Legal filings are often dry, lifeless retellings of crimes or court cases. But a document filed Wednesday in Maricopa County by the Phoenix New Times newspaper tells a story that could be pulled from the pages of a pulp legal thriller.
It involves unmarked cars with Mexican license plates, muscle-bound police and the blow-by-blow of battles between award-winning journalists and popular law enforcers, all of which came to a head last fall with the nighttime arrests of two newspaper executives.
"This letter puts the masterminds of those late-night raids on notice of the consequences of their actions," states the 18-page document.
It goes on to show why New Times executives Mike Lacey and Jim Larkin believe they deserve $15 million for being wrongly investigated and arrested by county authorities in October.
The document, known as a notice of claim, paves the way for the edgy weekly newspaper to eventually file a lawsuit against the county. It also marks the beginning of another battle between the two sides.
Lacey and Larkin were arrested the same day the New Times published a story showing the newspaper was being investigated by a grand jury for posting the home address of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio online.
For the investigation, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office hired special prosecutor Dennis Wilenchik, who eventually told the paper to hand over data that would reveal every person who visited its Web site during a certain period of time.
The goal was to prove the newspaper had put Arpaio in danger with the Web post.
The New Times fought the request, and on Oct. 18 published a story penned by Lacey and Larkin titled "Breathtaking Abuse of the Constitution."
In it, the two said they knew they were breaking the law by disclosing the grand jury investigation, but called it an act of "civil disobedience."
On Thursday, Lacey, the executive editor of Village Voice Media, which owns the New Times, said the claim letter wasn't just to counter the "indignity" of being arrested, but also to stand up for the First Amendment.
"We've got to get their attention," he said, "and I think the press has to keep getting their attention to show that we're not going to roll over."
If the county does not respond to the claim in the next 60 days, "then we'll see them in court," Lacey said.
Michael Manning, the attorney who sent the letter for the New Times, said the document's extensive narrative was necessary to show county officials how serious the case is.
Wilenchik, who was fired from the case after County Attorney Andrew Thomas found out about the arrests, wrote in an e-mail Thursday that he stood by his decisions, calling the arrests and investigation "lawful."
Lacey and Larkin wrote the story about the grand jury investigation "for no noble constitutional purpose as they would have people believe, but to bring pressure by the press to curtail the investigation," he wrote.
Two county officials called the filing a publicity stunt by the New Times.
"We're confident it will be exposed as the bunk that it is," said Barnett Lotstein, the special assistant county attorney.
Asked whether the county is likely to pay the $15 million, sheriff's Deputy Chief Jack MacIntyre responded: "Check first to see if hell has frozen over rock solid."