I'm not used to political candidates offering up skeletons for scrutiny, but that's what happened when I sat down for coffee with ex-Phoenix Police Department Sergeant Paul Penzone, who is hoping to turn Sheriff Joe Arpaio out to pasture this election season.
Needless to say, Penzone has his work cut out for him. The former face of the Silent Witness program first has to get past his competitor in the Democratic primary, onetime Goodyear Police Department spokesman John Rowan.
Then he faces King Kong in the form of Sheriff Joe, who despite myriad ongoing scandals, boasts a war chest of $4.1 million cash on hand and name recognition second only to God's.
Moreover, a recent challenge on Penzone's behalf of independent candidate for sheriff Mike Stauffer's 29,794 petition signatures has fizzled, leaving the former Republican on the general election ballot with a three-man race for sheriff unavoidable.
Though Arpaio is perceived as weakened by his battles with the U.S. Department of Justice, deaths in his jails, his misspending of $100 million in taxpayer funds, hundreds of botched sex-crime cases in El Mirage, and criminal abuse-of-power allegations against him and his staff, many anticipate a three-candidate contest to result in an unprecedented sixth term for the octogenarian lawman.
Mindful of how Dan Saban was viciously smeared by Arpaio's henchmen in 2004, when Saban challenged Arpaio in the Republican primary, and in 2008, when Saban crossed party lines to battle Arpaio in the general election as a Democrat, one of the first questions I had for Penzone when we met was: Is there anything in your past that Arpaio can use against you?
Penzone didn't hesitate, pointing me to a 2003 altercation with his soon-to-be ex-wife Susan. The two were undergoing a divorce, living in separate Glendale homes, and sharing custody of their 10-year-old son, Austin.
A Glendale police report of the incident conveys the following chain of events: During a week when Penzone had visitation with his son, the two had to stop by Susan Penzone's residence to pick up equipment Austin needed for hockey practice, including his hockey sticks.
Penzone told responding officers that he had called his wife and asked her to place the equipment outside the door of her home.
"Paul stated that . . . Susan had mentioned piano lessons, which Austin was to be present for," reads the report. "A short argument ensued over visitation."
With Austin in the car, Penzone proceeded to his estranged wife's residence, but the equipment was not outside. When Susan came to the door, she asked that Austin retrieve the equipment, then closed the door on Paul.
According to the report, "Paul feared if he let Austin inside the residence, that Susan would not allow Austin out . . . to continue the visitation."
Susan went to the car door and tried to open it, but Paul only let her talk to Austin through the car window, fearing, he told Glendale police officers, that Susan would take Austin inside and discontinue the visitation.
Eventually, Susan went inside to retrieve the equipment, with Paul following behind. She returned with the two hockey sticks and an equipment bag, dropping the bag to the ground when Paul asked that she do so.
When Paul reached for the bag, Susan "allegedly struck Paul with the hockey stick on the right side of the face."
Paul told her she could be arrested for what she had just done, according to the report.
"To which Susan allegedly replied, 'I'll call the police, telling them you assaulted me,'" the report states.
However, it was Penzone who contacted the Glendale cops, he says, via a non-emergency number. Penzone tells me he had requested that a supervisor respond so that the call was handled properly.
A Glendale sergeant sent two officers, informing them that the call was from a Phoenix police sergeant. After talking to Penzone, the cops contacted Susan, whose account of the event was "consistent" with her estranged husband's, "up to the point where she had re-entered the residence to retrieve the hockey equipment."
As she went back for the hockey sticks, the police report says Susan Penzone stated: "Paul allegedly pushed her causing her to strike her forehead on the doorway."
When she came back with the sticks, she "pushed" the hockey sticks toward Paul and "may have inadvertently struck him," she told the cops.
Yet Susan Penzone did not contact the police.
The report noted injuries to both parties, a "minor contusion" to Susan's forehead and the same to Paul's right cheek.
Both were given victim's rights pamphlets for what the report characterizes as "assault/domestic violence." And both told the officer that they desired prosecution. The Glendale city prosecutor's office declined to pursue charges because of "no reasonable likelihood of conviction."
Neither Penzone nor his estranged wife was arrested, though Arizona does have a mandatory arrest law in regard to suspects of domestic abuse when injuries are present.
After reviewing the file, Glendale PD spokeswoman Tracey Breeden noted that Arizona law requires arrest in such situations, unless the officer believes that the victim "will be protected from further injury."
Breeden says there were "no other reports in the system of domestic violence in the past," and no accusations of additional occurrences regarding Penzone.
"The officer felt the victim was safe," Breeden tells me. "And it appeared to be an isolated incident."
Photos were taken of the injuries and recordings made of the interviews at the time, but Breeden says the department no longer has them on file.
The incident did become an issue in the divorce proceedings, with Penzone first issuing his wife an order of protection, after which she quickly followed suit. Ultimately, the judge in the case dismissed both orders, and the divorce ended with Paul and Susan sharing joint custody of Austin.
Both Susan and Paul since have remarried others. Contacted for this story, Penzone's ex-wife declined to comment.
Penzone's account of the incident now is the same one he gave Glendale officers in '03. He insists that he did not push his wife.
"Absolutely, there was no [violent] contact from me to her at any point in time during our relationship or on that day," he says.
He also claims there have been no other alleged domestic-violence incidents in his past or since this incident.
A cursory search of Penzone's record backs up this assertion.
Breeden states that Glendale has no other records involving Penzone.
Penzone's current address is in Scottsdale, where he lives with his wife of seven years, Veronica. The Scottsdale Police Department says there is only one file related to Penzone in its system, when he was the victim of a burglary in 2009.
Penzone says he always has been open about the incident and even has talked about it when lecturing on domestic-violence issues as a police officer.
"We see situations where women are harmed, and that is unacceptable and unforgivable," he explains. "And there are situations where, unfortunately, women act out against men, which is a far much smaller number. At the end of the day, domestic violence is a very serious issue."
He acknowledges that Arpaio or another candidate for sheriff might use the matter against him, particularly in the wake of domestic-violence scandals involving politicians, such as former state Senator Scott Bundgaard and former state Representative Daniel Patterson.
"I would just ask that people judge it with an objective, open mind," he states, adding that he reported the altercation to avoid the possibility of any future incident.
"People will come up with their own assessment," he concludes. "But I assure you I've never harmed my ex-wife or any other woman. This is not in my nature. This is not who I am. This is why I reported it."
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