It’s going on eight months since Pinal County Sheriff’s Deputy Louie Puroll reported being shot by smugglers while patrolling alone, out of uniform and without a radio, in the Vekol Valley west of Casa Grande. An area Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu has repeatedly said is controlled by Mexican drug cartels.
Since the April 30 incident, Babeu has stood by his deputy. He has given him a medal while standing with U.S. Sen. John McCain and publicly announced Puroll is Pinal County’s terrorism liaison officer, a position reserved for the most trusted and skilled of officers. Terrorism officers have access to classified information as part of the Department of Homeland Security and Arizona Counter-Terrorism Intelligence Center’s protection efforts.
Babeu has also closed the case, reopened it and then closed it again following questions about possible gunshot residue on Puroll’s bloody T-shirt, the handling of evidence and many other issues. Babeu finally sent the T-shirt to the Arizona Department of Public Safety crime lab for examination nearly five months after the incident. The sheriff’s office initially asked DPS to investigate the Puroll shooting, then rescinded the request and relegated state detectives to only drawing diagrams and collecting possible evidence in the desert. Prior to Babeu’s arrival in 2009, DPS investigated and oversaw all Pinal County deputy shootings since 1977.
How can a sheriff close a case involving the attempted murder of a deputy? That makes no sense. One veteran prosecutor I spoke with said he’s never heard of a case like this being closed until a suspect was arrested or identified.
Things were pretty quiet on the Puroll front after Babeu “closed” the case, at least until Phoenix New Times writer Paul Rubin wrote a follow-up to his Sept. 23 story “Pinalcchio.” The first piece challenged Puroll’s description of events on several fronts.
The follow-up, entitled “Whitewash,” was published on Nov. 23. In it, Rubin described a series of one-on-one interviews with Deputy Puroll. During one interview, Rubin reported that the deputy claimed he’d been approached four or five times by Mexican drug cartel members about “wanting to do business.” Puroll reportedly never reported those incidents to his superiors.
In the story, Rubin also states that Puroll told him “you’re lucky to be alive” and that a friend of Puroll’s had offered to murder the journalist following publication of the extra hard-hitting September story.
On Dec. 1, eight days after “Whitewash” was published, PCSO announced that Puroll had been placed on administrative leave and his reported statements to Rubin were being investigated by the Professional Standards Unit, the same unit involved in one of the investigations of Puroll’s alleged desert shootout.
Sheriff Babeu again chose not to bring in an outside agency to investigate the actions of Puroll. As a result, questions are again being asked about Pinal County’s latest venture into investigating its increasingly controversial deputy.
Multiple members of the criminal justice system have expressed their concerns to me about his decision to keep things in-house. Their concern is justified.
In his book, Crime Scene Handbook, Dr. Henry Lee, the former director of the Connecticut State Police Crime Lab, wrote, “If officer-involved shootings are not investigated and handled correctly and thoroughly, the involved agency, individual officer(s), and entire criminal justice system will likely face severe criticism, loss of public trust and confidence.”
Babeu can do as he pleases when it comes to investigating Puroll. Unfortunately it’s not just the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and its deputies that potentially get a black eye when the investigation of Puroll’s conduct isn’t done in a manner that helps to earn and keep the public’s trust in Arizona law enforcement.
Retired Mesa master police officer Bill Richardson lives in the East Valley and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org