The Long, Lawless Ride of Sheriff Joe Arpaio
Locking up the innocent. Arresting his critics.
Racial profiling. Meet America's meanest and most
August 2, 2012 (This story is from the August 16th,
2012 issue of Rolling Stone.)
Hey! You! Get off of my cloud!
Joe Arpaio, the 80-year-old lawman who brands himself
"America's toughest sheriff," is smiling like a
delighted gnome. Nineteen floors above the blazing
Arizona desert, the Phoenix sprawl ripples in the heat
as Arpaio cues up the Rolling Stones to welcome a
reporter "from that marijuana magazine."
Hey! You! Get off of my cloud!
The guided tour of Arpaio's legend has officially begun.
Here, next to his desk, is the hand-painted sign of
draconian rules for Tent City, the infamous jail he set
up 20 years ago, in which some 2,000 inmates live under
canvas tarps in the desert, forced to wear pink
underwear beneath their black-and-white-striped uniforms
while cracking rocks in the stifling heat. HARD LABOR,
the sign reads. NO GIRLIE MAGAZINES!
From behind his desk, Arpaio pulls out a stack of news
clips about himself, dozens of them, featuring the
gruff, no-frills enforcer of Maricopa County, whose
officers regularly round up illegal immigrants in late-
night raids, his 60th made only a few days ago, at a
local furniture store. "Everything I did, all over the
world," he crows, flipping through the stories. "You can
see this week: national magazine of Russia... BBC...
Some people call me a publicity hound."
"My people said, 'You're stupid to do an interview with
that magazine,'" says Arpaio, talking about Rolling
Stone, "but hey, controversy - well, it hasn't hurt me
in 50 years."
Arpaio is an unabashed carnival barker. And his antics
might be amusing if he weren't also notorious for being
not just the toughest but the most corrupt and abusive
sheriff in America. As Arizona has become center stage
for the debate over illegal immigration and the civil
rights of Latinos, Arpaio has sold himself as the symbol
of nativist defiance, a modern-day Bull Connor bucking
the federal government over immigration policy. As such,
he's become the go-to media prop for conservative
politicians, from state legislators to presidential
candidates, who want to be seen as immigration hard-
liners. "I had Michele Bachmann sitting right there,"
says Arpaio, pointing to my chair. "All these
presidential guys coming to see me!"
As Arpaio has faced allegations of rampant racial
profiling in Arizona, he's declared war on President
Barack Obama, accusing him of watering down federal
immigration law to court the Latino vote - while Arpaio
himself continues to investigate the legitimacy of
Obama's birth certificate, the favored conspiracy of his
far-right constituents. "I'm not going to get into
everything else we got about the president," he brags to
a conservative radio interviewer while I'm sitting in
his office. "I could write 9 million books."
Arpaio refuses to acknowledge the president's recent
decision to grant temporary immunity from imprisonment
and deportation to illegal immigrants who came to the
U.S. as children. These people, Arpaio says, will "be
arrested" in Maricopa County. In June, when the Supreme
Court struck down key provisions of Arizona's
controversial immigration law, the core of which allows
law enforcement to demand citizenship papers from any
suspected illegal immigrant they come across, Arpaio-
growled that he wouldn't "bend" to the feds, "especially
when we still have state laws to enforce."
"If they think I'm going to surrender," Arpaio says,
"it's not going to happen."
His rhetoric and tactics have spread fear in the Latino
community in Arizona. "They hate me, the Hispanic
community, because they're afraid they're going to be
arrested," Arpaio boasted to a TV interviewer in 2009.
"And they're all leaving town, so I think we're doing
something good, if they're leaving." But the all-
consuming focus on immigration has come at a cost:
Arpaio is so obsessed with the often illusory crimes of
immigrants that he ignored more than 400 cases of sexual
abuse he was responsible for investigating, including
assaults on children. And it surprised no one that JT
Ready, the Arizona white supremacist who shot and killed
his girlfriend, her family and himself last May, had
attended Arpaio rallies.
Yet such derelictions of duty haven't hurt Arpaio among
the audience he cares about most. Since 1992, despite
widespread criticism from human rights groups and local
political leaders, Arpaio has been re-elected four times
in Maricopa- County, the most populous area of Arizona
and a bastion of retirees and conservatives for whom
Arpaio is a white knight, a defender of the 1950s
Shangri-La they've sought to preserve in the largely
white suburbs that ring Phoenix. "I'm kind of an old-
fashioned guy," says Arpaio.
Short and portly, with a bulb nose and cauliflower ears,
Arpaio plays the part with aplomb. The ringtone on his
outdated cellphone, which constantly bleats with
requests from the media, is Frank Sinatra singing "My
Way." "I don't use e-mail or u-mail or whatever it's
called," he says, then swivels in his chair to a 1960s
Smith Corona typewriter and taps out a message without
looking, yanking the paper out for dramatic effect. "I
do typing whenever I talk to reporters," it reads.
But in the middle of Arpaio's well-oiled performance,
something happens that's not on the official playbill.
His media aide, Lisa Allen, a former TV news anchor for
a local affiliate, bursts into the room and tells me I
must leave because a "personal matter" has come up. The
sheriff is done for the day.
But the matter, it turns out, is more than personal:
Arpaio's staff has just learned he's being sued by the
Justice Department for a litany of civil rights
violations against Latinos - the "unlawful and
unconstitutional" targeting and detention of people
because of their "race, color or national-origin." As a
result, federal prosecutors charge, the Maricopa County
Sheriff's Office has created "a pervasive culture of
discriminatory bias against Latinos" that "reaches the
highest levels of the agency."
The federal lawsuit will land within 48 hours. The
curtain, for the moment, must close.
"Want to see the tent where all the Mexicans are?"
Arpaio asks in a conspiratorial whisper. "Huh?"
The curtain is back open. And so here we are in the
triple-digit heat, entering the sheriff's Tent City,
where thousands of inmates he and deputies have picked
up live in the open, biding their time for misdemeanors
ranging from drunk driving to street-level drug dealing.
"August 2nd, 1993, right here," Arpaio says, poking a
bit of gravel with his foot where he broke ground on the
site. "My favorite spot."
From the start, the jail was notorious for its
minimalist living conditions, which Arpaio says have
saved Maricopa County millions of dollars in building
and operational costs. Arpaio fed prisoners two meals a
day (valued at 30 cents each), banned cigarettes and
coffee, and boasted that temperatures in the summer can
hit 141 degrees. His constituents lapped it up, and the
national press came calling. Arpaio brought back chain
gangs and paraded prisoners through the streets to be
jeered at. In 1996, he published his first book,
America's Toughest Sheriff, which was praised by Sen.
John McCain as "no-nonsense."
Flanked by Arpaio's two large body men, we pass through
a series of jail yards, first for the women (where one
of Arpaio's deputies warns me, "Remember that you're a
married man - heh heh"), then for the male prisoners,
who idle torpidly in the shade. Inside Arpaio's jails,
according to the federal lawsuit, guards refer to Latino
inmates as "wetbacks," "Mexican bitches," "stupid
Mexicans" and "fucking Mexicans." Female prisoners, the
suit claims, were forced to sleep in their own menstrual
blood; officers refused to respond to the inmates' pleas
because they were made in Spanish. Meanwhile, Arpaio's
jailers allegedly circulated e-mail images of a
Chihuahua in a bathing suit, calling it "a rare photo of
a Mexican Navy Seal."
As the prisoners recognize Arpaio, he pulls out a pen
and offers to sign autographs on postcards that show him
playing with puppy dogs in an air-conditioned part of
the jail. Some of the women inmates take him up on the
offer. When one woman says she's in for selling drugs
for one of the Mexican cartels, Arpaio brightens. "Do
they know me?" he asks.
In the tents reserved for "the illegals," I meet a young
inmate originally from Chiapas, Mexico, who tells me
through an interpreter that he's been working in the
U.S. since 1996. Many members of his immediate family
are American citizens, but he now faces deportation over
a drunk-driving charge. Other men chime in with similar
tales. Arpaio steps inside and proudly holds up a
digital thermometer to show me that it is 128 degrees
inside the tent.
"There's a lot of people here who did a lot of things
wrong," says an inmate who steps forward to confront
Arpaio, in English. "But a lot of people were just
working in peace and didn't do nothing. Just leave those
The man from Chiapas asks Arpaio, "You're against us
being here for work?" "No, not for work," says Arpaio.
"For being here illegally. Not for work. You're here
illegally and you're fake."
Arpaio, who speaks a little Spanish with a pronounced
Italian accent, is hated in the communities where these
men lived. In Hispanic areas of Phoenix, you can see
decals on cars that read FUCK ARPAIO (which is also the
title of a popular Chicano anti-Arpaio rap song). The
sheriff argues that he's simply doing the job the
federal government has failed to do, arresting illegal
immigrants on the pretext of violating state criminal
laws and then handing them over to federal authorities.
Arpaio claims he's detained 51,000 illegal immigrants
Illegal immigration is a top concern among voters in
Arizona, tied closely to fears of drugs, crime and
unemployment. Maricopa, the fourth-largest county in
America, is 50 miles from the Mexican border, but
Phoenix, its major population center, is a destination
for illegal immigrants and drug dealers alike. Thirty
percent of the county's residents are Hispanic, and
their numbers are soaring - up 47 percent over the past
decade. But the money and political power in Maricopa
still reside in the largely white and conservative
suburbs around Phoenix.
It is those whites and conservatives, as it happens, who
employ many of the illegal immigrants targeted by
Arpaio. But the sheriff is careful to steer clear of the
white owners who profit from exploiting immigrant labor.
In his 20 years wearing the badge, in fact, Arpaio has
busted only three businesses for hiring illegal
immigrants. "You've got to prove that they knew," he
says, "and it's very difficult." Instead, Arpaio goes
after the undocumented workers they hire, notifying the
media every time he rounds up Latino fruit pickers or
factory laborers. In the process, according to the
Justice Department, Arpaio has frequently arrested and
detained U.S. citizens and legal residents of Latino
origin, including children, for hours at a time without
a charge or a warrant.
Jailing Mexicans, of course, is what sells to his base.
In an influential retirement community like Sun City,
where the median age is 73, Arpaio serves as an armed
security cop keeping out the riffraff. And he's not
alone: All of the most prominent Republican politicians
in the state, including Gov. Jan Brewer, have risen to
power by inflaming anti-immigrant sentiment. They blame
the Obama administration for failing to crack down on
illegal immigrants, even though deportation has spiked
under Obama. And contrary to their overheated rhetoric,
there's almost no relationship between illegal
immigration and crime. "Illegal immigrants make up less
than 10 percent of those arrested," says Charles Katz, a
professor of criminology at Arizona State University who
conducts annual studies on crime in Maricopa County.
"They're involved in less criminal activity than native-
born Americans." Illegal immigrants, the studies show,
are twice as likely to be employed than U.S. citizens
and half as likely to use illegal drugs - yet thanks to
Arpaio's tactics, they're far more likely to be arrested
for drug offenses.
But Arpaio doesn't care about the complicated realities
of immigration. For him, the equation is simple: Fear
equals votes. While I'm with him, he happily trumpets
reports that Mexican drug cartels and prison gangs are
offering a reward for his head - proof, in his mind, of
his effectiveness, and evidence that the Latino
community harbors criminals. "He's vilified Latinos in
such a way that normal people, they're scared to death,"
says Bill Richardson, a retired police officer. Such
terror, in turn, only makes it harder for the police to
do their jobs. "It creates fear in the Latino community
for law enforcement," he says.
Joe Arpaio's itinerant career didn't predict his rise to
notoriety. When he was first elected, in 1992, he'd been
out of law enforcement for a decade and was working for
his wife's travel agency. But he'd had brushes with
fame. He led President Dwight Eisenhower's inauguration
parade in 1956, and he once arrested Elvis Presley in
Las Vegas for speeding on a motorcycle (though he didn't
realize who Presley was until he brought him into the
station). In 1969, while working for a predecessor of
the Drug Enforcement Administration, he partnered with
G. Gordon Liddy for something called Operation
Intercept, stopping every car that left Mexico to check
Still, the signs were there. In 1981, a female
investigator at the DEA named Laura Garcia sued Arpaio
for race and gender discrimination. She later dropped
the suit when she transferred to another agency, but she
maintains that Arpaio actively sought to marginalize
Hispanic agents in the Phoenix office. "He's not
upholding the law as sheriff," she says. "He's just
harassing and doing what he's always wanted to do to
Hispanics." By the time Arpaio retired from the DEA in
1982, he was known among colleagues as "Nickel Bag Joe,"
in honor of his penchant for making small-time drug
The role of sheriff retains a powerful hold on the
public imagination in Arizona. Viewed as a last,
colorful vestige of the Old West, the job has always
attracted characters like Sheriff "Marryin'" Jerry Hill,
who was married nine times, and Sheriff Dick Godbehere,
a former lawn-mower repairman who set up bogus drug
stings for local TV stations. But the sheriff is also
the most powerful law-enforcement officer in rural and
suburban areas, able to literally "make the law" by
choosing which laws to enforce and which to ignore.
Arpaio, in addition to his savvy media stunts, makes a
point of calling himself a "constitutional" sheriff,
emphasizing his lofty mandate to uphold the U.S.
Constitution - a political dog whistle to states' rights
advocates and white supremacists who have a deep-seated
hatred of the federal government.
Arpaio began focusing on illegal immigration about six
years ago, after he watched an ambitious politician
named Andrew Thomas get elected chief prosecutor of
Maricopa County by promising to crack down on illegal
immigrants. In 2006, shortly before the Department of
Homeland Security empowered local law-enforcement
agencies to act as an arm of the federal immigration
effort, Arpaio created a Human Smuggling Unit - and used
Thomas' somewhat twisted interpretation of the law to
focus not on busting coyotes and other smugglers, but on
going after the smuggled.
The move may have been indefensible from a legal
standpoint, but it was political gold: Arpaio quickly
ramped up his arrest numbers, bringing him a round of
fresh media attention. The sheriff made a splash by
setting up roadblocks to detain any drivers who looked
like they could be in the U.S. illegally - a virtual
license to racially profile Hispanics. Reports of pull-
overs justified by little or no discernible traffic
violations were soon widespread: Latinos in the
northeastern part of the county, one study shows, were
nine times more likely to be pulled over for the same
infractions as other drivers. Arpaio's men, the Justice
Department alleges, relied on factors "such as whether
passengers look 'disheveled' or do not speak English."
Some stops were justified after the fact: A group of
Latinos who were photographed sitting in a car, neatly
dressed, were described in the police report as
appearing "dirty," the ostensible rationale for the
pull-over. Testifying on the stand on July 24th in a
federal trial over his department's blatant record of
racial profiling, Arpaio himself acknowledged that he
once called the crackdown a "pure program to go after
the illegals and not the crime first."
By loudly targeting illegal immigration, Arpaio has
become a regular on Fox News and a hero to the Tea
Party. His second book, published in 2008, is modestly
titled Joe's Law: America's Toughest Sheriff Takes on
Illegal Immigration, Drugs and Everything Else That
Threatens America. He travels the country endorsing
right-wing candidates and attracting millions of dollars
in donations from political allies outside Arizona,
giving him a financial advantage his opponents can't
match. And he regularly courts celebrities. He has made
a show of including action stars like Lou Ferrigno and
Steven Seagal in his immigration posses, the informal
groups Arpaio uses to conduct freelance patrols on
behalf of the county. He even swore in Ted Nugent, whose
self-professed goal for illegal immigrants is to "shoot
'em dead," as a "special deputy."
"Arpaio knows how to move the needle when it comes to
appealing to the base," says George Gascón, a former
police chief in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa who has
engaged in a protracted battle with Arpaio over the
sheriff's treatment of Latinos. "What he did very
artfully is piggy-back on this fear of illegal
immigration that was becoming so prevalent in border
states like Arizona. He was able to capitalize on that
and he became the hero, the only guy who would single-
handedly go after it."
When local political leaders in Phoenix have criticized
Arpaio's tactics, the sheriff has simply used his power
to go after the critics. In 2006, he formed an anti-
corruption unit led by his chief deputy, David
Hendershott, a large, intimidating man whose own co-
workers used Darth Vader's theme song as a ringtone to
herald his incoming calls. The unit, which worked hand-
in-glove with county prosecutor Andrew Thomas, was
tasked with rooting out political corruption, but
quickly evolved into a de facto hit squad aimed at
Arpaio's enemies. Hendershott conducted investigations
and filed complaints against the county manager, four
county judges and Maricopa's entire board of
supervisors, all of whom had crossed Arpaio in one way
or another. In one instance, the sheriff's office
arrested a county board member who had questioned the
costs associated with Arpaio's immigration crackdown,
holding him in jail for several hours without ever
filing a charge.
Nor was the press immune to Arpaio's high hand. In 2007,
after the Phoenix New Times published an aggressive
report on the sheriff's real-estate dealings, a special
prosecutor appointed by Thomas issued subpoenas for more
than two years of computer records from the newspaper,
seeking everything published "regarding Sheriff Joe
Arpaio from January 1st, 2004, to the present" -
including information on anyone who had visited the
website and read the stories. When the paper's top
editor and CEO refused, they were arrested in late-night
raids on their homes while their families looked on, and
charged with violating grand-jury secrecy by reporting
on the subpoenas. The case was thrown out, the
prosecutor was fired, and the New Times has sued for $15
million, a suit still making its way through the courts.
Arpaio has even fought with other law enforcement. In
2008, a series of crime sweeps by Arpaio's officers led
to public protests in Mesa over harassment and racial
profiling. To prevent Arpaio from sending officers to
confront the protesters, as he had done in other towns,
Mesa police chief George Gascón cordoned off the
protesters and invited free-speech lawyers to represent
them. Infuriated, Arpaio responded by conducting a late-
night raid on the Mesa City Hall, ostensibly looking for
illegal immigrants. He arrested a handful of janitors,
all of whom turned out to be documented workers - and
then raided Gascón's police station to obtain the
workers' computer files under the suspicion that their
papers were invalid.
In the past decade, hundreds of lawsuits, ranging from
wrongful deaths in Arpaio's jails to unlawful arrests,
have been brought against the sheriff's office. Far from
saving money with Arpaio's on-the-cheap Tent City,
Maricopa County has been forced to shell out more than
$50 million to defend itself against lawsuits brought by
the sheriff's victims - including nearly $1 million
awarded to one of the county supervisors who was
illegally targeted by Arpaio's anti-corruption unit.
Arpaio, for his part, refuses to acknowledge the
validity of any of his critics. They're all Democrats
and political opportunists, he says, "trying to make a
The morning after Joe Arpaio learns about the Justice
Department lawsuit, he holds a pre-emptive press
conference at a police-training center on the outskirts
of town. His staff had labored until midnight to
complete a brochure detailing new guidelines for
improving community relations. The cover image is of a
Latino family petting a police dog.
"The sheriff is a model of community outreach," Arpaio's
deputy proclaims at the press conference. "He's a very
But if the brochure is meant to make nice with Latinos -
and neutralize the rationale for the Justice
Department's lawsuit - you wouldn't know it from
Arpaio's grim visage as he sits listening to the
presentation. When a local reporter asks about a comment
Arpaio made in a deposition, dismissing complaints by
Latinos as "civil rights crap," Arpaio gets visibly
"Do you really think I'm going to hide and not talk
anymore?" he asks. "No. I love dealing with the Hispanic
Last December, the Justice Department released findings
from a three-year investigation into Arpaio's office,
publishing a 22-page report of numerous instances of
racial profiling and civil rights abuses. Instead of
filing a lawsuit, prosecutors requested that Arpaio
accept a federal monitor inside his office to observe
his operation, something the Justice Department
successfully tried with the Los Angeles Police
Department in 2001. Arpaio refused to cooperate,
claiming that the feds didn't have any evidence. "After
they went after me," he bragged to an audience at an
anti-immigration fundraiser, "we arrested 500 more just
The same day the Justice Department released its report,
Homeland Security stripped Arpaio of his power to jail
and deport illegal immigrants on behalf of the federal
government. The sheriff vowed to keep going after
immigrants by arresting them for things like minor
traffic infractions and then turning them over to be
deported. He also dismissed the Justice Department
report as a political move by the Obama administration,
meant to curry favor with Latinos in the upcoming
presidential election. "I think they had this planned,"
Arpaio says. "Hispanic vote. Election year. I'm the
The morning after Arpaio's press conference, when the
Justice Department's lawsuit is officially filed,
federal prosecutors hold their own press conference,
across the street from the sheriff's office. Tom Perez,
the attorney for Justice's civil rights division, makes
a point of calling Arpaio's new community-outreach
brochure "an admission of the existence of a problem."
"At its core," he says, "this is an abuse-of-power
case." The lawsuit includes allegations that Arpaio
sought to "punish" critics "for their criticism and to
prevent future criticism," including false and unethical
prosecutions of political enemies and arrests of people
who had expressed disagreement at county board meetings
Sitting in his office later that morning, Arpaio
dismisses Perez as trying to score points with Latinos.
"How did he open?" asks Arpaio. "'Buenos días!' Now, why
would you open a press conference in Spanish? Why?
'Buenos días!' It doesn't matter. He's talking to the
media and the public. Why is he saying 'buenos días'?
Are we in Mexico here?"
Arpaio likes to hand out copies of the letter he
received from the Justice Department in March 2009
informing him of the investigation, pointing to it as
proof that the move is a political hit job by Obama. In
reality, the investigation was set in motion during
George W. Bush's final term, but it wasn't formally
announced until the spring after Obama was elected.
Perez adds that the fact-finding began well before he
arrived in office, prompted by years of press reports
and complaints from individuals and organizations in
Arizona over abuses by Arpaio and his men.
As an elected official, Arpaio has had no check on his
power other than the voters of Maricopa County, who have
consistently looked the other way as evidence of abuses
mounted, including a Pulitzer Prize-winning series by
the local East Valley Tribune that detailed Arpaio's
practice of racial profiling. The sheriff's office,
which cooperated with the newspaper, was "operating so
blatantly that they didn't mind if a reporter was around
while they were doing really bad policing," notes George
Gascón, the former police chief in Mesa.
Arpaio is similarly brazen about the Justice Department
lawsuit, promising to eviscerate the claims before a
jury. "They're gonna have to come up with witnesses and
all the information they keep saying they have, which
they won't give to us," he seethes. "So we'll see 'em in
court." He calls the Justice Department's evidence of
civil rights abuses "isolated incidents, and we can tear
that apart too."
Perez promises that the Justice Department isn't
bluffing. "We never file a lawsuit that we're not
confident we can prove," he says. "It doesn't take a
rocket scientist to figure out that there is a crisis of
confidence in many corners of the Maricopa County
community. They're supposed to unite communities, not
divide communities. This is a divided community."
I did it myyyy way...
It's Joe Arpaio's cellphone. After the Justice
Department's press conference, he is ready to bask in
"Hey, Neil Cavuto! I love ya, Neil," Arpaio says,
winking at me while taking a call from the Fox News
host. "You know me, I'm Italian like you are. We talk,
talk, talk... I miss you, Neil. How come you don't call
me on good stuff, like when I lock up animal abusers?"
Arpaio has planned another press conference for after
lunch. On two separate occasions, he's made a point of
telling me that when he enters a Mexican restaurant, the
staff runs out the back door - his idea of a joke about
illegal immigrants working in kitchens. When I ask him
to show me, he agrees - even insisting his deputies take
us to a "dangerous" restaurant. Instead, we drive to a
chain place called Garcia's, where Arpaio is greeted as
a conquering hero by aging white diners with dentures
and canes. A silver-haired man with Pall Malls in his
pocket flags Arpaio at the entrance: "'Sup, Joe. Good to
When a Latina waitress brings Arpaio his iced tea, he
eyeballs it suspiciously. "Is it safe?" he asks, tilting
his head toward the kitchen. "Anybody recognize me in
there?" Then he whispers out of the side of his mouth:
"Don't tell the cook I'm here."
"I just know we lost half of the employees," the
waitress laughs, clearly in on the staff-running-out-
Last year, as scrutiny by the Justice Department began
to heat up, Arpaio announced that he was launching an
investigation into the authenticity of Barack Obama's
birth certificate, ostensibly on behalf of an Arizona
Tea Party group that signed a petition requesting he
look into it as a matter of law enforcement. "I'm not
doing this for politics," he insists over lunch. "No
politician will talk about it. So I know that's a risk
too. If you want to call it a risk. But I did it. I
stand by it. Regardless of the politics."
Joining us for lunch is Mike Zullo, an investigator from
Arpaio's "cold-case posse," who has been tasked with
"clearing the president" of any wrongdoing. Over tacos
and enchiladas, Zullo tries to make the case that the
official seal on Obama's long-form birth certificate the
White House issued last year is fishy. "We have run this
through over 500 different tests, trying to get computer
software to do this, to replicate it, and it cannot be
done," he says. "There's major problems. There's major
implications for this."
"If things go right," Arpaio chimes in, the birther
investigation "should take us into the White House."
How often do Arpaio and Zullo discuss this
investigation? I ask.
"A lot," says Zullo.
Zullo goes on to claim that there is a "nationwide news
blackout" of the issue, including at Fox News. He says
the network's owner, Rupert Murdoch, was pressured by
Democratic donor and Republican bogeyman George Soros to
never discuss the issue on air - or else the Obama
administration would revoke Murdoch's broadcast license.
"It's been told to me that Murdoch is petrified over
this," says Zullo. "Fox will not touch it."
When we get back to his office, Arpaio immediately does
an interview with Fox News in which he talks to the
correspondent about the birther investigation. In July,
Arpaio goes on to make headlines everywhere by claiming
- without introducing any actual evidence - that he has
officially proved Obama's birth certificate is
And the conspiracies don't end there. Arpaio insists
that the Justice Department's accusations, starting last
December, have all been timed to divert attention from
public-relations problems for Attorney General Eric
Holder, including the controversy over the botched gun-
running sting known as Operation Fast and Furious.
So it's all orchestrated? I ask.
"Orchestrated," says Arpaio, savoring the word. "I like
Like a lot of Joe Arpaio's entourage, Mike Zullo is an
Italian-American from the Northeast, a large-muscled and
mustachioed man who carries a 9-millimeter strapped to
his belt (Arizona allows concealed firearms). Arpaio was
raised in an extended Italian community in Massachusetts
after his mother died giving birth to him. One of
Arpaio's favorite stock lines is that his father came to
the U.S. from Italy "legally." After a 50-year career in
law enforcement, Arpaio still surrounds himself with
other Italian-Americans, including both his bodyguards.
He calls them his "Italian mafia."
Arpaio insists he's not a racist. And even some of his
critics believe him, saying he's simply an opportunist
who saw illegal immigration as a political hobby-horse
he could ride to greater glory. But when I ask Arpaio
how many Latinos work in his headquarters in downtown
Phoenix, where he employs about 40 people, he can think
of only one.
"Well, we've got Paul," he says, stumped. "It's hard to
explain. You know why? I don't care. I don't even think
of that question you're saying. I did mention Paul
because it's a high-level position. I can't even tell
you who's Hispanic. We got Hispanic secretaries there, I
presume, if you walk around in that floor." (He can,
however, tell you who is Italian, to a man.)
"You go around here," he says, pointing to his fellow
diners in Garcia's, "and most of the Hispanics come up
to me and say, 'Thank you, Sheriff. I'm here legally.
Thank you for your job.'"
I ask how his polling is doing.
"I have no idea," he says, "but I think I'm higher than
But the Joe Arpaio show may be losing steam, especially
as evidence emerges that his focus on illegal immigrants
has come at the expense of serious crimes in his county.
Last year, Arpaio was stung by a report that showed his
office had failed to adequately investigate more than
400 sex crimes in Maricopa County from 2005 to 2007. The
slipshod investigations came to light only when the
Phoenix suburb of El Mirage dropped a law-enforcement
contract it had with the sheriff's office - and
discovered that Arpaio's men had left behind piles of
unfinished cases, many of them involving children and
According to Bill Louis, the former El Mirage police
chief who discovered the cases, Arpaio's investigators
had been moved off the sex crimes and onto illegal
immigration. "He depleted the manpower so he could
further his politically motivated investigations," says
Louis, who has written a book titled If There Were Any
Victims, a line Arpaio used in a grudging apology for
Louis says people frequently ask him if he's afraid
Arpaio will retaliate. "What does that tell you about
this guy?" he says. "About this elected sheriff who is
supposed to be protecting our rights? For godsake, this
But Arpaio's days of retaliation may be over. In the
past year, some of Arpaio's top allies have been
ensnared by investigations into their activities. Arpaio
forced his chief deputy, David Hendershott, to resign
after an internal report emerged detailing years of
alleged corruption and misconduct, from spreading bogus
statistics in the media to falsely charging and
arresting political opponents. Andrew Thomas, the former
attorney general for Maricopa County, was disbarred last
spring after an ethics panel ruled he had abused his
powers by falsely prosecuting local officials for a
nonexistent criminal conspiracy to attack the sheriff's
office. The local news called Thomas a "monster" created
by Joe Arpaio.
What's more, given Obama's recent easing of federal
immigration policy, and the Supreme Court ruling that
curbed Arizona's harsh immigration law, Arpaio is
finding it harder to deport Mexicans who have committed
no crimes. Now, if he turns innocent detainees over to
Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they are supposed
to be released. That means Arpaio's power to evict
Mexicans from Maricopa - the issue he's been exploiting
for political gain for the past six years - has
effectively been neutered.
For Arpaio, the loss of his deportation power simply
offers another opportunity to bash the federal
government. "If ICE says, 'We're not coming,' what do I
do with these people?" Arpaio asks. "Tell them, 'Welcome
to America,' and put them back on the street? After 50
years of law enforcement, it just doesn't smell right."
Arpaio says he now plans on publicizing every illegal
immigrant he releases from custody, turning them into
symbols for the media, as much as George H.W. Bush used
Willie Horton to scare voters during his 1988
presidential campaign. "I'm going to make a record,"
says Arpaio, "and if they commit a crime in the next
But as his police powers ebb, so does his influence as a
political player on the national stage - the spotlight
Arpaio most covets. Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee
for president, has yet to appear with Arpaio this year
or to ask for his endorsement, as he did back in 2008.
"He forgot who I was," complains Arpaio. "When he came
to town, he never invited me to his function this time
around." That's because Arizona, long a GOP stronghold,
could be up for grabs this fall, thanks to the rapidly
growing, and increasingly empowered, Latino population.
The conventional wisdom is that Romney will need at
least 40 percent of the Latino vote to win key
battleground states - meaning he can ill afford to
antagonize Hispanic voters by cozying up to Joe Arpaio.
Arpaio, who endorsed Rick Perry during the GOP primary,
considers Romney a fair-weather hard-liner when it comes
to immigration. "In the primary, he was acting pretty
tough - 'Lock them all up!' I don't do that. I just say
it all the time."
Even among Arpaio's allies, there is growing concern
that the sheriff's constant political baiting may be
yielding diminishing returns for the cause of law
enforcement in Maricopa County. A close associate of
Arpaio's tells me that voters who support the sheriff,
as well as key members of his own staff, are tiring of
the media circus. "Such a great guy, and a lot of people
love him - but the narcissistic part of him, and the
hey-everybody-look-at-me thing, is just sickening
sometimes," the associate says. "I'm amazed that it's
gone on as long as it has."
No one believes Joe Arpaio will lose his own re-election
bid this fall, least of all Joe Arpaio. Half of voters
in Maricopa County still approve of him, despite his
almost entirely negative press. He has raised $7 million
in campaign funds, most of it from out-of-state donors
who support his crackdown on illegal immigrants. Arpaio
envisions himself being sheriff of Maricopa County well
into his nineties, his 50-caliber pistol strapped to his
wheelchair. The formula is clear: Keep stirring
controversy, keep stoking the media, keep raking in the
campaign contributions from far-flung donors. Just put
on a show.
Hey! You! Get off of my cloud!
"After your article," promises Arpaio, "I'll probably
get another $2 million."
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