SHERIFF TOM AGNOS doesn't look embattled.
His August open-heart surgery, a wrongful arrest lawsuit and the occasional political obituary notwithstanding, the sheriff appears serene. Though the investigation of the murders of nine people at Wat Promkunaram, a Thai Buddhist temple in the west Valley, has been criticized by everyone from the county attorney to Senator Dennis DeConcini, Agnos seems relaxed behind his substantial desk. Two weeks ago, he was compelled to release from jail four young men from Tucson he says participated in the murders, but today the sheriff's grip is padded steel and his eyes lock like gunsights.

Agnos' face is florid but not flushed and his breath comes in easy measures; there is nothing labored or frenetic in his manner, no beads of "flop" sweat dewing on his brow. He talks about the temple case in that open, confidential way police officers adopt when they want to establish a rapport and gain your trust--the way they talk when they want you to believe they're "sharing" with you.

Most of the time it works. Agnos has explaining to do, and he does it well.

In the early hours of August 10, six monks, an acolyte, a temple helper and an elderly nun were methodically murdered inside Wat Promkunaram. It was the largest mass murder in modern Arizona history.

"When they called me at home, I couldn't believe it," Agnos says. "I went out there, and there were any number of possibilities. We thought from the beginning it might have been a botched robbery, but we maintained an open mind."

Nine days later, the sheriff of Maricopa County would undergo a double by-pass operation. Three weeks after the reconstruction of his heart, he would attend a press conference to announce the arrest of the Tucson suspects. A few days more, and he was back at work full-time.

Now Tom Agnos is smoking again.
While he was in the hospital, he was briefed twice a week on the progress of the investigation. His doctors think he came back to work too soon, but Agnos shrugs off any suggestion that his is perhaps not the most prudent recuperative regime.

Wearing his bureaucratic white shirt and obligatory "rep" tie, he lights a filtered cigarette, covertly undressing the pack beneath the desktop. He is, he insists, on top of the investigation conducted by a multiagency task force under the direction of his department. Furthermore, it has been a good investigation. Agnos says he sees nothing improper in the way the Tucson suspects were interrogated, and while he acknowledges it will be extremely difficult to re-arrest the Tucson men, he believes there will be more arrests in the case. It does not trouble him that at least one of the west Valley teenagers who remains charged in the crime has said that he doesn't know the Tucson suspects. And Agnos has no problem with the way the murder weapon was recovered and processed--although it took six weeks before ballistic reports linked the weapon to the crime.

The sheriff does not say it directly, but it is clear he wants to create the impression that there is much yet to be revealed in the case, information that would cast the temple-murder probe in an altogether more flattering light.

"There's been a lot of stuff we couldn't comment on," he says. "We couldn't talk about a lot of things that have been said or been speculated--[but] the perception has not always meshed with the reality."

He says sheriff's departments cannot choose their cases, that investigators only can do so much with the evidence they uncover. Though the politicians and the press are allowed to grow impatient with the progress of a case, Agnos says the only way to conduct an investigation is methodically, by checking out every possibility, however remote it may initially seem. Facts and scraps of information are processed, combed through, sorted and filed--it is the only way, the sheriff says, to ensure that nothing is overlooked. During a murder investigation, detectives are likely to have a number of strange conversations with various possible suspects. After someone has been linked to a crime, it is easy to look back and find significance in odd behavior or an inappropriate remark. But for the detectives, the first job is to load it all--the facts, rumors and scraps of carpet wool--into the investigative hopper.

Not that Agnos doesn't have his intuition. He believes that somewhere out there lurks a person who put two boys from Phoenix together with four men from Tucson for the express purpose of burglarizing Wat Promkunaram. The sheriff thinks there are others, perhaps not directly involved with the crime, who know something about what happened in the Buddhist temple. He hints that there is more to the statements of the two suspects in custody than what has been reported--he cannot discuss the details, but he does let the air hang pregnant with possibility.

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Philip Martin