Longform

Phil Roberts Exaggerated the Phoenix PD's Kidnapping Statistics, Then Tried to Debunk His Own Numbers

A close-up photo of a dead man's battered face flashes on the large screen, his closely shaved head on its side — streaked, dried blood and a blackened, bloated tongue protruding between pale lips.

The image lingers for a moment, then comes another.

A woman's hand. Flesh hangs from her nearly severed middle finger. Her face is bruised; her eyes appear swollen shut. Her abductors have etched a message on her belly: "Call me."

And still more gruesome photographs of faceless victims — heads wrapped tightly with tape, one body stuffed in the trunk of a car, two more discarded in the desert.

The slideshow documented crimes committed right here in Phoenix, Arizona, in the United States of America. Sometimes in broad daylight. It's shocking, terrifying stuff, and on a spring day in 2008, before a seminar for law enforcement at a local FBI field office, Phoenix Police Sergeant Phil Roberts narrated the carnage.

Roberts, an average-size man with a shock of dirty blond hair clipped closely above his ears and the clean-cut face of a cop, described the torture endured by the victims on display — victims of the border-related kidnapping crisis that has seized Phoenix for the better part of five years.

The self-proclaimed kidnapping expert captivated his audience as he described the "anatomy of a kidnapping," which involves illegal immigrants being held hostage in exchange for ransom by the coyotes who smuggle them into the United States.

Home invasions coupled with kidnappings typically involve drug smugglers and drug dealers busting into each other's homes and ripping off loads of drugs or taking hostages for ransom demands as high as $1 million. Those cases are far more brutal, he explains.

Roberts' fellow cops certainly left the room that April day with vivid images seared into their memories from that slideshow, but it was something Roberts said that proved the most difficult to forget.

The supervisor for the Phoenix Police Department's Robbery Unit announced that his city was the nation's "kidnapping capital" — a phrase that catapulted both Phoenix and Roberts into the national media spotlight.

Roberts revealed that day that the number of kidnapping cases — and the level of violence associated with them — was on the rise in Arizona. Phoenix handled 359 kidnapping cases in 2007 alone, he said, and emphasized that every single one of them was tied to illegal immigration.

Though some Phoenix police and city officials have been confused about the origin of the phrase "America's kidnapping capital" — some incorrectly attributing it to the media — its first traceable reference comes from Roberts' presentation that day in 2008.

In his job at the time, Roberts led a squad of police detectives who responded to general robberies, as well as the violent home invasions and brutal kidnappings spurred by drug and human smugglers working across the Arizona-Mexico border. He was in a position to know firsthand of the violence plaguing Phoenix.

And people were listening to him.

A member of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association who attended Roberts' training seminar wrote an article for the local police union newsletter headlined, "Phoenix AZ, Kidnap Capital, USA."

Two months later, Roberts was making national television appearances. He reinforced Phoenix's reputation as the nation's kidnap capital during a June 2008 appearance on Fox News' Hannity's America, where he repeated that 359 kidnappings in 2007 were attributable to drug smuggling and the border.

At least 15 more times between 2008 and 2009, Roberts talked about border-related abductions to national media outlets, including Newsweek, the Los Angeles Times, America's Most Wanted, and National Geographic. The high numbers cited from 2007 turned into equally terrifying numbers in 2008, Roberts reported.

In a February 12, 2009, article in the Los Angeles Times, Roberts warned that the vicious kidnappings in Mexico that prompt bank officials to travel with armed guards could take root in the United States, and that Phoenix cops are "trying to prevent that from happening."

A few months later, seemingly out of the blue, Roberts' story changed completely.

Instead of making national media appearances to talk about dangerous kidnappings, he went on a memo-writing campaign to explain the dangers within his own police department.

In late 2009, Roberts announced that the Phoenix PD task force handling kidnap and home invasion cases was nothing more than a "golden ticket" for detectives to build their résumés. He started downplaying the figures he'd been touting. In his voluminous memos, Roberts claimed that Phoenix kidnapping statistics were bogus and intentionally inflated by police officials to defraud the federal government of grant money.

He claimed that Phoenix had only 20 to 30 border-related kidnap cases a year, instead of the 300-plus logged in 2008.

The Phoenix Police Department stood by its numbers, even when New Times reviewed records and found them to be grossly inflated. The agency's defiant stance and failure to examine the statistics more closely is what effectively ended the career of Public Safety Manager Jack Harris, who retired after the city manager reassigned him to oversee municipal building security out of an office at Sky Harbor International Airport.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo