For Scottsdale resident Bret Gross, the bad luck began when a bank robber dumped stolen cash in his front yard. Then it got worse.
Gross, 47, spent the next three weeks as the prime suspect of the May 4 robbery of Compass Bank, 7315 E. Osborn Road in Scottsdale, and three others in Phoenix.
"I woke up in the morning saying, ‘I’m going to prison for something I didn’t do,’ " Gross said.
On Tuesday, the mail carrier stood with a dip of chewing tobacco in his mouth outside one of five Scottsdale homes he owns. In between spitting and supervising a painter, he described how he could have gone to prison, gone broke or both if his luck hadn’t turned.
ROBBERY AND FALLOUT
A Scottsdale police report about the incident states that a postal carrier found a hat in Gross’ yard — inside was money that had been burned and stained red from an exploding dye pack used by banks to track robberies.
Two neighbors told police they thought the man in a bank surveillance photo was Gross, while others said they couldn’t tell.
Gross’ postal supervisor also identified him as the man in the surveillance photo and the bank teller picked him out of a photo lineup.
"He looks a lot like me," Gross said of the robber.
The bank teller described the robber as 32 to 35 years old, 150 to 180 pounds with brown or blond hair cut in a round-bowl fashion.
He told her he wanted all her money and "no one gets hurt," but she never saw a gun because she was too afraid to look, the report states.
That day, Gross said he called in sick and went to a casino for a short time before returning to his home, a few blocks from the Compass Bank.
He knew from talking with a neighbor the Scottsdale police had been to his house because money from the robbery was found in his yard. But he wasn’t prepared for what happened next.
As Gross stepped outside to his carport, a swarm of SWAT team officers in full battle gear trained their weapons on him and began yelling.
He watched as they "manhandled" his girlfriend and demanded to know where she hid the money and his clothes.
"They were very, very — wow, I just couldn’t believe it," he said. "I thought ‘if one guy shoots, they’re all going to shoot.’ "
Police spokesman Mark Clark said the tactical decision to use the SWAT team was because they were investigating a violent felony.
"It’s for the safety of the officers," Clark said.
Police also found in his house four red-stained $20 bills, but Gross said the stains appeared to him to be pen markings.
He spent one night and most of the next day in jail before raising $1,800 in bail.
His employer placed him on administrative leave, his friends began to shun him and a newspaper article played up that he was an ex-cop arrested for robbery.
"It’s not a pleasant feeling," said Gross, who spent four years with the Phoenix Police Department before resigning in the early 1980s after getting into a fight.
Then, on May 19 — two days after a grand jury charged him with one count of armed robbery — Scottsdale officials sent letters to five tenants to whom he leased property through the city’s housing assistance program.
The city gave the tenants until July 31 to move because Gross’ contract with the city had been terminated "due to his failure to comply with the requirements of the contract."
The city told Gross the contract was broken because of his involvement in "violent criminal activity," the May 18 letters stated.
Gross filed suit Oct. 19, alleging the city interfered with the contracts between him and the tenants, and defamed him by implying he was guilty of the crime.
"My houses are hard-earned money. There’s a lot of risk, a lot of investment," he said.
Around the time Gross lost his city contracts, there was a knock at his door one night and Phoenix police officers handcuffed him and took him to headquarters for more interrogation, this time to talk about bank robberies in Phoenix.
The surveillance photos from those robberies showed the same man who committed the Scottsdale robbery, but, Gross said, Phoenix police were able to verify his whereabouts elsewhere at the time of those robberies.
William L. Miles is a 48-year- old career criminal whose last prison stint was for shoplifting, court records show.
He parted his hair down the center and wore a mustache, just as Gross did on May 4.
On May 24, Miles rearended a car at a stoplight in Phoenix and then fled the scene, but he didn’t get far.
Police realized Miles matched the description of a serial bank robber and his vehicle matched the description of the getaway car.
Scottsdale detective Tom Van Meter coaxed a confession from Miles that he committed three Phoenix robberies and the one which Gross was accused of committing.
Miles pleaded guilty Oct. 26 to two counts of armed robbery and will be sentenced to prison for nine to 23 years under a plea deal.
Gross said he wasn’t elated when his lawyer told him about the arrest of Miles.
"I knew I didn’t do it," he said.
He is now out $13,000 for his defense and he said he is angry at the Scottsdale Police Department for not conducting a thorough-enough investigation and for not apologizing for the mistake.
"This is a freak set of circumstances," Clark said. The case was investigated by an experienced, accomplished detective who simply followed the evidence, Clark said. "We truly are sorry we arrested the wrong guy," Clark said.
Scottsdale also rescinded its eviction notices to Gross’ tenants and reinstated his contract, saying the initial actions were based on "probable cause findings" by police and a grand jury.
"Those findings were reasonable, given the evidence available, although the charges were later dismissed," wrote Jay Osborn, assistant city attorney. While the experience has left him with a harder edge to his personality, Gross said he still shrugs it off somewhat. "Life isn’t fair," he said.
Other cases of mistaken identity
• A civil jury awarded Aaron Markley $500,000 in 2003 after Mesa police mistakenly identified him in 1998 as a drug dealer.
• Mesa agreed to pay Jeffery Ja’Mal Brown $500,000 to settle a lawsuit stemming from his 1999 arrest when police mistakenly identified him as a drug dealer.
• Ray Krone was released in April 2002 after spending 10 years in prison, four years of them on death row. He is the first Arizonan to have a murder conviction overturned by DNA evidence.