US president Donald Trump’s decision to pardon Joe Arpaio has focused a spotlight on the 85-year-old former sheriff. During his six terms as an elected law enforcement officer in Maricopa County, Arizona, Arpaio earned a reputation as a publicity-hungry politician who flouted civil liberties through brutal treatment of county inmates and discriminatory practices toward Latinos. He was eventually convicted of contempt of court for refusing to comply with a court order to stop illegal racial profiling.
Arpaio compiled a long record of highly-publicized actions popular with his staunchly anti-immigration, tough-on-crime base. The Phoenix New Times, a weekly paper that has doggedly covered Arpaio for decades, made a list: running jails he called “concentration camps,” where inmates were subjected to violent and inhumane treatment; sending a deputy to Hawaii to look for Barack Obama’s birth certificate; arresting critical reporters; and, one time, allegedly orchestrating an assassination attempt against himself to drum up attention.
On July 9, 1999, police arrested 18-year-old James Saville with bomb-making parts in the parking lot of a Phoenix restaurant where Arpaio was dining. Television cameras had been tipped off in advance, Arpaio gave on-camera interviews, and the alleged plot on his life led the news.
At his trial, Saville’s lawyers argued that the young man was a victim of entrapment. It was a risky strategy. Defense lawyers had to prove that the crime originated with law enforcement officers, that the officers induced Saville to commit the crime, and that he wouldn’t have otherwise done it without their coercion. Essentially, Saville’s lawyers had to convince the jury that the sheriff’s office cooked up an assassination plot and framed a teenager for it.
Which they did. Jurors heard Saville, who was in prison for vandalizing his high school, was set up by a prison informant working on behalf of the sheriff’s office. A former sergeant in the sheriff’s office came forward to testify, horrified by the department’s treatment of the young man.
“I stayed up nights just thinking about Saville,” Wayne Scoville told journalist Jana Bommersbach. “I got to the point I was more worried that he not go to jail than I was about my safety—it was just so wrong what they did.”
The sheriff’s office denied that it acted wrongly in setting up the plot, or that it was concocted to drum up publicity. After the trial, jury members told reporters that they saw it differently.
“This was a publicity stunt at the expense of four years of someone’s life,” forewoman Fausta Woody told Bommersbach.
Saville and his family sued Arpaio for $10 million, settling with Maricopa County for an undisclosed amount in 2008. A public records request from the Phoenix New Times found that the taxpayers’ portion of the bill (before insurance payouts) was $1.1 million. That does not count towards the $70 million the county has spent on the racial profiling case, for which Arpaio has now been pardoned.