In the days before a group of demonstrators were arrested and charged as a criminal street gang, Maricopa County prosecutors held multiple high-level meetings with police departments, intelligence officers, and terrorism investigators to discuss police protest cases, according to internal calendar entries obtained by ABC15.
Defense attorneys said the meetings raise more doubts about County Attorney Allister Adel’s claim that protest cases were not properly vetted and that she and other top officials were not aware of plans to charge protesters as a gang.
Were a series of MCAO meetings focused on the arrest of protesters? Investigator Dave Biscobing delves into the meetings tonight on ABC15 News at 10.
MCAO confirmed Adel briefly attended a meeting on October 14 that was held between multiple police agencies and county prosecutors to discuss “legal strategies” and “tactics” in protest cases.
Read the full MCAO statement at the bottom of this report.
“Allister Adel has already said she wasn’t really or exactly part of the decision-making process. So, this undercuts that statement,” said defense attorney Armando Nava. “I don’t think the actual county attorney gets involved in low-level type cases. This shows some sort of level of organization by MCAO to be a part of it and be part of the decision-making process.”
Prompted by ABC15’s “Politically Charged” investigation, MCAO prosecutors and Phoenix Police officers are now under four different outside reviews to examine how they handled protest responses, arrests, and prosecutions.
One of the key problems: Phoenix officers and county prosecutors presented clearly false information to grand juries to obtain felony charges against police protesters.
ABC15 obtained the 2020 calendars for April Sponsel and Nick Michaud, who were the two lead prosecutors on the protest cases. [They’ve since been removed from the cases and Sponsel is on leave.]
The calendars show meetings regarding protest cases on October 14, October 23, and October 30.
In an emailed response, MCAO did not address questions about whether the gang charges were discussed any of the meetings. The office also declined to provide provide specific details about the meetings because they are part of open cases and the subject of ongoing outside investigation.
To understand why the meeting dates are notable, ABC15 has compiled a breakdown of when the meetings, arrests, and grand jury presentations took place.
October 14, 2020
According to the calendar entry, “the purpose of this meeting is to bring together the tactic leaders of the Mobile Field Forces and intel officers from Valley jurisdictions to discuss tactics and intel on recent civil unrest activities. The Maricopa County Attorney, Allister Adel will welcome the group and MCAO prosecutor April Sponsel will discuss legal strategies. [Redacted] will discuss tactics in recent Phoenix civil unrest.”
In response, a MCAO spokesperson said that County Attorney Allister Adel provided “welcoming remarks,” which included “comments about her background and provided a high-level review of goals and objectives for the county attorney’s office.”
MCAO said Adel left the meeting after those remarks.
OCTOBER 17, 2020
A group of 18 protesters, including three minors, were arrested in downtown Phoenix.
ABC15’s investigation discovered police and prosecutors were actively working to gather intelligence on protesters and community activists throughout 2020.
The October 14th meeting took place three days before these arrests.
Officials knew about the planned protest, according to records and recordings obtained by ABC15.
OCTOBER 23, 2020
Prosecutors April Sponsel and Nick Michaud met with members of the Phoenix Police Department and the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
The meeting's description was short: “Meeting to discuss protest-related investigations.”
This meeting took place six days after the group of police protesters were arrested and four days before their cases were presented to the grand jury.
In order to secure gang charges, prosecutors and officers testified that the group was as dangerous — and in some ways more dangerous — than notorious gangs like the Crips, Bloods, and Hells Angels.
“I think (this meeting) shows exactly what they thought about this,” Nava said. “They weren’t treating this as dealing with peaceful protesters. Regardless of what they were going to see, they decided in their minds that these are rioters, they were terrible terrorists or whatever, and their confirmation bias got the best of them.”
OCTOBER 27, 2020
Prosecutors and Phoenix police present testimony to a grand jury to charge the group of protesters as a criminal street gang.
OCTOBER 30, 2020
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office holds an internal “Riot cases briefing.” No further description is listed.
A spokesperson declined to comment on any further details about the meeting.
“The Oct. 30 meeting that you reference is part of the pending outside review and we will not provide comment on the content of that meeting,” according to the office’s emailed response.
The meeting occurred the same day that news broke about the group being charged as a gang.
Maricopa County Attorney Allister has repeatedly declined ABC15’s interview requests.
In interviews with other news outlets and in written statements, Adel has denied that she had any knowledge of the intent to charge the group as a gang.
The county attorney fell and hit her head on October 25th. She was treated and released.
On November 3rd, she was rushed to a hospital to undergo emergency surgery for a resulting brain bleed. She remained hospitalized for several weeks.
While not discussing specifics about the October 14 and 23 meetings, a spokesperson wrote, “Meetings of this nature take place on a regular basis on a variety of issues. Deputy County Attorneys attend these meetings to explain their role, discuss what goes into trying a case, and to address applicable laws on a topic. It is not the prosecutor’s role to direct the activities of law enforcement. Attendance at these meetings does not require approval by the County Attorney. County Attorney Adel was not present at the Oct. 23 meeting.”
While MCAO said it’s not the role of prosecutors to direct law enforcement, ABC15 obtained radio calls and dispatch logs that show Sponsel was directly advising Phoenix police officers before the October 17 arrests were finalized.
“I got some specific instructions for you from April Sponsel at the County Attorney’s Office. So let’s just make sure we touch base before we’re inside,” said one officer 26 minutes after the arrests.
FULL MCAO RESPONSE
“We must reiterate that we have requested the charges related to these matters be dismissed and we are currently reviewing each charge. Until this evaluation is complete, we are limited in the comments that we will provide.
However, we can confirm that the County Attorney provided welcoming remarks at the meeting on Oct. 14 that was organized by Phoenix Police and attended by law enforcement jurisdictions from across the county. Her remarks included comments about her background and provided a high-level review of goals and objectives for the county attorney’s office. She left the meeting upon conclusion of her remarks.
Regarding the Oct. 14 and 23 events, meetings of this nature take place on a regular basis on a variety of issues. Deputy County Attorneys attend these meetings to explain their role, discuss what goes into trying a case, and to address applicable laws on a topic. It is not the prosecutor’s role to direct the activities of law enforcement. Attendance at these meetings does not require approval by the County Attorney. County Attorney Adel was not present at the Oct. 23 meeting.
A working relationship with law enforcement is a national best practice and is paramount to ensuring the due process rights of defendants and protecting the rights of crime victims. Cooperation to ensure the quality of investigations makes our community a safer place.
The Oct. 30 meeting that you reference is part of the pending outside review and we will not provide comment on the content of that meeting.”
Editor’s note: This report is part of an ongoing series of ABC15 investigative reports called “Politically Charged.” The series can be found at ABC15.com/protests. Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.