PHOENIX – An Arizona sheriff's deputy shot during a confrontation with marijuana smugglers in April was fired Wednesday for statements he later made to a weekly newspaper.
Pinal County deputy Louie Puroll came under scrutiny after he was slightly wounded in what he described as an ambush in the desert about 50 miles south of Phoenix.
The shooting came amid growing national debate over Arizona's tough immigration law, and it raised questions about whether Puroll had staged the incident to publicize drug and human smuggling.
Sheriff Paul Babeu closed the investigation and pronounced Puroll's version of events accurate in October.
Puroll then gave a series of interviews with the Phoenix New Times, and reportedly told the reporter he had been approached by members of a Mexican drug cartel several times over the years and they had offered to "make it worth my while to look the other way out in the desert if I bumped into them."
The story also quoted him as saying that he didn't arrest the men, call for backup or report the alleged encounters, among other comments.
Babeu suspended Puroll after the story appeared, and launched an internal review of his actions. He formally terminated Puroll after being presented with the probe's findings.
"I stood by my deputy after he was shot by drug smugglers in April because his statements to both criminal and internal investigators were consistent, supported by physical evidence, radio transmissions, GPS coordinates, other victims/witnesses and later through gunshot residue testing conducted on the shirt he was wearing," Babeu said in a statement. "The manner in which Deputy Puroll conducted himself following the shooting investigation when interviewed by reporter Paul Rubin brought great discredit to himself and the men and women representing our sworn law enforcement profession."
Puroll declined comment in an e-mailed response to The Associated Press. Babeu said Puroll has formally appealed the firing.
The internal investigation sustained 10 violations of sheriff's policies, including incompetence and engaging in conduct that brings discredit to the county.
Puroll told investigators he was following a group of smugglers carrying bales of marijuana when he was ambushed by men firing AK-47 rifles in a rugged desert area about 50 miles south of Phoenix on April 30.
In what Puroll described as a running gunbattle, he was grazed by a bullet in the small of the back.
The shooting immediately raised questions about why a deputy would be looking for armed drug smugglers in the remote desert without backup.
A dragnet involving more than 100 officers in the rugged mountainous area found no suspects and no bales of marijuana.
Speculation grew that he had set up the incident and shot himself, but tests done on a shirt he was wearing showed no evidence of a close-contact gunshot and the sheriff pronounced the case closed.
Puroll said at a news conference in October that he didn't plan on confronting the smugglers. A sheriff's employee since 1996, the 54-year-old had been assigned as a "range deputy" who worked alone in remote areas of the county.
"I never intended to get close to them," a blunt-talking Puroll said in October. "They just stopped sooner than I thought they would. If I'd have known I was going to get in a gunfight, I'd have taken five or six guys with me. I can't imagine anybody shooting themself, let alone me."
The area is a well-known smuggling corridor for drugs and illegal immigrants headed from Mexico to Phoenix and the U.S. interior.
Puroll's shooting fueled an already blazing debate in Arizona and the nation about the dangers of immigrant and drug smugglers in southern Arizona. It came just days after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a sweeping law giving law enforcers powers to question suspected illegal immigrants and arrest them. The major parts of that law have been put on hold by a federal judge on constitutional grounds.
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