FLORENCE, Ariz. – Independent testing of a bloodied shirt backs up the story of a deputy who contends he was shot by drug smugglers in the remote desert, officials said Thursday. The deputy dismissed speculation that he staged the incident to publicize drug and human smuggling.
The Pinal County Sheriff's Office said the Arizona Department of Public Safety concluded that a bullet passed through the shirt, but that no gunpowder was found on it. The sheriff's office said that confirms the bullet was fired from far away, as Pinal County Deputy Louie Puroll said it was.
"This case is now closed, and we're going to move on," Sheriff Paul Babeu said.
Puroll told investigators he was following a group of smugglers carrying bales of marijuana when he was ambushed by men firing AK-47 rifles about 50 miles south of Phoenix on April 30.
In what Puroll described as a running gunbattle, he was grazed by a bullet in the small of the back.
The shooting immediately raised questions about why a deputy would be looking for armed drug smugglers in the remote desert without backup. A dragnet involving more than 100 officers in the rugged mountainous area found no suspects and no bales of marijuana.
In his first public comments since the shooting, Puroll said he didn't plan on confronting the smugglers.
"I never intended to get close to them," a blunt-talking Puroll told a news conference. "They just stopped sooner than I thought they would. If I'd have known I was going to get in a gunfight, I'd have taken five or six guys with me. I can't imagine anybody shooting them-self, let alone me."
He said he believes he hit one of the men during the firefight but wasn't surprised that the dragnet didn't find any sign of the men or their cargo.
"It's a big desert," Puroll said. "A motivated individual who carries drug packs for a living and knows the cops are coming can cover a lot of distance in 2½ hours. If you gave me 2½ hours head start in the desert, you would not find me, no matter how many helicopters you used."
Puroll said he was an experienced deputy who made his living working alone in the desert.
"I've had as many as 40 (illegal immigrants) at a time surrender to me, surrounding my truck and begging for water and to call the Border Patrol," he said.
The sheriff's office reopened the investigation into Puroll's shooting on Sept. 27 and sent the shirt for testing following comments from two forensic pathologists that the bullet was fired from inches away, not from at least 25 yards as Puroll said.
Babeu said he reopened the investigation to maintain transparency and that his office has nothing to hide.
The shirt wasn't sent to the Department of Public Safety originally because there was no indication that Puroll wasn't telling the truth, and all the evidence backed up his story, Babeu said.