Sheriff's Deputies Under Scrutiny

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by Mike Burkett
and Jerry Thebado
roundup staff reporters
Gila County officials are calling for an investigation into the alleged misconduct of two officers from the Gila County Sheriff's Department.


District 1 Supervisor Ron Christensen said Friday that a petition has been submitted to the Arizona Peace Officer's Standards and Training Board to review allegations against Chief Deputy Byron Mills and Sgt. Tom Rasmussen.


Allegations against Mills stem from his conduct during interviews with the Arizona Republic regarding the September murder of Ronald Bianchi, whose body was found near Tonto Village east of Payson.


In trying to piece together the details of the Bianchi case -- including Bianchi's unsupported claim that Senator John McCain was having an affair with actress-singer Connie Stevens -- a Republic reporter contacted Mills Jan. 14.


At that time, Mills told the reporter that Gila County investigators had interviewed McCain and Stevens in the Bianchi case, and that McCain's responses were "frank and credible," the Republic reported Sunday.


The Republic said Mills offered the same information during another interview with the newspaper Jan. 19, further adding that investigators interviewed McCain and Stevens before Christmas.


But on Jan. 21, Gila County Sheriff's Detective George Ratliff told the Republic he knew nothing about an interview with McCain.


Later that day, as a Republic reporter was about to verify the story with McCain in New Hampshire, Mills admitted that none of his deputies had questioned McCain or Stevens.


"If these allegations of lying to the media are true, someone will have to go," Christensen said Wednesday. "There will have to be real changes in upper management. There is absolutely no excuse for a person with a trusted position in law enforcement to lie to the media."


Rasmussen's alleged misconduct stems from a meeting he conducted last Monday, Christensen said.


"It was a meeting where they call in officers from various communities for a class to discuss how officers should behave, how they should conduct themselves during investigations, that type of thing."


Christensen said Rasmussen's conduct at the meeting apparently contradicted the philosophies that were being taught.


"That information came from a complaint being made by officers that were in the room at the time," the supervisor said.


As of late Thursday afternoon, Arizona POST's acting executive director, Lyle Mann, had not yet heard of Christensen's petition.


But even if he had, Mann said, "We are not in a position to give the public information until the board has issued an action against the individual. Until then, we can't even comment on whether or not (an allegation) exists, because the board may ultimately choose to take no action and it wouldn't be fair to the officer."


Mann said that when allegations are filed with the department, they go directly to him.


"Then we compile the information, the information is taken to the Arizona Peace Officers board, and the board makes the decision whether or not to take action."


That action, he said, can range from warnings to the suspension or revocation of a law officer's license.


In Christensen's attempt to get to the bottom of the Mills/Arizona Republic controversy, the supervisor asked Mills and Gila County Sheriff Joe Rodriguez to offer their side of the story Tuesday before the Gila County Board of Supervisors. Neither officer, however, showed up.


"I don't believe they wanted to come," Christensen said Wednesday. "But I believe they were out of town on training."


The sheriff's department has been under the Board of Supervisor's scrutiny for over a year, Christensen said. During that time, Sheriff Rodriguez has been required to deliver regular reports to the board explaining the steps he has taken to bring his department within budget, maintain the department's eligibility for insurance, reduce its vulnerability to lawsuits, and boost his staff's professionalism, performance standards and adherence to proper procedures.


"I have never seen so many allegations against one department in my entire political career," Christensen said.

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