February 23 - March 1, 1995

Death Before Dishonor

Tom Petropoulos Was A Hell Of A Good Cop. But A Fatal Flaw And His Own Uncompromising Standards Killed Him.

By J.E. Relly

A PAIR OF uniformed deputies kept the press from the interior of Grace St. Paul's Episcopal Church the morning before Thanksgiving. They sheltered Tom Petropoulos' family from the same public eye he had deflected so many times for the families of homicide victims.

The requiem Mass honored a cop known for serving the community more than 20 years. More than 300 mourners joined Petropoulos' widow and their two grown children.

Two worlds came together. The private family and the law enforcement one; both trying to reconcile the death of a man so infectiously upbeat, a man known for his tenacity and compassion. Both asking why a man who knew all too well the effect of death on family, who talked about it throughout his career with colleagues, had chosen suicide as a way out.

The color guard, along with a somber group of some 20 brown uniforms, badges shrouded in black bands, stationed themselves behind the altar. The brotherhood, the fraternity. Tears on stoic faces, with unchanged expressions. A gathering of judges, attorneys, officer's widows and high-ranking officials.

The priest spread his hands over the casket and told the congregation Tom Petropoulos was a good man. And that was the bottom line. Some bad things happened. He made mistakes. But he was a good man.

Then the priest uttered the unspoken: Tom Petropoulos committed suicide after allegations of wrongdoing. Even though Petropoulos hadn't officially died in the line of duty, the priest said, he really had. His death was a product of the code of honor he held himself to.

PIMA COUNTY SHERIFF Clarence Dupnik admits that, for emotional reasons, he doesn't want to talk about Tom Petropoulos. However, as an elected public official, he says he feels it's not a matter of choice, it's his job.

Petropoulos, 43, had earned direct access and respect from Dupnik through his mid-'80s work as president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 20. Dupnik says Petropoulos restored dignity to the ailing lodge by representing deputies and corrections officers in labor and wage negotiations, orchestrating a Christmas program for the needy and supporting a proposed department drug screening program.

"Petropoulos always felt cops were role models and we had a special responsibility to project a positive image," says Dupnik, who describes Petropoulos as a thorough, aggressive and tenacious cop--the kind who maintained his professionalism, one who wouldn't so much as spit on a crook in a moment of anger.

"Obviously there was another side of his personality that none of us were aware of."

In June '92, Petropoulos was up in the sheriff's office when three federal seizure checks from U.S. Customs came through. Petropoulos, who normally didn't handle such checks, volunteered to take them to the business office.

Eventually the checks came back to the sheriff's department. But the back of a $3,000 check had a partially scraped off number. That number was the bank account of FOP Lodge 20, an account that had nothing to do with the sheriff's department. Petropoulos, who was fund-raising chair for Lodge 20, indicated the checks inadvertently got mixed up with other checks he'd sent to the FOP account.

Although the check wasn't cashed, Dupnik felt the incident needed to be examined by an outside agency. He contacted the FBI. Petropoulos wasn't aware of the investigation.

The FBI concluded the Lodge 20 account that Petropoulos had almost exclusive control over was the target of an embezzler. They turned their investigation over to the U.S. Attorney General's Office, which did not find a prosecutable offense. Several weeks before Petropoulos' suicide, however, the inquiry was passed to the Arizona Attorney General.

Dupnik says he learned Petropoulos' had a "gambling problem" two days before his death. That Thursday, a state attorney general's agent briefed Dupnik on an interview with Petropoulos, an interview in which Petropoulos admitted diverting money from the lodge account to support a gambling habit.

Nobody knows exactly how much money was taken from FOP Lodge 20, or for how long the embezzlement went on. Dupnik says the state agent told him "upwards of $100,000" had been taken from the account, and although much of it had been replaced, "it was still about $20,000 short." State investigators currently are not commenting on the scope of the embezzlement. The FBI may have conducted an audit, but the closed investigation is caught up in a bureaucratic morass. Lodge 20 President Butch Powell says an audit is in progress.

Tom Petropoulos and his family lived modestly. "He didn't have a large home, fancy automobiles. He wasn't a playboy or partyboy or any of those things," says Dupnik. "He was a dedicated family man. Totally devoted to his wife, children and mother, whom he talked about all the time.

"Based on knowing Tom personally, my feeling is the only reason he would steal in the amounts he did was to support a gambling addiction. How long he had his (problem), I don't know. I don't think any of us did, including his wife, I'm told."

