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

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."

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.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons