The Flash couldn't help enjoying the view as Sheriff Joke Arpaio went into complete spin-and-fluster mode last week after questions were raised about his investigation into the June death of inmate Scott Norberg.
Equally amusing, however, was the source of the sheriff's consternation: stories by Arizona Republic columnist David Leibowitz which portray the Crime Avenger as deceptive, underhanded and perhaps not all that smart.
It's an interesting turnaround for one of the sheriff's most consistent cheerleaders, who recently left a position as the Mesa Tribune's answer to the Republic's E.J. Montini to become Montini's tag-team partner on B1.
Leibowitz, a 31-year-old from New Jersey, moved to the Valley in April 1995 and caught on with Tribune readers for his reactionary style, offering to pay drunks to leave town and carping whenever the American flag wasn't held in the highest esteem or when an accused criminal didn't get the book thrown at him.
Leibowitz interviewed Arpaio for the first time early in May 1995 and found in the bombastic Crime Avenger a kindred spirit. Here was a guy who believed, like Leibowitz, in strong punishment for "criminals." (Leibowitz failed to mention that more than 60 percent of the guests at Arpaio's jails serve there under a presumption of innocence while they await trial.) For Leibowitz, Arpaio wasn't tough enough: The columnist suggested that the sheriff bring back chain gangs, to which Arpaio answered that he'd been planning the very thing.
"Something's become obvious," Leibowitz wrote, "Sheriff Jo[k]e and I are simpatico."
Weeks later, Arpaio's chain gangs hit the streets and Leibowitz began bucking for a place on it. After initially turning him down, Arpaio relented and let the columnist spend a day picking up trash as an inmate. Leibowitz donned a uniform and played his part to the hilt, even when an Australian film crew showed up with the Crime Avenger looking for interviews. "I do my part," Leibowitz penned, "explaining [to the film crew] that the chain gang 'builds intestinal fortitude.'"
Later, Arpaio featured Leibowitz's chain-gang article in a chapter of his autobiography in which the sheriff slams the media. Leibowitz cried foul--after all, he'd been such a good soldier for the Crime Avenger. "Just to show I never bear a grudge," however, he encouraged his readers to pick up the book, joking that he and Joke had a good thing going giving each other publicity.
After the death of inmate Scott Norberg in June 1996, Leibowitz claimed to have scooped the competition on the controversy. Leibowitz interviewed the initial appearance judge who witnessed Norberg's death. Judge Robert Bushor, Leibowitz wrote, "has no motive to bend the truth, no ax to plant in the back of Sheriff Jo[k]e Arpaio. . . . It is different across town, in the offices of Dale Shumway, lawyer for Norberg's kin. There the spokesman spins furiously, packages the family's grief non-stop for radio, TV and print. No interview too small; no unproven accusation left unremarked upon . . ."
(Leibowitz didn't mention that Shumway was reacting to a crush of calls and requests from media on a big story; unlike Arpaio, the Norbergs and their attorney have made few requests for media coverage.)
The judge's view, Leibowitz wrote, sustained the Sheriff's Office version of events, suggesting that Norberg's death was nothing more than an accident. "Scott Norberg's crime wasn't a capital offense. The thing is, the trial and execution of the guards, their execution by the media, bothers you just as much," he wrote, oddly referring to himself in the second person as he often does. (Later, the 2,100-page investigation by Arpaio's own employees showed that Judge Bushor was among the least-descriptive witnesses and admitted that he didn't have a good view of the incident.)
A month later, Norberg's parents called a press conference (their first, and only, so far) to question Arpaio's refusal to hand over any reports on the matter. Polite and to the point, the Norbergs called for the sheriff to release autopsy documents to the public. When they finished their statements, Leibowitz laid into them with a series of surprisingly accusatory questions. The gist of his interrogation: How could the Norbergs complain about their son's treatment when he'd been a drug addict and loser?
(Even after Leibowitz's remarkable latter-day transition, he continues to assert, wrongly, that Norberg was high on methamphetamines at the time of his death. Autopsy reports show that Norberg had meth in his urine, indicating that he'd used the drug sometime earlier in the day, but none was found in his blood immediately after his death.)
"You should feel for [the Norbergs], without taint, without a doubt," Leibowitz wrote again in his second-person mantra. "And yet, a strange thing--your compassion cracks Monday, as you watch these two mourn before a bank of TV cameras." Leibowitz's column--titled "Feel for Norbergs in loss of son, but don't be fooled"--suggested that the Norbergs were media hounds more interested in looking for validation of their crusade against the sheriff than grieving parents who wanted answers about their son's death.
After moving to the Arizona Republic, Leibowitz served a short stint in the Mesa Community section, in which on February 7, he admitted that he loved covering Joe Shows. But not, he wrote, because he had an affinity for the sheriff. Instead, he explained, "I never miss a performance, truth be told--not because I fear getting scooped, but"--get this--"because it's a hoot to watch my journalistic peers ask the Ladmo of Maricopa County law enforcement really, really stupid questions."
(The Norbergs would offer no comment about how they felt about Leibowitz's questions at their press conference last year.)
Romley Tells a Joke
Leibowitz's columns sparked an air war between Arpaio and County Attorney Rick Romley, who took to drive-time radio to do battle.
On a KFYI news program, Arpaio claimed that "My officers were not suspects. . . . They were witnesses. The principal [the focus of the investigation] was Norberg who assaulted my officers . . ."
To which a stunned Romley later replied: "I'm flabbergasted by that comment. . . . He needs to go back and read his own press releases. There is no question at all that he . . . cleared his own detention officers in this matter . . . Why would you investigate somebody from a criminal perspective if the person was dead? I mean, it makes absolutely no sense at all. . . . He may wish to spin in that particular manner, but the point is we need to find out what happened, and I just wish Joe would be forthcoming. . . ."
Romley then uttered a comment that made even the dour Flash crack a smile:
"I've heard Joe make comments that there's no problem here. Well, you know Joe sells pink underwear very well, but he's obviously not a Clarence Darrow. . . ."
Among other Romley gems: "I know Joe doesn't think that there was any problem at all. But I will tell you right now, categorically, that his own chief investigators, when they came to my incident review team, they admitted they blew it. . . .
"The Sheriff's Office investigating itself has always raised issues as to how objective that could be. [Arpaio] got upset and he said, 'Well, I'm going to forward this to DPS and I'll show that this was a great investigation.' And now I've received back a report from DPS that says this [investigation] needs a lot of work still. . . .
"There's no question that guards have been prosecuted by my office, from his jail, and they have been found guilty for abuse inside of the jail. . . . Two . . . the Justice Department has concluded, not preliminary conclusion, concluded that there is abuse inside of the jail so bad that they cite an example of using a stun gun on a person that's restrained in a chair on his testicles. That's a serious allegation. Joe may not believe that, but he needs to take that seriously. Three, Norberg. I mean we have several deaths that have occurred inside of the jails, one is Norberg. In which there's allegations of abuse of force here. I have other allegations that have been forwarded to my office on abuse inside of the jails. . . ."
I'm Boss, I Said
When he isn't lopping off the heads of employees, Steve Knickmeyer, the Arizona Republic's "managing editor for content," is busy figuring out ways to get his bad self quoted in the paper.
Which is a lot like Aaron Spelling casting his bad self as a Lothario on Melrose Place.
The Knickmeister's own writers have quoted him four out of the past five months. Incredibly, he uttered no newsworthy profundities during the entire month of December!
"We fought this corrupt procedure as hard as we blah, blah, Mizzooooorah blah," the newsmaker was quoted as saying on page B1 on March 14. "We expect the Arizona Legislature to bleat, bleat twang-a-dong-skeet."
Tune in next month, when the nearly quotidian quote machine and grooming expert will be pictured on the front page, razor in hand, Shaving Arizona's Children.
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