Veteran Bucks the Former Mayor of Phoenix, City Makes Him Pay for More Than a Decade
Robert Stapleton says his troubles began when he refused to sell to an influential developer.
Robert Stapleton was a United States Marine in Vietnam. The war left him injured, and with a desire to be alone, and far away from people.
When he came back to the States, he moved his then-wife and their young son out to a small house on a half-acre plot of land on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona.
"I was just spent when I got done with the whole thing," Stapleton tells Reason of his experience. "I came to the desert to rest and regroup. And this was fine, this little house."
For thirty years, Stapleton raised horses and plied his trade as a blacksmith while the city slowly grew up around him. During that time, says Stapleton, no one seemed to care much about his property or what he did with it.
Until the former mayor of Phoenix set eyes on it.
In 2006, Larry Herring, a representative for former mayor Phil Johnson offered Stapleton $225,000 for his property. Johnson intended to build condominiums next door. Stapleton told Herring his offer was much too low.
Herring, Stapleton says, told him if he didn't sell, "bad things are going to happen to you" and that "a stone wall is going to fall on you."
Since then Stapleton has been struggling to keep the stone wall from crushing him. His story first came to light during an an investigation into Arizona's city courts by Mark Flatten with the Goldwater Institute.
Stapleton's fight, Flatten tells Reason, illustrates how the power of government is arrayed against justice for its citizens. "Everyone you are up against works for the city council," Flatten says. "The whole system leaves defendants with very little due process, and with very little independent review."
Shortly after rebuffing Herring's offer, city officials cited Stapleton with six violations of the zoning code, everything from a fence that was too high, to vehicles improperly parked. The fines were $2,500 and came with the threat of six months in jail for each violation.
Stapleton argued each of the violations were for long-standing features of his property, necessary for raising horses. "These things are farm things, and it's a farm," Stapleton says. "You didn't bother me for thirty years. Now somebody wants the property, you want to bother me. And they were going to send me to jail to do it."
Stapleton chose to fight. The city rejected his request for a jury trial and in May 2007, a city judge fined Stapleton $15,000 and sentenced him to three years probation on the condition that he address his code violations or go to jail.
At the same time the city was punishing Stapleton it was granting multiple variances to the ex-mayor's development next door, one of them to allowed him to build a fence a foot higher than the one for which it fined Stapleton.
"They don't use the law to help people. They use the law to hurt people, and they use the law to hurt specified people," he says.
Stapleton agreed to pay off his fines in $500 monthly installments, but refused to make the changes demanded by the court. Rather than let the matter go, prosecutors sought jail time even though Stapleton had suffered a stroke. In April 2010, he was sentenced to 60 days in the Maricopa County Jail and 45 days of home detention. Jailers disqualified him from detention for health reasons and sent him home.
Stapleton's public defender, Laurie Herman told the Flatten that the city was looking to make an example of Stapleton. "He was treated unusually harshly because he didn't cave…and because he didn't submit to the authority, that really irked them."
The city of Phoenix denies it singled out Stapleton for especially harsh treatment, or that it doing so because of pressure from Johnson. In response to written questions submitted by the Flatten, the city said, "if the court finds the owner responsible but he still refuses to clean up the property, the city prosecutor may file criminal charges. The Stapleton case went through all steps of this process."
Johnson also told Flatten that he never leaned on the city to pursue Stapleton's case.
Stapleton paid off his fines in December 2015, but his troubles might not be over. The Goldwater Institute obtained emails from Justin Johnson, son of the ex-mayor and manager of the now completed housing development, to city officials pointing out more code violations on Stapleton's property.
Stapleton says he's prepared to fight for his rights all over again again, telling Reason it's not just about his property, it's about justice.
"It's just engrained in my mind," he says. "You stand for the right, because it's right. When you think there is something wrong, do something. Don't quibble, do something."