Half-Baked ABC 15 Report Misses the Complete Story on Florence Cops

An ABC 15 reporter told viewers a story earlier this month about two former Florence detectives who'd botched cases so badly that the Pinal County Attorney's Office couldn't prosecute them.

Only no one has been able to cite what the cases were about.

"The County Attorney's Office says it had to drop five other cases, blaming mistakes made by [Walt] Hunter and [Jarris] Varnrobinson," reporter Navideh Forghani said on camera.

Though it may sound as if the County Attorney's Office is disseminating current information, it's not.

The allegations of poorly investigated cases against the two cops were made years ago, in late 2010 or early 2011, by former Deputy County Attorney Susan Crawford.

Forghani didn't mention this in her report.

See also: Florence Exposed: New Times' Three-Part Investigative Series on the Florence Police Department

Further, Jim Knupp, spokesman for the County Attorney's Office, said his office isn't aware of the five "other" cases.

"We did not confirm or deny — just to be perfectly frank — that there were five cases because we're not aware [of them]," Knupp said, regarding ABC 15's story.

The PCAO is aware of only one case — an alleged rape — that officers are accused of mishandling, which Forghani also mentioned on-air.

Her report also doesn't inform viewers that ex-prosecutor Crawford testified under oath that she wasn't sure why she didn't provide to Florence Police Chief Dan Hughes the file of improperly investigated cases that she claimed to have.

"I don't know why I didn't get [him] the file," Crawford said in hearing over the two detectives' dismissals from the Florence Police Department. "I know I had it."

Forghani tells New Times she won't comment on her story on the record. The video of the report no longer was available on the station's website.

An attorney representing the officers in a pending lawsuit against Florence says she plans to ask ABC 15 to retract the story.

On camera, Hunter and Varnrobinson primarily are criticized over how they handled a rape case involving a then-17-year-old who accused her stepfather of having sex with her.

Forghani pulled soundbites from the recorded interview between the alleged victim and the officers. The investigators were criticized as having been too harsh in the interview. They suggested that they didn't believe the teenager by asking questions that were "biased," then-prosecutor Crawford said.

As it turns out, the officers' doubts may have been well-placed.

An eight-day trial of the case ended March 13 with a not guilty verdict after jurors deliberated less than an hour.

"They found the accuser's allegations were not credible," says attorney Michael Freeman, who represented the stepfather and spoke to members of the jury after the trail. "Her story changed dramatically during the trail compared to what she'd told detectives."

Even when shown transcripts from her recorded interview with Hunter and Varnrobinson while on the stand, Freeman said, she denied ever making the statements.

The police report in the case states that in late 2012, when Hunter walked into the interview room — where the teen already was sitting with another cop — he heard her ask the officer what would happen to her if they found out she was lying.

Hunter also documented in the police report that the girl's biological father had pulled him aside before the interview and told him to be wary because his daughter had made false allegations against others in the past.

It's with this background that the officers began their interview.

Forghani also reported that Hunter and Varnrobinson should have taken the alleged rape victim to a nearby Family Advocacy Center, where forensic interviewers question vulnerable victims on behalf of police. She said they instead interviewed the girl in a "room like this one," as the camera pans over a police meeting room.

Hunter and Varnrobinson said they intended to take the young woman to the advocacy center, but there wasn't a forensic interviewer available at the time.

Hunter said he informed his sergeant of this and that the sergeant ordered them to interview the teen at the police station.

When all this happened, it was Susan Crawford who expressed her concerns to Alden "Butch" Gates, a lead investigator for the center.

In September 2011, these issues were hashed out at a meeting that included several representatives from the County Attorney's Office, the police department, the two officers, and the advocacy center.

The group reached a consensus that the officers had insufficient training in interviewing juvenile victims of sex crimes.

Gates, a nearly 30-year police veteran with specialized training in sex crimes, told officials that when he started, he also found himself criticized for his inexperience. But, he told them, he had learned through his mistakes and additional training.

After Hunter and Varnrobinson received further training, the matter was closed.

That is, until Chief Hughes, who officially joined the Florence department in November 2012, revived the allegations, assigned nefarious intentions to the officers' mistakes, and fired them in December 2012.

At their appeals of their dismissals in September 2013, the hearing examiner shot down Hughes' attempt to dredge up the rape investigation, saying he couldn't reopen an old disciplinary matter that had been settled.

"It's shameless how [those] who fired our clients are so desperate to discredit them that they're willing to repeat allegations that already have been disproved at a hearing," said Lynne Bernabei, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney representing Hunter and Varnrobinson in their pending lawsuit.

After the hearings, Hughes was forced to rehire Hunter, who had been lead investigator in the rape case. Varnrobinson, an African American, wasn't as fortunate, even though the allegations against both were nearly identical.

When New Times embarked on a three-part investigative series on Florence, its mayor, and the FPD ("Florence Revealed," under Special Reports on our website), it became clear that Hughes and one of his lieutenants wanted Hunter and Varnrobinson gone from the department.

The two cops were collateral damage of a longtime rift in the FPD between former Chief Bob Ingulli and Lieutenant Terry Tryon.

After Ingulli was fired by the town, Tryon came up with a list of allegations against the two officers, who had been favorites of the former chief's.

Hunter and Varnrobinson felt that they had been singled out because they'd filed complaints against Tryon for giving away evidence in cases they were working. Tryon received a written reprimand for his actions.

Hughes also handed over his list of allegations against Hunter and Varnrobinson to Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training, claiming that the two had violated POST rules.

AZ POST, which certifies police officers to carry badges and guns in the state, informed both men in February that it wouldn't take punitive action against their police certifications — that "the matter is closed."

Hughes also proffered four allegations, including the mishandling of the rape case, to the County Attorney's Office for review by an ethics panel that decides whether cops should be placed on a Law Enforcement Integrity Database.

Known as the Brady List, the database identifies officers who've engaged in behavior that's marred their integrity and credibility.

The panel decided on March 4 to place the officers on the list, but it's unclear why. New Times still is waiting to hear back from the PCAO on its rationale.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo