An Arizona sheriff was quick to blame Mexican cartels for the grisly deaths of five people in a case that suburban Phoenix law-enforcement authorities are convinced is a murder-suicide unrelated to the bloody drug war south of the border.
For more than three days after a torched Ford SUV was discovered in Pinal County's remote Vekol Valley, a well-known drug- and immigrant-smuggling corridor, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu repeatedly linked the deaths to Mexican drug violence. Babeu, a Republican who rose to prominence as a border-security hawk, even took a politically charged swipe at Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
"All information is pointing that this is connected to the violent drug cartel smuggling in this high smuggling area," Babeu said Saturday via his Facebook page. "The border is NOT more secure than ever Ms. Napolitano!"
Through Tuesday, Babeu and his office continued to draw a connection between the five deaths and drug-cartel smuggling violence, even after receiving information from Tempe, Ariz., police Monday that seemed to shift the focus of the investigation to a missing family whom Tempe police suspected may have died in a murder-suicide incident.
Tempe police said Tuesday that they went to the family's house at 2 p.m. Monday, found obvious signs of a crime and notified the Pinal County Sheriff's Office shortly thereafter.
Late Tuesday morning, Tempe police informed the Sheriff's Office that they had confirmed that the burned vehicle belonged to the family.
At an afternoon news conference, Sgt. Jeff Glover identified the victims as James and Yafit Butwin and their three children ages 7 to 16 and knocked down the theory that their deaths were linked to cartel drug smuggling, as Pinal County sheriff's investigators originally had stated.
James Butwin, 47, was in the midst of a divorce, was diagnosed with a brain tumor, faced serious financial problems, had just had his birthday Friday, and late last week had placed a house key and a note in the mail to a business associate, Tempe police said.
Still, late Tuesday afternoon, the Pinal County Sheriff's Office continued to send out a news release that said homicide detectives were continuing to pursue a possible drug-smuggling/cartel connection.
Babeu's reaction to the incident isn't the first time he has used violence in Pinal County to score points about an unsecure border and make claims about Mexican cartel violence spilling into Arizona. In April 2011, The Arizona Republic reported that there was no data to back up Babeu's frequent claim that Pinal County was "the No. 1 pass-through county in all of America for drug and human trafficking."
The Republic also concluded that statistics either exaggerated or contradicted other claims from Babeu.
On Tuesday, Babeu was starting to feel blowback from his political opponents and other observers for his early comments about the torched SUV. Babeu is running for a second term after recently dropping a bid for Congress.
Eric Olson, an expert on drug-cartel violence in Mexico, said he can understand why Babeu saw a connection to drug smuggling.
"It's not unreasonable to look into it, given the area that it took place, but it's really important to get to the facts before drawing conclusions," said Olson, associate director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Opponents in the crowded race for sheriff also criticized Babeu.
"Without a thorough investigation of that crime scene and pertinent knowledge of what you had going on, that type of announcement should not have been made at all," said Ty Morgan, an independent candidate for sheriff with several decades in Pinal County law enforcement.
Babeu campaign manager Marty Hermanson defended the sheriff, saying that Babeu had visited the scene and homicide detectives had briefed him.
The Butwins' SUV had raced down Interstate 8 at 4:30 a.m. Saturday, evading the Border Patrol and veering 2 miles into the Sonoran desert.
Olson, the expert on cartels, said there is a difference between the drug-smuggling violence that takes place in the U.S. and the horrific, large-scale cartel violence taking place in Mexico.
In Mexico, drug cartels are engaged in a vicious battle among themselves over drug-trafficking routes and with the Mexican government, which has been waging a major crackdown on the cartels since 2006. The violence has resulted in the deaths of more than 50,000 and has become increasingly gruesome, with headless and mutilated bodies often dumped in public areas.
Olson said there "isn't a lot of incentive" for cartels to battle it out in border areas in the U.S because they don't want to risk disrupting their goal of moving drugs into this country.
"Most of the violence, though not all of it, in the U.S. tends to be conflicts between distributors in the U.S. that are more local … that aren't necessarily working for the Zetas or the Sinaloa or the Familia Michoacana," he said.
Rep. Ben Quayle, an Arizona Republican who serves on the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee, cautioned against jumping to conclusions while investigators do their work.
"Drug-cartel violence is very well-noted, especially in that corridor and the control that they have south of the border, but I think that at this time we should wait to see what the investigation bears out," Quayle said.
Should the incident turn out to be domestic violence, "in no way does this minimize the threat that drug cartels pose to our communities," he said.