Longform

How Florence Police Sabotaged Investigations of a Child's Slaying and of a Teen's Rape


SPECIAL REPORT: FLORENCE EXPOSED | Part two of three


Dustin Kemp is upstairs making his bed on a Sunday afternoon, when someone carrying a .45-caliber handgun walks into the room.

Maybe he sees the person. Maybe his back is turned.

Dustin is a cute 9-year-old with short, wavy, brown hair who hasn't quite grown into his ears. He's into BMX (racing bicycles, motocross-style) and has banged-up knees and shins to prove it.

The barrel of the gun, at least five feet away, is pointed at Dustin's head.

The hammer is cocked, the safety lock is disengaged, the grip safety and trigger are squeezed. In a millisecond, the deafening sound of gunfire echoes through the stucco house in the dusty town of Florence, about 60 miles southeast of Phoenix.

Dustin's unemployed dad, James, and Dustin's 21/2-year-old brother, Robert, are the only other people at home. Randi, his mother, is working at the Walmart in nearby Coolidge.

The bullet rips a gaping hole next to Dustin's right eye. A fine mist of blood sprays on the wall as the projectile slashes through his brain. It leaves a star-shaped hole in the back of his head.

The body of the lanky boy lays face up as blood starts to pool beneath his disfigured head.

James Kemp, a former Marine and firearms enthusiast, had at least 27 guns strewn throughout his house that day — eight were loaded and unlocked.

Despite a deep familiarity with firearms, he describes the gunshot to officers from the Florence Police Department as sounding like "plywood hitting concrete," according to the FPD's report of the incident.

He claims this is followed by a "death scream" from Robert, whom the family calls R.J.

James Kemp tells Florence cops it was R.J. who pulled the trigger.

Certain law enforcement officials question whether the weapon could have been fired by the toddler, who was developmentally delayed. R.J. was still in diapers and muttered only a few words, such as "yeah," "no," "mom," and "dad."

They wonder how R.J. was able to remove the gun from a handle-less "hidden drawer" that blended with molding on his father's bedside nightstand. And they don't understand why the father had gunshot residue on the back of his hands.

Dustin died instantly on his unmade bed on February 22, 2009.

For more than four years, the case languished in legal limbo between the Pinal County Attorney's Office and the Florence Police Department until New Times began digging into the 2012 dismissals of two whistle-blowing cops by the town of Florence. (See "Injustice for All," November 15).

After New Times requested copies of the investigative file in June via a public-records request — which both the Pinal County Attorney's Office and the FPD initially denied — the Kemp case quietly was re-evaluated by county prosecutors in August.

On October 18, James Kemp pleaded guilty to a single domestic-violence endangerment charge and was sentenced to a year of supervised probation — an astonishing deal considering that former FPD detectives, a county prosecutor, and an ex-FPD police chief believe that Kemp had more to do with the gunshot death of his son than just leaving a bunch of loaded guns lying around his house.

Experts agree that the boy's death was poorly investigated. And it is not the only example of the FPD's lack of competence and professionalism in handling serious criminal cases.

Florence's most vulnerable residents have been victims of the FPD's entrenched ineptitude and unethical conduct. Including Dustin Kemp and including a 16-year-old cheerleader who allegedly was raped by at least one member of the Florence High School football team as others watched, photographed, and videotaped.


An obituary for Dustin Kemp, published in the online forum "Gene's BMX News," states that he "loved school and was an excellent student and known for his character."

He was "charismatic and concerned for others," according to the notice, which features a snapshot of the boy in a red-white-and-blue racing uniform standing next to his bike, with a gilded trophy in one hand and a proud smile on his face.

It says Dustin "wanted to finish school, attend college, compete with BMX in the Olympics, and become a police officer."

However, child-welfare reports from Washington state, where Dustin was born on September 7, 1999, document a darker side of his short life.

They describe Dustin's father, James Kemp, as an ex-Marine who was troubled by depression, anger issues, chronic back pain, and a knee injury suffered during a training exercise.

According to one CPS document, Kemp admitted to a daycare worker that he put his hands around Dustin's throat when the boy was 4. He admitted that it took all his might not to squeeze, the worker told CPS.

It was Kemp's wife, Randi, who pulled him off the boy, he told the worker.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo
Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons