PHOENIX (AP) — When sheriff’s deputy Ramon Armendariz hanged himself, he left behind a house full of questions.
Among the items at his house were a stash of drugs, evidence bags from old cases, hundreds of fake IDs and thousands of his video-recorded traffic stops that were withheld in a racial-profiling case against his boss, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Now, the quest for answers has raised the possibility that a yet-to-be-determined number of his cases could be thrown out and has refocused attention on Arpaio and his department, already under close watch by a federal monitor in the profiling case.
The judge overseeing the case has raised the prospect that Armendariz may have been shaking down people living in the U.S. illegally during traffic stops, and the top prosecutor in Phoenix described the situation as a “mess” as his staff begins to sort it out.
Arpaio’s lawyer says the agency hopes Armendariz was a lone rogue officer. “I don’t know what triggered him,” said Arpaio, whose territory includes the Phoenix area.
Cecillia Wang, a lawyer who pressed the profiling case, has concerns about Arpaio’s office running the investigation. “A law enforcement agency that launches this kind of investigation shouldn’t have stated a desired outcome,” she said.
Armendariz moved to Arizona from Texas in 2004 to be closer to two terminally ill relatives. First a jail officer, he became a deputy and eventually joined the smuggling squad that was once the flagship of Arpaio’s immigration crackdowns.
As a member of the unit for about four years, the Spanish-speaking deputy was among dozens of officers who received special training to enforce federal immigration laws. He also took part in Arpaio’s most controversial patrols.
The deputies would flood an area — in some cases, heavily Latino areas — over several days to seek out traffic violators and arrest other offenders.
Arpaio’s office was sued over allegations that officers systematically racially profiled Latinos, and went on trial over the accusations. Armendariz was a witness, testifying that he never used race as a factor in making a traffic stop.
U.S. District Judge Murray Snow later ruled Arpaio’s deputies — including Armendariz — had in fact racially profiled Latinos and implemented a series of remedies, including a monitor to help carry out the reforms.
The deputy had other issues during his tenure.
Job evaluations obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request documented a flaw in his police work that later emerged — that he had a problem turning in reports. At his house, officers found criminal citations that he wrote but were never prosecuted because he didn’t turn in paperwork.
His employment file shows he was reprimanded in 2010 after an internal affairs investigation concluded he failed to turn in a report for an unspecified incident while working off-duty security during a baseball game at Chase Field.
Immediately under the section documenting the reprimand, there’s a handwritten note with an illegible signature: “Charlie, Thanks for your hard work.”
Arpaio aide Jack MacIntyre was skeptical that the evaluations, which generally portrayed the deputy as a hardworking team player, might have been an early sign of serious problems with Armendariz’s police work.
“Would you take that one report and say that makes the rest of your year worthless?” MacIntyre said. “No.”
On May 1, Armendariz was wearing only his boxer shorts and firing a pepper ball gun at an imaginary burglar in his garage. Police believe he was either high on drugs or having a manic episode. Investigators found what they believed to be marijuana, methamphetamines, cocaine and LSD in the home.
They arrested him, and one day later, he took part in a 90-minute interview with investigators, saying he was innocent and accusing other smuggling squad members of wrongdoing. The deputy then stopped talking and quit his job.
Police went to Armendariz’s home again days later after friends worried he would harm himself. After a nearly nine-hour barricade situation, he surrendered peacefully and was taken to a psychiatric center. Later that week, Armendariz was found dead at his home.
Another discovery at his home involved an estimated 900 hours of videos taken from cameras mounted on Armendariz’s eyeglasses and dashboard that were supposed to be turned over in the profiling case — evidence that could have wide implications.
Attorneys who brought the case may now ask the judge for tougher remedies to fix constitutional violations at the sheriff’s office. And his videos are expected to become evidence in a separate U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit against the sheriff’s office that alleges racial profiling.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, the top county prosecutor for metropolitan Phoenix, said his office will examine whether the materials from the house will affect cases involving the deputy, though he doesn’t think it’s likely that those cases will be overturned.
“If that has to result in prosecutions being dismissed, so be it,” he said.
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