making extrajudicial statements, whatever that means," he recalls. "I said I hadn't talked to the media, which I hadn't, and that I'd talked to the County Attorney's Office because I was so mad at the plea. I said if they wanted to go after me, then go ahead and do it."
He says the department didn't discipline him.
FOLLOWING THE New Times probe, the Mesa Police Department announced that County Attorney Rick Romley would oversee Mesa's internal investigation of the Elliget case.
"We have complete faith in our internal investigation," police spokesman Mike Hayes told the Phoenix Gazette, "but because of the persistent allegations that we might be trying to hide something from the public, we asked for the county attorney's review."
Several Mesa cops tell New Times, however, that asking the county attorney to review their department's work is akin to asking the fox to guard the henhouse. They are incredulous an impartial agency wasn't asked to do the job.
"Wasn't it the county attorney who gave the Elligets such a great deal in the first place?" asks one officer, who says he fears reprisals if identified. "They had the diary in their possession and they knew what it could mean for the futures of a lot of cops, and that it had the names of high-ranking people in it, and what did they do? Nothing."
But another cop says he's hopeful the County Attorney's Office will uncover and disclose some truths about the Mesa Police Department. "Maybe they'll do something good because they have to," this officer says. "I mean, they've looked real bad in this case and in the Temple murders, and this gives them a chance to do the right thing. We'll see."
Deputy county attorney Paul Ahler is heading his office's investigation. "It's not the fox guarding the henhouse," he says. "My credibility personally, and the credibility of the County Attorney's Office, is at stake here." Several Mesa cops say the department's Internal Affairs unit has jump-started its seemingly moribund investigation into the Elliget affair. Prior to the New Times story, police sources say, a main source of information for the IA team was a short yes-or-no questionnaire about various aspects of the case.
"Now, it's like they're saying, `We ought to do something or else we're gonna look worse than we already look to the public,'" one cop says. "It's not like everybody here is dirty--we're not--but our image is taking a beating, as well it should."
Many, many people have been devastated by the fallout from the Elliget case. Cheri Staton--a security agent at a Tempe Smitty's store--is considering asking for a leave of absence because of stress.
"When people thumb their noses at law and authority," she says, "the whole system breaks down. That's what's happened in Mesa. It's ridiculous that people in the public trust can get away with crap like this. I don't mean Dick Elliget--he's gonna get his, I guess. I'm talking about the rest of those police officers who are involved in this mess."
"People on top realize their own heads could roll if things don't go their way."
"I asked Russ why he never said anything to his bosses about what was going on at the Elligets. He told me, quote, `They're part of it.'"
"When an assistant chief tells you something, there's not much argument you can make."
Asking the county attorney to review the Elliget case is akin to asking the fox to guard the henhouse.
"Wasn't it the county attorney who gave the Elligets such a great deal in the first place?" "It's not like everybody here is dirty--we're not--but our image is taking a beating, as well it should.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.