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THE RISE AND GALL OF RUBEN ORTEGA

He loved power. Without it, Ruben Ortega was just an ordinary man. He was possessed of neither dazzling wit nor overwhelming intelligence. His clothes were nondescript. His lack of sophistication and general knowledge was surprising even for a police officer.

But as chief of one of the ten largest police departments in the country for a decade, Ortega was transformed into a very powerful and dangerous man, indeed.

From the start, he was extremely secretive--some might even call it paranoid. He ran his police department with an iron fist and the terror that all paranoids have for outsiders and strangers.

Having risen through the ranks as a public relations specialist who curried favor with politicians, Ortega didn't like street cops. He was never comfortable in their presence. Once Ortega was named chief, he fired these foot soldiers at his whim. On one occasion, he actually referred to them publicly as "dopers and thieves." So don't expect any sad songs for Ortega from his troops. Most of them long ago learned to despise and fear him.

He was a man who embarked knowingly on a cynical, dangerous power trip. His chief problem now may be that he doesn't realize his journey has ended.

Ortega has always acted as though the entire concept of civil liberties was alien to him. He was incapable of allowing any honest disagreement to co-exist within his own department.

He was constantly on the alert for ways to attract attention to himself. His continuing strategy was a full-court press of self-promotion to the point where it would finally get him the adulation he felt he deserved.

It culminated with AzScam. But there were so many ugly things that went down before.

There was the case of the so-called Seventh Avenue Seven which Ortega personally blew up into a major departmental crisis.

Seven cops staged an after-hours beer bust under the Seventh Avenue Bridge in 1982 and for that Ortega fired them. All of them had clean records. They hired lawyers, and after a while, all eventually got their jobs back.

When the case came up for hearing, it was determined their rights had been trampled on by their boss. They were the first of a series of officers who were fired and then hired back at a cost to the city once estimated at $1.2 million.

All this because Ortega wasn't content with running just the police department. He tried to run everyone and everything else in the city, too.

There was his heavy-handed attempt to crush the police department union.
One day in 1985, Mike Petchell, the union head, gave this testimony under oath to the Civil Service Board.

"He said I could have any job I wanted on the police department if I would sell the union members out to him," Petchell testified.

For years, Ortega also hounded the Phoenix Fire Department.
Pat Cantelme, the union head, was a prime target. Cantelme was among a group of four firefighters indicted on federal charges of cocaine possession.

There were many who believed that Cantelme was an add-on indictment, designed to create extended media coverage of the case.

This entire drug investigation was conducted by the Phoenix Police Department, rather than by the federal drug enforcement agency. This was a precursor, in a way, to AzScam, another instance when a police investigation should clearly have been handled by federal authorities.

Cantelme waited six months to go to trial in 1983. On the day before the trial was to begin, the U.S. Attorney's Office went into court and asked to drop the case.

Cantelme had plenty to say about it.
"I was indicted two weeks before the district system election," he said. "The timing was not accidental."

Cantelme explained that Ortega went after him because the firefighters' union was the largest financial contributor to the political group that switched the Phoenix City Council over to the district system.

As always, Ortega was coming to the aid of the power structure, using his office as a political enforcing arm of the establishment. When the police operate this way in Europe or South America, they call it fascism.

Some tactics of Ortega's police resembled those of the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges.

Alan Brunacini, the fire chief, was followed for months by Ortega's cops in an attempt to build a case against him. The cops later claimed they suspected Brunacini was stealing when he purchased a thirty-year-old fire truck, which he worked on in his backyard as a hobby.

One day, the police department organized-crime unit served search warrants on the fire chief for an employee's sick-leave file. They had taken it upon themselves to find out whether firefighters were taking too many sick days.

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Tom Fitzpatrick