Louie Puroll Gets Fired for Lying

It has been a mostly hellish ride for Louie Puroll, fired last week as a range deputy by Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu for lying.

Puroll's name was unknown to most before he said a gang of drug smugglers attacked him with semiautomatic weapons April 30, 2010, in the desert between Casa Grande and Gila Bend.

Puroll's name made big news that night when Babeu spoke of the deputy's "ambush" by the smugglers in the Vekol Valley, about four miles south of Interstate 8. The 53-year-old had suffered a minor flesh wound during the attack, and the sheriff said Puroll managed to retreat to safety as he returned fire with his M-16 rifle and a handgun.

Almost everybody's first thoughts were with the deputy and how lucky he must have been to escape a potentially fatal clash relatively unscathed.

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — shot Saturday in Tucson along with 19 others, six of whom are dead — issued a press release after the Puroll incident that summed up the mood of a majority of Arizonans.

"What will it take?" she asked. "Who else will be shot? How much more violence must we endure before the federal government secures our border? These are the questions that Arizonans are asking after [the] shooting of Deputy Puroll by suspected drug smugglers. We want answers, and we want them now."

But more questions than answers arose in the next several days, most of them directed at New Times from law enforcement sources in the Phoenix area and elsewhere: Why, they asked, hadn't Pinal County authorities been able to arrest any of the alleged shooters, and why hadn't they found any of the bales of marijuana that Puroll said the men had been toting?

More questions emerged as the Pinal County Sheriff's Office and the Arizona Department of Public Safety (which processed the crime scene) released respective investigative reports, asking why there were so few expended shell casings from bullets that possibly could have been fired at the deputy?

The story of Puroll's shooting came one week after Governor Jan Brewer's signing of Arizona Senate Bill 1070, which called for the harshest restrictions ever on illegal immigrants (the law has been challenged legally, and it remains tied up in the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.)

The deputy became a folk hero to many, both in Arizona and nationally, and a symbol of everything that's wrong about the federal government's approach to policing the border (even if the clash occurred about 85 miles north of the line).

Puroll's emotionally charged words to police dispatchers shortly after he called in to say he'd been shot — "Tell my wife I love her" — endeared him to many, including his sheriff, whose national profile increased dramatically in the aftermath. Sheriff Babeu became a mainstay on Fox News following the Puroll shooting.

New Times' initial reporting on the incident led to a May 3 blog post (four days after the shooting) in which it was noted that there was "no evidence at this point that suggests Deputy Puroll is anything but a stellar peace officer. But questions quietly have arisen among some law enforcement types about the bizarre incident in the desert."

Sheriff Babeu held a press conference in response to the post — which compared the incident to that of a Phoenix police officer who staged his own shooting ("A Shot in the Dark," March 25, 2002). The sheriff released recordings of Puroll's calls to dispatchers after the clash and gave a detailed description of the deputy's account.

"There's no doubt in my mind that this happened," the sheriff said.

A few weeks later, New Times quoted a cop familiar with details of the crime scene. "That whole scene was just not right," the officer said, adding that DPS investigators had "found zero evidence supporting [Puroll's] recollections of the incident."

Pinal County sheriff's investigators' probe into what happened in the desert was, at best, tepid. Their interview of Deputy Puroll in early May was devoid of anything approaching a hard question.

On September 23, New Times published "Pinalcchio," a lengthy examination of the Puroll shooting case. The piece raised numerous questions about his account and about the less-than-thorough investigation by his PCSO peers.

In that story, a pair of veteran forensic pathologists who, at this newspaper's request, studied photographs of Puroll's gunshot wound said it looked like a contact or near-contact wound. If true, that would have rebutted the deputy's account of getting shot from a distance.

Sheriff Babeu blasted New Times as a "conspiracy-driven" newspaper and for supposedly "hiring" the pathologists, Drs. Michael Baden and Werner Spitz — even though the experts had provided their opinions without financial compensation. But media pressure eventually forced the sheriff to order his investigators to belatedly send the bloody T-shirt worn by Puroll during the alleged shootout to the state's crime lab for examination.

In early October, Babeu convened the media in Florence to announce (live on CNN) that the lab's testing had revealed the lack of any gunshot residue on the T-shirt.

That told the sheriff, seemingly once and for all, that Puroll hadn't shot himself, even though many more questions about his truthfulness remained unanswered.

"This case is over," Babeu said, "and I think the reporter behind all this should apologize."

Deputy Puroll also spoke to the media during that news conference, showing a feisty disposition and a quick wit.

As the writer of the stories in which experts questioned his account of what had happened in the Vekol Valley, I introduced myself to the deputy after the press conference.

"So you're the one who called me a liar," he said.

We sat at a table and spoke for about a half-hour. Puroll jotted down his e-mail address and agreed to answer whatever I had to ask whenever we could work out the logistics.

A few weeks later, we met at a truck-stop restaurant off Interstate 10 near Eloy.

The interview was four hours long and covered a number of topics, the most relevant of which made it into New Times' next story on the case, "Whitewash," November 25.

In the interview, Puroll said members of infamous Mexican drug cartels had attempted to bribe him, sounding serious when he said it.

The deputy also claimed a friend of his had offered to murder me because of my less-than-favorable analysis of Puroll's account of the shooting.

I gave Puroll opportunities in the days after he made that statement to amend or retract it. But he chose not to, instead saying that his pal "probably" hadn't been serious about the apparently off-the-cuff offer to commit homicide.

The PCSO suspended the deputy shortly after the story, which prompted the 14-year department veteran's firing last week after the office's Professional Standards Bureau investigators sustained each of 10 allegations against Puroll, including that the deputy had been "untruthful."

After the firing, Sheriff Babeu said he still believes Puroll's story about getting shot by a drug smuggler in the Vekol Valley but conceded that the deputy told tall tales about the death threat and about meeting repeatedly with cartel members.

Puroll must have offended his department by lying to internal affairs investigators, since lying to a reporter may be stupid but presumably not against PCSO regulations.

The release noted that Puroll plans to contest his firing.

Under Arizona law, the agency is barred from releasing the internal affairs report authored by Detective Rob Evans until appeals are exhausted.

The Pinal County Sheriff's Office's Professional Standards Bureau sustained each of 10 allegations against Louie Puroll, including that the deputy had been "untruthful."

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