Ex-Con Status Won't Help Victims in ACLU Racial Profiling Lawsuit Against Maricopa County Sheriff's Office

Manuel Nieto Jr., Manuel Nieto Sr. and Velia Meraz

By Ray Stern

Two Phoenix siblings who claim in an ACLU lawsuit that they were racially profiled and harassed by Maricopa County Sheriff's deputies both have criminal records.

As Manuel Nieto Jr. and Velia Meraz explained to me on Tuesday, their past troubles don't give anyone -- including Sheriff Arpaio's deputies -- the right to stomp on their civil rights.

Still, their status as ex-cons can't help but weaken their credibility as alleged victims.

Meraz, 36, is a convicted fraudster who served six months in Arpaio's jail in 2006. Her crime: Ripping off immigrants while she worked for the Catholic Social Services.

Nieto Jr., 41, has a troubling rap sheet that includes convictions for aggravated harassment, unlawful imprisonment and second-degree burglary. He recently served three years in state prison and was released in February.

The ACLU lawsuit, naturally, never mentions the siblings' background. Neither does a July article about them in the Arizona Republic.

But someone at the Republic should have noticed that Meraz was mentioned in an archived May 2006 Republic article by veteran police reporter William Hermann, entitled, "Turning to crime: Number of Arizona women behind bars escalating."

A Google search for Meraz brings up this abstract of the article on, but you have to pay an archive fee if you want to read the whole thing. I'll save you the trouble: Here's the part that quotes Meraz:

Meraz, 33, said many women don't want to turn to crime; they have to. "We're more on our own, nobody taking care of us or being a partner, and when you're left with a child or three, and the man has just taken off, you do what you have to do to take care of them," she said.

On Tuesday, Meraz denied she was interviewed by any reporter while in jail. But the timing is right -- Meraz was in the middle of her jail sentence when the 2006 article came out. Meraz gave Maricopa County Adult Probation a similar excuse for what she calls her "mistake" in her presentence report:

"As a single parent of three young children, the defendant had found herself in a 'difficult [financial] situation' in trying to pay the mortgage," the report states.

Court records show that while employed as a Catholic Social Services immigration case worker in Phoenix, Meraz talked a few clients into giving her blank money orders on the pretense that she'd help them get green cards. Instead, she put her own name on the money orders and deposited them into her bank account. Catholic Social Services told the probation department Meraz had victimized at least nine immigrants, soaking them for a total of about $8,000.

Meraz won't discuss the incident, and Nieto Jr. says he's not ashamed of his prison record. Both seem confident that their story of being harassed by deputies is true, making their criminal past a moot point.

Indeed, their story has its own merits. And the Sheriff's Office has many credibility problems itself, especially in regard to this ACLU lawsuit. As New Times pointed out in this blog earlier this month, Arpaio's office blatantly lied in a press release that another alleged racial profiling victim from the lawsuit, Jessica Rodriguez, "admitted" no profiling had occurred.

Nieto Jr. and Meraz say on March 28, they took a break from working at their father's business, Manny's Auto Repair, to grab some Gatorade and cigarettes at the convenience store pictured here on Cave Creek Road.

As they pulled into a parking space in front of the store, Meraz was singing along to a Spanish-language tune on their van's radio. They noticed a single deputy apparently busting two Hispanic men near the gas pumps. The deputy began yelling at them and accused them of disturbing the peace, they say. Meraz says she asked the deputy for his badge number, and he gave it. The lawsuit identifies him as Deputy Albert Armendariz.

The deputy kept screaming at them to leave, they say, so they drove back to the repair shop while Nieto Jr. called 911 on his cell phone to report the harassment. Just as they pulled in, numerous Sheriff's Office vehicles blocked them in the shop's driveway. Several deputies pointed firearms at them, and one deputy dragged Nieto Jr. from the van while he was still on the phone and handcuffed him.

Manuel Nieto Sr. heard the commotion and came out to see what was going on. Two deputies screamed at him to go back inside.

"I said, 'No! This is my place. I'm a U.S. citizen, and those are my children, and they're citizens,'" Nieto Sr. says.

The family members say the deputies seemed surprised by the assertion. The deputies cleared out within minutes.

Nieto Sr. says he attended an anti-Arpaio, pro-immigration rally in Cave Creek a few days later and began asking if anyone there knew a good attorney. Someone -- he forgets who -- referred him to an attorney who called the family that same day. Weeks went by, and then they got another call from an ACLU representative who told them their incident was being included in the lawsuit.

The Sheriff's Office claims it has absolutely no record of any incident last March involving Nieto Jr., Meraz or Manuel's Auto Repair. It seems reasonable to think that when deputies draw down on a couple of innocent people, some paperwork might be involved. So the lack of records might mean the incident never actually occurred.

It also might mean the Sheriff's Office is trying to cover up something.

Meraz does have some supporting evidence on her side. Soon after the deputies drove off on March 28, she called the Sheriff's Office and demanded to know the names of the deputies who had stopped them in front of her father's shop. And the operator gave them at least two names: Deputies Douglas Beeks and Cesar Brockman.

The names of the deputies are in the lawsuit, but the Sheriff's Office -- suspiciously -- has not denied Beeks and Brockman were involved in the incident.

And if they were involved, there should be a record of it.

Both Meraz and Nieto Jr. want the public to know they aren't seeking a dime in the ACLU lawsuit. They say they just want Arpaio's deputies to quit racially profiling Hispanics. They'd also like to see Arpaio defeated in November's election.

Nieto Jr. says he hopes the public wakes up to the fact that Arpaio is wasting taxpayer money by going after low-level immigrants instead of "real" criminals. Both siblings seem sincere about their desire to force Arpaio to change his ways.

But there's little doubt that their criminal records will make it tougher for them to sell their message to the public.