On September 30, 1998, Perry Mitchell's supervisors at Maricopa County Superior Court evaluated him: "Perry is well positioned to lead the further expansion of Pretrial Services, planned for the next few years, and his future with the court is very bright!"
One year later, however, things changed drastically for Mitchell, the director of the court's nationally recognized pretrial services office. The unit, which has nearly 50 employees, is the judiciary's "eyes and ears" when defendants are released from custody until their cases are concluded.
Mitchell and one of his top managers have been suspended with pay since October 7, after a colleague raised allegations involving a defendant in the highly publicized Chipman Road gang-rape case, in which the victim was a mentally handicapped teenage girl.
The allegations against the pretrial services officers: that Mitchell and Clifford Sells acted far too leniently with Darrion Hartley after they found the 17-year-old in bed with an unidentified female in the early morning hours, weeks before his conviction last July on rape and kidnaping charges.
The allegations came from Robert Edwards, a pretrial services officer who was with his supervisors Mitchell and Sells when they went to the young man's south Phoenix home on a curfew check. Edwards later told authorities that his associates hadn't adequately questioned Hartley, nor had they sought the identity or age of his female guest.
Mitchell, Sells and the defendant, Hartley, are black. Edwards is white. So this conflict is tinged by suspicions of racial bias.
Versions of what happened at Darrion Hartley's house provided to New Times by Mitchell and Sells (Edwards did not respond to calls seeking comment) are markedly different from Edwards'.
In separate interviews, they say Hartley answered the door within 30 seconds after they knocked. Mitchell says he saw the shape of a human figure -- Hartley told them it was an 18- or 19-year-old woman -- under the sheets of a hide-a-bed in a living room just inside the home. According to Mitchell, Hartley said he'd met her at a mall earlier that day.
Mitchell and Sells agree with Edwards that they never asked to speak with or even see the girl. They also didn't ask to speak with Darrion Hartley's father, even though Hartley said he was in another room at the house.
One reason they didn't, Mitchell says, is that nothing in Superior Court Judge Gregory Martin's release order barred Hartley from entertaining a female at his residence. He adds that, since Hartley wasn't on probation or parole, hadn't yet been convicted of a crime and apparently hadn't broken any laws that night, Mitchell and his colleagues had no reason nor right to pursue the matter.
But Mitchell insists that he did berate Hartley about the propriety of having a female spend time with him during his trial for kidnaping and raping another young woman.
"Bob Edwards told the AG's people that we never addressed the kid," Mitchell says. "That's a lie. We spoke to Darrion outside, and we spoke to him directly. You also have to remember -- Darrion wasn't on probation or parole at the time, and had been found guilty of nothing. We didn't have the authority to pull him in, even if we'd wanted to, which we didn't."
The three left Hartley's home around 1 a.m. Mitchell and Sells say Edwards didn't complain then about what had transpired, and that the trio discussed the incident only briefly as they moved on to the next defendant.
Mitchell says he told Judge Martin about the early Friday morning incident on the following Monday, in a brief conversation at the courthouse. Martin confirms to New Times that Mitchell did speak to him about Hartley. He says he told Mitchell that he wasn't pleased, even though the teen technically hadn't violated any court orders.
The incident seemed forgotten in the aftermath of Hartley's conviction and subsequent prison sentence. (Martin sentenced Hartley to eight years in prison, the second-longest term imposed on the five Chipman Road defendants who went to trial. Four other young men had plea-bargained earlier to reduced charges. Prosecutors dropped charges against the 10th defendant several months ago.)
But it wasn't over.
Michael Cudahy, chief of the criminal division of the Arizona Attorney General's Office, says Maricopa County officials asked his office, before the October 7 suspensions, to look into possible criminal wrongdoing by Mitchell and Sells.
It's uncertain what laws the men could have broken, though attorneys contacted by New Times say that it could be argued that Mitchell and Sells obstructed justice by not ascertaining the girl's age -- if, indeed, it was a girl. Then again, if the girl was of age, Hartley wasn't.
Mitchell and Sells cooperated with the AG's investigators, and submitted to separate interviews without the presence of attorneys. Cudahy says his office concluded that a full-scale criminal investigation was unwarranted.
"We informed Maricopa County of our findings after we completed the review," he says. "That effectively took the matter out of our hands and put it back into the mode of a county personnel issue."
Mitchell and Sells remain on suspension, their futures as Maricopa County employees in limbo. Both men say they didn't know the AG's investigation had "cleared" them until New Times told them last week.
Almost everyone contacted for this story expresses surprise at what has happened to Perry Mitchell and Clifford Sells.
Both are 40-year-old graduates of Northern Arizona University, and both have distinguished themselves professionally until now. Mitchell is the vice president of the National Association of Pretrial Service Agencies, and has been recognized as an innovator in his field.
The men claim that their race -- Mitchell and Sells are black, as is Darrion Hartley -- is a key element in their assignment to professional purgatory.
