For 16 months, Alex Gonzalez of Central Pawn Brokers has been pummeling City Hall with claims of wrongful prosecution, and now he figures he is in a position to say: I told you so.
On April 3, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office dropped charges of theft and trafficking in stolen property after a judge ruled that Gonzalez hadn't been properly advised of his Miranda rights when he was questioned by police in January 1994. The ruling would have prevented prosecutor Kevin Rapp from presenting what he felt were the most incriminating statements made by Gonzalez in a case involving a set of stolen Ping golf clubs ("On Golden Pawn," November 17, 1994).
"It's been a year and a half of me just saying over and over again what they determined," Gonzalez says. "All they needed to do was talk to the witnesses and they could have found out. But they chose to torture me, I guess, hoping I would cave in."
Rapp says a lot of those witnesses "crawled out of the woodwork" late in the game and, despite Gonzalez's feelings, Rapp felt he had enough evidence to take to a jury.
Gonzalez says he's relieved but still upset at what he says the charges have done to his life. For one, the 30-year-old church deacon quit his position as vice president of Central Pawn Brokers because owner Bill Jachimek could have lost his pawn license if Gonzalez had been found guilty. Also, he lost 35 pounds.
"The judge said to me, 'How do you know about your Miranda law?'" says Gonzalez, an aspiring cop who figures his name is sludge around those parts now. "I said, 'I went to school to become a police officer.' Oh, well--I guess that's down the tubes."
During the ordeal, the prospect of nine years in prison stalked Gonzalez like a bad debt. He claimed that former Phoenix police pawn detail detective James Finnerty had trumped up the charges to avenge Finnerty's part-time employer, a parking-garage operator whose girlfriend had just ditched him in favor of Jachimek, Gonzalez's boss.
Gonzalez says if the department had assigned another detective to the case, it would have discovered just how feeble the case was. He claimed to have been singled out because he is Hispanic--neither of the Anglo Central employees who actually handled the transaction, nor the person who sold Central the stolen clubs, was charged with anything.
Superiors on the police department's pawn detail told Gonzalez they couldn't do anything about his allegations against Finnerty because Finnerty was no longer with the department. The former pawnshop investigator bought out his retirement last summer and is now with Arrow Pawn, one of Central's growing list of Phoenix competitors in the pawn business.
But Gonzalez, an earnest sort who had risen to his $52,000-a-year position after starting as a $6-an-hour clerk, continued to roar, and he took his story to the police chief's office, then to the mayor and city council at a March 7 hearing. He even cornered the visiting Reverend Jesse Jackson for a gripe session and photo opportunity in February.
For his part, Jachimek had Gonzalez take polygraph tests regarding the Ping incident and wrote letters to city manager Frank Fairbanks, Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley and the Phoenix Equal Opportunity Department expressing his views about the detective's behavior and the department's handling of the complaints.
Pawnbrokers sometimes find themselves with stuff that eventually turns out to be stolen, which is why the law requires them to put anything they buy on hold for ten days before putting it out for sale. Having stolen property doesn't necessarily make somebody a criminal, but knowing it's stolen when you buy it does, and that's what detective Finnerty said Gonzalez did with the troublesome Pings. Gonzalez had quoted the offer of $160 to one of the employees actually handling the purchase.
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Pawnshop employees say they feared the clubs were stolen and took all the necessary precautions, including fitting them with a prominent tag noting their precarious status, a tag they claim the detective removed. Finnerty said he never saw such a tag. The issue never got to trial, though, once the county prosecutor dropped the case.
"All I can say is, they finally did the right thing," says Gonzalez's attorney, Larry Debus.
Gonzalez says he is considering legal action against the city for being prosecuted at all, and for what he calls the police department's failure to fully investigate allegations made by Jachimek and Gonzalez about detective Finnerty's mishandling of the case.
"They took a part of my life and flushed it down the toilet," Gonzalez says. "This could have been solved a year and a half ago. All they had to do was talk to the witnesses. They took a year and four months of my life. I can't even begin to tell you what they robbed me of.