Sue Lindley retired from the Maricopa County Attorney's Office last week after 23 years of investigating the most horrific crimes -- the sexual abuse of children. But Lindley, a feisty, keen and sensitive woman, still has too much on her mind to leave the past completely behind her."
I still have some ghosts with some cases who I have to make friends with," she says. "The victims I've gotten to know always touch my heart. The ghosts touch my soul."
Lindley tells of one of those "ghosts," Judith Rich, a preteen girl whose mother's boyfriend allegedly abused her in the mid-1990s.
"It really was a routine child-abuse case -- not that any child-abuse case is routine, but that's how it gets in this job. Anyway, Judith's mother had hooked up with this guy, Ernest Kramer, after her husband -- Judith's biological father -- had been murdered. Kramer was a nasty SOB. He told Judith, 'If you tell on me, I'll kill your mom.' Well, she did tell, and Kramer got charged. Then, for a whole bunch of crappy reasons, he got out of jail on a supervised release. The jailers kept him in lock-up as long as they could, but he got out, and went home.
"CPS came by to get Judith because they feared for her safety. That was the last time she saw her mom. A few days later [in July 1997], Kramer killed Mom and then shot himself, and died the next day. I mean, Judith had put her faith in us and now her mom was dead. No one wanted to tell her, and it was left to me to do it -- something I'd never done before. She kept asking me, 'Why, why, why,' and, 'Who's gonna be my mom now?' and I didn't know what to tell her.
"Even though part of Judith's story has a happy ending -- a biological aunt and uncle took her in -- she's still a ghost -- something that haunts me."
The title "investigator" never did cover it for Lindley. Her unwritten job description includes social worker, counselor, legal beagle, you name it.
In 1992, for example, Lindley found herself immersed, with prosecutor Cindi Nannetti, in a sex-abuse case that rocked the city of Flagstaff. Ralston Pitts was the popular and trusted director of Northern Arizona University's School of Performing Arts. But an investigation led to a Coconino County grand jury indictment against Pitts on charges that he had sex with a music student from the time she was nine until she was 16.
One of Lindley's main tasks was to keep the traumatized teenager focused on the difficult task of having to face her molester in open court at trial.
"You definitely become close to the victims, but you have to maintain a certain distance without them even knowing it," Lindley says. "It's a juggling act, because they are so much needing someone they can trust and pour their heart out to. But you can't coach them, either."
Pitts later agreed to a plea bargain and is currently serving a 12-year prison sentence. Lindley and the victim -- who later earned a master's degree in social work -- still speak occasionally.
Lindley says she learned how to do her job the old-fashioned way: "I worked at it, then worked at it some more, then really worked at it," she says. "But I didn't even know it was a 'career' for a hell of a long time."
Born in North Carolina, Lindley moved to Arizona as a youngster and has lived in Phoenix for more than 40 years. A graduate of Central High School, Lindley attended Phoenix College, then dropped out to work -- stints as a receptionist at a car dealership and as a bookkeeper come immediately to her mind.
Then, in 1972, she decided to pursue an associate's degree in criminal justice. Lindley reenrolled at Phoenix College and earned that degree while working two jobs. The diploma led to a job as a clerk at the Paradise Valley Police Department.
She also caught an early career break. Former Maricopa County Attorney Chuck Hyder had been one of Lindley's instructors at Phoenix College, and he started a sex-crimes bureau after his election in late 1975. He needed a few investigators and encouraged Lindley to apply.
"I guess I looked very trainable," she jokes. She got the gig. "I thought I was going to be a millionaire -- $6.50 an hour! That was more money than I'd ever seen."
The following year, 1977, the Arizona Legislature enacted a law that gave county attorney investigators the same powers as regular police officers. That meant Lindley and her new peers had to successfully complete the police academy. She did, and became a sworn police officer that fall.
Lindley has honed her craft ever since, an ongoing process that has included learning sign language to allow her to communicate with deaf crime victims.
"Losing Sue to retirement is a big blow to this office," says county attorney Rick Romley, who has written numerous letters of commendation to Lindley over the years. "We've put her on the toughest cases, the biggest cases, and she's always come through, both as a professional investigator and as a compassionate person. And she definitely educated us about the things we'd have to do to make the system easier for deaf victims to negotiate."
About 135 of Lindley's closest friends attended a retirement party for her at a downtown watering hole last week. Judges, cops, prosecutors, fellow investigators and, yes, defense attorneys, said their goodbyes.
Among the well-wishers was Judge Ron Reinstein, who first met Lindley when he and fellow judge Mike Ryan headed the sex-crimes bureau of the County Attorney's Office in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
"You can say a lot of great things about Sue," Reinstein says, "but I think she's been best at making a system that can really be lousy for many people much less lousy. And she hasn't taken shit from anybody."
Lindley kept her emotions pretty much in check when she spoke briefly to the gathering. It didn't surprise anyone, however, when she deflected praise to her mentors, her colleagues and her husband, Warren.
She says she started to consider retirement after leading her office's investigations on a crunching series of cases. "We had Judith Rich, then Chipman Road [the gang rape of a South Phoenix girl], then the [abuse of the Avondale] quads," Lindley says, the latter two being highly publicized Valley cases. "Then, I guess we had enough."
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Lindley later spoke pensively of another of her "ghosts," a molestation victim from almost 20 years ago. The girl, then about eight, had colored a picture for Lindley as she waited to testify against her attacker.
"Dear Sue -- I love you. You're my best friend," said the words that accompanied the drawing. "Your pretty too -- thanks for staying in court. I wish you are my mom. I love you."
The little girl died years later, the victim of an East Valley homicide that was unrelated to the earlier crimes against her.
"But she's a ghost who I've become okay with," Lindley says. "I can't explain it. These souls just become a part of you. I've considered myself a voice for those kids."