A year's search for accountability in Southern Arizona, with your help

If there was a clear thread through the stories the Tucson Sentinel covered this year, it was a drive for accountability from public officials, and a willingness to hold fast to stories as they evolved.

In January, a grand jury refused to indict Ryan Remington, a former Tucson police officer who shot and killed a man in a wheelchair in November 2021. Remington was charged with manslaughter in the death of 61-year-old Richard Lee Richards after an earlier grand jury issued an indictment last August.

A day after the shooting, Remington was fired for violating “multiple aspects” of the department’s use-of-force policy when he shot Richards. Former TPD Chief Magnus said he was “deeply disturbed and troubled” by Remington’s actions during a press conference announcing the officer’s firing. 

However, the case against Remington ran aground after his attorneys challenged the indictment, arguing prosecutors made misleading statements, and a judge sent the case to a new grand jury. That second grand jury issued a “no bill” and county prosecutor Christopher Ward asked a judge to dismiss the case without prejudice so the county could review the case.

Since then, the case against Remington has remained in limbo, but Tucson Sentinel has continued to track its outcome, including a state board’s move to pull Remington’s certification to serve as a police officer in Arizona, as well as the county’s move to block the release of grand jury transcripts.

Through the next year, we’ll continue to track Remington’s case, as well as a lawsuit filed by Richards’ family.

Meanwhile, I continued working on stories about a fatal shooting at the University of Arizona, including a March press conference when UA President Robert C. Robbins admitted to “systemic failures” before the shooting of Dr. Thomas Meixner by a former student in October 2022. This also included a sharply critical “no confidence” vote against Robbins from the Faculty Senate, as well as the ouster of Paula Balafas, the head of the University of Arizona Police Department.

Along the border, I covered the June shooting of a Tohono O’odham man near his home by U.S. Border Patrol agents, as well as fury from his family and other tribal members, and a forthcoming lawsuit. I also covered the heartbreaking story of a baby girl who died in Border Patrol custody in Nogales despite agents’ desperate attempts to save her.

I also pushed to get a clear-eyed view of what the end of Title 42 would mean for Southern Arizona, including a quiet moment in Nogales after the rule ended. However, by September a lull in encounters between Border Patrol agents and asylum seekers ended and soon the Border Patrol began leaving people in the streets of Bisbee and Casa Grande, prompting an expanded response by officials in Pima County that earned accolades from other officials.

In October, the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 to accept nearly $7.5 million in federal funds to continue support these efforts.

In November, I trekked out to the desert west of Lukeville, Ariz., to see how thousands of migrants were crossing into the U.S. to seek asylum, and covered the closure of the Lukeville border crossing as U.S. Customs and Border Protection—Border Patrol’s parent agency—struggled to process and transport thousands of people.

Last week, Pima County Attorney Laura Conover said she would not pursue criminal charges against corrections officers involved in the death of 37-year-old Wade Welch while he was held at the Pima County jail in August 2022. Body-camera footage showed Welch was repeatedly tased during the incident. However, while he told officers he had a heart condition and once screaming “You’re killing me!” the officers placed a “spit hood” over his head.

Welch’s family has launched a lawsuit against the county.

Welch’s death resembled an incident in 2020 when three Tucson police officers held 27-year-old Carlos Ingram-Lopez to the concrete floor of a garage, tased him, and later placed a “spit hood” over his head. The three TPD officers resigned before they could be fired after an internal review said they not only “showed complete disregard” for their training, “but most importantly an apparent indifference or inability to recognize an individual in medical distress and take the appropriate action.”

For the last three years, the Pima County has become notorious for being one of deadliest in the country, and we’ve dug into this, including a “blue ribbon commission” launched to consider whether the county should build a new facility, or renovate the current one.

In August, we covered a meeting derailed by a public protest over conditions at the jail.

Our in-depth reporting on the Pima County Jail also resulted in the painful discovery that the Pima County Sheriff’s Department failed to tell the family of 22-year-old Caleb Kenowski he died behind bars.

While PCSD officials announced the man’s death in May, the agency didn’t contact relatives of Caleb Kenowski and his family thought he was missing in Southern Arizona until August when Tucson Sentinel reporters compared a list of in-custody deaths made public by the department to a stack of jail-related autopsy reports from the Pima County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Kenowski was included in the autopsies, but his name had never been made public by the Sheriff’s Department. With his identity known, tracking down multiple members of his family took less than a minute of online searching by reporting fellow Natalie Robbins and editor Dylan Smith.

In a perhaps the most poignant detail, the delay meant Kenowki’s remains were cremated, and after she learned of her son’s death, Jody Kenowski went to collect his ashes and had to withdraw $600 from the bank to cover the cost. Unclaimed bodies are held for at least 15 days before sending them to be cremated. Caleb Kenowski’s remains were approved to be sent for cremation on June 14, 2023 — 24 days after his death, and 57 days before his mother was able to pay for his ashes to be released.

In the coming year, our reporters will continue to dig into the Pima County Jail.

This happens because of our readers — the people who back us and allow us to push on issues throughout Southern Arizona. We dig deep for answers about hard, complex issues, and reach across much of the state when necessary to get them.

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