Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputy Sean Pearce tells reporters his union is standing behind jailed detention officer Adam Stoddard. Photo by Nick R. Martin
The timing of it all was impeccable.
Some 20 minutes before a group of union members planned to rally in the shadow of Maricopa County’s main courthouse on Wednesday, their colleagues in the sheriff’s office gave the green light to reopen the facility after it had been evacuated for a morning bomb threat.
The result was that the law-enforcement unions got an audience in the hundreds as crowds streamed back into the courthouse for afternoon proceedings. But more importantly, they go a much-larger platform to call on the Superior Court to release an officer jailed for defying a judge’s order.
“We demand that detention officer (Adam) Stoddard be freed and his record cleared,” shouted Luis Altamirano, vice president of the Maricopa County Association of Detention Officers, as the crowd stared and listened.
He was a hard sight to miss. Altamirano and other union leaders were backed by a coterie of nearly 100 men and women wearing uniforms and badges. Most or all of them were detention officers and deputies from the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
“This is an obvious political attack on the sheriff’s office and an attempt to humiliate the sheriff,” said union president John Solano. “This is wrong and we will not tolerate it.”
The rally came less than 20 hours after Stoddard, a five-year veteran of the sheriff’s office, surrendered to the custody of his own agency.
He was there because Superior Court Judge Gary Donahoe found him in contempt of court on Nov. 17 for a bizarre incident in which he was caught on courtroom security video taking confidential documents from the file of a defense attorney. Stoddard later said he thought the documents would reveal the attorney’s client, a member of the Mexican Mafia, was about to commit a crime.
After looking at the documents himself, Donahoe said they showed no such thing. He ordered Stoddard to hold a news conference by Monday to publicly apologize to the attorney, Joanne Cuccia, or else go to jail. On Monday night, Stoddard held a defiant news conference to say he would not apologize for doing his job.
On Tuesday, under Donahoe’s order, Stoddard went to jail, where he has been instructed to stay until he is willing to say he is sorry.
During the gathering outside the courthouse, Stoddard’s coworkers spoke out in his defense and attacked the judge’s decision.
“We’re going to stand behind him 100 percent,” said deputy Sean Pearce, vice president of the Deputies Law Enforcement Association. “If you’re doing what you’re supposed to do, we’re going to stand behind you.”
Stoddard’s attorney, deputy county attorney Tom Liddy, told the men and women in uniform that their colleague knew about the rally and was encouraged by it.
“He is aware of your support,” Liddy said. “But I think he has no idea how strong it is.”
The attorney railed against what he called the “political war” that has been going on for the past year among Maricopa County’s elected leaders, judges and most-powerful appointed officials. But his comments focused mostly on the judiciary.
He echoed the sentiments of Stoddard’s colleagues who said the detention officer was “a victim” of the infighting.
“If you want to have your war on your own time, do it,” said Liddy, who used to have his own radio talk show and ran unsuccessfully for office before becoming a county lawyer. “But leave the people in uniform alone.”
The afternoon rally followed an incredible series of events earlier in the day, including a possible sickout by some of Stoddard’s coworkers and a bomb threat that shut down the court system for hours.
It began when about 20 detention officers called in sick, leaving the courthouse too short-staffed security-wise to carry on with business as usual.
Criminal Court Administrator Bob James told the Arizona Republic some of the courtrooms were “definitely affected” by the high number of missing detention officers. There just were not enough on duty to transfer inmates to and from court appearances, he said.
But the president of the detention officers union denied the sick leaves were organized.
“We did not orchestrate that,” said Solano. “Nobody orchestrated that that we know of. We wouldn’t do that.” He noted that the H1N1 flu – also known as the swine flu – is prominent this season.
At 10 a.m., another disruption struck the county’s legal system when a 911 caller said there was a bomb inside the court complex.
The sheriff’s office decided to evacuate all three buildings that make up the main courthouse and search them using bomb-sniffing dogs.
Sheriff’s detective Aaron Douglas said late Wednesday it was still unclear whether the caller had made reference to public defense attorneys, as had been reported by various media outlets.
“We have heard the same stories, but have not confirmed the validity of this possibility,” said Douglas.
Eventually, at about 10 minutes after 1 p.m., the sheriff’s office declared the buildings were safe and the public could return. At 1:30 p.m., as hundreds were lining up to get back inside, the rally for Stoddard began.
Watch the Oct. 19 incident that started it all:
Correction, Dec. 6, 2009: A previous version of the this story incorrectly attributed one of the quotes from the rally to MCADO union president John Solano. While Solano was quoted correctly in the rest of the story, it turns out the line about the union wanting to the detention officer to “be freed and his record cleared” was actually spoken by the union’s vice president, Luis Altamirano. The story has been changed to reflect that. Apologies for the mix-up.