Back to the Temple of Doom

Victoria Painter's story is an all-but-forgotten footnote in the infamous Temple murders case. But its final chapter has yet to be written.

In September 1992, the Phoenix resident sued the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, the Arizona Department of Public Safety and one of its officers, Larry Troutt. The lawsuit included claims of wrongful arrest and search, false imprisonment, invasion of privacy and other allegations against the authorities.

What happened to her is uncontroverted: Following the uncorroborated direction of an institutionalized mental patient--who said Painter had harbored the alleged murderers--local lawmen secured a search warrant, detained and twice interrogated her, then ransacked her home, before deciding they couldn't pin anything on her.

The reason: Painter hadn't done anything wrong. The evidence indicates she didn't even know the mental patient, Michael McGraw, or any of the original alleged killers--later dubbed the Tucson Four.

"The police cannot invade our homes based upon the uncorroborated story of a mental patient in a mental institution," Painter's attorneys alleged in the suit, filed in Maricopa County.

But Judge William Sargeant III in July 1994 dismissed the case at the defendants' request. Painter appealed Sargeant's ruling. On June 25, she won reinstatement of the bulk of her lawsuit, a major legal victory.

Wrote Arizona Court of Appeals Judge Thomas Kleinschmidt in the unanimous opinion: "The evidence demonstrates conclusively that Troutt's affidavit [for a search warrant of Painter's home] was not based on credible information and that it contained false statements and misleading omissions. Troutt knew or should have known that arresting Painter and searching her home without probable cause would violate her constitutional rights."

In its ruling, the appeals court disregarded arguments by the authorities that they should not be held liable for being misled by McGraw.

The appellate ruling gives Painter a shot at telling her story to a judge and jury--or, more likely, collecting a tidy out-of-court settlement.

At the time of the August 1991 shotgun massacre of six Buddhist monks and three others at a remote west Valley temple, Painter was living alone in a central Phoenix home. Then a substance-abuse counselor in her early 40s, she followed the banner headlines about the murders with the same horrified interest as did fellow Valley residents.

In the first weeks after the murders, a multiagency "task force" of more than 60 officers worked more than 500 leads. The pressure to find those culpable was practically unprecedented.

"It was like the Task Force was so big, once you got the ball rolling in any direction, it was hard to stop it," sheriff's detective Wayne Scoville later said in a deposition.

The truth of that statement became apparent in early September 1991, after Tucson police got a call from a patient at the Tucson Psychiatric Institute. The man, Michael McGraw, said he and several others had traveled to Phoenix on the night of the Temple murders.

Somewhere in a rural part of the Valley, McGraw said, his colleagues had committed a violent robbery-murder at a church (he called himself a "lookout") and then sought refuge at a home somewhere in Phoenix. McGraw soon agreed to retrace his steps with Task Force members.

An ignored early-warning sign: A doctor at the institute told police that McGraw was a con man. The Task Force also failed to access a 1985 Pima County court report, which said of McGraw, "He appears to have a history of fabrication."

On the way to the Task Force offices in central Phoenix, McGraw excitedly pointed out to investigators a home, on East Culver Street, where he and his Tucson cohorts--whom he identified by name--allegedly had fled after committing murder.

"You're real confident the house you showed me tonight coming in here is the house you guys went to," DPS agent Troutt asked McGraw.

"I'm almost sure," McGraw replied.
That apparently seemed to be enough for some members of the Task Force, including Troutt.

According to Painter's lawsuit, McGraw spouted a vile combination of "lies, guesswork and the regurgitation of facts gleaned from the interviewers' own statements and facts about the crime that had already appeared in the news media" to convince the eager investigators he was for real.

A bona fide analysis of what McGraw was trying to sell them would have blown his wild tale to smithereens.

Much later, it became known that several cooler heads wanted to do more investigation before pushing any buttons. But the day after Mike McGraw started yapping, several members of the Task Force were ready to make arrests.

"Prior to your signing the affidavit for a search warrant," Painter's attorney, Mike DePaoli, asked agent Troutt in a deposition, "what facts did you corroborate that Michael McGraw stated to you?"

"None," Troutt replied.
"Do you know if any corroboration was done at all?"
"No, I don't."

That day, September 11, 1991, a unit of Task Force members pulled Victoria Painter over in her car on Interstate 17 near Indian School Road. They pat-searched her, then took her to her home, which other cops already had raided.

Next, they drove her to Task Force headquarters, where hours of fruitless interrogation ensued.

"They asked me about [the Tucson people] being there [at her house]," Painter said in a deposition. "Then they made the comment that my purse looked just like the bag that the Tucson Four had used the night they murdered the Buddhists. And I had just bought that after [the murders]. I said, 'I have a receipt for it.' I asked them to also tell [McGraw] to describe the inside of the house. The outside is on the warrant. I wanted the inside.

"And they went down the hall for a long time and then came back and said, 'Well, he said he was outside most of the time, and he can't describe the inside of the house.'"

Painter's attorney, Mike DePaoli, says she never heard of Mike McGraw or any of the other Tucson suspects until after the police confronted her.

The Task Force jailed McGraw and the Tucson Four--some of whom, incidentally, "confessed" to the crimes after relentless interrogations that lasted for hours on end. It was one of the biggest stories of the year.

None of those men, however, had anything to do with the Temple murders.
Mike McGraw was a bald-faced liar, whose credibility should have been suspect from the first moment. But key authorities wanted to believe him even after the real killers--a pair of west Valley boys--had been linked to the murders by ballistics tests and had confessed.

Then-sheriff Tom Agnos and deputy county attorney Myrna Parker were among those most determined to find a link between the Tucson Four and the newly confessed killers. It wasn't there.

Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley--overriding the objections of a so-called "Blue Ribbon Committee" of lawmen and ex-prosecutors--finally dropped the charges against the falsely accused men.

The four also sued Maricopa County for damages, settling out of court for a few million dollars.

An attorney for the defendants asked Painter in a deposition about the aftereffects of her experience.

"I still have nightmares," she replied. ". . . I have an aversion to police officers. I have trouble going out alone. I'm scared. I have problems talking about the incident. I cry a lot.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin

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