ROGER PALMER HAD two best friends in his life. Tom Petropoulos was one of them. Palmer is known by a select few deputies as "Pappy." He was stuck with the nickname because he was the eldest in his law enforcement academy graduating class of October '74. That's where he met Petropoulos.

In Palmer's small kitchen, a deck of cards rests on the window sill next to a table where Palmer and Petropoulos often spent time visiting. Palmer taught his friend to play cribbage 15 years ago, and after two years Petropoulos could beat him consistently. Palmer says he threw the cribbage board out after Petropoulos' death. He doesn't know for a fact Petropoulos had a gambling problem. They'd play poker after the monthly Thursday night FOP meeting. Petropoulos was good. He always went home with everyone's money. But they only played for nickels, dimes and quarters.

Once Petropoulos retired from the Sheriff's Department in 1993, he visited Palmer several times a day.

Palmer says he and Petropoulos never really talked about difficult things. Like a lot of cops, they worked hard and played hard. There had been deep-sea fishing off the coast of Mexico, and the annual three-week fishing trips to Alaska with other high-ranking deputies, roughing it in Forest Service cabins.

Palmer didn't find out about the embezzlement from Petropoulos. A friend told him just days before the suicide. "I didn't really know how to approach him," says Palmer. "One evening we were playing cards and I said, 'You're not really yourself, is anything bothering you? Is it your foot or knee?' " Petropoulos had just undergone surgery because of a chronic knee problem that had begun affecting his ankle and hip.

"Let me just come here and relax,'" Petropoulos told Palmer.

"I didn't know what else to say," Palmer recalls. "I left it open that we could talk if he wanted to. He never let on he had any problems. I never dreamed the extent he was disturbed.

"A day or so before he died, I told him (on the phone) that I knew. He said, 'I wish you didn't.' "

At 7 p.m., the night before Petropoulos' suicide, the two were supposed to watch a pay-per-view fight on TV. At 7:20 p.m. Petropoulos called to say he wouldn't be coming over. "I tried to convince him it would do him good," says Palmer. "He sounded like he'd been drinking, and Tom didn't go out and drink. He might have a couple drinks here or at home, but he didn't go out.

"He said he was going home. I said, 'I'll come get you. We can play some cards.'

"I knew he was upset. He knew our friendship went beyond it. If he would have just said something to me, we could have raised the money in two days."

The next afternoon, while Palmer was volunteering at the rodeo grounds, an officer friend from the sheriff's department came by to tell him Petropoulos hadn't gone home the night before. Earlier, Petropoulos had said he'd be looking for historical documents around Benson and Bisbee. The two rode down to the sheriff's administration building on East Benson Highway, where Palmer got in another car with another deputy and rode down to Benson, Tombstone and Bisbee checking motels and hotels. Turning back toward Tucson, they heard a dispatcher transmitting an "attempt to locate" call on Petropoulos.

Twenty minutes later, they heard Petropoulos' pickup truck had been found. He was confirmed dead.

By then, two of Petropoulos' close friends and former work associates were in touch by radio. They all decided to meet with department psychologist Kevin Gilmartin at an eastside Burger King. Together they went to break the news to Petropoulos' wife, son and daughter.

"When we pulled up, Paul, Tom's son, came out in the yard and asked, 'Pappy, what's going on?' I said, 'Your father's dead.' We hugged each other and let it all out. When Candy and Chrissy saw Kevin with the others at the door, they knew something had happened. It wasn't a pretty sight."

THE KNEE INJURY, which occurred at Army boot camp in the early '70s, kept Petropoulos from a military career in intelligence. He returned home to his bride, Candace Acorn, and soon began working as a corrections officer at the old Pima County Jail.

Within a year, he enrolled in the law enforcement academy. Police work suited 23-year-old Petropoulos, who had a penchant for dangerous duty. He moved rapidly from a patrol job in Green Valley to undercover narcotics work. His fast-talking, risk-taking assertiveness made him one of the best undercover cops in town. Back then, in the Metropolitan Area Narcotics Strike Force, says Roger Palmer, there weren't many rules.

"Those people lived this adrenaline high 24-hours a day for years," marvels Palmer. "I'd ask (Tom), 'Doesn't your balloon ever come down?' "

Department psychologist Kevin Gilmartin coins this job-induced hypervigilence the "brotherhood of biochemistry." Gilmartin has written that cops unknowingly become victimized by a roller-coaster of reactions when throwing on a badge and slapping on a gun. After dealing with life-and-death situations and the resulting heavy adrenaline infusions each day, a cop goes home and crashes. Or stays on the job to perpetuate the high.

Whether Petropoulos was an adrenaline junkie, one can only speculate. Friends and colleagues say he was hooked on his job. He was a good cop. Maybe too good.

