Prosecutors

Claim: Prosecutor Who Charged Protesters as a Gang Also Botched Murder Case

April Sponsel receives an award from Mesa police in 2018. Critics say she'll do anything to win a case.
April Sponsel receives an award from Mesa police in 2018. Critics say she'll do anything to win a case. Mesa Police
April Sponsel receives an award from Mesa police in 2018. Critics say she'll do anything to win a case. - MESA POLICE
April Sponsel receives an award from Mesa police in 2018. Critics say she'll do anything to win a case.
Mesa Police
The legal troubles keep piling up for April Sponsel, a prosecutor with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office who infamously misled a grand jury by depicting local anti-police brutality protesters as a criminal street gang.

The "gang" case was ultimately dismissed, and the defendants turned around and filed a notice of claim against her. Now, Sponsel faces another potential lawsuit from a mother-and-son duo who claim that they were wrongly imprisoned for years because of her.

On May 13, attorneys representing Donald Rourke and his mother, Tina Martin, submitted a notice of claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — against Sponsel, Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel, and the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, alleging that Sponsel committed "egregious conduct" during a sprawling criminal case that involved both Rourke and Martin. They claim that Sponsel "falsely accused" the duo of conspiring to murder a family member and repeatedly withheld evidence before the case was finally dismissed with prejudice by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge.

Rourke, who is labeled in court records as a "documented" member of the Warrior Society, a Native American prison gang, and Martin were both incarcerated for around four years during the length of the case. They are asking for $1.5 million each in damages.

The new notice of claim comes two months after anti-police brutality protesters arrested last summer announced their claim alleging "political prosecutions of Black Lives Matter protesters." They're asking for $3.5 million apiece in damages. Among the plaintiffs are the protesters who Sponsel accused of being part of a fictitious "ACAB" (which stands for All Cops Are Bastards) gang. Eventually, the criminal case fell apart after reporting by ABC15's Dave Biscobing showed that Sponsel misled the grand jury. Sponsel was placed on administrative leave while an internal inquiry began, and earlier this month Adel moved to have the charges dismissed against the defendants with prejudice, meaning they cannot be refiled.

To critics, the lawsuits represent a reckoning for Sponsel, a prosecutor who has a reputation in the courtroom for being ruthless, loyal to law enforcement, and pushing the boundaries to win convictions. They also argue that the county attorney's office needs to do more to hold problematic prosecutors accountable.

click to enlarge Donald Rourke (second from the left) speaks to his attorney at a November 17, 2020 hearing where his case was dimissed. - SCREENSHOT
Donald Rourke (second from the left) speaks to his attorney at a November 17, 2020 hearing where his case was dimissed.
Screenshot

"Those who have worked with her would probably say that they don’t trust her and that she’s not to be trusted," said Marci Kratter, a criminal defense attorney who has had frequent run-ins with Sponsel in court. "We can't have a system that allows rogue prosecutors, completely untethered from their ethical obligations, to prosecute people. It’s too much power."

"Her reputation among defense attorneys is that she will do whatever it takes to win," said Michael Freeman, a former prosecutor who currently works as a criminal defense attorney. "The prosecutors have condoned it and the judges, I think, have looked the other way. Now more light is going on this."

Even inside the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, Sponsel's involvement in the botched prosecutions of local protesters raised eyebrows. One prosecutor who declined to be named said that staff in the agency were "dumbfounded" by the decision to accuse the protesters of being part of a street gang.

"A lot of us just thought it was a stretch," the prosecutor said.

Through Jennifer Liewer, a spokesperson for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, Sponsel and Adel declined to comment on the new notice of claim or the past criminal case involving Rourke and Martin. Liewer also declined to comment, citing the "pending civil litigation."

Jacob Faussette, an attorney representing Martin and Rourke, did not respond to Phoenix New Times' request for comment.

Rourke and Martin are accusing Sponsel of fabricating the murder conspiracy allegations, lying to a grand jury, and chronically withholding exculpatory evidence from their defense attorneys. With Sponsel and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office under scrutiny for the botched prosecutions, they're hoping that their claim and potential lawsuit will carry more weight.

Rourke and Martin were first indicted by a grand jury in November 2016 on charges of conspiring to commit first-degree murder. Law enforcement officials and prosecutors accused Rourke and Martin of hatching a scheme to murder Justin Rourke, Donald's brother, and Martin's son.

According to court records and the notice of claim, the basis for the murder conspiracy theory allegations stemmed from a confidential informant and an investigation involving U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) agents and Mesa Police Department detectives. In 2014, ATF agents started working with Allen Burns, the informant, after he agreed to cooperate in exchange for a reduced federal prison sentence in his case. As part of this agreement, Sponsel, who had been prosecuting Burns for felony shoplifting in Maricopa County, dropped the case — an arrangement that Rourke and Martin's defense attorneys in the murder conspiracy case say was never disclosed to them.

Based on information from Burns, the ATF suspected Rourke of plotting to kill a member of a rival gang, court documents state. They opened an investigation into Rourke and heavily relied on Burns during the process.

click to enlarge Donald Rourke - PHOTO COURTESY DONALD ROURKE
Donald Rourke
Photo courtesy Donald Rourke
At the time, Rourke, who has several past felony convictions, was incarcerated in federal prison after getting convicted of felony firearm possession and distributing methamphetamine in 2014. ATF agents and Mesa detectives allegedly listened to jail calls between Rourke, Burns, and Martin in which they discussed a plan to use Burns to kill Justin Rourke, according to court records. Law enforcement officials also flew Burns out to Wichita, Kansas, to meet with Martin, where they allegedly planned out the murder in detail. The case was eventually presented to a grand jury by Sponsel, who returned the murder conspiracy indictments against both Rourke and Martin in November 2016. Martin was arrested in Kansas and extradited to Arizona, and Rourke, who was already in federal custody in Colorado, was also extradited to Arizona.

In a phone interview, Rourke, who's now 41 and lives in the Navajo Nation in Arizona, said that the murder conspiracy allegations are "completely false" and that Burns and the ATF concocted the whole narrative. He acknowledged his past criminal history and involvement in the Warrior Society but declined to discuss the matters in detail, citing his proximity to other members on the reservation and not wanting to cause "backlash."

"I did a lot of things, yes I did. I’ve never denied that. I’ve done my time, I paid my dues," Rourke said. "April has a history of doing things her way. That’s proven by the Black Lives Matter case. She lied to a grand jury to get an indictment. She did the same thing in my case."

Despite the severity of the allegations against Rourke and Martin, the case went nowhere and languished for years. According to the notice of claim, Sponsel repeatedly refused to produce records related to the investigation into the defendants and the arrangement with Burns, the confidential informant — despite numerous orders from the judge on the case to do so. Meanwhile, both Rourke and Martin were held in Maricopa County jail facilities. The incarceration meant that Martin's chemotherapy treatment for her liver cancer was delayed, the claim states.

In a motion for dismissal filed in court on August 24, 2020, attorneys representing Martin and Rourke said Sponsel "consistently disregarded Court orders" and engaged in "willful violations of the discovery rules." They also accused Sponsel of withholding "exculpatory evidence" and engaging in "lies and deceit."

"For over 1,400 days, MCAO built a case predicated on information from a CI, Allen Burns, and then proceeded to conceal its relationship with Allen Burns and conceal issues related to his credibility," the notice of claim filed by Martin and Rourke states. "The egregious conduct deprived Tina Martin and Donald Rourke of their ability to successfully defend themselves against the State, and resulted in their prolonged and unnecessary incarceration."

Bruce Walker, an attorney with the Maricopa County Office of the Legal Defender, who represented Rourke during his case, said that Sponsel lied to the grand jury to obtain the original indictments against Rourke and Martin. He added that when they interviewed Burns, the confidential informant who worked with the ATF, he walked back the claims that he made regarding the alleged murder scheme.

"It didn't make sense that he would want to kill his brother and he would do so with his own mother. I've been doing this a while and it didn't sound right," Walker said. "April tried to play it up to the grand jury, that at least one young kid in the house was going to be killed, but none of that is true. There were even lies to the grand jury at the start of the case."

"I really do believe she will do whatever is necessary, even if it’s bending the facts, just to get a conviction," he added.

On November 17, 2020, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Michael Blair dismissed the cases with prejudice, citing Sponsel's failure to respond to court orders and disclose evidence.

"There are so many holes here in this case that I can’t even begin to list what’s missing," Blair said, according to footage of the hearing obtained by Phoenix New Times. "The failure to comply here was not harmless and you [Sponsel] could have disclosed the information sooner with due diligence. The part that really bothers me about this is that two people have been in jail for four years and this case isn’t any closer to moving forward."

Judge Blair added that his dismissal of the case didn't amount to an exoneration of the defendants: "It doesn’t mean anybody is innocent or anything like that," he said.

Now, in their forthcoming lawsuit, both Rourke and Martin are trying to capitalize on the backlash that the Maricopa County Attorney's Office is facing over its flawed prosecutions of local Black Lives Matter protesters.

"The fact that April Sponsel — who is currently under investigation and on leave for similar misconduct in other cases — was the prosecutor responsible for such actions points to a deeper problem with MCAO and how it supervises and disciplines its line attorneys," the claim states.
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Josh Kelety is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times. Previously, he worked as a reporter for the Inlander and Seattle Weekly.
Contact: Josh Kelety