Unless you’re Joe Arpaio. A lot of people have taken shots at him, literally and figuratively. He travels short distances in Downtown Phoenix the way wise guys get around in mafia movies: in the back of a black, tinted Chrysler town car, accompanied by three pistol-packing protectors. He looks a little nervous as he emerges from the backseat on the passenger side, where the seat in front of him is slapped with a sticker depicting Marlon Brando in The Godfather. “Look at all this graffiti!” he exclaims. “You sure we’re not gonna get shot?”
Arpaio heads to the bathroom to finish combing his hair and straightening his tie – a clip-on, he explains, because perps can strangle you with a necktie. His tie tack is a gold Glock pistol; he says it’s the only gun he carries anymore. Back at his office, behind the desk, he keeps three big sticks, a nod to his philosophy “walk tall and carry a big stick,” a variant of Theodore Roosevelt’s maxim “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Arpaio does not speak softly.
Widely known as “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” Joe Arpaio’s career in law enforcement dates back to 1954 – 10 years prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and 12 years before the institution of Miranda Rights. He sees himself as akin to the brawny lawmen of yore whose photos adorn his office, like Wyatt Earp and John Wayne’s Rooster Cogburn. He’s been sheriff of Maricopa County for 21 years, and his harsh policies and punitive philosophy are viewed with both admiration and revulsion. When brick-and-mortar jails were bulging in the early 1990s, he built Tent City, a prison camp fashioned from old military gear, to house thousands more inmates. He also built a reputation for making prisoners wear pink underwear, eat surplus food, work chain gangs, and endure miserable conditions. The Department of Justice has investigated him for civil rights abuses, specifically racial profiling of Hispanics, and a U.S. District Judge recently ruled the MCSO engages in racial profiling. Arpaio’s been bombarded with death threats, demonstrations, and lawsuits, and subject to repeated recall attempts. Yet he remains one of the most re-elected officials in Arizona history, with voters casting double-digit victory margins for him six general elections in a row. When it comes to battles of the ballot, it appears the majority of Maricopa County voters like his take-all-prisoners platform.
Love him or hate him, Arpaio’s an American icon. Since first being elected sheriff in 1992, he’s appeared on hundreds of television shows, including Geraldo at Large, Larry King Live, The Colbert Report, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, his own show on Fox Reality Channel called Smile... You’re Under Arrest! (canceled after three episodes), and news outlets worldwide from the London Times to the New York Times to Rolling Stone. And he seems to appear in local media daily. Much of the coverage has been damning, but he still goes after it. He frequently complains he doesn’t get enough publicity. Back at the studio, he inquires when this profile will be published and expresses concern about the lead time. “This is for July? I could be dead and buried by July.”
For years, 81-year-old Arpaio has responded to critics who say he’s “too old” to be sheriff by insisting he’s not going anywhere. In the same breath that he jokes about dying before his next feature story, he says he’ll run for sheriff again in 2016. But he admits he’s had to slow down, for the first time in his long life, after suffering a broken arm in a fall in late February. Suddenly, someone who’s worked 14-hour days all his life has to stop. And think. Joe Arpaio’s not a man who’s had a lot of time or inclination for introspection in his life, but lately, he’s been cracking jokes about being “the oldest sheriff in America” and hearing mortality messages in Sinatra songs. “The day I leave, you won’t remember my name. See, I understand certain things. First of all, the day I leave, ‘Joe who?’ The media could care less,” Arpaio says. “And I could care less, because I’ll just – I don’t know what the hell I’m going to do. That’s my big problem.”
That Arpaio wouldn’t know what to do with himself outside being sheriff isn’t surprising; he’s worked in law enforcement almost all his life. That he thinks he won’t be remembered seems absurd given his admitted “escapades” over the past two decades. For better or worse, Arpaio is unforgettable, forever mired in his own mythology.
Joseph Michael Arpaio was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on June 14, 1932, the son of Italian immigrants. It wasn’t the best time to be an Italian immigrant in America. Mass lynchings were a regular occurrence in the 1890s. The high-profile murder trial of suspected anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, executed in 1927, boiled the blood of newspaper reporters, who frequently characterized Italian-Americans, most of whom were manual laborers competing with other immigrant groups for jobs, as violent criminals.
Arpaio’s parents legally immigrated through Ellis Island from Lacedonia, Italy in 1923, one year before Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited the annual number of immigrants from any country to 2 percent of its nationals already in the U.S., severely restricting legal immigration by Italians and other southern Europeans.
Joe’s mother died in childbirth. “She gave her life for me, so I never knew my mother,” he says.
Joe and his father, Nicola Arpaio, stayed with various Italian families for the first several years afterward. “He wasn’t poor, but we had to sleep together in the house where the family let us live and feed me and raised me,” Arpaio says. “I had three families like that.”
Nicola operated a small Italian grocery store, where Joe worked until he turned 18. “That’s how I know all the Italian food. I used to deliver olive oil,” he recalls. “I started drinking olive oil, and that’s why I look 20 years younger than I am.”
Eventually, Nicola remarried, and Joe moved into a house with his father and stepmother. His father’s business grew into three grocery stores and a car wash. “My father worked his whole life... all he did was work,” Arpaio says. “He was old-fashioned. The only reason he took me to see the New York Yankees – one reason only – [was] because Joe DiMaggio, an Italian, was playing. He’d go to the Italian shoemaker, Italian-this, Italian-that, because we had Italian grocery stores and always dealt with Italians. So that’s the only way I got to New York, because of Joe DiMaggio.”
But growing up in a large immigrant community had its downsides. “The irony is, they accuse me of racial profiling. I’m the guy that was racial profiled. When I grew up, they used to call me ‘wop’ and ‘deigo’ and ‘goombah’, all this shit,” Arpaio says. “Now, if you say one word – ‘Hispanic’ – boy, you’re a racist and everything else. What’s it coming to? Italians have been [profiled], and they still are. It’s true. I know. [People say] ‘They’re all crooks if they’re Italian, in Chicago especially.’”
As soon as he turned 18, Arpaio volunteered for the U.S. Army. He served as a sergeant in the Medical Detachment Division and as a military policeman in France during the Korean War. After his discharge in 1954, he became a police officer in Washington, D.C. The low point of his rookie experience? Getting assaulted 19 times in one year. The high point? Carrying the American flag down Pennsylvania Avenue for President Dwight Eisenhower’s parade in 1957. That same year, he transferred to the Las Vegas Police Department for a six-month stretch that he says included busting Elvis Presley. “I locked up Elvis. That was my claim to fame,” Arpaio says. “He was going a hundred miles an hour with a beautiful blonde on a motorcycle. I took him to the police station. He said, ‘I’m Elvis,’ and he was doing the Hawaii movie, so I gave him a pass.”
In 1958, Arpaio got a job as a special agent with the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (now the Drug Enforcement Administration) and married Ava Lamb, a soft-spoken Virginian he’d been dating since meeting on a blind date in D.C. Ava describes their marriage as something that happened more out of practicality – “We got along very well together and we went together from the time we met” – than dreamy-eyed romance. “We drove to the jewelry store and picked a ring,” she recalls. “I would expect that was a proposal, in a way.” Ava gave birth to the couple’s son, Rocco, in 1960, and a daughter, Sherry, in 1967. The family moved frequently because of Joe’s job, and he was often away from home for long periods. “When he had to go away, we were well provided for. That just became part of the job,” Ava says. “We moved around a lot when we were young, and I figured that was good for me, for him, and for the children, to see the world.”
One of the first places Arpaio found himself as a federal agent was Turkey, where he worked undercover with Turkish authorities on big opium busts. “They sent me, the only guy, to Turkey, to catch all the dope peddlers with a little gun... They dumped me out of an airplane, so I had to pick up Turkish to survive in the boondocks, gun battles and all that,” he says, referring to a firefight in the mountains of Konya in April 1963 that ensued during seizure of roughly 492 pounds of opium from a horse-drawn wagon.
