Arizona cop's tale of a Latino drug smuggler shooting him doesn't add up

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Pinal County sheriff's spokesman Tim Gaffney says his agency's internal-affairs investigation is almost done and that Puroll wants to speak with the news media after his supervisors review the report and his attorney gives the go-ahead.

Sheriff Babeu tells New Times, "I honestly don't have any reservations about my deputy's account or his truthfulness."

Louie Puroll's path to his current position as a search-and-rescue deputy in Pinal County began in his native Michigan. It included tours of duty in the U.S. Army (he was a radio operator) and National Guard, and stints as a Texas cop and ranch foreman.

Puroll has been with the Pinal County Sheriff's Office for 14 years, first as a detention officer and now as a deputy. He has been a range deputy for about a decade, and his code name is "SAR 1," short for search-and-rescue.

Portions of Puroll's personnel file, which the agency provided to New Times (missing was his employment history), include commendations after praise from citizens, and a few criticisms from his superiors.

In 2000, a supervisor wrote, "Deputy Puroll has experienced negative reactions from members of the public as a result of verbal usage not totally familiar to the local public."

The statement couldn't be vaguer, but it does get a point across.

Puroll's supervisor, Sergeant Brian Messing, has given him top grades for knowing how to rescue people — many illegal immigrants included — from potentially deadly situations in the unforgiving Pinal County desert that he knows so well.

But Messing also has given the deputy subpar ratings regarding how he interacts with other police agencies — and on how he occasionally has treated victims, witnesses, and suspects.

"Louie is a very individualistic guy," the sergeant tells New Times, "and he's an alpha male, like the rest of us out here. He's very calm and cool, but when he's in a situation, his nervousness comes out as crotchety, and he barks. But I've never had to worry about his actions in a tactical sense."

Bruce Peterson, a Mesa Community College professor, says he met Puroll in 2005 when the deputy led a team into the Superstition Mountains to rescue him from dehydration. The following year, Puroll joined the professor on a student expedition back into the area.

"Louie is an expert in the back country," Peterson says, "and he's as honest and honorable as the day is long. He just has a way of telling the truth in a very graphic manner, and he's a great storyteller."

Peterson wrote in a journal after the expedition, "Everyone stayed up listening to Louie's colorful stories of African goldmines, wilderness rescues, and border crossings and smuggling."

Louie Puroll first checked in with dispatch at 8:57 on the morning of April 30.

The deputy drove his unmarked Chevy Tahoe SUV to work, ate breakfast at a restaurant in Arizona City, and then headed in the early afternoon toward the Vekol Valley, about 20 miles west.

By Puroll's account, he drove his four-wheel-drive Tahoe south into the desert at Double Gates Road, at the border of Pinal and Maricopa counties. It is at milepost 151 on I-8.

His supervisor, Sergeant Messing, was off that day. But Puroll apparently didn't inform anyone else in authority of his plans to patrol an untamed area that his sheriff has likened to a war zone.

He negotiated the bumpy, curvy dirt road for about four miles until he reached the end, and then parked his vehicle. Then he walked north for about two miles before perching above a well-traveled dirt trail that leads to the interstate.

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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin