Another Case That Makes You Ask: WTF Is Going on at Phoenix Prosecutors Office?EXPAND
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Another Case That Makes You Ask: WTF Is Going on at Phoenix Prosecutors Office?

Phoenix prosecutors urged the release of a domestic violence defendant despite a history of similar charges and suspicions that he had raped his ex-wife – another in a series of failures that has some advocates wondering what's going on in the city prosecutors office.

Forty-five-year-old Harry Propp was arrested in the early morning hours of April 19 after Phoenix police pulled his car over for a traffic stop, law enforcement records obtained by Phoenix New Times show. While searching his car for drugs, the cops discovered Propp was wanted on charges that he had attacked his ex-wife the previous November, the records show.

Propp had been charged with domestic violence at least twice before, in May 2011 and December 2014. He was also a suspect in at least six separate attacks on his ex-wife or her daughter, and police suspected him of having raped his ex-wife, the records show. Charges were dismissed in both of those cases.

Yet Prosecutor Jeff Hall asked Judge Thomas Scarduzio to release Propp on his own recognizance, and Propp walked out of jail within hours of his arrest. It all occurred the day after prosecutors learned that another former domestic violence defendant, Dwight Miles, had been charged with murder in the shooting death of his girlfriend, Chelsee Dennis.

Phoenix New Times reporting has revealed a pattern of releases in the Phoenix prosecutors’ office that has left at least three young women – Dennis, 21-year-old Taylorlyn Nelson, and 15-year-old Reyna Estrada – dead over the last two years. In each case, the accused killers had passed through misdemeanor court on domestic violence charges before graduating to murder charges, which are handled in Maricopa County Superior Court.

Two of the defendants – Miles and Kodi Bowe, who is charged with Nelson’s murder – had their assault charges unilaterally dismissed despite a “no drop”  policy in the prosecutor’s office. The third, Estrada’s older brother, Ignacio, had been charged with attacking family members twice and was the subject of two bench warrants after he skipped his court dates.

Arizona law allows judges to consider “the history and characteristics of the defendant” as well as “the nature and seriousness of the danger to the victim, or any other person” when setting bond. This gives prosecutors a chance to mention uncharged crimes when arguing for bond or release conditions.

Hall and his colleagues have repeatedly passed on that privilege: Since Dennis’ shooting on April 18, prosecutors have urged judges to release domestic violence defendants without bond at least four different times, New Times has reported. In one case, on May 25, Phoenix police had to scramble to protect a woman from her batterer, after he began stalking her again, a law enforcement source told New Times.

Neither Hall nor his boss, Assistant City Prosecutor Bob Smith, responded to emails seeking comment. None of the documents New Times has obtained from the hearings explain their reasoning. However, in an audio tape of his' court hearing, Miles was ordered to stay away from the teacher who intervened during an attack on Dennis but prosecutors said nothing about staying away from Dennis.

Phoenix Chief Prosecutor Vicki Hill, meanwhile, has turned to one of the country’s leading experts on domestic violence for help.

Neil Websdale, a criminologist and director of Northern Arizona University’s Family Violence Institute, developed a domestic violence risk assessment that has been endorsed by Arizona’s Supreme Court. The assessment is designed to help cops and prosecutors understand the power and control dynamics behind abusive relationships to determine whether defendants are a threat to their loved ones – regardless of the crime they’re actually charged with.

Websdale met with Hill’s staff on Wednesday. It’s unclear how serious a commitment the briefing represents. The invitation stressed that it wasn’t “a formal presentation.” It offered free pizza to those who came, but attendance was not mandatory. Hill wasn’t there; she’s vacationing in Europe.

Victim’s advocates are beginning to question whether Hill and her team understand the depths of the crisis.

“I don’t know what’s going on,” said Allie Bones, CEO of the Arizona Coalition to End Sexual & Domestic Violence, a nonprofit advocacy group. “I wish I had a good answer for how things fell so far.”

Criminologists have long argued that domestic violence is often a precursor to more lethal violence. Arizona had that point driven home horrifyingly by Scottsdale spree killer Dwight Lamon Jones, who waited years to exact his vengeance for a bad divorce before killing six others and then himself.

Scottsdale officials are still struggling to explain why they didn’t pursue domestic violence charges against Jones when he was arrested for wife-beating in 2009, and what clues they may have missed before Jones began his rampage.

Since Hill took over the Phoenix office in 2016, Bones said, there appears to have been “a cultural shift” in how the office views domestic violence cases. The city is just coming to the end of a five-year plan it adopted to address its part in Arizona’s ongoing domestic violence epidemic – statewide, more than 660 people have died over the past five years. Bones and others are worried that the collapse in the prosecutor’s office imperils hard-won reforms.

“We’ve been saying for a long time that for the system to work, all the pieces have to work together,” she said.

A week after Dennis died, Hill met with her staff to discuss problems with domestic violence cases. But Hill didn’t take any further action until New Times began reporting on the widening crisis. She has since asked her staff to “get their creative juices flowing” and come up with reform ideas. A similar review was conducted last year shortly after Nelson’s body was found in an old sleeping bag at the bottom of Lake Pleasant.

Phoenix leaders, meanwhile, seem focused on protecting Hill from public scrutiny. City attorney Brad Holm –Hill’s nominal boss – has been urging staff who might be upset with the handling of domestic violence cases to come meet with him. Some see the invitation as an effort to ferret out whistle-blowers. Holm hasn’t responded to requests for comment.

City Manager Ed Zuercher has given Hill a vote of confidence, but Zuercher is himself up for review this year. So far, neither of the council members who have declared as mayoral candidates –   Kate Gallego and Daniel Valenzuela, both of them erstwhile advocates of domestic violence reforms – have responded to requests for comment.

Some of Hill’s aides have urged the office to be more open about their problems, but city spokeswoman Julie Watters, a former television personality, has been adamant about controlling the message, the law enforcement source said. That messaging has been idiosyncratic – privately, she has accused New Times of “bullying” city officials for asking questions about the carnage. And some see her public statements – “we have successes and challenges with domestic violence cases” – as the moral equivalents of shrugging.

Bones said she finds it all puzzling – and depressing. In the years before Hill took over, prosecutors were proactive in addressing the crisis. Phoenix, for instance, was one of the first jurisdictions to embrace risk assessments such as Websdale’s. That seems like a long time ago now, Bones said.

“I feel like there just needs to be a wholesale review that is transparent and involves the whole community,” she said. “What happened?”

Propp was scheduled for trial on his latest domestic violence charges on Tuesday, records show. The case was dismissed.

Bill Myers is a freelance reporter. Email him at myers101@outlook.com. He tweets from @billcaphill.

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