Over the next 25 years, Arpaio also pulled tours of duty in Argentina and Mexico. His detractors gave him the nickname “Nickel Bag Joe,” based on his reputation for making small drug busts, but the file Arpaio keeps in his office pertaining to his federal career is a bit more cinematic. Several carefully clipped newspaper reports describe an altercation with armed suspects in the hills of Vienna, Virginia in May 1968. Working undercover, Arpaio arranged to buy 45 pounds of marijuana from two men and drove to meet them, with another agent in his trunk. The men ordered Arpaio to drive into the woods at gunpoint and told him to open the trunk and hand over the cash. Arpaio identified himself as a federal agent, and a gun battle ensued. With his fellow agent trapped in the trunk, Arpaio emptied his revolver but didn’t hit anything. Reports state Arpaio then began “coaxing” the suspects, convinced them they were surrounded and to give up their guns and surrender – which they did, when backup arrived. Stapled to the stack of clippings on the shootout is a copy of a letter to Arpaio from then-United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark, commending Arpaio “for the daring manner in which you were able to disarm your assailants.”
The Turkey bust and Virginia shootout stories are verifiable through official documents and multiple newspaper reports. Many of Arpaio’s other stories can’t be consistently corroborated, and he does have a fondness for embellishment. His own scrapbook/file also includes his typewritten accounts of personally locating heroin trafficker Auguste Ricord, one of the alleged founders of the French Connection, and arranging for him to be brought to Dallas from Paraguay in 1971; and mobilizing the Mexican army to assist U.S. narcotics agents and Mexican federales against an ambush by “a force of village police” in 1972.
Arpaio ultimately became head of the Arizona branch of the DEA. “You know Joe Bonanno?” Arpaio asks, referring to the Sicilian-born crime family boss who died of a heart attack in Arizona in 2002. “We used to search his garbage can down in Tucson. The only thing we came up with was some good Italian recipes.”
In 1982, Arpaio retired and spent the next 10 years helping Ava run her Scottsdale-based travel business, Starworld Travel Agency Inc. (now run by their son, Rocco). It would be the only decade of his adult life he hasn’t been in law enforcement, and one of the few long stretches of time he could spend with his family. “He’s a good husband, and a good father to the children, and a good grandfather to the adopted grandchildren we have. I mean, he’s worked all his life. That’s all he’s ever done is work,” Ava says. “He’s never taken a vacation from the sheriff’s office at all.”
Arpaio admits he wasn’t around for many of the domestic details. “I never even changed diapers. I wouldn’t know how to change a diaper,” he says. “I wouldn’t know how to boil water. My wife did all that, because I’ve done a lot of traveling.”
“What comes first, your job or your family?” Arpaio continues. “Every politician will say the family comes first, or ‘I’m not running because I want to spend more time with my family.’ You never hear me say that. Because I have a family that backs me up... I worked hard. That’s just the way it was, whether that’s right or wrong.”
In 1992, Arpaio decided to run for sheriff of Maricopa County. His opponent, Sheriff Tom Agnos, had been elected in 1988 and was facing scrutiny after his deputies arrested and coerced confessions from four men (who were later released before two other men were convicted) in the 1991 murders of six Buddhist monks in the West Valley. Arpaio easily defeated Agnos, based largely on his experience as a DEA agent and his “tough on crime” platform.
Voters re-elected Arpaio in 1996, 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012. “Just think if I had to report to the county manager and a board of supervisors. C’mon! I wouldn’t be around, OK?” he says. “I’m elected, and I report only to the 4 million people that live in this county, and they’re my bosses. I have no other bosses. Who’s my boss? The governor isn’t my boss. Who’s going to tell me what to do, except the people? They tell me. And that’s why I keep getting re-elected.”
“Hey sheriff, if you want to see what it’s really like for everybody else here, you should go take a shit in that dumpster back there.”
Joe Arpaio, flanked by three MCSO officers, turns to the Tent City inmate who just told him to crap in the trash. The man’s bald head is sunburned; a big, tattooed belly blubbers out over the elastic waistline of his striped uniform. A camera crew watches the exchange nervously from a distance.
