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Bullets, rifles, body armor: Bill Montgomery built arsenal at Maricopa County Attorney’s Office

Robert Anglen Arizona Republic

(CNT) City News And Talk

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As Maricopa County attorney, Bill Montgomery spent years building up an arsenal and arming dozens of employees at the prosecutor’s office with semi-automatic rifles.

The rifles were strategically placed in secure areas on various floors of the downtown Phoenix office. The weapons were accessible to a cadre of specially trained investigators and their supervisors, according to documents and interviews.

Montgomery in 2011 implemented the official “rifle program” and stockpiled guns and ammunition in a way no Maricopa County attorney had done before. 

An investigation by The Arizona Republic found Montgomery’s office spent about $400,000 between 2011 and 2018 on rifles, handguns and ammunition to arm employees and to certify them on the “AR-15 rifle system.”

Year after year, the office bought tens of thousands of bullets that were used for training and practice and little else. The office also bought body armor, shields and tactical gear to kit out rifles with scopes, flashlights and 30-round magazines, purchasing records show.

Now, a year after Montgomery left the prosecutor’s office for a seat on the Arizona Supreme Court, the current county attorney is grappling with this surprising — and unwanted — lethal inventory.

Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel said keeping the guns and ammo is not in line with the office’s vision and does little to further its job of prosecuting criminals.

The impetus for the weapons buildup appears rooted in Montgomery’s effort to equip the investigations division like a police force and use it to assist other local, state and federal agencies, interviews and records show. 

This not only was a shift from previous administrations; it’s something prosecuting agencies across the country say they don’t do. Several agencies contacted by The Republic say their investigators aren’t trained to act as first responders and are not armed with rifles.

Adel said she has ordered the storage of the rifles and is exploring ways to transfer them to other law enforcement agencies.

In a statement to The Republic, she said the investigations divisionno longer operates like a law enforcement agency within the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.

“Upon taking office I reorganized and changed the purpose of the Maricopa County Attorney Office’s Investigations Division from a traditional law enforcement agency to one of trained professionals whose focus is to provide investigative support to deputy county attorneys,” Adel said in the statement.

County attorneys are lawyers, not cops. Their offices are charged with building cases against criminal and civil defendants and prosecuting them in court.  

Most have investigators on their teams. They are typically certified law enforcement officers whose duties include interviewing witnesses, serving subpoenas and protecting victims. They also provide security for the county attorney and staff.

Montgomery repeatedly declined to comment on his push to arm investigators with rifles.

He would not answer specific questions about weapons and ammunition purchases, the creation of an arsenal, what prompted the rifle program or if it was modeled on another agency.

Arizona Supreme Court spokesman Aaron Nash responded to questions directed to Montgomery. Nash said under Montgomery’s watch the investigations division “experienced an increase in professionalism and ability to respond to the needs of prosecutors,” and investigators worked with law enforcement agencies to develop crime prevention strategies.

Nash said one comment could be attributed to Montgomery: “Specific training and equipment provided was directly associated with responsible planning and supervision for their role.”

‘Why do you need all those rifles?’

Former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley said he is dumbfounded by the rifle training and weapons purchases.

“Why do you need all those rifles? And an armory?” Romley said. “I don’t really understand it. I don’t understand the need.”

Romley served as county attorney from 1989 until 2004 and briefly as interim leader of the office in 2010. He said he couldn’t envision a need to assign semi-automatic weapons to every investigator. He dismissed the idea that investigators could act as first responders.

“That’s not our primary role,” he said. “No. Absolutely not. Not at all … To be a first responder, you have to have training in tactics that we didn’t have.”

Romley, a highly regarded Republican, frequently consults on issues of legal ethics and has led independent state and county investigations into public corruption. 

Romley said his office prosecuted plenty of violent cases — organized crime, drug cartels, gang murders among them. But he could not recall a case where a county attorney employee was forced to fire a weapon in the line of duty.

“Anytime we took on anything with the potential for violence, we partnered with law enforcement,” he said. “They are the ones with the training to be able to deal with a potentially violent situation.”

Romley said he had about 40 investigators working for his office and each was assigned a handgun. As law enforcement officers certified by the Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training Board, investigators are required to maintain a duty weapon.  

But he said the office never had body armor, helmets or ballistic shields.

“We didn’t have door-busting rams or anything like that,” he said.

Andrew Thomas, who took over as county attorney in 2004, also did not attempt to beef up the weapons program. Records show in 2009 he sought to replace 10-year-old handguns by trading 45 used Glocks for 51 new ones. The trade saved the county $12,500.

 After Thomas resigned in 2010, Romley returned to the office and found no evidence of a rifle buildup.

“Nobody brought an armory situation to me,” he said. “What would be the purpose for it?”

‘Wow, we actually have a rather large inventory’

Retired Phoenix police Cmdr. Tom Van Dorn said he was surprised by the weapons and firepower he found stored at the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office. The armaments were enough to match a regular police department.

“I was just like, wow, we actually have a rather large inventory,” said Van Dorn, who took over as  director of investigations in 2019 under Adel. “We were surprised by the volume.”

Handguns were one thing. They made sense. Each investigator is a sworn officer and is assigned a duty weapon. But dozens of rifles?  And a training program for every investigator and supervisor? “No,” he said.

“I think I was more surprised by the rifles,” he said. “It does makes sense to have a few of those things (rifles) in our inventory.”  

Van Dorn said the rifles were located in multiple storage lockers throughout the county’s attorney’s old office at 301 W. Jefferson St., apparently at the ready in case the building ever was placed under siege.

“They were contained in a lock box and only certain individuals had access to them in case there was a breach of the facility,” he said. 

The County Attorney’s Office relocated to a new building in February. The weapons and ammunition are now in storage there and at another location.

Van Dorn said his staff sought to document the purchase of the guns, but it was difficult to make sense of the paperwork. That left them only one way to determine how much hardware and ammunition the office had on hand: to track it down, piece by piece.

“We just started at ground zero and did a bullet by bullet count of every piece of ammunition that we had,” he said, adding that his staff also inventoried “our firearms, our tasers, our rifles, our ballistic vests.”


 

Montgomery’s focus: Law and order

Montgomery is known for his hard-line law-and-order stance, a sensibility the Republican embraced as county attorney. 

A West Point graduate and Gulf War veteran, Montgomery vigorously pursued death penalty cases and was not swayed by shifting public sentiment on issues such as prison sentencing reform and the legalization of marijuana.  

Under his leadership, the nation’s third-largest prosecuting agency helped propel Arizona’s incarceration rate to levels higher than all but a few states. 

After nine years in office, Montgomery sought appointment to the Supreme Court. His effortinitially was stymied by widespread opposition from critics who challenged his impartiality over his positions on medical marijuana, LGBTQ issues and criminal-justice reform.

He tried again. In September 2019, Gov. Doug Ducey named Montgomery to the high court despite community objections.

More than 285,000 rounds of ammunition

The County Attorney’s Office had more than 285,556 rounds of ammunition when Montgomery left office, records show. That included 69,506 rifle bullets, 200,800 handgun bullets and 15,250 shotgun shells. 

An inventory initiated in September after The Republic requested data on the weapons found the office currently has 101 handguns, 25 rifles, six shotguns and 15 Taser stun guns.

That dwarfs the arsenal of 50 handguns and 80,000 rounds of ammunition amassed by Tim Jeffries, the former director of the Arizona Department of Economic Security, who was forced to resign in 2016. 

Tim Jeffries said he sought to expand the number and role of sworn officers working for the department to include the safety and security of personnel. The cache of weapons, stored in the basement of the state office, was seized by the Department of Public Safety.

Montgomery’s weapons buildup, which began shortly after he took office in 2010, was far more extensive.

The Republic analyzed hundreds of pages of Invoices and financial records provided by the County Attorney’s Office. The records don’t account for every weapon and make tracking individual rifle and gun purchases difficult. 

County records are not clear about how many rifles were purchased under Montgomery. Memos and interviews indicate there could have been as many as 55 rifles, enough for each investigator and supervisor then assigned to the investigations division.

Internal memos indicate the rifle program took off in 2011 with the goal of qualifying at least 55 employees. In September that year, the office inaugurated the program by buying and outfitting six Colt LE6940 semi-automatic rifles for $14,024.57.

It also bought 40,000 .223 full metal jacket and 12,000 tactical rounds for $24,716.54. That same year, the office bought 120,000 rounds of ammunition for handguns and shotguns for $46,390.23.

Similar purchases would continue every year for the next seven years, ending in 2018 with the single most expensive purchase of rifle and pistol ammunition for $63,235.50.

How many rounds were employees shooting off each year? Internal memos in 2013and 2014 tally up the numbers of the rifle program alone. 

“A total of 25,200 rounds of ammunition was expended in basic training, biannual recertification and rifle instructor training during the first year,”  a division training coordinator wrote on Jan. 15, 2014. 

He said 15 investigators and supervisors had so far “been certified on the AR15 rifle system” and noted another 28 investigators and supervisors had yet to be trained. 

“We currently have on hand 49,000 rounds of .223 practice ammunition,” the coordinator wrote in the memo, urging the purchase of another 40,000 rounds. “During the next twelve months, if all goes as planned, we will use a minimum of 33,600 rounds to complete the initial training.”

Former investigations division chief Karen Ashley signed off on the memo with a handwritten note: “In 2014 I will require all division personnel to attend an AR class and qualify.”

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Purchases funded by property seizures

Rifles were so critical to Montgomery’s office that in 2012 it sought to waive a countywide equipment purchasing freeze to get them.

