ELOY — Rodney Puckett, 70, remains in the Pinal County jail charged with abandonment or concealment of a dead body after he was caught in an Eloy drive-thru with his dead ex-wife in the front seat on May 13.
Some of the victim’s family wonder if Rodney Puckett, of Sand Springs, Oklahoma, not only concealed Linda Puckett’s body but may have done worse. Rodney Puckett told Eloy Police the two were traveling from Oklahoma to California and Linda died during an overnight stay at a Hampton Inn in El Paso, Texas.
The El Paso Police Department is not investigating the death of Linda Puckett as a murder, according to Sgt. Enrique Carillo, public affairs spokesman for the EPPD.
Carillo said the EPPD does not see her death as a homicide based on what Arizona medical examiners determined was the cause of her death, though they would not share what that cause of death is.
PinalCentral has officially requested the autopsy findings from several law enforcement agencies, including Eloy Police, the Pinal County Attorney’s Office and the Pinal County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Linda’s son, Chris Fields, said a member of the Pinal County Medical Examiner’s Office told him that her cause of death was “natural trauma,” according to investigators.
“We have been having a lot of problems communicating with the coroner’s office, the Eloy Police Department and the County Attorney’s Office,” Fields said. “I’ve tried to get a copy of the toxicology report. I filled out the paperwork, gave them the money, they took my money but they said they won’t release the report to me for a number of reasons. At one point, I asked them what the cause of death was going to be and I was told that it would probably be listed as something called natural trauma.”
Fields said he had never heard such a cause of death as natural trauma. He said trauma itself isn’t natural, especially when his mother’s body was found with several injuries consistent with blunt force trauma including bruising to the right side of her head and left ear. A small amount of blood was also found coming out of her right ear.
“It seems that no one has any answers. Either they don’t care or they don’t know what is going on,” Fields said.
Fields said he and his family have also been trying to recover his mother’s personal effects that were with her at the time of her death but the Eloy Police will not release them.
“Her jewelry, her purse or anything like that. Once, they said they could send it to us. I waited a week or so and I didn’t get anything. I called them back and they said they’re not going to release anything. We just want to have her personal effects back. There has been plenty of time and I don’t see any reason why they would need that,” said Fields.
He added that in another strange twist in the case, the Pinal County Attorney’s Office approved an $80 payment limit for the victim, his dead mother, to receive mental health counseling.
“They approved an $80 maximum limit for counseling for my deceased mother, Linda F. Puckett,” Fields said. “I don’t think counseling is going to help her. They just don’t seem to really care. It is rather disturbing.”
When arrested, Rodney Puckett was wearing only his underwear. He told investigators that his ex-wife sleeps nude and he was unable to wake her that morning, so he loaded her onto a luggage cart, rolled it to the car and loaded her body inside, according to police records.
He told police he was just going to continue on the trip, take her body home and eventually bury her. He had apparently driven 445 miles with his dead nude wife in the vehicle.
“Rodney has a long history of getting slapped on the wrist for breaking the law and major things,” Fields said.
Puckett remains in the Pinal County jail pending the posting of $100,000 bond.
The charge against him of abandonment or concealment of a dead body is a Class 5 felony, with a possible prison sentence of up to 2.5 years. Other Class 5 felonies include theft of property over $2,000, personal possession of marijuana over 2 pounds, possession of marijuana for sale less than 2 pounds, unlawful use of means of transportation (driver).
The presumptive prison sentence for a Class 5 felony is 1.5 years for a first felony offense.
Mumps has swept through 57 immigration detention facilities in 19 states, including Arizona, according to the first U.S. government report on the outbreaks in the overloaded immigration system.
The virus sickened 898 adult migrants and 33 detention center staffers, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said in its report.
New cases continue as migrants are taken into custody or transferred between facilities, the report said. As of last week, outbreaks were happening in 15 facilities in seven states.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement will not openly admit how many detainees in Arizona have mumps, but ICE spokesperson Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe said, “As of Aug. 29, ICE had a total of 54 detainees ‘cohorted’ (separated from the general population) in Arizona.”
