More than a year before his alleged suicide by hanging on May 8, Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Detective Charley Armendariz reached out to Phoenix human-rights activist Lydia Guzman, telling her he had information to share, and implicating MCSO supervisors in illegal activity.
Guzman says Armendariz approached her on February 28, 2013, as she was giving an interview to a Spanish-language TV news outlet in front of one of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's jails. They went to a local Jack In The Box, where for the next hour, he opened up to her.
"He had just been disciplined or talked to because of some sort of work behavior," Guzman remembers. "He was talking about how his supervisors were ganging up on him...because he told them that he was not going to participate in their illegal activity anymore."
Armendariz was vague on what this "illegal activity" consisted of.
"He said, `You know what goes on in [the MCSO]?'" she recalls. "So I just acted like, oh yes, I do know what's going on."
She says it was the beginning of an unlikely, on-again, off-again, acquaintance, one in which Guzman, a committed anti-Arpaio activist, counseled a troubled member of the MCSO's infamous Human Smuggling Unit, who would, a year and two months later, be arrested on drug charges after barricading himself inside his Phoenix home.
The deceased deputy is the focus of an ongoing investigation by the MCSO. A federal judge has ordered the Sheriff's Office to turn over evidence of Armendariz's allegedly shaking down illegal aliens to both the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and the U.S. Attorney's Office.
Along with pot, heroin, meth, and other illicit drugs found in Armendariz's residence, MCSO deputies discovered a cache of foreign and fake IDs, wallets, and passports; license plates; numerous, never-filed citations; stolen MCSO evidence bags; and more than 900 hours of videotaped traffic stops, captured by Armendariz with dash cams and with an eyeglass camera.
But in early 2013, Guzman knew little of Armendariz. What they had in common was the 2012 civil trial in Melendres v. Arpaio, the ACLU's big racial profiling case against the sheriff.
Both she and Armendariz testified during the trial: Guzman as a witness for the plaintiffs, Armendariz as a witness for the defense. Now here they were, in a fast-food restaurant, with Armendariz sitting across from her, out of uniform, and emotional.
"He kept saying to me, `Lydia, [the plaintiffs' lawyers] didn't ask me the right questions,'" remembers Guzman.
Armendariz told her that he had been instructed not to give up any unnecessary information during the trial. He also claimed he was being monitored. In each case, specifics were not readily offered.
He also claimed he was getting harassed because of his sexual preference. Armendariz was openly gay, and had even marched in a local gay pride parade.
Armendariz related that one fellow deputy told him to "not act so gay."
When Armendariz complained to a supervisor, the supervisor shrugged, saying, "Well, what did you expect?"
Guzman says Armendariz was visibly shaken when she met him.
"He was scared," explains Guzman. "His lip was shaking, his eye was twitching because he was scared. At some point, he started crying, while I'm talking to him. He said, `I need to talk with someone, who do I talk to?'"
It was no secret that Guzman had contacts with the U.S. Department of Justice and with the FBI. She had mentioned this to the local media several times and had been deposed about her DOJ contacts by Arpaio's lawyers. That's why Armendariz reached out to her, says Guzman.
Guzman contacted the DOJ and the FBI to tell them about Armendariz. The FBI referred her to the DOJ.
DOJ staff told her that they could not meet with Armendariz. It was a conflict because he was employed by the MCSO, and was represented by MCSO's lawyers, as he was both a witness in Melendres and in a separate DOJ lawsuit having to do with racial profiling and abuse of power.
"I was told that once he had another job, then the DOJ could speak with him," she says.
In August 2013, a couple of months after federal Judge G. Murray Snow found Arpaio and his office guilty of racial profiling in Melendres, Guzman says Armendariz contacted her again via text, through what she says was an anonymous Google number.
Guzman shared screenshots of the text messages with me. In one, Armendariz told her that "people are leaving" the MCSO because of "the cover-ups and how they are treated."
He related that the MCSO's Human Smuggling Unit was still active and had not been disbanded, as some thought.
"They are still a unit and working," he wrote. "It's business as usual."
(Note: The MCSO recently confirmed to me that the HSU still exists, and is part of the Special Investigations Division. I was also told it will be renamed soon, but the MCSO would not say what the new name will be.)
"The DOJ was [on] the right track," reads another text. "They should have kept looking at command staff. Not the deputies."
A minute later, there's another, obscure message: "It keeps coming from the top."
There are other texts stating that he has "left" or is planning to "leave town." Guzman believes this refers to Armendariz's attempt to find another job.
"I'm still in town," reads another text. "But I feel I have to make right the wrong first."
She claims that in subsequent conversations, Armendariz confirmed that he sent these anonymous texts.
The phone number they were sent from is not currently in use.
Guzman said she again informed her contacts at the DOJ about Armendariz, forwarding all his communications to them as well as her notes of same. She says the DOJ advised her that he would need a lawyer.
She tried to find Armendariz an attorney, turning to ACLU lawyers and to other attorneys she knew in town.
The ACLU told her it could not talk privately with him, because he was a plaintiff's witness in Melendres and was represented by the MCSO's counsel.
Cecillia Wang, an attorney in California with the ACLU's Immigrants' Rights Project and one of the ACLU lawyers on Melendres, said she could not comment on whether or not the ACLU had been approached by Guzman on behalf of Armendariz.
But she agreed that if the ACLU had been approached, it would not have been able to talk with Armendariz.
One Phoenix lawyer I spoke with said she had been approached by Guzman to represent Armendariz but that she, too, could not do so because of a conflict.
Guzman says she does not know if the DOJ or the FBI ever spoke with Armendariz.
On April 30, the Phoenix Police Department responded to a 911 call from Armendariz's residence and found Armendariz in his boxer shorts shooting pepper balls from a pepper-ball gun at non-existent assailants in his garage.
The PPD contacted the MCSO, and MCSO deputies helped convince Armendariz that he should go to the hospital for a voluntary mental evaluation.
While at Armendariz's house, MCSO detectives say they spotted a Sheriff's Office evidence bag containing a pipe and marijuana. This lead to the MCSO's obtaining a warrant to search Armendariz's residence, where it found more drugs, license plates, IDs, and all the previously mentioned items.
On May 4, according to court documents, two of Armendariz's friends called 911, reporting that Armendariz was suicidal. Armendariz then barricaded himself in his home, holding a shotgun to his head.
In the early-morning hours of May 5, Armendariz surrendered, was taken into custody, booked, released, and given 24 hours to obtain his court-ordered electronic monitoring device.
"He called me the moment he was released," Guzman explains. "He was crying so much that I had to hang up on him twice because I couldn't understand what he was saying.
"He said, `They're trying to make me look like I'm crazy and I'm not, they're trying to set me up,' but I don't know if that's what a crazy person would say."
Knowing he was going to be on supervised release, Guzman says Armendariz called her as he ran around, gathering supplies, like toilet paper and food.
Guzman says he complained that he was being followed by MCSO deputies. She reminded him that he hadn't gotten his ankle bracelet yet, and told him they likely were just keeping an eye on him.
"He said, `I want to talk to somebody,'" remembers Guzman. "And, 'I'm scared.'
"He kept saying, `I know you have a group of volunteers, can you please make sure they're in front of my house? Can you please make sure they watch my house tonight?'"
She told him she wasn't sure about watching his house, but that she could drive by his house for a welfare check.
"Then I heard on the news that he quit the MCSO," she explains. "The moment I learned that, I called the Department of Justice, and the FBI. I left them several messages, e-mails. I said, `Guys, he's no longer with MCSO.'"
But she's still unclear on whether the FBI and/or the DOJ took advantage of the opportunity to speak with a newly-unemployed Armendariz.
Neither the DOJ, nor the FBI, have responded to my requests for comment on this story.
Similarly, I've asked the MCSO to respond to the allegations in this piece, and have yet to receive a response.
Guzman says she passed in front of Armendariz's house in the early afternoon of the day Armendariz was found dead by the MCSO. No one was around, and Armendariz's truck was parked nearby. So she figured he had gotten his ankle bracelet and all was well.
But when she rolled by again later that afternoon, she saw MCSO patrol cars and SWAT vehicles. The MCSO had sought Armendariz's arrest, after he failed to pick up his monitoring device.
Armendariz's lifeless body was discovered instead.
Guzman says Armendariz never described to her the criminal activity he may have been involved in, and whenever he tried to do so, she told him that she didn't want to know.
She wanted Armendariz to speak directly to the DOJ, she says, and she did not want her position to be compromised.
Interestingly, during a May 7 hearing before Judge G. Murray Snow, the court and the parties in Melendres discussed the implications of the Armendariz case, one day before Armendariz supposedly killed himself.
Arpaio's Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan told the court how the MCSO had recently interviewed Armendariz.
"We did interview Charley," Sheridan explained, according to the unsealed transcript of the hearing. "We interviewed him on Friday [May 2]. Criminally, he invoked. So we have a stopped criminal interview on that.
"We started an administrative interview. He talked to us for about an hour and a half. The first hour or so was just chitchat about getting him to loosen up to talk to us. Then when we started asking him specific questions about these things he began to implicate some other people that worked at HSU, kind of accusing them of doing it and he was innocent, and then he shut up. And then he resigned Friday afternoon. And so we -- he stopped the interview."
Judge Snow asked if the MCSO was investigating whether Armendariz had been "shaking down some illegal aliens."
Sheridan replied, "That is part of our understanding; he very well could have. What's mysterious to me is why we didn't get any complaints from those people."
The MCSO has not yet released Armendariz's full personnel file, including details of all disciplinary actions taken against him.
However, Maricopa County keeps a record of part of MCSO employees' personnel files, including annual reviews.
In 2007, Armendariz's review mentions "several citizen complaints" against him, as well as a "serious policy violation."
The 2008 review also mentions "citizen complaints" against Armendariz. In 2010, it's noted he received "fewer complaints," though that report also dings him for "a written reprimand regarding a missing report that was initiated at Chase field."
The 2011 evaluation notes a "sharp decline" in civilian complaints, and observes that, "Charley also now audio and video records all of his traffic stops."
A 2012 review notes that, "Charley still does get some citizen complaints," though supposedly they were not as frequent.
This 2012 evaluation also observes that Armendariz "continues to video and audio record all of his stops," and mentions dash cam footage of one stop.
These reviews are signed off on by several levels of supervisors, including, at the very top, for the last couple of years, Deputy Chief David Trombi.
Was Armendariz the average MCSO deputy? Are such complaints run of the mill for other MCSO employees, particularly for members of the Human Smuggling Unit?
In a May 14 hearing before Snow, Sheridan admitted that there was widespread audio- and videotaping ongoing among MCSO personnel, via dash cams, body cams, and audio recorders.
This, in apparent violation of a litigation hold placed on all such records years ago, early in the Melendres suit.
In 2010, the MCSO was sanctioned by the court for not turning over documents related to traffic stops and sweeps, and for shredding these documents.
And yet the MCSO blithely continued to ignore the litigation hold as it pertained to videotaping by Armendariz and other deputies, taping that the court and plaintiffs in Melendres were unaware of.
Just as it blithely overlooked "citizen complaints" in regard to Armendariz.
And if citizen complaints were overlooked, what about non-citizen complaints?
Guzman claims, "Since 2009, I've known that during the raids, [MCSO deputies have] been taking money from workers."
In one case, she says, a man arrested by the MCSO had "584 dollars in his pocket," but "only 84 dollars showed up on his receipt for his personal belongings."
