MCSO Human Smuggling Unit under investigation - WNEM TV 5

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MCSO Human Smuggling Unit under investigation

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PHOENIX (CBS5) -

Federal court transcripts that were unsealed show the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has put its entire human smuggling unit on notice of investigation. That means members of that unit are prohibited from discussing their work and that they will likely be interviewed by detectives from the internal investigation bureau.

The transcripts came from a hearing in federal court last month. Judge Murray Snow questioned Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his chief deputy about the possibility the human smuggling unit was shaking down illegal immigrants and others they came into contact with while on duty.

"Do you have a plan for going forward with the investigation of personnel that may ... be implicated in inappropriate activity?" Snow asked Chief Deputy Jerry Sheridan.

"Yes sir," said Sheridan. He told the judge he had instructed the commander of the internal affairs division to "put on notice all of the members of the human smuggling unit."

The action followed the arrest and later suicide of former Deputy Ramon Armendariz, a member of the human smuggling unit. A search of Armendariz's garage turned up hundreds of items that appeared to have been confiscated from people Armendariz came into contact with while on duty. The items included identification cards, driver's licenses, drugs and drug paraphernalia.

"I just want to make it clear, you also need to be involved with the supervision ... and getting the tone that no matter who the truth hurts or how it hurts, it's coming out," said Snow to Arpaio.

Snow was questioning Arpaio and others because the sheriff's office lost a racial profiling lawsuit, and is under the supervision of a civil rights monitor who reports to the judge.

Detectives are going through 900 hours of video also found in Armendariz's home. The videos were apparently taken during as many as 5,000 traffic stops.

Asked whether it is possible that Armendariz acted alone, Jim Humphrey, who led the Phoenix Police internal affairs bureau for 11 years said, "It's possible. I've seen many cases where individual officers or detectives did something wrong and their fellow officers didn't even know about it."

Humphrey said the first step in the investigation is likely to gather the evidence taken from Armendariz's home, assess it, then interview the other deputies in the unit.

"You wonder what the man's angle was. Was he just lazy and not impounding these? Was he doing something wrong with those people?" said Humphrey.

Immigrants rights activist Lydia Guzman, who has been a longtime critic of the sheriff, said she does not believe Armendariz was acting alone. She said the deputy contacted her nearly two years ago and maintained communication with her until his death.

"All of this could not have been done by one deputy. There was a clique of them, and I believe Charley (Armendariz) was ready to say this," said Guzman.

She said he told her he wanted to come clean about wrongdoing within his unit.

"He wasn't specific on what exactly it was, but I knew Charley had a story to tell and he wanted to tell it to the Department of Justice and the FBI," said Guzman.

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office declined to comment on specific accusations, saying the investigation is ongoing. But officials did say so far they have no evidence any wrongdoing went beyond Armendariz.

Copyright 2014 CBS 5 (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved.

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