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MCSO Chief May Have Undermined Investigation

PHOENIX – An email sent by one of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's top deputies may have hindered part of a court-ordered internal investigation at the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

The investigation stemmed from the discoveries of the bizarre and allegedly criminal behavior by an MCSO deputy, Ramon "Charley" Armendariz. He died of an apparent suicide earlier this month.

A search of Armendariz's home revealed a strange collection of items that included drugs, hundreds of driver's licenses and IDs, as well as disks containing hundreds of hours of traffic stop footage. 

Some of those videos show Armendariz behaving unprofessionally, and may even show him violating the civil rights of drivers, according to a judge who viewed two of them in a closed-door court hearing. 

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office brought these findings about Armendariz's activities to the attention of the judge and the court-appointed monitor overseeing the racial profiling case against the sheriff. The matter was kept under seal until May 16 because it related to an ongoing investigation.

After learning for the first time that Armendariz had been filming his own traffic stops, U.S. District Judge Murray Snow ordered MCSO to collect any other video other officers may have filmed.

Snow had not been previously aware that some MCSO deputies had been filming their traffic stops, nor was that evidence made available by MCSO in the racial profiling trial.

According to court transcripts, Snow wanted the video collection to be done subtly, so officers wouldn't be tempted to destroy incriminating evidence. 

But that's when things got tricky. 

As the monitor was coming up with a strategy with MCSO Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan to recover any existing footage through an internal affairs investigation, Deputy Chief David Trombi, who was not in that meeting, sent an email to supervisors advising them of a plan to collect footage. 

That frustrated the other strategy in the works, said Snow in court transcripts. 

But Tom Liddy, an attorney for the Sheriff's office, said Trombi's mistake was innocent, and he had thought he was supposed to send such an email because of an earlier plan.

"It appears that we had two ships passing in the night last week," Liddy said, referring to Trombi's actions and the planned course of action by Sheridan and the monitor. "And it would be unfair and inaccurate to infer any nefarious motivation on the part of Trombi, it is just not the case." 

Trombi's email went out to 20 supervisors, including one who appeared in an Armendariz video. Since Trombi's email made the intent of recovering the video footage public, the judge unsealed court documents relating to this investigation.

Snow did not say in court transcripts that he believed that it was necessarily Trombi's intent to frustrate the video collection plan. But he has said he is worried about a potential conflict of interest of MCSO being the sole investigator on the Armendariz case. 

He has ordered the department to share materials from its investigation with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and the U.S. Attorney.

Jude Joffe-Block was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2010 to 2017.