PHOENIX — Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel knew about the plan to charge a group of police protesters as a criminal street gang, according to the initial prosecutor assigned to the case.
ABC15 obtained text messages for the prosecutor, April Sponsel, that were sent on Nov. 3, 2020 — one week after the case was presented to a grand jury.
When asked by a colleague if Adel knew about the plan before the indictments, Sponsel texted, “Yes she did know.”
In February, ABC15 launched an investigation that debunked the evidence used to charge more than a dozen demonstrators as a gang. The group was arrested on Oct. 17. Prosecutors and police presented wild exaggerations and outright lies to the grand jury 10 days later to obtain the gang charges.
Adel has declined multiple interview requests to discuss the gang case.
In an emailed statement for this report, the county attorney wrote: “As I have stated in response to similar inquires, I was not properly briefed about the plan to present this case to the grand jury. I cannot speculate as to what an employee meant in a text message conversation with others that I was not a part of.”
Adel’s response does not specifically deny that she knew about the plan to charge the group as a gang.
The county attorney has distanced herself from the gang charges in multiple statements over the past several months. She said a serious fall and brain injury she suffered in late October 2020 affected her ability to properly vet the case.
The text messages were obtained through public record requests made by defense attorneys representing some of the protesters. ABC15 independently verified the authenticity of the messages before contacting MCAO for comment.
The messages also raise public record concerns, experts said.
Sponsel asks her colleague if he uses Signal, a text encryption app that can reduce the digital trail of messages.
When asked why Sponsel and others in the office use the app, she responded, “Because if [sic] of the disappearing text options.”
“The fact they are using signal here is a pretty good indication of their intention here,” said Dan Barr, a Valley attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues. “They want to have conversations that evade the public record law.”
Regarding the concerns about the use of Signal, an MCAO spokesperson sent the following written statement.
“In response to a public records request, a review of employee-issued cell phones was completed by MCAO. It was determined that Signal was not downloaded onto any of the county-issued devices. Additionally, as part of the office’s continued efforts to comply with public records law, several employees, including April Sponsel, were asked if “Signal” was being used to conduct county business on personal cellphones and employees reported that this did not occur,” the statement said. “How and what people use to communicate on their private devices about personal matters is not something this office has the ability to regulate or track. However, the County Attorney’s Office fully acknowledges that should an employee choose to conduct official business on a personal device, it is a public record.”
The protest gang case has been permanently dismissed, and Sponsel is currently on administrative leave.
Under increasing public pressure, Adel hired a retired judge in March to conduct an investigation into how her office handled the protest case and any related ethical concerns.
A completion date for the judge’s investigation has not been announced.
Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com