Guzman says the man's wife tried to get that money because she had to pay her rent.
"She went to her attorney, her attorney made contact with me, and I took this lady to the FBI and we filed a complaint, back in 2009.
"We gave them booking numbers, we gave names and dates and everything. The FBI turned around and said, well, can't you complain to the MCSO?"
Guzman says she's directed others with similar complaints to the FBI.
She is not the only person who has tales of immigrants' complaining of being ripped off by the MCSO.
Immigration attorney Emilia Banuelos is another.
"Several clients [have] complained that their personal belongings were never returned [by the MCSO]," she told me via e-mail, "including valid identification cards and money from their wallets when they were arrested."
And since he began representing an employer who became the target of Arpaio's immigrant-rousting raids, former U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton believes these stories as well.
Charlton says his client Bret Frimmel, owner of the local Uncle Sam's restaurant chain, became a target of an MCSO probe after the MCSO raided two Uncle Sam's locations in July 2013, arresting several workers on state ID theft and forgery charges.
Frimmel also became a target, Charlton claims, because Arpaio knew Guzman was talking to the feds about MCSO's worksite raids. And through a warrantless search of Frimmel's cell phone, the MCSO learned that a DOJ investigator had contacted Frimmel following the raid, asking for his help in the DOJ's investigation of the MCSO.
"Bret did nothing illegal, nothing wrong," Charlton told me during a recent interview. "This investigation was initiated by Joe Arpaio because he was afraid of Lydia Guzman's going to the Department of Justice.
"And in fact the Department of Justice did reach out to Bret seeking his cooperation. So this was a way [for the MCSO] to protect [itself] by saying, `We're going after the employer, not just the employees.' And to intimidate Bret from cooperating with the Department of Justice."
Charlton related how MCSO detectives, upon arresting Frimmel, "took his watch, his jewelry and his cash," which Charlton says totaled, "just north of $4,000."
And "for an extended period of time," Frimmel's lawyer before Charlton took over, " could not get any of those items returned to him."
Charlton drew his own conclusions about what happened next.
"It wasn't until [the attorney] wrote a letter to the sheriff's office demanding that return, that the items were returned," explained Charlton.
"I suspect that was because that group was so accustomed to stealing from individuals who weren't here lawfully and didn't have the resources to complain about that theft, that they believed that they could do the same to this individual. They were mistaken.
"Eventually,[Frimmel] got everything back, but even the evidence bags themselves are marked in a peculiar and inconsistent fashion. They don't reflect accurate dates of seizure, and it's almost as if someone were attempting to create the evidence chain of custody after they've been called upon to do so."
Charlton's description of a broken chain of custody involving MCSO evidence bags reminds one of the "multiple" evidence bags, which according to court documents, were located in Armendariz's residence, "both sealed and unsealed, some containing items of evidence."
With Charlton's assistance, Frimmel continues to battle allegations that he and his manager were aiding and abetting identity fraud by employees.
And Armendariz, whom Charlton says was involved in the Uncle Sam's raids and in the investigation of Frimmel, is now part of Charlton's argument that the case against his client has been "hopelessly tainted."
"Given MCSO Detective Armendariz's widespread misconduct and corruption," writes Charlton in one recent pleading, "it appears likely that he received assistance from others within MCSO in carrying out his unlawful acts."
This seems a very reasonable conclusion, contrary to statements made by MCSO lawyer Tim Casey in federal court before Judge Snow, suggesting that Armendariz was a "rogue" cop.
Was Armendariz remorseful, and prompted by his own conscience to reach out to Guzman, despite what wrongs he may have inflicted on others?
Guzman believes so. And she has shown me enough evidence, both on and off the record, to demonstrate that she was in contact with Armendariz and with the DOJ, and tried mightily to put them together.
Whatever Armendariz was in life, in death he resembles, to me at least, that crucial block of wood in a game of Jenga.
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The one that, when removed, causes the whole tower to tumble down.
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