Gilbert Mayor Steve Berman is shown in this undated photograph in his office. From mayorberman.com
Heat City special report: With Gilbert’s mayoral primary just days away, the town’s police department has opened a criminal investigation into allegations that current Mayor Steve Berman tried to poison his wife.
An investigation began on Jan. 27 after the mayor’s wife, Michelle, made a pair of frantic phone calls to the town’s police chief, saying her husband had threatened to commit suicide and kill her. At the time, it was marked as a “special incident” and was not looked at as a crime.
But according to police records released Friday, the investigation was upgraded last week to a possible felony case after Michelle Berman told police she believed her husband tried to poison her.
The investigation marks the second time in the past year that Steve Berman has been investigated on suspicion of a crime as part of his relationship with his wife. Last July, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office looked into allegations that he punched her during a fight. But in January, after Michelle Berman recanted her allegations, the county attorney’s office declined to press charges.
Now, the pair’s turbulent relationship appears to have become even rockier. This time, it’s spilling over into Gilbert town business. The dispute has forced at least six of the town’s officers, including its police chief, to try and sort out the details. Heat City obtained the newest investigative reports through a series of public records requests with the Gilbert Police Department. In all, the reports totaled more than 40 pages.
Steve Berman, who did not return a call for comment, is running for reelection. The town’s primary is Tuesday.
On Jan. 27, police Lt. Mike Angstead received a serious task from Chief Tim Dorn: Look into a pair of frantic voice mail messages the mayor’s wife recently left on the chief’s phone. Dorn forward the messages to his lieutenant. Both included allegations that the mayor had threatened to hurt her and commit suicide unless she lied to the media about their relationship.
“He threatened me,” the mayor’s wife said in one of the messages, according to transcripts included in a police report. “He told me he was going to kill himself and take me with him.”
In another message, Michelle Berman said: “I’m not looking to hurt his reelection but I am looking to stay safe and keep my family safe.”
The messages were left about two weeks after the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office announced it would not seek charges against the mayor.
Dorn asked the lieutenant to follow up, which he did in a tape-recorded phone call. During the call, Michelle Berman repeated many of her claims to him but offered no proof, the report shows. Angstead recommended that she get a restraining order if she felt truly in danger.
Mayor’s own accusations
The following day, the mayor himself called the police chief’s cell phone to respond to his wife’s allegations. “Mr. Berman told me that his wife recently had surgery for a medical condition,” Dorn wrote in his own report. “She had been prescribed pain medication due to the surgery. He believes that the pain medication is now causing her to make irrational and untrue statements, as has occurred in the past when she is under the influence of pain medications.”
Steve Berman told the police chief he would never hurt his wife. His phone call was not tape recorded, the records show.
Last July, when the original allegations of domestic violence surfaced, Dorn turned the investigation over to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. He said at the time the pass was to avoid “any appearance of conflict” because the case involved a high-level town official.
This time, however, the case stayed in the hands of Gilbert police. “No further action taken,” Dorn wrote in the report.
But the trouble didn’t stop there.
Poisoned tea? Call for help
About three weeks later, on Feb. 19, Michelle Berman called the police department for help again, records show. This time she called the town’s main police dispatch, asking for officers to meet her at a house in Gilbert. Two on-duty officers and a sergeant went to the house, and one stood guard outside while the mayor’s wife told them her story.
“Michelle initially indicated that her husband, Steve Berman, had been threatening to blow his head off in front of her is (sic) he lost the Gilbert mayoral election,” officer Randy Gardner wrote in a report about the meeting. “He was telling her not to contact police at all because it would ruin him.”
She then told the officers she had been in the hospital, undergoing several medical tests and procedures because she had come down with severe abdominal pain. It turned out she had an enlarged gallbladder, according to the records.
When a doctor removed the organ in mid-January, “he told her it was the largest gall bladder (sic) he had ever seen in a live person…and if it had not been removed she would have died.”
Michelle Berman told the officers she had recently seen a strange text message on her husband’s phone, which was sent to him by a friend of his. She started connecting the dots. “The message stated, ‘Make sure whatever you use is strong enough to do the job and it can’t be traced back to you,'” according to her account to police.
She told the officers she remembered her husband mysteriously starting to make her hot green tea in the mornings during the holidays. “Michelle also indicated that Steve’s behavior was abnormal and that he was being extremely nice to her,” officer Gardner wrote in the report. Before he would hand her the tea, Michelle said she would see the mayor in the laundry room of their home, where they kept numerous cleaning products. She never saw him putting anything in the tea, however.
After hearing the allegations, Sgt. Benny Fisher stepped outside the house and called his commanding officers. The report shows all the officers there were instructed to write about the experience.
When another officer, Sgt. David Meyer, contacted the mayor the next day, Steve Berman told him it was all a misunderstanding. His friend had sent him the mysterious text message by mistake. It was intended for a pool cleaner as a warning to avoid being caught putting too much acid into a swimming pool. “But the message didn’t go to him. It went to me,” Steve Berman told the officer, according to the report.
He blamed the allegation’s on his wife’s supposed prescription drug abuse, and said he knew, because of the previous domestic violence allegations, he would be the prime suspect if she died. “Guess who’s screwed?” the mayor said, according to the report. “If anything happens to her, I’m toast.”
On Feb. 23, Lt. Angstead, the original officer tasked with investigating the matter, and Meyer followed up with Michelle Berman. She said she was interested in having the police department pursue and investigation, and she gave the officers her medical records. She also volunteered to let them run more tests on her.
The following day, Feb. 24, Angstead added the possibility of a criminal charge to the investigation. If the investigation proves Michelle Berman’s allegations, the mayor could be charged with a class-six felony — adding a poisonous substance to his wife’s drink.
The allegations Michelle Berman leveled against her husband last July were startling. Along with the accusing the mayor of hitting her, she also said he once plotted to kill a fellow town council member who he blamed for his 1993 election defeat.
She told Maricopa County Sheriff’s investigators, as well as the East Valley Tribune, that Steve Berman had also threatened to kill her and beat her father. She filed for divorce and wound up obtaining an order of protection.
During multiple investigations that followed, authorities learned that two of Steve Berman’s ex-wives and his step children had also accused him of domestic violence. Those people had reported the allegations to police, but no charges ever resulted.
Ultimately, with Michelle Berman, investigators were unable to back up many of her claims. And eventually, she recanted her statements and reconciled with her husband. The restraining order was dropped, the divorce was ended, and no charges were ever filed.
The credibility of Michelle Berman’s newest accusations are unclear. But according to the newly released reports, police officers have told her they are taking them “very seriously.” The investigation is ongoing.