Bill Montgomery

MCSO Deputy Sean Pearce Followed Wrong Person Before Killing Citizen in Crash

Maricopa County Sheriff's Deputy Sean Pearce wasn't following a murder suspect when he hit and killed a citizen in his vehicle, as was previously reported.

A police report obtained by New Times shows that about the time of crash, other deputies had stopped the taxi believed to contain murder suspect Joseph Lee Gonzales. They realized they'd been mistaken — it wasn't Gonzales in the taxi, but rather a black woman who knew the suspect.

If the deputies hadn't made the mistake, the crash wouldn't have occurred.

"That's the gut-wrenching thing in all of this," says Richard Cruz, a Valley attorney suing Pearce and the county on behalf of the crash victim's family. "When they actually got there, it wasn't the guy."

On December 16, 2013, Pearce — son of recalled Arizona State Senate president Russell Pearce — and several other deputies thought they were about to apprehend a man who had ruthlessly gunned down a 22-year-old man two days earlier in a drug deal gone bad. As the other deputies closed in on the taxi, Pearce followed from about a mile away. About 1 p.m., records show, Pearce was speeding down 59th Avenue at twice the speed limit of 40 miles per hour in a black rented SUV with no markings, lights, or sirens.

On his way home from a store, 63-year-old John Edward Harding pulled onto 59th Avenue from a side street directly into the path of Pearce's larger vehicle. The impact caved in the side of Harding's Nissan Cube; he died later at a hospital. 

The information about Gonzales is coming out now because Cruz, in investigating the case, discovered Gonzales' name and was able to then obtain a police report about Gonzales' case, which he shared following an inquiry by New Times. The Sheriff's Office never has released the name of the murder suspect as it relates to the Pearce case. An internal investigation on the crash still is under way and isn't available for public release, the office confirmed this week.

In June 2014, County Attorney Bill Montgomery announced during a news conference that Pearce would not be charged criminally in the crash. One reason, he said at the time, was that Pearce was doing his job and "paralleling" a murder suspect on the day of the crash. He said any speculation that politics played a role in his decision was "amateur analysis." He did not, though, mention to the press that the deputies were following the wrong person that day.

Jerry Cobb, Montgomery's spokesman, says the county attorney knew that the suspect wasn't in the taxi when he talked to the press in June 2014. Montgomery "carefully" qualified how he described the event during the press conference, Cobb says. The county attorney said at the time Pearce had been told he was following the actual suspect, the spokesman says. 

Pearce ended up paying a $714 fine for the speeding ticket he received from Glendale police. He initially was allowed to only take a defensive-driving class for the ticket before a judge learned from New Times that the speeding case involved a fatality.

News media covered the murder by Gonzales and his subsequent arrest on December 17, but not in relation to the Pearce case. One TV station covered a news release about Gonzales issued by the MCSO on December 14, telling viewers how the suspect was sought for the murder near a hotel in Youngtown and that he was considered armed and dangerous.

Two days after the murder, deputies had a tip that Gonzales was at a relative's apartment. Deputies staked out the place and watched as a black person emerged and got into a taxi. A detective advised that the black person was "possibly the suspect."

It's unclear from the report whether the taxi was stopped just before or after Pearce crashed into Harding, but the taxi passenger was ordered from the vehicle at gunpoint. A deputy slapped handcuffs on the person, still thinking he had a "black male" in custody. But when the person sat up, the deputy realized she was a woman.

The emotional woman cursed at the deputies repeatedly. She asked one detective how he'd like it if she pointed a gun at his family and threatened to shoot them, at which point the deputies told her that her statement sounded like a criminal threat.

"A little bird" told the deputies that Gonzales was at her apartment, the deputies explained to her. But she said she didn't know where Gonzales was. He'd called her a couple of nights ago looking for a ride, told her "he loved her," and hung up, she told deputies. Her relationship to Gonzales wasn't detailed.

A day later, deputies found Gonzales at a different location, according to media reports. He ultimately pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, attempted armed robbery, and a drug conspiracy charge. In December, he was sentenced to 20 years on prison.

The lawsuit filed by Harding's family against Pearce and the county still is wending its way through the court system.
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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.
Contact: Ray Stern