Information Blockade

Maricopa County law enforcement violated the constitutional rights of this newspaper and its readers in October, going so far as to subpoena the identities of anyone who'd looked at New Times online in the past four years. When the paper's leaders revealed the apparent grand jury probe on our cover, they were arrested.

It wasn't much of a leap for Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas to go after a publication that's uncovered abuses in their offices for years. They'd already proven themselves adept at trampling the rights of prisoners, political enemies, and Mexican migrants.

Arpaio sought criminal prosecution of New Times for publishing his address in 2004 as part of our investigation of his commercial real estate transactions, and Thomas responded by appointing a special prosecutor who subpoenaed not only the records and e-mails of the paper's writers and editors, but information on the Internet-viewing habits of our readers.

Public outrage, sparked by the arrests of the paper's top executives, forced the county attorney to drop charges of violating grand jury secrecy against Village Voice Media executive editor Michael Lacey and CEO Jim Larkin. It also forced him to drop the Arpaio-inspired probe of the paper for supposedly violating an arcane law that makes it illegal to publish law officers' addresses in cyberspace but allows such publication in newspapers and magazines.

This week we examine what led up to Thomas' stunning mea culpa. We look not only at New Times' 14-year investigation of the sheriff's office, but also at what other media have published and broadcast on Arpaio — and what he's done to reporters or news outlets who've crossed him.

Nobody has clashed with the sheriff more than New Times. We've written about his cruel law-enforcement policies and his quest — at almost any cost — for flattering publicity. But much of the discord has been over his refusal to give up public records that could prove corruption. This publication has sued him three times over his flouting of legal requests for records.

The tiny West Valley View also has sued the sheriff. He refused to provide basic information — which he was giving to media he favors — to the paper. He even refused to tip it to a serial child predator's roaming the neighborhoods the paper serves. The View's sin: criticizing Arpaio's tactics over the years.

But it doesn't stop with New Times and the View. He's punished individual reporters at other media for bucking him. And he's refused to provide basic public-safety information to offending Spanish-language media — which critics suspect is part of his campaign against illegal immigrants.

This installment of our continuing series "Target Practice" goes below the surface to find out how we arrived at a place where the sheriff can punish media that displease him, and hide information that could make him look bad in violation of the Arizona public records law.

At the beginning of the 2006 school year, Sheriff Joe Arpaio's animosity toward a local newspaper wound up endangering elementary school children.

Arpaio and his public information office prevented the paper and the community it serves near Luke Air Force Base from learning about a child predator roaming the area.

"The Sheriff's Office should give information to the local paper — period," says Thomas Heck, who retired earlier this year after 19 years as superintendent of the Litchfield Park Elementary School District.

The would-be kidnapper struck on September 15, 2006, just a few blocks from the Wigwam Golf Resort and Spa. His target was a student walking home alone from Wigwam Creek Middle School. The guy hopped out of a compact car driven by another man and grabbed her, but she wrestled with him and got away.

The girl's school notified the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and sent a notice of the attack to parents. Lucky thing for the Wigwam kids and their families.

Because the Sheriff's Office sent no information about the incident to the West Valley View — which also is the neighborhood news source for parents and students at the area's two Catholic schools, a Lutheran school, and other non-district schools, like Litchfield Park's Crown Charter School.

The View, which publishes on the Internet and delivers print copies each Tuesday and Friday to 70,000 homes in the west-side communities of Avondale, Goodyear and Litchfield Park, has been cut off by the Sheriff's Office for years.

If the View's readers never learned of the prowling pervert, the Sheriff's Office couldn't have cared less.

A suspect fitting the description of the man in the first incident struck again five days later (again, the child got away), but the Sheriff's Office refused to tell the View, the only newspaper that covers such crime in the neighborhood. There's no evidence that the attempted abductions made the Arizona Republic or Valley broadcast media.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.