The race to become Maricopa County attorney has not even officially begun. But in recent days, a fight between two of the likely candidates has popped up, with jabs being thrown over the handling of the high-profile Serial Shooters case.
The first punch landed Thursday when the Phoenix New Times published an interview on its Web site with former Phoenix police attorney Gerald Richard, a Democrat who is expected to announce his candidacy for county attorney in two days.
In it, Richard said current County Attorney Andrew Thomas may have jeopardized the Serial Shooters case by using a little-known state law to bug the suspects' phones, home and vehicle without first getting it approved by a judge.
"It might be legal," the Web site quoted Richard as saying, "but it's not right."
Thomas, a Republican, has not said whether he will run for re-election, but it is widely expected that he will.
A day after the interview was published, one of Thomas' top political operatives, special assistant county attorney Barnett Lotstein, seized on it, calling Richard's own comments "harmful" to the case.
"It shows that he's reckless," Lotstein said. "It shows that he's willing to compromise a murder investigation for political advantage."
Until just last month, Richard was a high-ranking legal adviser with the Phoenix Police Department. He was in the role while the agency was heading the Serial Shooters investigation.
His comments may be the first time anyone of his stature has called the case into question.
On Saturday, Richard told the Tribune his quote on the New Times Web site was taken out of context.
Though he indeed had criticized Thomas' decisions on the wiretaps, he said his comment of "it's not right" was about the immigration sweeps Sheriff Joe Arpaio recently conducted in Guadalupe.
The writer of the piece, New Times executive editor Michael Lacey, could not be reached for comment Saturday.
"He wasn't taking a whole lot of copious notes," Richard said, adding he would ask Lacey to correct the story online.
But Richard also stuck to his position that he felt the wiretaps of suspects Samuel Dieteman and Dale Hausner could have been handled differently.
"Being as conventional as I am, I would have pressed, I know I would have pressed for us to go ahead and get the affidavits," Richard said.
Usually, to get a wiretap, police have to show a judge they worked a case from other angles, with the only way to get certain evidence being through a secretive recording.
Thomas testified Friday in Maricopa County Superior Court that he and Phoenix police investigators felt the danger from the Serial Shooters was too pressing to spend time putting together their story in an affidavit to show it to a judge.
Instead, state law gives certain prosecutors the power to approve an emergency wiretap, provided a judge signs off on it within 48 hours.
Hausner has challenged the validity of that move, saying his rights against an illegal search may have been compromised.
The judge in the case, Roland Steinle, has not yet decided whether evidence from the recordings, including supposed admissions by the suspects, should be thrown out.
From Lotstein's perspective, now is a bad time for anyone, particularly someone who is connected to the agencies making the case, to be speaking publicly about the case.
But he sees it as purely political. "He seems to care more about criticizing Thomas and advancing his political career than the Serial Shooter case," Lotstein said.
Richard, a former deputy Maricopa County attorney and longtime lawyer for the Phoenix police, said he doesn't expect his comments to hurt the case.
"I could have easily said, 'I have no comment,'" Richard said about his interview with the New Times. But "the man asked me the question. I'm going to give him the answer."
In general, he said he believes the case is pretty solid, even if the wiretap evidence is tossed.
For one, prosecutors recently convinced Dieteman to turn on his old friend, Hausner. Dieteman pleaded guilty to two murders and promised to testify against Hausner, who has been charged with eight homicides and another 17 shootings.
With the general election still almost seven months away, the early blows promise to make the race for county attorney a heated one.
Richard said he doesn't mind.
"No one has formally announced, but it's being written about like we're all in it," he said. "If that's the case, then let the race begin."