Maricopa County is the fourth largest county in the US, located in the south-central part of the state of Arizona. It is comprised of 5 Districts. Each District represents a group of cities and communities and its county seat is Phoenix which is part of District 1.
Even though the city of Phoenix and a few small areas lean towards the Democratic Party, Maricopa County has a long history of voting Republican. The County Board of Supervisors get elected for four years by popular vote within their own districts.
Arizona counties are not chartered governments and are considered both politically and legally sub-divisions of the state. The election of the local sheriff is also done by popular vote and the current sheriff of Maricopa County is the infamous Joe Arpaio, who calls himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff” due to his outrageous and controversial style of running his office. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has been involved in many controversies since Arpaio’s first majority election in 1992. This is the largest sheriff’s office in Arizona and it operates the county jail system. The abject jail conditions in Maricopa County are legendary and Tent City is considered one of the 10 worst prisons in the US with its chain gangs, lousy food and racism. And the sheriff is facing countless lawsuits stemming from his unethical practices.
He is well known for his double standards and true to form, he also maintains a facility nicknamed ‘Mesa Hilton’ for the detention of celebrities and his friends. It is full of amenities and a stark contrast to his regular Gulag style of detention. This is where Adam Stoddard, who was one of Arpaio’s deputies, served time for contempt of court. When inmates escape the clutches of his jails after sentencing, it is only to move to a prison like the Perryville Correctional Facility where Debra Milke spent 23 years on death row for the murder of her son.
Debra Sadeik was born on March 10, 1964, in a military hospital in Germany. Her mother Renate Janka was German and her father Sam Saidek American. That same year, they moved to the US and a year later, welcomed another daughter whom they named Sandra.
According to Renate, her marriage disintegrated and her husband never forgave her for leaving him. “His last words of our conversation in the kitchen are burnt into my mind forever, ‘I cannot make you stay, but I will never forget. Nobody leaves Sam Sadeik. Some day you will have to pay the price for it all.’ She is convinced that his eventual testimony against their daughter Debra in her murder trial was part of that price.
Debra’s parents divorced in 1980 and in 1983, her mother decided to accept a position in Stuttgart, Germany. It meant that Sandra went to live with her father in Florence, Arizona and that Debra stayed in the parental apartment in Phoenix with some friends. “I felt anger towards my Mom for leaving,” recalls Debra. “I don’t know why. She didn’t abandon me. I was clearly old enough to be on my own. But I didn’t know how to cope with my feelings of emptiness and loss.”
At 19-year old, it was exhilarating, but also scary to be alone. Debra had her sister, but from all accounts, Sandra had always been envious of her and felt overshadowed. “We were on a constant roller coaster with Sandra. The same applied to her relationship with Debra — she adored her one minute and wanted nothing to do with her the next,” said Renate. This would prove to be prophetic at trial.
Debra’s declaration of independence was to marry carpet layer and former exotic dancer, Mark Milke, in December 1984, and getting pregnant not long afterwards. Mark who has since changed his name to Arizona, turned out to be a difficult fellow who was in and out of jail several times on alcohol and drug related charges.
Debra had this to say about their relationship: “Looking back on it all now, I connected with Mark in a way that I didn’t understand at the time. I felt a sense of belonging. He was clearly not my type but there was something about him that I was deeply attracted to. He had this bad boy image about him that was kind of exciting to me, although at the time I had no knowledge of his drug use.”
“Today, I realize that Mark had an addiction and I didn’t understand addiction,” she said. “I believed that if I had a child, that feeling of loneliness and emptiness in my heart would be filled,” she says, her voice breaking. “I also believed in my heart that if I did have a child, it would make Mark straighten up.”
The couple’s relationship was an unending pattern of breaking up, reconciling, fighting, and blaming. They did not seem to be able to sever their unhealthy tie.
One time, Mark took their son Christopher to a reputed crack house. When Debbie heard about it, she called the police and rushed there herself but he had already left. Such incidents eventually convinced Debra to file for divorce, demand sole custody of Christopher, and a stipulation that Mark’s visitations be supervised, which infuriated him.
Debra filed for a dissolution of marriage in mid-1988 and they divorced in November. Afterwards, she went to live with her mother-in-law, Isle Milke, with whom she had a good relationship. She wanted Christopher to be in a good environment while Mark was working out his problems. Debra even attended substance abuse counselling sessions with him to show support. She did not want to separate her estranged husband from her son, but she cared about his welfare and was tired of the drama.
She eventually filed for an Order of Protection in the Superior Court of Maricopa County.
There are always two sides to a story and Mark had a lot of negative things to say about Debra’s style of parenting. He recounted that one day, he came home after a hard day’s work to find her yelling at Christopher that she wished he would have never been born. He accused her of manipulating his mother into giving her a car and of being a user. The turmoil of this marriage eroded her already fragile relationships with the rest of her family. The bitter divisions could not help but provide future witnesses for the prosecution.
Out of desperation, after Mark had confiscated her car keys, Debra called a good friend of her sister named Jim Styers. He offered to rent her a room until she could regroup. It would turn out to be a fatal mistake.
Jim Styers was a Vietnam Veteran living on a disability pension who shared custody of his 2-year old daughter with his former wife. It was the perfect temporary solution for both parties because Debra could pay him to babysit Christopher while she went to work at her new job for an insurance company. Styers could use the money and seemed happy with the arrangement.
In December 1989, Debra had applied for a 2 bedroom apartment that would better suit her needs and was planning to move out in January 1990. Things were starting to look up for her.
But it turns out that Styers, the church goer, was a troubled man and in spite of his seemingly healthy lifestyle forsaking drinking and smoking, he was suffering from PTSD and taking heavy meds. There was much more about him than meet the eye, the extent of which Debra would only find out at her murder trial.
Born in 1947, Jim had quit high school in the 11th grade because of a learning disability, obtained his G.E.D., and earned a degree in General Studies at a community college. His service in Vietnam from 1968 to 1971 had a profound impact on his psyche. He drove a truck on the front lines and one day, an 8-year-old unarmed Vietnamese boy ran up and tried to climb in his truck, but he shot and killed him, saying that he was “not willing to take a chance” that the child was wired with explosives. He later told investigators that he killed women and children in Vietnam, and that ever since, he was haunted by ghostly calls, screams, cries and pleadings.
In 1971, Jim was thrown from a jeep, landed on his head and suffered brain damage. He spent months in a coma, then awoke to find that most of his memory was gone and that he had lost his speech and his ability to walk. He subsequently had to live on anti-seizure medication, lithium and another anti-psychotic in order to be able to lead a so-called normal life.
He developed a strong attachment to Debra, and even if he seemed to take good care of Christopher, some people heard him say pretty offensive things about the boy. But his ex-wife raved about his parenting skills and after all, he had always been respectful of Debra and her son. There was never anything romantic or physical between them, but if he was infatuated with Debra, he might have become unhinged because she was planning to move out.
Christopher Conan Milke was born on October 2, 1985. Debra maintains to this day that the birth of her son transformed her world. “I spent most of my pregnancy alone and worked two jobs to keep the bills paid. It was very hard, but it was OK because I had that child inside of me. Nothing else mattered.”
On the other hand, Mark Milke’s’s words portrayed a rather selfish and contrasting view of this event. “From the conception, life became hell on earth for me and Chris as well if I wasn’t around to take the abuse. From that time, I had to quit drinking and start fresh. She did everything in her power to keep me from it. She feared the loss of control that alcohol gave her over me. I had become a machine to her. Take abuse. Take care of Chris and be both father and mother roles. I worked to buy her things.”
Little Christopher suffered from a thyroid condition that made him hyperactive and caused behavioral problems. It apparently improved when he received medical treatment. But it might have contributed to Debra being stern and impatient at times. She might not have been mother of the year, but who would be at that age with all the stress and pressure coming from different directions? Legally, we are not supposed to base a case on character but on strong evidence.
On December 1, Jim took his daughter and Christopher to the mall to run errands. The boy was so excited about having seen Santa that the next morning, he begged his mom to let him go back. Jim needed to borrow Debra’s car anyway so it all worked out. Christopher got dressed and his mother fixed him a bowl of cereal.
After Styers and Christopher left in Debra’s car, she stayed behind to do laundry.
Roger Scott was an old friend of Jim’s that he picked up at his house at about 11 a.m. The three then drove to Walgreen’s and Osco. They then went to Peter Piper Pizza, where Christopher had his last meal and played some video games. Then they left and were seen at about 1 p.m. at a grocery store, where Christopher used the bathroom. Finally, they drove to the desert and told the boy they would go out to look for snakes.
The two men have offered contradictory accounts of what happened next. Scott said he waited in the car, until he heard three shots. Styers emerged a short time later and said, “That little bastard won’t ever bother me again.” Scott said he did not know Styers was going to kill the kid.
At his trial, Styers testified that they were walking back to the car when Scott for no apparent reason shot Christopher. “After I went a ways, almost back to the car, I heard shots. I turned around and said, ‘Hey, Roger, when did you get the gun and what are you shooting at?’ Then I seen him standing there. He had the gun pointed at me. He said, ‘I took care of Christopher. I’m going to tell you what you’re going to do.’ I went into solid fear.”
The duo drove back to the mall at about 2:15 p.m. Scott said that Styers handed him the gun and the black Nike tennis shoes he had been wearing, and told him to get rid of them. Then he went into the mall and reported Christopher missing. About 2:45 p.m., Styers called Debra, telling her that Christopher was missing.
Debra became nearly hysterical, although the prosecution later described it as “making hysterical overtones.” Her neighbors said that she seemed genuinely upset. “She was upset, really bad and just hysterical. She was just beside herself. I don’t know, shaking, almost continuous crying.” She immediately called her father, who testified that she was so upset he couldn’t understand her. “What is the problem?” he snapped. “Spit it out.” Sobbing, she explained that Christopher was missing. He told her to stay by the phone, and call him back in 30 minutes. She testified later that Christopher knew the phone number, and she wanted to stay by the phone in case he called. She then called police and reported Christopher missing.
Meanwhile, Styers pretended to run into Scott again and enlisted him in a make believe search. He and Scott then went out into the parking lot, and Scott took the bus home. He had stashed the black Nike tennis shoes in a planter at the mall, and later hid the gun in his closet.
At 5:15 p.m., Styers contacted Phoenix police to report Christopher missing.
Once the police arrived, Styers’ story began to unravel. Detective Charlie Masino noted that the toilet Jim claimed to have been using when Christopher disappeared had a broken seat and that the heavy bathroom door in the stall Christopher was supposed to have used was jammed and a 4-year-old could not have opened it on his own.
Later on, Styers admitted that Scott had been with him for most of the day. He kept calling Debra throughout the evening to keep her updated on the search. Debra’s behavior that evening became an issue at trial. A detective reported that she emphatically refused to come to the mall.
Neighbors supported her suggestion that she stayed in the apartment in hopes that Christopher would call. “She took a sleeping pill and lay down for half an hour and when the phone rang, I have never seen anybody dash so quick to the phone. She made it before the people sitting beside the phone and said, ‘did you find him?’
Detectives spent hours interrogating Styers and Scott. Styers never changed his tune, but after 12 hours, Scott cracked. Detective Armando Saldate was called in and took over trying to debunk his story and threatening to send police to his mother’s residence to ransack the apartment. Scott, who had been unemployed and lived with his sick mother, had accumulated a long list of petty crimes and arrests in his adult life. He feared the police showing up would kill his mother. He told Saldate that Styers had murdered the boy and took them to the spot where the body was.
Scott gave several conflicting statements; first, he told police that Styers told him, “More or less the kid has to go, I just can’t stand him anymore.” He also said Styers offered him $250 he needed to appeal a Social Security Administration decision in return for driving the car.
“About how long ago did you talk to Debbie face to face about this?” asked the detective “Um, within the last week it was brought up at least twice from her,” said Scott. “I’m not sure, there’s more, at least twice, and uh…” “What did she say, as best you can recall?” asked the detective “That she just had to get away from him and she just wasn’t cut out to be a mother and that she wanted us to take care of it.” Scott was later examined and diagnosed by psychologist Donald Tatro who testified about his state of mind during the interrogation: “When that happened, Scott felt as though his head is in a vice, like his head became a pressure cooker and he couldn’t think straight.”
Saldate believed Debra was guilty as a result of the confession he extracted from Scott. But he also knew that Scott would be a useless witness and that no evidence linked Debra to the crime. Therefore, the only way to convict her was to get a confession, or fabricate one if necessary. And that’s what he did. He brought Debra into a medical exam room at the Florence Sheriff’s Substation for a 30 minutes conversation. “I use my gut reaction,” he testified. “I use my experience when I’m talking to that person. I look directly at that person. They want to tell the truth. You have just got to give them the opportunity. I’m there to listen to them. When someone is told that their child was murdered and they start to sob, and no tears come to their eyes, it’s obviously a way to try to make me feel for her and I didn’t buy it — I just didn’t buy it. Just didn’t buy it.”
He then made up a whole confession that was not taped, or signed by Debra, who swore it never happened. She strongly denied any involvement in the murder of her son. He even had the nerve to say that she exposed her breasts to him which was technically impossible considering the clothing she was wearing that day as supported by photos. Saldate’s dirty tactics landed Debra on trial for murder.
The Trial Judge Cheryl K. Hendrix was so prejudicial towards the defense that it became somewhat of a joke. She was eventually banned from hearing criminal cases and assigned to domestic-relations cases. She is well known for having balked at giving a maximum sentence to a child molester because his “victim was not an emotional basket.”
Noel Levy prosecuted Debra in September 1990, and his theory was that she wanted to be free to pursue a relationship with her new boyfriend. She was portrayed as a horrible mother who disliked her son and who wanted to get rid of him to collect a $5000 life insurance policy, even though the policy was simply part of the basic benefits package at her new job. The prosecutors suggested that she enlisted Styers and Scott to execute her evil plan.
Ken Ray had an uphill battle as her public defender because the media had totally poisoned the public against his client and the state was playing dirty. He was mostly criticized for not objecting to the introduction of the tape of a conversation between Saldate and Debra’s sister that was not played at trial but was used in jury deliberations. One juror admitted that it turned their decision around. It had nothing to do with the murder but was rather plain old character assassination. Their reasoning was that if her family considered her such a manipulator, she had to have masterminded the crime.
Saldate testified that she confessed to the murder and numerous witnesses, including her sister and her own father, eagerly trashed her on the stand. She was described as a lousy absentee mother who could not care less about her son. However, the fact that Scott would not testify against Debra even if he was offered a deal is very telling.
Rachel Roth, a jail counselor who worked with Debra, observed that she was devastated by a severe grief reaction. “It’s my opinion that Debra is a young woman who has been judged in a way that signifies something to do with how we view women in our society. There have been behaviors that in the general course of events one may expect from a single parent that in a way have been falsely interpreted as being some form of evil.”
Other people in both trial testimony and in sworn statements since filed, depict Debbie as a good mother, struggling to deal with many problems:
Carmen Santana, a co-worker, described her as a loving mother. “She has never been ugly in any way, shape or form with Chris.”
Karen and John Ciulla and Patrick Murphy are other neighbors who described her as a good mother.
Dr. Kevin Zuerlein, in an affidavit filed for her appeal, noted that during the 19 days Christopher spent in the hospital for treatment of suppurative thyroiditis, the boy and his mother were “well bonded.” She was constantly at the hospital; she was genuinely concerned and helpful; and he observed no signs of physical or mental abuse.
Donald and Josephine Jones, parents of one of Debbie’s first boyfriend, also submitted an affidavit saying: “Debbie was a good mother. Christopher was very hyper. Christopher was a handful. Debbie was real diplomatic with him. She was stern, but appropriate. Neither one of us ever saw her strike him. We always felt that Debbie was an excellent mother. She seemed to be happy with him and he obviously loved her. Knowing her the way we do, we’ve never believed she was involved in this.”
When she took the stand, Debra was never asked to describe her love for Christopher, but only to defend herself against the vile accusations of Saldate. She was criticized for her lack of emotions but she was so strongly medicated that her flat affect was reasonable and should have been expected.
The jury chose to believe Saldate and found Debra guilty of murder and she was sentenced to death. Scott had turned down a reduced sentence in exchange for his testimony against Milke. He and Styers had separate trials and were also sentenced to die.
But it must be said that in 2009, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals granted Scott a long-standing appeal and ordered an evidentiary hearing to consider the efforts of his lawyer at his trial. Roland Steinle, who is now a Maricopa judge, had failed to present mitigating evidence at sentencing including “four traumatic head injuries Scott had suffered, a brain scan showing Scott’s brain had atrophied, evidence Scott suffered from seizures, as well as evidence of the plea bargain offer, which Scott ‘allegedly’ wanted to accept but Steinle rejected.”
At the time, Debra did not believe that Scott killed her son but suspected it was Styers who was not in better shape mentally than Scott but had a motive. As indicated in her recent interview below, she has now changed her mind and thinks Scott was the culprit.
At Perryville Correctional facility, Debra stayed in a cell 23 hours a day for 23 years. Her mother and supporters never wavered in their belief in her innocence. And with time, the number of her supporters grew extensively.
After it was established that it was not Saldate’s first rodeo at tainted confessions, perjury under oath and lying to his supervisors, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Alex Kozinski ruled in March 2013, that Milke did not receive a fair trial.
Kosinski wrote for the court, “No civilized system of justice should have to depend on such flimsy evidence, quite possibly tainted by dishonestly or overzealousness, to decide to take someone’s life or liberty.’’
Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne replied that his office would appeal the judge’s decision to toss her conviction and the death sentence to the U.S. Supreme Court. They intend to try her again. But the problem is that Saldate wants to plead the Fifth and without his testimony, the prosecution has absolutely nothing.
In Maricopa County, prosecutors like Noel Levy and Juan Martinez have the reputation of wanting to win at all costs and of being fuelled by revenge instead of a quest for truth and justice. Some of their detectives like Saldate and Flores, who investigated the Jodi Arias case, were willing to change the facts if it could give the prosecution a well needed ‘boost.’
Debra still faces charges but was released in September 2013 on a $250,000 bond paid by her supporters pending the possibility of a retrial. She lives in Phoenix in a home that was also provided by her supporters. She has been reunited with her mom Renate who is gravely ill. Her legal team is ready for the fight but still hopeful that there will not be a retrial if Saldate refuses to testify.
Everything is in a holding pattern now because the prosecutors asked the Arizona Court of Appeals to except the request to overturn Judge Mroz’s decision to let Saldate plead the Fifth. His testimony is their only hope.
We will never know for sure if Debra participated in this plot or not, but without a real confession or strong evidence, it was highly unethical to have charged her. In America, you are supposed to be presumed innocent and it did not happen in her case. There was a whole lot of character assassination going on during the trial, but no evidence whatsoever. Even the killers did not point the finger at her in court.
The end of Maricopa County as we know it
The infamous trial of Debra Milke is only the tip of the iceberg. The Maricopa County style of prosecution and the treatment of their inmates is shameful. Their hate campaigns followed by the punishment of the culprits are undignified and have no place in civilized society. Some of the officials of this county want to get elected so badly that they are willing to wag the dog; create a crisis, solve it and become heroes. They use their star inmates as media and election bait.
Some very sharp and influential players are protesting their unethical methods and will not stay silent anymore. Sheriff Arpaio, County Attorney Bill Montgomery and prosecutors such as Noel Levy (now retired) and Juan Martinez have been running the zoo for too long and they are so barbaric and ‘death penalty happy’ that they have become sadistic, cartoonish characters epitomizing the insanity that has become the norm in the lethal land of Maricopa.
We just learned that FBI agents investigating Maricopa County Sheriff Arpaio and former County Attorney Andrew Thomas and their deputies on abuse of power allegations, believed they had sufficient evidence to charge some of the probe’s targets. But Federal prosecutors ultimately declined to pursue the case. I say same time next year!
Hopefully, the Debra Milke case will be the straw that broke Maricopa’s back and eventually, we will see a new blueprint for the county:
Arpaio will end up where he belongs: in a padded cell. But not in solitary confinement because he should be free to roam around dressed as the Lone Ranger singing “My Way” if he feels like it.
Juan Martinez will be demoted to delivering good servings of Mexican dishes at Estrella jail, impersonating the Taco Bell Chihuahua.
Montgomery and Saldate will play Survivors by being dropped on foot in the city of Juarez, Mexico, wearing tee-shirts inscribed with ‘I want to steal your drugs.’
Governor Jan Brewer will have quite a sendoff complete with a fiesta where she will be paraded on a float after having been tied to a tree dressed as the Little Red Riding Hood. While getting it from behind by new member of the Mormon Church, Steven Seagal, she will be baptized and called a three-hole wonder, in that order. After all, this is considered healthy entertainment in AZ.
Seagal will leave with a bang. I hear he intended to use explosives and a tactical team when he considered running for Arizona Governor, so eventually, one of his tactical plans will blow up in his face before more roosters and dogs have to pay the price.
Judge Sherry Stephens and Judge Cheryl K. Hendrix will have two special seats reserved on a bus leaving Maricopa for Vegas. They will go on tour to present their Magic number with the stage name ‘Prejudicial Sisters.’ Their best trick is to make a live rabbit disappear in a hat and reappear completely cooked.
Maricopa, the land of justice gone wrong, will be rehabilitated and its prisons will now be run ethically by Mexicans. I have a dream!
The Arizona Court of Appeals ordered the murder case dropped against Debra Milke on double jeopardy grounds and “egregious prosecutorial misconduct.” Maricopa County District Attorney Bill Montgomery announced they are filing a petition for review so we shall see who will prevail in the end.
Sadly, Debra’s mother lost her battle with cancer and passed away, but she had the pleasure of seeing her daughter free if only for a short time.
Bill Montgomery’s political blame game. Why won’t they let go?
On March 13th, 2015, Milke filed a civil lawsuit against county and city officials saying she was robbed of 23 years of her life. The lawsuit was filed against Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, former Phoenix Police Detective Armando Saldate, several Phoenix police officers, sergeants, lieutenants a forensic anthropologist, acting criminalist in the City of Phoenix Crime Laboratory and the acting Assistant Chief Medical Examiner for the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s Office.
On March 17, 2015, Arizona highest court rejected a bid to retry Milke. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, whose office pushed the case against Milke, said in a statement that Tuesday’s decision marks “a dark day for Arizona’s criminal justice system.”
A judge on March 23, dismissed the murder case against Milke. She is now officially a free woman.