New sex crime arises after Ariz. sheriff’s office fails to investigate
By Ryan Gabrielson | Center for Investigative Reporting | December 11, 2011
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio listens to County Attorney Andrew Thomas as they defend his department in 2009. East Valley Tribune file photo.
While admitting that it mishandled more than 400 investigations into rapes and sexual assaults, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office claims its failures did not lead to additional crimes.
But in the pile of ignored cases is the alleged rape of a 17-year-old girl in 2006. Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s detectives largely disregarded the case, according to police records, never questioning the suspect, the accuser or any potential witnesses. The investigation was classified as “inactive.”
Two years after that incident, the suspect in that case, Armando De La Rosa, admitted to having sex with a 14-year-old girl, when he was 20, records show. He was later convicted of attempted sexual conduct with a minor – a plea agreement because he had no previous felonies on his record.
The family of the 14-year-old girl now blames Arpaio’s office for failing to protect their daughter by ignoring the first case.
“They did, in our case they did directly,” the father said in an interview. The Center for Investigative Reporting does not publish the names of sexual assault victims or their relatives.
Arpaio, self-described as “America’s toughest sheriff,” is a powerful figure in national politics because of his intense focus on illegal immigration and his controversial tactics, which have included forcing prisoners to wear pink underwear. When he endorsed Texas Gov. Rick Perry for the Republican presidential nomination earlier this month, the story was broadcast on Fox News and CNN.
But Arpaio has faced strong criticism, and a few calls for his resignation, as more details have been reported about his office’s mishandling of sex crime investigations. The sheriff is finishing his fifth term, with plans to run again.
In a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning stories, the East Valley Tribune in 2008 detailed problems with rape and other violent crime cases under Arpaio’s watch. On Sunday, the Associated Press followed with an article detailing sex abuse cases involving young children that Arpaio’s office left incomplete.
The most recent story prompted Arpaio to apologize this week to the victims, “if there were any victims,” he added.
The sheriff’s office confirms that from 2005 to 2007, its special victims unit failed to investigate 432 alleged sex crimes. Detectives improperly closed more than 200 of those investigations as though they’d been solved. Roughly 70 came out of the city of El Mirage, northwest of Phoenix, where the sheriff’s office had a contract to provide patrol services and criminal investigative work.
The sheriff’s office opened an internal affairs investigation of its special victims unit in May 2008. That probe is open and still moving toward completion, said Deputy Chief Brian Sands. “It’s gonna be real soon.”
Arpaio and his top officials have said they have thoroughly examined those dropped cases, finding no evidence that errors by the sheriff’s office put the public at risk.
“We looked very hard,” Deputy Chief Jerry Sheridan said at a press conference Monday, “and we could not find anyone we thought was revictimized because the detectives let some of these cases languish.”
In a written statement, Arpaio’s office said it was not aware that De La Rosa was the suspect in the El Mirage investigation or that he had been convicted in a later case. “I cannot make a connection between the cases you brought to my attention,” Lt. Justin Griffin, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office, wrote.
But the police case file, obtained from the El Mirage Police Department in 2008, clearly includes the suspect’s full name and date of birth.
De La Rosa was first accused of a sex crime in June 2006.
A 17-year-old girl was hanging out at a friend’s house in El Mirage when another guest, De La Rosa, forced her to have sex, according to her family’s statements to police. De La Rosa was 18 at the time.
The girl’s parents gave police the suspect’s name and address, as well as the address of the friend’s house, the police file shows. The information then was handed to the sheriff’s special victims unit in July of that year. Griffin said his office had only the suspect’s first name.
El Mirage formed its own police department in late 2007 and received boxes of pending investigations back from Arpaio’s office, including the alleged assault against the 17-year-old girl.
The cases were woefully incomplete, El Mirage Detective Jerry Laird wrote in the investigative files. Laird documented his attempts to interview the victim and others. “So far those efforts have been negative,” he wrote.
So little work was done on the case that it is unclear if De La Rosa and others even knew they were involved in a rape investigation.
Reached by phone Wednesday, the owner of the house where the alleged crime took place said she’d never spoken to sheriff’s detectives. “I have no clue what you’re talking about,” she said.
The Center for Investigative Reporting made calls for comment to every individual listed in the El Mirage police report. Phone numbers for De La Rosa were disconnected. De La Rosa’s criminal defense attorney, Nick Alcock, said he would attempt to contact his client as well.
De La Rosa’s next encounter with law enforcement went differently.
At 2 a.m. July 25, 2008, a patrol officer in the city of Surprise, just west of El Mirage, spotted De La Rosa sitting at a park, with a young girl on top of him. The pair spotted the police car and attempted to hide behind bushes.
De La Rosa, then 20, was shirtless. The victim was 14. Both admitted to having had sex, and De La Rosa was arrested for sexual conduct with a minor, a serious felony under Arizona law, according to the incident report.
In an interview with a Surprise police detective, the girl said De La Rosa snuck her out of her parents’ home in the middle of the night multiple times. They would then have sex in public parks and, once, in a drainage ditch, according to the police record of the interview.
If convicted on the lead criminal charge, sexual conduct with a minor, De La Rosa would have faced a minimum of five years in jail. But the Maricopa County attorney’s office offered him a plea agreement, in part because he had no prior felonies on his record.
De La Rosa pleaded guilty to attempted sexual conduct with a minor, court records show. He was sentenced to six months in jail and 20 years of probation. Alcock, De La Rosa’s attorney, said the criminal background check came up with nothing on the alleged rape in El Mirage.
“We were unaware of any other investigation of our client at that time,” Alcock said.
The 14-year-old victim’s father said he was furious about De La Rosa’s sentence, believing it was far too lenient. “They’re supposed to be the victims unit,” he said. “They’re supposed to be informing us.”
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