Botched 2014 case left man free to commit more crimes
Deputy resigned but investigation continued
PHOENIX – Steven D. Ray, a former master deputy with the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office, has agreed to relinquish his police certification and be permanently barred from working as a police officer in Arizona. Aconsent agreement between Ray and Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Trainingwas accepted May 17 by unanimous vote of the AZPOST board.
Ray, age 44, retired January 16 while under an internal investigation initiated in October by chief deputy Thad Smith. Lieutenant Ken Foster was assigned to oversee the investigation into performance concerns reported by Ray’s superiors.
One of those concerns was an arrest Ray made in January 2014 involving Martin Lewis Hernandez. Charges were later dropped against Hernandez after Ray failed to follow-up on the case. CCSO investigators believe Hernandez was involved in a homicide the next year.
Foster reviewed numerous documents and spoke with nine witnesses, along with interviewing Ray for more than an hour on January 13. His final report on Ray was issued in February and outlines more than a dozen policy and rule violations -including “willful neglect of duty” and “willful disobedience”- going back to 2014.
The report also revealed that Ray’s superiors sought for several months to address his performance issues, including counseling, reprimands, and suspensions. Foster’s report was forwarded to chief deputy Smith by commander Sam Farris, who described Ray’s performance as “exceedingly poor” and “customarily negligent.”
Farris also noted Foster’s findings “revealed colossal failure on the part of former Deputy Ray,” whose position as a master deputy gave him authority over other deputies in the absence of a higher ranking officer.
In aMarch 17 memoFarris recommended that Ray “be terminated for misconduct,” but by then the longtime deputy had retired.
CCSO forwarded Foster’s findings to AZPOST, which oversees the certification of more than 14,000 law enforcement officers across the state. The board was briefed about Ray’s conduct by Michael Saltz of the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, after which the board accepted Ray’s voluntary relinquishment. Dannels, who is one of 10 AZPOST board members, recused himself from the vote.
The sheriff’s office investigation could have been ended when Ray resigned in January but lieutenant Foster continued on. When asked about the extensive investigation, sheriff Mark Dannels released a statement noting “we owe that to every other employee who maintains their high standards and to all those who we serve.” The sheriff added that his staff is “held to a higher standard by virtue of being responsible for our citizens’ safety.”
gun possession case “fell through the cracks” requiring dismissal, twice
One of Ray’s first comments during his January 13 interview with Foster was that after “some soul searching, some reflection” Ray realized he should have retired earlier. Ray was hired by CCSO in 1999 after serving four years with Bisbee Police Dept. He hit his 20 year mark in February 2016.
Ray also told Foster “I own up to all my mistakes that I have made.”
One of those mistakes may have contributed to a 2015 homicide. According to documents obtained from AZPOST, Ray arrested Martin Lewis Hernandez in January 2014 for possession of a 40 caliber handgun, of which Hernandez was prohibited from possessing due to a prior criminal conviction.
However, the weapons charge against Hernandez was dismissed (twice) after Ray failed to act on a request from deputy county attorney Lori Zucco to have the gun test fired. Ray acknowledged Zucco’s request at the time, but later admitted it “fell to the wayside, on the back burner and I forgot about it.”
If Hernandez had been convicted on the 2014 charge he could have faced a presumptive prison sentence of 2.5 years. Instead, Hernandez became “the primary suspect” of an open 2015 homicide investigation.
In July 2016,federal authorities arrested Hernandezon drug charges. He later violated the conditions of his pre-trial release; he was in possession of a pistol when taken back into custody.
In addition to charging Hernandez for the 2016 firearms violation, the county attorney’s office recharged him in the 2014 weapons case with the help of other CCSO personnel. Hernandez, now 22, is in the Cochise County jail awaiting trial in both cases. He was transferred from the Bureau of Prisons where he has been serving a 42 month sentence for the federal drug charge.
“active shooter” crime scene ignored because vacation time starting
Foster’s report also documents several other issues with Ray’s performance, including a shooting referred to as the “Border Road incident.” That incident involved a shots fired call that Ray was in charge of on September 8, 2016 with Bisbee Police Dept. and U.S. Border Patrol as backup.
According to Foster, Ray “failed to realize the seriousness” of the call which involved at least two homes along Border Road in Bisbee being “riddled with bullet holes” around midnight. One witness estimated that dozens of rounds had been fired.
Deputy Ray spoke with some of the residents including Ronnie Hill. According to Ray’s incident report, Hill appeared incoherent and refused to allow Ray inside his home. Ray believed Hill “was being evasive” but took no further action despite being told by a Bisbee officer that Hill was seen with a handgun which he cannot legally possess.
Ray left the “active shooter” scene after less than an hour without collecting evidence or debriefing the Border Patrol agents. But he did mention to several people that he had less than an hour to the start of his vacation.
The deputy also told residents a detective would respond when it was daylight. However, Ray later admitted he returned home without notifying anyone that a crime scene needed to be processed or that the shooter needed to be found.
One resident, Kirk Gallant, called dispatch after Ray left to ask that the deputy return due to continuing problems with Hill. Instead of responding, Ray admits he simply advised Gallant “to lock his door.”
A few hours later a police tactical team was dispatched to the area after Hill shot Gallant. A three hour standoff ensued and Hill was eventually arrested. Authorities then began working the earlier crime scene. According to Foster’s report the trajectory of several bullet holes tracked back to Hill’s residence.
During his January 13 interview, Ray conceded he made “several mistakes” in handling the call, but recalled he was “just wanting to go back home” to start a much needed vacation.
Hill, a longtime Bisbee resident, is charged with attempted first degree murder and 14 other counts stemming from the two Border Road shooting incidents. The cases have been delayed while Hill’s mental competency is under review. His next court hearing is June 15. Court records show Gallant was not seriously injured.
Falsified hours, actions on federal document
Another incident highlighted in Foster’s report involved Operation Stonegarden, a program funded by Homeland Security that pays local officers to work special shifts beefing up border security.
Ray was suspended from the Stonegarden program in August 2016 for “unacceptable” performance after claiming he arrested five suspects during one shift when the people were actually apprehended by Bisbee PD. On another shift, Ray claimed seven hours of Stonegarden work even though four of the hours was for a CCSO incident.
Foster noted “one could surmise Deputy Ray was being deceptive by reporting he made five arrests” and “attempted to get paid overtime wages for completing regular duty tasks.” Ray acknowledged falsifying a document and acting unethically.
Contact reporter Terri Jo Neff at 520-508-3660 or firstname.lastname@example.org
EDITOR’S NOTE: CCSO’s 62-page report of Administrative Investigation #16-008A in the matter of ex-deputy Steven Ray isposted here