MAURICIO RODRIQUEZ celebrated his 20th birthday a few days after Christmas 1990 by hot-wiring a late-model Chevy pickup. He and two friends then careened through the streets of west Phoenix in the stolen vehicle.

²Along the way, the Phoenix man slowed long enough for his pals to hop out, then resumed his mad rush to nowhere. It didn't take Phoenix police long to track the speeding Chevy. A police chopper followed overhead as Rodriquez zigged and zagged west on Van Buren, then veered north onto 43rd Avenue.

It was just past midnight and the streets were slick from a steady drizzle. At 43rd Avenue and McDowell, Rodriquez plowed into 52-year-old Guadalupe Estrella's station wagon. The collision knocked out four of her teeth, and she suffered leg and shoulder injuries. Rodriquez escaped serious injury and fled on foot.

Phoenix cop Joe Perez had tailed Rodriquez for several blocks. As Perez neared the crash site, his brakes locked and his car slid into the Chevy pickup. One of Perez's first thoughts was that his accident could mean a few days off without pay. He wasn't injured, but he was mad as hell when he jumped out of his patrol car and gave chase on foot.

In short order, Perez and several other Phoenix cops found Mauricio Rodriquez hiding inside a nearby car wash. Some of what ensued is disputed, some is not. Perez's version of his role in the unfortunate events has been confirmed by those who observed him:

He says he aimed his gun at Rodriquez and ordered the suspect to get on his knees with his hands over his head. Perez reholstered the weapon after it appeared Rodriquez wasn't armed.

By all accounts except Rodriquez's, the suspect didn't obey Perez's commands. No one can say what would have happened if Rodriquez had done as he'd been told. But he didn't, and what did occur in the next seconds would have lasting consequences for several of those involvedÏespecially Joe Perez.

Still irate about his car accident, Perez marched up to the standing Rodriquez and hit him-three or four times," Perez says-in the back with both fists. Perez also kicked Rodriquez-probably twice"-in the back and buttocks. You made me wreck my car, you son of a bitch," Rodriquez recalls the cop told him. Another officer pulled Perez away from Rodriquez, who still hadn't surrendered.

Rodriquez, corroborated by Phoenix police officer Patricia Boyd, who watched from a few yards away, insists that several other cops pounded on him in the moments that followed. When it was over, Rodriquez had suffered a fractured left wrist, a swollen right wrist, a bloody mouth and nose, and abrasions to his back.

Rodriquez attributed his broken wrist to one of the cops who handcuffed him. Police investigators, however, speculated that Rodriquez's wrist could have been injured during the high-speed car crash that preceded the melee.

Rodriquez suspected his bloody nose started after the officers who finally arrested him pushed him face down on the concrete. And the abrasions? Again, no one could say for sure. What is certain is that all the officers but Joe Perez later denied any wrongdoing.

Despite the uncertainty over how Rodriquez sustained his injuries, there is no doubt about whom police and prosecutors have blamed for almost everything that went wrong that night: Joe Perez.

Perez admits he deserved to be punished by the Phoenix Police Department. But the 30-year-old Perez never expected it to cost him the only career he's ever really wanted. And he never figured to become the first cop in anyone's memory to be prosecuted in Maricopa County for police brutality. His jury trial on a charge of felony aggravated assault is set to start May 20. He could be sentenced to almost two years in prison if convicted.

I'm a good cop who screwed up," Perez tells New Times. I'm not a criminal. The guy wouldn't do what I told him to do, and I lost my cool."

Several factors have conspired to leave Perez accused of a felony, his previously stellar career in tatters.

One is that it was more palatable for Perez's supervising sergeant to focus on PerezÏthe only cop who had owned up to wrongdoing-than to investigate his entire squad.

That's especially true because Sergeant Douglas Hardin had been at the scene that night. Questions naturally would have been raised about why Hardin had apparently done little to stop Perez and his other officers from overreacting.

It also didn't help that Perez lost his cool a few months before Los Angeles cops pummeled motorist Rodney King. The savage beating of King-vividly captured on videotape-put law enforcement everywhere on the defensive. Phoenix police and county prosecutors certainly didn't want to give the appearance of going soft on one of their own.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin