Shocking Pink: Arpaio's Detention Officers Unnecessarily Terrorized a Psychotic Inmate Because He Resisted Wearing Pink Underwear

Sheriff Joe Arpaio's public-relations team issued a joyous press release after winning a civil rights case in U.S. District Court in downtown Phoenix.

"Civil Rights Violation Case Is 12th Straight Jury Win For Arpaio," the sheriff's flacks titled it.

The recent release quoted Arpaio: "Once again, this is yet another court case proving that my officers and my deputies do not violate people's civil rights — in the jails or on the streets."

No mention of the $43 million and counting in lawsuit payouts against the most sued sheriff in America — by far — and his minions.

Sure enough, an eight-person jury did return its verdict in favor of Arpaio and his detention officers after deliberating about a day and a half.

While plaintiff's attorney Joel Robbins had asked the jury to award his side a mere $100,000, the verdict for the defense came as little surprise — though not for the reasons mentioned in Arpaio's canned quote.

However, even though Arpaio won the day, deplorable details emerged during the trial that his detention officers unnecessarily terrorized the late Eric Vogel.

Vogel was a seriously mentally ill Phoenix man who died (of a heart attack, officially) in December 2001, a week after a violent incident with the jailers at the now-closed Madison Street Jail.

The civil case was filed by Vogel's survivors.

The outcome seemed probable after federal Judge Earl Carroll gutted the tort by dismissing the wrongful-death claim and not allowing the plaintiffs to question anyone on the witness stand about the case's critical pink-underwear component.

But first, some background about how Vogel, who was 36, ended up in jail:

According to court records and a 2002 New Times story by former staffer Robert Nelson, Vogel was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic who, until one evening in November 2001, hadn't left his north Phoenix home without his mother, Ann, in about 16 years.

That night, Vogel somehow ended up in a stranger's backyard a few blocks away. The homeowner called Phoenix police, who quickly found Vogel, a large man described in reports as panicked and obviously delusional, at the scene.

Vogel jumped into the driver's seat of a police cruiser and grabbed at an officer's waist. A second officer sprayed Mace in Vogel's face as the first officer repeatedly hit him with a baton in the lower torso and legs.

All the while, Vogel was screaming at the Phoenix officers to shoot him.

The cops booked him at the county jail on charges of assaulting a cop. He stayed there for a week before his mother could come up with the money to bond him out.

Detention officers placed Vogel in an isolation cell overnight.

What happened the next afternoon is what led to the lawsuit.

County jailers wanted to take their clearly psychotic prisoner to the psych ward (known as 6-3). But records show that they told Vogel to strip and don the pink underwear and slippers that have given publicity hound Arpaio such media juice for years.

Vogel freaked at the thought of it.

Apparently, he believed that the jailers were dressing him up as a woman in preparation for being gang-raped (according to a psychologist who looked into the case, Vogel wasn't even sure where he was, thinking that he might be at the site of the recently destroyed World Trade Center).

His mother (also now deceased) told New Times in 2002 that Vogel later told her that he'd heard a detention officer say, "Okay, we're going to have a party," before six officers charged into his cell to change him into his pinks.

Vogel flailed against the onslaught, during which time he spit in the face of a sergeant. He screamed that he was going to be raped before the officers subdued him facedown on the floor.

The authorities then yanked off Vogel's clothes and forced him into the pink underwear. Then they secured the still-struggling inmate in a restraint chair and rolled him up to the psych ward.

Vogel returned to his mother's home after he was released on bond. But according to his mother's account, he was very depressed and in constant pain during the next few weeks.

Then, in early December 2001, Ann Vogel got into a minor car accident with her son as a passenger. Police at the scene noted that Eric had a new arrest warrant pending for assaulting another officer — the sheriff's sergeant he'd spit on.

The police didn't take Vogel into custody, but the news of the new charge allegedly sent Vogel into an even deeper funk. Within hours, his mother found him unconscious by the side of his bed.

Vogel was dead.

A county pathologist deemed the cause of death to be a heart attack.

The lawsuit that followed was filed in state court, and then was transferred a few years ago to federal court, where it was assigned to Judge Carroll, an 83-year-old appointee to the bench in 1980.

Before the trial, Carroll sided with Arpaio's defense lawyers in excluding any evidence that Vogel's phobia of pink underwear — and how the detention officers had dealt with it — may have constituted, among other things, a policy of discrimination and indifference against the seriously mentally ill.

That ruling ripped the heart out of the plaintiff's case. Lawyers had been prepared to present testimony from both their and the sheriff's experts that the clash over the pink underwear had traumatically affected Eric Vogel.

Perhaps the judge should have heard what Sheriff Arpaio himself (who wasn't a witness at trial) told a Houston audience during a speech last September. In discussing his pink-underwear shtick, Arpaio told the Texans for Immigration Reform:

"I always have an official reason [for the underwear] so I can win the lawsuits, and I have my reason, and my reason is [inmates] hate pink. They may like it in California, but they don't like it in Arizona."

Tucson-based psychologist Dr. Joel Dvoskin provided expert testimony for the plaintiff that put the tragic and apparently preventable incident into perspective.

"They could have just left [Vogel] alone for a while, and could have just listened to what he was trying to tell them," said Dvoskin, who has evaluated more than 100 jails (many for the U.S. Justice Department) and once headed the nation's largest forensic and correctional mental-health system in New York State.

"You always want to address people without using violence — that should always be your goal. There must be a threat to safety or to the order of running a prison. The main reason why you don't jump on people [like Vogel] is people get hurt — jailers and inmates."

But Lisa Wahlin, who with Dan Struck represented the sheriff's interests, claimed that "there were no alternative methods the officers could have used," and that compelling Vogel to take calming medications would have required use of force.

"To say that medication would have changed the outcome is purely speculation," Wahlin said. "They were trying to get him some medical care."

Vogel attorney Joel Robbins says the experience in Judge Carroll's court was sobering.

"Maybe the pink underwear routine is kind of funny when it happens to a tough guy who beat up his wife or whatever," Robbins says. "But Eric was absolutely terrified by this, and he was extremely seriously mentally ill. That's not so funny."

Robbins says he plans to appeal the case to the U.S. Ninth Circuit.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin