How Florence Police Sabotaged Investigations of a Child's Slaying and of a Teen's Rape
SPECIAL REPORT: FLORENCE EXPOSED | Part two of three
Dustin Kemp is upstairs making his bed on a Sunday afternoon, when someone carrying a .45-caliber handgun walks into the room.
Maybe he sees the person. Maybe his back is turned.
Dustin is a cute 9-year-old with short, wavy, brown hair who hasn't quite grown into his ears. He's into BMX (racing bicycles, motocross-style) and has banged-up knees and shins to prove it.
The barrel of the gun, at least five feet away, is pointed at Dustin's head.
The hammer is cocked, the safety lock is disengaged, the grip safety and trigger are squeezed. In a millisecond, the deafening sound of gunfire echoes through the stucco house in the dusty town of Florence, about 60 miles southeast of Phoenix.
Dustin's unemployed dad, James, and Dustin's 21/2-year-old brother, Robert, are the only other people at home. Randi, his mother, is working at the Walmart in nearby Coolidge.
The bullet rips a gaping hole next to Dustin's right eye. A fine mist of blood sprays on the wall as the projectile slashes through his brain. It leaves a star-shaped hole in the back of his head.
The body of the lanky boy lays face up as blood starts to pool beneath his disfigured head.
James Kemp, a former Marine and firearms enthusiast, had at least 27 guns strewn throughout his house that day — eight were loaded and unlocked.
Despite a deep familiarity with firearms, he describes the gunshot to officers from the Florence Police Department as sounding like "plywood hitting concrete," according to the FPD's report of the incident.
He claims this is followed by a "death scream" from Robert, whom the family calls R.J.
James Kemp tells Florence cops it was R.J. who pulled the trigger.
Certain law enforcement officials question whether the weapon could have been fired by the toddler, who was developmentally delayed. R.J. was still in diapers and muttered only a few words, such as "yeah," "no," "mom," and "dad."
They wonder how R.J. was able to remove the gun from a handle-less "hidden drawer" that blended with molding on his father's bedside nightstand. And they don't understand why the father had gunshot residue on the back of his hands.
Dustin died instantly on his unmade bed on February 22, 2009.
For more than four years, the case languished in legal limbo between the Pinal County Attorney's Office and the Florence Police Department until New Times began digging into the 2012 dismissals of two whistle-blowing cops by the town of Florence. (See "Injustice for All," November 15).
After New Times requested copies of the investigative file in June via a public-records request — which both the Pinal County Attorney's Office and the FPD initially denied — the Kemp case quietly was re-evaluated by county prosecutors in August.
On October 18, James Kemp pleaded guilty to a single domestic-violence endangerment charge and was sentenced to a year of supervised probation — an astonishing deal considering that former FPD detectives, a county prosecutor, and an ex-FPD police chief believe that Kemp had more to do with the gunshot death of his son than just leaving a bunch of loaded guns lying around his house.
Experts agree that the boy's death was poorly investigated. And it is not the only example of the FPD's lack of competence and professionalism in handling serious criminal cases.
Florence's most vulnerable residents have been victims of the FPD's entrenched ineptitude and unethical conduct. Including Dustin Kemp and including a 16-year-old cheerleader who allegedly was raped by at least one member of the Florence High School football team as others watched, photographed, and videotaped.
An obituary for Dustin Kemp, published in the online forum "Gene's BMX News," states that he "loved school and was an excellent student and known for his character."
He was "charismatic and concerned for others," according to the notice, which features a snapshot of the boy in a red-white-and-blue racing uniform standing next to his bike, with a gilded trophy in one hand and a proud smile on his face.
It says Dustin "wanted to finish school, attend college, compete with BMX in the Olympics, and become a police officer."
However, child-welfare reports from Washington state, where Dustin was born on September 7, 1999, document a darker side of his short life.
They describe Dustin's father, James Kemp, as an ex-Marine who was troubled by depression, anger issues, chronic back pain, and a knee injury suffered during a training exercise.
According to one CPS document, Kemp admitted to a daycare worker that he put his hands around Dustin's throat when the boy was 4. He admitted that it took all his might not to squeeze, the worker told CPS.
It was Kemp's wife, Randi, who pulled him off the boy, he told the worker.
Other Washington CPS reports for Dustin are equally disturbing.
When he was 5, Dustin informed a preschool teacher that his father repeatedly hit him and told him that if he didn't "start acting right," his dad "would have to get rid of him."
The boy told the teacher in February 2005, "He beat me last night and this morning," a CPS report reads.
There was no obvious bruising so the teacher and state CPS dismissed the boy's complaints.
When Dustin was 7, according to the reports, neighbors in the family's central Washington town of Wenatchee, called police because they could hear the little boy's cries of pain at least two nights a week.
One caller to CPS worried that Kemp was "abusing Dustin."
The caller complained that police confronted the Kemps at home but stayed only a few seconds and never made contact with the child.
"There have not been any signs of injury/bruises to Dustin," a 2007 CPS report noted. "There is concern that Dustin's father treats him rough, but not enough grounds to make a CPS report."
When and why the Kemps moved to Florence is unclear. County records show that Randi and James, with the help of a Veterans Administration loan, purchased their modest two-story home in June 2008 in Florence's Anthem area.
It was in this house that Dustin was shot to death.
Kemp wants authorities to believe that his younger son, R.J., somehow got hold of a Kimber 1911, a .45-caliber semiautomatic handgun, from its hiding place (even though other weapons in the home were more accessible) and then aimed and fired the heavy weapon at his brother with deadly accuracy.
This was the story that the FPD's Renee Klix, lead detective on the case, accepted, even though Kemp acted and spoke suspiciously on the day of the shooting and afterward.
(Note: Florence officials refused repeated requests by New Times for formal interviews with Klix and other members of the police department, including Lieutenant Terry Tryon and current Police Chief Dan Hughes. When New Times sought out the Kemps at the family's home, Randi Kemp declined comment on behalf of herself and her husband.)
According to the incident report, Kemp told police he was on the first floor of his home on February 22, 2009, when he heard a gunshot and his younger son's shriek.
Kemp said he saw R.J. at the top of the stairs bleeding from his nose. So he went upstairs, took the toddler into the master bedroom's bathroom, and began cleaning him up.
Kemp said he called out for Dustin, but there was no answer. He said he saw the open drawer on his nightstand, where he kept a couple of loaded guns, and "knew something was wrong."
The ex-Marine said he put down the toddler and went into Dustin's room. He told police he thought his son was "faking it" until he saw the blood splatter on the wall.
He said he went downstairs to call 911 but kept getting disconnected. He said he "accidentally called his wife in the middle of dialing 911" and told her Dustin "had been shot."
Kemp said he went back upstairs and, before checking on Dustin, picked up the gun at the foot of the bed, cleared it, and placed it on a shelf — next to the plastic trophies Dustin had won in his BMX races.
After receiving what were described as several hang-up calls from Kemp's cell phone, the 911 operator called back and dispatched police and paramedics to the home.
On a recorded 911 call, Kemp is heard flatly telling the dispatcher that "we have a gunshot victim."
It was not until almost a minute into the call that Kemp informed the dispatcher: "It's my son." When the dispatcher asked what happened, Kemp said his "2-year-old got a hold of a gun" and shot Dustin.
The dispatcher asked which part of the body had been shot.
"Right to the left side of his right eye, and the right eye popped out of the socket. Bleeding all over," the father said calmly. "I don't think he's breathing. His heart might be beating a little bit. I'm trying to give him CPR."
About three minutes and 20 seconds into the 911 call, after several seconds of silence, Kemp swears in a briefly choked-up voice: "Goddammit!"
He then says, "Hold on, big guy."
A few seconds later, he tells the dispatcher that the boy's heart has stopped.
Detective Renee Klix never asked James Kemp about his odd exchange with the 911 dispatcher.
The case file shows, however, that there was cursory questioning of Kemp by Klix and others at the scene.
Still, a principle criticism of the case by other detectives is that Klix never conducted a formal interview with the father and never confronted him about inconsistencies in his explanation of events or about the reports of child abuse in Washington.
When Randi Kemp arrived home after the shooting, she collapsed on the floor, buried her face in her hands, and sobbed. Later, she sat on the lawn with her remaining son in her arms, eventually leaving with the boy to stay at a hotel.
Similarly, the case file does not say Randi was questioned about the killing, either with or without her husband present.
The incident report notes that Kemp refused to leave the home, insisting he would stay put until Dustin's body was removed.
Several times, he blurted out to police that it was all his fault for leaving guns around the house.
When police tried to usher Kemp from the dwelling so that the crime scene could be secured, the unemployed father stopped in his office to look for his son's Gerber Life Insurance policy.
"I told him he could find that at a later time," one of the police officers wrote in his report, part of the case file. "He replied that it was important that he has the policy so he could call Gerber."
Nothing in the Kemp file makes note of the value of the policy, when it was purchased, or what the family's financial situation was at the time.
That day, when Klix brought up the subject of Kemp's many unsecured guns, he asserted that he knew his Second Amendment rights and would exercise them "to the fullest [extent]."
When a police officer tried to get into the same nightstand drawer that Kemp claimed his toddler had opened to get the gun that killed Dustin, the cop had trouble budging it.
"The drawer did not open on my first attempt," the officer wrote in his report. "Mr. Kemp told me that the drawer was difficult to open and had to be opened using two hands on the side of the drawer. [It] was very heavy and awkward to open."
When police arrived on scene, the "heavy and awkward to open" drawer was closed, but there was no explanation regarding who closed it.
A state crime lab report revealed that there was gunshot residue on the father's clothes and on the backs of his hands.
There is nothing in the report suggesting that Klix asked Kemp, who said he had not been to a shooting range for a week, to explain how the residue got there.
Days later, after Dustin's funeral, Klix reported that Kemp stopped by Florence police headquarters to ask her when his guns would be returned to him and whether he would be charged in his son's death.
Then he added a chilling detail to his story.
About Dustin's last words, Klix wrote: "James stated he heard Dustin say something to the effect of [']Where did you get that[?] RJ no.'"
Initially, attempts to have the toddler forensically interviewed failed because of the boy's "inability to communicate," according Klix's report.
Complicating things further, Klix wrote, was Kemp's hostility toward Arizona Child Protective Services, which became involved in the case, and his unwillingness to have R.J. questioned by experts.
Almost a year after the shooting, R.J.'s parents took him to Childhelp in Phoenix, where a forensic interview finally took place.
"Robert stated he shot his brother," Klix wrote in her report. "Robert stated Dustin gave him the gun and they were playing."
But Klix also stated in her report that 10 days before the interview, R.J. told his speech therapist something different.
R.J. told the therapist: "My bird died . . . I killed him."
When the therapist asked him to explain, R.J. indicated that it was his brother who had died, though he was unable to pronounce the word "brother."
Klix wrote, "In his disclosure to his therapist, Robert described shooting his brother and that 'he' [Dustin] gave him two guns."
Ultimately, Klix recommended that the County Attorney's Office charge Dustin's mother with two counts of endangerment, class-six felonies, one count for exposing each boy to his father's unsecured guns.
Because of James Kemp's "numerous reckless actions," Klix suggested stiffer charges: one count of negligent homicide, a class-four felony, and one class-six felony endangerment count for exposing R.J. to the loaded Kimber 1911.
In early 2010, Klix's then-colleague, Tom Clifford, an evidence technician at the FPD, was looking for a case he could use to train a new employee on crime-scene reconstruction.
He utilized evidence related to the Dustin Kemp homicide investigation. He thought that because the case had been submitted to the County Attorney's Office for review, going through the evidence also would help him get ready for a trial, should there be one.
"Within a very short period of time, we realized there was no way to reconstruct the case [because] there were no measurements [of the scene and the body] taken," he testified in September during a hearing convened after two former FPD detectives — Jarris Varnrobinson and Walt Hunter — appealed their December 2012 terminations from the force.
Clifford, a onetime special agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, further testified, "We could not reconstruct the ballistics because of the lack of measurements."
One of the major steps in a criminal investigation is documenting where "all the items of evidence are, measurements to reconstruct ballistics, the angles," he stated during the hearings.
The Dustin Kemp investigation also was deficient in other respects.
"We needed multiple photos to show the whole scene, and, unfortunately, the photos were minimal in the area where the shooting occurred," he said.
Clifford explained that he brought his concerns about the case to then-FPD Chief Robert Ingulli, who headed the small department of about 30 officers from 2000 until July 2012.
The evidence tech said he wanted to make sure prosecutors were aware of the investigative mistakes before taking the case to trial. Additionally, he hoped to "remedy the deficiencies" in the case.
He said the chief agreed that the case must be reviewed.
Clifford testified: "[Ingulli] did express to me, 'How could a child shoot that gun?' That was his major concern. He wanted an answer to that. He's the one who initiated these inquires into the evidence."
Indeed, there are no measurements of the toddler's hands listed in the case file turned over to New Times finally by the County Attorney's Office.
Robert Ingulli's tenure as chief ended in July 2012 after his enemy, former police chief Tom Rankin, was elected mayor (for the second time in his political career). Ingulli said Rankin had vowed to fire him once elected and the town did just that.
By the time Ingulli was forced out of his job, the chief already had asked his two best detectives, Varnrobinson and Hunter, to re-investigate the Kemp case.
But when Ingulli was fired, the detectives found themselves targeted.
The longtime partners had blown the whistle on FPD Lieutenant Terry Tryon, revealing that he had given away evidence in two serious cases — one involving a home invasion and the other involving the alleged rape of a Florence High School cheerleader.
Tryon became the subject of a criminal probe performed by an investigator with the Arizona Department of Public Safety.
Once the DPS investigation was concluded, the County Attorney's Office determined that there was no reasonable likelihood of convicting Tryon. But even before the DPS investigation was over, Tryon started helping new Chief Dan Hughes build a case for firing the two detectives loyal to Ingulli, with whom Tryon had endured a long and contentious relationship.
In a memo to the town manager recommending that the detectives be fired, Hughes falsely claimed that Varnrobinson and Hunter "took it upon themselves to re-investigate this case in an effort to discredit fellow employees Tryon and Klix."
This allegation became one of four main rationales for the detectives' dismissals.
Interestingly, Tryon had assisted Klix with her investigation and was on the scene of the Dustin Kemp slaying the day it occurred, though there is no supplemental report from Tryon in the case file.
Ingulli testified at Hunter's appeal hearing that he had ordered the detectives to look into the Kemp case without Klix's knowledge — something Hughes could have discovered if, in the course of his personnel probe, he had interviewed the detectives or Ingulli.
As a result, appeals hearing officer Richard McAnally did not agree with the town that the re-investigation was grounds for dismissal of Varnrobinson and Hunter.
But McAnally sided with Florence on a tangential issue, using it and other spurious reasons to uphold Varnrobinson's termination.
During his appeals hearing, Varnrobinson testified that he approached Deputy Pinal County Attorney Greg Hazard after learning that Hazard had pulled the Kemp case from the grand jury in 2011 because of unanswered questions.
Varnrobinson told the hearing officer that he tape-recorded his conversations with Hazard for his own notes, as he often did during investigations.
One recording entered into evidence during the appeal demonstrates that Hazard was just as critical of Klix's investigation of the Dustin Kemp slaying as were Varnrobinson and Hunter.
"I think the father did it, I really do," Hazard told Varnrobinson during the discussion.
Hazard said he believed R.J. had been coached in his confession to the forensic interviewer. He also did not buy an outcry of "What? No!" by Kemp when police informed him and his wife that Dustin was dead.
"He was surprised he was dead?" asked Hazard, incredulously, on the recording. "He would have known he was dead."
A state crime lab revealed the gunshot residue on the father's clothes and on the backs of his hands. During a tape-recorded meeting between Varnrobinson and Hazard, the detective explained his theory that the father had cupped the tiny boy's hands around the gun and fired the weapon. This also explained the gunshot residue found on the toddler.
Hazard sounded eager to reopen the case. He asked Varnrobinson whether he could get an expert to testify that the child could not have pulled the trigger. Though he clearly believed Kemp killed his son, Hazard pointed out that he was in the "minority" among his prosecutor colleagues, who wanted to take the easy route and go after a much-less-serious endangerment charge.
Which is exactly what happened, with the resulting sentence of one year of supervised probation.
As for the detectives who wanted justice for Dustin, their careers were damaged severely.
Yet Varnrobinson's tape recordings of Hazard did not violate the FPD's policy, as Chief Hughes claimed. Ingulli had written the policy, which only prevented FPD officers from taping each other. Ingulli signed an affidavit to that effect, and it was entered into evidence following Varnrobinson's hearing.
This was not enough for McAnally, who upheld the firing of the town's only African-American detective based partly on the recording.
Hunter, Varnrobinson's white partner, was reinstated, but with a demotion, a reduction in pay, and only a fraction of his back pay returned. Stripped of his weapon and his badge, he has been assigned to code enforcement.
McAnally agreed with the town's claim that Hunter had used the office's Internet connection excessively.
But during his hearing, when Hunter's attorney asked for a record of Klix's Internet usage, hers was similar to Hunter's.
Though the FPD spent plenty of energy going after the righteous detectives, its flawed criminal probe of a young boy's death yielded flawed results, and its investigation into the public sexual assault of a teenage girl yielded no results at all.
She is a thoughtful woman with a child of her own and another on the way. Not a day goes by that she does not think of what happened to her six years ago, when, as a sophomore at Florence High School, she attended a party with other students at "the flats," a desolate patch of unincorporated land just outside town.
"I lost my youth," she writes in response to questions e-mailed to her by New Times. "I felt like someone made up this nightmare, and I was horrified that the people I sat next to at lunch and basically grew up with would take advantage of me."
As a 16-year-old cheerleader, her social circle included members of the high school football team, the Gophers. It was a Friday night, October 26, 2007, after the season finale at home, where Florence faced the Fountain Hills Falcons.
The Falcons clobbered the Gophers 36-15, ending an ignominious season for Florence High, which had managed only a 3-7 record.
Though she attended the game, she didn't cheer because of a dislocated elbow. Afterward, she and other students headed to a pizza parlor and then to the flats, where there was a bonfire and drinking.
About 40 teenagers attended the party, most of them high school students and at least nine of them members of the football team, according to a police report.
Two days later, she told a forensic interviewer at the Pinal County Family Advocacy Center that her last memory was of drinking a beer and taking a shot of Black Velvet whiskey.
After the alleged rape incident, she was admitted to a hospital for alcohol poisoning. Her blood-alcohol level was .288.
At the time, she was a tiny 5 feet tall and 100 pounds. In her yearbook photo from that year, she looks younger than she was.
Several witnesses told police that they saw her drinking large amounts of whiskey straight from the bottle. Later, at the hospital, she admitted smoking "a little marijuana," though there is no mention of her testing positive for the drug.
A signed witness statement from another female sophomore at the party says the victim was "taking drinks of alcohol," and when she would stop, "the boys would give her more alcohol trying to get her drunk."
This witness' female cousin told police that when she got to the party, she could tell the victim already was intoxicated. The cousin stated that "the boys kept giving [the victim] drinks."
Others present informed police that the victim was drinking on her own and acting provocatively, even taking off her clothes at one point, though accounts vary as to which and how many items of clothing she removed. At one point, she ended up on the tailgate of a truck with a Gophers football player.
