PHOENIX — The Phoenix city manager was warned by a top Phoenix police official that Chief Jeri Williams and Executive Assistant Chief Mike Kurtenbach were misleading the public and city council about their role in a massive scandal involving falsely-charged protesters.
Commander John Collins told then-City Manager Ed Zuercher that Williams and Kurtenbach were good with the decision to charge protesters as gang members in October of 2020. He also provided contemporaneous notes to support his claim.
“It was not a secret on the fourth floor,” said Collins, referring to the top floor of the Phoenix Police Department’s headquarters. “I mean, Jeri Williams, this was all good with her to the very end.”
Collins continued, “There were no issues. We were just cruising along.”
ABC15 obtained a copy of a recording from the September 29, 2021 meeting between Collins and Zuercher. Other top city staffers were present including a deputy city attorney and a high-level human resources official.
The meeting took place a month after the city released the results of an outside investigation conducted by the law firm Ballard Spahr. The probe was launched as a direct result of ABC15’s “Politically Charged” investigation, which launched in February 2021.
The law firm said it did not find evidence that Chief Williams was informed of the plan to charge protesters as gang members before the indictments.
Collins was one of three assistant chiefs who were ultimately blamed for the scandal – and then demoted to the rank of commander.
In a presentation before the city council, Williams said the three assistant chiefs failed to notify her of the case. “It flat-out was a bad idea. Systems were bypassed, personnel matters were bypassed, communication was broken down,” she said.
But ABC15 recently obtained multiple recordings that capture Kurtenbach, the department’s second-in-command, and other assistant chiefs stating that Williams was repeatedly briefed about the protest gang case following the indictments.
“The boss herself knew about this for months. We didn’t hide it,” Kurtenbach said in a recorded conversation on August 13, 2021.
The three assistant chiefs who were demoted – Collins, Gabriel Lopez, and Larry Hein – filed a lawsuit alleging that they were unfairly blamed and demoted following the scandal.
“Each time the issue of the indictment of the suspects for assisting a criminal street gang was raised at the Monday briefings, neither Williams nor Kurtenbach in any way questioned the propriety of the indictment or claimed they had not been briefed on the MCAO’s intent to charge the suspects with gang-related offenses,” according to the lawsuit.
The protesters were arrested on October 17, 2020.
During a meeting on October 23, 2020, Phoenix police officers, county prosecutors, and the FBI met to discuss the case and layout a plan to charge protesters as a criminal street gang.
Collins, Hein, and Lopez attended the meeting,
To the law firm’s investigators, Kurtenbach said he “could not recall” if the three assistant chiefs informed him of the plan.
But during his September 2021 meeting with Zuercher and other city leaders, Collins provided handwritten notes that he said were taken on the day of the planning meeting. City leaders made copies, according to the recording of the meeting.
In a copy of the notes obtained by ABC15, there’s a notation in the margin: “Briefed XO-K.”
Collins told Zuercher that “XO-K” stands for Executive Officer Kurtenbach.
“We left the meeting in the Violent Crimes Bureau on the second floor…I walked directly into Kurtenbach’s office. He’s at his desk. I walked in,” Collins said. “It’s one-on-one, and I gave him a complete face-to-face debrief of everything that happened on the second floor of the VCB conference room. I’ll take that to my grave.”
In July 2021, Zuercher announced he would be retiring in October. His last official day landed about a week after his meeting with Collins.
ABC15 requested comment from the current Phoenix City Manager, Jeff Barton. A spokesperson declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.
A request for comment sent to Mayor Kate Gallego’s office was not returned.
Contact ABC15 Chief Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@abc15.com.