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Adam Watters barred from judge's bench over 'warning shot' incident

Adam Watters barred from judge's bench over 'warning shot' incident

Pima County justice of the peace fired pistol near feet of man stalking him

  • Adam Watters
    undated handout photoAdam Watters

A Tucson-area justice of the peace will be allowed to serve out his term, but Adam Watters "will not be permitted to serve as a judicial officer in any capacity" after the end of the year. Watters agreed to that restriction to end a disciplinary case filed against him over a 2021 incident in which he fired a pistol near the feet of a man who was later convicted of stalking him.

"The formal charges alleged that Judge Watters violated the Arizona Code of Judicial Conduct and the Arizona Constitution, when he allegedly used extensive profanity and discharged a firearm in the vicinity of an individual who was subsequently convicted of stalking Judge Watters, and when he allegedly used profanity toward a process server who was serving him with a subpoena," officials said.

The Arizona Commission on Judicial Conduct convened Wednesday to hear the charges against Watters, who has been serving as an elected Pima County Justice Court judge for two four-year terms. He was accused of violating the state's Judicial Code of Conduct.

The hearing officials accepted a "stipulated resolution" worked out between the commission's lawyer and Watters.

"Judge Watters is permitted to serve out the remainder of his term in office, which will expire on Dec. 31, 2022. He has not sought reelection. Thereafter, Judge Watters will not be permitted to serve as a judicial officer in any capacity in the State of Arizona," officials said.

Watters did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Watters, a Republican, had filed in January 2022 to run for his seat again, but did not submit nominating petitions to become a candidate. He was involved in a February 2021 incident in which he fired a pistol into the ground at the feet of a man he suspected of vandalizing his property and slashing his truck tires. Watters was suspended from his courtroom for a time following the confrontation.

Outgoing state Sen. Victoria Steele, a Democrat, is the only candidate on the ballot for the Precinct 1 justice of the peace seat.

Under the agreement, Watters will be unable to serve as a judge in any manner after his term ends, including as a justice of the peace, magistrate or commissioner, special master, hearing officer, or pro tempore judge.

Judges in Arizona are required to "act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the independence, integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, and shall avoid impropriety or the appearance of impropriety."

The state Constitution "forbids a judge to engage in conduct that is prejudicial to the administration of justice that brings the judicial office into disrepute," the commission said earlier.

Watters waited with gun for man throwing trash in his yard to return

Watters and the man, Fei Qin of Tucson, had minor scratches and scrapes after the altercation on Feb. 14, 2021, in the street in front of Watters' home in the Catalina Foothills, according to a 65-page Pima County Sheriff's Department report.

Qin, 38 at the time, was charged and later convicted of stalking, a class 5 felony. He was sentenced to 1 1/2 years in prison.

Watters was investigated, but the Pinal County Attorney's Office — which handled the case after Pima County officials declared a conflict of interest — declined to prosecute and cleared him in the case.

Watters, who shot a bullet into the pavement just inches from Qin during the incident, was not charged in the incident. His attorney disputed that he was suspended, but acknowledged that he had been placed on "administrative leave," saying it was a county protocol.

Watters recorded part of the incident on video using his phone. Investigators did not impound Watters' phone as evidence, and instead obtained a copy of the video via text while he was being questioned the next day. The firing of the "warning shot" was reportedly not captured in the video.

Qin, a landlord with a history of evicting tenants, had a case heard before Watters on Jan. 19, 2021 — in which he obtained an order against tenants who owed $800 in back rent but was told by Watters that the eviction could not be enforced because of the federal CDC moratorium allowing many people to remain in their homes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Qin attempted to argue with Watters about the ruling, courthouse sources said. Watters told investigators that he remembered Qin's name because it is "particularly unique," according to the incident report, but did not recall any outbursts or "dissatisfaction" from anybody in the case, the investigators wrote.

According to the compiled PCSD incident report about the Feb. 14 confrontation, trash had been dumped on Watters' property several times during the previous two weeks. Twice — on Feb. 5 and Feb. 11 — the tires on his pickup were slashed.

Sheriff's deputies were making routine checks on the home after the vandalism was reported, and neighbors had taken photos of a suspicious vehicle. On Feb. 12, a man dumped trash and walked up Watters' driveway while he was at work and his wife was at home, the report said. She and a neighbor called 911.

Watters told deputies that by this point he and his family were not sleeping well and lived in fear. One of their daughters, Caitlin Watters — a prosecutor with the Pima County Attorney's Office until she resigned this week — brought a shotgun to the house for his wife's protection, he said.

In an email sent to neighbors after the incident, Watters said he and his wife had been the objects of a "battery of abuse and outright terrorism."

