MCSO speaks out about ignored sex crimes

PHOENIX - The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office is speaking out after an ABC15 investigation revealed their office failed to investigate hundreds of sex crime cases, many involving children.

In a statement to ABC15, MCSO concedes that investigators "re-opened over 500 sex crime cases dating back to 2005."

The statement goes on to say, "Over of the course of the [special victims unit] audit, over 400 cases were found to be lacking in investigative efforts," and "no personnel associated with this case has been held accountable or disciplined."

The statement also references the following:

"The current status of the IA investigation into MCSO's SVU is in the "Findings" stage." All personnel associated with the case have been interviewed and the case is being reviewed for all possible policy violations. If and when any policy violations for employees are "Sustained" in this case, appropriate action will be taken."

Read the full statement

INTERNAL AFFAIRS INVESTIGATION

An internal affairs investigation was opened after the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office received a complaint in 2008 from the city of El Mirage about dozens of child sex crimes cases that had been assigned to the MCSO special victims unit.

Prior to October of 2007, El Mirage contracted with MCSO to handle its sex crimes cases.

The complaint from El Mirage stated that 43 of the 51 cases "had not been worked at all, or had minimal follow up conducted," even though "many of the cases had known suspects" and "more than 90% of the cases had workable leads."

Most of the cases involved small children and young teens.

A Pinal County Sheriff's Office investigation into MCSO uncovered that Chief Deputy David Hendershott shut down the special victims unit internal affairs investigation in the spring of 2009.

WHO IS SERGEANT SEAGRAVES?

Documents state the internal affairs investigation was stopped because the woman leading the unit, Sgt. Kim Seagraves, was a key witness for MCSO in two other trials and Hendershott feared the internal affairs investigation would make Seagraves appear incompetent.

"Hendershott did not want negative information about Seagraves becoming an issue … Let's not smear her while the office is potentially going to get litigated," the documents read.

The internal affairs investigation into MCSO's SVU was reopened in September of 2010 after Hendershott was placed on administrative leave.

The lead investigator for MCSO did identify Seagraves as the principal lead into "whether there had been misconduct, negligence or incompetence" when it came to the sex crimes unit.

One employee described the SVU as a "rat's nest" and stated that Seagraves had "dropped the ball."

CLEARING THE CASES BY 'EXCEPTIONAL MEANS'

"The 32 cases you shared with me, many of them involved young children, teenagers, who either they, or their parents, made reports and nothing was ever done," said criminologist Cassia Spohn. "Presumably there are individuals who have committed heinous crimes and have not been brought to justice."

Spohn is a professor at ASU's Criminology and Criminal Justice Department who is currently researching how law enforcement clears sexual assault cases.

"I think the most egregious fact is that it seems clear that the Sheriff's department simply did not take these cases seriously, they did not do an investigation. It's not that they didn't do a thorough investigation, it appears that they did not investigate these crimes at all and that to me is a miscarriage of justice."

We showed her the documents, including a paragraph where an employee tells a Pinal County Sheriff's Office investigator that Sgt. Seagraves lessened her case load by clearing the cases by "exceptional means".

"Many of the cases were just exceptionally cleared, and she just went ahead and signed off on them and certainly, what she did is she lessened the case load down to something that was at least acceptable to Captain Whitney. And therein lies the problem," Spohn said. "Apparently, many of the cases that were cleared or exceptionally cleared, were the ones that needed to be worked and just hadn't been worked ... she sent out the directive and the email is pretty clear that, if the cases can't be worked, you know, let's clear them up, let's inactive them, at least at this point and time, if there's no more leads to follow up on."

Law enforcement can clear or close a case in two ways: by arrest or by exceptional means.

The FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program outlines the four specific criteria needed to justify using an "exceptional clearance" of a case.

MCSO spokeswoman Lisa Allen told me that MCSO does follow the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting guidelines.

She said whether or not Seagraves, or any other MCSO employee, ignored those guidelines is something that is the subject of the current Internal Affairs investigation into the Special Victims Unit.

