One-on-One Time With a Pinal County Deputy -- Whose Claim He Was Shot by a Drug Smuggler Is Full of Holes -- Produces Startling Results

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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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin

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