PHOENIX – Two nationally known forensic pathologists are questioning a sheriff deputy's version of how he was shot in the remote desert south of Phoenix, adding to theories that the incident was a hoax timed to enflame the debate over illegal immigration.
Pinal County Deputy Louie Puroll told investigators he was following a group of smugglers carrying bales of marijuana on April 30 when he was ambushed by men firing AK-47 rifles. In what Puroll described as a running gunbattle, he said he was grazed by a bullet in the back.
The pathologists, Dr. Michael Baden of New York and Dr. Werner Spitz of suburban Detroit, examined photos of the wound released by the sheriff's office. They told The Associated Press on Friday they concluded the bullet was fired from inches away, not at least 25 yards as Puroll said.
Their opinion was first reported by the Phoenix New Times.
It's "a close wound, not a distant wound, based on the appearance of the skin around the wound, which is normally what we forensic pathologists look at," said Baden, a former New York City chief medical examiner currently working for the New York State Police. "We're talking inches, not yards."
Dr. Werner Spitz, former chief medical examiner of Detroit's Wayne County and author of a death investigation textbook, held the same opinion.
"There's almost no doubt that this is a muzzle contact-type injury, with the muzzle flame singeing the skin right where the bullet went by," Spitz said.
When asked if the bullet could have been from 25 yards away, he said: "No, it was not (even) from 1 yard away."
Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu was out of town in meetings Friday, but his spokesman released a statement saying the sheriff's office stands behind the official investigation, and physical evidence supports the deputy's account.
There were no burn marks on Puroll's shirt and his wound had no stippling, which is caused from burnt gun powder coming from the barrel of a gun when fired at a close distance, the statement said.
"The article that is critical of the investigation was written by a reporter who was able to solicit opinions of those with differing views," the statement said. "After a review all of the evidence in this case, the Pinal County Sheriff's Office has closed this criminal investigation and concluded that it occurred as Deputy Puroll reported it."
Baden said it appeared that Puroll's shirt did have what appeared to be powder burns. The New Times reported that it was not sent to the state police lab for examination.
Puroll's shooting fueled an already blazing debate in Arizona and the nation about the dangers of immigrant and drug smugglers in southern Arizona. It came just days after Arizona Gov. Janet Brewer signed a sweeping law giving law enforcement powers to question suspected illegal immigrants and arrest them. The major parts of that law have been put on hold by a federal judge on constitutional grounds.
The shooting immediately raised questions from observers who believed it was odd that the deputy was alone in the remote desert, supposedly looking for armed drug smugglers without backup. And a dragnet thrown up by more than 100 officers in the rugged mountainous area about 50 miles south of Phoenix found no suspects and no bales of marijuana, although it did turn up more than a dozen illegal immigrants.
The area is a well-known smuggling corridor for drugs and illegal immigrants headed from Mexico to Phoenix and the U.S. interior.
Shortly after the shooting, Babeu discounted those questioning his deputy, releasing reports that he said should squelch rumors that Puroll set up the incident as a hoax to inflame the public.
Babeu did change sheriff's policy to prohibit deputies from patrolling remote areas alone.