Brother-in-law Craig Acorn says Petropoulos struggled to balance family responsibilities with being a cop. Stress seemed indigenous to being on call, in dangerous work. Sometimes he'd have to put his family second. "When I think of family gatherings, Tom always sat off to the side somewhere. I think he felt like an outsider being part of this secret fraternity."

In their early days with Metro, Petropoulos and his partner were given authority to push the law. New identities, driving confiscated cars, spending big money, drinking fine whiskey, running with the dopers. Friends say he read a lot and could talk about anything, an ability that led him into the thick of several significant drug investigations. A former cadet from the academy remembers Petropoulos flamboyantly burning pot in the classroom, breaking in the innocent cubs for drug-case duties.

Craig Acorn recalls his brother-in-law being pumped about his work back then. He remembers a long-haired and bearded Petropoulos popping by in a flashy, finned two-door and driving him out to Colossal Cave where they'd laid down a record pot bust. Tom's outlook "was kind of a throw back to the Old West, like the sheriff catching the bank robbers," Acorn recalls. "Tom referred to drug dealers as the 'bad guys.' "

After years of narcotics work, undercover burglary surveillance was a logical career progression for Petropoulos. For a while he investigated junkies who were burglary suspects. Known for his investigative skills, Petropoulos often was pulled from burglary to the homicide detail. Eventually he was moved to the esteemed homicide department, where his ability to obtain confessions was well recognized.

"It didn't matter whether the person was the county scumbag or someone who had an influential position, Tom had a way of communicating with them effectively," says Pima County Attorney Ken Peasley, who worked with Petropoulos on several high-profile cases.

Petropoulos knew that beyond the need for protecting themselves, people often wanted to dump their ugly deeds. He showed empathy for a suspect's humanity, and then they'd confess.

TOM PETROPOULOS MAY have lived a silent nightmare sitting across from FBI Special Agent Cary Gleicher. Whether he knew about the federal grand jury subpoena for evidence against him is unclear. Files from the closed investigation may not be released from Washington for more than a year. But his FBI interview was just the beginning.

When the case was passed on to the Arizona Attorney General's Office, Petropoulos, a man known for his dignity and high professional standards, found himself under scrutiny from an agency he once shared cases with, and being questioned by an agent he knew. Friends say that may have pushed him over the edge.

Life is hell for a cop accused of committing a crime. It's the either-you're-one-of-us, or-you're-an-asshole ideology, says attorney Bob Hirsh, who has defended several cops. "That's the police brotherhood mentality.

"It's the disgrace of being accused of a crime," says Hirsh, whom Petropoulos asked to represent the FOP in '80s wage negotiations. "What (Petropoulos) did was sort of a minor mistake in the realm of things. I've (defended) people who made little mistakes like that. You can get the money paid back. Do it quietly. He could have done this without publicity. With somebody like Tom that could have been done."

But Petropoulos was never one to duck behind the badge of privilege known as the "Brown Curtain." Work associates say he wasn't the kind of cop who winked at the law and then abused it.

SHERIFF'S HOMICIDE SGT. Michael Downing points out a framed picture of WWII British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, known for his bulldog tenacity, looming on the wall of his office. A gift from Petropoulos when Petropoulos retired. Years earlier, when Petropoulos was promoted to homicide supervisor, he'd hung that portrait out like a shingle. He worked 10- to 15-hour days out of this office from '88 to '91.

On another wall, a framed mimeograph of skull and crossbones proclaims the Royal Order Of Homicide Supervisors, a secret-handshake organization for past and present homicide unit bosses. Petropoulos' badge number, 457, is on one of the pictured skulls. "We'd meet for lunch one time a month and talk under the 'big cone' about what worked and what didn't," Downing says.

Downing, like six other cops interviewed, warned beforehand he wouldn't say anything "negative." Indeed, as the conversation unfolds, the familiar pattern underlying all the other interviews becomes apparent: Petropoulos' inner circle is mute about his motivations.

Downing bounces from one auspicious description of Petropoulos to another. Tom with the compassion for victims; Tom the practical joker; Tom with the mind like a steel trap; Tom who composed link-analyses in his brain; Tom the boss who'd help with oral boards and promotions; Tom the leader before he had the title; Tom whom everyone else came to for help.

But there are no real war stories. Perhaps such tales are reserved for the elite--too bad, because everyone says Petropoulos had some good war stories.

They say Petropoulos was so steeped in his work that he sometimes called them about cases while he was on vacation. Several cops remember him calling in the middle of the night.

