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Sheriff Joe buffaloes readers with bogus yarns in his book Joe's Law

The cover of Joe's new book (with a little creative editing).
New Times photo illustration

It was all love from the mostly alter kocker crowd of Sheriff Joe supporters at the Barnes & Noble near Pima and Shea in Scottsdale, with Arpaio addressing the seated senior citizens before signing copies of his book Joe's Law: America's Toughest Sheriff Takes on Illegal Immigration, Drugs and Everything Else That Threatens America.

The sheriff was in his element, surrounded by an adoring, lily-white audience of geezers, with TV cameras capturing his usual shuck and jive.

"How much more time we got?" wondered Arpaio toward the end of his remarks. "I could talk forever. They wanna buy the book. If I say everything, they won't need the book."

The county's top constable fielded a few softball questions from his admirers. Why doesn't he run for governor of Arizona? Does the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office confiscate drop houses?

Then a younger voice chimed in, regarding a topic you won't read about in Arpaio's book.

"Would you care to comment about Scott Norberg, who was Tasered I think 15 times, and a towel stuffed into his mouth, strapped down to a chair in your jail?" asked the tall, lanky guy. "He was murdered [there]."

Almost instantly, Arpaio morphed into an enraged beast. He recounted how Norberg had come into his jail "high on drugs," and how he had been incarcerated "many, many times" before.

"We had to subdue him," growled Joe. "And he unfortunately passed away because of a drug overdose."

Not true.

The county medical examiner ruled Norberg was asphyxiated when his chin was crushed into his chest by MCSO deputies while in Sheriff's Office custody. Writing in 1999 about an MCSO video of the killing that was instrumental in securing a then-record $8.25 million settlement for the Norberg family, New Times writer David Holthouse likened it to a snuff flick.

When the activist who raised the issue of Norberg tried to follow up, the oldsters in the crowd turned as mean as the object of their affection. They shouted, "Sit down!" and "Get out of here!" A plainclothes deputy soon escorted the young man out for the offense of asking a tough question of "America's Toughest Sheriff."

It was not the first such interruption during Arpaio's local book tour. Protesters decrying the cruelty of Joe's gulags and his continued persecution of the undocumented have dogged his every appearance. Outside bookstores, activists bearing placards calling him "Ar-payaso" (payaso means clown, in Spanish) or equating him with a Ku Klux Klan member have borne the brunt of punishing summer heat to get their points across.

At previous book-signings, despite being monitored by uniformed and undercover MCSO deputies, anti-Joe forces have inserted into his new tome fliers that detail their complaints against Maricopa County's septuagenarian sheriff. These include Arpaio's costing the county more than $43 million in lawsuit payouts over conditions in county jails and wrongful deaths, like those of Norberg, Charles Agster, and Deborah Braillard (see "Dead End," John Dickerson, December 20, 2007). The 40,000 unserved felony warrants the MCSO has failed to serve are mentioned, along with the sheriff's wasteful RICO spending, his sweeps targeting the Valley's immigrant community, and the racial profiling that occurs during these roundups.

The ghost of Norberg is particularly persistent and unyielding.

At a recent book-signing in Goodyear, a camcorder-wielding activist stood in line with other autograph-seekers and asked that Joe make his inscription out to Scott Norberg. Joe got as far as the first name before looking up with a flash of uneasiness and fear. Joe ordered bodyguards, "Will you get this guy out of here?!" and put his palm up in front of the camera.

A short video soon hit YouTube, featuring a photo of Norberg and an ominous soundtrack of Tibetan chants from the Dalai Lama. The spooky vid is the creation of anti-Arpaio agitator Dennis Gilman (though he's not the one who shot the raw footage).

Therefore, despite all the misstatements and Hoover Dam-size omissions in Arpaio's new book, the truth rises to the surface, strangling each whopper with brutal reality.

An intensely boring read for all but those who are slavishly attached to the man, Joe's Law repeats many of the myths Arpaio has manufactured about himself over the years. With the assistance of friend and writer Len Sherman, the book regurgitates such cock-and-bull stories as Arpaio's supposed run-in with Elvis, Joe's implausible role in ending the infamous French Connection, and bogus threats on Joe's life — beginning with the laughable assertion that Phoenix immigrant-rights advocate Elias Bermudez, the Minutemen, and the Mexican Mafia have a price on his head.

Indeed, though some of the book deals with immigration, a lot of it is lifted word for word from Joe's previous collaboration with Sherman, America's Toughest Sheriff: How We Can Win the War Against Crime, published in 1996. The back of the new book features John McCain's endorsement from the old book, in spite of a chapter near the end of Joe's Law that bashes McCain. (Arpaio complains that McCain has not properly curried his favor and possible endorsement for president.)

 

The new book is bursting with self-plagiarizing passages. Speaking of a drug deal gone awry, Arpaio writes on page 162 of the 1996 tome: "Okay. Drug deals aren't planned in a lawyer's office. (Well most drug deals aren't planned in a lawyer's office.) Schedules aren't fixed. Problems arise; People adapt."

Save for a period rather than a semicolon after the word "arise," the exact passage appears on page 177 of Joe's Law. And this is but one of many such examples of Sherman and Arpaio's cut-and-paste methodology.

Besides almost word-for-word resurfacings, war stories and anecdotes from the old book appear in the new one, just barely touched up.

There's one big fish tale told ad nauseam by Arpaio of how he pulled over Elvis Presley in 1957 when Joe was a rookie cop with the Las Vegas Police Department. Supposedly, Joe stops Elvis for speeding on his motorcycle, a beautiful blonde hanging on to the King from behind.

"Maybe because I was young (as was Presley), I let him talk me out of giving him a ticket," Joe related. Presley then supposedly follows Joe into the station house where he signs autographs for Joe's fellow officers. Elvis even asks the cops if their garage can tune up his bike.

Great story, eh? Of course, because Elvis didn't get a ticket, there's no paper trail. And though Arpaio's fellow cops allegedly got autographs from the King, Arpaio didn't. When asked at the Scottsdale book-signing if he got a photo or an autograph from Elvis, he responded testily, "Why did I need his? He should've asked me for my autograph."

Guess Presley didn't know that Joe would one day be an infamous sheriff.

Informed of this shaggy-dog tale, spokesman Bill Cassel of the Las Vegas PD told New Times, "There's no way to confirm or deny such a story."

True enough. Elvis liked cops, and Elvis scholar Peter Guralnick's Elvis Day by Day, which documents Elvis' daily doings, year by year, does pinpoint Elvis spending time in Vegas in 1957. Though, as you might expect, it doesn't say anything about Elvis meeting a young cop named Joe Arpaio.

So what if the Elvis tale is bunk? Doesn't everyone stretch the truth a tad when relating their run-ins with famous people? Perhaps, but Joe's flexibility with the facts extends to more important matters. Such as his standing in the polls, threats on his life, and his boast of having helped bust up the French Connection.


A lie told often enough becomes the truth, Russian dictator Vladimir Lenin once said, and that certainly must be the hope of Arpaio and his people in regard to the oft-repeated canard that Joe maintains an everlasting 80 percent approval rating in the polls.

In his introduction to the book, co-author Sherman states that Joe enjoys "an uninterrupted approval rating always in the neighborhood of 80 percent . . . from the people."

Joe restates this number in the body of the book, claiming that he has "an approval rating of over 80 percent, a measure of support I know no other elected official in Arizona can claim."

Actually, Joe can't claim it either, unless he jumps into the Wayback Machine and sets the date for 2001, when Bruce Merrill's Arizona State University-KAET poll gave Arpaio a whopping 83 percent approval rating. But that was then.

An April 29, 2008, Cronkite/Eight poll done by the same Merrill has Arpaio's approval rating among respondents from Maricopa County at 62 percent. A similar poll done by Merrill in November 2007 had Joe at 65 percent, excluding those with no opinion of the man.

Asked at the Scottsdale event about the 80 percent prevarication, Arpaio spoke of a Rocky Mountain/Behavior Research Center poll that he said backed his assertion that he maintains 80 percent approval. But a Rocky Mountain poll in December showed the sheriff's approval rating at 59 percent. And a poll commissioned by American Traffic Solutions, also done by Rocky Mountain/BRC, leaked to the press in April but never officially released, showed Arpaio at 57 percent countywide and 55 percent statewide.

