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Pinalcchio: Renowned Forensics Experts Say a Pinal County Deputy's High-Profile Tale About Getting Shot After Encountering Drug Smugglers Doesn't Add Up 

Wednesday, Sep 22 2010
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A Pinal County sheriff's sergeant is discussing Deputy Louie Puroll, who famously claimed on April 30 that a Latino drug smuggler shot him in the desert.

"I can't speak for our sheriff [Paul Babeu]," Dave Hausman says, "but I can speak for our unit, and the sheriff can slap me later if need be.

"But I think there's a lot of confusion that [Arizona Senate Bill] 1070 and what happened to Louie Puroll are intimately related. What happened out in [the] Vekol Valley was a criminal enterprise. Louie was looking at guys carrying drugs, whether they were illegal immigrants, citizens of the United States, or, in the darkest of dark realms, dirty cops or bad firemen.

"It's not about illegal immigration in that shooting. In that crime scene, it's about criminals shooting a cop. It was about one of our deputies who was fighting crime, for lack of a better Superman term, and got involved in a situation that was about crime. It was about smuggling drugs into the United States."

Hausman, an 18-year veteran of the south-central Arizona sheriff's office, supervised his agency's criminal investigation of the shooting.

The case thrust Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu into the national spotlight as a ubiquitous naysayer on the subject of the federal government and undocumented aliens, and it further polarized a citizenry already splintered by the illegal immigration issue.

The incident happened a week after Governor Jan Brewer signed S.B. 1070, Arizona's contentious anti-immigration law, and a month after Cochise County rancher Rob Krentz was gunned down on his cattle ranch, possibly by an illegal alien, in a still-unsolved murder ("Cowboy Down," June 10).

Deputy Puroll told investigators he was on a routine one-man patrol that April afternoon in the desert about an hour's drive south of downtown Phoenix and 85 miles from the Mexican border.

The 53-year-old officer said he was on a hill south of Interstate 8 when he spotted five or six men (Latino or Native American, he wasn't sure) walking north on a dirt trail below him. He said all but one were lugging large backpacks that he suspected held marijuana but that he hadn't seen any weapons as they passed by.

Puroll said he kept a safe distance as he followed the crew north for more than a mile across the rugged mountainous terrain. He said he stopped for a few minutes as the smugglers disappeared from sight over a ridge near Antelope Peak.

The search-and-rescue deputy said he, too, then stepped over the rise.

He knew from experience what was on the other side: a narrow, downhill wash dominated by shady mesquite trees and heaps of trash left behind by passersby — most of them undocumented.

Immediately after Puroll crested the ridge, he said, he ran smack into the guys he was tailing.

He said one of the men shot at him from about 25 yards "directly in front of me" with a powerful AK-47 assault rifle. That first shot, Puroll said, grazed his left flank a few inches above a kidney.

The deputy avoided further injury and retreated to safety, he said, after several more shots by a second smuggler missed their mark.

Puroll called 911 from his cell phone at 4:04 p.m.

Seven more shots rang out in rapid succession before the deputy said a word to the dispatcher.

Puroll immediately gave his GPS location, apparently reading from a handheld device. He then yelled, "Triple 9s!" the universal police code for an officer in trouble and needing help.

"I'm taking fire! Get me some help! Send Ranger [a helicopter]! I've been hit! I've been hit! I've been hit!"

Dozens of police officers immediately headed toward the remote vicinity , and records show some arrived near the junction of I-8 and State Route 84 within about 20 minutes. The intensive manhunt would include about 200 cops from local, state, tribal, and federal agencies.

Four helicopters began their search for the deputy and his assailants well within an hour.

But the "smugglers" escaped apprehension, and the packs that supposedly were filled with dope also vanished with them.

An Arizona Department of Public Safety chopper pilot airlifted Puroll out of the desert about 5:20 p.m., 80 minutes after the 911 call. The deputy was treated at the Casa Grande Regional Medical Center and released a few hours later.

Two of the helicopters were equipped with night-vision technology that detects temperature differences of objects such as vehicles and people. Pilots continued in vain to search for the supposed attackers that night.

Within a day, authorities had detained about 70 suspected illegal immigrants over an expanse far beyond the Vekol Valley. Pinal County authorities expressed hope that three "persons of interest" — undocumented aliens ensnared in the desert manhunt — would help break the case.

But they didn't, and the trio were turned over to immigration authorities for deportation.

The timing of the desert shooting couldn't have been better for Sheriff Babeu — "ironic," one of his lieutenants says, tongue not in cheek.

He soon emerged nationally as a more articulate, telegenic, and younger version of Maricopa County's blustery Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Babeu became a Fox News regular, eager to discuss the perils of a porous border and an inadequate federal response to illegal immigration.

That had been Babeu's agenda well before Louie Puroll got into the mix, and it had won him a starring role last spring in U.S. Senator John McCain's "You're one of us" campaign advertisement.

Now, the sheriff was able to add a heroic deputy to his increasingly visible storyline.

Babeu continues to claim that the "Mexican drug cartels" are running rampant in sections of his sprawling 5,400-square-mile jurisdiction, including the Vekol Valley.

"We still are outgunned, we are outmanned, and we don't have the resources yet to fight this," he tells New Times.

Shortly after the Puroll incident, the sheriff had to weather a media squall that began with a blog post on www.phoenixnewtimes.com in which police officers questioned the deputy's account ("Sheriff's Deputy Shooting . . . Has Some Local Cops Scratching Their Heads," May 3).

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Paul Rubin

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