By Jacques Billeaud
PHOENIX — Sheriff Joe Arpaio apologized Monday to victims for his office's botched investigations of a large number of sex-crimes cases as the tough-talking lawman faced a growing outcry over mismanagement in his office.
Arpaio held a news conference to discuss the investigations in the city of El Mirage a day after The Associated Press ran an article outlining some of the bungled cases.
His office said 432 sex-crimes investigations from El Mirage and other parts of the county were reopened after his office learned of cases — including dozens of alleged child molestations — that hadn't been investigated adequately or weren't examined at all over a three-year period ending in 2007. The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office was under contract to handle law enforcement duties in the city on the edge of Phoenix at the time.
"If there were any victims, I apologize to those victims," the sheriff said in his office's most detailed public comments about the cases.
Chief Deputy Sheriff Jerry Sheridan said the sheriff's office is poised to take possible disciplinary action as early as this week against the employees responsible for the cases.
The reopened cases resulted in 19 arrests, a figure the sheriff's office considers to be average and equal to the number of sex-crimes arrests made so far this year countywide.
Still, Captain Steve Whitney, the official in charge of criminal investigations, said there might have been more arrests had there been more timely investigations.
In El Mirage alone, officials discovered at least 32 reported child molestations — with victims as young as 2 years old — where the sheriff's office failed to follow through, even though suspects were known in all but six cases. Many of the victims, said a retired El Mirage police official who reviewed the files, were children of illegal immigrants.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva, whose district doesn't include Arpaio's jurisdiction, issued a written statement saying the sheriff should immediately resign before more damage is done to public confidence in law enforcement. He and other critics say Arpaio puts too much emphasis on rounding up illegal immigrants at the expense of more important law enforcement responsibilities.
"The picture emerging — no follow-up, no investigation, no prosecution, no justice and a shield of silence after the fact — is not how we conduct law enforcement in this country," Grijalva said. "Enforcing laws against violent crime, whatever a victim's legal status, is mandatory and not something we leave to individual communities as an open question. Selective enforcement undermines respect for our brave legal officers and is rightly not tolerated by the public."
Arpaio rejected the congressman's criticism. "I am not going anywhere," Arpaio said.
The botched sex-crimes investigations have served as an embarrassment to a department whose sheriff is the self-described "America's Toughest Sheriff" and a national hero to conservatives on the immigration issue.
Sheridan said pending disciplinary action prevented him from explaining why the cases weren't investigated, but he acknowledged that employees of the sheriff's office made mistakes. "Once initial information came out, some detectives decided not to follow up," Sheridan said.
Whitney said the sheriff's office has since made changes to better track cases, and enacted more training and moved certain employees out of the sex-crimes squad.
Of the 428 reopened investigations that have been completed, 116 were deemed to have no basis in fact to move forward or had accounts that didn't add up. More than 220 were turned down by prosecutors or didn't have enough evidence to bring to prosecutors.
Sixty-nine cases had no further information to pursue or couldn't be advanced further.
The sex-crimes cases had been reported earlier by The Arizona Republic, the East Valley Tribune, KNXV-TV and other media outlets.
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Copyright 2011 Associated Press