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And there are questions as to how close Ayars was to the operation.
In March 1989, when a confidential informant first agreed to help the police infiltrate the marijuana smuggling ring, Ayars was the head of the Criminal Investigations Bureau (CIB). As such, he participated in some preliminary discussions about how the undercover operation might be set up.

But the first informant backed out, stalling the operation. When another informant came forward in October 1989, Ayars had already been named interim director of DPS by then-Governor Rose Mofford. Two levels of DPS bureaucracy insulated Ayars from the goings-on in Tucson--the chief of criminal investigations and the DPS deputy director, positions held respectively by David St. John and Phelps. Given the structure of DPS at the time, Phelps could be seen as more responsible than Ayars for the problems with the Tucson case, but neither was directly involved.

"You've got to trust your command officers," a former high-ranking DPS officer says. "You can't run an operation from your office. If they mess up, they mess up, but you've got to give them their head."

Sources in DPS say Phelps was among a small group of officers which noted its disapproval of the Tucson operation at the time it was under way, adding that Phelps' "hands-on" involvement with the case was restricted to a weekly meeting with St. John in which the CIB head briefed him on all ongoing investigations.

Though the DPS audit indicated sloppy case-management practices, it turned up no evidence of criminal activity on the part of Ayars, Sterna or anyone else at DPS.

It was a highly self-critical report, and it had been ordered by Ayars. To effectively suppress the report would have required the collaboration of several others within DPS, from the three-man inspection team to the captain in charge of the department's Inspections and Control Unit to the secretaries who tapped into their word processors. And, as one former high-ranking DPS officer says, while it might be a useful bureaucratic fiction to pretend the Governor's staff seized the only two copies of the report, other copies surely existed on computer disk and in the private files of those who handled the report before Sterna. Though the Governor said the suspensions were necessary to prevent the report's suppression, its contents were no secret.

Neither was the bad feeling between Phelps and his former boss Rick Ayars.
So chilly was the relationship between the two men that there had been rumors Symington might ask Ayars to resign or take other measures to remove the head of DPS. Phelps had described the ill-starred Tucson undercover drug operation as Ayars' "Achilles' heel" and as a "skeleton in his closet" to several people in law enforcement circles. The pervasive feeling among cops was that Phelps "would get Ayars if he could."

SINCE THE LATE 1960s, DPS directors have enjoyed five-year terms that don't coincide with the governors' four-year terms. And while the director of DPS is appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state legislature, the DPS director does not serve at the pleasure of the governor. Under Arizona law, the director can be removed only for cause, "including but not limited to malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance in office."

Phelps was well aware of the statutory protection afforded the DPS director. He had been the deputy director--the department's number-two man--under Ralph Milstead. When, in the summer of 1989, Milstead left the agency to become then-Governor Mofford's executive assistant in charge of law enforcement, Phelps saw himself as the heir apparent. Sources in DPS say he was confident he would be appointed to the post. They say he discussed the job with Ayars and other possible candidates, and asked for their support. Apparently, neither Ayars nor any other DPS officer indicated that he would actively seek the position.

Milstead says that when he left DPS he recommended to Governor Mofford that the DPS directorship be filled from within. "I thought the department had earned that," Milstead says. "And I gave her two names of people I thought could do the job: my deputy director, Gary Phelps, and my chief of criminal investigations, Rick Ayars."

When Mofford told him she had decided on Ayars for the top slot, Milstead thought, "`Gee, maybe I didn't do a very good selling job on Gary Phelps.'" When he asked the Governor if she wanted to discuss Phelps further, he says she told him Ayars was her choice.

Mofford has said that Phelps personally approached her and asked for the job but she rejected him because he lacked widespread support within the law enforcement community. One DPS source says he heard that of the police officers informally polled by Mofford, only two indicated Phelps would be their first choice to head DPS. On the other hand, Rick Ayars, who had been with DPS for 22 years, was generally well-liked and respected.

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Philip Martin