Armand Salese


Armand Salese, a Tucson attorney who fought for civil rights and was known for taking on cases representing the underdog, died Wednesday of lung cancer while in hospice. He was 71.

Salese's cancer was in remission for years but it returned last fall, said his daughter, Natalie Gonzalez.

She described her father as a lawyer "who was always pulling for the underdog. He was never looking for fame or money. He was always working to make sure people were not being mistreated."

Pima County Superior Court Judge Howard Hantman knew Salese for more than 40 years. "We were lawyers together. Armand was a consummate professional, and an outstanding trial lawyer. He was completely credible with the jury. He was a lawyer of the people, and the jurors related to him," Hantman said.

Vicki Adams, who was Salese's legal secretary for 20 years, said Salese "was an exceptional man. As successful as he was, everyone was his friend. He had no airs. He believed in civil rights and standing up for those who could not stand up for themselves."

Among Salese's high-profile cases were:

• The Miracle Valley melee of Oct. 23, 1982, in which two members of the all-black Christ Miracle Healing Center and Church were killed by a Cochise County sheriff's deputy.

Several other people from the 300-member congregation were injured, one of them critically, and at least five lawmen were hospitalized with gunshot wounds, cuts and other injuries, according to Arizona Daily Star coverage.

The shootout, which erupted when law officers tried to serve misdemeanor traffic-related warrants on three church members, touched off one of the most explosive, enduringly bitter racial controversies in Arizona history. A Cochise County grand jury indicted 19 church members on charges stemming from the incident. No officers were ever charged in the shooting.

Church members accused law officers of brutality and racism. Civil-rights leaders from around the state and nation, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, came to the unincorporated little community 100 miles southeast of Tucson in an effort to learn the truth and "bring peace to the valley."

Salese was successful in the defense of the Pentecostal church members, who were charged with felonies, in three criminal trials, and the prosecution of a civil-rights lawsuit in federal court. All criminal charges in the case eventually were dismissed and civil-rights charges were dropped.

Salese "was in the midst of writing a book about Miracle Valley" when he died, Adams said. "He kept all the documentation, depositions and transcripts of the case."

Hantman said he visited Salese about a month ago, and Salese told him he had 60 boxes of documents about Miracle Valley.

Salese's granddaughter, Gabriela Gonzalez, a media arts major at Arizona State University, was collaborating with her grandfather on the book, and will now finish the project, said Natalie Gonzalez, Gabriela's mother. Natalie Gonzalez said her father wanted the book to be turned into a documentary.

• The Tucson Unified School District desegregation lawsuit. In the 1970s, Salese represented parents who opposed school closings proposed as part of the desegregation lawsuit settlement.

Later, he took up the cases of parents in a lawsuit to improve schools on the city's south and west sides. The district spent $1 billion on desegregation that "pretty much failed," Salese said two years ago while campaigning for a seat on the TUSD board.

Salese, who said all children should receive a world-class education and that TUSD was failing too many students, ran in 2010 and 2004 for the Governing Board. He was unsuccessful in both campaigns.

Attorney Randy Lopez said Salese made a difference in the lives of people. He said Salese took on cases both in state and federal courts defending clients in employment discrimination and civil-rights litigation.

Lopez provided 25 pages of Salese's career highlights, starting in 1971, that included:

• The rehiring of five Hispanic women and granting of back wages after the women were found to have been discriminated against at Phil's Shoes, now known as Payless Shoes.

• A federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of African-American employees of the city, which was resolved in a settlement.

• A federal class-action suit alleging the Pima County Sheriff's Department discriminated in the hiring, promotion and discipline of minorities and women, which reached a settlement.

• A $400,000 city settlement with five former members of the Tucson Police Department's helicopter unit who sued after they were transferred for complaining about safety, mismanagement and misconduct.

• A county jury's decision to award a client $585,000 because he was wrongfully fired by Southwest Gas Corp.

Salese was born in Cleveland on Feb. 1, 1942. He told the Star in an interview that he was a high school dropout who enlisted in the Air Force in 1959 and later went on to become the first in his family to go to college. He graduated from Golden Gate University in San Francisco with a bachelor's degree in economics in 1968, and received his law degree in 1971 from the University of California's Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.

He worked for Pima County Legal Aid, as a county public defender and in private practice. He opened his first law practice in 1976.

In addition to his daughter Natalie Gonzalez, Salese is survived by his wife, Mary Alvarez-Salese; a daughter, Davina Salese; a son, Damian Salese; and 10 grandchildren.

A celebration of Salese's life is set for Sunday from 3 to 8 p.m. at the Knights of Columbus, 601 S. Tucson Blvd.

Contact reporter Carmen Duarte at or 573-4104.