Experts are now seriously questioning Pinal County Sheriff’s Deputy Louie Puroll’s much-hyped tale of being shot by drug smugglers in a remote part of the Arizona desert. But even if every detail of Puroll’s story is true, it still does not square with many of the claims the Sheriff’s office has peddled about the case.
The department says the original criminal investigation “had concluded and the facts of the case confirmed the accounts of the event as Deputy Puroll described.” And though the case has now been reopened, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu told local news this week that he “absolutely” still believes his deputy. Beside Puroll and his alleged attackers, who were never found, there were no other witnesses to the event.
But in the immediate aftermath of the April incident, and to this day, Babeu and the department have made statements about the event that clash with the recorded account that Puroll gave to detectives on May 6, and which was released to the public in early July (audio here). These statements have included exaggerations and unverified information, and have been repeated often by Babeu as his national profile has grown as a voice on border security. Some of the claims have been walked back. Others have not.
While the April incident made headlines around the country in the context of the debate over immigration and border security, Puroll himself never suggested that his assailants were Mexican or illegal immigrants. The area Puroll was in is a known corridor for traffickers and undocumented border crossers, and the Sheriff’s office told TPM they know cartels operate in the area. But Puroll told detectives that he only got a look at the facial features of one of the men he was tracking that day, and only in profile, through binoculars.
“I remember thinking to myself, that man is an Indian, he’s probably not a Mexican smuggler. I remember thinking that because that’s what he looked like,” Puroll told detectives.
But that’s not what the department told the public.
On April 30, CNN reported: “The Pinal County deputy, who was not immediately identified, contacted authorities after being wounded in the desert, saying he had been shot by an illegal immigrant with an AK-47, said Lt. Tammy Villar, a sheriff’s spokeswoman.”
That night, Babeu was interviewed on local news. He said he had spoken to Puroll firsthand about the incident, and said Puroll ” gave a description, as ‘five Hispanic males.’”
Villar told TPM that some media reports suggesting Mexican persons of interest had been detained cited her and the department erroneously. She also said that when she spoke to Puroll after the incident, he asked her, “Where are people getting that these are Mexican nationals?” (Puroll went back to work 3 days after the incident, but has not yet spoken to the media. The Sheriff’s Office told TPM he is waiting for the end of an internal investigation on advice of his lawyer.)
It would seem people are getting that from the sheriff. As recently as Tuesday, Babeu was on Fox News saying that “one of my deputies, as you know, was ambushed — was shot by six members of a Mexican drug cartel.”
When TPM asked Villar how the Sheriff could know definitively that the suspects were Mexican cartel members, she responded, “I can’t answer that,” and then, “I would have the same question.”
Pinal County Public Information Officer Tim Gaffney first told TPM that the department had information from a “federal law enforcement source developed during this case and another subsequent case where two individuals were shot in the desert that those individuals working the area are tied to drug cartels from Mexico.” When asked what specifically tied that to the Puroll case, Gaffney said “The reason we feel that they were in fact members of the drug cartel is because of the witness/victim accounts from individuals in the area told us as much. We have also gotten information from other agencies that is law enforcement sensitive that has also confirmed this information.”
TPM’s requested a direct comment from the sheriff on the matter, but one was not provided.
In the early reports of the incident, various news outlets cited the Sheriff’s department saying that law enforcement helicopters responding to the scene took fire from the suspects. A report first published on April 30 by KPHO.com quotes Villar: “We had helicopters up in the air. They were taking gunfire from the suspects as well. They had to pull out.”
A few days after the incident, The Arizona Republic reported that the Arizona National Guard told the media:
a clipboard or other metal object within the aircraft apparently fell to the floor, causing a clattering noise. Crew members were at first unclear about the source of the noise and put out an alert that there might be gunfire in the area. During a debriefing, Castillo said, the crew realized what caused the confusion.
Villar said the clarification never reached Sheriff Paul Babeu, who told the media of a helicopter coming under fire during news briefings.
But the National Guard only took responsibility for the confusion over one helicopter taking fire. When TPM asked Villar how she came to tell media that several helicopters had sustained fire she wrote in an email:
when the helicopter pilot (mind you there was more than 1 in the air) reported he had taken fire…….he didn’t immediately identify himself to our incident commander……we had more than one and did not know which one was taking fire…..They means….there were more than 1 and we did not know who was……I could have better stated- one of the helicopters has reported they (again they) were taking fire……it is a matter of semantics that had been later clarified numerous times.
In his account of the incident, Puroll said the following:
That man stood up in front of me, about 25 yards away… When he first stood up, he did not see me, initially. He did not come up ready to shoot. I don’t believe he knew I was there, until he actually saw me. When he stood up his weapon was in his right hand down by his side pointed at the ground. He stood up, he was looking at the ground. Then he raised his head and looked up and he saw me.
Puroll’s account suggests he surprised the men he was tracking. Yet Babeu has repeatedly described the incident as an “ambush.”
In an article posted April 30, KPHO.com reported Babeu saying, “One of them stayed in the rear, took cover. That person popped up and started firing rounds at our deputy.”
Eric Lach is a reporter for TPM. From 2010 to 2011, he was a news writer in charge of the website’s front page. He has previously written for The Daily, NewYorker.com, GlobalPost and other publications. He can be reached at ericl(at)talkingpointsmemo.com