Babeu's "Elite" Staff Overcomes Bad Behavior with Loyalty

Richard Hank Mueller spent an October evening at the Firehouse Bar and Grill in Tempe, drinking, antagonizing security officers, and "creeping" out the ladies.

Mueller capped off his night arguing with Pierce Birkhold, a bar patron trying to stop Mueller from hitting on his girlfriend. Mueller, instead, ended up hitting Birkhold — with a closed fist to the face, a police report states.

Joshua Rudkin, the bar's general manager, told cops that Mueller was loud, disruptive, and picking fights, including with someone "much smaller than him." He also said one of his female employees, who was working the beer tub near the front door, said Mueller was "creeping her out."

After Mueller slammed his fist into Birkhold's head, bar workers called the cops, and Mueller bolted. Security officers ran after him, and Tempe police patrolling the area on horseback joined the search for the fleeing assailant.

Mueller evaded the officers, ducking into an underground garage where he'd parked. He climbed into his vehicle, even though the police report shows he had "obvious signs . . . of being intoxicated."

Security officers caught up with Mueller and stood behind his white SUV. When Tempe officers arrived, Mueller put his arms outside his driver's side window, presumably to show that he was unarmed.

Then, the 30-year-old announced to cops: "I'm a sheriff's deputy."

Mueller told the officers that he ran "because he was in fear for his life after being chased by 20 people." Tempe police Sergeant Heather Penner, among those who chased Mueller that night, reported that he was tailed by individuals easily identifiable as security employees and cops.

Tempe police soon found out that Mueller worked for Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu.

Hired less than a month after the sheriff first took office in January 2009, Mueller had worked with Babeu at the Chandler Police Department. Babeu was a patrolman, and Mueller was a civilian detention officer. Mueller's Chandler PD employee file shows that he repeatedly applied to become a cop there but was turned down each time.

After he was hired by Babeu, Mueller graduated the police academy in Coolidge in May 2009. Two months later, the sheriff praised Mueller for his work on a sexual-assault case with an official letter of commendation.

Almost immediately, Mueller was among the sheriff's "elite," as some members of Babeu's inner circle refer to themselves. In one Pinal County Sheriff's Office photo, Mueller is seen posing with Babeu; Tim Gaffney, the office's top spokesman; and Arizona Governor Jan Brewer at the Arizona State Fair in '09.

Babeu said in a press release publicizing Mueller's commendation that he was "very proud" of the "highly disciplined" Mueller.

But such discipline wasn't evident on October 12, during his off-duty rampage in Tempe. And his PCSO performance reviews show similar control problems on duty.

Mueller's supervisor noted in one evaluation that the deputy lacked "good tact, good judgment, and common sense to resolve conflict," received "quite a few" complaints in the field, and "escalated [certain situations until they were] out of control," the Arizona Republic reported.

One incident involving Mueller ended with him and another deputy busting into an apartment, searching it without a warrant, and holding residents at gunpoint. While his supervisor recommended an 80-hour suspension for Mueller's behavior in the incident, Babeu's second-in-command — also a former Chandler cop — whittled that down to 20 hours of in-house punishment.

In addition, a photograph of the deputy (who calls himself "Hank the Tank" on his MySpace page) made the rounds at the Sheriff's Office. In the picture, Mueller is lying on a couch with his eyes closed. He's wearing only silky blue boxers and both hands are shoved down the front.

Babeu had been grooming Mueller to follow in Gaffney's footsteps and become a PCSO spokesman. But after the Tempe fight, he was put on paid leave pending an investigation. He resigned on January 4 and is facing a disorderly conduct charge in Tempe Municipal Court.

About four years ago, when Babeu first was sworn in as sheriff, he assembled his own team of commanders, directors, and executive assistants. He chose Mueller and other co-workers from his days at the Chandler Police Department, as well as political allies.

On January 9, a few days after he'd started his second term in office, Babeu asked the Pinal County Board of Supervisors to broaden his authority over his command staff by allowing him to reclassify 17 staff positions — mostly lieutenants — and strip them of their civil-service status.

Point being: These individuals would become "at-will" employees serving at the sheriff's pleasure.

At-will employees can be fired at any time, for any reason, with or without cause. Individuals in covered positions have the right to appeal terminations to a county board, a body with authority to overturn the sheriff's decision and restore jobs and lost benefits.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo