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Controversial Pinal deputy suspended, could lose job

Controversial Pinal deputy suspended, could lose job

CREATED Jun 30, 2011

Reporter:  Forrest Carr and Ileana Diaz

FLORENCE, Ariz. (KGUN9-TV) - A Pinal County deputy whose tale of being shot in the desert made him an important figure in the debate over SB 1070 and border security earlier this year has been suspended, and is now in a fight for his job.

Late Wednesday afternoon Pinal County Sheriff's Office spokesman Tim Gaffney announced that the office had placed Louie Puroll on paid administrative leave pending an Internal Affairs investigation.  At issue:  threatening remarks Puroll supposedly made to a reporter for the Phoenix New Times.  It was the same reporter who'd written stories earlier this year suggesting Puroll may have staged the shooting.

Wednesday night Sheriff Paul Babeu sought to distance himself from the deputy he'd previously embraced in the fight for border security.    "It is unacceptable for anybody in law enforcement to behave that way," Babeu said.  "The public needs to know that nobody is above the law, not even somebody who I have pinned a medal badge on his chest."

In April Puroll reported that he'd been shot while tracking suspected drug smugglers in the Vikol Valley desert outside Casa Grande.   His radio call for help led to a dramatic helicopter rescue.   However, after deputies failed to find any smugglers, Rubin and the New Times challenged Puroll's story.  Rubin quoted forensics experts as saying  that Puroll's version of events did not add up.  

The political stakes were high.   Sheriff Paul Babeu has been an outspoken advocate for increased border security and for SB 1070, Arizona's immigration crackdown.  He supported Republican politicians such as Senator John McCain, who based his re-election campaign in part on border security issues.  Babeu used the desert shooting in numerous local and national media appearances to advance his claim that SB 1070 is necessary because the Obama administration had fallen down on the job.  If Puroll's story had turned out to be false, the hoax would have damaged or destroyed Babeu's credibility, with collateral damage to politicians such as McCain and to the crusade for SB 1070.

As a result of the New Times challenge, Sheriff Babeu sent the bloody shirt Puroll had been wearing that afternoon to DPS to be tested for gunpowder residue.  If tests had found such residue on the shirt, it would have suggested that Puroll either had shot himself, or had been shot at close range.   Either scenario would have been at odds with Puroll's official version of events.  But the test turned up no such residue.

That New Times report challenging Puroll's story is now connected to Puroll's new problem.  On November 25th, the New Times published a story, also written by Rubin, detailing a conversation between Rubin and Puroll.  According to Rubin, Puroll told him, "Let me tell you something.  You're lucky to be alive right now."  According to the article, Puroll went on to tell Rubin that an acquaintance had offered to murder Rubin in retaliation for Rubin's earlier New Times stories challenging Puroll.

Rubin's latest article also quoted Puroll as saying that he'd met several times with members of a Mexican drug cartel "wanting to do business."  

Sheriff Babeu said Wednesday night that he plans to question Puroll about what happened and what was said before the end of this week. Regardless, Babeu said this issue is a high priority within the Sheriff's office, and that improper conduct will not be tolerated.

"What he does on or off duty reflects upon this entire Sheriff's Office and our sworn profession, so you can't divorce the two," said Sheriff Babeu.

During the October press conference in which Babeu announced the results of the DPS gunpowder residue test, a feisty Puroll made no secret of his distaste for the media.  He proclaimed at the time that he had not read the reports questioning his story, stating, "When I want to read fiction, I go to the library."

Sheriff Babeu said he expects the investigation to be completed within the next month and said termination could be a possibility if all the allegations are proved to be true.