Balls in the Air

Page 6 of 9

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."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin