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CBS 5 INVESTIGATES

Report: Arpaio's SVU left child sex victims without justice

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PHOENIX (CBS5) -

During the election year of 2012, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office appears to have withheld an internal investigation that exposed problems in its special victims unit.

CBS 5 Investigates threatened to sue MCSO for the report earlier this month. The agency released it on the deadline offered to avoid that lawsuit.

The report shows that detectives in the special victims unit, which investigates child sex crimes, were so understaffed, they routinely discarded cases that were difficult to investigate. That left rapists on the streets and victims waiting for justice.

The report indicates that MCSO received funding to help with the child sex crime investigations but diverted those funds and personnel to other areas. The report fails to identify who made the decision to divert the resources or where they went. But a review of the sheriff's budget and press releases indicates that at the time the resources were approved for the SVU, the sheriff's office announced the creation of a human smuggling unit.

Victims left without justice

Internal investigations detectives ended up reviewing more than 500 sex crimes cases, a vast majority of them involving children.

"He threatened me. He told me not to tell anybody or he would hurt me," said Sabrina Morrison, who was just 13 years old when her uncle raped her.

Sabrina's case is one example of what happened to the victims of these crimes while the SVU was discarding cases. She told a teacher, who notified MCSO. But after detectives interviewed Sabrina and had a rape exam performed, they told Sabrina's mother they did not believe an assault had occurred.

"I was told to my face that there was no evidence of any trauma, so no sexual assault," said Sabrina's mother, Vikki Morrison.

MCSO detectives waited five years to arrest Sabrina's uncle, despite the fact that records show the crime lab had notified detectives within weeks of the attack that semen was detected in the rape kit. Sabrina's parents were led to believe that their special-needs daughter was making it all up.

During those five years, Sabrina's uncle repeatedly assaulted her.

"I felt hurt because nobody believed me," Sabrina said.

Fight for the investigation

By the end of 2012, the internal investigation into what went wrong within the sheriff's SVU had been going on for four years. The sheriff had said repeatedly that the investigation was still in progress, so he would not discuss the results.

CBS 5 Investigates sent public records request after public records request, asking for the documents. The answer was always the same. The investigation was "ongoing."

In the beginning of 2013, CBS 5 News hired First Amendment attorney David Bodney to help get the records released.

"Questions naturally arise when an agency investigates itself, and our public records law gives the people of Arizona the right to know that those investigations have been conducted professionally," Bodney said.

Bodney gave the sheriff's office a deadline of Feb. 11 to release the records. MCSO then announced it would release them Feb 11.

"They alleged that the investigation was ongoing, and yet once we got to see the investigatory report. We got to see that there was no evidence of any work on this internal affairs investigation since November of 2011," Bodney said.

Investigation inactive during election year

It was an election year for Arpaio in 2012. Throughout the year, he repeatedly asserted that the investigation was ongoing. But when the report was released, there were no documents dated 2012, and no evidence any work was done on the report during that year.

It was the tightest election of Arpaio's career. He spent a monumental $7 million, but garnered just 50 percent of the vote. His opponent raised just $500,000, and received 45 percent of the vote.

According to Bodney, an election campaign is not a legally valid reason to withhold a public record from release.

Overwhelmed and understaffed

The internal investigation painted a picture of a special victims unit that was overwhelmed and understaffed. The unit contained five detectives, but it was common for one or more to be sent out on special assignment for the sheriff.

The report said detectives commonly discarded difficult cases, took evidence home with them and failed to keep track of the cases they left open. The internal affairs investigators initially blamed the detectives, a sergeant and a lieutenant. But just days before the release of the report, an assistant chief rescinded the disciplinary action against those officers and labeled the issue a systemic problem.

The report shed some light on an effort to beef up the special victims unit back in 2006. The county board of supervisors approved funding for an additional five detectives and one sergeant to help with the case backlog. But those resources never made it to the unit.

Competing interests

That same year, MCSO announced the creation of a human smuggling unit. That unit was not funded by the board of supervisors.

"What happened here was a policy decision to dedicate resources to go after illegal aliens and leave other more serious offenses understaffed and without sufficient resources," said Paul Charlton, a former U.S. attorney who prosecuted child sex crimes during his 16 years as a federal prosecutor.

"And now those victims of child sex abuse cases are paying the penalty for that diversion of resources," Charlton said.

MCSO refuses to comment

MCSO officials refused repeated requests for an on-camera interview. But CBS 5 Investigates tracked down the sheriff's chief deputy, Jerry Sheridan, outside a county budget meeting.

"Everything is in that 10,000-page report," Sheridan said.

When he pressed to answer questions about who made the decision to divert resources away from the SVU, Sheridan refused to answer the question directly.

"You can go to any detective unit in any law enforcement agency in the country and ask those detectives do you have enough help. I bet you every one will say no," Sheridan said.

"There were five detectives and a sergeant in the SVU in 2007. In 2013, there are 11 detectives and two sergeants," Sheridan said, referring to the changes he made since he took over for his predecessor, David Hendershott.

Hendershott resigned when he was about to be fired in 2011. He was the sheriff's longtime second in command, and was known to carry out the sheriff's agenda with an iron fist. Many blame him for the problems within the SVU, and his name comes up repeatedly in interviews contained in the report.

At least one captain described a conversation with Hendershott during which the sergeant asked for more resources for the SVU but was turned down. But not everyone agrees that all of the fault lies with Hendershott.

"The failure to sufficiently investigate child sex crimes rests on the shoulders of the sheriff," Charlton said.

Sheriff remains silent

Arpaio refused repeated requests for an on-camera interview, but CBS 5 Investigates tracked him down outside a speaking engagement in Tempe late last week.

"Read the report," was all the normally talkative sheriff would say. 

Copyright 2013 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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