Waite's Wait

The future of the GOP county chairman-turned-felon sits in the hands of Democratic Gov. Napolitano.

Rex Waite is public enemy No. 1. This is the opinion of City Council Democrats, Pima County prosecutors and their allies within the area's publicly funded domestic violence agencies.

They have mislabeled him a powerfully connected Republican when he's really a dysfunctional, disconnected, broke and broken-down politician. More than a dozen years removed from government office, Waite recently spent his 74th birthday in a hard cell at the state prison in Florence.

Anxious--and the target of attacks by two young inmates--Waite is counting on a Democrat, Gov. Janet Napolitano, to grant him his release. She has until March 18 to act on a recommendation for release, issued by the state Board of Executive Clemency.

If Napolitano fails to act by that date, Waite will be released.

Waite is in prison because he terrorized his then-wife, Helen Baldridge, on two occasions in the winter of 2001.

From the Superior Court files, police reports and his petition for prison release, a portrait emerges of a once stable businessman and civic activist unable on two nights to control his self-pity and anger.

Six days after he followed his wife to Salt Lake City, where she met what court papers describe as a former boyfriend, Waite pleaded with her to abandon her plans to divorce him.

It was Feb. 1. Waite tied up his wife on their bed. He told her he would kill himself, that he would set the bedroom on fire. When she finally agreed to drop the divorce, he untied her.

"And then, of course, he wanted to have sex," Helen told police in reports that are part of the thick court and parole files. "That's usually what men do. They think that fixes everything."

Long impotent, Waite performed oral sex on his wife.

Rex Waite is gaining the kind of publicity that can resurrect what should remain in the political graveyard, where Waite was entombed after his clumsy stint as the county Republican Party boss.

Steve Leal, a southside Democrat and the City Council's senior member, led colleagues in a sprint to torpedo Waite's fight for clemency. Leal and Democrats Jose Ibarra, Shirley Scott and Carol West pushed through a resolution on Dec. 9 urging lame-duck Gov. Jane Hull, a Republican, to keep Waite behind bars.

Even supporters cringed. Is the City Council, which can't even balance the city's budget, setting up shop as a parole board?

On Jan. 2, Leal joined Mary Judge Ryan, chief deputy in the Pima County Attorney's Office, and representatives from domestic violence agencies outside the Old County Courthouse to further trash Waite.

Daily reporters passed along the group's inaccurate findings: Waite's clemency petition was rushed, his release would be a pure political favor and Waite was guilty of sexual assault.

The latter claim came from Ryan, whose public career has been confined to civil, administrative and personnel matters. While he was found guilty of kidnapping and assault, he was not convicted of sexual assault.

"If I said sexual assault, I misspoke," Ryan acknowledged later in an interview.

The Arizona Board of Executive Clemency voted without dissent on Nov. 7 to recommend that Waite be released.

The daily press was quick to adopt the theme that Waite's clemency was "rushed" and political.

But in reality, Bob Hirsh, the noted defense lawyer summoned to salvage Waite's case, delayed the clemency hearing.

Moreover, clemency hopes were not born of Waite's political connections but arose when Superior Court Judge Pro Tem Howard Fell said Waite's mandatory minimum sentence of three years was "excessive." Fell granted Waite permission to seek early clemency just two days after he issued the sentence.

Three members of the clemency board--all Hull appointees--heard Waite's case. One member was absent and Hull had not filled the vacancy in the board's fifth seat.

Governors have 90 days from the time they receive formal notification to act on clemency board recommendations. Hull left Waite's on her desk for Napolitano, a former Arizona attorney general and former U.S. attorney for Arizona.

State Sen. Toni Hellon and many other Pima County Republican insiders scoff at the notion that he has political pull.

"If he has all those fancy political connections, why is he still in prison?" Hellon said.

Rex Richard Waite has long carried special burdens. Waite was the third of nine children of a Muskegon, Mich., couple that separated. He became the head of the family upon the deaths of his mother, older sister and brother.

He served in the Army after World War II and returned to Michigan to earn an associate's degree in contract law. He met his first wife, Delores, in 1950. They moved to Tucson nine years later. He worked for the El Con Mall owners until 1965, when he joined the city's planning department.

In 1969, he began a five-year stint as an aide to Republican Gov. Jack Williams.

It was in that job for an arguably racist politician that Waite won praise from one of the key players in Tucson's desegregation movement.

Rubin Salter, a lawyer for the black plaintiffs in the federal court action who sought to desegregate the Tucson Unified School District, said Waite fought for equality.

"Mr. Waite found himself working for a very conservative governor, Gov. Jack Williams," Salter wrote in a letter urging leniency. "Gov. Williams's hero was John Birch. ... In spite of the opposition within his own party, Mr. Waite became a person to whom minorities could turn to at least voice their concerns. ... Mr. Waite saw, to the degree of power he possessed, that blacks and other minorities were placed on boards and instrumentalities of the state."

Waite was fully involved in the community. He was a vice president of the Tucson Boys and Girls Club and the president of the Sahuaro High School Parents Association. He was active in his eastside neighborhood associations, was a member of the state Board of Vocational Education, was chairman of the former Banco de las Americas and a member in a long list of other civic and fraternal organizations. There are stories of Waite pulling out cash--hundreds and even a couple of thousands--to help those in need.

