Border Boletín: Pinal deputy says gunmen 'intended to kill me' (with audio)

2010-09-28T00:00:00Z Border Boletín: Pinal deputy says gunmen 'intended to kill me' (with audio)Brady McCombs Arizona Daily Star
September 28, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Originally posted July 8, 2010

The Pinal County Sheriff’s Office released an audio recording Wednesday of deputy Louie Puroll’s detailed account of what happened on April 30 in the Vekol Valley when he got into a gunfight with suspected drug smugglers.

The interview was recorded on May 6 when Detective Todd Nelson and Sgt. David Hausman interviewed him as part of an ongoing investigation.

The 47-minute interview is available in the box to the left.

The shooting made national news and has been closely scrutinized since, including by some who have questioned if the shooting was a hoax to bring more attention to the issue of border security. Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu has denied that assertion numerous times and Puroll has stood behind his story, too. Puroll, 53, was treated for superficial wounds and released following the incident.

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**Updated for context:

Let me provide a bit more information about the scrutiny on the shooting. To clarify, Paul Rubin of the Phoenix New Times  has raised doubts about the sheriff's department's version of events based on doubt relayed to him from his enforcement sources. And while we have not written similar articles, there have been other law enforcement from around the state who have expressed similar doubts to us off the record as well. Also of note is that Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu's office has held two press conferences, one of them at 9 p.m., to repeat and bolster their version of the shooting.

DPS released a report last month about the crime scene, which I wrote about briefly here and Dennis Wagner of the Arizona Republic wrote about here.

Unfortunately, there is no electronic version of the DPS report, or I would post it as a PDF. The report has a lot information about shell casings and other things found at the scene.

The DPS report was made public the same week that Pinal County Sheriff's Office began releasing supplementary reports from their own investigation, including a written summary of the Puroll interview. As you'll notice, most of the article I provide a link to above is about this summary, with only a little about the DPS report.

The Pinal County Sheriff's Office's Criminal Investigations Bureau is investigating the shooting as a criminal matter. The office has been releasing supplementary reports for several weeks (such as the audio of the Puroll interview) but there will not be any summary of findings unless a suspect is taken into custody and a summary is necessary to present to the county attorney for charging purposes, said spokesman Tim Gaffney. Gaffney recently took over as Babeu's spokesman as you can read about here.

Also recently, Wagner of the Arizona Republic posted this blog about missing information from the investigation. You can read Gaffney's response in the comments section.

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Back to the recording. . .

The recording doesn’t include that many new details we didn’t already know, but it’s interesting to here the description of events from Puroll himself. In addition to some vivid detail of what happened, there’s some lighter moments in the interview, too.

He told investigators that as he was hiding following the initial exchange of gunfire, a family friend called him on his cell phone and asked if it was him who was in the gunfight that was being reported on TV.

“I remember telling her that I was real busy right now and that I was in a gun fight,” he said. “She thought I was joking. When I talked to her the next day she chastised me because she thought I was making a joke.”

And also during the interview, Puroll told the investigators that at one point during the search to find him dispatch was talking to a Fox News helicopter overhead. Detective Nelson clarified that it was a National Guard helicopter out of Pinal Airport called “Fox 9,” not from the national news network.

Here’s some highlights from what Puroll said during the interview. I have listed them chronologically, with time stamps if you want to listen yourself:

0:00

He checked on that day at 9 a.m. and said he didn’t have a specific thing to do. He said on days like that he goes out in the desert and checks smuggling tails.

“I like to see where they are traveling, what they are doing, what the traffic volume is,” he said.

He went to Vekol Valley that day, arriving at about 2 p.m. after stopping for breakfast.

He parked his truck near Lava Flow Trail, which goes along the west side of Table Top Mountain. He parked his truck at the Game and Fish water catchment, so that it could not be seen from the smuggling trail. He left the car and went up on a hill where he could see both his truck and the trail.

“I do not like to leave my truck unattended,” he said.

2:35

He carried his department-issued Glock that holds 15 rounds in the magazine and one in the chamber. Had two spares magazines with him. He also had his department-issued M16 rifle with a 30 round magazine in it and he had an extra 30-round magazine and extra 20 round magazine in the cargo pockets of his pants.

3:09

At about 3 p.m., he saw six people come into view out of the brush on the trail he was watching on Ironwood National Monument west of the Table Top wilderness area. He saw them move north on a smuggling trail that comes out near the Vekol Truck Stop on I-8. He was about 200 yards away.

“I see five men carrying large backpacks and one man walking in front who was not carrying a backpack,” he said.

5:00

As they passed by him and headed up the trail, he called dispatch and told them where he was, what he was doing and what he had seen, and that he was following these people and that he was going to stay back about a couple of hundred yards and try to keep them in sight. He told them he would check back in later. He got on the trail and began following them.

“Every time I would come to a rise in the terrain I would stop and wait for them to appear in front of me,” he said. “They would go in and out of my view.”

He was staying 200-300 yards back and he didn’t think anybody in the group saw him. He was communicating with dispatch using his cell phone.

6:30

He was hoping to get deputies to intercept the group at the truck stop or find where they had stashed the dope, he said.

“At this point, I did not intend to try to confront anybody or try to arrest anybody or anything,” he said. “I was way outnumbered, I was by myself and all I wanted to do was watch them and see what they were doing.”

7:15

He came up to a saddle in the mountain where the trail goes and he stopped and checked his cell phone. He didn’t have service. He flipped the rear sight on his rifle from the small aperture to the large aperture.  

“I was telling myself that if something was going to happen, these people were going to be up close and there would be more than one of them. I did not know that anybody was armed, I didn’t have any idea I might end up getting in a gun fight. But I was out there by myself and there was more of them than there was of me and smugglers in this area have been photographed in the past month or so carrying automatic weapons so I was trying to be prepared as I could but I did not intend to confront or arrest anybody.”

9:30

A little later, after not seeing or hearing anybody, he checked his phone and he realized he had signal. He called dispatch on 911 from his new, county-issued blackberry phone.

“I was thinking they’d be able to track that phone with GPS and the would know my exact location without me having to talk to them too much,” he said. “It turns out they couldn’t.”

The best they could tell him was that he was hitting a cell tower near the truck stop on I-8. Then, his sergeant called him and asked him where he was. That’s when he saw one of the people he was tracking. . .

10:41-12:40

As his sergeant spoke to him on the phone, Puroll saw a man about 25 yards in front of him. When the man first stood up, he didn’t see Puroll. The man had his weapon pointed at the ground. But then, he raised his head and saw Puroll.

“Without a moment’s hesitation, not a heart beat’s hesitation, he brought the weapon up to waist level and began firing what looked to me to be a folding stock AK-47 with the stock folded. He was firing it from the hip.

“I saw the first round go off. The muzzle flash from what I believe was the first round and I felt the impact. When I saw him, I had dropped my cell phone and GPS to the ground and grabbed my rifle that was slung in front of me and began to bring it up.

“Before I could get it up to shoot, his first round struck me in the side. It felt it. It felt like being popped with a wet towel. I knew I had been hit and I knew that if I went down or stopped shooting there’s a good chance I was going to be killed. My entire focus and attention at the point was staying on my feet and returning fire.

“I can remember telling myself, ‘use your sights, use your sights.’ I centered my front sight center mass and I squeezed a short burst on full automatic at the man who was shooting at me. He fell to the ground, his left, my right, immediately and went out my sight. I never saw him again and I don’t believe any more gunfire came from his position but I cannot square to that. .  .

“Nobody ever said a word, there was not time to speak a syllable.”

13:00

He guessed he fired 8-10 rounds in the initial exchange. When he hit the ground, he started taking fire from his right as close or closer than where the first shooter was. He dropped to the ground. He doesn’t think they could actually see him because the rounds were cracking above his head.

“I was fearing at this point that they would rush me. If they did, they would have had me.”

Then, he fired more shots toward them with his rifle. He continued to receive fire from two men, one with a pistol and one with a rifle. Then, he began firing with his pistol.

With his left hand, he took a 30-round magazine out of his pant pocket and put it in the rifle. He had a fully loaded rifle at this point.

But that’s when the gunfire temporarily stopped, he said. It got real quiet. They were probably re-loading their weapons, he said. He reloaded his pistol and thought he put it back in his holster. But he later realized he probably missed the holster.

16:00

He picked up his cell phone and his pack. The only cover he had was some ocotillo.

“There was no real protection here. I knew I had to move and get out of there before they could pinpoint just where I was.”

He moved back about 50 yards and  away from the trail. He wanted to get away from the trail and look for cover. He found a place to hide. He set his pack down and he heard one or two shots way up high. At this point, he realized he had left his pistol but he decided not to go look for it.

He called dispatch and told them he had been hit and that he needed help.

18:10

He couldn’t see anybody else and nobody was shooting at him. Then, he saw a man running from the bushes and away from him.

“I put my rifle up on him and I saw he appeared to be unarmed. He did not have a backpack on. He didn’t have a water bottle or anything. He just had a gray flannel shirt, dark pants and no hat. He was running straight away from. I did not shoot at him because he looked to me like he was unarmed and I was thinking to myself, ‘it might be a long time before anybody gets here and I need to start conserving ammunition because I had already expended one rifle magazine and one pistol magazine.’”

19:30

Every 30-40 seconds, he would hear one or two rifle shots overhead. He figured they were trying to keep him away from them, or that they might be trying to hide the drugs.

20:30

At this point, he received a phone call from a family friend who had heard a news report that a Pinal County deputy was in a gunfight somewhere. It was probably 25-30 minutes into the incident, he said. The woman was calling to see if it was him.

“I remember telling her that I was real busy right now and that I was in a gun fight,” he said. “She thought I was joking. When I talked to her the next day she chastised me because she thought I was making a joke.”

A few minutes later, his sergeant called back to see how he was doing. He told him that he moved back and had cover and that nobody was shooting at him. He also called dispatch several times during this stretch to update them on the situation.

22:28

As the gunfire slowed down and ceased, he began worrying about his wound. He put his hand on it and saw blood but noticed he didn’t have much blood on his pant leg.

“I thought, ‘I’m not bleeding too bad and it didn’t feel too bad and it wasn’t hurting’,” he said.

He thought about getting his first aid kit to clean up the wound but didn’t want to get preoccupied. Dispatch told him at this time that helicopters from several agencies were on their way.

He began to think about what he would do if he had to stay out there overnight.

“I was starting to look for a place to hide to pull some brush over me to cover myself. I had survival gear - I had a survival blanket, I had some food,  and I had water - but if I had to spend a night I wanted to be covered up where nobody could see me because that’s a heavily-used area and at this point there was no helicopters overhead and I was thinking, ‘they might not find me.’”

24:00

Then he heard down the canyon, maybe 150-200 yards away, four distinct, deliberate pistol shots.

“It had nothing to do with me. I remember thinking, ‘The gunmen are shooting the witnesses. They are killing the guys carrying the backpacks, they don’t want anybody who can identify them.’ That just flashed in my head.

“Or the guy that I had shot who was wounded bad and he was a burden and a liability to them, they did not want to leave him behind. I don’t know that’s what happened but that’s what went through my head at the time.”

25:10

Helicopters arrived to the area but he realized that dispatch had given the location of his parked truck which was about 2 1/2 - 3 miles south of him.

“I could see the helicopters down there circling the area where I knew my truck was.”

He got back on the phone with dispatch and asked them to talk directly to one of the helicopter pilots.  At this point in the interview, Puroll told Detective Nelson and Sgt. Hausman that dispatch was talking to a Fox News helicopter.

Detective Nelson interrupted to clarified that it was a National Guard helicopter out of Pinal Airport called “Fox 9,” and not a Fox News helicopter.

“Was it, I misunderstood it,” Puroll said. “Okay, well they called it Fox anyway.”

“That’s okay,” Nelson said.

“I said, ‘can you talk to him?’” Puroll said remembering his conversation with dispatch.

He told dispatch to direct the helicopter pilot north to Puroll.

28:00

Finally, Puroll decided to come out and show himself so that a helicopter could see him. A co-pilot saw him and Puroll realized he was going to be okay. At this point, he said he felt dizzy, likely from an “adrenaline dump.” This is common, he said, when people who are lost or injured are rescued.

“I thought to myself, ‘I can’t let myself go down’ but I ended up sitting down because I was so weak. If you saw the news video, there’s a picture of me sitting on the ground with my legs up. That’s because I was so weak I couldn’t stand up.”

Even as he was being rescued by the helicopter, he was looking for the shooters.

At minute 30, Puroll’s description ended.

The rest of the recording are questions from the investigators and Puroll’s answers. Here’s some highlights:

He said his basic duty is to patrol in the rural areas. “It’s up to me to decide what I need to do.”

He said that day was a normal day. He often sets up where he has good radio or phone signals and watches smuggler trails for hours.

“That’s how you catch them, they are going to come up those trails, sooner or later.”

32:30

He was asked if he noticed an additional person on Antelope Peak who was acting as a spotter.

“I remember thinking about that and looking but I couldn’t tell. I even looked with my binoculars once or twice but I did not see any spotters,” he said.

32:50

He said he didn’t hear any radio chatter during the pursuit and gunfight.

34:45

When asked about what he thought was the shooter’s intention that first shot at him, Puroll said: “He was intending to kill me.”

40:15

He described the man who shot him as being about 5-8/ 5-10, slender and wearing dark clothing. He said he remembers him wearing two or three flannel shirts, not uncommon for smugglers to do.

“I don’t remember seeing his face, his face does not come to me. I don't know if he was wearing a mask or not? I don’t remember thinking he was but he had a ball cap on. Everything was dark, more or less just a silhouette is what I saw.”

41:20

He was asked to provide the physical characteristics of the six men he saw from the road that he ended up following. He responded:

“They were big, strong big men. They weren’t the typical UDA. The undocumented alien you see traveling in the desert is typically a small-statured, light-weight person. . . I remember thinking to myself, ‘These are great big, strong guys carrying these packs.’ . .  They were much stronger than the average-looking illegal.  They were dressed in dark clothing.”

“There were five of them carrying big packs and one walking in front that was not carrying a pack of any kind that I could see. Pretty much thats it, no real specific detail, just dark clothing. Some of  them had ball caps on, some of them didn't’. I remember the last man in line did not have a cap on. He had shoulder-length black hair. He’s the only person out of this whole gorup that I saw any facial features of.

“He turned as he was hiking up the trail to go around a bush or something and he went to profile to me and I was looking at him with binoculars. I could see the side of his face from 100 yards away through good binoculars. I could see the shoulder-length black hair, that he was not wearing a cap. He was very dark complected, he had a long face and he had high cheek bones. I remember thinking to myself, ‘That man is an indian. he is probably not a Mexican smuggler.’

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