02/26/2001

Officer called hero quits; 'We're not sure what took place' in L.A.'
[Phoenix, AZ]

By Christina Leonard, The Arizona Republic
February 24, 2001 Saturday, Final Chaser
Copyright 2001 Phoenix Newspapers, Inc.
The Arizona Republic
February 24, 2001 Saturday, Final Chaser

(PHOENIX) -- When news broke about an unarmed Phoenix police sergeant who saved a woman's life by single-handedly taking on three attackers in California, dozens of readers called him an angel, a hero, a savior. They requested medals, and one man promised to send $50 to the department.

The mayor even called during a ski trip to thank Timothy Bonnell.

Yet nobody has been able to verify the story.

Bonnell, a six-year veteran and Medal of Valor recipient, resigned Friday after the Phoenix Police Department launched an administrative inquiry.

"He was aware that we were trying to get more details," Assistant Police Chief John Buchanan said. "When informed that we would continue that effort, he offered his resignation."

Buchanan said investigators could not confirm or deny the truth of Bonnell's account, but he did say they had found nothing to substantiate the story.

"We're not sure what took place," he said. "However, we do trust the people who work for us. That is our stock in trade. Sergeant Bonnell was a respected member of this organization and, unfortunately, we may never know what happened."

Bonnell, an administration sergeant who worked directly for two chiefs, granted a media interview Tuesday at the urging of his superiors. He told this story: He was in Los Angeles getting ideas for his dissertation when a woman's screams caught his attention while walking back to his hotel one night.

Although he had no weapon, Bonnell said he took on the three assailants, one of whom was armed with a 12-inch switchblade, and knocked each of them out until help arrived.

He said he seriously injured the attackers, breaking bones in two of them.

During the fight, Bonnell said he was stabbed in the shoulder and suffered a 12-inch gash to the back of his head, requiring more than 100 stitches. He said the woman had told officers that the men had mugged her and were attempting to rape her when he approached.

But Bonnell could not recall exactly where the incident took place, saying only that it was within walking distance of his hotel near the border of Los Angeles and Beverly Hills. He said several agencies questioned him, including the Los Angeles Sheriff's Office and police from Beverly Hills and Los Angeles.

None said they have records of Bonnell or the incident.

Nor does the Los Angeles Fire Department or the UCLA Medical Center.

Bonnell also said he didn't recall the names of officers who had interviewed him, nor to which hospital he was taken. Officials with the Los Angeles police and fire departments, who would have most likely handled the call, said they would have given Bonnell papers to verify that he is a victim or witness. But Bonnell could not provide any paperwork.

"I'm not getting any answers, either," he said Thursday. "I hope nobody dropped the ball on it out there."

"It's difficult for me. It's like it didn't happen or it didn't exist."

During Tuesday's interview, Bonnell also said that he played with the Dallas Cowboys from 1992 to 1994. On Thursday, Bonnell retracted that, saying he played with the Cowboys during preseason games for three months.

After concerns were raised with Phoenix police, investigators there made similar phone calls, checking with agencies in Los Angeles and running Bonnell's name through the National Crime Information Center, which would indicate whether an officer had run his name anywhere in the country. They found nothing.

Buchanan said Bonnell met with a union representative Friday and later submitted his resignation.

Police stressed that Bonnell was never placed under "investigation," in which they would have to notify Bonnell about allegations. Bonnell could not be reached for comment Friday.

After reading Wednesday's story, reader John Stonham wanted to start a fund to encourage the sergeant's bravery and citizenry, but he now questions whether Bonnell made up the account.

If untrue, Stonham said, he felt sorry for Bonnell, that his "inner deficiency would cause him to do such a silly thing. It's a bit sad. The poor devil is going through hell, I imagine."

Through his tenure at the police department, Bonnell's personnel records indicate he was thought of as loyal, dedicated and a hard worker. He's won high praise and several awards.

He received the Medal of Valor, the department's highest honor, in 1997 for risking his life. On March 12, 1996, Bonnell darted inside a burning apartment after hearing that children were inside. He found no children, but an explosion knocked him through the front window.

In recent years, the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, which certifies all law enforcement officers in the state, has held fast to a zero-tolerance approach to lying by officers. Last year, it revoked 17 certifications for dishonesty.

"It causes this office great concern when officers are untruthful and our board takes lies very seriously," said Gary Maschner, a compliance specialist with the standards board.

In September, the board stripped officer certification from Phoenix Officer Rick Salgado for lying in an internal investigation.

Individual departments also have treated dishonesty seriously in the past by firing officers.

"The public trust is very important to us," Buchanan said. "We do everything we can to maintain it."

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