TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) — Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu on Wednesday responded to criticism that he was too quick to blame drug cartel violence for five bodies found burned in the desert 35 miles south of Phoenix, saying that all information at the time pointed to that scenario.
In his first comments since information was released contradicting that a cartel was to blame, Babeu told The Associated Press that he never came to a definitive conclusion after the bodies were found burned beyond recognition in an SUV in his county on Saturday, but only said that it was a likely possibility.
"When you're not being transparent and giving information, then everyone stands on their high horse," he said, adding that he released information as he was learning it. "There were no conclusions given ... There was no pronouncement."
Babeu made the comments in response to criticism that he used the case for political gain to appear tough on immigration ahead of his November bid for re-election and that he should have waited until his office had confirmation before saying a cartel likely was responsible.
"Thanks to all our homicide detectives who are investigating this alarming five-person murder and the torching of the vehicle (likely in an effort to destroy evidence)," Babeu posted on his Facebook page on Monday. "All information is pointing that this is connected to the violent drug cartel smuggling in this high smuggling area."
"The border is NOT more secure than ever Ms. Napolitano!" he added, in reference to previous statements made by Homeland Security Director Janet Napolitano.
In an interview with The AP later that day, Babeu said that "if this is in fact connected to the cartels, and we absolutely prove it, this should be a warning to our country" and "should send a shock wave that this could happen here."
On Tuesday, police in the Phoenix suburb of Tempe said that the vehicle belonging to a missing family of five whose disappearance was being investigated as a murder-suicide was the same vehicle found burning in the desert — information that contradicted Babeu's earlier statements.
Police found "suspicious and concerning" evidence inside the home of the Butwin family and stopped looking for them or any suspects after the sheriff's office notified them Tuesday that their vehicle matched the one in the desert.
A group of about a dozen protesters, led by an immigrant advocacy group, protested outside the sheriff's office on Wednesday, calling on voters to vote for someone else come November.
"It is completely inappropriate for a law enforcement officer to compromise the integrity of his position to further his political career," said Carlos Galindo, president of the recently formed Immigrant Advocacy Foundation.