Balls in the Air

Rick Romley remembers precisely what he said to his rescuers after a land mine in Vietnam blew his body apart on April 7, 1969.

"I asked them if my balls were still there," he says.

Turned out, the 19-year-old Marine Corps squad leader's cojónes were among the few outward body parts left intact in the jungle explosion south of Danang.

For the record, losing both legs above the knee and suffering other devastating injuries didn't stop Romley from fathering two sons after returning to the States.

Years later, after he first won election as Maricopa County Attorney in 1988, many wondered if he'd have the balls, metaphorically, to be anything more than another ambitious political hack in this sprawling desert valley.

After all, Romley had been an attorney for just six years when he announced his Republican candidacy for one of the most powerful and high-profile jobs in the state.

No one then knew much about the native Phoenician other than that he talked tough about crime -- all Arizona politicians do -- and walked with a cane for reasons he chose not to disclose at the time. But Romley sneaked past serious competition and moved into the eighth-floor offices in downtown Phoenix as Maricopa County's 25th chief prosecutor since 1912.

Now, in the last days of his historic 16-year tenure, this can be said with certainty about Richard M. Romley: He's been popular and successful, mostly because he's made the right calls in the biggest and toughest cases.

The legislative bribery scandal known as AzScam, the Buddhist temple murder case, and the sex scandals involving Bishop Thomas O'Brien and the Catholic Church spring to mind.

Romley's approval ratings consistently have remained high, even though he's rarely been one to go along to get along with peers in law enforcement and politics.

To the contrary, he's openly looked askance at the publicity-driven tactics of iconic Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose opinion of Romley has been equally low over the years.

And he's no fan of Governor Janet Napolitano, against whom he may run in 2006, even as he grudgingly concedes she's committed to serving Arizona as best she can.

Romley also doesn't have a ton of friends over at Superior Court. Most recently, he butted heads with presiding judge Colin Campbell after Campbell kept sealed the report of a Romley-initiated grand jury report on the Lewis Prison hostage standoff earlier this year.

"That guy [Campbell] ought to wear a crown instead of a robe," Romley says, sneering. "In fact, I'm not overly impressed by a lot of judges over there, though there are some good ones."

As county attorney, he never shied away from going after the rich and powerful, or even after those also in law enforcement.

And though reasonable minds can and will differ on this point, a majority of observers interviewed for this story agree that Romley employed his vast powers as judiciously as might be expected from anyone in his shoes.

Those observers do not include the criminal-defense bar, which generally despises Romley and what he stands for.

Still, the words "zealot" and "rabid" don't describe him fairly.

Calling him a savvy, ambitious politician with a moral compass is closer to the truth.

"I have to say this about Rick," says Mel McDonald, a prominent Phoenix attorney. "It doesn't matter who the hell you are, he sticks by his principles, and he's very idealistic, with a clear view of right and wrong."

McDonald says Romley sometimes acted to his own potential political detriment as county attorney.

"I thought it was absolutely gutsy to bring murder charges against the Chandler cop [Dan Lovelace] who shot the lady at the pharmacy," McDonald continues. "It was courageous because Rick's political support base is law enforcement, and cops really stand behind their own. Even though the case was lost, I thought it was a great example of Romley putting principle above politics."

However, other attorneys say the Lovelace case provides a textbook example of Romley's bullheadedness in the face of a clear loser of a case.

But compared with other local law-and-order types, including his ultra-conservative successor Andrew Peyton Thomas, Rick Romley might qualify as -- gasp -- a blue-stater on some issues.

He's pro-choice, he led a fight for enhanced punishment for those convicted of "hate crimes," and he recognizes the gray areas in knotty cases such as child drownings.

On the downside, Romley has showed he can be temperamental and hypersensitive to perceived slights and divided loyalties. Some of the office's 350 attorneys say he was too distant as a boss, too stingy with the atta-boys, criticisms that he concedes are probably accurate.

Other people -- more from outside the office than in -- speak scornfully of the office's extensive policy manual, which dictates what prosecutors typically can and can't do in cases. That includes mandatory prison time for those who commit crimes with guns, unless a supervisor specifically approves a so-called "deviation."

And his naysayers blame Romley for the office's admittedly large turnover of personnel, including many experienced prosecutors who are any such agency's heart and soul.

"One reason that Rick lost a lot of good people is that we were having less discretion in cases when we left than when we started," says Vikki Liles, an ex-prosecutor now at the county Public Defender's Office. "I don't know why a three-inch-thick policy manual is needed to serve justice."

Actually, most of the departed veteran prosecutors left for more money in other agencies, the judiciary, or private practice. It's a sad state of affairs when lawyers processing misdemeanor cases in city courts or shuffling paperwork as court commissioners make more money than deputy county attorneys trying murder and molestation cases.

Romley does remain as deeply regimented (some would say rigid) now as he was as a young Marine squad leader, something supporters and detractors naturally view in radically different ways.

"Rick grew a lot in the job," says chief deputy Paul Ahler, who was Romley's top aide for a dozen years. "He's focused and forceful and passionate, and he has a temper when things don't go how he wants. But whether you agree with him or not, he's a very tough guy, physically and mentally. What he went through in Vietnam steeled him for the rest of his life. He's still a Marine, and he's not afraid of much."

The 55-year-old Romley has tackled the most difficult cases, even when looking the other way may have been politically advantageous, such as with Lovelace.

An even more profound example came during his first term, when he overrode the highly publicized wishes of then-sheriff Tom Agnos and top members of his own staff by asking a judge to dismiss the cases of four Tucson men who'd confessed to killing nine people at a West Valley monastery.

That case was fraught with problems, including coerced confessions and an utter lack of physical evidence. But if Romley had been wrong, and the Tucsonans had been involved, voters surely would have booted him out of office at their first opportunity if he hadn't resigned before then.

But he was right. The Tucson guys had nothing to with the murders; the killers were a pair of West Valley teens for whom an armed robbery had gone bad.

Though Rick Romley hasn't been in a courtroom for years, he was smart enough to surround himself with able top lieutenants for whom potential political fallout rarely was a prime concern in deciding how to proceed with a given case.

An exception has been special assistant Barnett Lotstein, a political apparatchik who is almost universally disrespected by his colleagues at the office.

"Barnett brings a different dimension to the discussion," Romley says by way of defense. "He has a greater astuteness on political things than anyone I've met."

Lotstein was involved in one of the most embarrassing episodes of the Romley years, a civil rights lawsuit filed by Elizabeth and Howard Sukenic, both former employees of the County Attorney's Office.

Elizabeth was the office's onetime director of community relations. She and her prosecutor husband in 2001 alleged that Romley and others had retaliated against them after she'd accused Lotstein of making sexual advances toward her.

A jury early this year awarded Elizabeth Sukenic $16,100, a pittance considering she'd asked for $1 million. But the panel agreed that Romley had retaliated against her, even while concluding that Lotstein hadn't sexually harassed her.

Romley has won his share of other enemies, some who don't object to being quoted by name.

"He's run that office by heavy intimidation, and the people there don't have any flexibility in what they do," says Jack MacIntyre, an ex-deputy county attorney who now is Joe Arpaio's director of intergovernmental affairs.

That may sound ironic coming from someone who works for a sheriff not known to tolerate dissension in his own ranks.

Yet MacIntyre's venom doesn't approach that of a man who mailed this screed to New Times:

"Ric [sic] Romley is a shameless self-promoter. He is a self-serving narcissist who will cynically destroy American ideals if it promotes/protects his political future."

The author was ex-Phoenix abortion doctor Brian Finkel, writing from his home in the sex-offender unit at the state prison cell in Florence. Earlier this year, Romley's prosecutors won convictions against Finkel on 22 counts of sexually abusing patients.

Finkel and MacIntyre hold the minority view when it comes to assessing Rick Romley.

Says Gary Lowenthal, an Arizona State University law professor who wrote Down and Dirty Justice: A Chilling Journey Into the Dark World of Crime and the Criminal Courts about his months-long sabbatical as a prosecutor for Romley:

"Rick knew I didn't share his political philosophy, but he openly let me look at his office, no holds barred. This from a guy who demanded absolute loyalty from his employees -- absolute -- and isn't known for taking criticism well. Though I have disagreements with some of Rick's policies, he was a very good county attorney, and we were very fortunate to have him."

It's the late morning of September 15 as Rick Romley pulls into the parking lot of the McCormick Ranch Golf Club.

He's about 10 minutes early for his appearance before the Palo Verde Republican Women's Club. As he walks with his cane toward the banquet room -- he moves remarkably well -- Romley says he expects to face a friendly group.

"It's a little different over in the East Valley," he says, smiling, referring to the archconservative leanings of many Mesa-area politicos who abhor Romley's position on abortion and his other moderations.

As always in public, Romley is impeccably dressed, this time in a crisply pressed dark suit and red tie. In terms of appearance, he may be the neatest man in Arizona.

His mustache is clipped to precision, every hair is in place, and his evenly tanned face is remarkably unwrinkled. He doesn't seem to have an ounce of fat on him, though he claims to be two pounds over his fighting weight.

Romley works the room before the luncheon starts, remembering names, asking after folks, and smiling continually. The women are gushing over their recent trip to New York City for the Republican National Convention.

"Sounds like a great time," Romley tells a gaggle of excited dowagers. "Wish I could have been there."

When the time comes for him to speak, Romley stands up without notes, and apologizes for the absence of his wife, Carol, who's vacationing with her sister.

Carol Romley is a quietly powerful presence in her husband's life, and he'd love to have her there at his side.

But Romley does fine, easily fielding questions about high-profile criminal defendants his office has prosecuted over the years.

He also responds to inevitable questions about Joe Arpaio ("He does his thing and I do mine"), the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal, and the Temple murder case.

"I didn't believe they were guilty," Romley says of the Tucson suspects. "I had people telling me, including good people from my office, 'Leave 'em in jail until we get the evidence.' I said, 'Have you forgotten that we don't arrest people hoping to get evidence on them after the fact?' But even then, I was bright enough to realize, 'What if I'm wrong?' Thank God I stood my ground. You don't want a society where if you make any mistake, you're going to have a Rick Romley at your door getting in your face."

The group applauds him warmly as he sits down.

Club member Kay Van Sant thanks Romley "for the 16 years and for whatever you may do in the future."

Cindi Nannetti, head of Romley's crack sex-crimes unit for 13 years, says she's always cherished the boss's empathy for victims of crime, especially children.

"One of Rick's first questions on our cases always is, 'How's the victim doing?'" Nannetti says. "Then he'd follow up with questions about the strengths and weaknesses of a case. Our unit tends to have high-profile cases, sometimes with multiple victims, and Rick always took an intense interest in how the kids, the victims, were making it."

It may stem in part from Romley's upbringing in what now would be called a dysfunctional family.

He was the youngest of three children born into a pioneer Arizona family. It was anything but a cozy existence.

"I think we were middle-class," says Romley, not too keen to relive this part of his life. "Everybody worked. We had food, but it never seemed to be enough. Part of the Romley family was 'rich,' but not my part."

Romley's father, Henry, managed a toy-import business for a time, and later owned an infamous saloon on West Van Buren Street before dying in 1985.

"My dad drank quite a bit, and those types of things," Romley says, averting his gaze for several seconds. "Things were not easy at home, ever."

His parents got divorced when he was a youngster, but that was only the half of it.

"My mother disappeared from my life, pretty much forever," he says. "She didn't even visit me at the hospital after I got hurt in Vietnam. I never have understood why."

Born into a Catholic family, Romley regularly had attended church as a youth and served as an altar boy for a time. But he says he'd lost interest by the end of high school.

As a teen, Romley was a lean, good-looking kid with an eye for the young ladies, and a love of gymnastics and boxing. But he had little, if any, inclination toward the books. Partying whenever and wherever was more like it.

By then, he'd moved over to his grandparents' home on Third Street just south of McDowell Road, then to an aunt's house after his grandmother died.

Romley had little direction after he graduated from now-defunct West High School in 1967. He went to work for a construction firm. "I did grunt work, making the 'mud,'" he recalls.

Romley says he and best friend David Schaffer played hard and wondered what to do with their lives.

Romley enrolled at Phoenix College but dropped out before his first semester ended. In the spring of 1968, he and Schaffer joined the Marines together.

"I was working, but barely making it, and I was screwing up right and left," Romley says. "I said, 'Shit, go into the service, get some time under your belt.' I didn't really think about Vietnam. I wanted to get out of my rut."

That June, Romley married his high school sweetheart, Patti, shortly before getting shipped to Vietnam with Alpha Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Division.

Then, eight months into an often fierce tour of duty, his life nearly ended in the jungle south of Danang.

Besides losing his legs, Romley's right arm was seriously injured, a knuckle was blown off and reattached, and he had suffered other injuries.

"I was exposed -- raw nerves and open wounds," he says. "I can't come close to explaining the pain."

Military policy was to fly the immediate family members of seemingly mortally wounded soldiers to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines for a final visit. Romley's young wife and his father made the sad trek with several families.

Romley says all the other soldiers in his ward at the time died while he was there.

About four months after Romley was wounded, he learned that his best friend, U.S. Marine Lance Corporal David Thomas Schaffer, had died in combat.

Depression sometimes threatened to overwhelm him, but he just wouldn't let himself check out. He says it wasn't faith in God, though Romley says he's always believed in a higher power.

Romley underwent about 20 surgeries before doctors allowed him to return to the States. He spent months at military hospitals in California before getting discharged March 22, 1970.

"I overheard my sister say, when I was at Balboa Naval Hospital, that she figured I was going to end up on a street corner someplace," Romley says. "She wasn't trying to hurt my feelings. But she was right; I didn't have a clue what was going to happen to me."

He also recalls what a military psychiatrist told him during his exit interview:

"He said, 'Your disability is so bad and you're trying to walk like a normal person. You're not going to. You can't overdo anything. Don't try going up escalators. If you really want to be adjusted, you need to be taking your [prostheses] off and going out that way.'

"I was, 'Fuck him!' What an idiot! That's so against what I am. I told him I was proud of trying to be as normal as possible. He made it sound like I was weird. I didn't take it to heart at all. Actually, I walked out."

Patti Romley gave birth to the first of their two sons in November 1970. Doing the math, it seems that David Thomas Romley -- named after his father's fallen comrade -- was conceived in a hospital.

"At least some things were working," Rick Romley says, leaving it at that.

A second son, Aaron, was born in April 1972.

But Romley's marriage was failing.

"Patti married me when I was a strong, young Marine," he says. "You see me walking now, but then I was at the point where I wasn't thinking about much other than how I was going to get out of that chair I was stuck in. How do you restart your life when something like this happens?"

Patti at first had the young boys after the couple got divorced in 1974. But Romley eventually won custody of the children, and became a devoted single dad.

"To me, it was a godsend," Romley recalls. "Getting my kids made me realize, it's not just about Rick anymore. I had to pull myself together, because I had to take care of those kids. When you have a terrible tragedy that affects every part of your life, it's hard. But having other responsibilities, well, I just couldn't throw the kids away."

Physically, it was rigorous: "When you have no knees, you can't bend over like a real person. We became great buddies trying to figure it out. One day, I was carrying Aaron when he was still a baby, and I fell. Somehow, I twisted myself around and he landed on my chest instead of me on him. It hurt. But we laughed."

Romley continued to adjust. He opened a small clothing store in the mid-1970s with his sister Peggy, but he wanted to earn a college diploma.

He did so in 1974, earning a business management degree with honors from ASU.

Romley's uncle Elias was urging him to consider becoming a lawyer. Romley decided to go for it, and won his law degree from ASU in 1982.

Romley soon landed a job as a prosecutor for the City of Phoenix. "I just wanted to be a normal guy," he recalls, "making ends meet for my family."

Paul Ahler remembers befriending the man with the cane who showed up to work downtown.

"He came in determined, and I saw his work ethic from the start," says Ahler, who will be leaving his job as chief deputy when Romley's term ends December 31.

He says he didn't learn for more than a year why Romley walked with such difficulty.

"In those days, there were few accommodations for the handicapped, but Rick never asked for anything," Ahler says. "Finally, I asked him. He said he'd stepped on a land mine. Then he went on with his business."

Within a few years, Romley moved over to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. County Attorney Tom Collins soon moved the young prosecutor into a mid-management position as chief of the child-support-collection unit.

Romley's time in child support was controversial, as he tried to implement major changes in what had been an ineffectual unit. Some underlings swore by him. But others swore at him, dubbing him "Rommel," after the World War II German general.

After a time, Romley moved over to run the drug unit, which afforded him public recognition during the cyclical mid-1980s wave of "tough-on-dopers" sentiment.

By that time, Romley finally had found a new life partner. A friend had introduced him to his future wife, Carol, in 1984, and the two single parents instantly connected.

"I hated being single, hated it," Romley says. "You're out there on the prowl, but you just want someone to be alone with, spend time with. But making the match is hard."

Carol had been a working single mom of a teenage son, Darin, for about five years when she met Romley. He still was raising his boys, also teenagers.

"He took my son to breakfast by himself and asked for permission to marry me," says Carol, an articulate woman with unyielding loyalty to her husband.

The couple got married in July 1985, and she moved into his home in north central Phoenix.

"Here I was, the new woman in the house, but Rick had everything so regimented that I didn't have to worry about anything," Carol Romley says. "He's a proud man. Macho. And that's probably why he's walking. He says people don't know what they have inside of themselves until they dig deep."

In early 1988, Tom Collins announced he wouldn't be seeking reelection. The race was wide open, with several well-known Valley lawyers interested in the post.

Romley, a Republican, announced his own candidacy fairly late in the game.

"I'd never been to a political meeting in my life," he says. "I was so dumb. And I won. I don't really know how."

As badly as he wanted to win, Romley never mentioned during his first political race that he was a decorated war veteran who had been wounded in action.

"Not my thing," is all he'll say about that.

Romley won a tough Republican primary, and squeaked past the formidable Georgia Staton in the general election.

It would be the only truly contested political race of his 16-year run.

Rick Romley stepped into a legal and political thicket in his first years in office.

First came AzScam, the biggest political corruption case in Arizona history.

Organized by Romley and then-Phoenix police chief Ruben Ortega, the sting was pulled off by an ex-gangster turned undercover operative named Joe Stedino -- who had persuaded legislators, lobbyists and others to accept bribes in exchange for their promises to support legalized casino gambling in Arizona.

"I want to die rich," one state legislator secretly was videotaped telling wiseguy Stedino, who was portraying a Nevada mobster.

In the end, 18 people were indicted and six elected officials resigned from office (another was expelled). Several greedy politicos served time behind bars.

Still, Romley says a veteran politician told him after the big bust that his career was toast. He was just getting started.

"If my political career had been finished because of AzScam, so be it," Romley says. "I thought what those people did was disgusting."

On the heels of the AzScam headlines came the worst mass slaying in Arizona history, the 1991 shooting deaths of nine people at a Buddhist temple west of Phoenix. The victims included six Thai monks, a monk in training, a temple helper, and a nun.

International pressures to solve the case were intense, and the subsequent arrests of the Tucson suspects were greeted with sighs of relief.

But Romley listened hard as key staffers raised serious questions about the weakness of the suspects' confessions.

Soon, he let everyone know that, short of a stunning turn of events, he'd be asking the court to release the perceived killers.

The sheriff at the time, Agnos, remained adamant that the Tucson suspects somehow had been in cahoots with two Valley youths who turned out to be the real killers.

Agnos convened a group of leading attorneys and retired cops to do an emergency examination of the case, hoping Governor Fife Symington III would wrest it from Romley. Heading the committee were former United States attorneys Mike Hawkins and Mel McDonald.

"Our analysis was sympathetic to Agnos, and Romley got really mad, really mad," recalls McDonald. "You have all these people murdered, and he makes the decision that he wasn't going to charge the guys who confessed? The sheriff's office was going nuts, but Rick turned out to be absolutely right, and we were wrong."

Symington declined to get involved in the Temple case, leaving Romley to sink or swim.

Romley swam.

The case also directly led to Sheriff Tom Agnos' defeat in November 1992 by a retired Drug Enforcement Administration agent named Joe Arpaio.

It didn't take long for elected officials Romley and Arpaio to get crossways with each other.

Arpaio's now-infamous public relations machine began to rev up. Pink underwear, green bologna and chain gangs for inmates were just what a crime-weary public and a lapdog media seemed to crave.

But Romley's prosecutors soon started to complain about the uneven level of investigation by some of Arpaio's people. They also questioned why Arpaio routinely tried to drum up media interest in his cases.

Then, in June 1996, a troubled jail inmate named Scott Norberg died a terrible death as sheriff's detention officers held him in a restraint chair.

Triggered by the Norberg case, the U.S. Department of Justice opened an investigation into Arpaio's jail conditions. That investigation, which started while Janet Napolitano was United States Attorney for the district of Arizona, ended in October 1997 without criminal charges filed.

By then, Jack MacIntyre, who had been Romley's representative at the sheriff's office for years, had gone to work for Arpaio after providing legal advice to detention officers and others who were potential criminal defendants in the Norberg case.

Romley later had to stop his own investigation into the Norberg incident after he learned of the legal conflict of interest involving MacIntyre.

"That was one of my greatest disappointments," Romley says of his aborted Norberg investigation. "I really did believe people had committed a crime there, so I started up my own investigation aggressively. I had ordered Jack not to talk to those sheriff's employees, but we found out later that he had anyway. That boxed me in legally. I think he did it to get me off the case because Joe was scared to death after I put together a topnotch team to look into it."

MacIntyre says Romley's memory "is extremely deficient on this issue."

Romley says he turned over his investigative materials to the U.S. Attorney's Office, then headed by Napolitano.

"What pisses me off is that I gave [the AG's Office] boxes of material, and it all came back with them saying, essentially: Not enough here!'" he recalls. "We had sealed all the boxes, I think seven. But [Napolitano's investigators] hadn't even broken the seal of one box. I mean, somebody died, and nobody should be above the law."

MacIntyre says he quit Romley's office in late 1996 after "Rick told me he wanted me to be his eyes and ears in the sheriff's office. That is, asking [me] to be a spy against someone [Arpaio] who trusted [me] and with whom [I was] trying to establish the repose of an attorney-client relationship."

That's a lie, says Romley, who maintains he learned a painful lesson about engaging in the arena of public opinion with the Arpaio publicity machine.

"I know I came out too hard on Joe publicly," he says, "but I was very offended by his imagery of a personality conflict versus doing what's right because somebody died. Joe did a masterful job of turning it into a personal issue as compared with it being a legitimate investigative issue."

Romley admits that "the Norberg case created situations with the two agencies that even now we haven't overcome. The staffs work pretty well together, but we still have to tell him no on a lot of things."

Romley chuckles when asked how he's interacted with Arpaio at subsequent gatherings of Valley law enforcement authorities.

"We don't see Joe at meetings of substance," he says. "I think his next four years are going to be extraordinarily difficult. We're into raw wood now. The veneer's off and there's going to be a greater scrutiny of everything he does. I sincerely hope that Andy [Thomas] has the backbone to deal with Joe, because it's not easy."

In the 1990s, Rick Romley injected himself into initiatives that transcended that of a normal chief county prosecutor.

He lent support to Phoenix neighborhood activists in their war against graffiti and slumlords, and won a ton of mostly positive publicity along the way.

And Romley embraced the hate-crime legislation that stumbled its way through the statehouse during that time, even appearing on radio shows with Joel Breshin, then the liberal Anti-Defamation League's regional director.

"At the time, no one knew how many hate crimes there were around here, and no one really cared," Breshin recalls. "We found out that police departments around the Valley weren't enforcing hate crimes equally, and I met with Rick and [former prosecutor] Jim Blake to figure out what to do. We needed an authority to get behind us, and Rick was the man."

Current ADL regional director Bill Straus says he thought at the time that support for hate-crime legislation would be universal.

"Man, was I wrong!" says Straus, who had a radio show on KTAR-AM 620 at the time. "I was the only talk-show host in town who supported the new law. Lots of legislators were against it. I invited Rick and Joel on to talk about it. Rick said he'd do whatever it took, and he was true to his word. People tell me he's just too political, but that's not the way I see it. I always got the feeling that Rick just wanted to make his hometown a little better."

By then, Barnett Lotstein had become a special assistant to Romley after more than 15 years at the Attorney General's Office. His role with Romley would be akin to Karl Rove's in the George W. Bush White House, but with a crucial difference:

Most accounts describe political consultant Rove as respected by those in Bush's inner circle for his relentless political acumen.

Lotstein's reputation in the upper reaches of the County Attorney's Office has been that of an overpaid toady who must possess a secret videotape of Romley engaging in an unnatural sex act to have risen to such power. (Andy Thomas has offered Lotstein a similar job in his administration, which raises yet new questions.)

"I know Barnett has been an issue within my office, which I don't understand to any great degree," Romley says. "But you need people who give you the political type of counsel on how to do certain things. You do have to be cognizant of the political overtones -- how you say things, do things. Generally, everyone in a position like mine has someone like Barnett."

Says Romley of the civil rights lawsuit filed against him and his office by Elizabeth Sukenic and her prosecutor-husband Howard, "Even if everything Liz said about Barnett were true, what everyone was telling us was it wasn't sexual harassment under the law. Maybe it was unprofessional conduct. Some people say I'm loyal to a fault, and maybe so. I could have cut my losses, but you got to stand up for your people."

That attitude disgusts Sukenic's husband, Howard, now an assistant U.S. attorney in Phoenix.

"Did Rick try to hurt my career after Liz came forward about Barnett?" he asks. "Sure. He put us through a miserable experience, him and [chief deputy] Paul Ahler, and they should be ashamed of themselves. It was an unprovoked attack to try to shut us up."

In May 2002, Rick Romley announced a criminal investigation into the role of the Catholic Diocese of Phoenix in the burgeoning pedophile-priests scandal.

A grand jury investigation and a spate of lawsuits confirmed what Romley long had suspected: Bishop Thomas O'Brien and his aides for years had been covering up allegations of sexual misconduct with children by predatory priests.

In fact, O'Brien often had transferred his pedophiles to other parishes in his 430,000-member diocese rather than report them to the police.

To avoid a likely criminal indictment on charges of obstructing justice, O'Brien in May 2003 signed a painfully constructed agreement admitting his wrongdoing, and made other once-unthinkable concessions to the county attorney.

But fate would not allow the bishop time to regroup after the public humiliation of the agreement and accompanying revelations. The following month, O'Brien fatally struck a Phoenix man near the intersection of 19th Avenue and Glendale.

The prelate fled without stopping after slamming into the man, and later was convicted of leaving the scene of a fatal accident, a felony.

The hit-and-run accident finally cost O'Brien his job. But he avoided jail time, and currently is serving a four-year probated term.

Romley says the church scandal probably had more impact on him than any other case in his tenure.

"What really was different on this case was that the church was supposed to be this moral compass," he says. "It burst another bubble. You see so many bad things, but a church? I guess you don't want to believe that the church is almost sanctioning the priest's behavior -- 'Let's just transfer him to another church in the Hispanic community because they don't ever talk bad about priests.'

"I have no respect for Bishop O'Brien, but it wasn't just him. The cover-up was at the highest of levels -- all the way to Rome. I fail to understand why anybody, once they knew of these issues, wouldn't step up and say, 'This stops now!' The pope has been against gay marriages and so many other issues. Why wasn't he strong in this area?"

Sex-crimes unit chief Cindi Nannetti says she pushed Romley to seek a criminal indictment of O'Brien as the investigation of the bishop and the diocese bore fruit.

"I was thinking more of it as a punishment issue against the bishop than the bigger picture," Nannetti says. "I said to Rick, 'No, no, no,' when he said he wasn't going for a grand jury indictment. I know now that we never would have gotten those admissions of wrongdoing from the bishop if the grand jury had indicted. Rick was right. The way it went down did more [to move] the church forward than having O'Brien be able to position himself as a martyr."

Romley remains surprisingly ambivalent about his decision not to seek the indictment against O'Brien.

"I was not at all happy with the resolution we came up with," he says. "I know people can question me on that, and it was a tough call. But our goal was to try to stop the abuse in the future as well as to prosecute priests who had done these terrible things."

Last January, Romley announced he wouldn't be running for what would have been a shoo-in election to a fifth term as county attorney.

Rumors immediately swirled about his future political plans, the most obvious one being a possible run against Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano. Naturally, that would depend on many variables, including the plans of blustery Arizona congressman J.D. Hayworth, who also has made waves about possibly running against the incumbent.

If running for governor doesn't pan out for Romley, he says he may run for Hayworth's seat in Arizona's 5th District, where he and his wife Carol reside.

Then there's the possibility of a presidential appointment to a job in Washington, D.C., possibly working in veterans' affairs, a natural fit for the old Marine.

Romley says his wife Carol probably would rather not have to endure a rugged campaign, "though she's a trooper and we'll work it out, believe me. The future will work itself out."

Romley does have one plan for his immediate future.

He says that on his birthday next April 28, he'll retreat by himself to a room in his home. There, he'll try to open a box filled with things that have been awaiting him for 35 years -- since he was a strong young man fighting in Vietnam.

Its mysterious contents hold an otherworldly significance for Romley. All he knows is that there are letters, photos and audio tapes to and from his first wife and others in the box.

"I think I'll finally be able to open it up," Romley says. "But I'm not 100 percent. It's going to take some balls."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin