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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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Page 4 of 8

The weather was moderate; the high temperature that day was just 70 degrees.

At 1:45 p.m., Puroll called a police dispatcher on his cell phone.

"This is SAR 1," he told her. "Do you have something to write with?"

"Um, yeah," she said.

Puroll said, "Write down these GPS coordinates," and then told her what he was up to:

"I'm up on the side of a hill watching a smuggler's trail. I don't need any help or anything. I just want you to know where I'm at. If I call you for help, I might be in a hurry and won't have time to tell you where I'm at, and now you know. Thank you."

Puroll was wearing khakis, a dark green T-shirt (he either was wearing a heavy long-sleeved shirt or carrying it around his backpack), a floppy hat, and combat boots. He said later his Camelbak backpack held a blanket, water, a first-aid kit, and other survival items.

The deputy was carrying an M-16 rifle in a sling and had a Glock handgun in a holster. He also had a handheld GPS device, a new BlackBerry phone, binoculars, and extra ammunition.

All that immediately identified Puroll as a peace officer was his Pinal County sheriff's badge, which may or may not have been visible on his belt.

What he didn't have in this "war zone" was a bulletproof vest or police radio, just his cell phone.

"We were switching out our old radios for new and better ones," Pinal County sheriff's Lieutenant Tamatha Villar explained later.

The GPS location Puroll gave at 1:45 p.m. was a mile and a quarter southeast of the coordinates he would give a dispatcher at 4:04 p.m., just after he said he was shot.

Puroll was incommunicado for two hours after the 1:45 call — at least, his cell records show no activity during that time.

At 3:42, he again called in.

"Hello, this is SAR 1," Puroll told the dispatcher, wheezing as he spoke. "Can you track this phone?"

She said she could and that it showed he was near the frontage road parallel to I-8.

"Look, I'm about eight miles south of the frontage road," the deputy said, sounding testy.

"Are you okay?" the dispatcher asked calmly.

"I'm just winded."

"Were you running?"

"Yeah, I got about eight people on foot in front of me carrying heavy backpacks. [They've] not spotted me yet. I'm standing about a quarter-mile back from them."

Puroll's phone got disconnected, at which point the dispatcher said to a colleague in an aside captured on tape, "Why would this fool be chasing people in the desert all by himself?"

It was a good question.

The dispatcher reconnected with Puroll within a few minutes.

"Listen to me," he told her. "I'm in the saddle [a mountain pass] south of the truck stop. I'm following five or six individuals. Big backpacks full of dope. I'm a couple of hundred yards back. They have not seen me.

"Don't send the regular patrol, and do not say anything on the radio — do it by telephone. I'll call you again when I can see them. They went over a little hill in front of me. Damn, I'm too old to do this."

"I know," the dispatcher said. "What are you doing out there by yourself?"

"I'm not by myself," Puroll quickly replied. "I've got about five or six guys. Bye."

This is where memories and evidence diverge.

Sergeant Messing tells New Times that he was at home in Oracle grilling ribs when Puroll first contacted him about the smugglers:

"He says, 'Hey, I've got these backpackers. They're loaded. They've got dope, they're northbound, and this is where I'm at.' I said, okay, I'll get guys started out there, and he said, 'You know the area we're talking about.' He meant that if I called Joe Deputy out there, they'd have no idea how to get there or have the equipment.

"I said, 'Do the smugglers know you're there?' He says, 'No clue.' I tell him to keep his 300 yards back. Border Patrol does this all day long — follow the dope until you get your guys in an area, and then take them down."

Why, Messing is asked, would Deputy Puroll call an off-duty supervisor and not someone closer to the scene and on duty?

"I am his supervisor pretty much all the time," the sergeant says. "We have a unique unit."

Messing becomes emotional as he continues with his recollections of April 30.

"We had some bad tactics that day, errors we had to look at," he says. "As a supervisor, I'll take the heat on that. I probably should have told him to stop and turn around. But Louie's a very competent deputy."

But there's a problem with Messing's account:

Verizon cell phone records (and Puroll's interview with investigators) suggest that Messing and the deputy didn't speak that day until 4:04 p.m., when the deputy says he was shot.

"I've been trying to figure this all out in my head," Messing says after New Times points out the discrepancy. "In my head, I'm sure I spoke with him right after he spotted those guys."

The records do show that a dispatcher contacted Messing at 3:50 p.m., shortly after she had spoken with Puroll.

The deputy spoke with a dispatcher again just after 4 p.m.

"This phone's gonna quit on me any second," he told her. "I'm coming down from the south toward the truck stop on I-8. We're passing through the saddle right now. It looks like we're headed toward that cell tower, and I think Brian [Messing] is trying to call me. Pass that on to him in case I'm not able to reach him. They're laid up in the brush ahead of me resting right now. So am I."

How the deputy knew that the smugglers were "resting" over a ridge a few hundred yards ahead of him is uncertain. And why he waited just a few minutes before moving over that same ridge into a known stopping point for undocumented aliens — alleged drug smugglers, in this instance — is another question.

About The Author

Paul Rubin

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