FLORENCE — The people we all count on in times of crisis faced one of the most difficult situations possible — an active shooter inside the Pinal County Courthouse.
This time it was just practice for an event no one ever wants to experience.
Saturday, about 350 people participated in an active-shooter drill that encompassed the large courthouse. The scenario seemed all too real as shots were being fired, both blanks and live paint pellet rounds, inside the Superior Court building.
Victims, played by about 100 volunteer actors, each had open wounds applied beforehand by makeup artists. The scenario was about as close to reality as possible.
County personnel had been working on the assembly of the active-shooter simulation for the past 18 months.
“We came up with the scenario in February of last year,” said Chuck Kmet, emergency manager for Pinal County. “There was additional training that fire departments and law enforcement needed to do leading up to it. They did that while we were in the planning process.”
The simulation was under the guidance and a grant from U.S. Homeland Security.
“We have all these people out here, not just the public safety agencies, but more than 100 volunteers who came here to be a part of it. Some are county employees or friends and family of county employees. We have some people from Arizona State University,” Kmet said.
The Homeland Security grant of $43,000 did not include any of the pay for the first responders participating in the drill. That pay was absorbed by the various agencies that participated in the event, which included the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, County Attorney’s Office and Emergency Management, Casa Grande Police and Fire, Florence Police and Fire, Maricopa Fire and Medical, AMR ambulance, Gilbert Fire, Mesa Fire, Eloy Fire, Coolidge Fire, Lifeline Air Ambulance, Superstition Fire and Medical, Community Emergency Response Team and Queen Creek Fire.
“This shows they’re committed to something like this, especially when it comes to new lifesaving training,” Kmet said.
The grant paid for food, water, tents, some planning and some overtime for security officers at the scene.
One thing new in the training exercise was how law enforcement members enter the building and secure small areas. This allows fire and medical responders to pull victims out quicker. In the past, law enforcement officers secured the entire scene before firefighters were allowed inside. This delayed medical treatment to gunshot victims.
“I think it went pretty well today,” Kmet said. “We saw some things right off the bat that we will want to make changes to.”
The training exercise will be analyzed at an upcoming meeting among all the agencies to discuss the pros and the cons of the exercise.
Then an “after-action report” is written.
“We talk about the whole scenario. What went right and what went wrong. We will identify the issues that need to change. We will then determine who will be responsible for making that change and make a timeline when that will happen,” said Kmet.
Part of the training for firefighters is to work with law enforcement to save more lives.
“Firefighters sign up to go into a burning building and risk their lives. They are not used to running into a building where shots are being fired or potentially being fired. There is a danger of running into that, even with having law enforcement there,” he said.
Pinal County spokesman Joe Pyritz said Saturday’s training was a just-in-case scenario.
“It’s one of those things that you hope never happens but you have to be prepared just in case,” Pyritz said.
“It’s been a long time in planning but we want to make sure we get it right. We know that we’re not going to be perfect so we have to figure out what we’re good at and work on our weaknesses.”
Pyritz said the training also helps county and city first responders to determine what other agencies’ capabilities are.
Art Carlton, director of the exercise and an employee of Pinal County Emergency Management, said there were about 12 different agencies participating in the drill.
“The first component of this was to press the threat that allowed the court security and law enforcement to work together in case there was ever an incident here at the courthouse,” he said.
The second part of the test is to train two firefighters and two law enforcement members to work in teams.
“Florence Fire has taken the initiative to train 14 response task force teams and each team is four people. This gives them the time to practice their new training skills and get fairly good at it before they get out in the field and actually have to use it. We have to train at that level,” said Carlton.
FLORENCE — Pinal County’s constables are joining forces in a lawsuit against the county that seeks an increase in pay for the officials who serve legal papers and carry out orders of the justices of the peace.
In a lawsuit filed in Pinal County Superior Court on Friday, the constables say the Pinal County Board of Supervisors violated the law last August when setting the rate of pay for the constables. The lawsuit says the salary for the constable in Casa Grande, for example, was set at $49,939, far lower than the previous amount, which was $61,208. The constables in Maricopa and in Apache Junction also received salaries less than in previous years.
The total salaries for the six positions now is $300,000; before Aug. 29 the salaries totaled $321,274.
In addition, the suit says the Board of Supervisors failed to set the salaries in a timely manner and in accordance with state law. The supervisors approved the salaries on Aug. 29, one day after the primary election. Under state law the constable salaries should have been set in June, the suit says.
The lowered salaries have been a source of contention between the constables, who are elected to their positions, and the supervisors. Previously, County Manager Greg Stanley told PinalCentral the salaries were based on population rather than on caseload as had previously been the case. Because the boundaries had been redrawn, the county wasn’t able to base the salary on workload, Stanley said.
But the lawsuit says the workload of the six constables is increasing, not only because the county continues to grow in population but also because the supervisors restructured the constables’ coverage areas, reducing the precincts from eight to six.
The suit seeks to have the salaries re-evaluated on a matrix using caseload as a formula for determining salary per state law. It further seeks to have those salaries retroactive to Jan. 1, the start of the current terms.
Pinal County spokesman Joe Pyritz declined to comment on the lawsuit, keeping with county policy not to discuss pending litigation. The Board of Supervisors held a closed-door executive session last week to discuss the constable salaries.
CASA GRANDE — The state’s top law enforcement officials stood next to a display of drugs and guns as reporters snapped photos and jotted down notes.
It was October 2009.
Then-Attorney General Terry Goddard and then-Sheriff Paul Babeu were holding a press conference to announce the dismantling of a major drug trafficking network in Pinal County.
It was described as a major victory after months of investigation involving several law enforcement agencies throughout Arizona.
Next to the bundles of drugs was a mugshot of Robert (aka Roberto) Hernandez, the man accused of being the ringleader behind the drug ring.
By the time the press conference was being held, Hernandez was already sitting in the Pinal County jail and facing numerous felony charges. The 49-year-old Casa Grande businessman said he was shocked to hear the government’s allegations against him.
“I could not believe what they were saying,” Hernandez said in a recent interview with PinalCentral.
In a press release issued by Goddard’s office, authorities claimed Hernandez’s enterprise, nicknamed “Los Tusas,” had transported hundreds of pounds of marijuana from Mexico to Phoenix.
The drugs would be dropped off at stash houses in Pinal County and then distributed to other sites in Arizona. Authorities further accused Hernandez’s minions of impersonating cops to rob and possibly murder other drug smugglers.
Ten years later, Hernandez claims these allegations were not accurate and he was only guilty by association through people more heavily involved in the drug network.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration wrote a report summarizing the case and submitted it into Hernandez’s court file.
The first sentence of the report reads, “... an investigation was initiated by the Drug Enforcement Agency (Administration) into the ‘Los Tusas’ drug trafficking organization operated by 22-year-old Edgar Felix.”
The name Edgar Felix is never mentioned in the attorney general’s press release. Nor was his name mentioned in any of the media coverage of the press conference.
In fact, PinalCentral could not locate any criminal charges filed in Pinal County against Felix related to the Los Tusas investigation. He had been arrested in 2008 near Maricopa for money laundering and placed on probation. Court records show he later violated his probation and there’s an outstanding warrant to arrest Felix.
In the DEA case summary, Felix’s name is mentioned 26 times. Hernandez’s name is listed four times and his relationship to Felix is not explained. According to the report, Felix would recruit several drivers to transport large shipments of marijuana on a weekly basis.
The DEA summary describes a complicated web of several characters swapping money and drugs to complete these transfers. It appears the investigation started with Felix and two other suspects, Fernando Maganllanez and David Chavez, before authorities were led to several other alleged associates like Hernandez through wiretaps and surveillance.
The Arizona Attorney General’s Office, now run by Mark Brnovich, admitted it decided not to tell the public about Felix in 2009.
“Edgar Felix was known to law enforcement, however, in order to protect the integrity of the ongoing investigation at the time, his name was withheld from the press release,” wrote Katie Conner, a spokeswoman for the agency, in a statement to PinalCentral.
The agency emphasized how Hernandez still pleaded guilty and received a nine-year sentence.
“Ringleader or not, his lengthy sentence speaks for itself and he was higher up in the organization,” Conner wrote in her statement.
A DEA spokesperson declined to answer questions about the case, referring any inquiries to the attorney general. PinalCentral requested all public records related to the DEA’s investigation on Hernandez and has not received a response.
Hernandez said he knew Felix because he had rented one of his properties — properties that later became subject to a civil forfeiture after Hernandez’s arrest. Investigators have the legal authority to seize the property of suspected criminals.
But Hernandez said he didn’t know Felix well and didn’t socialize with him. The two men were quite different; Hernandez was several years older than Felix and he was busy managing his business and properties.
Authorities would later obtain a warrant to search Hernandez’s residence and public records show no drugs or marijuana bundles were found on the property. Investigators did find a “Scarface” movie poster hanging on the wall, which they seized as evidence.
Hernandez was then taken into custody and was one of 20 suspects authorities planned to charge with conspiracy for having involvement in Felix’s drug network.
Despite claiming innocence, Hernandez chose to accept a plea agreement from the state and was sentenced to nine years in the Arizona Department of Corrections. He said the lawyer he hired was unhelpful and felt like he couldn’t fight the state’s allegations.
The state was basically holding a gun to his head, Hernandez said, by threatening a life sentence if he took his case to trial.
“How are you gonna beat them?” he said. “Because people are believing them.”
On the day of his sentencing in Pinal County Superior Court, Hernandez expressed his dissatisfaction with how his case was litigated, yet he decided to move forward with the plea agreement.
“I didn’t know lawyers were like used-car salesmen,” Hernandez told the court in 2010. “You never know what you’re going to get.”
Hernandez doesn’t deny some of the employees of his construction and stucco business were possibly involved in the drug ring, but his involvement would have been minimal, at best.
Another suspect, David Chavez, told authorities in 2009 that Hernandez was not high up in the organization and knew little about the drug business.
“He does not know s--t,” Chavez told investigators. “Nothing goes nowhere near Robert. … He don’t get no big cut or anything.”
Maganllanez, another suspect the DEA claimed ran the drug ring before Felix took over, was asked by investigators what Hernandez did.
“He does construction,” Maganallez is heard saying in the recorded interview.
The investigator responded, “No, he’s involved with you as well.” They then asked how much Hernandez was paying Maganallez.
“He don’t pay me nothing,” Maganallez said. (Parts of the one-hour recording were difficult to hear due to poor audio quality.)
A couple weeks after these interviews with Chavez and Maganallez, the Attorney General’s Office held its press conference and told the world Hernandez was in charge of a drug operation.
Chavez and Maganallez each took plea deals with the state and both got shorter prison sentences than Hernandez.
As Hernandez began serving his prison sentence, some of the other defendants tried fighting their case in court. One of them, Johnny Calvin, tried to suppress evidence obtained through a wiretap placed on Hernandez’s phone.
Calvin was friends with Hernandez and got caught up in the investigation through a phone call the two of them had in 2009. In an interview, Calvin claims no transactions ever occurred between him and Hernandez; all the state had was this suspicious phone call, he said.
Calvin’s attorney filed a motion, arguing the wiretap on Hernandez was done improperly because investigators allegedly did not complete traditional forms of surveillance before trying to obtain a wiretap.
“In other words, the state simply jumped from wiretap to wiretap without regard to the necessity requirement,” Calvin’s attorney wrote in court records.
Calvin ended up taking a plea deal and was sentenced to prison. He’s still fighting his case on appeals and believes the whole case was depicted inaccurately in the media.
“The whole thing is a lie,” Calvin told PinalCentral from prison.
After Hernandez was convicted and sent to prison, a narrative continued to be pushed in the media that characterized him as the leader of this drug operation.
National Public Radio aired a story in 2011 on the criminal investigation and Hernandez was the only defendant named in the piece. Authorities told NPR Hernandez had up to 100 people working for him to move drugs across southern Arizona. Again, there was no mention of Edgar Felix.
Hernandez was released from prison in 2017 and began putting his life back together in Casa Grande. He’s now working regularly and has tried to move on from the ordeal.
His brother Cristobal “Cris” Hernandez Jr. is still fighting the case through civil litigation in federal court. He’s trying to get back assets seized during the investigation, arguing they had no connection to any criminal activity.
The brother is further trying to clear his name from the case since he was originally considered a possible suspect in the drug ring, though no charges were ever filed against him.
Cris Hernandez, a retired U.S. Army officer, recently wrote a letter to members of the Arizona Legislature about his brother’s case, alleging authorities artificially expanded the family’s criminal culpability to years before the 2009 investigation as a means to possibly skirt around forfeiture laws.
“This deception was necessary given that all properties seized by the state were acquired on or before 2007,” Hernandez wrote in the letter.
CASA GRANDE — Today is the first day of a new three-days-a-week publication schedule for the Casa Grande Dispatch.
Changes to the way some readers want to receive their news has prompted the print publication change for Casa Grande Valley Newspapers Inc.
Subscribers will now receive full digital access with their print subscription for the same prices: $14.50 per month with advance billing and $13.50 with credit card on Simple Pay. The printed Dispatch will be distributed Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday (weekend edition) beginning today.
“Our focus will be on publishing three quality, substantial print editions per week while having our content uploaded online throughout the week,” Managing Editor and Co-publisher Donovan Kramer Jr. said.
Local news will continue to be the focus along with the features readers have become accustomed to receiving.
“We’re no longer just a newspaper company,” he said. “Our web traffic is close to 2 million page views a month and we’ve started a digital marketing division. Lots of planning went into these decisions, and we see them as necessary for us as we evolve into a company poised to succeed into the future.”
The office hours will continue to be 7 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to noon Saturday at the 200 W. Second St. location. Classified and legal ads can be placed with an ad representative or online. Printing for other newspapers of CGVNI will continue during the day and night. Newspapers for Show Low and Payson are printed in Casa Grande as well.
Other changes to print schedules include the recent move to twice-monthly delivery to all Arizona City residents of the Arizona City Independent/Edition. The Eloy Enterprise switched to twice a month in May.
“Although there will be some changes to staffing, we hope to minimize the effect on our employees,” Kara K. Cooper, advertising director and co-publisher, said. “A delivery agreement with a major company has been signed to keep our circulation and contract carriers busy, which is an exciting opportunity for the company.” That delivery contract started Monday morning.
The display advertising office will continue to work with customers from the location at 408 N. Sacaton St., across the street from the Woman’s Club, Monday through Friday.
The Casa Grande Dispatch was established in 1912 and publication has ranged from weekly to twice a week in the 1960s; three, five and six times a week beginning in the 1970s; and a change to morning delivery with a Sunday publication in 2007.
“The Dispatch has been published in Casa Grande for 107 years and changes have to be made to any business to survive,” President Ruth A. Kramer said. “Our family is committed to the community and disseminating news. We have been in Casa Grande since 1963 and value the relationships we have built. Our grandchildren Brian (Kramer) and Zoe (Cooper) are the third generation of our family to now be involved in the business and they are helping lead us into the future of publishing and digital engagement.”