Blue Lies Matter: Ex-Phoenix Cop Sergio Virgillo Told the Truth About Killer Cop Richard Chrisman, Inciting the Wrath of Local Police Union PLEA

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Rodriguez told Virgillo that he wanted to go to his dad’s home. Virgillo says he responded by saying, “So, let’s go to your dad’s.”

According to Virgillo, Rodriguez told him, “You’re not taking me somewhere.” He grabbed his red mountain bike, and began wheeling it toward the door. Which is when Chrisman drew his gun for the second time, shooting Rodriguez’s pit bull twice: once in the ear, and as the dog wheeled around, once in the backside, killing him.

Enraged, Rodriguez demanded to know why Chrisman shot his dog. 

The two men briefly argued. And then, the unthinkable happened.

“I remember looking at Chrisman and the gun coming up,” Virgillo says. “[Rodriguez’s] arms were straight up in the air, like, ‘I give up,’ then he starts walking back, going, ‘Hey, hey, hey,’ then Chrisman shoots him.

“Rodriguez started moaning,” Virgillo remembers. “He kind of sat down and leaned against the chair ... It was apparent to me that [he was gone].”

In crime-scene photographs, Rodriguez’s back is against the chair, his head tilted up toward the ceiling, eyes and mouth open. Shirtless, with two holes in his chest and bathed in blood, there is something elegiac about his expression, like a modern-day St. Sebastian.

Virgillo called in a “998” on his radio, police code for an officer-involved shooting, then he and Chrisman “cleared” the trailer, making sure no one else was inside. Outside, they waited, silent, listening to the sirens as they approached. There is a dreamlike quality to the way Virgillo tells the rest. He remembers Fernandez, who heard the shots, approaching him and saying something. Then investigators separated Chrisman and Virgillo, assigning officers to watch each man. Virgillo sat in the back of a patrol car for hours, listening to rain and hail hit the roof.

He was taken on a “walk-through” of the trailer by homicide Detective Kenneth Porter, a standard practice in such shootings, where the cop involved recounts what happened. They were accompanied by Deputy County Attorney and former Judge Jim Keppel, law enforcement liaison for then-Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley.

Rodriguez and his dog still lay dead on the floor of the cluttered living room, and there was blood everywhere. Virgillo took the two men through what happened, with Porter, the lead detective, asking probing questions. Both seemed surprised when Virgillo told them that Chrisman had put his gun to Rodriguez’s head.

Keppel asked if Rodriguez used the bicycle or any other type of weapon against Chrisman. Virgillo said no. Did he feel deadly force was necessary? “From what I saw,” Virgillo told him, “no.” Did he ever feel that his life was in danger? “Not at all,” Virgillo responded.

Virgillo told Keppel it had been “the worst day in my life.” Keppel asked why.

“Because it was wrong,” Virgillo replied. “And I also felt that I’m getting sucked into something, that now officer Chrisman’s in this trailer, he’s going hands-on [police parlance for struggling with a suspect], I cannot leave. Everything is happening so fast. The spray, the Tase ... Daniel walking back. The dog ... It wasn’t good.”

Chrisman would testify at his 2013 trial that Virgillo left him on his own to deal with Rodriguez, that the dog had lunged at him, so he had to kill it. He said Rodriguez had been reaching for his gun, though he admitted under cross-examination that Rodriguez never actually touched it.

Also, Chrisman testified that Rodriguez had threatened him with the bicycle, lifting it up to throw at him, forcing Chrisman to fire his weapon in self-defense.

"I think he just kind of lost it and shot him, maybe to protect himself against Daniel making some allegations against him.” — Former Police Officer Sergio Virgillo

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Under oath, Chrisman told the jury that the aggravated assault never happened. Chrisman admitted that he had unholstered his gun not long after entering the trailer, but he said he did it to threaten the pit bull.

“I pointed it at the dog,” he testified, according to a trial transcript. “And I yelled, ‘Get back!’”

Chrisman testified that he then “brought the gun up so that Daniel could see it,” and did a “muzzle sweep,” which he described as a “sweeping motion of the [gun],” and yelled at Rodriguez to “call your dog off.” Chrisman said the dog backed off, so he re-holstered his weapon for the moment.

The ex-cop denied pointing his gun at Rodriguez’s head, and said he’d never do such a thing, because “you don’t want an accidental discharge,” and it potentially puts the gun in the grasp of the suspect. The physical evidence, however, didn’t back up Chrisman. The autopsy report showed that there was a bruise on Rodriguez’s left temple, which just happened to match Virgillo’s account that Chrisman had shoved his Glock into Rodriguez’s head.

Speaking with New Times, Virgillo admits that he cannot get into Chrisman’s mind, but he thinks that once Chrisman committed aggravated assault, he couldn’t reverse course.

“When Chrisman put the gun to [Rodriguez’s] head,” Virgillo says, “[Chrisman] thought to himself, as this thing was evolving, ‘I can’t take that back. This is not going well’ ... I think he just kind of lost it and shot him, maybe to protect himself against Daniel making some allegations against him.”

Virgillo’s theory isn’t far-fetched, especially in light of Garrity interviews given by Chrisman to investigators from the PPD’s Professional Standards Bureau, which contradict Chrisman’s trial testimony concerning the aggravated assault.

A Garrity interview, so-called after the 1967 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Garrity v. New Jersey, is an interview of a public employee that is compelled by the government and cannot be used against the subject of the investigation during criminal proceedings. Such interviews are used by PSB detectives during internal investigations. If a cop refuses to answer PSB’s questions, he or she is subject to termination.

Transcripts of these interviews, which took place about a week after the shooting, were part of the discovery in lawsuits brought by Elvira Fernandez and Rodriguez’s father, Frank Rodriguez, against the city of Phoenix and Chrisman. After the federal court dismissed Phoenix as a defendant, the judge in the case ruled in the plaintiffs’ favor, awarding them $5.2 million in damages, and another $3.3 million for Daniel Rodriguez's estate.

Collecting against Chrisman, who filed for bankruptcy in 2014 and may not exit prison till 2019, will be nearly impossible. A subsequent attempt by plaintiffs’ attorneys to make the city pay by suing Virgillo and his wife was denied by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

So far, these civil actions seem to have netted zero for Rodriguez’s family, but by obtaining Chrisman’s Garrity interviews, the plaintiffs scored a win for the truth.

In the weeks after the Rodriguez shooting, the PPD was looking to fire Chrisman, just as Chrisman desperately sought to keep his job with the assistance of PLEA. Chrisman was a PLEA member; Virgillo was not. Officers are not required to be members of the union, but the union, under its memorandum of understanding with the city of Phoenix, technically represents all Phoenix cops.

Still, PLEA quickly chose sides in the cop-versus-cop dispute, bailing out the dues-paying Chrisman, securing him the assistance of Phoenix attorney Craig Mehrens, and revving up a public campaign to defend Chrisman’s name while trashing Virgillo’s. In statements to the media, on its website, and in its monthly newsletter, the union’s leadership contended that Chrisman had been left alone by Virgillo during the encounter with a drug-crazed Rodriguez. Chrisman acted in self-defense, PLEA claimed.

Mehrens told TV reporters that the record would show Rodriguez was armed, though this was a slippery insinuation. Rodriguez had a knife in his back pocket, but it was never brandished, and Chrisman didn’t know about the knife when he killed Rodriguez.

While Mehrens and PLEA’s spin played to media outside the courtroom, inside the courtroom the jury followed the physical evidence, convicting Chrisman of aggravated assault while deadlocking on the other counts.

PLEA decried the jury’s action in a long, unsigned editorial published on its website. PLEA was “in disagreement with the verdict rendered,” saying the case “was a cop’s worst nightmare.” There was also a swipe at the jury panel for sitting in judgment of Chrisman’s split-second decision, while members of the jury were ensconced in a “comfortable, safe, well-lit, climate-controlled court room.”

On the stand, Chrisman claimed that he would never put a gun to someone's head, but in his Garrity interview, he told a different story.

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What PLEA’s anonymous scribes didn’t reveal is that in Chrisman’s Garrity interviews, Chrisman copped to threatening Rodriguez with his service weapon from jump.

“I pointed it at Daniel and told him ‘Outside, now,’ and then back at the dog, and yelled, ‘Get back,’ [and] the dog retreats back,” Chrisman told PSB Sgt. Julie Egea.

Pressed by Egea and PSB Sgt. Tadd Cline, Chrisman admitted to pointing the gun at “eye level,” inches from the left side of Rodriguez’s face. Asked by Egea if Rodriguez could have “pushed into the muzzle of your gun,” Chrisman conceded, “That’s a possibility.”

Asked Egea, “When you put the gun to Daniel’s head, was your intention to commit aggravated assault on Daniel?”

 “Absolutely not, ma’am,” he replied. “It was to gain compliance, to control the situation.”

“Okay,” said Egea. “And was it your intention to hit him in the head with your gun?”

“Absolutely not,” Chrisman said, but when grilled on whether the muzzle had pressed into Rodriguez’s head, Chrisman again said that “it was possible that it did.”

According to the transcripts, in the room with Chrisman and the PSB detectives as he admitted all this was then-PLEA treasurer Joe Clure, who was acting as Chrisman’s union rep during the questioning. Clure would go on to be elected PLEA president in 2011.

At the time, Chrisman’s Garrity testimony was privileged. Did Clure share this knowledge with other PLEA satraps? (Clure didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

For Virgillo, the revelation that Chrisman admitted pointing his gun at Rodriguez, along with the physical evidence from the autopsy, underscores Chrisman’s guilt and vindicates his own story. 

“How do you recover from that?” Virgillo asks. “If someone says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and there’s physical evidence to contradict that, everything else that they say is a lie.”

Something else was hinky about Chrisman’s PSB interviews. They were delayed a week, because, before he bailed out of the Maricopa County Jail, Chrisman told PSB detectives that he had not had enough sleep and shouldn’t be interviewed yet.

The following week, when Chrisman submitted to an interview, Egea asked Chrisman if he had “the opportunity to review some of the interviews that we did,” including one with Virgillo.

Chrisman said yes, and gave his account of threatening Rodriguez with his gun.

As he did during the trial, Chrisman insisted in his Garrity interviews that he had to plug Rodriguez in the chest because he was afraid that Rodriguez “was going to smash my brains in with that bicycle.”

Under the protection of Garrity, Chrisman tried out his contention that the bloodshed was all Virgillo’s fault. He told the PSB sergeants that Virgillo never went “hands-on,” faulting Virgillo for “a complete lack of action.” If Virgillo had helped him, “the situation could have been resolved in a better way.”

Virgillo says that he understands Chrisman’s prevarications, to a certain extent. “He had to create a story that was consistent with the physical evidence,” he told New Times.

After Chrisman was found guilty of aggravated assault and faced a retrial on second-degree murder charges, he took a plea deal with the prosecution, entering a guilty plea for manslaughter. He landed a sentence of seven years instead of the 15 or 20 he might have faced if convicted of the other charges. The animal cruelty count was dropped altogether.

Virgillo acknowledges the deal as a “good business decision” for Chrisman, but if Chrisman truly had been innocent, he should have fought to clear himself. 

“If you didn’t do anything wrong, you take it to trial,” he said. “Then you go through the appeal process if you lose.”

Former County Attorney Rick Romley vigorously pursued Chrisman’s prosecution in 2010. But at the time, he was a lame duck, having lost in a special primary election that year by PLEA-backed prosecutor Bill Montgomery. On October 5, the day of the shooting, Romley had about a month and a half left before Montgomery was to be sworn in.

Even so, Romley set the course for the case, pushing back against PLEA’s machinations and assigning it to Deputy County Attorney Juan Martinez, who would earn celebrity status in 2013 as the prosecutor of infamous murderess Jodi Arias in the brutal killing of her lover, Travis Alexander.

In an interview for this piece, Romley said he was “proud” of Virgillo for telling the truth, calling the officer “the best of what you want law enforcement to be.”

Following the Chrisman shooting, Chrisman’s firing by the Phoenix Police Department, and his indictment for second-degree murder, PLEA and Romley publicly feuded over the Chrisman affair.

PLEA alleged that the probable-cause statement in the case had been dictated by the county attorney’s office. This was false. The author of the probable-cause statement was Kenneth Porter, the homicide detective who wrote the police report on the incident, which was consistent with the probable-cause statement.

Protesters calling for justice for Daniel Rodriguez demonstrated in the streets of Phoenix, while around the same time, PLEA held a barbecue fundraiser for Chrisman at PLEA headquarters downtown, accusing Romley of bowing to the demands of an anti-cop crowd.

PLEA also posted internal police e-mails to its website discussing an incident in which two Phoenix city councilmen had called Virgillo directly after the shooting to thank him for what he was doing. A probe by the county attorney’s office found no wrongdoing by the councilmen.

These and other shenanigans by PLEA prompted Romley, in the waning days of his tenure, to open an investigation into the union for alleged witness tampering and obstruction of justice. Romley also involved the FBI in the inquiry.

“I think there’s a concerted effort by PLEA and some of its members to obstruct the success of this case going forward,” Romley told New Times in 2010. “And they need to know that I’m going to play hardball.”

But in 2011, Montgomery, Romley’s successor, closed the investigation into PLEA, saying there wasn’t enough evidence for an indictment. A review of the MCAO’s investigative file that year by New Times revealed that 48 hours after Chrisman shot down Rodriguez, then-PLEA President Mark Spencer contacted a detective in PPD’s Drug Enforcement Bureau, where Virgillo once worked.

The subject of discussion was Virgillo’s wife, Maria, and her 2008 conviction.

Not long after that conversation, CBS 5 News broadcast its segment on Virgillo’s wife, with a reporter knocking on Virgillo’s door and Maria’s old mugshot splashed across the TV screen. The piece claimed that Maria’s misdeed called into question Virgillo’s integrity. Spencer refused to be questioned by MCAO investigators over the incident.

Spencer retired from the force in 2012, and now works as the Arizona representative of the Washington, D.C.-based, right-wing legal-advocacy group Judicial Watch. Contacted recently for this story, he defended what PLEA did in siding with Chrisman against Virgillo, stating that this was simply vigorous support for a PLEA member and that calling into question Virgillo’s conduct was fair game. 

“We had an obligation as representatives,” he said, “to provide an aggressive representation [for members] under the presumption of innocence until proven guilty with access to due process for Chrisman.”

Did that involve calling the DEB to talk to people there and score dirt on Virgillo? 

“As far as the veracity of Virgillo?” Spencer said after pausing for a moment. “Everyone’s veracity — Chrisman’s veracity was in question. And inconsistency has a tendency to demonstrate a lack of veracity.”

Spencer’s answer goes to show you that even after being out of office for a few years, he retains the union politician’s unique ability to rationalize his or her own conduct. The former PLEA honcho said that he was unaware of the details of Chrisman’s Garrity interviews, and referred such questions to current PLEA President Ken Crane. A call to Crane by New Times has yet to be returned.

As for Virgillo, the memory of PLEA’s attacks on him and his wife still rankles. 

“When you go after somebody’s family member, that’s really low,” Virgillo says. PLEA’s smears, innuendo and disinformation made Virgillo “sick to my stomach.” And it had a direct impact upon his career, as fellow officers approached him regularly to ask him about the latest onslaught of negativity from the union.

Virgillo says he received no overt threats from Phoenix cops but instead was met almost everywhere with quiet disapproval. Police offers looked at him differently, treated him differently. In one case, an officer riding with him told him he was “uncomfortable” with Virgillo’s “situation,” the implication being that Virgillo could not be trusted to have the fellow officer’s back.

He learned second-hand that other cops would refer to him as “that guy who ratted out a police officer.” There were not-so-subtle pressures to change his story, like when a lieutenant called him and asked him if he and Chrisman couldn’t just “work out your differences on a roof somewhere,” meaning a fistfight.

As has been previously reported by New Times, PLEA’s leadership met with Montgomery’s new law-enforcement liaison, in an apparent attempt to influence the case. But Montgomery, to his credit, didn’t do anything to undermine the Chrisman prosecution. When Chrisman was found guilty of aggravated assault, Montgomery released a statement praising Virgillo, saying that he “displayed the type of character we expect of those who take an oath to protect and defend our laws and to carry out their duties faithfully and impartially.”

Immediately following the shooting, Virgillo was rotated out of patrol, working in vice and, later, family violence. He credits some “good people” in the latter bureau for the reason he stayed in the police force as long as he did, before retiring early last summer.

The aftermath of the shooting and the trial had been a terrible ordeal. Chrisman’s trial was live-streamed by local TV stations, and Virgillo was on the stand for two days. He spent a good part of that time being grilled by Mehrens, a junkyard dog of a defense counsel who pored over every nuance of Virgillo’s several interviews to investigators in an attempt to impeach his credibility.

Virgillo says he was physically ill with anxiety during that time, and it’s not hard to believe if you watch the portions of his cross-examination by Mehrens available on YouTube, where Virgillo looks rigid and tense throughout. During the trial, Virgillo says that members of the PPD’s Special Assignments Unit shadowed him for his safety, though they would not tell him if it was because of a specific threat.

His only escape was running. Sometimes he would run twice a day, in the morning and at night, because it provided him some solace, a kind of “meditation,” he says.

After the trial, the sullen disapproval of his fellow officers wore on him, as did the unspoken threat of retaliatory backstabbing for testifying against Chrisman. Virgillo’s unhappiness at the police department led to his early retirement in 2015.

“Could I have stuck with it another five, 10, 15 years on the police department?” he says. “Yeah. Would I be miserable like I was before? Probably. But now I’m doing what I love doing —helping people. And everyone treats me fantastic where I work. It was a great choice for me to retire.”

Virgillo seems at peace with himself. He claims what he went through “made me a better person” and “put things in perspective for me.” He rejects the notion that he should have kept silent to protect another cop, saying he doesn’t know how anyone could live with themselves, holding a lie inside like that. 

What needs to change at police departments, where questionable shootings seem an almost regular occurrence these days? Virgillo hopes for a shift in law-enforcement tactics to de-escalation, away from the macho “never back down” mentality, prevalent when he was a rookie cop.

“If you’re a defensive driver, does that make you a coward?” he asks rhetorically. After all, he notes, if Chrisman had not escalated the situation, had not prevented Rodriguez from leaving, there likely would have been no loss of life.

What if he were discussing what happened to him with new recruits, what advice would he offer them?

“Tell the truth,” he replied. “And at some point in your life, you’ll be rewarded. It might damage your career. It might even end your career. But everything happens for a reason. You’re trained to tell the truth. Tell the truth, and in the end, you will prevail.”

E-mail [email protected].

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons