How the MCSO Neglected a 14-Year-Old Rape Victim and Went to Town on Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon
Abigail Brown was 14 years old — a high school freshman and a virgin — when some juniors and seniors got her drunk at a party and videotaped her having sex with them.
The young men, go figure, had all the usual excuses. She was drunk, man! She was asking for it! "Dude, seriously, I'm not the raping type," one of the suspects protested to sheriff's investigators — just minutes after admitting to having had sex with an extremely drunk 14-year-old girl on the bathroom floor while a half-dozen of his friends watched.
"We went into the bathroom to fuck," the suspect admitted. "Girls and morals just . . . I mean, not that many of them have them these days. I guess I don't have that many either."
Now there's the understatement of the year.
The law is very clear on certain points. Even if a girl is "asking for it," if she's 14, it's statutory rape. No amount of flirting makes it okay — even if she's drunk.
Make that, especially if she's drunk. And especially if there's a videotape! This wasn't an incident where two in-love teens were playing around; this was the very definition of exploitation.
Just don't try telling that to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.
For these guys, apparently, it's still 1953. A drunk girl is a slutty girl. And if he says she wants it bad, well, undoubtedly she's to blame for her own assault.
We now know that the MCSO was told the truth about what happened to Abigail Brown in 2001. The investigators' efforts were half-hearted at best: They never tracked down a copy of the videotape, even though dozens of kids had seen it. They didn't bother to find most of the students at the party. And when one of the suspects suggested that Brown had a "tarnished reputation," the detective working the case seemed all too willing to agree.
After one suspect failed to show up for questioning, the MCSO closed out the file. It didn't even bother to tell Brown.
"The detective didn't even answer my phone calls after a few months," Brown says today.
"America's Toughest Sheriff," it seems, is only tough when the case is high-profile and the cameras are rolling. Give him complicated circumstances or the slightest setback and he folds like a card table.
And here's the kicker.
When the MCSO closed Abigail Brown's case, it filed the case under "cleared."
The FBI requires that "cleared" cases result either in arrest or "exceptional" circumstances — meaning that the agency knows who's guilty but can't actually arrest him. (For example, the suspect might be dead or imprisoned in a country that refuses extradition.)
Abigail Brown's case meets neither of those requirements.
When the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office touts its high clearance rate and argues that Sheriff Joe Arpaio is running a professional law enforcement agency, it's worth remembering what happened to Abigail Brown.
Hers was a case the MCSCO cleared: A case where it dropped the ball, let the bad guys go free, and left the victim hanging without so much as a phone call.
Abigail Brown is now a pretty, poised woman. And, yes, Abigail Brown is her real name — she decided to come forward, on the record, because she wants changes to be made. She wants to make sure that the Sheriff's Office can no longer sweep cases like hers under the rug.
Last week, on what happened to be her 23rd birthday, Brown addressed the media from a podium at the Goldwater Institute, the libertarian think tank in Phoenix.
The director of the institute's Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation, Clint Bolick, issued a report last year that was highly critical of the Sheriff's Office's "misplaced priorities." Bolick's report noted that the MCSO appeared to be violating FBI rules by "clearing" an abnormal amount of cases without actually, you know, solving them.
In the aftermath of that report, a former colleague of Bolick's in Boston put him in touch with Abigail Brown. She agreed to become the "face" of a very real problem in this county.
As Brown explained last week, in the aftermath of the assault she suffered eight years ago, Moon Valley High School was abuzz with the drama. The videotape of that night — which supposedly showed Brown drunkenly having sex with at least one guy, and then naked in the shower — was played at numerous parties and whispered about in the hallways.
One of Brown's friends was so concerned that she contacted a family friend, an officer with the Phoenix Police Department. When the officer realized that the incident actually took place in the jurisdiction of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, she referred the case to it.
At the MCSO's behest, Abigail Brown sat down with officers and told them what happened. She told them there was a videotape and that numerous people at her school had seen it. (In fact, a friend of her sister's had seen the video at a party, just weeks before.) She explained that she was 14 at the time of the incident and that the guys were upperclassmen.
The Sheriff's Office closed the case.
Oh, sure, it did a few cursory interviews. And it asked one of the suspects to come in to talk to an investigator.
But when he didn't show up, the investigator in the case claimed that the suspect could not be located, according to police reports provided by Brown and her attorneys.
"I have not been able to locate any evidence that the party was videotaped or any evidence to suggest that there is a videotape of Abigail having sex with [one of the suspects]," wrote Sheriff's Investigator D. Keller. Keller then decreed that the case should be "exceptionally cleared due to technicalities."
Remember, FBI criteria hold that "exceptional clearances" are to be used only when a suspect has been identified, can be located, and a case has been built against him — but that circumstances prevent an arrest. That was certainly not true in this case. Instead, the investigator seemed to feel that the case was too much work. Among his reasons for "clearing" the case: The victim waited seven months to report the assault, she acknowledged consuming alcohol, and she admitted to having consensual sex with one of the boys at the party.
Never mind that the guy was 17 and she was very intoxicated. Case closed — even for the second sexual act, the one on the bathroom floor, where Abigail Brown was in a near-blackout.
Appallingly, the investigator didn't even bother to ensure that the infamous tape was taken out of circulation. At the press conference, Brown recalled trying to fend for herself, to at least get the videotape and make the endless replays stop.
"I confronted people a few times," she explained. "'Give me it or else!' I was trying to be a little detective, to play Nancy Drew, but obviously I didn't have much power as a 14-year-old."
Of course, that's exactly why we have law enforcement: High school girls can't fend for themselves in matters like these. Duh!
Yet the Sheriff's Office let Brown twist in the wind. It opened the case just far enough to ensure maximum embarrassment: The officers told her parents, who hadn't been aware of what happened that night, and called in just enough students to spread the word that Brown was pressing charges.
Then they stopped returning her calls.
Brown dropped out of school soon thereafter: "When the investigation started, everybody knew what had happened. It was not a very comfortable thing to be a part of." When her divorced father offered her the chance to move to Massachusetts with him, Brown leapt at the opportunity to start a new life.
Eventually, Brown earned her G.E.D. Her lawyer, Thomas Loquvam, says she now hopes to enroll in college and study political science. Brown also became a Christian, a decision that she's quick to credit for her optimism today.
In Boston, years after leaving Arizona, Brown became curious about just what had happened back in 2001.
Why had the sheriff's investigator stopped returning her calls?
Why had no one ever been prosecuted for what happened at the party?
This time, she wasn't just a powerless 14-year-old girl. Thanks to her contact with a victims' rights group, she had a pro bono lawyer from one of Boston's top firms, and eventually, Loquvam and his colleagues over at Fennemore Craig.
The Sheriff's Office isn't immune to such influence. It reopened the case.
What it learned at that point should shock anyone who cares about justice in this county.
First, the main suspect, a then-junior in high school who had sex with Brown on the bathroom floor, admitted to the act. He also admitted that she was extremely drunk, and that there was, in fact, a video camera being used. (New Times is not naming the suspect because he's never been charged with a crime.)
Second, he admitted that the Sheriff's Office had called him in for an interview, but he blew them off.
"Someone asked me to come in and I didn't," the young man said, adding that he was on drugs at the time. "He called me, told me something, and I was, like, 'What the fuck ever, dude,' and I never talked to him, never heard about it again."
Can you imagine?
You tell the Sheriff's Office "what the fuck ever, dude" and it lets you off the hook? How do you think that would fly for all the corn vendors that Arpaio's goons have been rounding up lately?
And here's another kicker.
Despite the evidence unearthed when Brown's lawyers got the case reopened last year, there's no hope of anyone being prosecuted today. As the Maricopa County Attorney's Office explained to Brown and her attorneys, the statute of limitations for statutory rape has passed.
If the Sheriff's Office hadn't botched the initial probe, Brown's lawyers clearly believe someone could have — and should have — been prosecuted. But thanks to the sheriff's bizarre policy of clearing cases contrary to FBI policy, it's now too late.
In 2003, the Broward County Sheriff's Office was shaken by a crime-reporting scandal. Some deputies there admitted that they'd made up confessions. The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported, too, that the Sheriff's Office "abused a system known as 'exceptional clearance' to classify thousands of cases as solved when no one was arrested."
The reports led to major reform. Changes into how unsolved crimes were classified sent the department's "clearance rate" plummeting. Some detectives even faced criminal charges.
Last year, the East Valley Tribune presented similar allegations about how the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office classifies its cases. The newspaper found that in 2006, the first year the Sheriff's Office began enforcing immigration law, the department cleared three times as many cases "by exception" as "by arrest." When internal county auditors asked for records on those clearances, the Tribune reported, the Sheriff's Office refused to provide them.
The clear implication: The agency was closing out cases instead of solving them.
If the Trib series, or the criticism from the Goldwater Institute, has led to internal changes, evidence is hard to come by. The institute's Bolick put in a public-records request asking how many crimes were cleared by "exception" rather than "arrest." He got a letter saying the department had zero records.
The Goldwater Institute hopes to turn up the heat on the issue by placing Abigail Brown front and center.
As Bolick explained at the press conference last week, the FBI has strict standards for an "exception." Suffice it to say, a suspect saying "what the fuck ever, dude" and refusing to answer questions does not count.
"This case simply and clearly does not mean the criteria for clearance by 'exception,'" Bolick says. "It was declared 'solved' when it was emphatically not solved."
Evidence suggests that the Sheriff's Office is improperly clearing cases on a large scale, Bolick says.
"This is a ticking time bomb for the people of Maricopa County," he says. "Not only are there criminals at large, but nobody is looking for them."
Bolick has some ideas for reform.
For one thing, Bolick argues that the Legislature should require law enforcement agencies in Arizona not only to report the total number of clearances, but to break down those numbers so the public can see just how many are cleared by arrest and how many are "exceptions." Bolick also calls for random audits from the Arizona Department of Public Safety — and for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and the Arizona Attorney General's Office to investigate the sheriff's use of "exceptional clearances." (Surely, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas can't wait to delve into his best buddy's tawdry track record, right?)
But there's a backdrop to this case that makes it even more horrifying. Once again, the Sheriff's Office's misplaced priorities become startlingly clear.
Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe recently blasted the MCSO for having the manpower to bring hundreds of deputies on anti-immigration "crime sweeps" — but not enough guys to get inmates to their court dates on time. But as accurate as Donahoe's criticism was, the crime sweeps are only a small part of a bigger picture.
As my colleague Paul Rubin detailed earlier this year, the Sheriff's Office has enough deputies to send two guys to Flagstaff to look into allegations that the State Bar of Arizona "intimidated" one of the sheriff's allies. Poor Ernest Calderon didn't get reappointed to a post representing the Bar nationally after he criticized the organization — boo hoo! The sheriff, bizarrely, seemed to think that decision was sufficiently criminal to send two deputies to Flagstaff to interview a former Bar employee.
Arpaio's office has the time to look into "political intimidation," yet doesn't have the time or energy to investigate the rape of a 14-year-old girl?
And that's not all it's had time to futz around with. Oh, no.
When the Sheriff's Office received a dubious allegation last spring about one of its most outspoken critics, it had enough time to search every nook and cranny for evidence that would show the story was legit. Never mind that the story, clearly, wasn't.
There couldn't be a bigger contrast between how the MCSO handled allegations about a videotape involving Abigail Brown — and how it handled a phony allegation about a videotape and Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon.
Last spring, just three weeks after Mayor Gordon's widely publicized César Chávez Day speech denouncing Sheriff Arpaio, a political enemy of Gordon's placed a call to Arpaio's cell phone.
That enemy, Jarrett Maupin II, isn't just an also-ran; Maupin is a never-was. A St. Mary's High School graduate who started running for Phoenix City Council before he could legally vote, Maupin hooked up with Al Sharpton years ago and clearly envisioned a glorious career in politics. (See "Kid Sharpton," February 3, 2005.)
But when Maupin had the audacity to file papers to run against Gordon in 2007, Gordon had the audacity to do what politicians do as a matter of course and comb through his opponent's petitions. The mayor's campaign staff found enough technicalities to get Maupin off the ballot.
So Maupin, apparently, sulked. And looked for a chance to get revenge.
