Trouble in Paradise

Jimmy MagahernApril 25, 2019
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Illustration by Eric Cox | Photography by David Apeji

A grievance across the greenbelt in Paradise Valley exposes disparities in power and privilege, even in Arizona’s wealthiest town.

From the living room of her spacious four-bedroom home in Paradise Valley, Judy Brown has a million-dollar view of the Camelback Golf Club’s rolling fairways, the majestic granite slopes of Mummy Mountain – and, just across the golf course, the backyard patio of the home belonging to the man whose daughter killed her husband.

“It’s a constant reminder,” says Brown, 80, whose husband of 52 years, Howard, died in November 2015 after being struck by a car while walking the family dog. The car was driven by Paige Dembow, the 20-year-old daughter of the then-vice mayor of the Town of Paradise Valley, Paul Dembow.

The Brown family maintains that the young driver received preferential treatment because of her father’s political connections. Shortly after the crash, the vice mayor arrived at the scene and persuaded the two PV police officers to let him take his daughter home. Even though Paige Dembow was on probation at the time for possession of drug paraphernalia and had a DUI ignition interlock device installed in her car, she was permitted to leave the scene of the accident with her father without being asked to perform a field sobriety test or provide a full statement. By the time police arrived at the Dembow home to take her statement, Paige was gone, and her dad had already lawyered up.

Since the accident, the two families have been locked in a bitter feud that has pitted the enclave’s rich and powerful against its merely rich.

“You sit on the patio here and look straight across the wash at their house,” Brown says, turning away from the large bay windows that face the golf course that runs through the Indian Bend Wash greenbelt. “I try not to think about it too much.”

Brown’s three grown daughters, however, continue to publicly characterize the incident as a cover-up. Tiffany Driscoll, Judith Brown and Elizabeth Brown, who each share their father’s middle name, Lee, are convinced Paige Dembow got off easy and have waged an ongoing social media attack on the public official’s daughter. “It’s one thing when your parent dies because of an illness, God forbid,” Driscoll, 48, says. “But when the lowest common denominator kills your parent and then there’s all this cover-up…” she trails off, choking back tears.

“Maybe if she was arrested at the time and held accountable, we would be sitting here feeling very different,” says Judith, 42, the youngest of the sisters, who’s currently living at her mother’s house.

“But they just swept it under the rug,” adds Driscoll. “As if our dad’s life didn’t matter.”

The survivors of Howard Brown convene at the location where he was fatally struck (left to right): Elizabeth Brown, Tiffany and Steven Lee Driscoll, Judith V. Brown, Judith Brown and family dog Snickers.
The survivors of Howard Brown convene at the location where he was fatally struck (left to right): Elizabeth Brown, Tiffany and Steven Lee Driscoll, Judith V. Brown, Judith Brown and family dog Snickers.

On Sunday, November 15, 2015, Howard Brown was out walking the couple’s Shih Tzu, Snickers, in the small triangle of streets nestled between Doubletree Ranch Road and the diagonally placed greenbelt. A former NASA physicist who made his fortune as part of a small team of engineers that invented the technology behind one-hour photo processing, and then as the owner of a successful local security company, Brown still exhibited a fit body and sharp mind at age 77, according to neighbor Tony Muller.

“He was always a very careful and observant man,” says Muller, who noted that Brown was usually extra cautious about crossing Invergordon Road, a two-lane street with its single northbound and southbound lanes divided by a landscaped median. While traffic normally stays within the street’s leisurely 35-mile-per-hour speed limit, there had been four collisions that year at the nearby intersection of Invergordon and Doubletree Ranch roads – enough to qualify it as the sleepy burg’s 15th most dangerous intersection. “I can’t imagine that he would have just stepped out onto Invergordon without looking both ways first,” Muller says.

At approximately 4:10 p.m., Brown was struck by Dembow’s Toyota Corolla traveling south on Invergordon. The only witness in the case, Ernie Markle, a local tobacco pipe craftsman who was traveling in a car behind Dembow’s, said in his statement, “The pedestrian did not look in any direction but straight ahead of himself.” But he also noted Brown was “just another 12 or 18 inches” away from clearing the road when the car hit him – suggesting that Paige Dembow should have had at least a few moments to register his presence in the road before hitting him. The dog, on a leash, was already safely on the grass beyond the curb.

Judy Brown is remarkably calm in recounting the moments after the accident, even presenting a stack of 8-by-10 color photos taken by police investigators showing, in grisly detail, the extensive head injuries that would claim her husband’s life a few hours after being transported to Scottsdale Osborn Hospital. “Practically every bone in his body was broken, including his eye sockets,” recalls the former registered nurse.

A key moment in the police bodycam footage of the on-scene accident investigation provided to the media occurs when Paul Dembow, driving over from his home just a short distance away from the accident scene at Invergordon and Horseshoe roads, arrives to console his daughter, who sounds upset and worried in the brief statements she gives to the officer.

“Who are you?” officer Steve Hovorka asks. “Paige Dembow’s father,” Dembow says. “Who?” Hovorka repeats. “Her father.”

At no point in the video does Dembow identify himself as the town’s vice mayor. However, the video contains 27 seconds of deleted audio while Hovorka is questioning Paige and another 33 seconds of silence while Paul is shown speaking on camera. The Browns contend either party could have identified Paul’s position during those redacted sections. (The audio was apparently permanently deleted – the Browns have never heard it, they say.)Less than 30 minutes later, Paige is allowed to leave the scene of the accident with her father.

Lieutenant Michael Cole, public information officer for the PV Police, has been fielding questions about the Brown case for some time and has a ready explanation for the gaps. “To protect personal privacy rights, we have to mute and/or blur certain things in the video,” he says. “For example, when the officers ask Dembow for her home address, date of birth and driver’s license number, we don’t want to put those out to the general public and make her a victim of identity theft or possibly a stalker, so we mute that part of the video.” As to the Browns’ assertion that the last name should have rung a bell with the officer anyway, given that the town’s police department and mayor and council offices are housed in the same building, Cole says, “I know the Browns have a lot of suspicions, but if you watch the video it is pretty clear the officer on scene had no idea who Paul Dembow was.”

Regarding the officer’s decision to allow Paige to leave without asking her to take a standardized field sobriety test, Cole maintains there was no reason to detain her. “Dembow exhibited no symptoms of alcohol or drug intoxication, and there was no evidence of alcohol or drug involvement at the scene,” he says. “An independent witness stated she was not driving erratically or excessively fast. The witness also stated Brown stepped out directly in front of Dembow without looking and he believed a collision was unavoidable. Without any evidence of criminal activity, we cannot legally hold someone against their will or compel them to provide chemical tests.”

Curiously, after the patrol supervisor called the PV Police Department’s command staff to report the severity of Brown’s injuries, Scottsdale police were brought in to take over the investigation. In a May 2016 statement printed in the Paradise Valley Independent, then-mayor Michael Collins said PV police chief Pete Wingert made that call “to avoid a potential conflict of interest,” indicating the officers were at least made aware of whose daughter they were dealing with at that point – although by the time the Scottsdale officers arrived, their report states that Paige had already been allowed to leave with her father. Again, Cole cites standard procedure, seemingly contradicting Collins’ earlier rationale.

Photo courtesy Paradise Valley Police Department; Screenshot of police bodycamera footage of Paige Dembow at the scene of the accident
Photo courtesy Paradise Valley Police Department; Screenshot of police bodycamera footage of Paige Dembow at the scene of the accident

“The department handled this accident the same way we have handled all of our fatal accidents for several years before this one, and the way we continue to handle fatal accidents,” he says. “We handle the initial response, securing the scene, providing medical attention, securing witness information and statements, and we turn the investigation over to one of the Valley’s full-time accident teams. We do not have our own fatal accident team as this is a very specialized and perishable set of skills and training. We have used both Scottsdale and DPS for many years to conduct fatal accident investigations that occur in the Town of Paradise Valley.”

Scott Halverson, a Phoenix attorney who has handled fatal accident cases and has reviewed this particular investigation for other news outlets, says the key question in determining whether or not Paige Dembow received preferential treatment because of her dad’s position comes down to “When did the officers become aware of the connection?”

“If it was while she was still at the scene, they should have just made sure she stayed there until the Scottsdale PD arrived,” Halverson says. As it happened, PV officer Mark Garrity and a Scottsdale officer visited the Dembow home roughly two hours after the accident to further question the daughter and was told by the vice mayor, “Paige left. I don’t know where she is.” Dembow also told the officers he’d contacted an attorney and that Paige would talk to them at a later date, with the attorney present.

“Normally the police want to get the statements from people as soon as possible, so that they don’t have time to talk with others and make up a coherent, cogent story to excuse their behavior,” Halverson says. “You don’t want to let the person go home and then have to talk to her by her father’s side.”

Or, in this case, give her time to disappear. Nothing is publicly known about where Paige went during those two hours – or indeed, where she is today. Dembow has only said that she’s not living in his house.

“I would never see police [send a driver home] under normal circumstances,” the attorney says. “That, to me, looks very strange.”

Since the accident, the Brown sisters have been making it their “life mission,” according to Driscoll, to make sure Paradise Valley reckons with the death of their dad.

In April 2016, the Brown family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Maricopa County Superior Court against Paul Dembow, the Town of Paradise Valley, investigating police officers Hovorka and Garrity and others – 17 entities total – alleging the municipality’s police department improperly handled the fatal accident investigation. The suit alleged gross negligence by the Paradise Valley Police Department and “negligent interference/influence of a police investigation” by Paul Dembow.

Photo courtesy of Town of Paradise Valley; then-vice mayor Paul Dembow at a 56th Street dedication ceremony in September 2015
Photo courtesy of Town of Paradise Valley; then-vice mayor Paul Dembow at a 56th Street dedication ceremony in September 2015

But the Browns’ lawyer, Tim Casey, was unable to produce enough evidence to constitute negligence, and in February 2017, Superior Court Judge Jo Lynn Gentry dismissed that part of the claim. In October 2018, a jury returned a unanimous verdict dismissing the remaining parts of the lawsuit.

