On Election Day, Phelps' letter of resignation hit Ayars' desk. Phelps told the director he was leaving to become an executive assistant to Symington, filling the same law enforcement liaison role that Milstead had with Mofford. When Ayars reminded him that the election was not yet over, Phelps expressed confidence that Symington would be the next governor. According to Ayars, the two men shook hands and Phelps left on good terms.
A high-level DPS officer says Symington asked Phelps to resign before the votes were counted as "a show of confidence," and that under departmental rules, Phelps could have rescinded his retirement at any time provided he had not accepted any retirement checks. Almost immediately after Phelps resigned, Ayars moved to appoint a new deputy director. Sources inside DPS said Phelps had suggested that David St. John, the head of the Criminal Investigations Bureau, be elevated to the position. Ayars, however, selected Sterna--head of administration--as his top deputy and immediately sent the paperwork to lame-duck Governor Mofford for approval.
When Phelps discovered that Ayars had moved so quickly to replace him, he went to Ayars and told him he should wait until Symington assumed office before picking a new number two. Ayars, however, thought the decision was his to make. Sterna became deputy director of DPS in March.
Sterna and Phelps were friends. Still, Phelps was "livid" over the timing of the appointment--he thought Symington should be given the opportunity to approve a new deputy director. A new era had begun. After he left DPS, Phelps began to criticize Ayars openly.
IN HIS YEARS with DPS, Phelps earned a reputation as a careful and deliberate investigator, politically astute, loyal to his allies and capable of getting even.
"Gary Phelps is a very secretive, play-'em-close-to-the-vest type of individual," a former high-ranking DPS officer says. "He believes that knowledge is power, and any knowledge that he has that you don't have gives him that much more power over you. . . . He thought the next logical step was director. When he didn't get it, he was understandably disappointed."
Former director Milstead, who says he still considers both Ayars and Phelps friends, calls Phelps "extremely intelligent," "patient" and "cautious." As he rose through the ranks, Phelps was always careful to make and maintain contacts through every level of the department. Several DPS officers have described a loose network of people at all levels with whom Phelps talked on a regular basis. Some believe Phelps maintained his own intelligence network; others think he was just a very conscientious deputy director who wanted direct feedback from the grunts. In any case, after Phelps moved to the Governor's Office, he took his Rolodex with him, and continued to check in with his "people."
In August of this year, David St. John, Phelps' choice for the deputy director's post, was tabbed by Symington to head up Operation SLIM, a project aimed at eliminating waste in state government. When Ayars moved to replace St. John as head of the department's Criminal Investigations Bureau, Phelps told him to leave the post open, that St. John's assignment was only temporary. Ayars balked and Phelps became angry with him, reportedly threatening to have Symington remove him from his post as DPS director.
This could not have been an easy position for Rick Ayars. The person directly above him in the chain of command, that sacred avenue from which law enforcement professionals are asked never to stray, was a man who had coveted his job. To get to the Governor, Ayars now had to go through Phelps.
And Phelps, who wasn't exactly his boss but was at least his boss's mouthpiece, was telling Ayars to leave a crucial position unfilled for an unspecified length of time. Ayars needed a criminal investigations chief, but he reluctantly went along with the Ninth Floor, holding the post open for St. John until October 7, when he transferred Lieutenant Colonel Gary Ross from DPS' Criminal Justice Support (CJS) division to fill the CIB vacancy. Ayars continues to hold the CJS position open for St. John. Earlier, Phelps had begun to conduct his investigation into the irregularities in the Tucson undercover drug operation.
At a June 26 meeting with cabinet officers, Symington asked Ayars about some of the problems with the Tucson case, according to Rita Pearson. She said there was some concern when the DPS director seemed to avoid the question, giving the Governor less than a complete answer.
Ayars disputes Pearson's version of events. He says he raised the issue with the Governor because he was concerned about reports in the Tucson newspapers that indicated the defense attorneys had alleged misconduct by DPS. Pearson also said there was some concern when Ayars ordered his own internal audit of the case and asked that it be completed within 30 rather than the customary 60 days. The haste with which Ayars called for the investigation seemed suspicious.