When Arpaio gets angry – and he often does, especially when somebody crashes one of his Tent City tours in front of news cameras – he tends to ask questions. “Are you telling me to do that?”
“I would believe everything you were saying if you would go back there and shit where we have to shit,” the inmate says. “See how you like it.”
Arpaio looks at his deputies. “Are you gonna let this guy talk like that? Get his name, put him in lockdown.”
As he walks away, Arpaio continues trying to clarify the inmate’s statement. “What does he think we’re running here? Why is he telling me to take it? Was he saying I’m full of it, too, this guy?”
It’s a mild Tuesday afternoon in February, sunny but not hot. The beads of sweat gathering at the sheriff’s wispy gray hairline are more likely the result of the heat he’s getting from the inmates. If looks could kill, their eyes would be flamethrowers.
Women and men are housed on opposite sides of Tent City in green surplus military tents, some dating back to the Korean War. Thin twin mattresses draped in faded pink sheets are set into rusty metal bunks. There’s no air conditioning; electricity provides lighting and power for the handful of fans attached to each tent. Inmates wear pink underwear – Arpaio’s solution to preventing them from stealing the undergarments. The complex neighbors a waste disposal plant, a dog pound, and a dump. A tower displays a big neon marquee announcing “Vacancy.” A large sign at the entrance to the jail mimics McDonald’s, proclaiming “Over 500,000 served.”
When the sheriff walked through the women’s side of the spartan outdoor jail, the ladies swarmed around him, smiling and talking loudly over each other, all with postcards for him to sign fluttering in their fingers. He might as well have been a rock star. The vibe is very different on the men’s side, where prisoners glare at the sheriff with palpable hatred.
Arpaio’s assassination threats date back to 1999, with a supposed bomb plot by a young man named James Saville. In 2003, a Maricopa County Superior Court jury found Saville innocent, ruling that Arpaio’s undercover detectives entrapped him (Arpaio’s office still denies entrapment or any wrongdoing in the case; Saville was later awarded a $1.6 million settlement). But subsequent death threats appear to be more authentic. The third week of February 2013, deputies arrested Ignacio Carbajal, 42, for threatening Arpaio on January 11 in Facebook comments. News outlets printed censored versions of Carbajal’s comments before they were deleted from the site. They read, in part: “He should see the color of his skin and where he comes from... stupid [expletive]... let’s kill him. I will kill him for free. I am going to Arizona to kill that [expletive].”
In April, postal workers in Flagstaff intercepted a package addressed to Arpaio at his office at the Wells Fargo building in Downtown Phoenix. Inspection of the package revealed the presence of an explosive device; the FBI is investigating the incident but declined to comment. In May, bomb squads were called to a new MCSO building under construction at Sixth Avenue and Jackson Street, where someone spray-painted the words “Bomb inside” on the building (no bomb was found).
With as many reported threats as Arpaio gets, does he feel unsafe, especially since he doesn’t carry a gun anymore? “No. I’ve been around a long time. I was an agent and head of operations in Turkey, had gun battles all the time. I was younger then, and probably sometimes went overboard,” he says. “I’m not a brave guy, but if they’re going to get you, they’re going to get you.”
“The majority of people want [Arpaio] dead,” says a repeat Tent City female inmate who asked not to be named. “There’s a couple gangs – I’m not gonna say which ones – want his head for a million. His death threats are real, because he treats us so inhumane.”
Arpaio subscribes to the idea that highly visible displays of punishment prevent crime, and serving “hard time” scares criminals straight. It’s the core concept behind the United States’ traditional system of retributive justice. The philosophy is that the punishment should fit the crime, and incarceration should be unpleasant. Whether or not this system works is debatable, but Arpaio’s an advocate. He’s certainly been successful at locking people up; he estimates more than 2.5 million have been through the jails since he’s been sheriff.
A couple years ago, the BBC took Arpaio on tours of jails in England that practice restorative justice, where inmates live in clean, spacious cells; eat healthful food; participate in a variety of rehabilitative programs; and enjoy numerous amenities including televisions, computers and private showers. Norway has a similar system, along with a maximum sentence of 22 years for any crime. The philosophy behind restorative systems is that offenders are being given the tools to come to terms with their crimes and lead productive lives once released. Statistics show the U.S. incarcerates people at a rate 10 times higher than Norway, and our recidivism rate is 47 percent higher.
Asked what he thinks of restorative justice systems and lighter sentences, Arpaio answers with his stance on capital punishment. “I believe in the death penalty, on one condition. I don’t believe it should take 20 years. We’ve got to do it quick. With DNA now, there’s so much you can do quickly,” he says. “But what good is it after 20 years? Where’s the deterrent?”
Yet Arpaio insists he believes in rehabilitation and complains the media ignores numerous programs in his jails. “We have great programs: drug prevention programs, religious programs, the only high school in the jail under a sheriff. We’ve got GED programs. We’ve got so many programs in the jail that the media will never talk about – which, in a way I’m happy, because then they’d call me ‘The Nicest Sheriff in America.’”
And that would be counter-productive, considering how hard he’s worked to maintain his reputation as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” Arpaio wants people to hate the experience of being in his jails so much they never want to come back. Cigarettes and coffee are forbidden, as are magazines with “sexually explicit material.” If inmates want salt and pepper, they have to buy it from the commissary. The only cable television stations are The Weather Channel, Food Network, and The Travel Channel. He allowed The Disney Channel until he heard inmates were laughing when Bambi’s mom was killed. That was the end of Disney in his clinks. He re-instituted chain gangs in 1995, including an all-female chain gang. In 1993, he opened Tent City, a concrete heat-island where summer temps reach as high as 150 degrees. “What’s the response to people who say, ‘This is awful’?... I always say, our men and women are fighting for our country, and they’re living in tents, so why are you complaining?” Arpaio says. “Everybody in Tent City is convicted... they’re all doing their time. So why are we complaining [about] convicted inmates, when our men and women are fighting for our country, giving their lives?”
Arpaio’s adamant his strict system is rehabilitative. But inmates say the programs don’t accommodate enough people to help everyone, and that depriving them of simple creature comforts does more damage than good. “You’re giving us a lot more time to think, and to find ways of getting ourselves in more trouble while in jail,” says one female chain gang member. “You’re not helping us, you’re not rehabilitating us, because we’re just sitting around thinking up more scandalous, illegal things to do while we’re in here, because we have nothing to do.”
As this story was being written, a recall effort was underway to trigger an election to remove Arpaio from office. The effort was led by Randy Parraz, who, as head of Citizens for a Better Arizona, led a successful recall effort in 2011 against Arizona state senator and SB 1070 author Russell Pearce. The Arpaio recall drive was still several thousand short of the 335,000 signatures required as the May 30 deadline approached.
Despite the repeated failure of such recall attempts (the first was in 2007), Arpaio’s critics have valid points of contention. Since 1992, the county has paid more than $43 million in settlement claims involving the MCSO, including four stemming from the deaths of inmates in county jails. In 2008, a federal judge ruled that conditions in Arpaio’s jails violated inmates’ constitutional rights, pointing to inadequate medical care, nutritionally deficient meals, and overcrowding. In 2009, the Goldwater Institute slammed the MCSO for reportedly clearing 75 percent of cases without proper investigation or arrest, and in 2011, a Justice Department inquiry found Arpaio’s office engaged in “unconstitutional policing” by unfairly targeting Latinos for detention. The report found the MCSO harbored “a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos.” On May 24, Arpaio lost a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, when U.S. District Judge Murray Snow ruled the MCSO engages in racial profiling of Hispanics. Arpaio is appealing the decision; a hearing in the case was scheduled for June 14.
Arpaio’s been called a racist and compared to Hitler. His outspokenness and media-hounding hasn’t always helped his defense. In 2009, Arpaio was quoted in GQ magazine saying, “My daughter has adopted children of various ethnicities. I got a black, a Mexican with Down syndrome even. And yet I’m the racist, I’m the fascist, I’m the Hitler!”