The rifles were described as “essential public safety equipment” in an April 4, 2012, memo to the county’s management and budget office, which approved the request in less than a week.

The estimated cost was $9,000 for seven rifles. But when the County Attorney’s Office pulled the trigger in May, it spent $16,401.68 for rifles, scopes, tactical slings, magazines, special grips, flashlights and gun cases.

Montgomery did not respond to questions about the essential need and the cost of the equipment. 

But emails from the Supreme Court spokesman said taxpayers didn’t bear the brunt of the costs. Instead, Nash noted guns and ammo purchases were made through RICO funds, or profits from property confiscated during arrests and investigations. 

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act refers to anti-racketeering laws that give authorities wide latitude to seize assets in criminal cases — even if charges are not filed — and then fund operations with the proceeds. 

Arizona’s forfeiture laws direct proceeds into the coffers of the prosecutors and law enforcement agencies involved in seizing the items.

“Purchases for the Investigations Division were not solely funded from taxpayer funds,” Nash said.

He is right. Nearly every purchase of weapons and ammunition — more than 35 in eight years — was made using RICO funds rather than money from the county’s general budget, according to invoices and purchase orders.

Anti-racketeering funds can be used for a range of law enforcement operations. Money not spent on guns and ammunition could go toward other equipment, training and services and has been used in other agencies to augment operations.

Adel’s office said anti-racketeering funds also have paid for upgrades to the office’s case management software, gang and substance abuse programs, victim protection and relocation and even office furniture. The office also distributes funds annually to qualified community groups.

Rifles rare in prosecutor’s offices in U.S.

Prosecutors from California to Florida do not routinely arm investigators with rifles.

Most say they don’t do it at all.

Officials from multiple agencies noted the county attorney is not a front-line law enforcement agency, with at least two asking nearly identical questions: “You know we are not a first responder?”

The Republic sent inquiries to several prosecuting offices, focusing on counties with populations similar to Maricopa County, which ranks fourth in the nation. 

Only one, the San Diego County District Attorney’s  Office, confirmed its investigators “have the ability to carry and use long rifles purchased by the office.” But the office pointed to limitations for its 127 investigators and supervisors.

“Any investigator who uses a rifle must undergo several additional rifle trainings each year that are set bythe California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training,” Deputy District Attorney Elizabeth Renner said in an email.  

The district attorney’s office said it spent $36,000 in 2019 on weapons and ammunition.

The situation was much different in the Houston area.

Harris County, with about 4.7 million residents, is slightly more populated than Maricopa County. But the county attorney’s office there says it does not assign handguns or rifles to employees.

Instead, investigators, who are licensed peace officers, must purchase their own duty weapons.

A spokesman for the Harris County Attorney’s Office said the office does not have any kind of rifle training program and does not stockpile weapons or ammunition. “Investigators attend rife training programs as well as other firearms training offered by other law enforcement agencies,” the spokesman said in an email.

Investigators at the Miami-Dade State Attorney’s Office are allowed to carry a Glock 23 handgun, the office’s only approved firearm. The office policy has no provisions for rifles or rifle training in its criminal investigations division. 

The State Attorney’s Office in the Florida county issues ammunition directly to employees authorized to carry firearms. Only .40 caliber Speer gold dot rounds are approved. The office prohibits “hoot load” or Magnum rounds.

The office did not purchase any ammunition in 2019 and reported 2,000 rounds in inventory. 

Officials with the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office in Minnesota say the office doesn’t have a special investigations division. Investigators are assigned to the county attorney’s office from the sheriff’s office. 

Deputies receive their weapons training through the sheriff’s office.

Pima is the second most populous county in Arizona. The Pima County Attorney’s Office does not assign rifles to its investigators, which it calls detectives. 

Its detectives are all sworn peace officers and AZ-POST certified. The office issues them handguns, ammunition, protective vests and stun guns. 

“Some equipment and ammunition is used solely for training purposes,” Deputy County Attorney Christopher Straub said in an email. “The Pima County Attorney’s Office does not assign rifles to any of its detectives.”

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Investigators’ role redefined

Van Dorn said he only can speculate on the reasons for the firearms, since many of the executives who authorized the purchases left with Montgomery.

He said interviews with investigators suggested that Montgomery saw county attorney investigators as a backup for local law enforcement agencies.

“He wanted investigators at MCAO to be more directly involved in crime suppression problems with police agencies … He saw the MCAO investigations division as a more traditional law enforcement agency,”  Van Dorn said. “That’s just not where we are at with this administration right now.”

County attorney investigators are not first responders in the traditional sense, Van Dorn said. They do not answer calls for service. They don’t patrol neighborhoods. Their jobs are to support prosecutors building cases against defendants.

The rifles and stockpiles of ammunition aren’t needed for that mission.

“We don’t anticipate having to buy ammunition for quite some time,” he said. “We don’t anticipate adding additional firearms to our inventory right now.”