As Downing's homicide supervisor, Petropoulos often worked his staff around the clock until the investigation turned cold. Even with cases he was merely to oversee, Petropoulos often dug for evidence on his own. It was never a surprise if he'd show up during surveillance in the early morning hours. He worked the multi-agency investigation of "drug kingpin" Jaime Figueroa-Soto. At the request of the Mexican government, he worked across the border. And he was known in the department for working high-profile cases such as the Frank Jarvis Atwood and John Patrick Eastlack homicide investigations.

Could all the gruesome sights throughout the years have desensitized Petropoulos? Sgt. Keith St. John, of the department's robbery and assault detail, worked many homicides with Petropoulos. Back then he remembers Petropoulos rhetorically asking about suicide victims, " 'What could make anyone do this?' "

PAST A MAZE of security doors, Sgt. Doug Witte, of special investigations, steps into the office he shares with his partner. Up on a cinder block wall above a liter-sized container of Coffee Mate are a jumble of photos, including one of Witte dangling a shark on the Sea of Cortez where a group of plainclothes cops, including Petropoulos, spent four-day junkets fishing, drinking beer and playing cards.

Witte worked with Petropoulos in burglary and supervised him in homicide. He suspects Petropoulos was disappointed when he moved up the ladder to commander of tactical investigations in '91. "I filled in for my lieutenant a few times and went to some of those staff meetings," says Witte. "They talked about manpower budgets, statistical reports and make-work projects from upstairs. I thought to myself, I never want to do this."

Petropoulos preferred field work to life behind a desk. When he received his retirement plaque, he said the deputy's badge meant the most to him.

"Tom wouldn't have retired if he was working on things he liked," says Witte. "But his knee and the economics of a regular retirement versus a medical retirement" pushed him in the direction of getting out.

Retirement is tough for cops. Their average life expectancy after retirement is five years, according to '91 FBI statistics. Psychotherapist and former police officer Albert Seng says a number of cops go through a grief process in disconnecting from "a lifestyle rather than a job." Once you're out of it, you're really out of it. You're on the outside.

Friends say Petropoulos talked about what he'd do once he retired. But they couldn't envision him living out his fantasy at Fred's Lake in the White Mountains.

"We often get to that 20-year mark and say okay, now what am I going to do?" says Seng. Cops who join up at a young age retire in their 40s, but won't really retire. They're too young. Many try other law enforcement jobs.

One friend thinks Petropoulos was waiting to complete his knee surgeries before pursuing other work after retirement. He mentioned an intelligence job would be "sweet." Petropoulos, who, in his younger days, jogged around "A" Mountain on his lunch breaks, didn't complain much about his chronic knee pain, although he clearly was hindered. He'd recently had ankle surgery and spent sleepless nights due to pain.

After his June '93 retirement, Petropoulos busied himself with his historical artifact collection. He traveled to small, outlying communities collecting old coins, photographs, signatures and other memorabilia. He talked with dealers around the country.

But after a career that included extensive travel, intrigue and high-profile cases, was retirement really suitable for Tom Petropoulos? Friends say if he was having problems dealing with a different pace, he kept it to himself. Others say they can't believe there wasn't some sort of withdrawal.

THREE DAYS BEFORE his suicide, Petropoulos told an agent from the Arizona Attorney General's Office that from 1991 to 1994, he diverted funds from a Lodge 20 bank account. The embezzlement dates correspond with Petropoulos' career slipping from a languorously administrative pace into retirement. Whether those conditions drove Petropoulos into gambling for high stakes is unclear.

Compulsive gamblers are compelled to take risks, says addictions therapist Debra Dunlap. In the initial stages, the person gambles for action. A big win or a lucky streak can propel an individual into a gambling binge to perpetuate the buzz. Then, as the money runs out, the compulsive gambler borrows. Stealing isn't uncommon. Big debts are ordinary. Unlike drugs or booze, gambling can be done with a clear mind, appealing to someone wanting to appear in control.

Petropoulos' associates and friends say they weren't aware if he gambled out of control. When they were in Vegas or Laughlin casinos together, he seemed to know when to quit. He never gambled any more than they did.

In his November 7 report, Lee Rappleyea, an Arizona Attorney General's special agent, notes friends frequently saw Petropoulos by himself at a casino outside Tucson. Occasional card-playing and craps-shooting buddies say they didn't notice him playing for the big pots or betting on sports, dogs or horses. Yet Rappleyea told Dupnik that Petropoulos played high-stakes poker and gambled on just about anything.

Friends don't know if he had a credit line or whether he was pushed into paying up. They don't think Petropoulos used a bookie.

Other friends aren't so sure Petropoulos had a "gambling problem." He was a complex individual, they say, adding he may have lived some contradictions. Whether he ended his life because of fallout from a supposed gambling addiction may never be known.

"WE WERE ALL shocked to hear the extent (Tom) was gambling," says Ed Herrera, who has held every office on Lodge 20's executive board over the years. He knew Petropoulos for more than two decades.

The first time Herrera heard Petropoulos had a "gambling problem" was two weeks before he died. State FOP officials held an emergency meeting with the Lodge 20 executive board. Petropoulos had already been interviewed by the FBI and didn't attend. The FOP leaders got straight to the point: Petropoulos allegedly embezzled funds from a Lodge 20 account.

Says Herrera, "I looked over at his brother-in-law, Kevin Acorn, when they were telling us and it looked like he didn't have the foggiest. His eyes had tears in them."

The board immediately removed Petropoulos from the fund-raising position he'd held since 1988. Downing, chair of the trustees, was directed to seize from Petropoulos all documents concerning the account. It was a tough job for a friend to do.

Later, Lodge 20 President Butch Powell and secretary-treasurer Herrera explained to the AG's Rappleyea that year after year they had difficulty obtaining Petropoulos' books for the annual audits. They stated that although Petropoulos always had some excuse for being several months tardy in producing the books, they balanced when the audits were completed.

In a later interview, Petropoulos told Rappleyea that when he diverted the funds, he reimbursed the lodge so that his books would balance within each fiscal year. He generated the reimbursement funds through gambling winnings and by liquidating items from his antique and historical documents collection.

A total of 28 checks that appear to have been written to Petropoulos from FOP checking accounts in 1991 and 1992 is contained in Rappleyea's October 21 report. The checks, in amounts ranging from $296 to $3,600, totaled about $21,200. The lodge is looking into bonding future officers handling such accounts.

"He did not, by any stretch of the imagination, bankrupt the lodge," says Herrera. "A couple of the members want the money back, but they're in the minority.

"We'll probably never know how much he took. He could have been borrowing the money and paying it back for a long time. This year he didn't have the opportunity (to pay it back) because he got caught."

Lodge 20's awards banquet followed the executive board meeting. Only the executive board members knew about Petropoulos' troubles. He'd asked them not to say anything to his family. He'd take care of everything, he'd said. Friends now say they felt powerless knowing Petropoulos' secret. In trying to do the right thing, they say, it all came apart in the worst possible way.

Petropoulos was more subdued at the awards banquet than usual. He grilled steaks with his crew of friends as he always did. Herrera sat and talked with him about the situation. "He told me he was in over his head," Herrera recalls. "But he had some things in the works. That he would get us $10,000 in November and $10,000 in January.

"I asked him if he'd told Candy. He said no. That he was going to tell her that weekend."

FOURTEEN DEPUTIES RESPONDED to a dispatched message that a missing person had been located near Colossal Cave on the far eastside of town. A beige '86 Toyota pickup with a camper shell was sitting some 150 feet off Pistol Hill Road, just south of Old Spanish Trail.

FOP president Butch Powell was one of the first deputies on the scene. When he spotted the truck, he didn't want to go any closer. Instead, he secured the perimeter. A rookie cop was sent to the truck.

Petropoulos was found in the front seat with a .22-caliber rifle between his legs, a bullet wound to his forehead. Three letters and a hand-written note on a yellow pad were found with him. His driver's license was sitting on the passenger-side dashboard. A sleeping bag was found in back.

Friends and former work associates say his suicide had everything to do with losing honor. Petropoulos had not been charged with anything before his death.

Homicide Sgt. Mike Downing may have been the only deputy in whom Petropoulos confided days before his suicide. On that Thursday before his death, Downing spoke with him over the phone three or four times. "The last time I talked with him he asked me what I was doing for the weekend. I told him I was taking the family down to Mexico. He asked me how the family was doing. He said, 'Have a good time. I'll call you Monday and we'll have lunch.' I thought things were cool."

Downing says he wasn't surprised about the suicide. "He thought he didn't have a way out. He thought what he did was wrong. His honor killed him."

When Downing was briefed on his friend's death, he didn't ask to see the file or the photos. He simply went down to the department's evidence processing section to look at the truck. He says it was something he had to do to understand the reality that Petropoulos was gone.

"We're all dealing with it on a different level," he says. "(We) don't talk about it here. We're sad. But we don't talk about it.

"He was a hell of a cop. I think about him every day."q

Research assistance for this article was provided by Charles Gillispie.

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