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Pinalcchio: Renowned Forensics Experts Say a Pinal County Deputy's High-Profile Tale About Getting Shot After Encountering Drug Smugglers Doesn't Add Up 

Wednesday, Sep 22 2010
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Babeu held a press conference on May 4 in Casa Grande. His presentation included close-up photos of Puroll's gunshot wound and selected audio snippets of his communications with 911 dispatchers after the incident.

"Tell my wife I love her," the deputy said in one sound bite that would be replayed repeatedly on national news shows.

A dispatch supervisor told the news media, "You can hear bullets ricochet near the phone," a reference to that seven-shot burst of gunfire at the start of Puroll's "I've been hit!" call.

She was suggesting that the bullets were fired at the deputy moments before he spoke up during the 911 call.

(However, many in law enforcement and others who have heard the tape say they are reasonably certain that Puroll fired those shots, not his supposed attackers.)

To bolster his deputy's credibility, Sheriff Babeu displayed infrared photos taken weeks earlier in the Vekol Valley showing what he called "squad-size elements using paramilitary tactics while escorting drug smugglers across the desert."

But the sheriff conceded that some information released by his agency in the hours after the incident was inaccurate:

• That Puroll faced at least 30 rounds of gunfire during the shoot-out. He didn't.

• That more than one helicopter had come under fire in the desert before Puroll was rescued. None had.

• That the smugglers left behind "bales" of marijuana as they fled. Authorities confiscated no contraband.

"We are in the business of facts and what really happened," Babeu told reporters. "This is a really big case."

The headline in the next day's Arizona Republic read: "Sheriff: Deputy's Shooting Not a Hoax."

A few weeks later, Babeu awarded Louis Puroll his agency's Purple Heart medal before an Arizona Diamondbacks game in downtown Phoenix. McCain was there to shake the deputy's hand.


Little has been written or aired about Louie Puroll since the sheriff's press conference.

But New Times has continued to examine the case, utilizing some of the best forensic minds in the country to assist in a four-month investigation.

The newspaper also analyzed reports filed by the DPS (which investigated the "crime scene") and the Pinal County Sheriff's Office.

In the end, key aspects of Puroll's account to authorities, plus an analysis of the reported crime scene (including photos of the deputy's gunshot wound), lead to this troubling conclusion:

The odds that Louie Puroll is telling the truth about what happened to him on April 30 are slim.

"This is not a he-said, she-said case," says Tucson private investigator Weaver Barkman, a retired homicide sergeant for the Pima County Sheriff's Office who analyzed the Puroll case at the request of New Times. "This is about what the evidence says."

In Barkman's view, the evidence says, "Deputy Puroll's claims and versions are not supported by the physical, anecdotal, and behavioral evidence that I have reviewed. Several claims are in direct conflict with the physical evidence. There is, in my view, insufficient evidence to establish probable cause that on the afternoon of Friday, April 30, 2010, [any] person or persons, other than Deputy Puroll, were present at or in the immediate vicinity of this shooting scene."

And if the deputy is telling the truth, says Scottsdale forensic psychiatrist Steven Pitt, "You have a stunningly inept multi-jurisdictional response [on April 30] in addition to dealing with some really intelligent, athletic, and damned lucky smugglers."

Add to that a criminal investigation by Pinal County sheriff's detectives that was seemingly designed solely to clear their colleague Puroll.

"Our deputy says this happened, and there's evidence out there to support that it happened," Sergeant Hausman insists. "The facts are the facts."

But others interpret the facts quite differently from Hausman.

Dr. Michael Baden, co-director of the New York State Police Medicolegal Investigation Unit and former chief medical examiner for New York City, analyzed police photographs of Puroll's gunshot wound and concludes:

"I don't see what the problem is in calling this a close-contact wound. I don't know who did it, but the weapon was either touching this man or was within a couple of inches. It's pretty straightforward. It clearly is not a shot from a distance."

Puroll said in his May 3 interview with investigators that he was shot from about 25 yards away, not point-blank range.

Dr. Werner Spitz, co-author of the textbook Medicolegal Investigation of Death and the retired chief medical examiner of Detroit's Wayne County, agrees with Baden.

"This is a grazing wound fired at contact range," Spitz tells New Times.

But the equally esteemed Dr. Vincent Di Maio — author of the textbooks Handbook of Forensic Pathology and Gunshot Wounds and retired chief medical examiner of San Antonio's Bexar County — says he isn't sure how far away the shot was fired, largely because Pinal County's investigation was inadequate.

Di Maio says he is "very suspicious" of the reddish discoloration visible around Puroll's wound. Such discoloration often is present with contact wounds and is caused by carbon monoxide-laden gases that emanate from firearms during discharge.

But, the doctor adds, "It's all going to hinge from the shirt as to whether it's a contact wound or not."

He is referring to Puroll's bloody T-shirt and what he suspected would have been testing for telltale gunpowder, soot, and other residue.

Pinal County's investigators, however, chose not to send the shirt to the DPS' crime lab for analysis.

"I know you want to see if there's stippling [gunpowder patterns] on it to eliminate or prove it was a close-range shot, and that's legitimate," Sergeant Hausman tells New Times of the testing question.

"Yes, there will be gunpowder on there, but it will be extremely minimal because it comes from a distant shot. In my heart and mind, I believe Louie Puroll's story, and . . . I don't see the need for testing because we don't have a suspect."

Phil Keen, Maricopa County's former chief medical examiner, says he doesn't necessarily agree with the "contact wound" opinions rendered by Drs. Baden and Spitz.

About The Author

Paul Rubin

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