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Jailhouse Justice: Phoenix New Times article on failure to protect at Sheriff Arpaio's jail

Jailhouse Justice:

New evidence suggests Sheriff Joe's running his empire as if it were a Mexican prison

By Robert Nelson

Published: January 23, 2003

If new information in an inmate-beating case is any indication -- and if there's any justice in this world -- Sheriff Joe Arpaio should someday get sized for a pair of pink underwear of his own.

A little background: In late December, I wrote about the strange case of a diminutive loner scooped up by Maricopa County sheriff's detectives in 2001 for questioning in the rape and murder of 8-year-old Elizabeth Byrd.

Sheriff Joe apparently believed this man constituted the quick and decisive arrest he had promised the horde of reporters and camera crews that converged to cover the story. From his sprawling "mobile command site" at the scene of the murder, Arpaio quickly leaked to Valley media that his team of investigators had nabbed a strong "investigative lead" in the case, a drifter named Jefferson Davis McGee.

The problem was, McGee was guilty of nothing more than looking scraggly and living near a stretch of county land where the murder took place.

Yet Arpaio thought he had his man. And from what I've been told since my last column on the McGee case, it seems that the sheriff might have gone to great lengths in an attempt to get a confession out of this high-profile suspect.

The problem the sheriff's office faced was that, after many hours of interrogation, McGee hadn't confessed to the murder.

So sheriff's personnel decided to book McGee into the jail on an unrelated charge. There was an outstanding warrant against him on an old petty theft beef (turned out McGee wasn't guilty of that crime, either).

Then a strange thing happened. Against departmental policy regarding accused child molesters or child killers, McGee was placed in the jail's general population of maximum-security inmates.

It's the most dangerous place in the jail. And it's common knowledge that child molesters, or "chomos" as they're called by inmates, are in the most danger of all.

Chomos, almost without fail, get beaten in maximum security -- which is why it's standard policy to put them in cells by themselves.

In my December column, I related that internal sheriff's office documents show that employees in the jail's classification department already had segregated McGee when an order came from office superiors to have him placed in gen pop.

Of course, once he was moved, the inevitable happened. Fellow inmates found out what everybody else knew from local TV -- that McGee was the key suspect in the girl's murder. They then spent more than 10 minutes taking turns beating him in his bunk.

The sheriff's office's line is that guards didn't see any train of inmates going in and out of McGee's cell. But in jail videotapes surrounding the incident obtained by New Times, one guard, Michael Crane, is seen entering the maximum-security pod during the beating, walking to within 10 feet of McGee's door, talking with two inmates and then leaving. After the guard departs, the beating continues.

McGee barely survived the assault. If he hadn't been taken to the county hospital for emergency surgery, he would have bled to death. Doctors had to cut open his chest from sternum to pubic bone to save him. Amazingly, he survived with only the loss of his spleen and a grotesque scar.

What this looks like is: Jail personnel set up McGee to soften his will for the next interrogation. It's a common police tactic -- in Mexico.

If you remember, Joe Arpaio likes to brag about his drug-enforcement days south of the border.

As of last month, all I could strongly suggest was that somebody in Arpaio's employ had been grossly negligent and incompetent in the McGee case. Things have changed.

Recently, I received an e-mail from reader Lynne Montavon. She worked as a clerk in the initial appearance court at the jail from April to August of 2001. She was there when Jefferson McGee was brought in by detention officers. She wrote that she was finally willing to talk about what she overheard one night as she worked.

"[The December New Times column] brought it all back for me," she said. "I know I'll probably get heat for talking, but [I] thought about it for a few hours and came to the conclusion that it's time I did the right thing."

Later, in an interview, she continued, "I remember that time very clearly. I was at work when this D.O. [detention officer] came in. She was a very nice person, very motherly. I was sitting there with my supervisor when we started to talk.

"Everybody knew about the McGee thing. People were talking about it. He had made his initial appearance that day.

"[The detention officer] starts talking about it. Then she says, He's going to be left in gen pop.' She says they were doing that because they wanted the jailhouse snitches to snuggle up to him and work him for any information that he was willing to let go."

She quoted the officer as further commenting: "They want to be able to monitor his phone calls, and they want to be able to allow the jail inmates to do what the detectives couldn't do.'"

Montavon told me, "I have no doubt in my mind that they meant to have inmates beat the heck out of him."

After she heard about the McGee beating, Montavon said, she asked her supervisor if she remembered the conversation. According to Montavon, the supervisor related, "I don't remember that," and later, "I don't get involved in that stuff."

Montavon quit her job not long after that. "It's an incredibly depressing place," she said of the jail's initial appearance court. "The McGee case is just one of many things that just told me I couldn't work there and feel good about myself."

Montavon's assertions are a potential bombshell.

Two days after my interview with her, she was deposed by attorneys representing McGee in a civil suit against the county.

"She is an incredibly credible witness," contended McGee's attorney, Jason Lamm, who is representing the beaten inmate along with former state attorney general Grant Woods.

And the new revelations don't end with Montavon. After the interview with her, I spoke with former sheriff's office polygraph examiner Skip Ensley -- who says he was put on administrative leave by Chief Deputy David Hendershott after he refused to falsify unrelated polygraph reports.

Before working at MCSO, Ensley spent several years as a police officer and FBI informant. He was also chief of police of North Sioux City, South Dakota, for several years.

He's another very credible witness.

Ensley said he overheard Arpaio discussing McGee's placement in the jail's general population with sheriff's personnel as they all took the elevator down from sheriff's offices at the top of the Wells Fargo building downtown.

"Arpaio was talking to an internal affairs guy," Ensley told me. "They were laughing. Then Arpaio says: We're gonna let the guys in the jail take care of this guy.'"

Ensley said he knew that two or three sheriff's investigators all along had believed the MCSO had insufficient evidence to pin anything on McGee. A little jailhouse beating might loosen his lips.

Testimony by Montavon and Ensley -- along with the security videotapes and the deposition of sheriff's employees already taken by McGee's attorneys -- is certainly enough to warrant investigation by federal authorities.

Here's what needs to happen:

McGee's attorneys must file a complaint with U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton. Unlike the last U.S. attorney to investigate Arpaio, now-Governor Janet Napolitano, Charlton has a history of putting justice ahead of politics.

With the mounting evidence in hand, Charlton could turn over the case to the FBI. This is no longer just about getting Jefferson McGee the justice he deserves. It's about stopping the county sheriff from seemingly running one of America's largest jails as if it were a Sinaloan prison.

And yes, maybe it should be about Joe Arpaio standing where Jefferson Davis McGee was forced to stand: in front of a judge in the jail's initial appearance court.

Maybe the federal charge against Mr. Arpaio should be: conspiracy to violate McGee's civil rights.

Posted with permission of the Phoenix New Times. This article is available on the Phoenix New Times website at the following link:

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