The Wily Warbler Visits Ciria Lopez-Pacheco and Courtney Bisbee Behind Bars
This tweeter's been spending a lot of time behind bars lately. And no, he doesn't mean he's been mixing martinis moonlightin' down at Durant's.
Actually, he's been hanging out with chicks in stir. But that's not what you think either, so get your noggin out of the Roger Corman-esque B-movie mud.
Most recently, The Bird paid a visit to Sheriff Joe Arpaio's notorious Estrella Jail for women, down on Durango Street near Tent City. It's where Ciria Lopez-Pacheco's been cooling her heels since she was forcibly separated from her two young children by a ski-masked MCSO deputy on the evening of January 9, the first night of Joe's recent West Valley sweep.
Since The Bird's online wing-man, Feathered Bastard, first shared her story with the world — and posted video taken by Phoenix activist Sal Reza of Lopez-Pacheco's son and daughter, 5 and 7, scared and weeping for their mom — a lot's happened.
First, both the New York Times' editorial blog The Board, and the highly read Web site Huffington Post, named for its millionaire intellectual/pundit founder Arianna Huffington, picked up on the story and posted the video. As of the writing of this column, the YouTube video's been watched close to 13,000 times.
Second, Lopez-Pacheco went before an El Mirage municipal judge on her unpaid traffic ticket for driving on a "suspended" license. (In reality, she never had a license.) The judge was a mensch, lowering the frail woman's fine of $700-plus to about $238. Lopez-Pacheco paid, and the court ordered her unconditional release.
However, as this yardbird visited Lopez-Pacheco on the Saturday after her hearing, the 25-year-old Mexican-born woman was still in MCSO custody on a hold from Immigration and Customs Enforcement for being in the United States sans papers.
With activist Lydia Guzman of the organization Respect/Respeto on hand, translating for this unilingual feather duster, Lopez-Pacheco explained in Spanish that she blamed herself for the arrest. Her family had moved to a new abode recently, and she had let the ticket slip.
The irony, of course, is that if Arizona allowed undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses, Lopez-Pacheco wouldn't have had the problem that got her busted. After all, her registration and insurance were both in order.
Her handcuffs chained to a desk, like those of the scores of other women in the visitation room, Lopez-Pacheco recounts the night she was snatched from her children. An MCSO deputy in a marked car, and wearing a ski mask, pulled her over. Speaking to her in Spanish, he identified himself as an immigration cop — one of the 160 cross-trained MCSO deputies empowered to enforce immigration law.
He told her he pulled her over because her lights were off. She replied that the lights were on, flicking them off and on, then off again.
"Well, they're off now," he cracked, in classic cop humor.
The deputy ran her name and discovered that Lopez-Pacheco had a "failure to pay" warrant against her. This allowed him to take her into custody and add her to the list of "illegals" nabbed in the sweep. Lopez-Pacheco's children were terrified of the masked man, who told them their mom would be coming with him and that everything would be all right.
The children (both American citizens by birth) cried loudly as Lopez-Pacheco sat handcuffed in the back of the cruiser, trying to calm them through a partially opened back window. The masked deputy ordered the kids to hush, but they wept inconsolably. That's when the frustrated gendarme popped the trunk of his vehicle, took out two stuffed toys, and handed them to the children.
But the kids still cried for their mother, so he let them kiss and hug her goodbye. Afterward, he raised the back window, so she couldn't talk to them. Eventually, Lopez-Pacheco's niece came to collect them, and Lopez-Pacheco was taken away for detention.
As she relates her story, she stares longingly at the children of other prisoners as they are paraded past her. Guzman asks her whether she would like her children to be brought to visit her, but she shakes her head no. She would want to hold them, she says, but such touching, even by family members, isn't allowed in Joe's jails.
The conditions in Estrella are abysmal. In other words, exactly what you'd expect. For a lunch of bread, disgusting "white" ham that Lopez-Pacheco fears to eat, tap water, and an orange, Joe charges $1.25 per diem to inmates with money on their jail accounts.
