TEMPE, Ariz. – Responding to critics who claim he was too quick to blame drug smugglers for the deaths of five people found in a burned-out SUV last weekend, an Arizona sheriff said Wednesday that he was merely sharing timely information about the case and never formally concluded that the deaths were the work of a cartel.
"There were no conclusions given ... there was no pronouncement," Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu told The Associated Press in his first comments since evidence surfaced suggesting the deaths may have been a murder-suicide, not cartel violence.
Babeu lashed out at critics who claim that he was trying to use the case to appear tough on immigration ahead of his November bid for re-election and that he should have waited until his office had confirmation before saying a cartel likely was responsible.
"When you're not being transparent and giving information, then everyone stands on their high horse," he said of his critics.
The five bodies were found Saturday in an SUV in a mountainous desert area 35 miles south of Phoenix that's a well-known smuggling corridor for drugs and illegal immigrants headed up from Mexico. The bodies were so badly burned that investigators couldn't immediately determine their gender, age or ethnicity.
"Given all these indicators, you don't have to be a homicide detective to add up all this information," Babeu said Saturday, the day the bodies were found.
On Monday, Babeu posted on his Facebook page: "All information is pointing that this is connected to the violent drug cartel smuggling in this high smuggling area."
"The border is NOT more secure than ever Ms. Napolitano!" he added, in reference to previous statements made by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
In an interview with The AP later that day, Babeu said that "if this is in fact connected to the cartels, and we absolutely prove it, this should be a warning to our country" and "should send a shock wave that this could happen here."
On Tuesday, police in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe said that a vehicle belonging to a missing family of five, whose disappearance was being investigated as a murder-suicide, was the same vehicle found burning in the desert. Police found "suspicious and concerning" evidence inside the home of the Butwin family and stopped looking for them or any suspects after the sheriff's office notified them about the vehicle match.
A group of about a dozen people, led by an immigrant advocacy group, protested outside the sheriff's office Wednesday, carrying signs that read "Paul 'Pinocchio' Babeu" and calling on voters to elect someone else.
"It is completely inappropriate for a law enforcement officer to compromise the integrity of his position to further his political career," said Carlos Galindo, president of the recently formed Immigrant Advocacy Foundation. "We hope that what we're doing here is essentially putting a nail in the coffin by bringing it to the attention of the community."
Babeu told the AP that he could see the protesters from his office and laughed at their small number.
"I find it ironic that a group that defends illegal immigrants would rush to the defense that the cartels are being maligned," Babeu said, saying that he recognized some of his opponents in the sheriff's race in the group. "It's all politics."
Babeu said he wasn't yet ready to say whether he thinks the bodies in the SUV were that of the Butwin family.
"We're waiting until everything is concluded because there's still a lot of information yet to come out," he said.
He said he only found out about the SUV in the desert being linked to the Butwins' vehicle Tuesday afternoon and that public information officers at his office didn't know about it when they issued a news release that day that did not include that information and appeared to downplay the possibility that the Tempe family could be the people in the car.
Eric Olson, associate director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center's Mexico Institute in Washington, D.C., said that he can understand why sheriff's investigators would consider a cartel as the perpetrator of Saturday's crime, given that the bodies were found in a smuggling corridor in the desert at an odd time of day.
"But it's incredibly important to reserve judgment until there's more conclusive evidence, as always is the case," he said. Such a gruesome, high-profile crime typically isn't in the best interest of smugglers who want to stay in business and avoid arrest, he added.
In recent years, Babeu has become a rising, conservative star with his strong opposition to illegal immigration and smuggling, and sharp criticism of the Obama administration.
Babeu appeared alongside Sen. John McCain in a 2010 ad in which McCain advocated finishing the building of the border fence, and last year was chosen as America's "Sheriff of the Year" by his colleagues in the National Sheriffs' Association. He also was named Arizona campaign co-chairman for Republican Mitt Romney's bid for the presidency.
In January, Babeu announced his candidacy for Congress in Arizona's 4th District. He came under intense scrutiny after he was forced to admit that he is gay amid allegations of misconduct made by a man with whom he previously had a relationship, as first reported in The New Times, a Phoenix alternative weekly magazine.
The man, a Mexican immigrant and a former campaign volunteer, accused Babeu of threatening him with deportation if their past relationship was made public. Babeu denied those allegations, saying they were an attempt to hurt his political career, and vowed to continue his congressional campaign.
Not long after that, Babeu resigned from Romney's campaign. Last month, Babeu dropped out of the congressional race, saying that he decided not to run because his chief deputy would not be able to run for sheriff and that he had promised a continuity of leadership in the office.
Babeu told the AP that he would have remained a "viable candidate" in what he said would have been a hard-fought congressional race.
Follow Amanda Lee Myers on Twitter at https://twitter.com/(hash)!/AmandaLeeAP