The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has distilled its four-month investigation of jail inmate Scott Norberg's death into a convenient, 137-page shrink-wrapped summary, available for the asking.
The concluding paragraphs of the investigation--the summing up of the summary, as it were, written by Detective Todd Bates and reviewed by Sergeant James Lusson--argue that on June 1 in the Madison Street Jail, Norberg fought as his jailers attempted to strap him into a restraining chair, and then suddenly went limp. The final page contains one sentence: "The Medical Examiner has ruled that Norberg's death was accidental."
What can't be found in the breezy, 137-page summary are witness statements that suggest another conclusion entirely: that out-of-control detention officers, bent on revenge for having to restrain the combative inmate, ignored warnings that they were asphyxiating Norberg.
At least one detention officer--one who was paying close attention to Norberg's condition--contradicts the scenario that Norberg "suddenly went limp." In fact, she claims she tried to tell the guards that they were suffocating Norberg, who had literally turned purple.
She says an officer snapped back at her, "Who gives a fuck."
That comment doesn't show up in the summary put out by the Sheriff's Office. Nor in the brief, tidied-up review of the investigation that appeared in the October 17 Arizona Republic, along with news that County Attorney Rick Romley plans to follow up on leads unpursued by Sheriff Joe Arpaio's investigators.
For this and other details that raise serious questions about the actions of Arpaio's jailers--as well as the felicitous summarizing skills of his investigators--one has to plow through the 2,100-page, six-volume version of the investigation.
It's shrink-wrapped, too, and carries a price tag of $1,050.
The first couple reams of paper in the investigative tome are devoted to Norberg's chaotic wanderings in Mesa on May 31. From the beginning of the Norberg controversy, the Sheriff's Office has stressed Norberg's criminal history, his problems with drugs and alcohol and his bizarre behavior on his final day as if it all suggested that Norberg deserved to die while awaiting trial in Arpaio's jail. (And at first, most news organizations went along with it. The Republic's initial front-page story on Norberg's death was titled: "Dead Inmate Had Long Record.")
But ironically, the investigator's thorough documentation of Norberg's acts in Mesa provides a telling picture of how authorities outside the Sheriff's Office deal with a problem inmate. Although Norberg had wrestled with a Mesa police officer and knocked off his glasses--warranting an aggravated-assault charge--employees at Mesa jail were able to get the inmate to cooperate and respond to basic requests.
On the morning of June 1, about 12 hours after being arrested, Norberg was moved to Madison Street Jail. That afternoon, the report states, his combativeness resulted in a brawl with Sheriff Arpaio's guards.
Despite his ability to throw off a multiplicity of guards grasping for his limbs, Norberg was eventually pinned to the floor of a holding tank and handcuffed, investigators were told. He was then tossed into a hallway by two detention officers--an occurrence which can be seen fairly clearly on the blurry videotape released by the Sheriff's Office.
Norberg was laid on his stomach, and detention officers sat on his legs to control him.
At this point, a crucial decision was made.
When Norberg had become combative in Mesa, police officers there reacted by cuffing Norberg and leaving him in a cell by himself. At Madison Street Jail, however, someone decided that it was a better idea to force him into a medieval-looking restraining chair and wrap a towel around his mouth.
It turned out to be a lethal choice. But after a four-month, 2,100-page investigation, MCSO detectives apparently could get no closer to understanding how and why that choice was made.
Sheriff's investigators don't seem interested in who had requested the chair. In fact, none of the dozens of witnesses interviewed is asked to explain who had called for the chair, or to detail what circumstances justified its use.
Instead, investigators seem predisposed to assume that the restraint chair's use was unremarkable. Summarizing one interview, an investigator makes it sound as if use of the chair was standard practice:
"Nurse [Kay] Campbell told me that from her past experience, she knew additional officers would be coming and that Norberg would probably be placed into the restraint chair."
If Campbell made such a statement, it is not included in the complete transcript of her interview.
Other jailers admit that the chair was rarely used.
One detention officer tells investigators that in his four months at Madison Street intake, he'd never seen an inmate "chaired." Another estimates that it happened about three times a year.
And even less frequent than the use of the restraint chair, apparently, was instruction on how to use it properly.
"Are you, ah, trained in how to put these people in the chair and how to restrain 'em and how not to restrain 'em?" an investigator asks Detention Officer Kimberly Walsh.
"Trained?" Walsh responds. "The way I learned was from the first time doing it. They tell you what to do."
"Okay. Kind of OJT?" Gregory asks.
Presumably, in their on-the-job training, jailers were instructed how to put a combative inmate into the chair without killing him. But in Norberg's case, evidence suggests that the use of the chair was not only unusual, but cruel as well. And not all of that evidence comes from the accounts of inmates.
John Courey, a Phoenix police officer, happened to be at the jail that afternoon. He tells an investigator he could see Norberg being stuffed into the chair. And he heard the detention officer uttering angrily at Norberg: "How [do] you like [it], you think you're a fucking tough guy." Courey says he heard it repeatedly, "Something to that effect, several times."
Detention Officer Walsh, the woman who held the towel around Norberg--to keep him from spitting, she says--also portrays her fellow jailers as angry, uncontrollable, and bent on some sort of revenge.
"I, I told the officers around that he was purple," she tells investigators, adding that she noticed Norberg had gone limp as he was being held in the chair.
"Um, nobody stopped and I told the officers again that I didn't think he was breathing. They continued . . . you know, when I told him that he was purple, he just said, you know, 'Who gives a fuck.'"
She identifies Officer Martin Spidell--who was pushing Norberg's handcuffed arms up over his head and behind the chair while three other officers pushed down on Norberg's head--as the source of the remark.
"I told [Detention Officer David] Gurney to the right, I don't think he was breathing. It was like, they wouldn't stop," she tells her interviewer.
Walsh estimates that Norberg's head had been pushed down into his chest for five to ten minutes. She says she "didn't think it was appropriate" for the officers to push his head down so far. "I couldn't even get my head down that far," she says. "All the way down for that long, that length of time. . . . Down to my chest. It was all the way down. . . . And his arms were back and he was being held down like that."
Walsh admits that she complained to Nurse Campbell about the way Norberg was treated because, "I was angry . . . how things were done."
None of Walsh's assertions about what detention officers had said, nor her comment that "they wouldn't stop," are included in the sanitized summary compiled by the Sheriff's Office.
Neither are Court Clerk Patty Duran's statements that what she saw was an example of excessive force. Duran had accompanied Judge Robert Bushor into the hallway outside Norberg's cell because Norberg had refused to report for an Initial Appearance.
"[Duran] said she felt that what happened should never have happened," investigator T.C. Shorts writes. "She said she thought it was excessive." He adds that Duran was uncomfortable about discussing the incident: "She further stated that she has to work with many of them and didn't want to be involved."
In the 137-page narrative summary of the investigation, however, there's no mention of Duran's characterization of the events as "excessive."
Predictably, inmates are less shy about their assessment of Norberg's treatment: They say they saw excessive, brutal force, and complained loudly about it to investigators.
The inmates condemn detention officers, which is to be expected. But remarkably, their versions of the incident comport well with the hard evidence.
It's only an inmate, for example, who correctly says how many detention officers, nine, entered the holding tank to suppress Norberg. The videotape clearly bears this out; there were not five to eight, as guessed by various detention officers.
And inmate accounts of the number of times Norberg was zapped by stun guns are closer to what an independent autopsy found later. Jail-guard estimates ranged from two stuns to six; inmates put the number at anywhere from eight to 20. An examination of Norberg's corpse commissioned by the Norberg family puts the number at 21.
Inmates also corroborate allegations by Detention Officer Kimberly Walsh and Phoenix police Officer John Courey that detention officers were angry and used obscenities. The prisoners say that besides the viciousness of Norberg's handlers, what appalled them most was the smiling, joking attitude displayed by detention officers standing on the sidelines.
The officers themselves made almost no comments to investigators about their own states of mind, concentrating solely on Norberg's behavior. But again, hard evidence tends to support the inmates.
In the videotape, it's possible, when faces are close to the camera, to see more expressions of mirth than of alarm. And one of the most intriguing, and chilling, episodes in the Norberg drama is the nonchalance of the 911 call for help after jailers realized Norberg wasn't breathing.
Not surprisingly, the inmates' version of events has been dismissed by Sheriff Arpaio. However, recognizing the skepticism the public would hold toward an investigation conducted by his own employees, the sheriff has developed a typically Arpaioesque strategy: He dares other authorities to look into the matter, as if to do so would be political suicide. Meanwhile, he continues to suggest that inmate accounts are tainted by self-interest while those of detention officers facing possible homicide charges are not.
A Mesa Tribune columnist has made the case that Judge Bushor's version of events should be considered the most objective and compelling, since Bushor was neither a jail employee nor an inmate. But the judge acknowledges to investigators that when Norberg was pulled out of the holding tank, he moved to the end of the hall. Of all of the witnesses interviewed by investigators, Bushor is among the least descriptive.
Bushor also admits that the inmates, looking out of the holding tank's window, had a better vantage point.
Two inmates, interviewed separately, give investigators particularly intriguing and consistent accounts of what ignited Norberg's brawl with jailers. They say Norberg was in a half-conscious state, sitting on the cell's floor with his back to the door when Detention Officer David Gurney opened it and tried to get Norberg's attention. Norberg ignored Gurney's command to stand up for an initial appearance with Judge Bushor. So Gurney moved toward Norberg and prodded him. That's when, the inmates say, Norberg suddenly stood up, spooking Gurney. Norberg's move wasn't aggressive, the inmates say, but Gurney nonetheless reacted by knocking Norberg over and sparking the free-for-all.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
Gurney's version of the incident doesn't differ much from that of the two inmates. Gurney tells investigators that he was surprised by Norberg's sudden move, but he argues that he made a conscious decision to grasp Norberg because the inmate's fists were clenched. That sign of aggression--even though Norberg was facing away--justified flattening the inmate, Gurney claims.
After that, detention officers tell investigators, they simply reacted to Norberg's surprising strength.
Even after he was handcuffed and pinned, detention officers say, the former college football player continued to struggle and throw officers like a bucking bronc. The jailers became determined to lock Norberg down so he couldn't fight anymore.
Explains one officer to his interrogator: "Norberg never said he couldn't breathe.