The football player, a sophomore, told police that a crowd had begun to gather around the girl, who he claimed "pulled [him] on top of her."
She had been "rubbing herself and taking off her clothes," according to the sophomore, who escorted her inside the truck's cab "so everyone would leave her alone," as she was "really drunk."
Almost everyone seems to agree that at some point, another football player, a senior, ended up in the cab of the truck with her.
"[He] got on top of her and started having sex with her," a witness wrote in her statement to police. "We tried to tell him to stop, but he wouldn't listen."
A crowd gathered around the truck, with students taking cell-phone photos and video, according to witnesses.
The boy, who would turn 18 in a couple of weeks, admitted having sex with the girl and later told police, according to the case file, "It was kind of weird with everyone standing around watching and taking pictures."
He described the girl as "real drunk," "pretty drunk," and "chugging" Black Velvet whiskey. He also told police that she was "walking around with a bottle and not acting like herself."
Asked by Detective Walt Hunter whether he believed the girl was sober enough to have consented, the alleged assailant said he thought she was. He said she was awake and talking to him, telling him to have sex with her.
He told Hunter that he had drunk "about eight beers and a few shots of Black Velvet."
Hunter asked him whether he understood "when a female was 'too drunk to consent to sex.'" He said he did.
"She seemed fine to me," he told Hunter. "She was sitting up and grabbed me and pulled me on top of her."
One picture taker, also a football player, called the alleged sexual assault "the highlight of the party," according to the police report. He told police that "the crowd was hollering and cheering and taking pictures."
But some of the teens present acknowledged that the situation was wrong.
A girl tried to get to the victim, but she could not because of the crowd of boys around the truck. Two boys she knew went to track down the victim's cheerleading coach, who called police as her husband drove to the flats.
There, the husband ran into a boy and two girls who had responded to a phone call for help from a girl at the party. The students put the victim into their car and drove her to the Florence police headquarters.
When they arrived, an officer on duty noted in an initial police report that the victim "was unable to walk, appeared very lethargic, and was not able to communicate verbally with anyone."
The girl was "very pale, hair was matted," and her jeans "were not buttoned up all the way."
Even before the victim got into the car in which she was taken to the police station, one of the boys who helped her — a football player who owned the truck that was the scene of the alleged assault — told police "she was totally limber and too drunk to sit in the seat."
The police report reads: "He added that he put her in the car seat, and she fell to the floorboard. When asked about how long it was from the time she had sex . . . until he loaded her into the car, he stated it was about 10 minutes."
One of the students who brought the girl to the Florence Police Department was a football player, a friend of both the alleged assailant's and the victim's and the son of FPD Lieutenant Terry Tryon.
Though Tryon's son was connected to the incident, which posed a conflict of interest for the lieutenant, he became enmeshed in the case as it moved forward. Though the investigation initially was assigned to then-Detective Gary Lewis, Hunter was made lead investigator about a day later.
At least two cell phones with images of the alleged rape scene were obtained by Lewis from students who had been at the flats. For safekeeping, Lewis turned over the phones to Paul Brannon, an FPD evidence tech at the time.
Though the cell phones had been voluntarily relinquished by the owners, Hunter knew that it would best to obtain a warrant to download whatever images of the incident existed.
Hunter tells New Times that when he went to the department's evidence room to retrieve the cell phones so that he could describe them in the warrant he planned to submit to a judge, Brannon told him they already had been given back to their owners.
In his supplement to the police report, Brannon wrote that he downloaded more than 150 images from the phones.
Brannon wrote that he downloaded the images "so that the cell phones could be returned to the owners by Lieutenant Tryon."
Before the cell phones were released, Brannon reported, he "erased the images [from the devices] related to the incident."
On the Monday after the alleged sexual assault, Hunter stated in his report, he went to Florence High School to meet with Principal Tony Jimenez and a football player who had shot cell-phone video at the party.
Tryon again inserted himself into the investigation by accompanying Hunter to Florence High.
The player allowed the police officers to watch the video, which Brannon later described in his supplement as dark and pixelated. There also was audio. Hunter wanted to keep the phone and later obtained a warrant for its contents.
While at the school, Lieutenant Tryon called Deputy County Attorney Jeff Sandler, according to the police report. After talking to Sandler, Tryon told Hunter that the prosecutor advised him to download the video and return the cell phone to the student. Hunter complied.
In an interview, Hunter said he later met with Sandler, who told him that he never told Tryon to return cell phones.
After this meeting, Hunter confronted Tryon at police headquarters.
"I was so furious because I felt so bad for that little girl," Hunter tells New Times. "It was like, why in the world would you go behind my back and give away evidence without telling me?"
Hunter believed Tryon was conflicted because of his son's involvement, because his boy played football with those involved.
Tryon, however, was unapologetic.
"He [again] said County Attorney Sandler told him to [give back the phones]," Hunter says. "I told him the [deputy] county attorney said he was lying."
Hunter says Tryon countered by stating that Hunter was at the school when Sandler told the lieutenant to return the phones.
Hunter says he replied, "I didn't hear your conversation. You got up and left the room. You came back and told me what the [prosecutor] said, but I didn't hear Sandler say that."
Both Hunter and, later, his partner, Varnrobinson, complained to the town about this issue and others related to Tryon. The lieutenant had returned evidence (an AR-15 rifle) in another case related to a home-invasion robbery, though Tryon contended he was correct to do so.
Tryon ultimately was admonished in a written reprimand by Himanshu Patel, town manager at the time, on the return of the AR-15, but there was no other discipline.
Varnrobinson's complaint about Tryon was given to the state Department of Public Safety, which investigated the veteran Florence cop for tampering with evidence, a class-six felony.
DPS investigator Ron Baroldy spoke with Tryon and Sandler regarding the return of the cell phones to their owners in the sexual assault case, according to Baroldy's DPS report.
Sandler told him that "he would not have told Tryon it was OK to download" the video to an e-mail address, which is what happened. Sandler said he would have agreed to return a cell phone only "after the video was obtained legally and downloaded by a certified technician."
Baroldy said Tryon told him that "he did not recall returning any cellular telephones in the investigation but may have told [evidence technician] Brannon it was OK to return cellular telephones based on the conversation with Sandler."
After the cell phones were returned, Hunter later obtained search warrants for the phones and their contents in an attempt to salvage the investigation.
However, there was nothing on the phones of value as evidence by that point, he tells New Times. As for what was obtained without warrants, he says it was of no legal use, either.
Still, much eyewitness testimony existed, as did the official statements of the suspect and others. And there was the simple fact that the victim was seriously intoxicated.
So Hunter recommended that the alleged assailant be charged with one count of sexual assault, a class-two felony.
As the images of the victim had been passed around to the alleged assailant and other football players, Hunter recommended that they be charged with sexual exploitation of a minor, also a class-two felony.
In the end, then-Pinal County Attorney Jim Walsh decided not to pursue any charges against the boys. However, the statement his office issued on December 17 read like a carefully worded swipe at the FPD.
"Prosecutors may only file criminal cases when they are able to prove all elements of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt," the statement read. "Based on the investigation conducted by the Florence Police Department, the office believes it would be unable to meet that burden of proof at trial."
Phoenix defense attorney Tim Linnins knows about small towns and sex crimes. As a former deputy county attorney in both Mohave and Coconino counties, he's prosecuted everything from sexual assault to child molestation to murder in places such as Kingman and Flagstaff.
He also served as an Arizona assistant attorney general, prosecuting organized crime cases and serious felony cases conflicted to the AG's Office.
When New Times describes Tryon's actions in the rape case to Linnins, he agrees they were problematic.
At minimum, Linnins says, there was "the appearance of impropriety" when it came to the lieutenant's ties to the football team and his involvement in the investigation.
"Having that officer involved . . . weakens the state's case," Linnins says.
Tryon, Linnins says, should have stayed away from the investigation.
"The suspect's on the football team, [Tryon's] son's on the football team," Linnins says. "That would have been enough [to disqualify him from the case]."
Linnins says working in a small town is no excuse. He says he has seen officers in small places remove themselves from investigations.
"If they were too close to something, they would dial out," he says.
As it is, such cases are an uphill battle, Linnins says.
In Arizona, minors cannot consent to sex. But in the Florence case, because both victim and suspect were within two years of each other, were under 18, and went to the same high school, age would not have been the issue under Arizona law. Particularly with a charge of sexual assault, which is not limited by the ages of the victim and suspect.
Rather, it would have come down to whether the alleged victim was too intoxicated to consent.
"It's basically a factual issue for the jury," he says.
The jury would scrutinize the victim's behavior, how she was walking, how she was talking. Sometimes, Linnins says, juries have a tendency to blame victims, particularly if they became intoxicated voluntarily.
Linnins says video and photos of the incident potentially can be a game changer in court when it comes to proving the victim was too intoxicated to consent.
But "it's going to depend on exactly what's on there," when it comes to cell phone photos and video, Linnins says.
If the detective "can produce evidence that would show how intoxicated" the victim was, then the evidence can help secure conviction.
It is only speculation to suggest what might have happened if Tryon had not returned the cell phones.
What is not speculation is what the girl endured at high school after the incident.
She was the object of harassment and cruel rumors.
"I was embarrassed not to know who did what to me," she tells New Times via e-mail, adding, "After all, I was still at school with these people. I could have been walking next to someone who saw me naked or had pictures of me on their phone, and I would not know it."
In hallways, students would call out to her, "Party at the flats," or worse. For a time, she did her school work in the principal's office. She transferred to another school for a semester but decided to return.
"I had a great relationship with my cheerleading coach and missed it very much," she says. "Most of the people involved were a year older than me and had graduated. So I felt comfortable going back."
Still, she recalls websites on which both students and parents would bash her, saying she "deserved it" and was "just a slutty cheerleader [who] wants attention" from the media. The opposite was true. Coverage of the incident in '07 by Phoenix TV stations terrified her.
And she remains unhappy with the outcome of the case.
"Most authorities were not taking the case seriously, brushing it off as something that kids do," she writes. "The only person doing [his] job thoroughly was Walt Hunter."
She adds, "The town of Florence is very intertwined . . . I felt defeated before I even had a chance to state my side of the story."
Considering how "intertwined" Florence is, perhaps it is no surprise that Tryon remains at the Florence Police Department as a lieutenant, while the demoted Hunter checks Florence walls for graffiti and back alleys for illegal dumping.
Several sources tell New Times that Tryon recently attended command school. Speculation is that he one day will be FPD chief.
Both Hunter and Varnrobinson are appealing their treatment by the town to Pinal County Superior Court.
Neither is it a surprise, many locals say, that the detectives ran afoul of the town power structure by doing their jobs competently and refusing to keep their mouths shut.
It's a pattern that former Florence police chief Patrick Cote noted in his book Police Chief Managing Success, in which he discussed his time as head of the FPD from 1995 to 1997, including his run-ins with former FPD Chief Tom Rankin, now the town's mayor.
"In this small community in Arizona, no one cared if there was any change at all," writes Cote. "And a handful of people controlled town politics."
Next, on December 5: All political roads in Florence lead to the town's cowboy godfather, Mayor Tom Rankin.
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.
- Mesa Police Kill Woman During Asperger Meltdown
Wed., Feb. 10, 7:30pm
Thu., Feb. 11, 8:00am
Fri., Feb. 12, 7:00pm
Mon., Feb. 15, 7:00pm
- Troublemaking Teens Busted in Tempe Car Shootings
- Joe Arpaio's Headless Horse to Be Buried; Horse Group Picks Fight with State...