He made money with two Swenson's Ice Cream parlors. But his idyllic life was shattered when Delores Waite died suddenly of an aneurysm in 1978.

Waite wandered in misery for a couple of years before he met Helen, in 1981. She was beautiful and 38. Waite was 53.

"I was very much in love with her. We had a seemingly great marriage. We went skiing and diving and vacationing a lot," Waite told Todd C. Flynn, a clinical and forensic psychologist who evaluated Waite for court proceedings.

But Waite, feeling the limitations of his age, soon grew jealous of his trophy.

They went to a counselor. After three or four sessions, Waite told Flynn: "I agreed that I was painting devils on the wall."

Waite thought he would be tapped for a Reagan administration post, but had to settle for a failed run for City Council in 1987.

It took an appointment by the Board of Supervisors to get Waite in public office, as Pima County assessor, replacing Arnold Jeffers, who resigned in 1991.

Waite strutted, but he was unable to hold the office in the 1992 election. He lost to Alan Lang, a Democrat whose own domestic relations were chronicled in police reports and who would eventually be recalled.

On the way out of office, Waite attempted to give Hughes Missile Systems, now Raytheon, a big tax break by slashing the value of the company's machinery. Waite lost two more elections for assessor.

As a sort of consolation, Republicans handed Waite the job as county chairman.

He was oblivious to well-known campaign finance laws, once boasting that he would match contributions to a long-shot legislative candidate in 1996--even though contributions that year were capped at $270. That same year, he sent--at party expense--his nominating petitions to precinct leaders while ignoring other Republican candidates.

At home, court records show, Waite lavished money on Helen for vacations and on her business, a beauty salon. And he became increasingly jealous. His money was melting. One Swenson's closed and a relocation for the other failed.

On his birthday two years ago, Waite's voice mail was full with frantic calls from his daughter.

"Late at night on Jan. 26, (2001), his 72nd birthday, my father finally returned my many unanswered phone calls," Terri Lee Cooley wrote in a letter to Judge Fell. "He told me of his flight to Utah and Helen and the other man he saw with her at a motel going into the man's room. Dad saw them embracing. Dad was devastated, inconsolable, depressed and suicidal. 'How could he live without her?' he asked me."

She filed for divorce on Feb. 1, 2001. Twenty days later, Waite tied her up and begged her not to leave.

When he thought things had calmed, he untied her.

Helen Baldridge's subsequent Q&A with Tucson police went like this:

Q: OK. So then you had sex?

A: Well, I was, I had to.

Q: You didn't feel like you had any choice?

A: I had no choice.

Q: OK. So then what?

A: And then I just laid there until it was time to go to work and I left. And then I went to my girlfriend's that night.

Less than a week later, Helen sought a restraining order.

On March 17, court records show, Waite was boozed up at his son's house. Staring at pictures of his wife, he couldn't sleep it off. After his son fell asleep, Waite went to the home he had shared with Helen. He yanked her phone line and cut the power. He broke into the house. She fell, suffering a minor bruise, when he pushed open a door. He grabbed her hand and walked her to the side of the bed, saying he wanted to talk to her. He asked for a gun to kill himself.

She hit the panic alarm and police arrived within 10 minutes.

Helen asked that he receive probation. Ryan, the chief deputy county attorney, says the probation was offered to spare the victim the trauma of trial--"re-victimize." But Waite declined the plea offer, instead sending the case to trial.

Hirsh--with 40 years of experience in often brutal criminal cases and who took over Waite's case during sentencing--has to rely upon the psychologist's report to explain Waite's foolish move to ignore the advice of Assistant Public Defender Harold Higgins, who has several decades of experience, and roll the dice at trial.

"Because of the emotional turmoil, Mr. Waite did not have the wherewithal to make a public acknowledgement of wrongdoing," Hirsh wrote in a Jan. 23 letter to Gov. Napolitano.

He was easily convicted and Fell, a former top prosecutor, gave Waite the mandatory three-year sentence.

But Fell said, "The sentence is clearly excessive."

Fell then gave Waite permission to seek early commutation. He listed 10 reasons--topped by Waite's lack of criminal history--why the sentence was excessive.

Talented and relentless, Hirsh has been particularly successful using "temporary insanity" defenses in Arizona Superior Courts, winning release for killers. Hirsh brings much of that trash-the-victim strategy with him in Waite's case.

He is quick to point out, for example, that Helen is the beneficiary of Waite's $500,000 insurance policy. He has poked holes in Helen's stories and the inconsistencies in the statements she gave police.

Stress will kill Waite, Hirsh says. It is Rex Waite, Hirsh says, who is the victim.

Hirsh said Waite's poor health--heart problems and strokes--is reason enough for his release. Hirsh, using analysis by the psychologist Flynn, says Waite is no risk to his former wife or anyone else.

"With more than seven decades of crime-free, pro-social endeavors, he ends up at the bottom of the recidivism chart," Flynn wrote. "First, the unique factors of the current offense are unlikely to repeat themselves, especially if Mr. Waite is supervised. Next, the probability of criminal and violent behavior declines steadily after the late 40s and continues downward with advancing age."

But for all his alleged political connection --letters of support range from GOP stalwart, car dealer Jim Click to party hacks--Waite's Republican governor let him stay in prison.

And now, his fate sits in Democratic Gov. Napolitano's hands.