The much-hyped account of an Arizona sheriff’s deputy attacked by border-crossing drug smugglers is being questioned, months after the fact.
On April 30, one week after Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed her state’s controversial new immigration bill into law, a gun battle reportedly took place in a remote western part of Pinal County, Arizona, between a lone sheriff’s deputy and a well-armed group of suspected drug smugglers. The deputy, Louie Puroll, was shot just above his left kidney, but survived, and his assailants were not found, despite an extensive search. The story spread quickly, was reported by major media outlets and was held up by border hawks as proof that Mexican drug violence was spilling into the country.
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But an exhaustive article published in the Phoenix New Times last week challenges the official story of what happened in the desert that day, and the Sheriff’s office — led by Paul Babeu, who has ridden this story and his appearance in John McCain’s “danged fence” campaign ad to national prominence — has now reopened its investigation of the case.
Paul Rubin’s report in the New Times finds key discrepancies at many crucial points of the story. Rubin first challenged the story back in May. In a blog post on May 3, Rubin said that though he had no evidence, “the whole thing does sound rather strange” and he wondered how Puroll survived. He then spent months trying to corroborate that hunch.
The arguments of a number of pathologists provide the most provocative part of Rubin’s report. Rubin asked several experts to analyze photographs taken of Puroll’s bullet wound. They told Rubin that the torn flesh in the picture looked like a close-contact wound, not one made by a shot fired from 25 yards away, as Puroll had claimed.
“I don’t know who did it, but the weapon was either touching this man or was within a couple of inches. It’s pretty straightforward,” Dr. Michael Baden, co-director of the New York State Police Medicolegal Investigation Unit and former chief medical examiner for New York City, told Rubin.
Dr. Vincent Di Maio, retired chief medical examiner of San Antonio’s Bexar County, called the wound “very suspicious,” but said that only a test of the t-shirt worn by Puroll that day would could confirm or deny any suspicions. When contacted by TPM, Di Maio explained that while the reddish color of the wound suggests the presence of carbon monoxide, and thus a close contact shot, he had never seen a case before where carbon monoxide caused such discoloration without the bullet passing through the body.
“Maybe it’s just irritation or congestion or something like that. I’m not going to call it,” Di Maio told TPM. “They should test the shirt.”
But as Rubin reported, investigators did not initially send the shirt to the state’s Department of Public Safety (DPS) to be tested. “In my heart and mind, I believe Louie Puroll’s story, and … I don’t see the need for testing because we don’t have a suspect,” Sergeant Dave Hausman, who oversaw the department’s criminal investigation of the shooting, told Rubin. But on Monday, just hours after telling TPM that it stood by its original account, the department announced that in an “effort to maintain the transparency of its criminal investigation,” it was reopening the case, and sending the shirt to DPS for analysis.
While the pathologists Rubin spoke to stopped short of speculating how Puroll could have come to be shot at close range, Weaver Barkman, a retired homicide sergeant for the Pima County Sheriff’s Office, told him: “There is, in my view, insufficient evidence to establish probable cause that on the afternoon of Friday, April 30, 2010, any person or persons, other than Deputy Puroll, were present at or in the immediate vicinity of this shooting scene.” Meanwhile, Scottsdale forensic psychiatrist Steven Pitt says the case “raises a red flag as big as the [Arizona] Cardinals’ stadium.” None of the people doubting the official story are saying that they know what happened on April 30, but the questions linger.
The department has stood by the version of events Puroll gave to detectives in an interview on May 6 (audio here). On the afternoon of April 30, Puroll said he drove out to the Vekol Valley, west of Arizona City. He told detectives he didn’t have anything “specific” to do that day, but that he was heading for the desert to observe a known smuggling trail. He parked his truck, and proceeded on foot to a point from which he could see both the trail and his truck. He was carrying his cellphone and a GPS unit, as well as an M-16 rifle, a Glock pistol, ammunition, binoculars and other equipment. According to Rubin, “All that immediately identified Puroll as a peace officer was his Pinal County sheriff’s badge, which may or may not have been visible on his belt.”
At 1:45 pm, according to Rubin, he checked in with a dispatcher using a cell phone, and said he was watching a trail. At 3 p.m., Puroll later told detectives, he observed six men about 200 yards away, five carrying large backpacks that he estimated weighed 50-60 pounds each. He did not see any weapons.
“As they passed by me and headed up the trail… I called dispatch, told them where I was, what I was doing, what I’d seen, and that I was following these people… and that I would check back again,” Puroll told detectives. Rubin reports that Puroll’s cell phone records show he called dispatch at 3:42 pm. “I got about eight people in front of me carrying heavy backpacks” Puroll reportedly told the dispatcher. A few minutes later he called back and said he was still following them.
Here another unanswered questions crops up. Rubin reports that it was around this time that Sergeant Brian Messing, Puroll’s supervisor, says he got a call from the deputy. “He says, ‘Hey, I’ve got these backpackers. They’re loaded. They’ve got dope, they’re northbound, and this is where I’m at.’ I said, okay, I’ll get guys started out there,” Messing told Rubin. But phone records and Puroll’s interview say that Messing was the one who did the calling, and that the call didn’t happen until right before the moment when the firefight supposedly broke out. When Rubin pointed out the phone records and the discrepency to Messing, Messing said, “I’ve been trying to figure this all out in my head… In my head, I’m sure I spoke with him right after he spotted those guys.”
Meanwhile, Puroll says things escalated quickly after he received the call from Messing, claiming that a man stood up 25 yards away from him, without initially spotting Puroll.
When the man looked up, “without a moment’s hesitation, not a heartbeat’s hesitation, he brought the weapon up to waist level, and began firing,” Puroll said. Puroll says he saw the muzzle flash and felt the impact from the first round fired. He also added: “When I saw him, I had dropped my cellphone and my GPS to the ground.”
“Then just like that, I hear the gunfire,” Messing told Rubin. Puroll says he opened fire on the man who shot him, watched him fall to the ground, and then never saw him again. He also reported taking fire from a rifle and a pistol to his right, though he never saw anyone and he didn’t think they saw him. He unloaded full clips from both his rifle and pistol. Puroll dialed 911 shouting “I’ve been hit! I’ve been hit! I’ve been hit!” After that, Puroll said he stopped firing, but still heard one or two rifle shots go over his head “every 25 or 30 seconds.”
When asked by detectives to describe the individuals he encountered that day, Puroll said he only saw the facial features of one of the men, and that one he only saw in profile, through binoculars. He described a man with “shoulder length black hair,” who was “dark complected” and “had a long face, and had high cheekbones”
“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,” he said.
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