FLORENCE — A former Florence prison guard and his wife pleaded with a Pinal County Superior Court judge to consider reducing a felony charge of aggravated assault to a misdemeanor right away rather than waiting until he had finished his probation at a sentencing hearing on Monday.

Jose Verdugo, 39, was charged in October of 2019 with two counts of aggravated assault and one count of tampering with witnesses after he allegedly swept the legs out from under a handcuffed inmate at the state’s Eyman Complex in August 2019. He pleaded guilty to one charge of aggravated assault as part of a plea agreement in December.

As part of the plea agreement he was supposed to be sentenced to 15 days in jail and two years of supervised probation. After he finished his probation, Verdugo’s felony charge of aggravated assault was supposed to be reduced to a misdemeanor, according to the plea agreement.

Verdugo, his attorney and his wife all asked Judge Patrick Gard on Monday to consider reducing the felony count right away rather than waiting until Verdugo finished probation.

A felony charge “would end any career he has or can have within the same field,” said his attorney, Ryan McPhie. He pointed out Verdugo’s lack of a criminal history and the uniqueness of the case.

“He wants to take responsibility for this and move on,” McPhie said. “He hasn’t been able to find employment since.”

Verdugo’s wife started crying as she described how dedicated Verdugo was to his job and to the officers who served under him. He’s not the kind of officer that goes around assaulting inmates, she said. Rather, he makes a point of teaching other officers how to keep their cool in difficult situations.

“One thing I know, my husband did everything he could do to protect his officers,” she said. She said several officers came to their house after her husband was arrested to show their support and ask if she needed help. They continue to ask if she needs help.

She said she knew her husband would do the same thing again and again in order to protect the officers under his command, she said. And if he “has to take one for the team. He will do it.”

“I did accept full responsibility for my actions,” Verdugo told the court. “I would go to all lengths to protect my officers.”

He said he loved his job as a corrections officer and was about six months shy of retiring and moving on, hopefully to another law enforcement job, when the incident happened.

Gard said the case was the hardest one he had to deal with that day.

“You’ve had an exemplary career as a guard, with one exception,” he said.

He pointed out that Verdugo also had a duty to protect the inmates under his care, as well as the officers who served with him.

Gard said he had no question that Verdugo would do very well on supervised probation and may even be released early, but he didn’t feel that he could make an exception for Verdugo and reduce the felony charge to a misdemeanor right away.

He sentenced Verdugo to 15 days in jail with credit for two days served and 12 months of supervised probation starting Jan. 25.

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Suzanne Adams-Ockrassa is a reporter covering the city of Casa Grande and the surrounding area, as well as Central Arizona College. She can be reached at sadams@pinalcentral.com.