At some point in early 2008, Maupin surely thought he had it. He began promising my colleague Stephen Lemons a mind-blowing scoop involving Mayor Gordon, according to Sheriff's Office reports. He claimed there was a videotape showing sex with an underage boy. There were also e-mails, he claimed. Something about licking pubic hair.
Lemons waited, but Maupin never produced a videotape. Or e-mails.
How could he? There was no videotape, and there were no e-mails. There couldn't be: There was no underage boy!
But Maupin wanted badly to believe there was. He was being strung along by a low-level staffer in Councilman Michael Nowakowski's office, a shady guy Nowakowski was about to fire for shaking down a developer. The guy, Gregory Coleman, would later tell sheriff's deputies that he was testing Maupin by promising some sort of dirt on Gordon. And Maupin fell for it — hook, line, and sinker.
And so, for a while, did the sheriff.
No one's talking about this one. (Through a spokesman, Gordon declined comment; the Sheriff's Office did not return repeated calls for comment.) The case ended in embarrassment: Maupin was lying, as the FBI realized when briefed on the case, and it began investigating him for making a false report.
But it's truly interesting to read the sheriff's file on the case, a giant pile of records that New Times obtained via a public-records request.
The records show that the MCSO worked the case hard. High-level investigators met with Maupin, and Maupin told them he'd actually watched the videotape. He thought he could get it from his source for $2,000. When Maupin's attempts to get the video fell short, investigators met with an acquaintance of Maupin's, a guy Maupin claimed had also seen the videotape. (Turns out, the guy hadn't.) They met with Maupin's assistant/wife, because she might have seen the videotape. (She hadn't, either.) Finally, the sheriff's investigators called Mayor Gordon (on a Saturday, no less) to ask whether he knew anyone fitting Maupin's description of the guy on the tape. (He didn't.)
They were desperate to prove the impossible. After all, there wasn't a videotape, or an underage boy, or a tawdry love affair. But these guys really, really wished there were.
So they subpoenaed Gregory Coleman's cell phone records and executed a public-records search for his e-mails. (Soon thereafter, they asked for Mayor Gordon's e-mails, too.) They even had Jarrett Maupin wear a wire so he could sit down with Coleman and get to the bottom of the mystery.
At one point, after a sheriff's officer called Gordon and warned him that he was potentially under investigation, Gordon's attorney, former U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton, gave the officer a call.
Charlton declined comment to New Times.
But, according to transcripts, Charlton told the MCSO investigator that the mayor had nothing to hide. But Charlton said he was concerned that it was the Sheriff's Office doing the investigating — especially since Gordon had taken such a public stance against the sheriff just one month before.
The officer said he didn't know where the case was going, not just yet.
"Okay, well, here's the other question," Charlton said. "Why is this case being worked so aggressively on a Saturday?"
"We . . . on a Saturday?" Officer M. DeSimone replied. "I'm just doing what I'm told. And, honestly, it's not being worked aggressively on a Saturday. If it was 'aggressively,' I'd be out in the field and not just making a phone call."
Charlton knew better than that.
"I was in law enforcement for 18 years," Charlton said, "and I have a sense of how these things go . . . And it's unusual to be calling a mayor of the city of Phoenix on a Saturday."
Ultimately, the sheriff's departmental report on Maupin's crazy allegation weighed in at 900-plus pages.
Ultimately, it concluded with what any sane observer would have suspected all along.
There was no videotape. There was no underage boy.
The whole thing was the product of Maupin's bitter machinations — and, apparently, Sheriff Arpaio's personal interest in nailing Phil Gordon.
Can you imagine how differently things would have turned out had the Sheriff's Office investigated the Moon Valley High School rape with such intensity?
Earlier this year, Jarrett Maupin pleaded guilty to one felony count of making a false report to law enforcement. He admitted that he'd believed Coleman's lies and then embellished them in hopes of getting the Sheriff's Office to lower the boom. Despite what Maupin initially promised his handlers at the MCSO, he never saw any videotape or e-mails.
Yet the Sheriff's Office wasted hours on this one — far more than they gave 14-year-old Abigail Brown.
What the fuck ever, dude.
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