"I feel as if I'm getting swept up in a kind of tidal wave," says Sells, an articulate man whose work history included stints as a parole officer and state Child Protective Services supervisor before he joined pretrial services in January. "I've never been accused of any wrongdoing. I've never filed a discrimination complaint, and I've never screamed discrimination at any of my jobs . . .
"[But] the implication is that we all, quote, 'stick together,' as if we excused any inappropriate conduct because Darrion is black and so are we. That is so ridiculous. Speaking for myself, I would never compromise my position as a representative of the court in any way, period. And we didn't in that situation."
Says Mitchell, in a separate interview: "The county took the word of a white male officer [Edwards] who did not like a brash younger black man like myself telling him what to do. At the same time, they did not ask Cliff or I -- who happen to be Afro-American -- for our versions before they contacted the AG's Office. They must have believed that we were blinded by color, and that our thinking was so skewed that we'd protect another person of color for that reason alone. That's BS."
County officials aren't talking publicly about the sticky issue, which has been a hot topic at the downtown Phoenix court complex for weeks.
"We've got a lawyer and he's [Mitchell] got a lawyer, so I don't think it would be appropriate to comment at this time," says presiding Superior Court Judge Robert Myers.
And court administrator Gordon Griller tells New Times only that the Mitchell/Sells suspensions "are a very convoluted situation that we are trying to resolve by being as fair and thorough as we can be."
The episode at Darrion Hartley's home last summer apparently marks the only questionable occurrence in Sells' brief tenure with the county.
But Mitchell's otherwise superlative record with Maricopa County since he was hired in 1992 has been marred by two stern letters from Griller. In both letters, the first in July 1997 and the second in August, Griller accused Mitchell of verbally abusing some of his staffers.
In the latter missive, dated August 19, Griller wrote to Mitchell "regarding some troubling management shortcomings you need to address, much of which appears to be a reoccurrence of some difficulties I [noted] in a confidential memorandum to you on July 30, 1997."
The August letter -- which Griller specifically termed as instructive and not "disciplinary" -- accused Mitchell of management by intimidation, including the "use of foul language, belittling of employees, name calling, and addressing staff in a loud voice in public."
Griller said that he and chief deputy court administrator Marcus Reinkensmeyer "are concerned about you. I am convinced you can be both tough and caring at the same time. Some of the greatest leaders that you and I admire portray these dual traits."
He urged Mitchell to treat staffers with the demeanor he employs "when you, personally, deal with the judges, Marcus and me. In those relationships, you are respectful, dignified, businesslike. . . . How you can do that with us and not with your [staff] is a puzzlement."
Griller ordered Mitchell to undergo counseling, at the court's expense.
"I am worried that your actions may result in a lawsuit or substantial liability for the Superior Court, "he wrote.
Then, in a turn that Griller conceded "may seem somewhat contradictory," he informed Mitchell that his annual salary would increase from $62,300 to $70,000. Mitchell merited the 12.4 percent raise, Griller wrote, because of his increased responsibilities as chief of the burgeoning pretrial services office.
Mitchell's employment file -- which he shared with New Times, warts and all -- bears out the schizophrenic nature of Griller's "somewhat contradictory" second letter. The file contains numerous letters of praise from superiors and staffers, and uniformly excellent performance evaluations.
"Perry Mitchell is a highly dedicated and hardworking [employee] who has done much to establish the credibility of the court's pretrial services program," Marcus Reinkensmeyer wrote in a September 1996 evaluation.
Assistant presiding Superior Court Judge Ronald Reinstein thanked Mitchell in a October 1997 letter for the "excellent job you do with the resources . . . your service to the court, and your friendship."
And although Griller mentioned the high turnover rate in Mitchell's office in his August letter, not everybody who left was unhappy. On July 29, for example, pretrial services officer Brenda Gardner wrote Mitchell a note of thanks after she resigned to move out of state.
"This agency is very fortunate," Gardner wrote, "to have an administrator who cares about the agency and to always keep looking for ways to improve the agency and to fight for its employees to get us what we deserve. There are so many administrators that would not even bother to try because of all the adversity involved in standing up against a government agency."
On August 16 -- three days before Griller's "belittling of employees" letter -- another of Mitchell's departing staffers thanked him in writing "for all your patience, support, guidance and expertise." Continued Marencia Sakurai, who also served as a pretrial services officer: "I have a tremendous amount of respect for you, and I will not forget you."
Blaming Mitchell for the turnover rate is akin to faulting County Attorney Rick Romley for the exodus of prosecutors from that office. Certainly, some employees in both offices have left because of problems with their bosses. But many more have quit because the pay scale for county employees is notoriously lower than those at the state and federal levels.
It's understandable, however, why Mitchell has his detractors. By his own admission, he is a driven, demanding boss who does not suffer fools gladly. He usually speaks tersely and bluntly, and takes his job and himself seriously.
"I take input from those who I trust, and don't pay a lot of attention to the others," Mitchell says. "I've always considered myself to be open to discussion with anyone who's got something constructive to say. And I'm not a phony."
County Attorney Romley says his professional interactions with Mitchell have been positive. And several defense attorneys with whom Mitchell has dealt say he is exceedingly tough, but equitable with their clients.
"He would bust his own mother if he felt she was violating a judge's orders," says a veteran Phoenix defense attorney. "He's a bright guy who is wound a little tight because he's so careful to do the right thing for everybody concerned, especially the court."
That's what makes the brouhaha over Mitchell's handling of Hartley during the Chipman Road rape trial so perplexing.
Perry Mitchell spoke quietly to Darrion Hartley on the fourth floor of the central Superior Court building on the afternoon of July 7.
Hartley was about to learn his fate in the infamous Chipman Road rape case. Prosecutors had targeted the high school dropout as a ringleader in the February 1997 gang rape of a 15-year-old mentally handicapped girl with whom he had been acquainted.
"You will not embarrass yourself, the court or me in there, no matter what they [the jurors] say," Mitchell told Hartley, his face about six inches from the defendant's. "Do you hear me?"
"Darrion. Do you hear me?" Mitchell repeated, looking more like a drill sergeant than a court employee.
"Yes, sir," Hartley finally answered.
Mitchell had gotten to know Hartley and other Chipman Road defendants after their releases from custody in early 1999. Six of the original 10 had spent nearly two years in custody awaiting trial, and had been able to make bail only after Judge Martin reduced it for a second time.
Mitchell says he had asked Cliff Sells -- the acting chief of the defendant monitoring unit -- to personally supervise the released Chipman Road defendants. Because of staffing shortages, Mitchell himself would work a field shift on Thursday nights, checking up on defendants facing curfews and other tasks.
Like the nine others originally charged in the controversial case, Hartley is a documented member of the Park South Crips gang, a loosely organized group of young blacks. He comes from a splintered family, and has been described in court papers as being immature, but street smart beyond his 17 years.
Mitchell paced in the back of Judge Martin's packed courtroom as the clerk read the verdicts -- guilty on almost every count. Without fanfare, he escorted a few of the more emotional family members out of the courtroom, something for which sheriff's deputies later thanked him.
Hartley slumped in his chair and rested his head on his attorney's shoulder as the reality hit him. That was the extent of his outward reaction.
In an interview with New Times after the sentencing, Mitchell said he understands the uphill battles that the Darrion Hartleys of the world wage. Hartley -- who rarely saw his father growing up, and whose mother is a drug addict -- never had much of a chance, said Mitchell.
"It's about living for right now for a lot of young black men, because they think they may not be around for a long time," explained Mitchell, who was raised in Holbrook as one of seven children in a middle-class family.
Mitchell added that what had happened to the girl in the 1800 block of East Chipman revolted and saddened him.
"But what I feel about something while I'm on duty doesn't matter," he continued. "My office's job, and my job personally in this case was to keep an eye on the released kids, and to make sure they followed the judge's orders about curfew and whatever, and to tell the judge if they really screwed up. For the most part, they did fine."
But not all the time.
Shortly after midnight on a Friday morning in mid-June, Perry Mitchell, Cliff Sells and Bob Edwards went to check up on Darrion Hartley.
Judge Martin had instructed Hartley to abide by a 7 p.m. curfew, among other restrictions, and the men were dropping by the defendant's home -- he was living with his father -- to make sure he was there.
That's when the incident involving the young woman occurred.
Because the county won't discuss the matter, the relationship between the Hartley incident and Griller's subsequent August 18 letter to Mitchell (in which Hartley isn't mentioned) is uncertain.
And what about Edwards' possible motivation in dropping the dime on Mitchell and Sells? The men say that they recently had chastised Edwards for spending too much time at a female client's home. A retired policeman who had been with pretrial services for less than a year at the time, Edwards had taken umbrage with the criticism, his now-suspended supervisors say.
"I thought we were being overzealous, if anything, with those [Chipman Road] kids," Sells says, countering Edwards' allegations that they were anything but diligent.
"The AG's investigator kept telling me, 'I hear you're friends with the families, you socialize with them.' I was practically speechless. I knew one of the boy's aunts in grammar school because I grew up around there. And they [Chipman Road defendants] knew they'd be back in jail if they screwed up. Those boys never violated a damned thing, never tested positive for drugs, never got busted for anything, because they knew we meant business."
Because he is in his first year on the job, Cliff Sells is a "probationary" employee. That means Maricopa County could fire him without giving justification. That's not the case with Perry Mitchell, whose veteran attorney, Ted Jarvi, says he is "likely to take administrative remedies" if Mitchell's case isn't resolved soon. Asked if that means a lawsuit, Jarvi says that's a possibility.
Until then, Mitchell's days have taken on a numbing sameness. Griller's suspension letter instructed him to report in by telephone each morning, and to stay at home during normal business hours except for a lunch break. There, Mitchell takes care of his firstborn, a 5-month-old son, and ponders his future.
Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.