Longform

Meltdown

The lowest point in the relationship between federal immigration agents and Arizona state troopers was the changing of locks and the can of tuna fish.

The incident began last year after Dan Kelly, a civilian investigator for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, learned that Phoenix resident Carmen Tolle had received two suspicious batches of money from Western Union, both of which had been frozen by state officials in a program targeting smugglers of illegal immigrants.

On a day in late April 2005, Kelly sat down at a computer terminal in a nondescript Scottsdale office previously used by a penis-enlargement-pill firm and rented by the local branch of the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At the time, state troopers were using the building to work with ICE on financial crimes.

Kelly punched Tolle's name into the federal database.

Bingo. It turned out the feds knew of Tolle through an informant and suspected her of selling bogus documents and smuggling immigrants. ICE had closed the case recently and referred it to the Phoenix Police Department.

About a week later, troopers used their information to persuade a judge to issue a search warrant for Tolle's home at 8814 West Monterey Way.

The bust went well, ultimately leading to the convictions of Tolle and her associates, plus a state prison guard, for scamming about 500 immigrants who thought they were paying for real green cards.



But ICE agents — finally awake to the idea that Tolle might have been a good lead to follow after all — were embarrassed and furious by the raid. A few days later, ICE agent Carolyn Mangum "seemed very upset" on the phone with another DPS investigator, saying the immigration office had wanted to investigate Tolle but now could not, a DPS report states.

ICE hadn't done a thing about Tolle before the troopers took the reins, but the feds don't like it when locals step on their turf. Tension between the two agencies had been building for two years, and for ICE, the Carmen Tolle case crossed a line.

A couple of weeks after the bust, DPS detectives returned to the Scottsdale office after lunch and found a locksmith changing the locks on the doors.

The man told the state troopers brusquely that, no, they could not have the new key. When they complained to ICE supervisors, the troopers were allowed back in — to pack up.



The DPS detectives worked until midnight moving boxes of equipment and files from Scottsdale to the department's Phoenix headquarters at 21st Avenue and Encanto Boulevard.

A few days later, ICE pulled out of the state's High-Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas task force. The federal agency had been sponsoring the task force's operational expenses and supplying the occasional agent to help out — which makes sense considering the frequent connections between large-scale drug cases and illegal immigrants.

ICE was suddenly more useless than ever to the state.

When asked about the reason behind the lockout, Russell Ahr, ICE spokesman in Phoenix until he retired October 13, accused the DPS investigator of misusing the computer to get the information that led to the Tolle warrant.

"He did not have a security clearance to do that," Ahr says.

But if that's true, ICE never attempted to have Kelly prosecuted for unauthorized use of a government computer, which is a crime.

In any case, it wasn't like Kelly was using ICE's computer to locate an ex-lover or shop on eBay. As a member of the task force, Kelly had performed a bit of electronic sleuthing that put fraudsters in prison, rooted out a corrupt correctional officer and saved illegal immigrants from being fleeced. For that, ICE wanted Kelly kicked off the task force.

But DPS refused to punish the investigator for producing results.

Ahr says ICE had no choice but to change the locks "to keep this guy out."

Not long after the state lawmen cleared out of the office, ICE agents opened the drawer of a desk the troopers had been using.

Inside was a can of tuna fish. Without the lid on it.

According to Ahr, the DPS people obviously had left the gift, no doubt hoping it would be discovered only after it stunk up the office.

Ahr says the can was accompanied by a note: "Fuck you."

ICE no longer uses the penis-pill office.

But state troopers aren't welcome to work at any other ICE office, either. As far as DPS is concerned, the agency's doors are locked.


The population of illegal immigrants in the United States grows by about 350,000 a year.

Most find jobs, a home and security in this country precisely because ICE — the nation's immigration agency — is so reflective of America's paralysis and confusion on immigration issues.

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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