The vacant expression in Joe Stedino's eyes shocks me. I expect him to look more menacing, more unfeeling, like a Mafia soldier from a Mario Puzo novel.

But instead Stedino seems vulnerableÏperhaps a little lost. For years he has suffered from a panic disorder. In order to raise the courage to go out in public each day, he must take pills to drive the ghosts from the shadows.

At six foot three and 240 pounds, Joe Stedino is a man who passed his 50th birthday without friends. And his business acquaintances shun him as much as possible.

In the courtroom, former state senator Carolyn Walker avoids making eye contact with him. Ron Tapp, the other defendant, makes it a point to duck his head whenever Stedino glances his way.

Defense attorney Murray Miller accuses Stedino of being a killer, and demands that a police officer be placed next to Stedino to protect all from harm. Joe Stedino could laugh about this if people weren't taking it all so seriously.

Now it is recess time. Looking tired, Stedino pushes open the door of Judge Michael Ryan's sixth-floor courtroom.

He stands alone in the hall, staring at the opposite wall.
People stand apart from him, giving him space. Stedino remains alone. No one approaches. No one nods hello. Everyone pretends that Joe Stedino, the famous sting man, isn't even there in that quiet hall with them.

During the entire AzScam investigation, Stedino managed to become friends with one manÏDeputy County Attorney George Mount.

No one should be surprised this happened.
You don't have to watch the tapes of Stedino's interviews with the doomed legislators very long to see that he possesses natural charm. He is good at small talk. He is a natural entertainer. In some circles, he might be referred to as a great bullshitter.

During a botched criminal career that has seen him convicted and sent to prison three times, Stedino has developed a quick wit and an abundance of fascinating stories. He tells them well. He would make a great guest for Jay Leno. At least for one night.

Mount and Stedino dined together often in Stedino's rented apartment. Mount trusted him. So they became unlikely friends, this county attorney and his sting man.

But Stedino can't help himself. He is seemingly star-crossed. Stedino has since been forced to admit under oath that Mount ordered him to lie while Stedino was giving a deposition.

So now Mount is under indictment, too. Another friendship on the rocks.
Mount, who undertook the AzScam investigation, thinking it would be the crowning act of his 20-year prosecuting career, sees himself on the brink of destruction. He has gone underground. He will be tried later.

Since that time it has been learned that Mount also knew that Stedino, a three-time loser, was carrying guns wherever he went for self-protection. Mount also may have made the grievous error of telling Stedino secret grand-jury information. That's another case for later on.

So people talk to Stedino these days at their own peril.
Social ostracism is the price Joe Stedino pays for being the undercover informant in the biggest political sting in Arizona history. But Stedino's financial arrangements with the police and County Attorney's Office indicate he'll come out of it with financial security.

Later this month, Stedino's book, What's in It for Me?, will be in the bookstores. Written with Dary Matera, it's Stedino's own story. Read it carefully and you will get a different view from the one you've read in the daily newspapers.

It is written in a simple, straightforward style, without animosity. And there is so much vicious gossip that it's hard to put it down. When there is an index at the back to check out the names it will be an endless resource of political gossip in the state. In the end, Stedino comes out just as much a victim as Carolyn Walker.

They were both used by the system, and both will end up badly.
But the most amazing character to come out of What's in It for Me? is Rich Scheffel, once the most-skilled and highest-paid lobbyist in the state.

Scheffel was reportedly making more than $250,000 a year when caught up in the sting. Scheffel decided to roll over and help with the sting the moment he was arrested.

But then Scheffel hired Tom Henze, his next-door neighbor, who is one of the best criminal lawyers in Arizona. From then on, Scheffel never did do anything that helped the sting.

Scheffel has dropped out of sight. His case will be disposed of much later, when the heat dies down.

This may not seem significant to you until you learn the extent of the role Scheffel played in Stedino's make-believe world.

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Tom Fitzpatrick