Blue Lies Matter: Ex-Phoenix Cop Sergio Virgillo Told the Truth About Killer Cop Richard Chrisman, Inciting the Wrath of Local Police Union PLEA

Former Phoenix police officer Sergio Virgillo remembers the point of no return for what should have been a routine call to a trailer park in South Phoenix, when fellow cop Richard Chrisman took his Glock 22 and pressed it so hard against the temple of Daniel Rodriguez that it bent Rodriguez’s head to one side.

Chrisman and Rodriguez had been “going at it verbally,” Virgillo explained during an exclusive interview with New Times about the tragic events of October 5, 2010. With Virgillo close behind, Chrisman had just opened the unlocked door of a small mobile home, encountering two barking dogs and Rodriguez.

The two officers wanted to interview Rodriguez about domestic violence allegations by Rodriguez’s mother. Rodriguez resented the intrusion. He hollered at the cops to get the fuck out of his home, telling them they didn’t have a warrant to be inside his residence.

Virgillo, a thin, intense man with sharp features and closely cropped, graying hair, said during a recent conversation at a local cafe that Chrisman put the gun to Rodriguez’s left temple, telling the 29-year-old, “We don’t need a fucking search warrant.”

The officer holstered his weapon, but it was too late. As a jury would later conclude, Chrisman had just committed aggravated assault. Chrisman’s action shocked Virgillo, who had been on the force for 14 years by that time, compared to Chrisman’s 10. Before that day, despite many years working patrol, Virgillo told New Times that he had “never seen an officer put a gun to somebody’s head.”

Chrisman had crossed a neon-bright line, and Virgillo believes he knew it, leading to what happened next: a struggle that involved the use of Tasers and pepper spray, with Chrisman ultimately shooting and killing Rodriguez’s pit bull, Junior, seconds before turning the gun again on Rodriguez, firing at point-blank range and hitting him twice in the chest.

Afterward, Chrisman donned plastic gloves in order to cuff Rodriguez, but Virgillo told him to forget it. Rodriguez was dead.

Investigators soon arrived on the scene, and Chrisman clammed up, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. At trial, Chrisman’s defense would be that Virgillo had abandoned him, leaving him alone to battle a violent suspect, whom the medical examiner’s autopsy would reveal to be high on meth. Fearing for his life, Chrisman said he had no choice but to kill Rodriguez and the dog in self-defense.

But on a walk-through at the crime scene on the day of the incident, Virgillo told investigators that neither the dog nor Rodriguez posed a threat to the officers. Rather, Chrisman was the aggressor, and when Rodriguez grabbed his bike and tried to leave, Chrisman first shot the dog, then Rodriguez.

After hearing Virgillo’s version of events, police arrested Chrisman at the scene for aggravated assault. A week later, a Maricopa County grand jury indicted Chrisman for that charge, as well as second-degree murder and cruelty to animals.

Following a 23-day trial in 2013, a jury found Chrisman guilty of aggravated assault, deadlocking on the other two charges. Rather than face a retrial, Chrisman pleaded guilty to manslaughter and is serving a seven-year prison term in the Arizona Department of Corrections. His attorney, Craig Mehrens, declined comment for this story.

Chrisman is eligible for parole in three years, but Virgillo faces a life sentence of sorts — the hatred of some cops, who see him as a “rat” for breaking the blue wall of silence. The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, the city’s powerful police union, painted Virgillo as a coward who refused to help subdue a suspect. PLEA also went after Virgillo’s wife, and in a weird twist of fate, he was sued unsuccessfully by Rodriguez’s family when their lawsuit against the city of Phoenix failed.

Virgillo has since resigned from the force and now works as an investigator for the county public defender’s office, where, he said, he has never been happier. He agreed to revisit the dark days of the shooting, the trial, and its aftermath with New Times, lending insight into the use of force by law enforcement and the perils of acting on one’s conscience.

Also, in the course of reporting this story, New Times obtained previously unreleased Phoenix Police Department documents that belie Chrisman’s testimony at trial, and indicate that some members of PLEA may have been aware that Chrisman’s account of the incident was bogus, even as they doubled down on defending him in public.

Virgillo says he’s often told that he doesn’t “look like a cop,” and he doesn’t. He is lean, not beefy, a build born of running at least an hour every day for around the last 30 years or so, ever since he took up the exercise during a stint in the Army after high school.

Becoming a cop was not a natural progression for him. Raised in the East Valley, his father was originally from Italy and became a professor of Romance languages at Arizona State University. His mother taught French at a local high school. After three years in the Army to help pay for school, he majored in justice studies at ASU, graduating in 1996.

He says he was interested in the criminal-justice system but had not thought seriously about being a cop until he took the Phoenix police exam on a whim, did well, and scored a spot in the police academy. He spent most of his career on patrol, about four and a half years in the Phoenix Central Corridor’s Squaw Peak Precinct (since renamed Mountain View Precinct) and three and a half in South Phoenix’s South Mountain Precinct. 

He trained rookie cops in the field, and spent time training at the academy as well. He had stints in the Drug Enforcement and Professional Standards bureaus. He also worked on the Vice and Domestic Violence units.

Virgillo enjoyed being a cop, and apparently, he was good at it. In the lengthy police report for the Chrisman shooting, Virgillo’s supervisor described him as “the consummate professional” and as having “high integrity.” A former supervisor interviewed for the report called him “an all-around solid officer.”

In general, his personnel record was spotless, though after the shooting, CBS 5 News reported that Virgillo’s wife, Maria, had been found guilty in 2008 for her participation in a drug-smuggling ring that involved her brother. She received three years of probation. The PPD’s own investigation, which included wiretaps, showed that Virgillo, then a detective with the Drug Enforcement Bureau, knew nothing of his wife’s activities. In 2012, a superior court judge granted Maria’s request to have her felony conviction set aside.

By contrast, Chrisman’s history with the department was checkered. Though his personnel record contained some supervisor praise and notices of commendation, Chrisman landed himself on the so-called “Brady list” — a database of local cops whose past bad behavior, by law, must be revealed to the defense in any criminal trial — for an egregious 2005 incident, captured by a security camera, that showed Chrisman and other officers planting a crack pipe on a homeless, mentally ill black woman.

Chrisman and the other cops involved told investigators it was a “joke,” and claimed they didn’t charge the woman for possessing the crack pipe. In the video, Chrisman is seen handing the drug paraphernalia to a female officer, who puts it down the homeless woman’s dress, then pretends to find it. Chrisman was docked a day’s pay for the crack-pipe caper. There were a few other incidents in his personnel file, though none as serious.

Both officers were on the same squad in South Phoenix, 42 Adam, and had been on some calls together, but the two men were not partners. Ironically, on the morning of the shooting, both Chrisman and Virgillo had taken the same police-sponsored photography class, and ended up having lunch together at a Vietnamese restaurant. They talked generally about their families, Virgillo recalled in his interview with New Times.

Virgillo said the first call he responded to that day was to the Casa de Francisco Mobile Home Park, where his and Chrisman’s lives would change forever.

Rodriguez’s mother, Elvira Fernandez, had called 911 from a neighbor’s trailer, complaining about her son. She explained that about 15 minutes earlier, she had told Rodriguez to turn his music down and stop cussing. In response, Rodriguez “threw something at me and hit the wall and made a hole in the wall.”

Fernandez sounded calm, though tearful, throughout the call, telling the operator that “I’m afraid he’s going to hurt me, he’s hurt me before,” and that she was “in fear for my life.” She also told the dispatcher that there were no guns in the house, and that, “I just want him to leave ... I can’t take it anymore.”

Virgillo and Chrisman arrived separately, making contact with Fernandez at her neighbor’s trailer. They crossed into the property next door, where Fernandez and her son lived. The officers knocked on the door and windows, but no one answered. They went back to the neighbor’s trailer, and Fernandez gave them permission to enter her home, telling them the door was unlocked.

They returned to trailer No. 51, where Chrisman again knocked on the door, but still received no reply, so he turned the doorknob and stepped in.

Two dogs ran toward the door barking, and Virgillo, who was right behind Chrisman, said he could see Rodriguez coming toward them from the back of the trailer, challenging them, cursing angrily. Which is when Virgillo says Chrisman stuck his gun to Rodriguez’s head.

They had already decided that Chrisman was the “contact” officer on the call, with Virgillo acting as “cover” officer, whose duty was to observe and watch for threats. If the roles had been reversed at the beginning, the outcome would have been different, Virgillo explains.

“I would never have gone in,” Virgillo tells New Times. “That’s just not an intelligent thing to do. There’s no felony crime afoot. You have an allegation at best that a misdemeanor offense may have been committed.”

The smart thing would have been to go back and talk to Fernandez, seeing if anything her son had done rose to the level of a felony. If so, he and Chrisman could have assessed the danger, called a supervisor, maybe even treated it as a “barricade situation,” and called for backup. On the other hand, if there had been no felony to act upon, Fernandez had options, such as taking out an order of protection against her son.

But when Chrisman placed his gun to Rodriguez’s head, Virgillo says he had no choice but to try to help Chrisman take Rodriguez into custody. He claims he and Chrisman each grabbed one of Rodriguez’s arms, but he slipped from their grasp. Chrisman then sprayed Rodriguez in the face with pepper spray, but it barely affected him, perhaps because of the meth in his system.

Instead, the fumes nearly knocked out Virgillo, who says his throat closed up, forcing him outside for a second or two to catch his breath before going back into the trailer’s small, 13-by-15-foot living room, dense with clutter.

There Rodriguez continued to resist arrest by pulling away from Chrisman. Virgillo yelled at Chrisman to Tase Rodriguez, which Chrisman did, but the Taser’s metal prongs failed to connect. Chrisman tried what’s called “drive stunning” Rodriguez by applying the Taser directly to his midsection. This, too, was unsuccessful.

Virgillo then fired his Taser at Rodriguez, with the probes hitting Rodriguez, laying him flat as the electric current coursed through his body. After a few seconds, Rodriguez got right back up, tearing the probes from his chest.

With nothing else working, Virgillo decided to go back to “square one,” or what should have been square one. He tried to de-escalate the situation, asking Rodriguez to step outside, promising to take him wherever he wanted to go.

Virgillo told New Times that he wanted to get Rodriguez out of his environment, outside the trailer, where Virgillo and Chrisman could better control the situation. But before this could happen, both Rodriguez and his dog were dead.