Nevertheless, the Brown women have persisted, filing an appeal against the jury verdict and initiating a new civil court case, which has kept the matter open. Casey is again handling the case but declined to comment on it, as did Dembow.

“My legal team has advised me not to make any comments until the litigation is over,” writes Paul Dembow, now a Paradise Valley council member, in an email response to an interview request. “Whatever you write, I hope it’s a fair and balanced piece based on the facts.”

The Town of Paradise Valley prides itself on being a tightknit community, with a population of only 12,820 on the 2010 census and a median household income of over $150,000. Last December, current mayor Jerry Bien-Willner tweeted a link to a survey of local reviews on the real estate site Trulia naming Paradise Valley home of the “friendliest neighbors” in the Greater Phoenix area. “I agree!” Bien-Willner gushed.

But the Brown vs. Dembow case has divided those neighbors, with residents and lawmakers taking opposite sides. Although Dembow’s home sits only 700 feet away from the Browns’, the councilman’s cul-de-sac is populated by a small cabal of political movers. His neighbor on one side is fellow former vice mayor David Sherf; on the other side is James Anton, a member of the Paradise Valley Planning Commission who previously ran against Dembow for the town council seat.

Dembow’s neighbors declined to talk to PHOENIX about the feud. Only Anton responded at all to an interview request, emailing the terse message: “Sorry to hear you feel the need to open old wounds as the time has come for healing.”

The Browns’ neighbors, however, are happy to talk – mostly about what they see as a breakdown in trust since the accident between the residents and those in power.

“It scares people to think it’s not safe here, that the police are not enforcing the laws,” says next-door neighbor Shayla Palm, who witnessed the aftermath of the accident right outside her door. “Mostly, it scares us to think that the police could treat any of us like we don’t matter and there’s going to be no recourse.”

“The biggest problem is that people have lost confidence in the town and its police force,” says Muller, who lives five houses down from the Browns. “The arbitrary way in which enforcement seems to take place is very concerning. I know there’s favoritism that takes place, but this went way beyond the pale.”

Tensions between the neighborhoods across the golf course are likely to remain, especially if the Browns and their neighbors continue their social media attacks on the Dembows. According to a statement Dembow delivered in a town council meeting last November, the Browns have been running a “smear campaign” against his daughter and him. In turn, Dembow attacked a fellow council member in his statement, alleging that Mark Stanton had been assisting the Browns by sharing information with them about prior domestic disputes between the father and daughter — including one that involved a 911 call to PV police.

“This is an epic tragedy that unfortunately brought the Brown family together with mine,” Dembow said. “The past three years have been full of bad press, vicious signs posted in town, propaganda letters stuffed – illegally, I might add – in mailboxes and social media smears. Some of the social media posts were so egregious that they were banned and taken down by the media company, because they were full of untruths and mischaracterizations about the town, Paradise Valley Police, my daughter, my family and me.”

Driscoll denies the sign posting and mailbox stuffing, although she admits to retweeting some scandalous social media screen grabs. Prior to the accident, Paige Dembow made the classic millennial mistake of posting Instagram photos of herself partying with bongs and assorted pot paraphernalia. Dembow has since deleted her account, but the Browns and their friends have kept her images alive online, with one neighbor tweeting an Instagram screenshot of Dembow blowing a cloud of smoke from a ceramic pipe into the camera under the message, “Paige Dembow was on probation & had a DUI device in her car. #NEVERTESTED”

“The last I saw anything from her on social media, she was taking selfies in Peru holding up these ‘weed balls,’” says Driscoll, a stay-at-home mom now living in DC Ranch in North Scottsdale who says she’s had to educate herself on the druggy slang Dembow used in her Instagram feed, where her handle was “hippykitty420.”

“She put all that stuff online for the public,” she says, with a shrug. “That’s despicable.”

But her sister, Judith, when asked about the purported smear campaign, offers a bolder response. “We haven’t even started that yet.”

One bombshell they’ve floated is the notion Paige shaved her head following the accident to avoid a follicle drug test, which can be administered up to 90 days following an incident. Judith claims she saw photos Dembow posted of herself on Instagram, post-accident, before the hair grew back, and says a friend confided to her that Dembow did it to void any chance of being tested. “I know a lot of people,” Judith replies. “And there are a lot of people around here who are on our side.”

As for the family matriarch, Judy Brown is leaning toward the conclusion that the only way to escape the constant reminders of the tragedy may be to move.

“At some point, I’ll probably sell this house,” she says, joking with Palm, a neighbor around Brown’s age who apparently shares her love of shopping, that it may be time for both of them to find an even swankier locality.

“I know where I’m going: Beverly Hills!” Brown says.

“And I’m coming with you!” says Palm, with a reassuring laugh.

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