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Death Sentence

Life was pretty good for Phil Cisneros until his wife, Lucy, got sick.

After that, as one of his daughters teased him, he might as well as have been Job. First, there was the Alzheimer's that afflicted Lucy. Then came Cisneros' trouble with alcohol — and the law. Then his health problems, one after another.

For 40 years, Cisneros worked as a heavy-equipment operator in the copper mines outside Globe. He was a family man, a big-hearted guy who taught his five kids and a bevy of nephews fishing and woodworking. In time, he administered those same lessons to his 15 grandkids.

Lucy's illness changed everything.

"He took care of her as best he could," recalls Phil Cisneros Jr. "It took a toll on him and the entire family." When Phil Sr. was finally forced to place Lucy in a nursing home, he took a handyman job at the home to be close to her — she would eat only if he was feeding her.

It was a difficult time, a time that would drive many men to drink. Cisneros was one of them. He'd never been a teetotaler; prosecutors say he'd been busted for DUI in 1980. But with his wife's health declining, a one-time problem became a frightening pattern. Cisneros got popped for no fewer than four DUIs from 1989 to 1992, barely getting out of jail for one before he was charged with the next.

Lucy died in 1993. Five years later, Cisneros was arrested for drunken driving one more time. He was 75.

It is, indeed, a terrible track record. But then something happened. Cisneros stopped drinking and driving — and, for that matter, stopped driving at all, according to his neighbors and family. He met another woman (coincidentally, another Lucy), fell in love, and got married again.

No one disputes that Phil Cisneros has been a model citizen for the past nine years. He hasn't had so much as a parking ticket.

And that's why his family was so shocked when their patriarch was thrown in prison this spring and sentenced to three years for, again, drunken driving.

This one, however, wasn't a new violation. It turns out he'd never cleaned up that last offense from nine years ago. And neither the prosecutor nor the judge was in the mood to give him a break.

Cisneros is 83. He suffers from prostate cancer, diabetes, pulmonary hypertension, sleep apnea, shingles, dizziness, and shortness of breath. He's had double-bypass surgery. He's extremely hard of hearing. And then there's the emotional stress he's under — his beloved wife, the second Lucy Cisneros, has recently been diagnosed with lung cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy.

To a guy in this condition, three years in prison is a death sentence.


Today, Phil Cisneros is locked up with the general prison population in Florence. No Paris Hilton-style medical reprieve for him. No assignment to a special senior citizens wing. (Did you know there is no such thing? I didn't.) In fact, for a time, Cisneros appears to have been assigned to sleep outside in a tent, in the 100-degree heat.

His lawyer, Jason Squires, tells me that in the two months he's been locked up, Cisneros has been hospitalized twice. Squires estimates that it's going to cost taxpayers close to $65,000 in medical bills for every year Cisneros manages to survive in prison.

"I've done thousands of cases, and this is the most bizarre I've ever seen," Squires says.

Here's what happened. Earlier this year, Cisneros needed new dentures. Lucy thought nothing of driving him across the Mexican border to have the work done. They're not a wealthy couple; the work is cheaper there.

But when they returned to the U.S. after the second appointment, the guards stopped Cisneros. That's when Lucy, who's been married to him for nine years this month, found out there was a warrant out for Cisneros for a felony DUI from 1998.

Cisneros had been arrested for rolling through a stop sign on his way home from the bar nine years ago. He'd already done a few months in prison for a previous drunken-driving offense. But when it came time for his new trial, he simply never showed up.

Thanks to a weird quirk in Arizona law, the trial was held anyway. Gila County tried Cisneros "in absentia," and — without him there to present a defense — the jury voted, in 18 minutes, to convict.

The conviction sat there, until Cisneros made the fateful decision to get those dentures.

Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores believes the old man made a conscious attempt to skip out and avoid punishment. But Cisneros' family is convinced that he was a confused senior citizen who didn't understand what was going on.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske