A Phoenix constable and would-be city council candidate was caught on video bullying a local shopkeeper at a Russian food store, telling the owner, who is a U.S. citizen, "I'm not in your country."
The encounter stemmed from a recent attempt by Doug Middleton, the elected constable of the Dreamy Draw precinct of Maricopa County's Justice Court system, to serve the owner of Yasha From Russia with a $3,400 judgment stemming from a financial dispute with a California-based food vendor.
A surveillance video in the store, located on North 32nd Street near East Shea Boulevard, caught the charged interaction between Middleton, employees, and owner Nerik Gadaev. As it shows, Middleton threatened to close down the store, throw employees "out the door" and "sell" their property over a $3,400 debt. He also seems to have wrongly assumed that Gadaev, who is of Russian descent but was born in Brooklyn, was not from the United States, telling him, "I'm not in your country, I don’t play your rules."
Middleton, a Republican who has been an elected constable in northeast Phoenix since 1997, per news reports and state records, has a history of unseemly behavior. He was convicted in Maricopa County Superior Court of disorderly conduct and filing a false police report in 2001, according to court records. (He was acquitted of a third charge: threat and intimidation.) In 2017, a complaint was filed against him with the Constable Ethics, Standards and Training Board — the entity that manages complaints made against constables — alleging that he was "rude and made inappropriate offensive statements" while serving a writ of restitution. The board determined that Middleton had, in fact, made offensive comments to the property owner while carrying out his duties, and he was given a warning letter.
He filed a statement of interest with the county last year to retain his post in 2020, but is not on the official candidate list for the August 4 primary election. (Rhys Torres is the only candidate listed in online records.)
Now, Middleton's gunning for a higher elected office. He's a prospective candidate for the District 3 seat on the Phoenix City Council, having filed a statement of interest with the clerk's office on May 27.
Middleton did not respond to New Times' requests for comment.
"Somebody like that should not be in power," Gadaev told New Times. "It looked like he was abusing his status because he's an elected official."
"I don't know what it was, if it was like a power trip or something," he added.
In Arizona, constables are elected by the voters at the justice precinct level to serve court orders, such as summons, subpoenas and writs, such as evictions and property seizures. There are 26 constables in Maricopa County alone. Statute requires that the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board provide a training course for constables and make sure that they attend one after they start the job.
After entering the store on July 6, video supplied by Gadaev shows, Middleton repeatedly pressured a female employee for Gadaev's phone number, threatening to shut down the store and lock the doors.
"You’re not understanding what’s going on. This is a serious matter. I’m not playing games. I’m not some vendor that you can push me away," Middleton told the woman. "I will shut your door and throw you out the door, you got it? This is serious stuff."
"You better give me his phone number because otherwise I’m going to close you down and you’re not going to have a job," he added. "I could already lock you out."
"Don't scream at me please," she said.
Gadaev wasn't on the premises at the time.
"This is what my employees told me: He walked in, never introduced himself, never said who he was, just walked in with a piece of paper, was asking, 'Who is the owner here?'" Gadaev said. "He walked in angry."
"One of the employees approach him, trying to figure out what he wants, and this employee, her English is not great, she is a legal immigrant employed by me," he added. "It looks like he was getting frustrated. He couldn't figure out what she was trying to say."
Eventually, Middleton got Gadaev on the phone.
Gadaev told New Times that he was previously unaware of the judgment before taking Middleton's call. He checked in with his lawyer before agreeing to Middleton's demand that he pay $3,400. Gadaev then spoke with the vendor behind the judgment and negotiated a $2,800 settlement. The vendor subsequently emailed a signed contract to Gadaev, which was provided to New Times.
Gadaev contacted Middleton again, and they agreed to meet at his store on the afternoon of the following day to do the payment handoff.
Cue the fireworks.
As Gadaev tells it, he drove up to his store and Middleton was already waiting for him by the door. After he handed Middleton payment for the settlement, he requested that they speak outside because he didn't want Middleton inside the store, due to his intimidating behavior the day before. Middleton then became angry and stormed inside the shop. That's where footage of the incident, which was recorded on a camera positioned inside the store, begins.
"That flipped him out," Gadaev said. "He just lost his mind."
In the video, Gadaev and Middleton can be seen reentering the store while arguing. That's where he implies that Gadaev is from Russia, gets in his face, and threatens to shut down the store.
"You don’t dictate. Sorry, I’m not in your country, I don’t play your rules," Middleton said.
"What country? I’m a U.S. citizen," Gadaev replied indignantly. "What are you talking about?
"This is my rules," Middleton said. "This is my court order."
"I don’t need your payment. I could shut you down and sell all your stuff," he added. "You want to play that? Do you want to play that?
Gadaev said he was "shocked" by Middleton's comment regarding his nationality.
"You can't just assume — there's a wide variety of people that live in the U.S.," he said. "Just because you walk into a Russian store, that doesn't mean I'm directly from Russia. Just to say something like that, that goes to tell you how he thinks."
The argument continued from there, with Middleton claiming that he had "seized" the store and that Gadaev was still under his thumb because Gadaev didn't have a receipt for the payments that he had already handed over. At one point, Gadaev called the vendor and handed the phone to Middleton to tell him about their settlement agreement. Middleton told the vendor, "I don’t play by his rules. That’s all I got to tell you," and gave the phone back.
In a comment indicative of Middleton's temperament during the episode, he told Gadaev at one point: "Don’t tell me what to do. This is my store right now."
Eventually, the paperwork for the payments got sorted out and Middleton left the premises after Gadaev demanded multiple times that he leave. Outside, Middleton made a vague but ominous comment about the store's liquor license, Gadaev claimed."He basically said, 'Watch out for your liquor license.' I said, 'What are you talking about, I'm up to date with my liquor license.' He said, 'Okay, we'll see,'" Gadaev said. "Then he leaves."
To Gadaev, it seemed like Middleton was on a power trip.
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"In his mind, he was the authority there, he's the one that controls the situation. If he wants to be inside the store, we have to be inside the store. If he decides that we have to be on the roof, that's where we have to be," he said. "It turned into that: 'You can't tell me what to do, I'm the boss here, this is my place'."
Scott Davis, a spokesperson for Maricopa County Justice Courts, declined to comment on Middleton's conduct, citing a lack of jurisdiction.
"They [constables] are not court employees, they are their own people. We as the court have no authority over how a constable acts," he said. "We wouldn’t be in the position of telling a constable how to act and how not to act."
Tracy Unmacht, an administrator for the Constable Ethics, Standards and Training Board, told New Times that the board couldn't comment on the case until they had reviewed it.