The four criteria needed to clear a case by exceptional means include gathering enough evidence to charge someone, but

there has to be a major reason why they can't arrest the person.

Spohn explained, "The police have to have an identified suspect, they need to know where the suspect is so they can go and get the suspect to arrest him, there has to be sufficient evidence to support making an arrest, filing charges, and turning the suspect over to the court for prosecution, but there has to be something beyond the control of law enforcement that precludes them from making an arrest."

Common examples include situations where the suspect has died, cannot be extradited from another jurisdiction or is in jail for something else.

"It would be something that is not used with any degree of frequency," explained Spohn. "The important point to emphasize is that in order to exceptionally clear a case the police must conduct a thorough investigation. That's very clear in the uniform crime handbook. It actually says if after a thorough investigation, if a law enforcement agency determines that an arrest cannot be made for the reasons that are specified in the handbook, then they can exceptionally clear the case."

One employee told investigators that Seagraves used the exceptional clearance to simply "lessen the case load" for her unit.

He also stated that, "many of the cases that were exceptionally cleared were the ones that needed to be worked and just hadn't been worked."

Spohn told us, "If in fact the head of the Special Victims Unit ordered detectives to exceptionally clear cases that had not been investigated, that clearly was an abuse of power."

On Monday morning, FBI spokesman Bill Carter told me they group "cleared by arrest" in the same category as "cleared by exception".

"Because the assumption is that most of those cases are going to be arrests and that exceptional clearances are just going to be, exceptional," explained Spohn.

Spohn said that means Seagraves' actions would make it appear as if they've solved many of the cases they never even investigated.

"I think they have an obligation to the victims and their families to investigate these crimes. These are serious crimes. Children, teenagers, women have been harmed by these crimes and the individuals who committed these crimes have not been brought to justice and that's not the way the system ought to work."

Spohn also said of the specific cases we showed her, "clearly these suspects should have been arrested. They were identified and they either admitted the crime or there was probable cause they committed the crime, the police should have made an arrest. They should have cleared the case by arrest and not by exceptional means."

SEAGRAVES PRAISED AND PROMOTED

Sgt. Seagraves was promoted to Lieutenant in 2008.

In March of 2008, Seagraves married Terry Young who at the time was Deputy Chief of Internal Affairs.

The ABC15 Investigators obtained her personnel file.

Seagraves was never disciplined for how she managed MCSO's Special Victims Unit. In fact, she received glowing recommendations for her work.

This includes the time period of April 2007 to April of 2008 when she was head of the SVU.

Her bosses said that, "Sergeant Seagraves does an outstanding job multi-tasking."

The evaluation stated that "her work product as well as the supervision of her subordinates is very thorough and complete…" and that "her performance is nothing but highly commendable."

In the spring of 2009, around the time when Hendershott closed the internal affairs investigation that had singled Seagraves out as an investigative lead into the mismanagement of the Special Victims Unit, Seagraves received the "Chief's Award for Outstanding Service."

VICTIM ADVOCATE SADDENED AND DISAPPOINTED

"What is the accountability when sex crimes cases are ignored?" asked Elizabeth Ditlevson of the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

She also read through the documents and said she was both saddened and disappointed.

"A thought for the detectives is to remember why they do this work; to protect the public."

MCSO former Chief Deputy David Hendershott closed the Internal Affairs investigation into their Special Victims Unit in the spring of 2009.

It was re-opened in September 2010 after he was placed on administrative leave.

It's been eight months and according to their written statement, they are still reviewing the matter.

MCSO said Seagraves cannot comment due to that investigation.

Allen told me they are looking into how many arrests were made after they reopened hundreds of cases for further review.

The Sheriff declined an on-camera interview request.

Ditlevson said, "I think one of the big questions is where are the victims, where are the perpetrators, what is happening and what's going to be done to try and resolve this problem at this point? I think another question I have is what is MCSO going to do, to change in their system so this doesn't happen again?"

They are the same questions we will continue to ask of MCSO.

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