Louie Puroll crouches beside an ocotillo in the desert between Casa Grande and Gila Bend, his M-16 rifle slung in front of him.
It's a cool November morning, and we are in Pinal County, 3.5 miles south of civilization, which is the Veja Truck Stop at Interstate 8 and State Route 84.
This is the Vekol Valley, said by local law enforcement to be a favored route for smugglers moving people and marijuana up from Mexico.
We have climbed to where Deputy Puroll claims he was shot on April 30, atop a pass near Antelope Peak in mountainous desert terrain.
Puroll says this is just the second time he's been back since that crazy spring afternoon, and the first since he returned to the scene with investigators three days after the highly publicized incident.
At this precise spot, the deputy says, he told a dispatcher over his cell phone that a suspected dope smuggler had just shot him with an AK-47 rifle.
Puroll suffered a superficial gunshot wound to his left flank just above a kidney and didn't require hospitalization.
It happened one week after Governor Jan Brewer signed Arizona's polarizing anti-illegal immigrant legislation, Senate Bill 1070, into law.
Literally overnight, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu was thrust (and thrust himself) into the national spotlight as a tireless crusader against illegal aliens and the federal government, two of the larger current political targets in this part of the planet.
Puroll and I meet on November 4 at the nearby truck stop after the deputy agreed to go with me to the remote desert location where, he says, he almost lost his life.
Three SWAT team deputies, PCSO public-information officer Tim Gaffney, Puroll, and I enter the desert in four-wheel-drive vehicles and drive south until the end of a deeply rutted dirt road.
The two-mile road takes us about 30 minutes to negotiate. We park and hike uphill about another mile south.
In all, it's 50 minutes from the start of the dirt road to the crime scene, at the base of Antelope Peak.
It's there, next to that sturdy ocotillo, that we improbably stand, the tough-talking search-and-rescue deputy and the city journalist the deputy recently had accused publicly of writing "fiction" about his case.
"Right here. It was right here," Louie Puroll says loudly, pointing about 25 yards downhill to where mesquite trees sit on both sides of a trail. "This is where that asshole shot me, whatever it is you want to write."
The 53-year-old deputy is referring to New Times' September 22 story, "Pinalcchio," in which I raised many questions about his accounts of the alleged clash.
Puroll said previously that during the early afternoon of April 30, he parked his unmarked truck on a different dirt road, walked to a hiding spot on a hill, and hunkered down there for a few hours.
About 3:45, he reported to dispatchers that he had spotted six men walking north, five bearing backpacks he suspected were filled with marijuana.
Puroll later told Pinal County criminal investigators that he hadn't seen any weapons as the sextet passed below him, so he decided to follow them as they made their way toward I-8.
But Sergeant Brian Messing told those investigators last July that Puroll had told him that "at least three of [the alleged smugglers] had long guns."
This was but one of several significant discrepancies between the deputy and his supervisor.
Just after 4 p.m., Deputy Puroll said, one of the smugglers shot him with the AK-47.
The alleged shooter, his cohorts, and their backpacks (presumably filled with marijuana) vanished, despite a massive manhunt.
Their mysterious disappearance was one of the several issues explored in "Pinalcchio."
Two well-known forensic pathologists, Drs. Michael Baden (New York City) and Werner Spitz (Detroit), said — after examining photographic evidence provided by New Times — it looked to them like Puroll had suffered a self-inflicted contact wound.
Two other pathologists, Drs. Vincent DiMaio and Phil Keen, disagreed with their colleagues, though each doctor raised other questions:
DiMaio, author of the forensic textbook Gunshot Wounds, said he was troubled by the horizontal angle of the graze wound, because the shooter allegedly shot uphill at Puroll and because of the reddish discoloration around the deputy's wound, often indicative of a contact shot.
Keen, a former Maricopa County medical examiner, suggested that the smuggler (or smugglers, if more than one fired at Puroll) would have done more damage to the deputy than a mere graze wound.
