Requiem for an Arrest

Charges against a Samaritans activist are mysteriously dropped

As she stood handcuffed in the desert on Jan. 11, Kathryn Ferguson tried to reason things out. She glanced at the hills lacing the smudge of a town called Arivaca, near Nogales. She wondered whether she was headed to jail. If so, for what?

On the scene were at least three large men. They seemed equally flummoxed about what to do with their captive.

The men were plain-clothed federal agents. And Ferguson, a soft-spoken, middle-age dance teacher and longtime activist with the Samaritans immigrant-assistance group, was charged with creating a nuisance. She was bruised up and reportedly groped by one of those federal officers alongside Arivaca Road. She says the cop mocked her like a child, and refused to identify himself.

Nine months later, on the eve of her trial, the nuisance charge was mysteriously dropped.

Now, as the judicial dust settles, one thing has become abundantly clear: This crude affair amounts to little more than a shameful, low-brow, law-enforcement bullying, followed by an appalling lack of accountability from the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Consider that no one will say how many taxpayer-funded hours were wasted between the bullying and the about-face. Or why Ferguson was left dangling for months, her fate in the hands of prosecutors who decided to drop the case only at the last possible moment.

Indeed, when we finally reached Sandy Raynor, spokeswoman for Arizona's U.S. Attorney, she dished up no apologies to Ferguson. Nor did Raynor offer any explanation to the citizens funding this farce. "I'm declining to comment," she said sweetly. Then she declined to comment on why she was declining to comment.

Bob Ruiz, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management special agent who arrested Kathryn Ferguson, didn't return several calls from the Tucson Weekly.

However, we did hear from his boss, Bart Fitzgerald, BLM special agent in charge for Arizona. Fitzgerald says that Ferguson "was arrested because she was found by our officers in kind of a high-risk area, and when they approached her, she was acting a little bit suspicious. And during their initial investigation, she seemed a little bit annoyed and agitated. So they restrained her--they handcuffed her--so they could be sure that she was secure and they were secure. That's basically how it went down."

However, it's a bit of a stretch to believe that Ferguson, along with another woman and the woman's 12-year-old son, in a car marked by Samaritans signs, would seem abundantly suspicious.

The magnetic sign takes up the better part of a door panel. "Whether (the officers) saw that, they didn't mention that initially," says Fitzgerald. "I can't say what they were thinking or what they saw."

Bill Walker is Ferguson's attorney. He has his own theory for why Ferguson was arrested and knocked around.

"I think some of these agents are smart and very well-trained," Walker says. "But they don't have psychological evaluations done of them before they're put in the field, and some of them are hostile and angry. I don't know; maybe their wife wasn't nice to them that morning, or they forgot to kick the dog. And then they try to take it out on people."

He also suggests one reason why the case was dropped: Other agents present that day on Arivaca Road would likely be testifying for the defense.

Meanwhile, Ferguson is left to her memories. They come galloping back on Tuesday, Sept. 30, as she stands among a crowd gathered outside downtown's federal courthouse, celebrating on the Tuesday she was scheduled for trial.

She still doesn't know why she was charged with a crime. "I have no idea," she says. "I've never had anything like this happen to me before, and we weren't doing anything."

Listening to Ferguson's account, corroborated by her passengers that day, what emerges is the strong sense that Ruiz was having a very bad day indeed when he ran across the activists.

It was about 11 a.m., Ferguson says, and they were parked on the shoulder of Arivaca Road, when a dark truck pulled up behind them. "We sat there talking, and we realized that the men were just sitting there, too," she says. "Finally, we went to get water out of the back, and they were staring at us. So we walked over to the driver's side, and two of them jumped out really fast, and one guy came right up to my face."

It was Ruiz. When she asked if she could help him with something, Ferguson says he mimicked her in a girl's high voice. He did the same when she asked who he was. "I mean, this is a 40-year-old man doing this," she says.

"The whole initial contact is what made me really suspicious. So I asked him if I could get some ID. He takes out a wallet and flips it quickly open and closed. It could have been a badge, but I wasn't sure, because I didn't really get to see it."

Then Ruiz demanded identification from Ferguson and her passengers. So they went back to the driver's side of the car--the car with the huge Samaritans sign--and she retrieved her license. At that point, Ferguson walked around the truck to jot down its license number. She says Ruiz, infuriated, stormed up, shoved her in the chest and put his hand on his gun.

"I said, 'You just hit me,'" she says. "'You can't do that.' So he came over and put my hands behind my back and said, 'You're under arrest for interfering with law enforcement.' Then he proceeds to search me, very inappropriately."

According to Ferguson, the other officer came over to chastise Ruiz for unnecessarily creating an incident.

She was cuffed for 90 minutes. Finally, she recalls Ruiz saying, "'You know that precious judge you want to see? You just have a field day in court, and we'll see you there.'"

Then again, maybe not. Perhaps this is not a story Ruiz cares to replay in a court of law, where federal officers can be held responsible for their behavior.

Eventually, as that day's drama drew to a close, the officers delivered Ferguson to Arivaca's little general store. Once inside, the encounter began sinking in; asking to use the phone, she started to cry.

Nine months later, she's pondering a civil suit against Ruiz. And she's not crying anymore. Now she's just angry.