In Arizona, undocumented migrants are detained at the Eloy Detention Center and La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, and the CoreCivic Central Arizona Detention Center in Florence.
According to Pitts O’Keefe, with the recent influx of migrants entering the U.S. from the southern border, ICE occasionally encounters and treats illegal migrants with mumps who are housed at ICE detention facilities.
Medical personnel are credited with reducing the further infection of detainees by their quick reaction to quarantine everyone who may have been inadvertently exposed. Each detainee receives a medical examination upon arrival at the facility to check for potential signs of illness, but ICE has no way of knowing what viruses a person may have been exposed to prior to entering the facility.
Mumps is highly contagious, easily contracted by nearby people and difficult to detect until visible symptoms appear.
Medical professionals have taken the necessary steps to quickly isolate the exposed detainees, provide proper medical care and prevent further spread of the disease she said. Preventative steps include education, early recognition and following the guidelines established by the CDC and the Immigration Health Services Corps.
“Detainees in ICE custody can come from countries where communicable diseases are less controlled than in the U.S., thus carrying with them the risk of spreading infection,” she said.
Because of this risk factor, ICE takes precautionary measures to mitigate potential exposure to others in the U.S., including those in ICE custody. Medical professionals at ICE detention facilities medically screen all new ICE detainees within 24 hours of their arrival to ensure that these highly contagious diseases are not spread throughout the facility and elsewhere.
“Pursuant to our commitment to the welfare of those in the agency’s custody, ICE spends more than $269,000 annually on the spectrum of health care services provided to those in our care,” Pitts O’Keefe said.
ICE continues to work collaboratively with the Arizona Department of Health Services to ensure communication, disease reporting and disease control measures are implemented to safeguard the well-being of the staff, the detainees and the community.
The CDC report said more than 80% of patients were exposed while in custody. Mumps is a contagious virus that causes swollen glands, puffy cheeks, fever, headaches and, in severe cases, hearing loss and meningitis.
In the U.S., vaccines have drastically reduced the number of mumps cases. Only a few hundred cases are reported most years, with periodic outbreaks involving colleges or other places where people are in close contact.
In the migrant center outbreaks, at least 13 people were hospitalized, the CDC reported.
ICE has given more than 25,000 doses of measles-mumps-rubella vaccine in the affected facilities.
Nashville immigration attorney R. Andrew Free has been tracking facilities with mumps outbreaks from reports of advocates and lawyers representing detainees.
“This has all the makings of a public health crisis,” Free said. “ICE has demonstrated itself incapable of ensuring the health and safety of people inside these facilities.”
An influx of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border earlier this year has taxed the immigration system. The CDC report dealt only with mumps, not other health problems in detention facilities. At least two migrant children have died of complications of the flu after being detained by the U.S. Border Patrol.
The CDC report said detention facilities should follow guidance from state and local health departments when responding to mumps.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
FLORENCE — A former CoreCivic corrections officer who is accused of having sex with an inmate changed her plea Friday in Pinal County Superior Court.
Christina Lopez, a corrections officer working at an Eloy private prison, pleaded guilty to one count of attempted unlawful sexual conduct in a correctional facility, a class 6 felony.
Pinal County Superior Court Judge Jason Holmberg said the crime has a presumptive sentence of a year in prison with a range of one-third to 2 years. Probation is possible and likely for Lopez, as she has no prior felonies on her record.
She may also be ordered to register as a sex offender and could also face fines. The offense could be declared by the court as a misdemeanor if she successfully completes probation.
Eloy police said Lopez engaged in unlawful sexual conduct with the inmate at Saguaro Correctional Center on June 8. Staff at the prison operated by private contractor CoreCivic contacted the Eloy Police Department on June 24 about the allegations, and police conducted an investigation before arresting her.
She will be sentenced at 9 a.m. on Oct. 11.