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July, 2013, Page 70
Photos by Brandon Sullivan
- Find more notoriousness with bonus
from our Notorious Joe feature.
You know Joe. But do you know the Elvis-busting, opium-seizing, Sinatra-singing, racially-profiled Notorious J.O.E.?.
“Is this safe? Am I going to get shot here?”
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has arrived to have his portrait taken at Legend City Studios near Van Buren Street and Fifth Avenue. Historically, this area has been heroin-hawking, hooker hotel heaven, heavily decorated with graffiti and the glitter of broken glass. Presently, it’s transitioning into a hipster-approachable haunt where you can usually walk around in daylight without worrying about somebody shooting you.
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.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio with female inmates at Tent City.
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.”
Joe Arpaio, clockwise from top left: At age 3; as a rookie cop in Washington, D.C. in 1954; as an officer in the U.S. Army during the Korean War; with his father, Nicola.
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.”
Joe Arpaio smiles in the heat of Tent City
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.”
guards watch the yard from a tower
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.”
Sheriff Arpaio in his office at the Wells Fargo building in Downtown Phoenix.
, 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.
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