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Arizona probes whether deputy targeted Hispanics

  • Article by: BRIAN SKOLOFF
  • Associated Press
  • May 19, 2014 - 7:00 PM

PHOENIX — An Arizona sheriff's deputy who recently killed himself may have been shaking down immigrants in an unusual case where authorities discovered hundreds of hours of recorded traffic stops, driver's licenses, passports and other documents in the man's home during a drug investigation, according to newly released court records.

The revelations tie the allegations of racial profiling against Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his office to the investigation into former Deputy Ramon Charley Armendariz, whose bizarre behavior earlier this month led to a standoff at his house and later, his May 8 hanging death while he was being investigated for drug possession and the trove of stashed documents and recordings.

Among the materials found at Armendariz's home were about 900 hours of recorded traffic stops; nearly 200 driver's licenses and identification cards; five U.S. immigration cards; 104 license plates; four foreign passports; and 26 credit, debit and merchant cards.

The information is detailed in transcripts of previous closed-door hearings released publicly late Friday.

While it remains unclear why Armendariz took the materials, a federal judge overseeing the racial profiling case against the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office asked staff and attorneys during a May 7 hearing "whether or not Deputy Armendariz may have been shaking down some illegal aliens."

"That is part of our understanding," said Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan. "He very well could have. What's mysterious to me is why we didn't get any complaints from those people."

Sheridan said that after an initial review of the materials, "80 percent of those documents are Hispanic in nature." He did not elaborate in the transcripts of the hearing, and it was not clear what specifically they are investigating. Sheriff's officials did not return calls from The Associated Press. Arpaio's attorney did not immediately respond to a telephone message and email.

About a week before Armendariz's death, he was arrested for drug possession after he reported a burglary at his home. No burglars were found, and investigators believe he was either under the influence of drugs or having a manic episode. He later resigned.

The burglary call led to the discovery of the drugs and evidence and sparked an investigation.

Days later, police returned after friends of Armendariz became concerned that he was threatening to harm himself. After a standoff, he surrendered and was taken to a psychiatric center. He was evaluated and released, then later found dead.

After his arrest, Armendariz, 40, implicated other sheriff's office employees in the collection of documents, and a review of some of the recordings found in Armendariz's home indicates other officers may also have been present for what could amount to some 5,000 traffic stops, according to the hearing transcripts.

Arpaio's lawyer, Tim Casey, said a criminal investigation has been launched that may lead to witness tampering and obstruction charges.

However, during a later federal hearing on May 14 regarding the racial profiling case, Casey expressed hope that their probe would find the scandal involved just one "rogue person" — Armendariz.

U.S. District Judge Murray Snow acknowledged that might be the case while also explaining that the investigation should be full and complete "no matter how high up the chain it goes."

"We will do that," Arpaio replied.

The investigation involves at least 18 detectives who are reviewing the traffic stop recordings for misconduct and others who are attempting to track down individuals whose records were found in Armendariz's home.

Nearly a year ago, Snow ruled the sheriff's office systematically racially profiled Latinos in its immigration and traffic patrols. Arpaio denies the allegations and has appealed the ruling.

In the meantime, Snow has ordered a court-appointed monitor to oversee the agency's efforts at retraining deputies and making sure the department complies with constitutional guidelines, among other things.

© 2014 Star Tribune