How the Florence Police Department Compromised Public Safety

In the Town of Florence, criminal investigations and public safety have taken a backseat to police department politics.

This week, you can read part two of New Times reporters Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons' three-part series, "Florence Exposed."

See also:
-Injustice for All: The Florence PD Compromised Public Safety
-How Florence Police Sabotaged Investigations of a Child's Slaying and of a Teen's Rape

Part one focused on the firing of two Florence police detectives, Jarris Varnrobinson and Walt Hunter, who had blown the whistle on Lieutenant Terry Tryon, who, on two occasions, returned evidence to a witness or suspect in the middle of an investigation.

And that's just a symptom of the illness described in the first part of the series.

Part two focuses on two Florence PD investigations gone wrong -- one, the shooting death of a 9-year-old boy, and the other, the alleged rape of a 16-year-old Florence High School cheerleader.

Tryon had assisted or directly investigated both cases.

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.

The shortcomings of the sexual assault investigation are also described in detail, and how politicking appeared to affect the investigations.

Links to the stories in the series, as well as related stories, can be found on the "Florence Exposed" page.

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Follow Matthew Hendley on Twitter at @MatthewHendley.

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Matthew Hendley
Contact: Matthew Hendley