Watters stakes out home

On Feb. 14, 2021, Watters and two adult daughters staked out their property, with him sitting in a chair in the desert and them near a guest house, behind a bush with a view of the driveway. It was just before noon, and the daughters had the loaded shotgun with them. Watters had a handgun — a Hungarian FÉG PA-63 semiautomatic pistol that fires Makarov 9x18mm bullets — in his right-hand jacket pocket.

They told investigators the man tended to show up at the same time during the day and they wanted to get a photo of his face.

About an hour later, the suspect's vehicle was spotted by the daughters, who told Watters, "He's here." Watters told them to call 911, the report said.

Watter, unable to get a good photo as the vehicle passed by, then walked to the road as the vehicle turned around in the cul-de-sac and headed back toward him, according to the report.

Watters said he stepped onto the pavement but not into the path of the Subaru driven by Qin. Watters started videotaping with his phone and said he was surprised when Qin stopped his vehicle next to him. He told investigators that he feared Qin was armed.

The men's accounts diverged at this point.

Qin told deputies that Watters attempted to reach into the vehicle through an open window and strike him. He said Watters was holding his phone in one hand, apparently recording video, and held a handgun in his other hand. Watters threatened to "blow your fucking head off," Qin said.

Qin said he put his hands up to protect himself, and Watters "tried getting him out of the car at gunpoint," he told investigators.

Qin then opened the driver's door, apparently scraping Watters' left wrist, according to the report. Watters ordered him to the ground and Qin refused to.

Qin had a scratch on one hand that was documented in the report.

Watters declined to be interviewed by investigators that day on advice of his attorney, Mike Storie. He and his lawyer met with investigators the next day at Storie's office, where Watters was read his Miranda rights before being questioned. Watters said he did not touch Qin during the incident.

Watters "stated something to the effect that he did make a threat to shoot the individual if he came after him," according to the report, and told the investigator it was "a silly thing to say." He said he had not produced the handgun by that point.

Watters, who was 59 at the time, said he felt threatened as Qin stared at him "not blinking" and apparently unafraid after he got out of his car.

Watters said he ordered Qin to the ground again, and Qin said, "What are you going to do, kill me?"

Watters said he wanted to show Qin he intended to stand his ground. A couple of seconds of silence passed and Watters said Qin stepped toward him; that's when Watters said he pulled the gun out.

"It was around this point that Mr. Watters believed that the camera turned off and that the incident of the male stepping toward him was not recorded," according to the report. Watters said he was unsure how or why the camera turned off.

Qin denies moving in Watters' direction; one of Watters' daughters said she saw him lunge toward her father.

"He stated at that point was when he then fired a single round into the ground," according to the report.

"He stated that it may have been pointed in (Qin's) direction at one point," perhaps at his torso or feet, according to the report, but that he never intended to shoot him. Qin said the bullet struck four inches from his foot and that he was hit in the face and eye with debris.

Watters told detectives the next day that "he had put approximately 300 rounds through that handgun and that he would not have missed if he had made the decsion to shoot the individual," according to the report.

A deputy showed up seconds after the shot was fired.

The two men were still standing near each other, and Qin told the deputy he had just been shot at, according to the report.

Watters told the deputy who he was, and acknowledged firing a "warning shot."

The deputy took the gun from Watters, noting that "the hammer was still cocked back as if it was ready to fire still," the report said. There was a round in the chamber of the weapon.

"Directly next to where (Qin) had been standing was an indent in the asphalt in the ground as if a gunshot round had hit that location," the deputy wrote.

Deputies did not take Watters' phone from him. It was not seized as evidence, nor examined until the next day.

Other case details

Because of Watters' position as a justice of the peace, the incident was included in a "commander's report" round-up of notable cases sent to top brass in the Sheriff's Department the next day. Data about both Watters and Qin was indicated as being not "releasable," and PCSD made no public mention of a justice of the peace having been involved in a shooting incident.

In an interview with Watters a day after the incident, it was disclosed that his sister took his cell phone with the video home before deputies knew there was potential evidence on it. Watters said he and his sister have identical phones and phone cases and that it was a mix-up. He said the video had not been altered before investigators were able to view it.

The report offers differing accounts regarding the involvement of Mike Storie, Watters' attorney, the day of Feb. 14, with one detective recording that he had been present as investigators worked the scene after the confrontation, and left. Another said that he had a phone conversation in which Storie indicated he was in Phoenix and could not be present for Watters to be questioned that day.

One of the investigators, Det. Hector Palomino, noted that Storie had arrived at the scene after deputies responded, but "left shortly after."

"I called him so he could ask Judge Watters to allow us to download his cell phone," the investigator wrote. "I did this because we found out that Judge Watters had possibly recorded the incident. Mr. Storie told me that a family member had left with Judge Watters' cell phone. He told me that he would review the video and bring it with him when we schedule the interview with Judge Watters."

Another deputy, Sgt. Hans Goritz, who was among the first to arrive, wrote that Watters had phoned Storie from the scene, and that the attorney told the deputy "over the telephone that he was in Phoenix and he could not respond, but that he had instructed his client not to discuss the incident and that they would be willing to provide a statement tomorrow...."

Storie told  that he spoke to one investigator on the phone while he was in Phoenix, and then drove back to Tucson following a meeting, and decided to check to see if there was anyone still at the scene. He "said 'hi' to everyone" and left after about 10 minutes, he said.

The next morning, when Watters was interviewed with his attorney present, detectives waited until after they questioned him to ask to see the video.

Watters was unable to send the video to a detective via email when asked, and attempts to use AirDrop to transfer the video were also unsuccessful, according to one part of the report.

One of the investigators, using Watter's phone with his permission, said he was able to send the video to his own phone via a text message, according to the PCSD reports. That investigator reported that he found nothing in the phone's "recently deleted" photos or videos, and that Watters said that the video of the incident had not been manipulated in any way.

Another of the investigators who took part in the same interview, Palomino, said that the detectives were unable to text the video, but that Watters emailed it to each of them. "I was only able to receive the photo on my phone," he wrote. "Detective Sharp later emailed me the video."

The video showed Qin driving his vehicle southwest on Watters' street, he said. Investigators allowed Watters to keep his phone, not impounding it as evidence.

The video of the incident has not been made public by the Sheriff's Department.

A glass pipe, marijuana and butcher knife were among the items found in Qin's car at the scene of the incident. He denied throughout the entire investigation that he dumped trash on Watters' property or slashed his tires. Qin eventually got a lawyer and stopped talking to investigators.

Qin a landlord in eviction case heard by Watters

Qin was a property owner who Watters said was involved in a recent eviction case. Qin told deputies he was a "defendant" in a court case recently attempting to evict a renter but said Watters was not the judge, though he couldn't say who was or whether the judge was male or female. Qin told investigators that the judge was named something like "Erika."

The most recent eviction action filed by Qin was docketed under the name of Justice of the Peace Erica Cornejo, but was heard — via Zoom — by Watters. Such cases are assigned randomly to the elected JPs, but are heard on a rotating basis by all of them. Cornejo was elected in JP 2, covering Midtown and much of the South and Southeast sides. Watters was elected in JP 1, covering the Catalina Foothills and parts of Oro Valley.

The names of the renters involved in the case were found on mail that was among the trash left on Watters' property in the incidents preceding the Feb. 14 confrontation.

Those renters filed a motion the day after the eviction hearing, stating that Qin had cut off their water and electric service. Watters told them he could not order Qin to restore that service, but that they had other legal means to pursue.

The day before the confrontation, a neighbor who was aware of the trash-throwing incidents had taken a photo of the gray Suburu crossover, with the same license plate as the one driven by Qin the day he was arrested, as a man was throwing trash onto the Watters' property.

That garbage included mail with the names of the tenants in the eviction case, and Watters had already provided that information to his court clerk and been told that they were involved in that case in his court, the report said.

Watters, an elected Republican, and several other Pima justices of the peace had been under steady criticism for their handling of eviction cases in general.

Watters told detectives the day after the incident that "it was not particularly clear as to what the guidelines were" regarding handling eviction cases during the pandemic," but that evictions could be halted if tenants could "provide paperwork from the Centers for Disease Control," the report said.

Watters was among a majority of JPs who did not attend a training session on evictions and the applicable moratoriums during the COVID-19 pandemic — only three of the eight judges in the Consolidated Justice Courts did. They were then all required by the Arizona Supreme Court to attend a training on the topic.

Much of the public criticism has held that Watters and other JPs have been too favorable to landlords, evicting tenants who should be covered by the CDC order or other measure and allowed to remain in their homes during the pandemic.

In Qin's eviction case, Watters did just that, finding the tenants owed rent to Qin but had complied with the CDC process and could not yet be ordered to vacate the premises.

After the confrontation, Watters sent an email to their homeowners association, which was distributed to neighborhood residents the morning of February 16.

In it, Watters did not refer to him firing his gun, but wrote that he and his wife had been "subjected to a barrage of harassment over the past two weeks" that was "was certainly related to my work as a justice of the peace."

In the email, which did not name the arrested man, Watters included a photo of Qin standing near his car, along with a photograph showing the vehicle's license plate, and a mugshot found online of Qin from a 2019 trespassing arrest in Santa Monica, Calif., in which Qin was allegedly sleeping in cars at a Mercedes dealership.

Noting that Qin might be released, he asked neighbors to call 911 if they see him or the vehicle.

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