When Tucsonan Ronnie Keys tackled a plainclothes police officer at the Country Thunder music festival last year, the result was predictable: He was booked into jail, accused of aggravated assault on an officer.

But what happened next you might not expect, and it led the two arresting officers to file a lawsuit this week against the Pinal County Sheriff's Department.

That night, April 9, 2011, Pinal sheriff's deputies brought in a judge after hours, and he released Keys on his own recognizance after a few hours in jail. Then a Pinal County lieutenant worked to clear the arrest record, and officers drove Keys back to the festival.

The arresting officers say in their suit the reason Keys was treated so well is who he was hanging out with: off-duty Tucson police officers with a campsite at the festival, where a "Titties and Beer" sign hung from a scaffold and young women exposed their breasts.

In their lawsuit, Pinal County Sheriff's Office Detective Andrew Goode and Arizona Department of Public Safety Officer Hugh Grant say the sheriff's department's administration was "going to sweep this case under the rug from day one."

However, the off-duty and retired Tucson officers present at the scene accused Grant and Goode of failing to identify themselves when they came into the officers' enclosed campsite. They said Keys, the son of two retired Tucson officers, was only trying to defend his wife from what appeared to be a male attacker.

His father, retired Tucson Officer Dennis Keys, said via Facebook: "Ronnie is completely INNOCENT of the charges from that evening and was totally justified in his actions."

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu's office said in a written statement the incident was fully investigated: "Once the investigation was completed, all information was turned over to the Pinal County Attorney's Office for possible charging. The decision was made at their office that the facts of the case did not support any criminal charges."

Platform at campsite

To understand the incident, you need to understand the landscape at Country Thunder - this year's version begins today outside Florence - and a bit of its culture. The festival sells RV campsites in an area apart from the concert stages. Some attendees stay at the campground for the whole four-day festival, going out to the stages to see favorite acts.

And some of the campsites get rowdy. The top security officer for Country Thunder in 2011, Glenn Rea, told a Pinal County deputy investigating the incident that he "has received numerous complaints about this particular group over the past two years."

Officer Mikeal Allen, the son of a retired TPD sergeant by the same name, told internal-affairs investigators that he and others set up their campsite with six RVs, parked in a rectangle to create a private interior area. It's a spot that deputies working the festival know is run by Tucson officers, and they sometimes use it as a refuge, Tucson Officer Todd Griffith told investigators.

"Our camp's kind of like a little break area for the Pinal County guys," he said.

On one side of the campsite, the Tucson officers set up a platform about 10 feet high. Allen said the platform is to view the stage, drink, hang out and enjoy the view.

But Rea, the event security officer, said the activities there were more ribald. He said he saw women on the platform exposing their breasts and asking others to expose theirs. One complaint was that people on the platform asked a 15-year-old girl to show her breasts, Rea said.

Fracas in the Mud

That sort of activity is what prompted Goode and Grant's interest in the camp about 5 p.m. on that rainy Saturday. Both officers, who were working in plain clothes in order to detect underage drinkers, told investigators they heard a commotion.

When they approached, Goode and Grant said, they saw three women standing on the platform yelling to different people "Show us your (breasts)" and throwing beads to those who complied, Mardi Gras style.

Goode said he pulled out his badge, announced "sheriff's office" and told the women to get down. Then he and Grant entered the campsite. When Julie Keys came down, Grant, the DPS officer, put her in handcuffs and began walking her out.

Grant said Keys was struggling as he walked her out through the mud, and the off-duty officers demanded to see Grant's badge, which he flashed at them. Grant and Julie Keys, who acknowledged being quite drunk in a police interview, fell in the mud, and then got up.

That's when Ronnie Keys, a recently discharged Marine, came running up from behind Grant and tackled him, putting pressure on his neck that Grant said made it hard for him to breathe.

Grant managed to pull his gun out, and Ronnie Keys ran about 30 feet away before pausing. Then Goode, the Pinal County detective, tackled Keys. But in the process, Goode's leg got stuck in the mud, and he suffered serious leg injuries including a severed ligament and a fracture.

Allen, retired Tucson Officer Gary Schad and others disputed the arresting officers' stories. They said Grant charged aggressively into the camping area, that neither officer properly identified himself, and that Grant treated Julie Keys roughly as he arrested her, forcing her into the mud.

Ronnie Keys, in a later interview, said he didn't know Grant was an officer before he tackled Grant, and that he never would have done so had he realized it.

Quick Release

Ronnie Keys was booked into the Pinal County jail, accused of two counts of aggravated assault against an officer, along with resisting arrest and obstruction of justice, but that soon changed. The Tucson officers declined to give substantial written statements and said they would only speak with a Pinal County officer with the rank of lieutenant or above, Lt. Blake King said in a report filed in September, five months after the incident.

King went to the officers' campsite and interviewed witnesses, consulted with Pinal Chief Deputy Steve Henry and decided it was a "bad arrest." After consulting a deputy county attorney, King arranged for Judge Pro-Tem Henry Gooday to come to the jail and give Keys a special initial appearance. Gooday ordered him released on his own recognizance.

Then King arranged for Keys to be driven back to the festival.

Later, King lamented in an email to Deputy County Attorney Paul Ahler that he had not intervened earlier: "Unfortunately, the subject booked for the Agg Assault had been finger printed before I could have a chance to get him released. If you can, please attempt to have his DPS record of this cleared."

In their suit, Grant and Goode accuse the sheriff's department of negligent hiring for bringing King on board as a Pinal County lieutenant, which they claim is "beyond his capabilities." When Babeu, then a Chandler police officer, became Pinal County sheriff in 2009, he hired King - then a $30-an-hour Chandler officer - as a salaried lieutenant making the equivalent of $42 per hour.

Cross complaints

In the aftermath of the incident, on April 12, 2011, Tucson officer Allen filed a complaint against Grant with the DPS. The DPS found the next month that Grant had behaved "reasonably" given the circumstances.

Then, in May, Grant filed a complaint with TPD against Allen and Schad, who has since retired, accusing them of breaking the department's rules for off-duty police by not helping him when he was being tackled, and when Goode tackled Keys. The department's internal investigation determined Grant's accusation was "unfounded."

Tucson police Capt. Rick Wilson said off-duty officers must intervene when their help is required, but sometimes intervention causes more harm than good. As to the off-duty officers' behavior at Country Thunder, Wilson said the department must balance officers' responsibilities against their rights.

"Members are not permitted to engage in off-duty conduct that paints the department in a negative light," Wilson said, noting the public wouldn't necessarily know the officers camped at Country Thunder were police. Wilson added, "They have certain rights as citizens to express themselves in certain ways that the department doesn't have control over."

Contact reporter Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427.