How Sheriff Paul Babeu Inflated The Story Of His Wounded Deputy

September 30, 2010 4:38 a.m.

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.

Claim: The assailants were members of a Mexican drug cartel

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.

Claim: Smugglers fired at law enforcement helicopters

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 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.

Claim: Puroll was “ambushed”

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, reported Babeu saying, “One of them stayed in the rear, took cover. That person popped up and started firing rounds at our deputy.”

The case has been at the center of his argument that the tactics of drug smugglers have changed recently, that they have become more violent and organized. (An argument he made in a recent interview with TPM.)

On August 2, Babeu appeared on Fox News and told Sean Hannity: “This is America, and we have armed paramilitary squad-sized elements coming through our county every day and every night, and they even ambushed one of my deputies.”

Expanding on Babeu’s argument that the attack used “paramilitary” tactics, Gaffney told TPM that “when the shooting began these individuals were spread out much like tactics learned and practiced in the military.” But according to Puroll:

Everything occurred here within a 25 or 30 yard circle at most. I don’t think those people who were shooting could actually see me, ’cause the rounds were all cracking in air above my head. Nothing struck ’round me close in the dirt or anything like that.

Claim: A large amount of marijuana was recovered at the site

On May 1, The Arizona Republic reported that “Babeu said Puroll was tracking the smugglers, who left behind large quantities of marijuana.” Puroll said he suspected the men he was following were drug smugglers, and he said that five of the six men he saw that day were carrying large backpacks — but no evidence was ever recovered.

On May 3, Babeu appeared on Greta Van Susteren’s show on Fox News and said that Puroll “found some actual backpacks of marijuana and some other suspicious activity.”

The New Times‘ Paul Rubin reports that at a press conference on May 4, Babeu “conceded that some information released by his agency in the hours after the incident was inaccurate.” Among the corrected errors Rubin lists: “That the smugglers left behind “bales” of marijuana as they fled. Authorities confiscated no contraband.”

Gaffney told TPM that “Deputy Puroll was following the smugglers to see where they would leave the marijuana they were backpacking. We have evidence bays stuffed full of the backpacks that we seize every week. It is common practice for smugglers to backpack the marijuana through Pinal County and then leave it in a location until it is picked up. Deputy Puroll reported this as well that he was following them to see where they would leave it.”

Additional reporting by David Taintor.

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