PHOENIX — In a pair of interviews with separate news outlets, Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel further distanced herself from a set of controversial gang charges that were hanging over a group of police protesters for months.
But in the process, Adel’s new comments have created more questions about the extent of what she and her leadership team knew about the case before the gang charges were presented to a grand jury.
Adel dropped the charges one week after ABC15’s “Politically Charged” investigation exposed the gang counts were based on dubious claims and lies.
Adel and her staff set up the interviews with the two news stations the day after ABC15 requested a sit-down interview and broadcasted the request on air.
Before the interviews, 12News and AZFamily had reported little, if anything, about the protest case and the gang charges. Adel's office says that now that she has called for an outside review of the charges, it would be "inappropriate" for her to interview about it.
When asked by 12News if she was involved in the charging decision, Adel responded, “Not exactly. One of it has to do with timing. It was late October/early November that I was going through some of the physical ailments. And I knew these cases were coming, and I had a snippet of information.”
But defense attorneys and community activists aren’t satisfied with her answer of “not exactly” and the fact she said she had a “snippet” of information.
How much did Adel know? When? They want specifics and immediately attacked the County Attorney’s new statements over the weekend.
Several attorneys said Adel’s previous public statements and the clear coordination between MCAO and Phoenix police show that a decision to charge protesters as a gang clearly pre-dates Adel’s medical emergency.
They find it highly unlikely that Adel and her leadership team, which run the third-largest prosecutorial agency in the country, weren’t aware or involved in a case this significant and one that involves such significant constitutional concerns.
The lead prosecutor involved in the “gang” case is April Sponsel.
Sponsel is an experienced prosecutor assigned to the First Responders Bureau, which is a special unit created by Adel in late 2019. The bureau’s main focus is to prosecute crimes against first responders.
The First Responders Bureau was also in charge of all major protest cases in 2020, and Sponsel was specifically assigned by MCAO to lead the prosecutions, records show.
ABC15 also obtained radio calls and dispatch logs that show Sponsel was directly advising Phoenix police officers before the arrests against the group were even finalized on the night of the protest.
“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.
The protest occurred on October 17, 2020.
It involved 17 individuals, including three minors.
Another man was arrested but falsely accused of being involved. His case has been dismissed with prejudice.
The protest, which was advertised on social media via flyers, lasted roughly 30 minutes and ended at 8:30 p.m. Police were already at the staging area when protesters arrived and had previously held a briefing earlier in the day to plan for it, records show.
Officers first created an incident report for the protest eight hours before the arrests were made, records show.
The case also wasn’t MCAO’s only attempt to label protesters as gang members. ABC15 discovered four defendants in a separate case were also accused in court of being gang members by prosecutors.
MCAO didn’t provide any information to defense attorneys to justify the allegations and withdrew them following ABC15’s reports.
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.