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

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State and local investigators reported that kidnappers kick and punch hostages, beat them with baseball bats, submerge them in bathtubs and electrically shock them, burn their flesh with blowtorches, smash their fingers with bricks, slice their bodies with butcher knives, shoot them in their arms and legs, and cut open their backs with wire-cutters.

As New Times reported a year ago, the kidnapping business is thriving in Phoenix because more border traffic has been siphoned through Arizona over the past 15 years. As migration routes shifted to Arizona, many immigrants turned to coyotes to help them get across the Sonoran Desert.

And some of those coyotes have been anything but friendly.

Smuggling immigrants for nearly $2,000 each became a profitable venture, almost as lucrative as running drugs or weapons across the U.S.-Mexico border. Drug cartels joined forces with human smugglers in Mexico or branched out to include humans as part of their own cargos. With the promise of making even more money, coyotes paid to guide their victims to a better life turned into kidnappers.

Many cases go unreported, and victims and their families are reluctant to cooperate with police for fear of being deported.

Roberts took advantage of the obscurity of kidnapping cases when he leveled his damning allegations.

As Phil Roberts rose up through the ranks at the Phoenix Police Department, his supervisors remarked upon how he stayed cool and collected in even the toughest undercover jobs.

Roberts' subsequent supervisors made similar observations but said there still was room for improvement, even as he was promoted to sergeant.

"Your biggest challenge concerns your administrative duties," a supervisor wrote in Roberts' 2001 performance review, but most of the comments were glowing, and his fieldwork was described as "peerless."

The positive reviews would continue, as would the commendations filed in his personnel jacket.

In July 2006, Roberts was transferred to the Violent Crimes Bureau as a robbery sergeant. Though it appeared that Roberts' professional life was shining brightly, a storm was brewing in the Roberts household. Roberts' personal and professional woes left him standing in a world he couldn't control.

Roberts was going through a divorce after 22 years of marriage, and he was losing a grip on his lead spot among kidnapping investigators.

His then-wife, Elisabeth Roberts, also a Phoenix police sergeant, left him for Randy Force, a fellow Phoenix police officer. There was tension in the halls, and, at one point, Roberts confronted Force in his office. Roberts also told others that should he die on the job, Force would not be allowed at his funeral.

Roberts' behavior did not go unnoticed.

"You have gone through some extraordinarily personal issues," Lieutenant Anthony Vasquez wrote in Roberts' 2007 performance review. "I encourage you to keep positive in your outlook and seek support from your friends and co-workers."

On February 12, 2007, seven months after he joined the Robbery Unit, he moved out of his house in Anthem and into an East Phoenix condo.

He filed for divorce in June 2007.

"I have come to realize very quickly how important it is to have a supportive lieutenant to work for, not only for job-related issues but personal matters as well," he wrote to Vasquez.

When police officials assigned Lieutenant Burgett to oversee the Robbery Unit in June 2008, she also listened to Roberts' tales of personal woe — to a point.

A combination of a busy work schedule (including supervising several squads) and an all-business demeanor left fewer opportunities for Roberts to hang around her office. And Burgett and Force were good friends, having worked together in the Phoenix Police Department's Public Affairs Bureau.

Clearly, Roberts' stress was not just driven by the job.

One day in June 2009, Roberts left work early to attend his son's high school graduation, where his ex-wife would be. Before he left, he told Burgett that he had not seen her in a while and wondered how he would handle an encounter with her.

The next day, he called Burgett upset and angry and told her he needed to take the morning off because he saw Force kiss his ex-wife's cheek after the ceremony.

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo