Injustice for All: The Florence PD Compromised Public Safety


Richard McAnally was annoyed. His face, framed by a shock of gray hair and a pair of dark-rimmed glasses, puckered with disdain.

Florence had hired McAnally, paying him more than $7,000, to preside as a hearing officer in cases involving two detectives — Jarris Varnrobinson and Walt Hunter — appealing the town's December 14, 2012 decision to fire them.

McAnally, an 80-year-old attorney and judge pro tem, was supposed to act as an impartial finder of fact.

But the derision he directed toward Varnrobinson during this September 24 hearing in Florence's all-but-empty town council chambers illustrated his bias.

McAnally wanted to know why Varnrobinson secretly tape-recorded a prosecutor from the Pinal County Attorney's Office during his reinvestigation of a 2009 case involving the shooting death of 9-year-old Dustin Kemp.

The recording by Varnrobinson was not one of the major reasons given by Florence for the African-American detective's dismissal, but McAnally seemed personally offended by it.

Varnrobinson explained that he did it as part of his note-taking process during the course of a homicide reinvestigation.

In 2011, he and Hunter had been instructed by Robert Ingulli, Florence's police chief from 2000 to 2012, to look into the boy's death.

Veteran prosecutor Greg Hazard stated during a taped conversation that he believed the boy was shot with a .45-caliber Kimber semiautomatic pistol by his father, James Kemp, not by the victim's 21/2-year-old brother, as his father claimed.

Deputy County Attorney Hazard also told Varnrobinson that the case needed more investigation, that he had to yank it from the county grand jury because of unanswered questions.

The taped conclusion by the prosecutor stands in stark contrast to the how the shooting ultimately was resolved.

After New Times requested documents in the case, the County Attorney's Office quietly reopened it. On October 18, more than 41/2 years after the killing, James Kemp pleaded guilty to one count of domestic-violence "endangerment" in a deal with prosecutors and was sentenced to a year of supervised probation.

Though detectives regularly record their conversations, and there was nothing illegal about the act, McAnally regarded it as a violation of a special bond between cop and prosecutor.

"I appreciate all your excuses you've given us," McAnally snapped. "But that's all I have to ask of you."

Varnrobinson's attorney, Neil Landeen, objected to McAnally's characterization of his client's testimony. Landeen then asked the former detective if he had anything else to say before he stepped down.

"Well," said Varnrobinson, "it appears that the hearing officer's already made a conclusion just based on his characterization of me as a witness."

McAnally was not amused.

"I resent your comments," he shot back. "I have not made a decision on this case. You won't see it until I write it and file it with the clerk of the court."

But, in the end, Varnrobinson correctly predicted the outcome. McAnally upheld the town's decision to fire the detective, in part because of the issue over the tape-recording of Hazard.

The former detective is appealing in Pinal County Superior Court.

After the hearings, Ingulli, now chief of the Kearny Police Department, signed a sworn affidavit stating that Varnrobinson's recording was within department policy at the time, which precluded only Florence Police Department officers from recording each other.

Landeen filed Ingulli's affidavit with his final appeal to McAnally. Yet, in defiance of the facts, McAnally insisted that Ingulli's policy forbade the recording of prosecutors by cops. He also backed the town on other points.

As for Hunter, though the town gave the same reasons for firing him as it did for Varnrobinson — issues dealing with computer use, reinvestigation of certain crimes, mishandling of an old case both men already had been disciplined for, and bogus claims dealing with case files — McAnally found this termination to be "without support."

Instead, McAnally suggested that the town punish Hunter using other means, such as reduction in rank, forfeiture of pay, retraining, and a probationary period for the 20-year law enforcement veteran. The town put all these ideas into play.

McAnally often was confused during the sessions and seemed hard of hearing. All the same, his brand of jurisprudence laid bare the festering favoritism, divisions, incompetence, and racism plaguing the Florence Police Department — which led to the banishment of the FPD's only black detective and the demotion of his white partner.

Because they were whistle-blowers and competent cops, Varnrobinson and Hunter endured retaliation, their careers suffering near-fatal blows.

But there are bigger problems with the FPD's dysfunction: Investigations of crimes — including alleged rape, robbery, and murder — have been severely compromised.

Chief Robert Ingulli doesn't mince words describing the two cops he hired in 2003, back when he was running the Florence Police Department.

"They're very good police officers," he tells New Times. "It's totally unjust what's happening. In fact, I think it's a witch hunt."

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