Why repeat what is so clearly not true?

Because certain news outlets will uncritically accept it as fact, thus helping Arpaio project an aura of invincibility.

Last year, in a profile of the sheriff, Arizona Republic reporter Dennis Wagner wrongly asserted that Arpaio's numbers "have hovered around 85 percent." More recently, the news site breitbart.com published a story by Agence France-Press that said Arpaio has "80 to 90 percent approval ratings in polls." This, the French news agency claimed, "makes it unlikely he will lose a campaign for re-election in the fall."

 

More complex is Arpaio's seemingly outrageous insistence that he helped crack the French Connection case, made famous in the 1971 William Friedkin film of the same name, starring Gene Hackman as New York City police Detective Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle and Roy Scheider as his partner, Buddy "Cloudy" Russo.

The film was based on the non-fiction book by Robin Moore, also titled The French Connection, which followed real-life NYPD detectives Eddie Egan (Popeye Doyle in the film) and Sonny Grosso, on whom the movie's Russo character was based.

For those who do not recall the film or Moore's bestseller, the two NYC detectives are tireless in pursuit of their quarry — French criminals allied with the Mafia who smuggle heroin by hiding it in cars being shipped into the United States. Hackman's Doyle, modeled closely on the real-life Egan, is a relentless, never-say-die detective, and, when reading Arpaio's book, you're left with the distinct impression that Joe sees himself during his time with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (a predecessor of the modern DEA) as a Popeye Doyle. Arpaio even spins the epithet detractors have used for him, "Nickel Bag Joe," into a positive thing.

"I made so many busts I acquired the nickname 'Nickel-Bag Joe,'" says Arpaio in Joe's Law, "Referring to my ability to start with a measly five-dollar bag of heroin deal and build on it and follow the trail higher up the food chain."

But according to Tom Bearup, Arpaio's erstwhile second in command until he left the MCSO, eventually to run unsuccessfully against Arpaio for sheriff, no one has ever dared call Arpaio "Nickel Bag Joe" to his face.

"The name speaks for itself," said Bearup, who now lives in Alaska. "That's what he was known for. It was not any major busts. He was known for going after the nickel-baggers. He was not pleased with that name. I never knew anyone who went up to him and said, 'Hey, Nickel Bag, what's up?'"

But according to Arpaio, it was because of his rep as "Nickel Bag Joe" that the big boys in D.C. eventually assigned him to Turkey, where he single-handedly ended the opium trade. You know, he was like Popeye Doyle, only a much bigger deal.

There, with no knowledge of Turkish, a flimsy bankroll, and his trusty snub-nosed .38, Popeye Joe writes that he took on whole packs of opium farmers, often bluffing his way to big busts.

"We stopped the Turkish drug trade," brags Joe, adding, "We stopped it essentially with one man [him] working with whomever would help."

According to one man, Arpaio.

Certainly, Turkey was at that time (the 1960s) a major producer of opium poppy, and that poppy was processed in by the Corsican syndicate in Marseilles, France, into heroin and shipped to the United States. However, the effort to stop Turkey as a source of opium poppy was far larger than one man.

In its August 28, 1972 issue, Time magazine observed that the best efforts of the entire U.S. government had not ceased the Turkish opium trade:

"In return for $35 million in various subsidies, Turkey agreed to curb the cultivation of opium after the 1972 crop was harvested. The Administration felt that it had achieved a 'breakthrough' because the 80 tons of illicit opium produced by Turkish farmers last year produced 80 percent of the heroin entering the U.S. market. But now there are worries that the curb may be ineffective, in view of the large supplies of opium that canny Turkish smugglers are rumored to have begun to stockpile long ago."

So Arpaio certainly did not halt the Turkish drug trade, either single-handedly or otherwise. But was he involved in cracking the French Connection, which transported drugs via Marseilles to New York? In Joe's Law, Arpaio states of the movie, "The facts in that otherwise fine film were more than a little skewed — in particular, overstating the significance of the New York link for the movie's dramatic purposes."

Yet, Arpaio maintains, "The general notion [in the film] of a mastermind who escaped was true." Arpaio insists the one that got away was Auguste Ricord, a major international drug runner who was extradited from Paraguay to the United States in the 1970s to face trial.

Arpaio, by the way, takes full credit for capturing Ricord and bringing him to justice. His book lacks evidence to support or disprove the claim.

As Arpaio dramatically states in Joe's Law, after Ricord's conviction, "My personal battle with the vicious, murderous organization known as the French Connection . . . was finally over."

Problem is, in the film The French Connection, the Frenchman who "got away" — played by ultra-suave actor Fernando Rey — was a character based on an actual Frenchman named Jean Jehan, a boyhood friend of Charles de Gaulle's, and a leader of the French resistance to the Nazis. This is confirmed both in Robin Moore's book and by ex-NYPD detective Sonny Grosso, portrayed by Roy Scheider in Friedkin's film.

 

Contacted for this story, Grosso, who now heads a successful TV and motion picture production company with offices in Manhattan and Los Angeles, did not wish to denigrate any work Arpaio may have done in Turkey or elsewhere, but he was clear that he was only familiar with Arpaio by his reputation as a sheriff, and knew nothing of him decades ago while he and his partner were breaking the French Connection.

"We worked for six months on [the French Connection]," Grosso explained by phone from New York. "What stopped that importation was our case, not what anybody else did. I was never in liaison with this guy [Arpaio] . . . I was never in communication with him or anybody else. When we made this case, that's what stopped [the French Connection]. And that had been going on for 25 solid years. Every two months, 60 kilos [of heroin] would come into this country. The only thing that stopped it was our case."

Questioned about Grosso's comments at the Scottsdale book signing, Arpaio dismissed The French Connection film and book as "just two cops in New York." Arpaio's co-author, Sherman, said he had consulted Robin Moore's book in his research but saw no reason to contact Grosso about Arpaio's claims in Joe's Law.

"I didn't need to," sniffed Sherman. "The information's out there. It's not terribly tricky."

Maybe not, if you're unconcerned with running down the actual facts.

Why would Arpaio attempt to latch his rep onto one of the most famous criminal cases of all time, especially when some of the principals are around and able to comment?

"You've got to remember, Joe was trained as a liar by our government," Tom Bearup observed of his former boss. "He has a history of embellishment. As a DEA agent, you have to lie to be successful in what you do. And that's carried over to his personal life."


Arpaio and Sherman's claims of a French Connection connection aside, the biggest tall tale in the book is a bogus assassination conspiracy against Arpaio, allegedly involving Phoenix immigrant rights activist Elias Bermudez, the Minutemen, and the Mexican Mafia.

As first uncovered back in October, this ludicrous plot had Bermudez, a persistent critic of Arpaio's, brokering a $3 million deal between the Meraz drug organization and the true-blue Minutemen, who supposedly wanted Arpaio offed to rally support for their cause.

The MCSO spent a half-million dollars on this embarrassing snipe hunt, dispatching deputies to Hartford, Connecticut, to interrogate a teenage girl they believed was involved in the plot, staking out a dairy ranch in the West Valley, and sending investigators to Mexico in a futile attempt to locate the so-called "green house" where money had reputedly exchanged hands in the deal.

An unnamed, paid confidential informant in Yuma apparently fabricated the story, feeding it to the MCSO until finally disappearing with the agency's cash advances. Before doing so, the informant failed a key question on his second polygraph administered to him by the MCSO.

"Have you told the truth about the plan to kill Sheriff Arpaio?" asked the examiner.

"Yes," replied the CI.

In his analysis, released by the MCSO as part of a public-records request, examiner Willis Deatherage stated: "In reference to the question regarding telling the truth about the plan to kill the Sheriff, CI states that he has been truthful but admits that he has filled in some information that was not given to him specifically."

In other words, the snitch was lying.

No wonder he disappeared shortly thereafter. But in Joe's Law, Arpaio and Sherman pass off this bag of green bologna as if it was a real threat against Arpaio. In fact, they start the book with the tale, and later, Arpaio states that the investigation into the hokey murder plot is ongoing.

"The conspiracy that I wrote about in Chapter One remains an open case," insists Arpaio. "Nobody's taken a shot, but the investigators aren't convinced it won't happen. Often in this kind of unpleasant business, you never know what's real and what isn't until you find a plan, a gun, even a body — or they find you first."

Elias Bermudez hadn't seen Joe's book when informed of that statement. Bermudez was aghast because he believed the tawdry mess — which had been roundly ridiculed when revealed last year — was long over.

"That only confirms my assumption that Joe's lost his marbles," said Bermudez.

Part of the Arpaio myth is that he's continually under death threats for his tough-on-crime, tough-on-immigration policy. But, in reality, these "threats" have amounted to penny-ante stuff, or are actually manufactured by Arpaio's public-relations machine.

 

In 1999, Arpaio and his minions entrapped small-time con James Saville, concocting a fake assassination plot that had Saville planting a pipe bomb under Arpaio's armored car ("The Plot to Assassinate Arpaio," August 5, 1999). Saville turned down a plea deal, waited four years for trial, and was acquitted in 2003.

Asked to produce evidence of these death threats against Arpaio, the MCSO presented New Times with a mishmash of documents. A set of them detailed how a few inmates in Arpaio's jails had somehow gotten hold of Arpaio's home phone number and prank-called him. Another incident involved Canadian Matthew Sanderson's Internet threat to harm Joe. North of the border, Sanderson was sentenced to 90 days in jail for this long-distance bluster.

And as Paul Rubin detailed in his recent New Times feature "Head on a Skewer" (March 20), the MCSO used the fact that former New Times staffer John Dougherty had mentioned Joe's home address in a column related to Joe's real estate dealings to seek a grand jury indictment of New Times and Dougherty. In his book, Arpaio fumes briefly about his address being published by New Times, though his address has long been available to anyone computer savvy enough to do a Google search.

Arpaio never mentions the massive political fallout the MCSO and County Attorney Andrew Thomas engendered because of the overbroad subpoenas from Thomas' now-disgraced former special prosecutor Dennis Wilenchik, and from the nighttime arrests of Village Voice Media executives Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin.

Co-writer Sherman argued to New Times that omissions — such as ignoring the arrests of Lacey and Larkin or the absence of discussion of major flaps in Arpaio's career, like the Scott Norberg case — are simply the prerogative of the authors.

"Don't you understand," stated Sherman, "that this is not an encyclopedia? This is someone's autobiography. I don't know if you've ever read one before. But generally speaking, they present their story, their way, their point of view."

Indeed. Even Joe's big solution to the immigration problem, on which he spends precious few pages, sounds like a punch line: Put tents on the border, and fill them with illegals as they march across. Wonder where he got that idea?

In reality, Joe can't even take credit for Tent City, which was developed by then-Chief Deputy Russell Pearce, now a Mesa legislator. So even Joe's biggest claim to fame was a rip-off of an underling.

Joe's Law must've been written before Joe's anti-immigrant neighborhood sweeps began in earnest, as he only touches on the MCSO's patrols for human smugglers in Wickenburg. Under County Attorney Andrew Thomas' misinterpretation of state law, coyotes and those they are smuggling are each complicit in a conspiracy. The undocumented are all straight-out criminals in Joe's eyes, though they're only guilty of a federal civil violation (Note: There is a misdemeanor on the federal books for crossing the border illegally, but you have to catch people in the act to enforce it).

If Joe's legacy wasn't one of cruelty, vindictiveness, and malfeasance, you'd be inclined to let the old man have the deceptions and self-deceptions that he and Sherman peddle in Joe's Law. But Joe's deceptions still have the power to harm innocent people.

Take Elias Bermudez, whose name was sullied by Arpaio in the fake assassination plot. We will give him the last word:

"He's paranoid, and he's a danger not only to himself but to all of us in the county," the immigrant rights activist said of the sheriff. "Because he could actually commit acts of violence against us if he feels [or desires the public to believe] that someone wants to kill him."


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