Schooled on How Sheriff Joe Arpaio Came to Be, Phoenix Students Wonder: How Much Longer Can He Last?

We spoke last week to a north Phoenix high-school class about our "experiences in journalism." It was early in the day, and the majority of the students were, shall we say, less than engaged in the, um, dialogue.

But the class of about 25 boys and girls gathered a pulse after someone asked about Joe Arpaio. The question was: how did he get elected the first time and how has he stayed in power so long?

Good one.

Before replying, we asked how many were pro-Joe, how many were against the old guy, and how many couldn't give a shit.

Couldn't give a shit won by a majority of the votes, with the others split between for and anti.

Undeterred, we plowed on.

Joe Arpaio, we said, was a retired Drug Enforcement Unit agent whose moniker with the feds had been "Nickel Bag Joe," in reference to his habit of puffing up his less-than-momentous busts of dopers in his various jurisdictions.

At the time, he was working with his lovely wife, Ava, in real estate.

Then, a famously bungled investigation by Maricopa County sheriff's detectives into the 1991 murder of six Buddhist monks and three others at a west Valley monastery became the number-one campaign issue during the following year's election.

Those around at the time will recall how the county cops wrongly pinned the murders on four Tucson men, all of whom remarkably confessed to the crimes after interrogations that define the word coerced. (The quartet later won a huge civil settlement against Maricopa County.)

Arpaio was one of several who decided that the time was ripe to oppose one-term incumbent sheriff Tom Agnos, a decent gent (we knew him as a Phoenix PD chief) whose misfortune in surrounding himself with sycophants primarily proved to be his downfall.

Even then, Arpaio was a bit daft (we recall odd little one-on-ones during which disjointed war stories about Turkey and Mexico predominated), but he wasn't the angry blowhard and publicity skank he would become in the years after assuming office.

Joe actually was an entertaining, if humorless, conversationalist whose love for his family was palpable.

His campaign platform was savvy: Arpaio said he would "clean up" a Sheriff's Office humiliated by its wrongful focus on the Tucson Four as the cold-blooded murderers of the Buddhists (actually, the killers were two west Phoenix teenagers who got "carried away" during an attempted robbery).

And, two, he repeatedly promised to run for one four-year team before again retiring from the public sector.

So much for promises, huh?.

We asked the students if they had heard that history before.

No one had, so we asked for a reaction to it.

One young lady, who was sitting in the front row, raised her hand.

"He sounds more like a politician to me, not a cop," she said. "How long do you think he'll be around?"

Our answer: Hell if we know. 




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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin