Ex-Arizona prison head Charles Ryan pleads not guilty to felony charges

Charles Ryan, the former head of the Arizona Department of Corrections, pleaded not guilty to two felony charges in connection with a standoff incident in January.

On Jan. 31, officials with the Tempe Police Department said they submitted two counts of aggravated assault on a peace officer, and a count of unlawful discharge of a firearm to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office for review. We learned from officials with the Maricopa County Attorney's Office that aggravated assault charges were ultimately not presented to a grand jury.

"A thorough review of this case was conducted by experienced prosecutors in this office. I want to assure this community that a person’s occupation, race, age, or other such factors of this nature do not influence charges that are sought by this office," County Attorney Rachel Mitchell wrote in a statement.

Ryan's not guilty plea on June 28 came after a grand jury indicted him on a count of disorderly conduct involving weapons, and a count of unlawful discharge of a weapon.

Ryan's next court date is scheduled for Aug. 9.

Ryan drank half a bottle of tequila by the time officers arrived, police officials say

Ryan had already consumed a half bottle of tequila by the time officers responded to a call at his Tempe home that he had shot himself, according to police reports released on Jan. 26 that offer a new theory on how the former prisons boss was injured.

Police say Ryan, who allegedly pointed a gun at two officers during the three-hour standoff, slurred his words and was antagonistic to a police negotiator. Police say Ryan didn’t know why officers were at his home or what happened to his injured hand. Ryan also told police that he didn’t remember pointing a gun at officers and acknowledged drinking tequila that evening, though he said he had just two shots.

While police initially said Ryan had a self-inflicted gunshot wound to one of his hands, police now say the injury was caused by a less-than-lethal projectile shot by police after Ryan pointed a handgun at officers. They say the projectile was revealed during surgery.

Police also now say the injury that led Ryan’s wife to call police was a 1-inch (2.5-centimeter) cut to his forehead that was likely caused by bullet fragmentation that occurred when an unintentional firearm discharge struck a sink in the bathroom. Police also said Ryan told staff at a hospital that the cut was the result of a fall earlier that week, though the injury looked fresh.

Efforts to seek comment on the police reports on behalf of Ryan, who doesn’t have a published phone number, were unsuccessful. Police previously said Ryan was experiencing a mental health crisis at the time.

Ryan’s wife told police that her husband had consumed a half bottle of tequila that day. She told officers that she heard a loud noise and saw that her husband had blood on one of his hands and was bleeding from the head.

She said Ryan didn’t respond when she asked whether he shot himself, according to the reports.

Authorities say officers tried to communicate with Ryan, who remained inside his home. While taking cover behind an open door, Ryan pointed a gun at officers outside, police said. An officer fired a less-than-lethal bean bag round at Ryan’s left hand, which was the only part of his body that was visible to a nearby officer, according to a police report.

Ryan closed the door, continued to refuse to leave his home and later opened the door again, leading to another less-than-lethal round being fired at his left hand. Ryan eventually surrendered, was handcuffed and taken to a hospital.

Ryan hasn’t been booked, even though he was taken into custody.

About 15 guns at Ryan’s home were seized by police.

Ryan not booked into jail, officials say

According to Tempe Police officials, a decision was made that it was not necessary for Ryan to be booked into jail for the alleged offenses.

"In most cases, a custodial arrest and booking is a procedural process to obtain fingerprints and photographs; it is also based on prior criminal history," read a portion of the statement released on Jan. 31. "Mr. Ryan has no previous criminal record, is a known Tempe resident, and did not pose a flight risk. The Tempe Police Department looks at the totality of each case to determine appropriate action."

Ryan retired from corrections department in 2019

Ryan announced in August 2019 that he plans to retire from the Department of Corrections in September that same year, after a little more than 10 years at the helm of Arizona's prison system.

"I am eternally grateful to the thousands of courageous men and women who have served in this incredible agency since its establishment in 1968," Ryan wrote at the time.

Ryan, according to the Department of Correction's website, was appointed to the position by Gov. Jan Brewer.

In October of that same year, Gov. Doug Ducey announced that David Shinn has been appointed as Ryan's replacement. 

Ryan's tenure marred by controversy

Prior to Ryan's retirement, he faced growing pressure from civil rights advocates, who started a "Fire Chuck Ryan" campaign over alleged inhumane conditions in prisons.

Ryan also faced other controversies. In 2018, a judge last year found Ryan in contempt for failing to follow through on promises to improve inmate health care, and the state was fined $1.4 million.

Earlier in 2019, the department was rocked by revelations that inmates at the Lewis prison complex, located west of Phoenix, were able to open their locked cell doors and attack corrections officers and other prisoners.

In that same year, a Lewis prison inmate held a librarian hostage by holding a knife to his throat. The incident ended after the inmate was hit with rubber bullets and pepper spray.

In April of 2019, critics furious over the practice of fixing broken prison cell doors with simple padlocks boiled over. Prison staff union and an inmate advocacy group came together and demanded answers and accountability. At the time, both camps stopped short of demanding Ryan's resignation.

The Associated Press (AP) contributed to this report.

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