Balls in the Air

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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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin