After 4 Months, Ex-Arizona Prison Boss Indicted in Tequila-Fueled Standoff With Cops

Charles Ryan, then-director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, appears on Arizona PBS in 2015.
Charles Ryan, then-director of the Arizona Department of Corrections, appears on Arizona PBS in 2015. YouTube

A Maricopa County grand jury indicted former Arizona Department of Corrections Director Charles Ryan on two felony counts Friday. It happened exactly four months after police responded to a drunken shooting at the one-time prison superintendent’s home, where a 3 1/2-hour standoff with cops took place.

Ryan faces up to four years in prison. He could get slapped with three years for disorderly conduct involving firearms, and one year for unlawfully firing a weapon, according to sentencing guidelines in the Arizona criminal code.

“As a 30-year prosecutor, I understand the importance of focusing on the facts and evidence of each individual case when making charging decisions,” interim Maricopa County Attorney Rachel Mitchell said in a statement.  “A thorough review of this case was conducted by experienced prosecutors in this office.”

This twist comes after a career in the Arizona Department of Corrections that was mired in controversy.

Ryan abruptly ended his decade-long tenure at the department after a scathing report said he brushed off constant security breaches involving busted prison cell locks, endangering inmates and correctional officers in 2019.

A number of other scandals afflicted Arizona's prison system while Ryan was in charge.

Among them were an incarcerated man's suicide caught on videotape, a botched execution, and a continued failure to improve a dysfunctional prison health care system, which cost the department more than $1 million in court fines by the time Ryan announced his retirement in 2019.

Trouble continued to follow Ryan after he departed.

In early January, Tempe Police Department dispatchers received a call from Ryan’s wife, Kathleen. She told them her husband was suffering from a self-inflicted gunshot wound and was armed, Phoenix New Times first reported.

Ryan, who had downed “half a large bottle of tequila,” according to a police report, barricaded himself inside his Tempe home near Rural and Warner roads that night. After Tempe called in its SWAT team and negotiators, Ryan surrendered.

"He has been consuming a half bottle of tequila regularly at night for the past two years," Ryan's wife told police, according to the police report.

At the outset, Tempe police recommended stiffer consequences.

They wanted to see Ryan get charged with two counts of aggravated assault on a police officer and one count of discharging a firearm unlawfully. Those charges would have carried a much heftier prison sentence of up to 27 years, according to Arizona sentencing guidelines.

Instead, Ryan was not charged until Friday, but on lesser counts absent assault.

But Ryan brandished his pistol in the lengthy, tipsy standoff with the law enforcement professionals he surrounded himself with for much of his career. He pointed the firearm at two officers while verbally degrading them, police say.

He was transported to a local hospital for treatment of his hand injury, which wasn't a gunshot wound after all. Officers struck Ryan in the hand with a beanbag round during the armed standoff, which was revealed during surgery.

Police say they found Ryan with a 1-inch cut in his forehead, likely caused by a bullet fragment after he fired a pistol into the bathroom sink.

Cops also found two more pistols inside the home, one soaking in a puddle of Ryan’s blood, according to the police report.

“Charles is a heavy alcoholic drinker and has been drinking all day and had gotten worse since he had retired,” the report reads. "While being given clear and concise commands, Ryan seemed extremely dazed and confused and appeared to not know what was going on.”

Officers confiscated 16 firearms, including shotguns, from inside the home that night.

Ryan previously worked as a corrections adviser for American detention operations in Iraq during the early years of the Iraq War — working closely with, as his detractors emphasize, the military leaders who oversaw the horrors of Abu Ghraib.

Those detractors never stopped calling for Ryan’s prosecution in the four months since the police standoff.

Community members, angered by the lack of action, said police extended the heavily armed Ryan an olive branch in the face of a mental health crisis, inconsistent with the department's treatment of other people in similar situations.

In 2019, Tempe officers gunned down a Hispanic child who was holding a toy gun, killing him.

In February, New Times reported Arizona State University research findings that highlighted the discrepancy between the treatment of white and non-white subjects in mental health crises like this one. That was especially evident when guns were involved, also showing the disparate treatment of civilian and ex-law enforcement workers in contentious situations.

Prosecutors deny accusations of racism and inequity.

“I want to assure this community that a person’s occupation, race, age, or other such factors of this nature do not influence charges that are sought by this office,” Mitchell said.

Ryan has not been booked into jail.

“Mr. Ryan has no previous criminal record, is a known Tempe resident, and did not pose a flight risk," the Tempe Police Department said in a statement on social media.

The date of Ryan’s next court hearing has not yet been announced.
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Elias Weiss is a staff writer at Phoenix New Times who covers everything from politics and sports to gambling and electric vehicles. A native of Charlotte, North Carolina, he reported first for the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and was managing editor of the Chatham Star-Tribune in Southern Virginia, where he covered politics and courts. In 2020, the Virginia Press Association awarded him first place in the categories of Government Writing and Breaking News Writing for non-daily newspapers statewide, and in 2021, the Virginia Press Association awarded him first place in the categories of Long-Form News Writing and Headline Writing. His Arizona politics coverage has been featured in The Daily Beast.
Contact: Elias Weiss

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