Inmates with money left can spend it on canteen items, but the cost is prohibitive. A traveler's size bottle of shampoo costs $9, according to Lopez-Pacheco. A single packet of Kool-Aid is $1. Lopez-Pacheco has spent all her money on toiletries and writing paper, instead of on chips and candy. As a result, she is hungry all the time. When she went to her court date in El Mirage, she missed her meals for the day.
Worst of all was the strip and cavity search she had to endure to leave jail for court. The searches are performed in a place where all the male guards can watch. And, yes, they do watch.
"It is very humiliating," whispers Lopez-Pacheco.
There are other indignities, still. For the inmates' one hour of exercise, the guards roust them early in the a.m., while it's still dark. As a result, they rarely see the sun. There are no clocks on the walls, and only the guards have watches, but they won't tell inmates the time. There's no heat, and it's cold at night, with only one blanket per bed. In the common area, there's a TV, but it hasn't been turned on since she's been there.
Just what did Lopez-Pacheco do to deserve this hellhole? Oh, that's right, she came to the United States in search of a better life, like millions before her.
Lopez-Pacheco's grateful that Sal Reza caught her children on camera, that other people are learning about what's going on in Joe Arpaio's Maricopa County, even if she ultimately will be returned to Mexico and kept from her kids indefinitely.
As Guzman and this jailbird prepare to amscray, she says, smiling weakly, "Tell everyone [who has supported her] thank you, and give them kisses from me."
As this column went to press, ICE agents took custody of Lopez-Pacheco at Estrella. Instead of transporting her to a federal detention facility, she was to be shipped back to Mexico, likely because she had already been removed from the country once before. She didn't get to see her kids before she boarded the bus to the border.
Visiting hours at the Santa Cruz unit of Goodyear's Perryville Prison seem civilized compared to those at Joe's gulags. The women serving their sentences here are allowed to touch their visitors, albeit briefly. They aren't chained to desks.
In a visitation area that resembles a grade-school lunchroom, with its fold-up tables, female prisoners in orange sweats sometimes meet with whole families at a time. They play games like Scrabble and hangman with their relations, and people are free to move around, go to the bathroom, or get a Coke from the vending machine.
It's a deceptive, limited freedom. Visitors have been vetted in an extensive process that can take months. And visitation hours are set for weekends only. Here, the women are in state prison and have been convicted of serious crimes, such as second-degree murder or selling meth. In Joe's jails, about 70 percent of prisoners are awaiting trial and are assumed innocent until proven otherwise.
But in state prison, the atmosphere's sadder. Even the youngest inmate seems weighed down by the many years she must serve.
The trip to Perryville came about because the Arizona Department of Corrections wouldn't allow The Bird a "media visit" with inmate Courtney Bisbee. The DOC wasn't discriminating; it just doesn't grant one-on-one, in-person interviews between prisoners and the press. AZ DOC spokesman Bill Lamoreaux said media interviews must take place over the phone. In-person interviews are all but unheard of, he said, because of manpower and security issues.
The DOC does, however, allow a media member the same rights as any other private citizen — that is, a visit with an inmate sans note pad, writing instruments, tape recorder, or camera — which is why The Bird drove over.
This avian's alter ego found the DOC's no-formal-interview policy unusual while writing a cover story last fall on Bisbee and her fight for freedom. Other states are not as restrictive in this regard. In 2003, his alter ego visited Damien Echols, a convicted murderer on death row for a triple homicide many believe he didn't participate in. Obtaining a one-on-one interview was as tough as faxing a request to the Arkansas authorities involved. As a result, the interview took center stage in a feature for LA Weekly.
Currently, The Bird's aware that an ABC News producer's seeking access to Perryville for a formal interview with Bisbee regarding her trial and conviction on charges of child molestation, for which she's serving an 11-year sentence. Here's hoping the DOC will grant an exception, so that the world can judge Bisbee's character, as best it can, via television.
Bisbee's vivacious and intelligent, and she can discuss her case with the expertise of a lawyer. She spends her free time reading law and writing legal documents. Other inmates consult her for advice about their cases.
Unlike many in prison who admit to some or all guilt in what led up to their convictions, Bisbee steadfastly maintains her innocence and works tirelessly for her exoneration.
"I'll never stop fighting until I'm reunited with my daughter," Bisbee explained to this eagle during our conversation at Perryville. She referred to her child, Taylor Lee, whom she lost custody of in 2005 because of the charges then pending against her.
As detailed in New Times' cover story, there's mounting evidence that Bisbee was wrongly convicted of molesting a 13-year-old boy while employed as a school nurse at Horizon High School in Phoenix. Nik Valles, the brother of Bisbee's accuser, Jon Valles, recanted his testimony in her 2006 bench trial before Judge Warren Granville. Also, Jon's former girlfriend Sarah Babcock testified during a lawsuit that Valles admitted to her that he had lied about the accusations, and that nothing sexual happened between him and Bisbee.
There were significant problems with the police work done by Detective Christopher Kinder of the Scottsdale Police Department, and Bisbee and others have claimed that she had ineffective counsel, that counsel being Joel Thompson of Phillips and Associates, the law firm The Bird sees advertised on the boob tube nonstop.
On October 22, Bisbee's current attorney, Ulises Ferragut, filed a powerful petition for a new trial, which included affidavits from several noted experts.
These included Phoenix lawyer Alan Simpson, who helped Ray Krone escape Arizona's death row; psychology Professor James Wood, an authority in the forensic interviewing of children by police whose testimony helped free John Stoll, the Bakersfield, California man falsely convicted of multiple child molestations; and psych Professor Richard Ofshe, an expert in police interrogation tactics who also testified in the trial of Damien Echols and his co-defendants, dubbed "The West Memphis Three."
In November, Ferragut filed a motion asking for Bisbee's release pending the court's decision on the petition for a new trial. It was a longshot and was quickly denied by Granville.
Ultimately, the court must decide whether to grant a hearing on the petition for a new trial, and as you might imagine, County Attorney Andrew Thomas wants to draw out the process for as long as possible. Before the court can make a decision, Thomas' office has to file a response, but on December 24, Deputy County Attorney Gerald Grant asked for more time.
According to Grant, Bisbee's petition "raises claims that will require a thorough review of the record and the investigatory materials that led to the filing of the criminal charges." (Italics added by this avian.)
Could this mean that Thomas is looking for a scapegoat in the initial investigation, and a way out of this troubling miscarriage of justice that shows no signs of going away? Maybe. After all, Thomas could make the case that the Scottsdale PD botched the job from jump, which it did.
Detective Kinder even made misstatements to the first grand jury in the case, leading members to believe Bisbee had confessed to the molestation, when she hadn't. As a result, Bisbee was held for 66 days without bond, until a second grand jury granted her release on a $100,000 bond.
Bisbee can prove that Thomas had evidence of her innocence as far back as early 2007. If the county attorney never acted on that evidence, he still has the opportunity to right a wrong, and come out looking almost like a hero. And that wouldn't be a bad move for a guy who wants to either be governor or attorney general someday.
Meanwhile, Bisbee maintains the sort of positive attitude that'd give the eternally upbeat TV pastor Joel O'Steen a run for his moolah. She seems ready to outlast all opposition, instructing her counsel to object to the prosecution's requests for continuances, and penning letters to Judge Gary Donahoe, listing the numerous times the county attorney has been advised of new evidence in the case. (Donahoe's managing Bisbee's file until it's ready to be handed off to Granville, who will then make a decision regarding the petition for a new hearing.)
"I'm wrongly imprisoned," Bisbee explained to The Bird. "And the state has had exculpatory evidence from 18 months before. Andrew Thomas should be responsible. He should have looked into this a long time ago."
This small woman, in her orange prison garb, has a huge smile and speaks as though she's the one holding all the cards. Fueling her fight is confidence in her own innocence and the corny belief that justice will prevail. On paper, everything seems stacked against Courtney Bisbee. But on paper, it's hard to see the determination behind that smile.
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.