A new report commissioned by Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel found that she wasn’t “fully briefed” on the plan to prosecute local anti-police brutality protesters as members of a street gang — a theory that the report describes as “a complete work of fiction.” But critics argue that the investigation wrongfully suggests that Adel played what amounts to a small role in the controversial case.
In October 2020, more than a dozen protesters in downtown Phoenix were arrested and later charged with assisting a criminal street gang. But in February, media reports surfaced accusing police and prosecutors of misleading a grand jury by depicting the protesters as members of a criminal gang comparable to the Crips and the Bloods, leading Adel to dismiss the charges. Later that month, she commissioned Roland Steinle, a former long-time Maricopa County Superior Court judge, to conduct an outside review of the case.
Adel had been dogged by questions about her involvement in the case after it fell apart. She distanced herself by telling 12 News in February that she only had a “snippet” of information about the case before she was hospitalized on November 3, 2020. But April Sponsel, the lead prosecutor on the case, recently alleged that Adel was “fully aware” of the plan.
The report was released on the same day that the city of Phoenix publicized its own probe of the police department’s involvement in the case. That probe, conducted by the law firm Ballard Spahr, found numerous instances of misconduct, like the fact that the department’s own gang unit was “consciously” sidelined from the case.
According to Steinle’s report, Adel was not properly briefed on the case until February 2021, after which she took “swift and decisive corrective measures” by dismissing the charges. Steinle found that prosecutors with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office (MCAO) First Responder Bureau, which handles crimes against first responders, ignored “misstatements, exaggerations, and outright false statements” made by Phoenix police about the protesters.
“In these cases, we made mistakes,” Adel said in an August 12 statement. “As an agency charged with doing justice, we must be willing to admit this. And, moreover, we must be willing to correct them “Much of our work in this office is holding people accountable for their actions when they do not meet society’s expectations. We must be willing to hold ourselves accountable as well.”
Adel’s critics argue that the report unfairly lets her off the hook for her role in presiding over the botched case.
“[The report] was more about making sure that the people at the higher up level were cleared of any wrongdoing and that certain individuals were thrown under the bus,” said Armando Nava, a Phoenix-based defense attorney who represented one of the protesters accused of being a gang member. “The First Responder Bureau was kind of acting like a loose cannon and it shows the lack of oversight that the county attorney had over these things.
“None of this should have happened in the first place,” he added. “It’s a dereliction of duty.”
Jennifer Liewer, a spokesperson for MCAO, wrote in an email to Phoenix New Times that Steinle “truly acted independently in his review.” Through Liewer, Steinle declined to comment.
Here’s how the case played out, according to Steinle’s report:
On September 24, Tom Van Dorn, director of investigations at MCAO, emailed former division chief Vince Goddard and Sherry Leckrone, former head of the First Responder Bureau, suggesting they meet with a Phoenix police sergeant to discuss the “possibility of building conspiracy and syndicate type cases as it relates to protest/demonstration activities,” the report states. Van Dorn had previously discussed the idea with an unnamed official at the Phoenix Police Department.
Goddard told Steinle that Sponsel, the lead prosecutor, told him that the police were “investigating a ‘hard core group’ of protesters” consisting of around four individuals and were using an informant. Sponsel also said they were searching for a “big case” and would consider applying gang charges.
On September 28, Goddard emailed MCAO investigator Karl Martin saying he wanted to “investigate the potential for criminal gang/criminal syndicate charges” for groups of protesters. At Goddard’s direction, Martin met with Phoenix Police Officer Jeff Howell on several occasions and accumulated intel on the anti-police-brutality group W.E. Rising Project and another group called “ACAB” — a synonym for the common slogan “All Cops Are Bastards.” Martin eventually determined that there was no “probable cause” to charge members of the W.E. Rising Project as a criminal street gang.
But in mid-October, either Howell or another police officer, Steve Denny, told Martin that an informant had alleged that a protester “made a direct threat to shoot” Phoenix Police Lieutenant Benjamin Moore. That information and other supposed evidence — including the fact that some of the demonstrators had “ACAB” tattoos, was used to support the theory that certain protesters were part of a gang.
Four days after the protesters were arrested on October 17, Martin emailed Sponsel, Goddard and Howell, the police officer, stating that one of the arrested protesters, Suvarna Ratnam, “appeared to meet several criminal gang criteria” based on the evidence that had been gathered on her, such as her past arrest at a protest on August 23, her exchanging the home addresses of police officials with another protester, and an “ACAB” tattoo on her wrist. Sponsel responded by writing in an email that the idea was “amazing.”
