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'What happened to Officer Lee was inexcusable': Sheriff Paul Penzone on death of detention officer

Gene Lee died after he was attacked by an inmate. His death marked the first time the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has lost a detention officer.

A family and an Arizona agency is grieving after a detention officer died Wednesday from injuries suffered after an inmate allegedly attacked him the day prior. 

Gene Lee, a 6-year veteran of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, was allegedly attacked by inmate Daniel Davitt while on patrol at Lower Buckeye Jail on Tuesday. 

Lee's death marked the first time the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has lost a detention officer. 

“The worst day for a head of office is the day your employee dies in the line of duty, but that pales in comparison to the worst day for his widow," Sheriff Paul Penzone said in an exclusive interview to 12 News. 

Penzone called the attack "tragic and egregious" and called the inmate who allegedly attacked Lee a "criminal predator."

Davitt was behind bars and charged with molesting and assaulting two of his step-grandchildren, ages 6 and 11, when he allegedly attacked Lee. 

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"What happened to Officer Lee was an evil man took an opportunity to harm someone he targeted," Penzone said. 

According to court documents, the attack may not have been a random one. 

In August, Davitt filed a lawsuit against detention officers at the jail. The lawsuit centered on Lee. 

Credit: Pinal County Sheriff's Office
Daniel Davitt

According to the lawsuit, Davitt claimed Lee looked at his genitals before laughing and chuckling to himself. 

The lawsuit was thrown out by a federal judge on Oct. 22, one week before Davitt allegedly attacked Lee by grabbing him by the throat and sweeping his legs out from under him, causing his head to hit the floor.

“There was nobody in Officer Lee's chain of command or environment that expected the possibility of the manner of violence and how it was carried out," Penzone said. 

Penzone said it is normal for detention officers to get complaints from inmates and it would be impossible to move all officers away from every inmate who complained against them. It is often up to those who know about the case to decide if more protection is needed. 

Penzone said the officers in charge of Lee are reevaluating what could have or should have been done differently. 

"I don't know if anything could've been done differently to predict or prevent what occurred," Penzone added. 

Penzone said he expects to see a murder charge against Davitt, but it will be up to prosecutors to decide what degree. 

Davitt is now in the Pinal County Jail system while prosecutors decide how to move forward.

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