Bar fight involving biker cops baffles sheriff
PHOENIX -- Whiskey Row in the Arizona mountain town of Prescott has seen its share of bar fights, biker gangs and rowdies.
But the bar fights aren't supposed to involve a biker gang made up of police officers carrying brass knuckles and knives. The fallout from such a brawl in December has led to the retirements of a police chief and two senior sheriff's officials and recommendations of felony charges against the former chief for his alleged role in trying to cover it up.
Two other current or former law enforcement officers and an ambulance supervisor face possible charges, and local and state agencies are investigating involved officers. At least one federal officer who also is an Iron Brotherhood Motorcycle Club was at the bar, and a Customs and Border Protection spokesman said the agency was looking into his role in the group.
The motorcycle club had many of the same rituals and garb as ``outlaw'' gangs, according to interviews and police reports. They used nicknames only, wore biker club patches and rewarded at least one member who got in a previous fight with a special patch.
Just how a group of mainly high-ranking law enforcement officers decided to join what looks and acts in many ways like an outlaw biker gang baffles the local sheriff. Police said no weapons were used but were displayed before the bar fight.
``You've got senior veteran law enforcement officers from federal, state and local agencies engaged in this kind of activity. I don't fully understand why they would want to mimic a criminal biker organization,'' Yavapai County Sheriff Scott Mascher said Friday. ``It makes no sense to me, it was extremely poor judgment on their individual parts, their collective judgment, it's very, very unethical.''
As is often the case, it wasn't the crime, but the clumsy efforts to cover it up appear to have blown the lid off the Iron Brotherhood's Arizona chapter and its police officer members.
If the officers in the club had just called police themselves and been straightforward, the matter would have been relatively minor, Mascher said.
The motorcycle club, whose members used nicknames like Top Gun, Guido and Mongo, had been holding its Christmas party at a bar where the booze was flowing freely, according to Arizona Department of Public Safety reports released Thursday.
A group of club members decided to go to another bar, and while there an intoxicated man came up and began asking the club president about the patches on his vest. Another member pushed the man away, and punches were thrown, leaving the man with a smashed and bloody nose.
The president was Prescott Valley Police Chief Bill Fessler, who left his job shortly after the brawl became public. Also retiring were Yavapai County sheriff's Sgt. Bill Suttle and Capt. Marc Schmidt. A sheriff's internal investigation shows both apparently obstructed police investigating the fight.
The state police are asking prosecutors to charge Suttle and Fessler with felonies for obstructing the investigation and misdemeanors for lying about the involvement of their club. One officer who responded to the fight said he believed the two were being ``vague on purpose.''
Phoenix police officer Eric Amato and Greg Kaufmann, a supervisor at an Ajo ambulance service, are accused of assault and disorderly conduct. The report also recommended a charge of disorderly conduct against one of the alleged victims, Justin Stafford.
Phoenix police are investigating the man who allegedly threw the punch, Amato, but he remains on active duty.
``We expect our officers to act appropriately, and that's what we're looking at,'' Phoenix police spokesman Sgt. Tommy Thompson said.
The Maricopa County attorney's office is reviewing the report and would file charges, if warranted, spokesman Jerry Cobb said Friday.
One member of the group who has since resigned, Prescott deputy police chief Andy Reinhardt, said Friday that the clothing the members wore should not be used against them.
``I will say I'm going to let people judge for themselves as to how they perceive people based on how they dress,'' Reinhardt said. ``I haven't read the DPS report, and if there was any wrongdoing by officers, I personally don't condone that myself.''
Reinhardt said he wasn't in the bar when the brawl broke out, and said if crimes were committed, people should be held accountable.
``I have rode with the group in the past, and there's never been this type of an issue whenever I rode with them,'' he said.
Police officer motorcycle clubs that emulate the outlaw gang culture appeal to older officers who miss the macho days when they could knock heads and not be held accountable, said Mitch Librett, a former police officer who is now an associate professor of criminal justice at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts.
``It's the vehicle for expressing certain opinions, views, even prejudice that is no longer acceptable for police officers,'' Librett said.
Efforts to reach Fessler and Amato weren't successful. Messages left for Suttle and with Kaufmann's employer weren't returned.
Associated Press writers Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Linda Ashton in Phoenix, and Susan Montoya Bryan in Albuquerque, N.M., contributed to this report.