A Gila County sheriff’s sergeant involved in a shoot-out got a slap on the wrist earlier this month for failing to tell his supervisor he had been drinking before being called out from home to help look for a wanted fugitive at Roosevelt Lake.
Sgt. John France signed a “memorandum of concern” that said he should have told his supervisors he’d been drinking at home before answering a call to chase a murder suspect. However, the internal investigation concluded France did nothing wrong in the course of the chase and shoot-out with the suspect, who escaped into the desert.
During the Aug. 25 search for murder suspect Gabriel Jaramillo another sheriff’s deputy said he clearly smelled alcohol coming from Sgt. John France and noticed his eyes were red and watery.
The deputy said several other officers also noticed alcohol on France, but France remained in command.
When Lt. Tim Scott later questioned France, the sergeant readily admitted he had consumed alcohol that night, but said he didn’t feel impaired or unfit.
The sheriff’s office policy manual dictates that deputies should decide if they can respond to an emergency off-duty call after consuming alcohol. However, a supervisor must confirm their decision.
In this case, France didn’t tell Scott he had been drinking until after the incident was over, according to an internal investigation obtained by the Roundup as a result of a record’s request.
While France’s performance during the high-pressure search was exemplary, he should have told a supervisor before responding or while on scene, Scott said.
Whistleblower deputy Leonard “Ski” Kerszykowski wrote that while he didn’t like turning France in, he felt it was his duty, especially since France’s actions set the office up for a lawsuit.
“No one likes to come forward and report a fellow officer doing wrong, but I took an oath and I live by that oath,” he said.
Ski said he was especially reluctant to say anything because his supervisors had ignored past reports of problems.
“In the past I have reported things and have not seen a result,” he wrote in a memo to Scott.
Ski relates that during another investigation of a sergeant, the employees that cooperated with the inquiry “were made to feel like they did something wrong by telling the truth.”
“I hope you do not allow this to happen here with this case,” Ski wrote.
In response to Ski’s concerns, Lt. Scott questioned nearly a dozen officers that had contact with France the night of the search.
While some confirmed Ski’s observations that France smelled of alcohol, others said they noticed nothing unusual about France’s behavior.
France himself said he did not feel drunk, if he had, he wouldn’t have left home. Furthermore, his wife would not have let him leave if she had the slightest inclination he was intoxicated.
France said he had drunk a mixed drink with dinner after returning home from work and was taking a sip from a second drink when he got a call that officers were chasing a homicide suspect possibly armed with an AK-47.
Jaramillo had fled from officers when they tried to pull him over in Globe. Jaramillo led officers on a chase down Highway 188 toward Punkin Center and onto the east side of Roosevelt Lake.
When France caught up with the chase, he reportedly used spike strips to disarm Jaramillo’s vehicle. Jaramillo reportedly shot at France, who fired 20 rounds in response as the suspect’s vehicle passed him.
Jaramillo fled into the forest when his vehicle stopped working. France stayed on scene and helped coordinate resources.
Scott wrote that he noticed nothing unusual about France that night.
Ski, on the other hand, said everything about France seemed off. His eyes were red and watery, he smelled of alcohol, he smoked cigarettes rapidly and refused to make eye contact.
Ski also claimed France gave out incorrect directions and when he examined the suspect’s vehicle, he couldn’t see any bullet holes that matched France’s ammunition. Ski said that threw into question the accuracy of France’s shooting that night.
Both of these claims, however, proved invalid.
Scott said he listened to the radio transmissions and heard France give out accurate directions.
“I do not know where Deputy Kerszykowski came up with saying Sgt. France called out the wrong road as he was correct in saying it was on Bar X at that point in time and was heading toward A Cross road,” Scott wrote in the internal investigation.
Furthermore, a detective confirmed the bullet holes in Jaramillo’s vehicle were consistent with France’s ammunition.
While Scott debunked these accusations, several officers confirmed that France had smelled of alcohol.
Deputy Thoreina Hensley said she smelled a strong odor of alcohol coming from France several times during the night’s operations, including when he urinated. She tried to report the information to her sergeant, but couldn’t get a hold of him. The next day, she told Lt. Mike Johnson and Lt. Scott what she had observed.
Deputy Thor Nudson said he also smelled alcohol, but thought it had come from the suspect’s truck. Also, he just discharged his rifle in a closed cabin and his nose was full of gun powder and glass dust. Days later, Nudson said he found a pile of cigarette butts near France’s vehicle and “cigarettes mask odor.”
Still, “I am NOT covering anything up for the sergeant just because I am on the dive team,” Nudson wrote to Scott.
Deputy Russ Toumberlin said he didn’t smell anything on France, but was getting over a cold at the time.
Sgt. Travis Baxley said he smelled a slight odor of alcohol on France and told Lt. Michael Johnson and Commander Johnny Sanchez about it around sunrise on Aug. 26.
DPS officer Weston White, Game and Fish wildlife manager Danny Rodriguez and Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office deputy W. Shay said they didn’t smell anything on France or observe impairment.
While some officers smelled alcohol on France, no one witnessed him acting inappropriately, Scott wrote.
“Deputy Kerszykowski never says that Sgt. France did anything to put any officer in jeopardy or made any decisions that were unwarranted or wrong,” he said.
Furthermore, Scott said Ski didn’t report his concerns to Scott until the morning after the search.
“I asked him why he waited to tell me until now and Deputy Kerszykowski said I should have known as I was close to him,” Scott wrote. “I told him I did not smell anything.”
Still, Scott writes that France should have told him about his drinking sooner.