On October 23, MCAO staff met with an FBI agent and several high-ranking Phoenix police officials about the investigations into the protesters. Martin told Steinle that, during the meeting, an unnamed police lieutenant distributed a document “identifying criminal street gang/syndicate charges” for “violent protester groups.” Martin allegedly told Steinle that he couldn’t remember if there had been a discussion about charging a specific group with gang charges. But others who attended the meeting told Ballard Spahr investigators that Martin, Sponsel, and Phoenix Police Sergeant Douglas McBride — the officer who would later tell the grand jury that the protesters were equivalent to well-established gangs like the Crips and the Bloods — “spoke in support of charging the [protesters] under the gang statute.” According to the Ballard Spahr account, no one at the meeting objected to the plan.
Ken Vick, chief deputy at MCAO, said during his interview that Goddard contacted him before October 23 to schedule a meeting to discuss the investigation into the protesters arrested on October 17. The meeting was eventually scheduled for October 30 — three days after the case was presented to the grand jury. Vick claimed that Goddard didn’t tell him that Sponsel had scheduled a grand jury presentation for October 27 and said he was unaware of the October 23 meeting with law enforcement officials.
According to Steinle’s report, top MCAO officials were “caught completely off guard when it was announced that the grand jury had returned an indictment” against the protesters. The confusion, Steinle concluded, was due to “major miscommunication” between Vick and Goddard.
Steinle’s report strongly asserts that Adel was not properly informed about the case until February. He wrote that Adel was “not briefed” on the October 27 grand jury presentation in advance and that she “never got a head’s up” that the case was going before a grand jury or what charges Sponsel was seeking. She was allegedly notified of the grand jury indictment on October 30 only after a member of the media contacted MCAO about it on October 29.
The report also found that Adel didn’t attend an October 30 briefing on the case because she was hospitalized on October 28 as a precautionary measure after a bad fall. But while in the hospital, Adel was “alert and continued working virtually.” She was eventually discharged on October 31, only to be hospitalized again on November 3 due to bleeding in her brain. She remained in the hospital until late December.
“Decisions were made internally within the First Responder Bureau,” Steinle wrote.
In early 2021, the defendants in the case started filing motions to dismiss the charges as intense media coverage showed that police and prosecutors misled the grand jury. During a February meeting about the case, Sponsel again argued that the protesters were members of a criminal street gang. That same day, Adel dismissed the charges.
Adel’s critics say Steinle’s report indicates that Adel was aware of both the gang charges and prosecutors’ theory that the protesters were part of a gang. Lola N’sangou, executive director of the criminal justice reform group Mass Liberation Arizona said during yesterday’s press conference that it is an “outright lie” that Allister Adel did not know the details of the case before February.
As of the publication of this article, MCAO spokesperson Liewer did not provide responses to Phoenix New Times’ questions about why Adel or Vick, her chief deputy, didn’t move to dismiss the charges sooner if they were briefed on the case last fall.
Liewer said Steinle only sought to interview four people during his review: Vick, Goddard, Leckrone, and Ryan Green, another MCAO prosecutor. Leckrone didn’t respond to Steinle and resigned from her position last May. Sponsel was not asked to be interviewed by Steinle. The former judge’s review “focused primarily on documents,” Adel noted in her August 12 statement about the report.
Liewer said she was “not aware” of Steinle’s “rationale” for not interviewing Sponsel or other MCAO staffers.
“He determined what he wanted to do for the review and we did not have conversations with him about who he should speak with or how he should conduct the investigation,” Liewer wrote. “We did tell him that he could interview any employee with our office.”
Hamel with The People’s Law Firm cited the small number of people that Steinle interviewed as “deficiencies” in his investigation.
While Steinle found that Adel acted appropriately with the information she had, he criticized Sponsel and other involved prosecutors for their handling of the case. He said in the report that the evidence police and prosecutors presented to the grand jury about the protesters “at its best was exaggerated and misleading and at its a worst a complete work of fiction.”
“There can be no argument,” Steinle wrote, that the Phoenix Police Department was “attempting [to] stop the marches based upon the content” of the protests, which was “police misconduct resulting in injuries and/or death in the arrest of black citizens.”
The former judge also suggested that the MCAO in the future prohibit the First Responder Bureau from handling protest cases and suggested the department craft a “detailed” policy for protest-related prosecutions.
In her August 12 statement, Adel said MCAO will make certain changes, such as creating a “training curriculum for MCAO staff related to First Amendment Rights” and finding new leadership for the First Responder Bureau.
Read the full report below: