Throwing Precaution to the Wind
Last year, an alleged assassination attempt by gang members against state department of corrections chief Terry Stewart led to the creation of the DOC's Protective Services Unit. Stewart was so concerned for his safety, according to documents released by the DOC, that he requested a "behavioral plan that would cover him at work, at home, while commuting and even while on vacation." A former military officer who had designed such protective plans for generals was tapped for the job.
The concerns are as grave today as they've ever been, DOC officials say; since its creation, the unit has investigated at least five additional threats against Stewart. The price tag so far? More than $665,000, as of June 30. Of that, $340,000 alone went to personnel costs in FY '99-00.
Amazingly, Stewart's "behavioral plan" apparently includes permission to ride his special peace-officer edition Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide Classic -- helmetless -- long distances, like to Flagstaff last month for a law enforcement conference.
"How come we need to provide him with round-the-clock security if he doesn't even wear a helmet?" asks one official who was in Flagstaff for the unfortunately dubbed Pow Wow, an annual meeting of law enforcement officials from around the state.
(Word that a helicopter shadowed Stewart from Phoenix to Flagstaff was a hot topic at the Pow Wow. But Stewart and state officials say they have no knowledge of a helicopter tagging along. State department of public safety officials say there is no record of such a flight in DPS logs. "On my way up there I didn't notice any helicopters," Stewart says. "I have a Harley that is fairly loud, and besides that, I listen to country music.")
The advisability of riding without a helmet aside, what about those serious security concerns?
Stewart says he consults with staff before a ride and is always followed by security when he rides the Harley -- but refuses to reveal additional details.
"I ride fast and duck often," Stewart says, laughing. "No, listen, let me just say that I have security accompany me and that I take the advice of my unit in terms of my destination and my route, and there is someone who accompanies me."
He says his Harley is practically all he has left.
"The spontaneity in my life is gone," Stewart says. "I can't be sitting at home and decide I'm going to run down to my local bar and drink a beer or run to the local shopping center and shop or anything like that, so I have very, very few opportunities to enjoy myself in my own time, in my own way, and riding a motorcycle is one of those."
And it could be worse, he maintains.
"Contrast me riding a motorcycle with me playing a round of golf. I'm out in the open. You stand for considerable amounts of time. When you consider the two, there's just as much exposure, if not more, as a standing target, if I were to play golf."
DOC officials have been reticent to release many details of the expenses (see accompanying memorandum) associated with the special unit or the reasons for its existence.
According to DOC spokeswoman Camilla Strongin, the threat against Stewart by prison gangs -- particularly the New Mexican Mafia, who were allegedly reacting to increased security controls Stewart ordered in the state's prisons -- has not diminished since the creation of the special unit. "In addition to the original and well publicized threat on Director Stewart's life . . . staff have investigated five sub-plot threats," Strongin wrote to New Times last week. She refused to disclose any additional information about the threats, due to the "sensitive nature of these ongoing investigations."
She defends her boss's choice to ride his motorcycle.
"He takes great pains, as well as our security staff do, to make sure he is not taking unnecessary risks, but he also has to live with the fact that he has a death threat every single day of his life and he can't live a life completely isolated from everything," Strongin says.
Stewart says he has no plans to stop riding -- but does acknowledge that after two crashes, he's careful to keep his eyes on the road.
"Probably the bigger risk isn't what's after me, it's my own driving," he says.
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.