Longform

Joe Arpaio’s men fail to justify criminally charging New Times reporter Ray Stern in a public records dispute

When I read our lawyer's interviews with the deputies in Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's most notorious division, I had one question: Who staged this piece of theater?

You too can read, for the first time, excerpts of deposition statements from Arpaio's leaders and foot soldiers. The chiefs and deputies drift between truculence, amnesia, and chivalry. The dialogue is worthy of David Mamet.

But that's just my take (and I have an obvious conflict of interest). You can decide for yourself whether the sheriff's men sound scripted.

The deputies from the Selective Enforcement Unit were deposed because County Attorney Andrew Thomas rolled over and allowed Sheriff Joe Arpaio to file criminal charges against New Times journalist Ray Stern.

Our writer had started to photograph public records in the office of Michele Iafrate, the lawyer who filters Arpaio's paperwork for media scrutiny.

Iafrate forbade Stern from copying the public documents with his camera. When he questioned her decision, he was evicted from the office.

Stern's cheek triggered yet another assault by county law enforcement on Arizona's public records statute.

Following Iafrate's power play over the public records, Arpaio's elite, plainclothes deputies appeared at Stern's home about 8 that night and presented him with a criminal complaint for disorderly conduct. He was accused of making unreasonable noise. They threatened that he would be jailed if he did not sign the papers.

In addition to the remarkable transcripts from Arpaio's deputies, we also present for your inspection a surprise witness. Originally a critical part of the sheriff's case against Stern, this woman actually confirms the reporter's claim that he was civil throughout the impasse in Iafrate's office.

Furthermore, the surprise witness claims that other prosecution witnesses were coerced into giving testimony against Stern.

The plot contains one other startling twist: Arpaio's own attorney will undermine the sheriff's case.


Ray Stern was home with his two young children on October 18 when the deputies knocked. Their residence is not the usual crime scene. His wife, who smokes neither crack nor meth, and has no apparent tattoos, was absent that evening to teach her class, "Mothers Who Write."

Though charged with a criminal offense, Stern was not led off to jail. He was allowed to sign the complaint. Perhaps the presence of a developmentally disabled youngster and her 6-year-old sister induced some level of restraint. Or, perhaps, the deputies were in a hurry and did not wish to waste time placing the kids with Child Protective Services over a misdemeanor.

After the deputies' departure, they rushed off to Jim Larkin's home.

Larkin, this newspaper's CEO, and I were arrested and hauled off to jail that night for revealing in a New Times cover story the existence of an illegal grand jury that had subpoenaed the notes of our reporters as well as the identity of readers who had viewed New Times online. Our cover story ("Breathtaking Abuse of the Constitution") hit the streets early that morning, October 18.

The same morning our story appeared, Stern had, coincidentally, pointed out to attorney Iafrate that Arizona's public records law contains no prohibition against photographing public records. He did not curse. He did not yell. He did not threaten anyone. His crime was temerity and impertinence. He stands accused of making unreasonable noise.

Emerging from jail, I found the news media in a frenzy and the public in an uproar. Later that day, County Attorney Andrew Thomas hastily called a press conference, killed the illegal grand jury, fired the lawyer behind the grand jury, and dropped all charges against Larkin and myself.

Thomas, however, quietly allowed the criminal proceedings against Stern to proceed. Claiming a conflict of interest, the county attorney kicked the prosecution over to the City of Phoenix, which recently booted the case to the City of Mesa. Because he had not been taken to jail — only cited — Stern was off the public's radar screen.

While the subsequent lawsuit against county authorities (filed because of our arrest) received extensive attention, Stern's court case remained invisible.


Deputy Chief Sheriff Scott Freeman oversees the Special Investigations Division, wherein reside the men who serve in the department's Selective Enforcement Unit.

These few men secure the safety of Arpaio, self-proclaimed "America's toughest sheriff." They protect Arpaio from bombs, bullets, knives, blunt instruments, shrapnel, improvised explosive devices, assassinations, and the dark thoughts and deeds of the tens of thousands of hombres forced to wear pink underwear while incarcerated in a county jail or tent.

The two men who showed up on Stern's porch on October 18 were from the Selective Enforcement Unit.

When New Times lawyer Steve Suskin questioned Chief Freeman on May 29 about Stern's citation, the chief, despite 25 years of service, remembered not a single thing.

He did not remember whether the reporter was from a television station. Or whether the reporter had a gun. Or whether the reporter was from New Times. Or whether the reporter was Ray Stern. He did not remember whether he'd spoken to attorney Michele Iafrate about a disorderly conduct complaint. He did not remember who on the 19th floor — where the sheriff's command staff has offices — might have told him about the alleged crime.

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey