Defense attorney Ulises A. Ferragut Jr. will employ the defense next month in the long-awaited trial of James Brian Saville, who was 18 when he was arrested in July of 1999, for allegedly planning to do in Sheriff Joe with a rudimentary car bomb. The televised arrest came a day after Saville's release after serving an 18-month prison sentence for attempting to blow up an unoccupied high school.
The initial news accounts of the alleged plot against Arpaio were based primarily on statements by the sheriff and his chief deputy, David Hendershott. The two practically described Saville as the next Unabomber and claimed he was intent on killing Arpaio as soon as he was let go.
Yet there appears to be more to the story than the blustery rhetoric of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office would lead anyone to believe.
Ferragut last month stated in court filings that sheriff's detectives, a prison informant, and an undercover sheriff's deputy posing as a Mafia hit man conspired to entice Saville into making threatening statements about Arpaio and into starting to build a bomb in exchange for a promised $4,000.
"The conspiracy to murder Sheriff Arpaio was created, initiated, and orchestrated by the Sheriff's Office with the assistance of [its] informant/agent Thomas Morgan," Ferragut argued in a November 27 motion to dismiss the case, which is scheduled to go to trial on January 6.
Prosecutors contend that Saville admitted after his arrest that "he talked about killing a judge, a prosecutor, and Sheriff Arpaio."
The stakes in the case are high. Saville faces 28 years to life in prison if convicted of conspiracy to commit murder. But the evidence presented so far raises serious questions about the conduct of Arpaio's office in the investigation that led to Saville's arrest.
At the heart of the case are 120 audio tapes of prison-cell conversations between Saville and Morgan that the sheriff's office secretly recorded. Detectives bugged Saville's cell after Morgan had sent a letter to his pastor claiming that his cellmate, Saville, was intent on killing the prosecutor and judge in the case that sent Saville to prison. Morgan's letter also stated that Saville had expressed a desire to kill Arpaio.
After the pastor turned over the letter to the sheriff's office, its upper echelon sprung into action. Arpaio has treated alleged death threats, no matter how far-fetched and unlikely, as a very high priority, even offering $10,000 rewards for information. At the same time, Arpaio has deftly used the media to report the threats -- further cultivating his coveted image as America's toughest sheriff.
Immediately after receiving Morgan's letters, sheriff's detectives were dispatched to the Perryville prison, where they began a series of meetings with Morgan. A chronic criminal who has spent years in prisons in Missouri and Arizona, Morgan is an experienced informant. On two previous occasions, he had provided information to prosecutors that helped lead to convictions. David Powell, the prosecutor on one of these cases, is also the prosecutor in the Saville case.
For his help in the past, Morgan had received reduced sentences. Court records show that Morgan, who claimed to be very sick from AIDS, was desperately seeking early release from prison (he was last incarcerated after a fraudulent-schemes conviction) when he sent the letter to his pastor.
Detectives held their first meeting with Morgan on June 30, 1999 -- 10 days before Saville's scheduled release from prison. During the session, Morgan claimed Saville had said "he'd be a hero if he blew up Sheriff Joe" but that Saville had "never said that I'm gonna go and do this tomorrow."
Morgan also told detectives that he thought Saville was "psychotic" and that Saville was so obsessed with explosives that he drew bomb diagrams.
After the meeting, sheriff's detectives began to monitor conversations between Morgan and Saville. But during 18 hours of eavesdropping, Saville never suggested any plan or desire to harm -- much less murder -- Arpaio, the judge or the prosecutor, Ferragut stated in pleadings.
"In fact, the only person [who] is heard making derogatory or threatening remarks toward the Sheriff's Office is Thomas Morgan," Ferragut said.
In another meeting with Morgan on July 3, 1999, detectives told him to suggest to Saville that he had a friend who could set Saville up with a post-release apartment. The friend, whom they called "Yancey," was really an undercover sheriff's deputy.
Morgan went back to the cell, where authorities overheard him telling Saville that he would be a "national hero" and that there would be a "parade" and "movie" about him if he killed the sheriff. "If you kill the judge and kill the prosecutor . . . and then kill Sheriff Joe, you will go out in a blaze of glory," Morgan told Saville.
On July 6, 1999, detectives met again with Morgan, telling the informant that they needed "to build a criminal case" against Saville. At that time, Morgan reported that Saville seemed more intent on going after the prosecutor in his case, Jim Blake.
Apparently, this was disappointing news to the detectives.
"He's not well-known," Detective Paul Dougherty responded. "Everybody knows Arpaio."
Dougherty then told Morgan to not only tell Saville that Yancey could provide an apartment but that he "doesn't like Joe at all." The detective went on to say that Morgan should maintain that Yancey has "some money" and that Yancey could "make it worth your while . . . to make a bomb."
Morgan expressed confidence that Saville would take the bait. "Oh, he'll do it," Morgan said, according to the transcript of the meeting.
The detectives and Morgan met still again on July 7, 1999, two days before Saville's release. This time, they told Morgan they wanted him to pressure Saville into calling Yancey as soon as possible. "Plant the idea that Yancey can set him up in a hotel room," the detectives urged.
Back in the cell, Morgan was heard repeatedly urging Saville to call Yancey when he got out. He suggested that, by so doing, Saville would be taking a big step toward becoming a mobster.
Saville was released on July 9. The next day, he called Yancey and the two went shopping for bomb parts in a car supplied and driven by the undercover cop, who financed the spree.
Saville later claimed in police interviews that he was operating his own "sting" and that he believed there was a chance that Yancey might really be a cop instead of a mobster. He said his plan was to partially build the bomb, collect $2,000, and flee with the money.
But Saville would never get the chance.
After he partially assembled the bomb in a hotel room equipped with sheriff's department spy cameras, Yancey counted out $2,000 in $20s and tossed the money into a box containing the unfinished weapon. Saville was heard saying he would finish assembling the bomb later.
The men then drove to a restaurant where Arpaio was eating to case the scene. They left the uncompleted bomb and the $2,000 at the hotel. Arpaio's $70,000 armor-plated car was parked outside.
During a police interview after his arrest, Saville told detectives that Yancey, once they were in the parking lot, had asked him where the bomb should be placed on the car.
"He pointed, wanted me to say how I was gonna blow it up. . . . I told him, well, I'm not gonna blow it up because, um. I told him not for a couple like months or so," Saville said, according to the transcript.
Finally, Saville told investigators, Yancey said he wanted a cigarette and got out of the car they were in.
"The next thing I know, there's 100 police officers and a helicopter and everything, and I'm up against the car," Saville recounted to investigators. "I don't know what the hell happened."
Confused as he was, Saville became certain about one thing.
"I'm in deep shit," he told an interrogator later.
Forty-one months later, Saville sits in his jail cell awaiting a trial that will determine whether he is guilty of conspiracy to commit murder -- or is just another stooge for Arpaio's relentless publicity machine.