Shocking News: Sheriff Joe Arpaio Sued Over Two More Inmate Deaths


You can file this one under "Dog Bites Man."

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio faces two more lawsuits over inmates who died in his care. Both suits were filed last month by Phoenix attorney Joel Robbins. And at least one of them, we suspect, is going to be expensive for Maricopa County taxpayers, who've already shelled out a staggering $43 million to cover lawsuit settlements and expenses to families of jail abuse victims during Arpaio's tenure.

The suit in question was filed by the family of Robert Cotton (pictured to the right), the inmate who was infamously beaten to death in a 19-minute attack captured on jail surveillance video. The horrific attack, first reported by KPHO Channel 5, can be seen in this video posted on the New Times Web site last year.

As Robbins' suit alleges, four inmates walked into a cell where Cotton was housed. Inmate Pete Vanwinkle (the guy on the left in our photo) then allegedly pummeled, kicked, and choked Cotton, "in plain view of the jail's surveillance camera."

The lawsuit goes on, "The attack continues for fifteen minutes in the cell, at which time Vanwinkle dragged [Cotton's] body into the hallway, again in full view of the jail's surveillance camera, where the attack continued for another five minutes ..."

The attack, Robbins concludes, "would have been observable and preventable but for the Defendant's failure to monitor the camera."

Robbins' summation sounds pretty accurate to us -- although we should note, at the time the snuff film became national news, the county's detention chief actually told the Arizona Republic that the MCSO is confident the death "could not have been prevented." They also claimed the officer on duty in the control tower did his job "exactly as trained."

Really, sometimes you wonder how they can keep a straight face. Or, for that matter, just what kind of training they bother to do over there!

The second lawsuit involves a case that's attracted far less publicity, but here are the facts as Robbins presents them. James Cole, 27, had been treated for mental illness at the Arizona Department of Corrections, but while under Arpaio's care in the county jail. he was released into the general population just about one month after being booked in December 2007 -- despite making it clear he had "suicidal and homicidal ideations," per the lawsuit.

One week after Cole was placed into the general population in January 2008, the suit alleges, Maricopa County Sheriff's deputies actually gave the poor guy a disposable razor. You can imagine what happened next: slashed wrists, dead inmate.

Stories like Cole's are all too common in Arpaio's jails, but we suspect the sheriff may have more exposure than usual in this one. That's because the jails lost their accreditation last year -- the National Commission on Correctional Health Care ruled that they don't meet U.S. standards. We can all but guarantee that'll be a major issue in the Cole case. 

Robbins declined comment, deferring to the court filings. And, though we contacted the sheriff's flack, Lisa Allen, we didn't get a call by press time.

We'll let you know if we hear back, but we're betting Arpaio's guys don't want to talk much about either of these. A brutal 20-minute attack under the watch of jailhouse cameras, a suicidal inmate given a razor -- it's gonna be pretty hard to characterize either of these lawsuits as "frivolous." Not, of course, that we'd put it past them.