Thunder Road

Driving defines Phoenix the way surfing shapes Venice Beach. Here, in this blacktop desert that stretches to the horizon, we all share in the drive. Behind every steering wheel slumps a stranger. You look through anyone else's windshield and a driver's character is no more distinct than a smudged fingerprint. A cop never knows who he's pulling over.

And that's only half of the story. That uniform in your rearview mirror? There's no telling what's eating him.

This is a tale about two men in cars who crossed paths in downtown Phoenix. One man is a cop, one isn't. Their three-year-old tragedy binds tighter this week with a trial scheduled to begin later this month. The drama refuses to unwind because neither man is capable of letting go. It's not in the one man's personality and, legally, it's beyond the other's grasp. Instead, the ending lurks in a courtroom, a poor location if you're looking for common sense.

One man drove drunk, and, before that offense was resolved, he succumbed to road rage. He is the police officer. Although he milked the system on his DUI, he still lost what he cared about most.

The cop's victim of violence stubbornly refused to compromise. This helped put him in prison after he was pulled over for allegedly rolling through a stop sign; he was sentenced to 10 years behind bars. Even the judge believes it's a miscarriage of justice. The parents' focus on their son's innocence fueled the devastation. The family's life savings turned to smoke in the legal incinerator. Worse, mama and papa were criminalized. Incredibly, their boy has been arrested three times -- including this beef -- for aggravated assault on police officers. In the end, his innocence might be less important than the law of averages.

Of course, "the facts" are all more complicated and compelling than these few sentences. As you read this, both men are, for the third time, testifying before a jury. Yet no one in any courtroom has heard the full story. The third time won't be any different.

Officer Warren Poole's story is simple. Shortly before 9 a.m. on February 6, 2002, he observed a suspect in a blue pickup truck, Luciano Arriaga Jr., fail to come to a complete stop at the intersection of Third Street and Grant. The suspect ignored the stop sign on the corner and, in effect, did a California roll. Officer Poole made contact with the suspect, who resisted arrest and hit the policeman with a two-by-four, causing a scalp laceration that took six stitches to close.

On the face of it, this is a shocking story about street violence directed at a policeman. Who hits a cop with a two-by-four?

But Officer Poole's story changes every time he tells it.

In fact, this confrontation is a stunning example of police paranoia that nearly ended in a killing.

To begin with, Luciano Arriaga never ran that stop sign. The traffic citation was thrown out when the physical evidence clearly showed that Officer Poole couldn't even see the stop sign from where his patrol car was parked. The policeman admitted to the judge that he did not actually see a violation. Rather, he used his intuition to determine that one had occurred when he saw a second vehicle braking as Arriaga drove through the intersection.

Case dismissed.

The traffic ticket, however, was chump change. The real drama would occur in Superior Court when prosecutors charged Arriaga with resisting arrest and aggravated assault. The stakes were huge. Sentences for agg assault are drastic when the victim is a police officer.

Ignore for a second the fact that Officer Poole initially lied about the stop sign. When you examine the files and review the testimony, you have to wonder how any prosecutor could go forward when the only witness, the policeman, spun so many contradictory scenarios about the fight. Prosecutors won't tell you this on the record, but, the reality is, if you get in a fight with a cop, you're going to end up in court. Period.

When other cops arrived on the scene, the slightly built Arriaga was pinned but struggling under the bleeding Officer Poole. Once the suspect was handcuffed and deposited in the back seat of a cruiser, Poole was taken to a hospital where he gave Detective Ricky Newberry the following account about what transpired after Arriaga proceeded past the stop sign.

Because the Phoenix Police Department viewed Officer Poole as a victim of assault, he wasn't allowed to fill out a police report of the incident. His statement to Detective Newberry is the official record.

"He was obviously doing over 25. . . . It seemed like he was trying to move out of the area at a pretty good clip," Poole recalled, referring to the driver. "He [was] putting his foot into the accelerator."

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Michael Lacey
Contact: Michael Lacey