The sheriff’s adopted grandchildren through his daughter Sherry and his son-in-law, Philip Boas, Editorial Page Editor at the Arizona Republic, are a sensitive subject for him. “I’ve got to be very careful,” he says. “I say this very carefully – I have four grandkids, and they’re all from different ethnicities. I don’t publicize it.” He has mentioned having a Hispanic daughter-in-law and says he loves Mexican food. He frequently brings up his service as a federal agent stationed in Mexico, where he says he picked up some Spanish, and denies being a racist or racially profiling anyone. The so-called “immigration sweep” at local businesses, he insists, “is really a crime-suppression operation.”
“We don’t just knock the door in, because someone says ‘you’ve got five illegals working in this restaurant.’ We investigate it. We go to Social Security, DES, we do a lot of work,” Arpaio says. “And then we get a search warrant and go in there. We know who we’re looking for. The majority have fake IDs, fake Social Security, which is a big problem. So that’s what we do. But politicians, all they say is ‘He’s breaking up [families]. He’s arresting dishwashers.’ But they never say they committed a serious crime, having a fake ID.”
Arpaio frequently laments that politicos and journalists rarely ask his opinion on how to resolve immigration ills. So what would the Sheriff of Maricopa County say to the President of the United States of America about how to solve our border issues? “Very simple. The attorney general of Mexico used to come to my house. He liked blueberry pie, so my wife... she’d cook him a blueberry pie. Plus, I threw a shot of whiskey on the side,” Arpaio says. “I got more done with blueberry pie than the big stick. So what I would do if I was president... I’d go to Acapulco, I’d be in Mexico every month, with the president of Mexico. Go behind the doors, light up a nice cigar – not Cuban – and let’s settle this. Let’s settle this problem. It’s always personal relations.”
He says he’s always willing to sit down and talk with anyone, even his critics. In February, at the request of Phoenix City Councilman Michael Nowakowski, Arpaio met with several religious leaders in the local Latino community. Anti-Arpaio activist Salvador Reza told the Phoenix New Times, “A lot of Jewish people during the Third Reich believed that they could talk to Hitler and change his mind. In the end, they ended up going to the gas chambers. Arpaio does not have as much power as Hitler did, but anybody that sits down with Arpaio is making a mistake. Nothing is going to change his mind, because Arpaio is intent on making his name as the enforcer of immigration laws. He gets great publicity out of it.”
Arpaio’s reaction to Reza’s statement? “Nice guy, Reza. I have nothing against him. All these people... have been in front of my building for three and a half years, every day, with signs – ‘Hitler’ – and then they come into my office last week in pink underwear disrupting all my employees. They came during my last election with live chickens. So they’ve been doing a lot of harassing. But what can you do? I mean, they want me to lock them up.”
As for his meeting with local Latino leaders, Arpaio says, “They were all against me. But for two hours, I’m talking to them – told them my background and that I lived in Mexico, all of it. I’m not a racist... I took my heart out to them. And I think I convinced a few, because they’re all religious. I prayed with them after and all that.”
And as for his publicity hounding? “I’ve dealt with the media for 50 years, all over the world,” Arpaio says. “So I have nothing against the media... They call me a publicity hound. OK... damn right. I am a publicity hound.”
Among Arpaio’s biggest ballyhoos was the MCSO investigation into the authenticity of President Obama’s birth certificate, which included detectives flying to Hawaii and ultimately deeming it fake. Arpaio says his department conducted the investigation because 250 of his constituents asked him to, and that he used only volunteer posse. He says his office tried to reimburse the county for the Hawaii flights with supporter-donated money, but the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors said no. “They refused to take the money, so then they could say I used taxpayer money,” he says.
Arpaio’s habit of both imprisoning and deputizing celebrities is another squib source. Some well-known folks have spent time in his jails, including basketball legend Charles Barkley, country singer Glen Campbell, former boxing champ Mike Tyson, and rapper DMX. High-profile swear-ins into his volunteer sheriff’s posse include NBA All-Star Shaquille O’Neal; gun-loving rocker Ted Nugent; Incredible Hulk TV actor Lou Ferrigno; Peter Lupus from the Mission: Impossible TV series; and action movie star Steven Seagal. When Arpaio announced Seagal would train posse members for armed patrols around local schools in February, national media jabbed at Arpaio’s Expendibles-ish assemblage. Many outlets quoted Arizona Democratic House Minority Leader Chad Campbell saying, “Steven Seagal is an actor. That’s it. Why don’t we also have Clint Eastwood and Chuck Norris and Bruce Willis come out and train them too while we’re at it?”
Arpaio defends Seagal, pointing out he’s served as a reserve deputy for the sheriff in Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish since the mid-1980s. “It was funny – they said on TV, ‘You can get more publicity, since you’ve got Steven Seagal,’” Arpaio says. “I said, ‘No, he gets more publicity because of me. I don’t need him to get publicity.’”
“Someone could pop you and me right now,” Arpaio says, shrugging and taking a sip of decaf coffee at Butterfield’s Pancake House & Restaurant in Scottsdale. It’s just the two of us at a booth in the busy breakfast restaurant this first of May, but two plain-clothed MCSO detectives are eating on the other side of the diner. Arpaio waves several times before they see him. “They’re always eating. What the hell?” Arpaio says. “I could get shot 50 times here. So what’s this bullshit security? They start my car and make sure it doesn’t blow up?”
Arpaio’s wearing his dark blue Maricopa County Sheriff uniform. As usual, he’s unarmed. Actually, he’s half-armed today, sporting a back brace and arm sling from breaking his arm in a fall three months ago. The injury was the impetus for what he says was only his second visit to the hospital in his life; the first was more than 50 years ago, as a rookie cop knocked unconscious in D.C. Arpaio seems resentful of the accident. “I’ve been through 50 years of law enforcement – gun battles, kidnapped, everything – and then it took a sidewalk to send me to the hospital,” he says. “I didn’t just fall. I tripped. And I’m very angry at myself for doing that. I don’t know, maybe in the long run, the person upstairs has some reason for me to break my arm in three places.”
At 81, he’s a year younger than Frank Sinatra was when he died of a heart attack in 1998. Sinatra’s hit song “My Way” (penned by Paul Anka) is Arpaio’s adopted anthem. It’s been the ring tone on his cell phone for years, but he says he only recently read the lyrics. “When you look at those lyrics: ‘The end is near. I face the final curtain,’” Arpaio says, repeating the lines a second time in a deeper, more ominous tone. “Strange lyrics,” he concludes with a nervous smile. “I never really learned all the words. I should go and memorize them.”
Arpaio orders a grilled cheese with tomato and resumes talking about his security. “At night, they’re gone. Where I live, I’m surrounded by desert. I’m not in a good place for security,” he says. His high-end home in Fountain Hills is an 1,800-square-foot adobe-style structure with 360-degree views, including the McDowell Mountains. “I’m not moving. So I don’t worry about it. If people are gonna kill ya, they’re gonna kill ya.”
That said, we’re probably pretty safe here. Several people have approached Arpaio in the past 15 minutes: two silver-haired women expressing their voter support (“We just wanted to say we like what you do”); various middle-aged and older folks waving, reaching out to shake his hand, and saying things like “looking good, sheriff!”; and a 40-something couple asking for a photo and offering to buy the sheriff’s meal by tossing a wad of cash on the table (Arpaio refused the money but got up for the photo).
Some of his critics argue that Arpaio is decades past the median retirement age and should just hang up his badge alongside his already-abandoned sidearm. Ava Arpaio says she’d be fine with her husband retiring, but she’ll never push him to do it. “I think that he is happy when he’s working, and it’s a part of his life he likes to do. I would not ever tell him to quit,” she says. “But if he wants to, I’ve told him... that’s fine with me. We don’t particularly need the money that goes with the job.”
But Arpaio feels an obligation. He sees himself as a symbol, perhaps the last of the “walking tall” lawmen, a vestige of an old ideal of American law and justice – and what does a symbol do when it retires, anyway?
“I’m running again,” says Arpaio, who has just over three years remaining in his current term. “And if I leave office – I don’t have a horse; I’m from Massachusetts – I’ll just ride off into the sunset with a red convertible. ‘Goodbye, everybody. I did it my way. I’ll see you.’”
Breaking Bad Bread
Tent City touts new semi-sustainable, beyond barely-edible eats. And a price hike.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio eyes a hunk of bread smeared with a substance resembling a mixture of melty milk chocolate and tawny baby-diaper-surprise. The bread has a nice wheaty smell but is very spongy and thick; the viscous substance, half-liquified in the heat, glops onto the roll like a slug.
“You sure it’s peanut butter?” Arpaio asks, taking a bite of the bread and masticating emphatically, because he has to – the wheat roll is about the size and texture of a small Nerf foam football. “It’s pretty good. It tastes like Skippy’s peanut butter. I like it because it doesn’t have nuts in it.”
As Arpaio chews, dozens of Tent City inmates languish against the chain-link fence separating the bunks and buildings from “the yard” – an open (barren) area where the Sheriff is meeting the press at the only picnic table (and the sole spot of shade on the yard) for a typical Tent City lunch. These guys don’t look happy, in their pink underwear and faded jail stripes. One wonders who gets to sit at the one table when the guards and press aren’t around – or if the table’s even there when the guards and press aren’t around.
There’s not much diversity to the menu at this “desert diner” downwind from the dump. The peanut butter and bread entrée we’re, uh, enjoying on this Tuesday afternoon comes with two baseball-size grapefruits harvested from local citrus trees, two small packets of ginger cookies, and an 8-ounce milk carton. The milk and cookies – both still a month from their expiration dates – were donated; the bread is made fresh daily by inmates in the jail bakery, part of what Arpaio calls “a big food factory that nobody talks about, probably the best in the United States.”
This meal serves as the inmates’ combination breakfast/lunch. They get only two meals a day. “In the evening, they’ll get a hot meal,” Arpaio explains, “which they call slop.”
What is this hot evening “slop”? It’s dubiously described as “some kind of stew with beef... a beef-like substance” by one of Arpaio’s captains, as “cook-chill soy meat and all the stuff we haven’t eaten” by a female inmate who worked in the kitchen, and “rubbery” and “nasty” by pretty much everyone who’s tried it (we didn’t). Some inmates say it causes ferocious flatulence, and that having a farty bunkie in a tent in 110 degrees constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.
On weekends only, the inmates get meat, including bologna, infamously known as “green bologna,” but described by prisoners we talked to as more of a “pink slime” that “just tastes like garlic.”
Arpaio says meals used to cost around 30 cents each, thanks to relationships with local food banks and a lot of resourcefulness. “We used to go to California, load up all our trucks with fruits and vegetables, truck it back, and feed it to the inmates,” the sheriff recalls. “I remember years ago, they had ostriches, emus. The lady didn’t want the farm anymore. I said, ‘Give ’em to me.’ We lassoed all the ostriches and took them down to Tucson to get them processed, brought the meat back, had ostrich casserole.”
But the days of California raisins and bird stew are done. The cost of inmate meals for the sheriff’s office has gone up, Arpaio says, because “we’re not getting the donations anymore.” So he plans to start charging the inmates for their food. “A buck a day,” he says.
Back at lunch, Arpaio’s struggling to swallow. “Boy, that peanut butter’s starting to stick,” he says. Hours later, he’ll comment that the peanut butter’s still stuck to his palate. “I like white,” he says, referring to the bread type. “Why is this rye?”
“By the way, I’m a big dietician,” he adds, perking up and pointing to the mangled roll on the table next to the torn-open bag of mucky peanut butter (inmates don’t get utensils). “This is fat-free. We take care of our inmates. We do worry about them being overweight, because that’s not good for you. It causes diabetes, heart [disease] – so look at this sheriff, who’s looking out for the health and welfare of all of our inmates. Fat-free!”