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Court finds evidence mishandling by clerk Woodman

SAFFORD — The second trial of Manuel Campos, 38, on multiple charges will proceed despite a Graham County Superior Court finding that evidence was mishandled.

On June 13, a Superior Court jury found Campos guilty of misconduct involving weapons. Campos will be sentenced on that verdict at an Aug. 13 aggravation/mitigation hearing. He faces a second trial in September on charges including aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, armed robbery, burglary and disorderly conduct.

The two trials stem from a Jan. 30, 2019, incident in which Campos allegedly entered a Thatcher resident’s home with a concealed shotgun, demanded money and discharged his weapon when the victim replied there was none. Police reportedly found Campos hiding under a Jacuzzi cover and the discarded shotgun under a bush. A shell in the gun allegedly matched another shell left in the victim’s residence, and Campos’ DNA was reportedly found on the shell in the gun.

In a July 24 evidentiary hearing, the court considered whether Clerk of the Superior Court Cindy Woodman improperly handled case evidence by releasing it to a Thatcher Police officer on June 20 due to her security concerns. As the hearing opened, Superior Court Judge Michael Peterson said it was a highly unusual situation he had not encountered before.

The officer, Sgt. Kevin West, testified that Woodman asked him to take nine items of evidence, including the shotgun, saying she could not keep them secure in the clerk’s office vault. He said Woodman argued they would be safer at the Thatcher Police Department. West said he told Woodman twice that, based on his understanding, the items must remain with the clerk throughout the trial process, but she only reiterated her concerns.

West testified that he transferred the items to the Thatcher Police Department, securing them in a vault there after documenting and resealing them. He said Woodman provided no receipt and did not have him sign for the items.

On June 26, West continued, Woodman called him twice to say she should not have released the items and asked for their return. West then requested a judge’s order before doing so, and the items were still in his custody at the time of the hearing.

In her own testimony, Woodman admitted consulting neither trial clerk Savanaha Teo nor Judge Peterson or his judicial assistant before directing West to take the evidence. Woodman claimed that Teo was out of state and unreachable. She also stated the judge was away from court June 17. When Peterson produced a calendar showing otherwise, she admitted her statement may have been inaccurate.

Woodman said she did not know who might have access to the vault, which was left unlocked during the day in the event of an active shooter incident. The office containing the vault can only be entered by using a keypad code or entering through the courtroom. Woodman said she was not sure whether former employees could still get in using their codes. She also said the office had seen approximately 50-percent employee turnover in 2019. Teo, who recently left her position — she testified on her last day — believed she was the sixth to leave this year.

From the stand, Woodman also admitted not documenting the evidence released to West, telling Judge Peterson, “I have no explanation for that.”

Elected to office in November 2018, Woodman said she received little training for her duties and claimed not to know her office was required to hold evidence through the trial process. Teo testified that Woodman never sought her advice despite Teo’s experience.

After hearing the witnesses, Peterson issued a finding that Woodman’s conduct violated applicable rules, statutes, procedures and protocol. Cochise County Deputy Attorney Daniel Akers, representing the state, did not contest that finding. Peterson also directed Sgt. West to keep holding the evidence until Campos’ next trial.

Campos’ attorney, Daisy Flores, said the defense was unsure what damage the incident may have caused and so what remedy might be in order. The court is currently considering possible remedies.

Suspensions, reprimand result from Safford Fire Department investigation

SAFFORD — After investigating claims that members of the Safford Volunteer Fire Department responded to July 4 fire calls while intoxicated and used obscene language over the radio, the City of Safford handed down disciplinary measures and announced that changes will be made in the department.

The claims stemmed from an anonymous letter presented to the City Council alleging that firefighters used profanities in response to two fire calls on the evening of July 4. The letter also claimed alcohol was present at the fire station and some firefighters responding to at least one of the calls appeared to be intoxicated.

A preliminary investigation by City Manager Horatio Skeete found that alcohol was present at the station on July 4, and radio recordings revealed the use of profanities. A full investigation was then conducted by Skeete, Police Chief Joe Brugman and Human Resources Officer Lydia Newkirk.

In a July 23 press release, the city announced that Fire Chief Clark Bingham will receive a letter of reprimand, Assistant Fire Chief Patrick Anderson will be demoted and barred from holding elected office for two years, and firefighter James Holguin will be suspended from active firefighting duties for a month.

Bingham will also work with Skeete to develop a code of conduct for the department, and the city will provide added leadership training. In an e-mail to the Courier, Skeete said this would be “the first official code of conduct for the department, as far as I can tell.”

In addition, the City Council directed changes to Safford’s municipal code so that the city manager’s office will supervise the fire department’s daily operations.

In his e-mail to the Courier, Skeete said it was “never very clear” if firefighters were previously defined as city employees when called to active duty. “They were never given an employee handbook or a formal employee orientation.”

“It is the mission of the Safford City Council to provide a safe and healthy environment for every member of the community we serve, and to honor the long and rich traditions of the Safford Volunteer Fire Department. We look forward to closing this unfortunate chapter, mending any broken fences with our trusted neighbors, and rebuilding the confidence and public trust in our department,” Mayor Jason Kouts said in the press release.

David Bell contributed to this article.