Rush to judgment? Sheriff defends statement connecting desert tragedy to smugglers

A handful of demonstrators gathered in Florence on Wednesday, accusing the sheriff of politicizing the desert tragedy.

Rush to judgment? Sheriff defends statement connecting desert tragedy to smugglers

CREATED Jun 5, 2012 - UPDATED: Jun 7, 2012

Update:  on Thursday afternoon two of the five bodies were identified as those of Butwin family members.  Click here for an updated story.

Reporters:  Jennifer Waddell and Valerie Cavazos
Web Producers:  Forrest Carr and Martha Serda

TUCSON (KGUN-TV) - The facts are not all in, but It's looking increasingly likely that five burned bodies found in the desert over the weekend are connected to the case of a missing Tempe family of five, and not necessarily to drug violence.  The new developments drew protests from some immigrant advocates, who accused Pinal County sheriff Paul Babeu of having rushed to judgment in his zeal to politicize a tragedy.   Babeu told KGUN9 News Wednesday afternoon that he did no such thing.

The controversy began Tuesday afternoon, when two police agencies issued conflicting press releases about the deaths.   The Tempe Police Department announced via press release that the burned vehicle found in the Vekol Valley area of Pinal County was connected to the missing James Butwin family.  "Late this morning Tempe Police were advised by Pinal County Sheriff’s Office that a vehicle found in the Vekol Valley in Pinal County with the remains of five victims was in fact the missing vehicle registered to the residence on Kenneth Place," the press release stated.  The statement went on to say that the family's disappearance was under investigation as a suspected murder-suicide.

It its press release,  also sent out Tuesday afternoon, the Pinal County Sheriff's Office told a somewhat different story.  It did not confirm that the burned vehicle was registered to the Butwin residence.  The statement did acknowledge that the Tempe Police Department had contacted Pinal investigators to alert them about the Butwin family.  But the Pinal statement continued to hold on to the drug violence theory, laying out two different scenarios along those lines.  First, it said investigators were pursuing an anonymous tip about five men last seen driving a similar vehicle in that area who might be missing. The Pinal County statement indicated that the tipster feared the missing men may have fallen victim to drug cartel violence. 

The press release also cited an anonymous Border Patrol source quoted in a Boston news report saying that the violence could be cartel related.  The press release was still current on the Pinal County Sheriff's Office website late Wednesday afternoon.

Over the weekend, Sheriff Paul Babeu told KGUN9 News and other media that the case probably was connected to ongoing drug and human smuggling activity in the Vekol Valley.  He repeated that sentiment in a posting on his personal Facebook page on Saturday, saying, " All information is pointing that this is connected to the violent drug cartel smuggling in this high smuggling area."  

The sheriff, who is running for re-election, has led a high-profile law enforcement effort to combat drug and human smuggling in that area, and is a vocal supporter of political efforts to secure the border as well.  In his Saturday Facebook post about the incident, Babeu took a swipe at a frequent target of his, Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano.  "The border is NOT more secure than ever Ms. Napolitano! " he wrote.

On Wednesday a handful of sign-carrying demonstrators gathered in Florence to protest the sheriff's comments.  Carlos Galindo, who identified himself as being with a group called the Immigrant Advocacy Foundation, said, "Wait until the homicide detectives do a complete investigation and then come out and say this is what it's about. But Sheriff Babeu didn't wait. Babeu thought about his political career before the integrity of law enforcement."   Galindo accused the sheriff of compromising the investigation.

In a phone interview with KGUN9 reporter Valerie Cavazos, Babeu scoffed at that accusation.    "I find it ironic that this is an illegal immigrant advocacy group and they are outraged at the drug cartels being falsely maligned."   Babeu said the protesters were trying to defend the drug cartels, and said emphatically, "This is ridiculous."

Babeu pointed out that never at any time on Saturday did he say that the deaths definitely were connected to drug violence.  But Babeu told Cavazos that at the time, the possibility certainly seemed logical, given the fact that the bodies turned up in an area that's notorious for drug and human smuggling.    "This is an area that if anything happens, it's likely somehow connected," Babeu said.

The sheriff was not willing to concede that his decision to use the incident as a reason to take a fresh swipe at Janet Napolitano on the issue of border security might have been premature.  "Nothing changes about the Vekol Valley, or the fact that the border is not secure," he said.

Babeu said that even if the case does turn out to have been a murder-suicide, some elements of it, such as why the vehicle wound up in that particular spot, may never be known.

Cavazos traveled to Florence Wednesday morning hoping to speak with the sheriff face to face.  A spokesperson turned her and several other reporters away, but then the sheriff caught up with her by phone later in the afternoon.

The next obvious step in the investigation will be to identify the bodies.  The remains are now in the hands of the Pima County medical examiner, Dr. Gregory Hess.  "Unfortunately the remains were burnt, and so it makes it difficult to identify the people," Hess told KGUN9 News Tuesday night.  "We can't do a visual identification.  Fingerprints are out of the question."

Hess said the remains were in such poor shape that he could not say with certainty whether any children were among the victims.  He did say that none was an infant.

Dr. Hess said he hopes dental records will provide a positive identification.   In an update  Wednesday afternoon, Hess told KGUN9 News that he had received dental records for two of the family members, and was waiting for the other three.  Once he's made the comparisons and reached a conclusion, he will turn his findings over to police investigators, who will then make a determination of when and whether to release the information to the public.

When asked how the five people died, Hess said, "We have preliminary information on how we believe some of them were killed but we were asked by law enforcement not reveal that information yet.  They wanted to handle how that would be disseminated as part of their investigation."

What is known about James Butwin, the father of the missing family, is that he owned a business.  A business partner told the media that Butwin gave him a strange letter explaining how to run the business, along with a key to his house.

That friend contacted police.  When they went to the home, Tempe police found evidence they felt pointed toward a murder-suicide involving the Butwin family.   Tuesday's press release from the Tempe Police Department concluded, "We do not believe there are any outstanding suspects involved in this case."

Shelley Jackson, a family friend, told reporters the Butwins were having a tough time, saying that the wife, Yafit, had filed for divorce and that the family was going through financial troubles.  The couple had three children.

Jackson also said James Butwin was battling a brain tumor. 

The Pinal and Tempe press releases are available in the "Related Documents" section above at left.

Editor's note:  an earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Butwin's wife.