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"Tough" Sheriff Joe Arpaio Let a Murderer Go to Kill Again

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Not too long ago, I ran across a line in a letter signed by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, one recently obtained through a standard public-records request.

It's highly unlikely Arpaio actually wrote it, but this sentence stuck in my mind all the same:

"The investigation of a homicide is one of the greatest challenges and profound responsibilities a law enforcement agency can undertake."


Stephen Lemons

Most of us would agree with that statement, no matter where we reside on the political map.

Republican, Democrat, Libertarian — most accept the premise (unless you're an outright anarchist who believes all police forces should be abolished) that investigating a homicide should be high, if not highest, on the list of priorities for law enforcement.

Especially if you're the top lawman in a county larger than the state of New Jersey who bills himself as "America's toughest sheriff."

But as has been made plain by several news outlets, including this one, Arpaio ain't as tough as he claims, particularly if you're the victim of a rapist or child molester in one of the hundreds of cases botched by the MCSO in the town of El Mirage and elsewhere ("To Hell With the Children," February 16).

Which may be why his re-election campaign is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on television commercials, such as the one in which the 80-year-old law dog pleads for votes like a spoiled kid asking Mommy for another piece of chocolate.

"Despite all the criticism," Joe tells the camera, plaintively, "I've always been tough on criminals."

Arpaio goes on to insist that he's "never backed down from a fight" and that he "never will."

Except when it comes to a verbal fight with Democratic candidate for sheriff Paul Penzone.

The former Phoenix Police Department sergeant and onetime lead cop for Silent Witness would no doubt wipe the floor with the geriatric bonehead in a one-on-one debate.

Which is why Arpaio's camp has ixnayed that possibility.

So just how is Arpaio "tough"? Oh, that's right, he's supposedly tough on illegal immigrants. But only if they're cooks and car washers working without proper paperwork.

What if it's an illegal immigrant who killed someone? Alas, that's where Arpaio's reputed toughness takes a holiday, particularly in the case of Arturo Hernandez Jr.

Hernandez is doing 23 years in prison for the deaths of two women: his girlfriend Rachel Rodriguez, whom he shot in the head in 2005, leaving her corpse in the closet of Rodriguez's El Mirage home; and Jessica Lopez, who died in a 2007 car crash as Hernandez was driving drunk and speeding in and out of traffic in Yavapai County.

Lopez, an attractive woman with long, thick black hair and three small children, was just days away from her 30th birthday when she died in the crash that resulted from Hernandez driving with a blood-alcohol content more than three times the legal limit.

Hernandez escaped with minor injuries and later was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 13 years in prison.

Lopez's sister, Maria, told me that Hernandez was driving her sister to Las Vegas for a pre-birthday celebration with friends. Maria says her sister "really wasn't looking for a relationship" but that Jessica had met Hernandez online and befriended him, even though Hernandez had lied about himself, using an image of his brother for his profile photo.

Remembering her sister's forgiving, welcoming nature, Maria said she had some sympathy for Hernandez at the time of his sentencing, even though her family had been devastated by the loss.

"I felt bad," she explained, sitting in the living room of her grandmother's home in West Phoenix. "He made the wrong decision, drinking and driving . . . I tried not to have so much anger toward him. I thought Jessica might want that."

But what Maria and her family did not — and could not — know was that just two years earlier, Hernandez had killed Rodriguez, another dark-haired single mother of three.

There was nothing accidental about Rodriguez's death.

From 2005 to 2007, El Mirage contracted with the MCSO for police services. However, the Sheriff's Office had higher priorities than solving crimes and keeping the community safe.

Some of them included sending deputies to Honduras in a scheme meant to benefit facial-recognition technology pimped by ex-Chief Deputy David Hendershott ("Jabba in Paradise," January 24, 2008) and ginning up bogus charges on the sheriff's political enemies ("Who's Sorry Now?" October 25, 2007).

Meanwhile, burglaries, rapes, child molestations, and even homicides were going neglected. And the Rodriguez slaying, which occurred just before the MCSO took over police duties in El Mirage, was one.

According to former El Mirage Assistant Police Chief Bill Louis' damning account of the MCSO's law enforcement debacle, titled If There Were Any Victims, Hernandez was allowed to roam free because the MCSO simply did not do the job it had been hired to do.

Rodriguez had told family members that she was breaking up with Hernandez on a weekend when her three boys were going to be away, visiting their father in California. Hernandez was an abusive loser, and she was done with him.

The family suspected Hernandez from jump, noting that he had called Rodriguez's parents looking for a lift the night of the murder, an obvious attempt to establish an alibi.

And Hernandez never bothered to show up at the funeral of the woman he'd been living with for a year.

"All the evidence pointed to Arturo Hernandez as Rachel Rodriguez's killer," writes Louis in his book. "But the case was never pursued by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office."

After El Mirage asked the MCSO to leave, deciding to reform its police force with new leadership, the new team looked at the Rodriguez case and saw it was solvable.

Hernandez made it easy for them. Because he was in prison for the manslaughter of Jessica Lopez, investigators were able to score a DNA sample and interview him. Though the murder weapon never was located, they were able to make their case to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office.

Ultimately, Hernandez took a plea deal, copping to second-degree murder, which added 10 years to the 13 he already was serving.

Maria Lopez learned of the Rodriguez homicide when a relative spotted Hernandez's picture in a newspaper and alerted her to it. She and her family were shocked and angered.

"If that man was put behind bars like he should have been a long time ago, my sister would never have met him," she said. "Her life would never have been taken away."

Maria and her sister, Lisa, told me that Jessica's children and her mother have had a tough time of it.

In Jessica's online obituary, Jessica's children and other family members still leave messages, talking to her as if she were alive. Her birthday and the upcoming holidays bring with them painful memories.

Like most everyone with a TV in Maricopa County, the sisters have seen Arpaio's campaign commercials, including one praising him as a lover and protector of horses and dogs.

"It's like he's focusing more on animals," Lisa said, sitting next to her sister on their grandmother's couch. "Instead of focusing on that, he should be focusing on all these sex crimes."

Neither is the family of Rachel Rodriguez happy with the Sheriff's Office. Yes, Hernandez finally was charged with the crime of murdering their family member.

But Rodriguez's sister, Diane Soza, says if the case had not been so badly bungled and ignored for years, Hernandez might not have had the luxury of a plea deal that got him a mere decade for murder.

I spoke to Soza recently at her home in Scottsdale, with her nephew, Aidan, Rodriguez's 16 year-old son. After her sister's death, she took all three boys into her home to raise as her own.

"The prosecutor didn't want to take it to trial," she said of the murder case against Hernandez. "They didn't think they could convict him because it had been so botched up. They were just afraid he'd walk."

So Soza and her family had to accept Hernandez getting only 10 years for the murder, a pittance of a sentence for stripping three boys of their mother.

Aiden said Hernandez owned a gun and had lied to them about training to be a cop. He and his brothers were afraid that Hernandez might come back and kill them, since they had seen him argue with their mother and were sure he was responsible for the shooting.

Hernandez also had been to Soza's house and may have known the boys were with her.

"I was, like, 9 at the time," Aiden said, wide-eyed. "And this guy had killed my mom."

Only when the case finally was brought to court did his fear begin to subside.

"I felt a little safer after I found out that he'd finally been charged after so many years." he told me. "That kind of brought relief."

Both Aiden and his aunt were aghast at the circumstances surrounding Jessica Lopez's death. The families communicated with each other, after the Lopezes contacted Diane.

"If they would have done their job," Aiden said of the sheriff's investigators, "[Jessica Lopez] would still be alive. They just didn't put any effort into it."

Needless to say, it doesn't sound like anyone in either family of the two victims will be voting for Sheriff Joe. Beyond the incompetence and ineffectiveness of the MCSO, both families are Latino and disagree with Arpaio's war on Hispanics.

"I look at him with disgust," Soza told me. "I really do believe he is a racist."

Like Maria Lopez, Soza, too, has seen Arpaio's commercials.

"These ads are just so ridiculous," she said. "They're trying to make him look more caring by [saying] he loves animals and kids . . . Oh, God!"

Aiden nodded his head in agreement. He's a junior in high school and thinking of joining the U.S. Army. He's eyeing becoming an Army Ranger one day. Muscular, with broad shoulders, he looks like he'd fit the bill.

I'm sure his mother would be proud.

By the way, that Arpaio letter I referred to above? I mentioned it in my recent profile of Penzone ("Do or Die in the Desert," October 4). It was a letter written to former Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris, thanking his department — including Penzone (then at Silent Witness) — for help in solving a crime.

What kind of crime did Penzone help solve? A murder, of course.

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