Justin Delfino looked out the window of his Ahwatukee home and couldn't believe what he was seeing.
It was shortly after noon on July 23 and several men dressed in black jeans and green shirts were getting out of an unmarked white Suburban, casually putting on flak jackets and helmets.
Soon the men were lingering in front of his neighbor's house in the upscale gated subdivision of quarter-million-dollar homes.
Delfino never would have guessed that he was witnessing the final preparations by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office SWAT team moments before it unleashed a barrage of tear gas grenades into his neighbor's home.
"They looked unprofessional. They were getting dressed on the scene. They weren't organized," Delfino, 22, says.
From his vantage point inside his home, Delfino couldn't see that deputies had rolled an armored personnel carrier into the neighbor's front yard as they prepared to storm the house.
Delfino could see no readily visible insignia on any of the men, so he figured the scene must be a prelude to a prank on the two men and a woman with a toddler who lived in the two-story stucco house across the street.
"I thought, these must be their friends and they are going to try and shoot paint balls at them," Delfino says.
But soon he knew that what he first thought was a gag must be about something deadly serious.
"I saw one of the guys was perched and aiming a gun at the window," he says. "All of a sudden, he fires off a tear gas round into the upstairs window.
"I immediately called 911. I didn't know what was going on."
Delfino says the men -- who he next thought must be members of a gang -- continued firing tear gas canisters through three upstairs windows in the front of the house. He saw others wearing flak jackets go around to the back of the house, where he heard them fire two more rounds at the upstairs windows of a back bedroom.
After a few minutes on the phone with a 911 operator, Delfino says, he was told that the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office was serving a search warrant on the house and "not to worry."
That's when Delfino really got nervous. With good reason.
Delfino tells me he didn't know whether a huge gun battle was about to erupt 20 yards from his front door. No one from the sheriff's office had alerted him -- or any of his neighbors -- to evacuate.
Moments later, the situation deteriorated even further when the house erupted into flames. Now, the entire neighborhood of closely packed homes was threatened by the possibility of fire.
There wasn't a fire truck in sight.
Delfino's 'hood wouldn't have fared much worse if it had been a gang of street thugs blasting away at the house, rather than Sheriff Joe Arpaio's inept and bumbling SWAT team.
In less than 30 minutes, Arpaio's special forces unleashed an unprecedented wave of violence on this quiet community. Consider this:
Just after the tear gas canisters were shot, a fire erupted and destroyed a $250,000 home plus all the contents inside. (The home's occupants believe the tear gas canisters caused the fire. Phoenix fire officials say the blaze was probably started by a lighted candle that was knocked onto a bed during the confusion.)
The armored personnel carrier careened down the street and smashed into a parked car after its brakes failed.
And in the ultimate display of cruelty, a SWAT team member drove a dog trying to flee the home back into the inferno, where it met an agonizing death.
Deputies then reportedly laughed as the dog's owners came unglued as it perished in the blaze.
"I was crying hysterically," Andrea Barker, one of the dog's owners, tells me. "I was so upset. They [deputies] were laughing at me."
Making fun of the 10-month-old pit bull puppy's death wasn't enough.
Arpaio's goons then left the dog's body to rot in the ashes for the next five days of 105-degree temperatures. A pall of death hung over the neighborhood. It was a putrid reminder of Arpaio's reckless use of force and callous disregard for the public's welfare. Not to mention the heinous treatment toward the terrified dog.
And what did Arpaio's crack SWAT team net from the raid that left a needless trail of death and destruction?
MCSO stormed the house believing there was a cache of stolen automatic weapons and armor-piercing ammunition. But MCSO got bushwhacked. Instead of finding weapons of mass destruction, they discovered an antique shotgun and a 9 mm pistol that appear to be legal weapons.
There was no sign of the cop-killer bullets. Perhaps they are buried somewhere out in the desert, with Saddam's plutonium.
Given the overwhelming display of force deployed by Arpaio's deputies, one would have expected the arrest of a mass murderer.
Instead, the crack SWAT boys nabbed 26-year-old Eric Kush. Let me tell you, Kush is really a bad, bad guy.
He was wanted on a misdemeanor warrant for failing to appear in Tempe Municipal Court on a couple of traffic citations.
Thank God he's off the street. Well, not quite. He posted his $1,000 bond on the misdemeanor warrant and was quickly released from jail.
Arpaio's Ahwatukee assault should have drawn banner headlines in the daily newspapers. But the Arizona Republic, where Arpaio's son-in-law, Phil Boas, serves as deputy editor of the editorial pages, buried the story in a community section. The East Valley Tribune ignored it entirely.
The local papers missed a helluva story.
Needless to say, neighbors are infuriated.
"The operation was completely and grossly mishandled," says Justin Delfino's father, Gene.
"They endangered my son and other people in this neighborhood," Gene adds. "I would love to see their reaction if this happened in their neighborhood."
I'm not criticizing the sheriff's department for investigating activities at the Ahwatukee home occupied by Gabrial Golden, Andrea Barker and Eric Kush.
There are clear indications that these young people living in an upscale rental home might have been engaged in some serious criminal activity.
My gripe is that Arpaio's SWAT team embarked on extreme and dangerous maneuvers that unnecessarily placed the entire neighborhood in mortal danger. A more measured, thoughtful and patient response likely would have achieved the same goal without the wholesale destruction of private property and the death of a puppy.
Gabrial Golden, 28, has a history of felony arrests dating back to 1996. He is on probation for an armed-robbery conviction. In July, he became the focus of a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department investigation in connection with the theft of automatic weapons and armor-piercing bullets.
Early on the morning of July 23, hours before MCSO rolled into Ahwatukee, Gabrial Golden was lured to a meeting with his probation officer, where he was arrested. He remains in custody.
According to press accounts, upon his arrest, Golden told MCSO that Kush was acting erratically and was armed. Kush, however, had no felony record, and his only legal ding was failing to appear in Tempe Municipal Court on a traffic warrant.
There were no other indications that Kush was about to unleash a rampage of cop-killer bullets on the neighborhood. In fact, Barker says she didn't even know Kush was at home when the SWAT team suddenly appeared in the front yard, complete with an armored personnel carrier.
The 22-year-old Barker says MCSO banged on her front door, announced they had a warrant and kicked in the door before she could respond.
"I was coming down the stairs and I heard them pound on the door," Barker says. "Literally two seconds later they kicked the door in mine and my daughter's face as I was trying to open it."
Barker says deputies yanked her and her daughter outside.
"They started yelling, `This is the sheriff's department! Eric, come out with your hands up!'" Barker says.
But Eric didn't come out. Initially, he holed up in the attic.
"I guess he just got scared," Barker says.
With Kush crouched in the attic, the SWAT team could have entered the house and made their way upstairs to confront him. Instead, they started launching tear gas grenades.
"Three to five minutes after they shot the tear gas cans into my bedroom, I saw flames coming out the back of the arcadia door," Barker says.
Within minutes, the upstairs of the house was engulfed in flames. Kush, Barker says, could hear Dre, his prized pit-bull puppy, yelping, and he jumped from the attic to try to save the dog.
As black smoke billowed from the house, Barker says, Kush frantically tried to get Dre to run outside, the puppy yelping "like a baby."
At one point, Dre ran from the master bedroom and bolted down the stairs toward the front door, where it came face to face with a SWAT team member. Instead of letting the dog run outside, the SWAT member reportedly launched a counterattack.
"They shot the dog in the face with a fire extinguisher when he tried to come out of the fire," says Trisha Golden, Gabrial's younger sister, who helped raise the dog and was outside the burning home calling for it to come out. She did not live at the house, but hung out there frequently, she says. She heard about the fire and came immediately. "He turned and ran back into the master bedroom and burned [to death]."
Delfino says he asked one of the SWAT officers what happened to Dre and was told that the dog had been "neutralized" with the fire extinguisher. He asked the officer if the dog had attacked anybody, and the cop said no.
As smoke filled the house and Kush's efforts to save the dog failed, he finally fled from the burning home and was immediately thrown to the ground and his hands and feet were cuffed by four SWAT officers.
Meanwhile, Trisha Golden continued frantically to call for Dre to flee the house.
"We were like screaming for Dre, and [a deputy] turned around and said, `Why don't you shut the fuck up?!'" Trisha Golden says.
I couldn't reach Eric Kush or Gabrial Golden for comment. But Kush, a biking and skateboarding enthusiast, told KTVK-TV Channel 3 that sheriff's deputies thought it was hilarious that his dog had burned to death in the fire.
"As they're hog-tying me, they have the nerve and the audacity to laugh at me and say, `Did you hear that dog screaming upstairs?'" Kush told Channel 3. "I don't know how they have the audacity and the heart to say something like that."
Eric Kush is not an intimidating fellow. He's about five-feet-six-inches tall and weighs about 125 pounds. There was no indication he had taken anybody hostage or was endangering the neighborhood.
In fact, neighbors say he is a friendly and easygoing guy. His only legal blemish was the outstanding misdemeanor warrant.
If MCSO truly believed they were facing a madman armed to the teeth with armor-piercing bullets that would cut through the flimsy chicken-wire and stucco walls of homes in the neighborhood, they didn't have the sense to alert neighbors to get the hell out of Dodge.
Instead, they left the entire area at risk of getting mowed down by a spray of bullets fired from automatic assault rifles that easily could travel a mile. But who cares about innocent neighbors when Arpaio's morons take to the street to make a pinch?
Who cares that there was a far easier and safer way to nab Kush for questioning?
The most prudent, cautious and least costly way to pick up Kush would have involved only a handful of officers. That wouldn't have been anywhere near as much fun as whipping out the big assault rifles and putting on all that manly body armor.
And MCSO wouldn't get to deploy Arpaio's beloved armored personnel carrier if they opted for the low-key approach to community policing. Lucky the damn tank didn't run over some kids playing in the street!
Arpaio unleashed his SWAT team on Ahwatukee without bothering to give Phoenix police, which has primary jurisdiction in the community, a heads-up about his latest Joe Show.
The sheriff's failure to alert Phoenix police about the planned SWAT assault will be the focus of a high-level meeting between the two police agencies. Phoenix City Councilman Greg Stanton says Phoenix police should have been notified before MCSO launched such a dangerous and ultimately unnecessary SWAT maneuver.
Most police agencies would consider the afternoon's outing disastrous. But for Arpaio's idiots, it was a good day -- at least they made an arrest. No matter that they arrested Kush on a misdemeanor warrant and found none of the automatic weapons that were supposed to be stashed in the house.
As fire spread throughout the house and engulfed the dog, the SWAT team soon had another crisis erupt.
The armored personnel carrier was pulled back from the house as the fire raged. But a deputy apparently failed to set the brakes on the heavy vehicle and it began rolling down a hill and smashed into a parked car.
The combat vehicle caused at least $4,000 damage to Julie Madrigal's car. The 44-year-old mother and her 9-year-old daughter had already been terrified by the tear gas assault as they fled from their car and ran into their house. At least Madrigal and her daughter weren't in the path of the carrier as it careened down the hill.
"I heard three shots as we were running in," Madrigal says. "I thought, `Oh my God. They are shooting at us.' I didn't know what was going on."
Madrigal says she watched the house burst into flames and moments later was shocked to see the "tank" roll down the road toward her car.
"All of a sudden, I saw my car jump back three feet and the tank land on top of it," she says.
The grand scale of the assault by Arpaio's Barney Fifes made neighbors wonder if Osama himself was holed up in the house. As details about the raid circulated through the community and word spread about the absence of any serious and immediate threat to the peace, neighbors became enraged over Arpaio's ludicrous use of force.
"We gathered all around all afternoon to talk," Madrigal says. "We were all saying this was just ridiculous. They just went way overboard. This was just crazy. They should have given us some kind of warning."
Finally, MCSO packed up its toys and went away.
But the stench from their operation would continue to linger for almost a week.
MCSO's callousness toward the dog, its owners and the neighborhood continued for another five days as the dog lay decomposing inside the burned-out house.
Delfino says the stench permeated his car and left neighbors gagging when they went near the house.
"When I finally went in [to the house], it was enough to make you throw up," Delfino says.
It never occurred to the MCSO that the rotting dog was a health hazard and a public nuisance. Once Arpaio's deputies finished their so-called investigation, they walked away from the mess they created, leaving Dre's body embedded in the rubble.
It was only then that the occupants were allowed inside.
Delfino says he was with Kush and Trisha Golden when, while digging through burned debris on the kitchen floor, they came across Dre's remains. Kush, Delfino recalls, fell to his knees and began vomiting.
They could only stay in the room for a few moments, but long enough to gather some evidence of the animal cruelty inflicted by Arpaio's deputies.
"I took a picture of [Golden] with a shovel holding the dog's head," Delfino says.
The Ahwatukee fiasco is just the latest in a long string of bumblings and constitutional breaches by Arpaio and his nimrods. This comes on the heels of last November's botched prostitution raid where Arpaio's bozo posse men got naked and, in some cases, had sexual relations with hookers -- leaving Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley little choice but to throw out the cases.
Then there was the publicity-stunt televised arrest of two Peoria firefighters on arson charges during the middle of their night shift. The arrest sidelined a fire truck for the rest of the evening, putting lives needlessly at risk. Two months later, Arpaio's detectives haven't filed a police report with Romley's office, and no charges have been filed against the firefighters.
And there was the Glen Campbell charade, where Arpaio insisted to the press that Campbell would be treated like any other inmate. Of course, he was put up in a clean, air-conditioned cell at a seldom-used holding facility in Mesa. Campbell brought along his favorite guitar, a cell phone and an orthopedic back mattress. Toward the end of his cushy 10-day jail sentence, Campbell stroked Joe with the now-infamous Tent City concert.
While the incidents listed above are bad enough, they don't get at the more serious problems during Arpaio's 12-year reign. Inmates continue to be killed and maimed in Arpaio's county dungeons, ranked as among the worst in the world by Amnesty International. About 9,000 people are stuffed into the county's jails, which were built to hold a maximum of 5,000 inmates.
Increasingly paranoid, Arpaio routinely uses his police powers to illegally investigate political opponents and silence any employee and, in some cases, any private citizen, who dares to criticize his office.
At the same time, Arpaio refuses to comply with Arizona's public records law, flagrantly ignoring my requests for routine records concerning the financial operations of the jail. My demand for the financial documents relating to the jail commissary comes on the heels of my discovery that Arpaio has invested an inordinately large amount of cash ($800,000) in three commercial real estate ventures. His spokeswoman insists that nothing is amiss here, but Arpaio refuses to divulge the details of these transactions.
Now, members of Sheriff Joe's SWAT team have laughed over the death of a dog and at its owners who were tearfully trying to coax their pet out of the burning house.
Again, Sheriff Joe is hiding, refusing to return my repeated requests for an interview about why he let his goons do what they did to Dre.
The really sick thing is that Arpaio has gotten huge publicity for his campaign against animal abuse. He's diverted scarce sheriff's office resources to duplicate services already provided by Maricopa County Animal Care and Control so that he can be seen as the ultimate animal protector.
Arpaio likes to brag that he spends more money feeding dogs and cats than he does feeding inmates. This, you see, makes him a tough guy, something voters in the past have dearly loved. There's story after story in the press featuring Arpaio boasting how he puts abused pets inside air-conditioned cells while inmates and pre-trial detainees are dangerously packed into stifling overcrowded cells, dormitories and tents.
The sheriff's office formed the Animal Cruelty Enforcement posse in the wake of the ritualistic slaying of several cats in the Ahwatukee area in 1998. As the cases of animal cruelty increased in number, Arpaio formed the Animal Cruelty Unit in January 2000.
According to the MCSO Web site, "This Unit responds to calls all over Maricopa County dealing with everything from complaints of no food and no water, to animals being starved, beaten, tortured, even killed by suspects."
Hey, Joe, what do you think about your SWAT team chasing the dog back into a burning house? Maybe your vaunted Animal Cruelty Unit should investigate the SWAT guys for contributing to the needless death of this animal.
Not only did your boys cause the house in which Kush was living to burn down with their assault, they stood by and watched in amusement as the dog's frantic cries gave way to eerie silence.
"I think it was a big joke to them," says Trisha Golden. "They knew how bad we were freaking out about the dog."
As usual, Arpaio is trying to blame his deputies' latest fiasco on someone else.
The scene hadn't even cooled down after the fire before the MCSO was trying to pin the blaze on Kush.
"They said I was upstairs in the attic burning all these missing guns," Kush told Channel 3. "Why would I burn myself in my own house?"
Especially since the only guns found in the house were the shotgun and pistol, which appear at this point to be legal weapons.
While Kush offers a plausible denial for starting the fire, a raging debate is quickly surfacing over what did cause the blaze. MCSO and the Phoenix Fire Department are vigorously trying to focus attention away from the tear gas canisters as the likely cause of the fire.
Meanwhile, the occupants of the house are convinced that the fire was triggered by the tear gas attack.
Phoenix fire officials tell me that four tear gas canisters were fired through upstairs windows in the front of the house, which matches eyewitness accounts by Barker and Delfino. A fifth canister, fire officials say, was reportedly fired into the attic of the house.
Two other tear gas canisters were fired at the arcadia window in front of the master bedroom, the room where the fire originated.
Phoenix Fire Department spokesman Bob Kahn says those canisters never entered the master bedroom. One reportedly bounced off a balcony rail and landed in the yard, and the second hit the arcadia window, but did not enter the bedroom.
Despite the highly suspicious fact that the fire erupted minutes after the tear gas was fired into the house, the Phoenix Fire Department's preliminary report is blaming a lighted candle located near the bed in the master bedroom for sparking the blaze.
"The cause was probably the candle on top of the refrigerator knocked onto the bed by either the pit bull or the occupant," Kahn says.
Kahn says fire investigators were told by MCSO Detective Mike Traverse that Kush reportedly stated that there was a "lit aromatic candle located on the refrigerator next to the bed."
Investigators, Kahn says, found a wax residue near the corner of the bed where the refrigerator was located.
Barker isn't buying this explanation.
She repeatedly told me during two interviews that there was not a lighted candle in the bedroom. She says the aromatic candle was located in the bathroom, but that it was not lighted.
"The only thing I had on my refrigerator next to my bed was an alarm clock and some pictures," she says.
Barker says she knew the MCSO fired at least two tear gas canisters at her bedroom window based on information she derived from sitting in the SWAT command vehicle.
She says she "heard it break the window."
"Two or three minutes after they shot it into the room, we had a fire in the master bedroom," she says.
Barker believes at least one canister landed on the down comforter on her bed and set it on fire.
Last week, I entered the burned-up house through an open front door. It was clear the fire started in the master bedroom, and there was a huge hole in the floor beneath the bed. It appeared that Dre fell through the floor and landed in the kitchen, where the dog was covered by charred debris.
There were other holes in the floor where a canister could have possibly ignited a fire, burned through the floor and fallen into the kitchen below.
As far as I'm concerned, it doesn't matter whether a candle or a tear gas canister started the fire that burned the house and killed the dog.
There would have been no fire if Arpaio's overzealous and unsophisticated SWAT deputies hadn't needlessly launched a dangerous assault in a densely populated area. Such operations should be reserved for the most dangerous situations, where innocent lives are at stake.
In this case, there was one guy with a misdemeanor warrant holed up in the house. He hadn't fired a single shot. He wasn't threatening anybody. There were no hostages. There was no clear indication that the house was full of heavy automatic weapons.
All Arpaio's deputies had to do was show a little patience and a modicum of common sense.
But these are traits that neither Arpaio nor his deputies seem to possess.
Instead, an entire neighborhood was subjected to a dangerous assault that left children traumatized, residents furious, and a puppy on fire.
"It was totally uncalled for," says Gene Delfino. "You don't go hunting for deer with a tank."
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.