Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Deputy Sued Over Mesa Mom's Tragic Death

By Sarah Fenske

The family of a 46-year-old Mesa woman is suing Sheriff Joe Arpaio over the head-on collision that caused her death last June.

Nanuma Lavulavu was killed when Maricopa County Sheriff's Deputy Robin Kinnett lost control of his SUV and crashed into her car. As the lawsuit alleges, "The head-on collision and the death of Nanuma Lavulavu were the direct and proximate result of the negligence, carelessness, and recklessness of Defendant Kinnett."

Kind of interesting in light of the fact that Sheriff Joe never even reprimanded the deputy for his actions. And, go figure, illegal immigration is involved.

Here's the background: Kinnett had been tailing another person at the time, an illegal immigrant who was driving drunk and, apparently, intentionally rammed Kinnett's car, setting off the tragic chain of events.

Thanks to an incendiary column by the Arizona Republic's Laurie Roberts, the incident was immediately portrayed as a frightening example of undocumented Mexicans running amok. (The Republic's archives don't go back far enough to read Roberts' piece, but it's been reprinted in its entirety here.)

The problem is, as I pointed out in a column of my own last July, the case was much more complicated than Roberts' portrayal.

The sheriff's own report, in fact, made it clear that Deputy Kinnett showed alarmingly bad judgment: After he was rammed by the Mexican driver he was tailing, Kinnett didn't pull over or call for help. Instead, he did a quick u-turn and re-entered a busy intersection, speeding through three lanes of traffic. It was only then that the Mexican driver struck Kinnett a second time -- at which point, according to the report, Deputy Kinnett last control of his vehicle and slammed into oncoming traffic, killing Lavulavu.

And, of course, only then did Deputy Kinnett get around to calling 911. By then it was too late for Lavulavu.

Roberts blamed the entire incident on the Mexican, Guadalupe Perez-Bojorquez. Lavulavu, she wrote, joins "a long, sad parade of people killed because our government can't or won't do what it takes to get control of the border."

Not really. In fact, you could easily argue that Lavulavu joins a long, sad parade of people killed because Sheriff Joe can't or won't get control of his own department.

The East Valley Tribune recently ran a fascinating five-part series detailing Arpaio's dicey techniques for busting immigrants. Among other revelations: When deputies want to stop a suspected illegal on the road, they "pressure" the illegal -- in the newspaper's words -- into making a driving mistake.

Here's an example from part one of the Tribune series:

"Detective Jesus J. Cosme pressed hard on the gas pedal so that only a couple of feet separated his sport utility vehicle from the van he was tailing. The navy blue Chrysler wasn’t speeding. Or weaving. Its tail lights worked and the Oregon license plate was clearly displayed. Driving through Wickenburg on U.S. 93 one evening in early January, Cosme said he was certain illegal immigrants filled the van.

"But the human smuggling detective could not yet prove it. So Cosme pressured the driver.

"He raced up behind the van in his unmarked silver Jeep Commander, waiting for a mistake, for any probable cause to make a stop...

"Cosme would ultimately use an alleged moving violation as his probable cause on that January evening. But first he needed to make sure the blue van was indeed what he was after.

"Abruptly, the detective swerved into the left lane and, coming frighteningly close to the vehicle, used his front beams like search lights on the van’s windows, illuminating a crowd of human shadows. The detective switched on his dashboard’s emergency lights. The sheriff’s office had caught another load vehicle."

Coming "frighteningly close" to the vehicle? Or, as the Trib reporters write, "pressuring" the driver?

Makes me wonder what really started the road-rage incident between Deputy Kinnett and the illegal Mexican driver last June. And it also suggests, I think, why Deputy Kinnett never was punished or reprimanded for his lousy driving, much less killing an innocent woman:

If it nets an illegal arrest, the sheriff is apparently just fine with dubious tactics.

The Lavulavu family's lawyer, H. Michael Wright, didn't return my call for comment. But it will be interesting to see what happens with this suit in Superior Court.

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