Facing increasing media scrutiny after "Pinalcchio," Sheriff Babeu ordered his investigators in late September to send Deputy Puroll's bloody T-shirt to the Arizona Department of Public Safety's crime lab for gunshot-residue testing, often a telltale sign of a contact or near-contact shot.
The lab issued its report October 7 — there was no such residue.
That analysis suggested that the weapon was fired three feet or more from where the bullet nicked Puroll.
Babeu convened the media late that afternoon and announced that DPS lab tests had "cleared" the deputy of any wrongdoing, a conclusion that didn't sit well with the state police.
("We don't, quote, clear people," DPS Sergeant Kevin Wood, a spokesman, told me later. "The findings are what they are. To say that we cleared the deputy is inaccurate.")
Undaunted, the sheriff said the DPS' testing "removes the last of the doubts," adding that "this case is now closed, and we're going to move on."
Babeu claimed it was the "totality of the circumstances," not just the T-shirt testing, that convinced him Deputy Puroll had told the truth.
"You just don't take one piece of evidence and then conclude," the sheriff said.
He was right about that.
The trouble is, other pieces of the evidentiary puzzle — the "totality of the evidence" thing — continue to show that Deputy Puroll's tale has major deficiencies.
Those issues include:
• The disappearance of the alleged smugglers and their dope, despite the timely presence that day of an army of law enforcement officers, four helicopters, and a canine tracking team.
• The inexplicable dearth of shell casings from bullets allegedly fired at the deputy.
• Puroll's changing accounts of what happened in the Vekol Valley that day. (Unlike Sheriff Babeu says, the deputy has not been "consistent.")
• New information from DPS investigators (who were present when Puroll returned to the crime scene for a walk-through a few days after the incident) that casts doubt on a key part of the deputy's story.
• Sergeant Brian Messing's recollection of what he heard over the phone during part of the supposed firefight and when he heard it is markedly different from Deputy Puroll's.
Forget about all those issues for a moment.
Puroll's eagerly awaited performance at the October 7 press conference, part of which aired live on CNN, was bravura.
He shined in his starring role as a diligent, unrepentant trooper who had been done wrong by fiction-spewing, unscrupulous media.
Puroll was a natural. He took control from the moment he growled, "I hear you people have been wanting to ask me some questions — I can't for the life of imagine why."
He said he hadn't shot himself, couldn't even fathom the concept, and absolutely had nothing to hide.
"The media makes their living selling noise," the deputy snapped. "The facts and truth after a while don't have anything to do with it. If you tell the truth, you only have to tell that story once."
The most dramatic moment came when Puroll agreed eagerly to pull up his shirt and show everyone his scar.
Sheriff Babeu stood beside his deputy wearing a bemused expression that said, "I guess he is going to say what he damned well pleases."
That included Puroll's surprisingly negative thoughts about SB 1070, which, he remarkably claimed, he hadn't heard of until after he was shot.
"It made some politicians look good and some others mad," Puroll said, apparently unconcerned that his sheriff's highly visible support of the anti-illegal immigrant law put Babeu squarely the first category.
I introduced myself to Puroll after the press conference and spoke to him one-on-one for a half-hour.
I told the deputy that I planned to write a follow-up story because the troubling facts of his case left me, unlike his agency, willing to consider all possibilities.
As for the T-shirt, I said that I couldn't tell from Pinal County's reports what happened to it from about 5:30 p.m. (after Puroll was taken from the desert by helicopter) until just after midnight. The unexplained gap in the agency's chain-of-custody paperwork troubled me, not that I was suggesting anyone had doctored the item.
I also wondered why Puroll wasn't wearing his standard-issue long-sleeve Pinal County shirt when he was shot.
The deputy replied that he hasn't been wearing the shirt while in the desert for years and then repeated what he'd said during the press conference.
"When you're in a desert by yourself, the last thing in the world you want to look like is a deputy sheriff.
"Like I said, I had an M-16, a pistol, and a badge. If that's not enough, I ought to just pack up my stuff and just go home."
By the deputy's own account, he never had time before he was shot to announce himself as a peace officer.
So the only thing that could have identified him as a cop and not, say, a member of one of the anti-illegal immigrant "militia" groups that sometimes frequent the Vekol Valley was the badge on his belt.
I told him that, from my perspective, the last thing the Mexican cartels (or anybody else committing illegal acts in Pinal County's hinterlands) would want is to bring attention by shooting a cop.
(Puroll told me in a later meeting that he intentionally left behind his uniform shirt in his truck, saying, "It wasn't hot out that day, and I don't have to wear it anyway because of my other duties.")
The deputy, according to Sheriff Babeu, is Pinal County's terrorism liaison officer for the federal Department of Homeland Security, a position that Puroll declined to discuss.
As if anticipating my next question in that later interview, he said, "No, I wasn't wearing that shirt when I got shot and, no, I didn't hide it somewhere.")
After the press conference, Puroll told me that he has nothing against many of the undocumented immigrants who make it alive to the United States.
"It's the coyotes who are getting more and more evil," he said. "I treat my livestock better than they treat their own. Everybody's been saying, 'That deputy was looking for illegals in the desert, and they shot him,' like I am the white avenger. They made sure the phrase 'illegal alien' was in everything. But I didn't say that. They were just smugglers to me!"
I pointed out that Babeu continues to emphasize that illegal aliens had ambushed and tried to murder the deputy.
"He's a sincere guy," Puroll replied, momentarily tongue-tied.
I asked him whether we could continue our dialogue later. Puroll provided me with his e-mail address.
A few weeks later, we met for four hours at an Iron Skillet restaurant inside a truck stop near Casa Grande.
Louie Puroll's first official version of the "shootout" came to my attention, almost in passing, just a few weeks ago.
I was meeting at the Arizona Department of Public Safety with members of the agency's vehicular-crimes unit to ask about GPS coordinates of the evidence recovered at the crime scene.
(The acronym stands for global positioning system, and the satellite-generated coordinates are akin to the DNA of a particular place on Earth).
Present were Sergeant Jennifer Pinnow and Detective Jeff Brown, who had been in charge of investigating the Puroll crime scene at Sheriff Babeu's request. (Pinal County handled the criminal and internal affairs investigations.)
What I learned from those investigators during the meeting was stunning. But first, some relevant background:
A few hours before sunset at 8:10 on April 30, Pinal County deputies found the site where Louie Puroll said he'd been shot earlier that day.
The canyon is a virtual garbage dump, with backpacks, clothes, plastic water bottles, and discarded personal items proving its popularity as part of an illegal immigration railroad.
The deputies located Puroll's Glock handgun (which he said he had inadvertently left behind), his GPS unit, and binoculars near the ocotillo atop the mountain ridge. They also saw a cell phone charging on a car battery down the hill, unfired ammunition, and other items.
They took the cell phone with them but said they left everything else undisturbed.
The next morning, May 1, DPS investigators and two Pinal County deputies flew to the site by helicopter.
During their extensive search, the state detectives recovered a cluster of 46 expended shell casings near the ocotillo. The casings accounted for all the shots fired from Puroll's M-16 rifle and Glock handgun that day.
Down the canyon, the DPS agents found a spent AK-47 ammunition magazine and unexpended bullets of various sizes strewn about.
But the detectives found just four expended casings that possibly could have been fired from an AK-47, the weapon Puroll said he had seen in his assailant's hands just before he was shot.
That would become troubling in light of the deputy's later description of many more than four shots fired at him. The four casings were discovered in the alleged shooters' general vicinity down the slope, but two of them were about 26 feet away, much farther than the norm for expended casings.
The investigators also found three expended .45-caliber casings about 53 yards northeast of Puroll's own shell casings.
Two days later, on May 3, the DPS investigators returned to the scene, this time with Louie Puroll and two detectives from the PCSO.
The deputy's union lawyer, who wasn't there that day, set parameters: no audio or videotape allowed and questioning restricted to where the clash allegedly occurred, the direction of the shots, and other basic information.
Back now to my meeting at the DPS.
Sergeant Pinnow said she and Detective Brown had asked Deputy Puroll at the scene to show them where he got shot.
She said the deputy led them about halfway between the ocotillo and where two mesquite trees sit on either side of the trail.
Puroll stopped and said that was where the guy had stepped out from the mesquite to his right, seemed surprised to see him, and fired a quick burst of several shots from the AK-47, striking the deputy with the first shot.
Pinnow said they advised Puroll that the expended shell casings from his weapons were higher up the little hill, near the ocotillo. Puroll explained that he had retreated uphill about 12 to 15 yards, without immediately returning fire, after he was shot.
This crucial information never appeared in any of the DPS' reports, which stuck mostly to measurements and other descriptions of the crime scene.
But if it's accurate, the ramifications are significant.
Puroll confirmed to me by phone on Monday, November 22, that "I was looking around for that ocotillo, and I walked past it at first, and I circled back around and said it was right in there somewhere, and then I walked back up and found my spot.
"They were intentionally trying to trip me up to see if I would show them the right place. That's what I would have done."
Louie Puroll has said repeatedly that he crested the ridge believing that the alleged smugglers were resting about 300 yards north of him, farther down the canyon.
He has said he paused next to the ocotillo for about five minutes to regroup.
During that time, he said, he spoke by cell phone to dispatchers and to his off-duty supervisor, Sergeant Brian Messing.
He said he also took off his backpack to retrieve his handheld GPS unit and binoculars. He said he set the pack on the ground and turned on the GPS, preparing to call in his location.
After getting shot, Puroll's story has him dropping his GPS and phone and immediately returning fire.
Within seconds after getting hit, the deputy (in this scenario) retrieved his GPS and the phone and called 911 while still near the ocotillo.
A recording of that call at 4:04 p.m. starts with a barrage of seven or eight more shots. (Puroll later told me that those shots came at him in the second flurry from his right, shortly after he was wounded from directly in front of him).
Immediately after the gunfire ended, the deputy excitedly gave his GPS coordinates to the dispatcher — right next to the ocotillo — followed by his exclamation, "I've been hit! I've been hit! I've been hit!"
It's peculiar enough that Puroll necessarily would have taken his hands off his weapons to call in his GPS location in the middle of what he described as a gunfight.
It's just as curious that, if the deputy actually was shot farther down the hill (where the DPS investigators said he led them), he would have taken the risk of grabbing his backpack, phone, binoculars, and GPS and retreated without returning fire.
At the ocotillo, Puroll again would have had to drop all those items to finally be able to return fire. Then, he would have had to reach down, pick up both his phone and his GPS unit and call in for help as, by his account, a second barrage of gunfire came at him.
Either scenario (the previously unreported DPS location or what Puroll repeatedly has told other authorities) requires a leap of logic.
One of the deputy's biggest supporters, Pinal County sheriff's homicide Sergeant Dave Hausman, told me early in my own research, "This is my speculation: That during the gunfight, [Puroll] was not on the phone, or at least he was not holding the phone.
"After he had quelled whatever the immediate threat was that was in front of him, he probably picked up the phone, and he dialed his phone. And the shots that you are assuming were coming at him during the actual face-to-face confrontation are actually shots of suppressive fire later on. He had his phone when he was firing his gun? That's kind of pushing things a little too far, don't you think?"
Yes — except that is Louie Puroll's own account of the story.
After discharging the 46 rounds from his two weapons, the deputy said, he grabbed his backpack and his cell from the ground and retreated to the other side of the ridge.
(The backpack always was a key piece of the puzzle in this case. It showed no signs of damage from the bullet that hit Puroll in the flank, which meant he hadn't been wearing it when he was wounded.)
About 80 minutes after the "I've been hit!" call, a DPS Ranger helicopter lifted the deputy to safety, just about 100 yards from the site of the supposed shootout.
Louie Puroll has been consistent in saying he faced direct gunfire from at least two locations and, then, many more distant shots after he'd retreated to south of the ridge.
Puroll's statements to investigators (and to me) suggest that a dozen or more shots were fired at him during the first exchanges. He said untold shots also flew by his general direction from the canyon after he'd retreated over the ridge.
So what happened to all the expended shell casings from bullets presumably fired by the bad guys?
"I know from having heard the report of what DPS found, there were more shots fired [than] the brass they found," Puroll told Pinal County sheriff's internal affairs detective Robert Evans on September 27, "so that tells me [the shooter] moved around; he could have moved in a 50- to 60-yard area down there.
"It's hard to find brass in the desert anyway . . . There [were] more shots fired at me than there's brass accounted for, so there's still brass out there somewhere."
To be sure, this was a very messy scene in rugged terrain, and it's not implausible that the investigators missed a shell casing or two.
But the DPS' Sergeant Wood points out that his agency's investigators found all the casings discharged that day from Puroll's two firearms.
Puroll told me about getting on his hands and knees during his May 3 return to the scene searching for signs of blood where he claimed he had shot his would-be killer after he was wounded himself.
The deputy said he found none.
"He's the first man I shot who didn't stay there," Puroll said at his press conference, sounding a bit like his professed hero, John Wayne.
Puroll's claim that he crawled around looking for his assailant's blood painted a vivid mental picture.
But Detective Brown and Sergeant Pinnow of the DPS say it never happened.
"It's just not the way our people would conduct a crime-scene walk-through, allowing a victim to himself start investigating," says Wood, speaking for the pair.
By the way, Louie Puroll later told me that he hasn't shot anyone on duty during his 14 years with Pinal County, including two as a detention officer. Nor, he said, was he involved in any officer-involved shootings during short stints in the late 1970s at two east Texas agencies.
Louie Puroll is a superstar at the Iron Skillet off I-10 — he endorses it as the "best buffet in southern Arizona."
A waitress asks him as she takes our orders. "How you doing, Louie?"
"Real good," he tells her. "Haven't been shot at in a couple of months."
Our conversation this day is spirited, yet cordial.
Puroll tells me that representatives of "the Mexican cartel" have approached him four or five times at this restaurant over the years wanting to do business.
"They didn't want me to sell or buy the stuff, just that they'd make it worth my while to look the other way out in the desert if I bumped into them," he says.
Puroll says he didn't arrest any of these men, call for backup, or write reports about the encounters.
The deputy is a terrific storyteller:
He speaks of his time as a village policeman in a tiny Alaskan village, as a foreman of a west African gold mine, a bail bondsman, a ranch hand, and about his most recent adventure (this summer, after the shooting), a month-long solo trip to Kazakhstan, where he says he rode horseback with nomadic people in what was the fulfillment of a life's dream.
By the way, Puroll says, customs officials in Mosow recognized him as the wounded desert deputy as he was on his way to Kazakhstan and asked him to pose for photos with them.
We get around to the Vekol Valley "shootout" and its aftermath.
He tells me about feeling almost giddy after the high-profile press conference during which Sheriff Babeu officially "closed" the case.
"I rode home in my truck with the windows open smiling all the way," he says. "I wasn't so impressed with the media — hell, they backed down after I got in their face. I enjoyed making my point — that I was telling the truth and your story was mostly fiction."
As the conversation bounces around, Puroll swings into a wild yarn from the 1980s, when he says he worked at the African gold mine.
"We had 60 men lined up waiting to get paid in silver coins — they didn't want paper money 'cuz it gets too wet. Three AWOL soldiers come in and try to rob us. I got a little Western there for a while."
I ask the deputy if that's what he meant at his press conference when he said, "I could tell you other stories that would make [the alleged Pinal County shootout] seem like eating lunch at the Dairy Queen."
He says, "That is not the first close scrape I've been involved in. This is the first time I've been hit."
I praise his prowess as a raconteur.
"I can make up a pretty good story when I choose to," Puroll replies, "but I don't have to.
"If you're telling real stories to tourists, they think you're being so unbelievable. They'll just call you a liar and leave. Those made-up stories are like movies — they're believable. But the things that really happen are never believable."
Speaking of stories, I ask Puroll to tell me again how those smugglers managed to escape from the desert with all that dope.
"It's a big desert," he says, "and it took our people about 2 1/2 hours to surround the area. Motivated individuals, which they certainly were, can get a long way in that time. Anyway, everyone was looking for me, not for them.
"They know where to hide, and they know where to hide the dope. As for those helicopters, they're helpless when it comes to searching for smugglers. I'm disappointed, but not surprised, that those guys disappeared."
Puroll says he knew exactly where the alleged smugglers were headed on the afternoon of April 30: "I could take you to within 50 yards of where they would have hid the dope, right behind the truck stop."
Pinal County sheriff's reports show that the first responder after the deputy's "I've been hit!" call at 4:04 p.m. pulled into the Veja Truck Stop at 4:20.
That deputy was followed by literally dozens of other cops pouring in from both directions off I-8.
Pinal County set up a command post a few miles west of the truck stop at I-8, at the entrance to the funky dirt road that Puroll had driven into the desert on hours earlier.
I ask Puroll if he's telling me that the bad guys made it 3.5 miles from the crime scene to the interstate — five of them toting heavy backpacks filled with baled marijuana — before the cavalry got to the area.
"That is what I'm telling you," he replies. "You don't work out there, and you don't know what they're capable of."
Okay. But it makes sense that anyone who may have been waiting for the drug mules to arrive near the interstate would've split when they saw the fleet of cop cars.
"I'm just saying that it's not surprising to me that they got away," Puroll says.
For argument's sake, I speculate that there may have been a truck waiting for the load about a mile from the pass — where I later parked with the sheriff's deputies during my two trips to the scene.
But, I tell him, these roads are awfully treacherous and the going is slow — remember, it took us a half-hour or so to get from I-8 to a mile from the crime scene.
"I don't know whether they dropped the dope and someone came back later and got it," the deputy says. "But you'd be surprised what they can get away with out here."
(Detective Robert Evans, the internal affairs investigator, bought the deputy's theory, writing in a report that cleared Puroll of wrongdoing: "Along with the delay of locating Deputy Puroll and initiating a containment and search of the area, it most likely provided a sufficient amount of time for the suspects to escape.")
After four hours of dialogue, I shut down my tape-recorder at the truck stop.
Puroll tells me: "Now that that's off, let me tell you something. You're lucky to be alive right now."
The deputy explains that a friend of his, a "rancher of Mexican descent," recently offered to murder me because of what I wrote in "Pinalcchio."
I ask the deputy what he'd said to his pal.
"I said that it wouldn't be a good idea, not to worry about it," he says evenly.
I ask him why he's telling me this. He sees me taking notes, but continues.
"Thought you'd like to know some people were upset with you, that's all," the deputy replies, smiling slightly.
(I spoke with Puroll again about this by phone on Monday, November 22. "That's the kind of thing guys say sitting around and talking bullshit. I really don't think he's stone serious about it. He's a tough old cowboy, Mexican, rough son of a gun, and he said it. I told him, 'No, no, no.'")
Though I'm a veteran journalist who seldom works the sunny side of the street, when he mentioned the threat at the restaurant, I wasn't sure what to make of it. (I contacted law enforcement friends shortly after leaving the truck stop and told them what Puroll had said. Each had suggestions for what I should do, none of which I took.)
Soon, we walk to our respective cars in the parking lot. Puroll is driving a marked patrol unit because his Chevy Tahoe is in the repair shop.
He asks to show me something in his car before I leave. Seated in his driver's seat, he pulls out his M-16 rifle and asks me to peer through its scope.
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I kneel down and look. A beam places a red laser dot on the shooter's target.
"This isn't the M-16 I had out there that day," Puroll says. "We didn't have the red-dot then. This is a new one, a gift from the military."
The deputy looks up at me.
"Next time I have to shoot somebody, they really won't get up," Louie Puroll says. "That, I promise."