Her Last Ride

She loved horses, even if she didn’t know a thing about them, not stallions from scallions or Appaloosas from applesauce. Every night after her father went to bed and she was certain she heard his snores, she snuck out her bedroom window and walked down the dirt road under the desert moonlight to her neighbor’s corral and unlatched the gate.

He would be waiting for her, a big black Arabian gelding, though she didn’t know what kind of horse he was, didn’t know his name, didn’t know how valuable he was, and didn’t even know his owners. She just she knew she disliked them. The horse would be pacing impatiently by the gate, and he’d whinny when he smelled her, and stomp and snort with anticipation when he saw her push past the overgrown palo verde tree between the gate and the road.

Frida would shhh and whisper to calm him, run her hand down his big snout, then let him follow her down the road. Sometimes she’d bring her little dog; the damn thing barked all day long, but somehow he knew he was part of a bigger conspiracy on these late-night jaunts and he’d never let out a peep. And when the girl thought they were all out of earshot of the house, she’d clamber awkwardly onto the horse’s back, grab a handful of mane, and gallop him down to the cottonwoods by the river with the dog running alongside and skirting the bushes for scents.

As a girl, Frida only did what she wanted to, and that had gotten her sent off to Arizona to live with her father. He was a cop. Her mother divorced him because he was such an inflexible hardass, but when she found she couldn’t control Frida anymore, she felt that a supercop dad might be just what the girl needed.

It wasn’t. What she needed was a sign from within, any kind of sign at all, that might tell her something, anything about something or anything.

She grew up alone with her mother in Chicago. Her father moved straight out of state after the divorce, thinking like most new Arizonans, that his problems wouldn’t follow him there, so far away from Chicago’s crowds and smog and winter weather. He’d been a Chicago police officer, so he had no problem signing on as a Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputy. He didn’t even have to spend time in any office, because his beat was to drive the empty roads of North Scottsdale, most of them unpaved in the days before the state sold all the land--and the politicians’ souls--to developers who turned it into red-tile-roof hell. He bought a piece of desert while he still could, however, and built a little house at the end of Dynamite Road, where Scottsdale feathered into the Tonto National Forest. He parked his patrol car in front of the house, and unless he had to bring a suspect to jail or testify in court in downtown Phoenix, his only coworkers were voices on the radio.

When he moved there, his neighbors were ranchers, but they got old and sold out, and the retirees, mostly Californians, moved in. They kept to themselves except to accuse their neighbors and point fingers at strangers. So he lived in isolation until Frida came.

Frida grew up in the city he left, and grew up fast. She knew how to look self-assured as she walked from school to her mother’s downtown apartment. By the time she was 16, she’d figured out how to look a man in the eye and make him wilt. She seemed older than she was, and because she was beautiful, no one ever had the nerve to say “no” to her.

After she graduated from high school, Frida told her mother she’d had enough of education for a while, and any day now she was going to find a job.

That was what she said because that’s what her mother wanted to hear. In reality, she had no such plans, and when her mother started to press the issue, she just altered her schedule. The mother worked in an office in the Loop, left the apartment at seven in the morning and didn’t get home until seven at night. So it was easy for the girl to be asleep when her mother left for work, and to be gone when she came back at night.

Frida had no trouble getting into the clubs even though she was well underage. She could glare or smile her way past any doorman in town. The younger boys never thought they had a chance with her--and in fact they didn’t--and the older boys--who probably didn’t either--would just smile back and let her through the door.

Late one night, her mother woke up and smelled something burning, and went into her living room to find Frida smoking a joint with two enormous men wearing Super Bowl rings. She was still eighteen.

“What were you thinking?” the mother screamed later.

She wasn’t thinking anything. She never thought, and she didn’t plan on starting, and she said so. Mom shipped her to Arizona.

Frida was not impressed, and her dad was probably less able than any other man to set limits. Tough as he had been on her mother, he melted in front of his daughter--so smart, so beautiful--and she filled his empty house. She could just sit by the pool and work on her sun tan for all he cared. And if she played the piano for him--somehow she had managed to put some discipline into that--he’d let her get away with anything.

He had a pair of big, obsequious Labrador retrievers--“the main dogs,” he called them--and a tiny one, no bigger than a plush-toy stuffed animal, which he called “the auxiliary dog.” The big ones were bounding and genial. The little one was a cross between a Maltese and a Yorkshire terrier, two breeds of large dogs trapped in a small dog’s body. It looked sort of like Oscar the Grouch on “Sesame Street” and sort of like the mechanical gopher in the movie “Caddyshack.” It was as assertive and unafraid as the girl was--though there was plenty for it to be afraid of out there in the desert--snakes and owls and lions and coyotes--but, like the girl, it did what it wanted to, and what it wanted to do was follow her everywhere.

Frida had discovered the horses in her first week in Arizona. She was walking down to the river past their so-called pasture—though there was barely enough grass to really call it a pasture--and, social beings that they are, three of the horses ran arrogantly up to the fence.

They seemed impressed that she was unafraid, and hung their big faces over the top rail. She accepted the invitation and reached out and stroked the big one between the eyes, right down to his quivering black lips. She was smitten, and the big horse, like every male she’d ever known, stood still for her.

“Don’t touch the haws-ses!”

The voice came from the other side of the corral. An elderly woman strode up to the fence. She had honey-blond hair, a face pulled tight either from facelifts or from the overwhelming tightness of the sphincters in her ass. The girl thought she was about seventy, and for the first time in her life, she was almost intimidated.

“This is private proppity, honey,” the woman barked. She was done up in cowgirl chic clothing, but her voice and her manner were urban.  Frida identified the accent as city, but she couldn’t tell which city it came from.

The lady lectured for a few moments longer. Frida just stared back. The long and short of the tirade was that she had better not come back or the old lady would call the police.

Frida walked away chuckling, because her father was the police, and  because she didn’t much care what some old face-lifted hag in a denim skirt told her she could or couldn’t do.

She came back that night.  

The horses were still there. She laughed when they trotted over to the fence, and the big black seemed almost to laugh with her. She stayed an hour at least, just stroking his nose and the long curve of his neck.

After a few weeks, she got up the nerve to climb over and walk among the horses. The black Arabian stayed at her side, and they took turns steering each other around the corral. It was weeks more until she dared climb up on him.

She’d brought her dog with her that night. He wasn’t sure--his big ears stayed on full alert--but he trusted her judgment.  The black horse sidled up alongside the fence, as if to get his flanks rubbed, or to rub them against the fence, but Frida took it as an invitation. She climbed right up the fence rails, and when the horse didn’t spook, she reached a leg over and sat gently down on his back.

This was too much for the little dog to take, and he let out a fusillade of barks as rapid as a string of penny firecrackers. A light went on in the house, a window opened. Frida quickly slid from the horse back to the fence and then to the ground, picked up the dog to calm him, and ran home.

The next night she came back alone. The horse was already by the fence, as if he expected her. She liked that. And this time, she climbed quickly up the fence and onto his big back. He stood still a moment and then started to canter around the corral. She wasn’t sure how to hang on--she’d never been on a horse before. She put a hand on each side of his neck and bounced with his every step, but it struck her so funny that she couldn’t stop giggling.

Night after night she rode. The dog accepted this, and he slipped under the fence and learned to dodge hooves. One night, Frida unlatched the gate before she mounted up. The horse took her cue and carried her out of the corral and down the road into the mesquite bosque that ran all the way to the river.

With each ride they ventured farther and farther away from the corral, on dirt roads and narrow trails, into the river to the other side, she with her hair flying behind her and one hand wound into the horse’s mane, riding until the sun came up, then sneaking back to bed and sleeping until late afternoon.

They had adventures: Usually when they saw vehicles parked on forest roads, they’d also see their owners, asleep and naked in backseats, or still furtively making love in the beds of pickup trucks, trying to finish before morning. She identified with them, because she, too, had to get her new love back home before his mistress discovered he was cheating on her.

But one morning, the trucks parked down by the Verde held other delights. She rode in on them and startled a band of seven or eight Mexican nationals who’d spent the night drinking and using their own beer cans for target practice. She’d already turned the horse to run when she saw the gun come up, a long pistol at the end of an arm pointing right at her. The cylinder was empty, but the clicks of the gun’s hammer dry firing rang in her ears as loud as any real gunshot, and she felt exhilarated, almost aroused. She leaned forward onto the horse’s neck and felt his sides and his back muscles between her legs as he ran through the desert. Together they could get away with--and away from--anything.

It was late August, and it had been raining for a week, so the thunder and lightning kept her in at night, laying in bed, sweaty with the window open, hoping the weather would break and she could go riding.

When the skies finally cleared and the moon came out, the temperatures were still in the high nineties at midnight. She put on her bikini top and a pair of shorts and pulled on her running shoes. Then she and the little dog burst out the window like two beasts escaping from a cage and ran wild and crazy-legged for the corral.  She led the horse out the gate, climbed on and raced for the river.

The water was running at flood levels, higher than she’d ever seen it, but she was determined to cross it, anyway.

She jumped down to a sandbar and sat down to take off her shoes and tie their laces together to throw around her neck. If the horse had to swim her across the river, she’d get them wet, and she figured she might need dry shoes on the other side.

The dog had sniffed his way around the creosote bushes. Now she heard him growling deep in his throat, and when she looked for him, she saw he was staring down a coyote as big as a German shepherd. It was easily five times his size, but the little dog was too full of himself to realize that he was on the menu for breakfast. Frida shouted and waved her arms. The coyote stood his ground, so she picked up a flat rock--the kind you want and can’t find when you’re skimming stones on the river, she thought--and whirled it sidearm at the coyote. It caught him behind the ear, and he yelped and disappeared into the brush.

The horse was waiting at the water’s edge. Frida whistled for the dog and he jumped into her arms and onto the horse’s neck as quick as a combination shot. She climbed up behind him and nosed the horse into the river.

The rocks on the river bottom rolled with a hollow clacking sound beneath the horse’s hooves. He stumbled a bit in the swift current. He couldn’t walk straight, and instead was pushed downstream with each step. The water crept up the girl’s legs, surprisingly cold. Then the horse was swimming. The dog balanced nervously. Frida worried about her own balance, arms and legs wrapped around the horse as best she could. They made shore a good hundred yards downstream from where they started.

She got off and let the horse rest, pulled her shoes back on, and looked for the trail. After she remounted and they made the top of the hill, she realized she was facing east and the sun was already coming up, judging from the glow on the horizon.

The horse was walking now. The world seemed surreal in the coming light, the air rolling on the sweet butterscotch smell of the wet greasewood. That’s when she saw the first snake, fat from a recent meal, stretched out at full length alongside the trail, unable to move, nearly invisible on the desert pavement.

After a few miles, the trail came to the top of a deep wash that she’d never seen before, but she decided to climb down into it to follow it back to the river, for that’s where it would inevitably end.

The trail was narrow and rocky, and she was so unsure of her equestrian skills that she decided to dismount and let the horse pick his own way down. He was uncertain at first, too, but when he saw her threading her way downhill, he walked along the ridge top until he found safe footing down. The dog, as always, acted as if he knew exactly where he was and where he was going. And in fact, he did: He was with the girl and he was going where she went.

The wash bottom was wondrous, a hundred feet deep and stained green with copper. Pools of water stood in shaded corners, and at one point, a stream came above ground for a few hundred yards before percolating back into the sand.

She was back atop the horse when she saw the second snake, but only for an instant.

The shirrrr of a rattlesnake is so primal that even if you’ve never heard it before, you recognize it instantly, like a memory passed down from prehistory. The hair goes up on the back of your neck and it seems the world stops a moment.

The dog had been beating the sage and bunch grass along the wash trying to flush birds and ground squirrels and he had stirred up the snake instead. When she heard its rattle, Frida turned and saw the dog and the snake in a weird slow-motion ballet. The snake had risen up on its tail and was spiraling toward the dog, and the dog was instinctively twisting away. She knew that if the snake had bitten the dog, he’d have yelped in pain.

That was the last thing she knew. A beat later, the horse realized what was happening and reared up. She slipped backwards faster than she could catch herself and fell headfirst to the rocks.

When she came to, the sun was full overhead and the dog was licking her face. She sat up with a start, realizing she wasn’t home in bed. Her head hurt, her elbows and knees were skinned, but she seemed OK. She gave herself a once over, took inventory of scrapes and bruises--and then remembered the horse. It was nowhere in sight.

For the first time in her life, Frida thought about consequences. She had stolen a horse and then lost it, and even in this not-so-wild-anymore West, she figured that could send her to jail. For all she knew, it had been taken by a lion, and that made her feel so much worse. But she also knew that the horse would likely walk in the likely direction--down the wash to the river.

The dog was in his usual positive state of mind, as happy as if he had good sense. She wasn’t so sure about herself.

But she started walking anyway, and in an hour she had made it to the river. The horse was grazing in the high grass there, and he barely looked up when she came near, as if he were mad at her for screwing up and getting them both in trouble. But he still let her put the dog up on his back, let her climb up too, and then let her nose him back into the river.

She forgot to take her shoes off and suddenly felt them fill with cold water, and when she jumped down on the other side, they squished and squeaked with each step.

They’d only started the walk up the road to the corral when she saw the flashing lights of the sheriff’s car. She felt a cold shiver, thinking they were looking for her or for the horse, but then she realized the deputy had pulled over a car full of teenagers. It wasn’t her father, but some deputy she didn’t know who was so preoccupied with the ticket he was writing that he hardly nodded when she and the horse tip-toed around the two cars.

The other horses chortled when she opened the gate, and they came to meet their stable mate. There was no sign of life at the house.

The horse had indeed been missed, she’d learn later. But when he turned up unharmed, the owners just assumed that he had jumped the fence. So they built a new and higher one, this time with a locked gate. No matter: Frida’s riding days were over.

She and the dog climbed back in the bedroom window. She could hear her father banging around the kitchen, but it was possible he hadn’t noticed she was gone, since he seldom knocked at her door before noon. She slipped on a long robe to cover her cuts and bruises and padded to the bathroom to wash her face.

Dad was surprised and delighted to see her out of bed. She’d obviously gotten away with it once again, though she wasn’t sure she wanted to get away with anything more. And the conversation that had started out conspicuously and uncharacteristically gracious on her part, actually felt kind of good. Maybe this was the sign she needed.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name


Where everybody knows your name

By Michael Kiefer


I had no intention of going to Alsace.  I needed to go to Bordeaux to start research on my next novel, and I invited my grown daughters to go with me. One could and one couldn’t.

But then I was tooling through the internet and I came upon a hotel in Alsace that bore the family name, Hotel Kieffer, and I was intrigued.  

Now, I suppose that if you were a Smith or a Jones, a Wong or Garcia or Romano, it wouldn’t be any big deal to find your name on a business. But Kiefer is a relatively rare name in the U.S. And when I read that the hotel had its own vineyards and vintage, I had to go, and so did my oldest daughter, who has been a sommelier and a beverage director at swanky restaurants in New York City and Los Angeles for more than a decade.

I emailed for reservations, and the response, from one Mireille Kieffer, said that they had been making wine since the early 1700s, about the time the first of my American forebears, François Kieffer, came to America and settled in Pennsylvania.

No one in my immediate family was particularly interested in genealogy. We assumed that we were German, just like all the rest of the Pennsylvania Dutch folks in the Lehigh Valley. My father’s grandmother still spoke some German, 200 years after the family came to America. Even on my mother’s side, despite her efforts to convince me her father was Welsh, he was a Dutchie, too, and his grandfather had changed the spelling of the family name from Braun to Brown several generations after the family came from Germany and married into other German-speaking Pennsylvania families. Tombstones don’t lie. 

And as for the spelling of my surname, when I was in college, I was reading a canoeing map of the upper Delaware River when I came across “Kieffer Island,” near a rapids that abutted farmland owned by my grandfather’s cousins. I assumed it was a typo. But not too long afterward, I saw my great-grandfather’s tombstone at a church in Bangor; it too, said Kieffer.My aunt told me my grandfather had dropped one fwithout explanation, and I have to think it was during that time a hundred years ago when World War I was raging and having a German surname was not an asset.

A few years later, when I was in graduate school, a professor of Romance Linguistics I encountered on an elevator asked me my name, and when I answered, Kiefer, he told me it was Alsatian, the first I’d heard of it. No one in my family knew or cared anything about it either.

It was one of my cousins who traced the family back to 18th-Century François Kieffer, though he didn’t know where he came to America from. Last year, my younger daughter bought me one of those ancestry tests as a Christmas present, and it was no surprise that it tracked my DNA to a swath of Europe along the Rhine River, where France, Germany and Switzerland all come together. The part of that swath on the French side of the Rhine, of course, is Alsace. 

Hotel Kieffer is a half hour drive south of Strasbourg, in the small town of Itterswiller, on the so-called Wine Road. It is nowhere near Bordeaux, where my daughter, Jessie, and I both had business, she visiting wine châteaux, and me, well, just noodling around the city for a sense of place for my novel. In fact, they are on opposite sides of the country. Bordeaux is considerably south of Paris, near the Atlantic coast. Strasbourg is east of Paris, on the border with Germany. And there is no direct route from Bordeaux to Itterswiller. To get from one to the other, we had to take one high-speed express train two and a half hours north to Paris, grab a cab cross-town to a different train station and catch another high-speed train that went east two more hours across a rural French Expressionist landscape to Strasbourg. Itterswiller was only “sort of” accessible by a local train out of Strasbourg.

If Bordeaux is quintessentially French with its narrow cobblestone streets and 18th Century Neo-classical and Louis IV architecture, Strasbourg is a gingerbread German fairy-tale city. Of course, as the central city of Alsace, it has complex loyalties and enmities to both France and Germany. And over the last millennium, longer than there has been a France or a Germany, the border has been redrawn multiple times, most recently in 1919 when the French wrested it back from Germany after World War I.

That afternoon, we walked along the Ill River to La Petite France, a village on an old mill site on an island in the river. We ate dinner twice that evening at my daughter’s insistence. At a cafe, we had a duck pate and sausages on choucroute (sauerkraut) washed down with a German-style ale. Then, after a run in the rain, we made reservations at a more formal restaurant, where we had pig’s knuckle and choucroute garnish (sauerkraut with sausages and hams and other smoked meats). It reminded me of dinners my grandmother made in Pennsylvania when I was a boy, foods I found peculiar then but love now. Nana, however, did not serve good Alsatian Pinot noir.

In the morning, right outside our hotel, I noticed a street sign that said, “Kiefergass.” I had noticed that all of the streets in the city center were named after professions — lace tatters, tailors, sawyers. This one, in French, was also called Rue des Tonneliers, or the street of the barrel makers.  Though I had looked my name up in print and online German dictionaries, it always translated as “pine tree” or a “jawbone,” the latter painfully apt.  Now, for the first time, I realized that “Kieffer” really meant “barrel maker” or “cooper.”

At the train station in Strasbourg, Jessie had a moment of practical wisdom and suggested I call the hotel in Itterswiller to see if we could get a cab from the train station in nearby Epfig. Down in Bordeaux, while on our way to the various chateaux, we’d taken local trains that dropped us off at mere railroad sidings, where the nearest thing to a station was an automated kiosk that accepted credit cards and dispensed train tickets. 

I phoned Hotel Kieffer, and the woman who answered sort of chuckled when I asked.  A cab would cost at least 100 Euros, she said, because it would have to come all the way from Strasbourg where we were calling from. The train station was hardly a mile away from the hotel, but still too far to walk given the terrain.

“We will pick you up in Epfig,” she said.

We rode a nearly empty train through the countryside, passing quietly through increasingly smaller villages. Fields and vineyards rolled past, and the sun came out for the first time after a week of rain and unseasonably cold temperatures. 

When we got to Epfig, we rolled our suitcases to the door of the train and pushed the green button to exit. The doors wrenched opened about a foot, and then immediately slammed back shut as the train pulled out of the station, refusing to let us off.  I called the hotel again, and again was told not to worry, they would pick us up at the next station, which seemed to be little more than minutes away.

This time, the train doors opened fully and we were deposited in a parking lot in a quaint village. A black Mercedes SUV cruised up and stopped. Its driver side door opened and a young woman emerged, opened the trunk and reached for our suitcases.

“How did you know it was us?” I joked (as if any sensible people had ventured this far out into the country without their own transportation).

Our driver was a young woman named Adeline Kieffer, who works in finance in Paris during the week, and then commutes out to Itterswiller on weekends to help her family with the hotel and the tasting room.

“We don’t get many Americans here,” she said as we drove uphill through vineyard after vineyard, “but we do speak English because of the British who come here.”

And French and German, too, of course.  Itterswiller is right on the Wine Road, which I should have already known was a sort of vacation concept. You cruise the country two-lane highway in your car or on your bicycle or motorcycle, inn-to-inn, stopping at the tasting rooms, much as you would in Napa or Sonoma Counties.

Within minutes, we were in Itterswiller. I asked Adeline to pose with Jessie, cousins 300 years removed. Curiously, they had the same smile and the same cheeks (later Adeline’s mother, Mireille, agreed it was true). I felt strangely at home, though maybe I’m overly suggestible in that way of people who read symptoms for exotic diseases and suddenly think they’ve come down with them.

Our rooms were homey and large, with doors that opened onto a grassy hillside terrace on a hillside, the vineyards just yards away. We decided to explore Itterswiller, and that is when the trip became strange. 

We knew that the hotel had a vintage under the name of Jean-Charles Kieffer, Adeline’s father, and it was being transitioned to her brother, Gerard.  But over the next three blocks — and Itterswiller is, at best, five blocks long and two blocks deep — we came upon several more. Signs marked the vintages of Remy Kieffer, Vincent Kieffer, Robert Kieffer, and François Kieffer. I suddenly felt that we were Kiefers in Kiefferville, like Whos in a winey Whoville.

By then, the tasting room was open for business. Gerard, Adeline’s brother, is the current winemaker, and of course, my daughter the sommelier wanted to try everything they had: Pinot Noir after Rose after red and white Cremant after Riesling.  We chatted like family as we snacked on salami and cheeses.

There, on a dais in the tasting room, was the Kieffer genealogy, an encyclopedia-sized tome listing all of the Kieffers from Itterswiller, going back to the 1600s. Mireille opened the book to  a page of Kieffers named François. There were dozens, and I had no clue if one of them was mine.

That evening, Jess and I had dinner at one of the two restaurants in town. The maitre d’ asked what name the reservations were under, and I responded, “Kiefer, comme tous le monde ici,” which is French forlike everyone else here,and the restaurant staff laughed out loud.

We dined again on sausage and sauerkraut and a tarte flambée, which is sort of a Germanesque pizza. The waitress told us she was married to a Kieffer herself. And then, after dinner, there was nothing to do but walk back to the hotel under the stars and go to sleep.

We ate breakfast in the hotel the next morning, one of those big European buffets where you boil your own eggs and feast on hams and dark breads.  I showed photos of my grandkids to Adeline.   

“There are those Kieffer cheeks again,” she said, as if we were really related.

There was not much going on in town. Men zipped by on tractors, headed to the vineyards. The hotel staff swept and ripped down beds. There was no one on the streets, and when we went into the one open cafe in town, the staff seemed surprised by the disturbance.  

Jess and I walked up to the top of the hill to look out over vineyards in every direction.  On one side, we could see the Vosge Mountains; far off was the Black Forest of Germany.  Here and there, a church spire stuck up out of a small village. But mostly there were rows and rows of grapevines just starting to leaf out.

We walked back to the hotel.  The Kieffers were in the tasting room having a pre-lunch glass of wine. Gerard poured one for each of us, a Pinot for me, a Riesling for Jess.  They showed me a bottle of Kieffer wine that had been bottled the year I was born, and it was just as crusty as me, the label barely legible under decades of dust. An elderly man seated at the end of the bar spoke up.

“I’m a Kieffer, too,” he said. He had once been sheriff of the town, and he told me in detail about the Kieffers he knew who had gone to America over the last century. Perhaps I knew them.  And then it was noon and everyone had to excuse themselves to eat lunch. Mireille brought a plate of bread and cheese and salami to Jess and me, and she poured us more wine, and we sat it the sun, waiting for their lunch to end so we could get a ride back to the train station.

We rode back to Strasbourg with smiles on our faces, then boarded the high-speed to Paris for our last night in France.

I got back to Phoenix two days later with a few new ideas of who I am and where I’ve been. 

Into the Water


Into the water

The swimming holes outside Payson, Arizona, sounded peaceful: Water Wheel, Cold Springs. 

The flash flood would change all that.

By Michael Kiefer | The Republic | azcentral.com

The dog was the first to know it was coming.

It was July in Arizona, the kind of steamy day when people from the blazing desert of Phoenix point their cars north, toward the swimming holes along creeks that seep out of the pine forests in the high country.

Brandon West had gone, with his friend Joe and his dog, Lucky. The water on Ellison Creek trickled from one quiet pool to the next, the same as always.

But his dog, Lucky, whimpered.

"Shut up dude," West snapped. "It’s fine."

Then the water came.

To call it water wasn't quite right. It was black, full of dirt and ash and rocks and stumps and logs. It was rising fast. And Brandon West wasn't the only person in it.

About a mile downstream, three generations of Selia Garcia’s family were walking up the same canyon.

There were 14 of them, Selia, the matriarch of the family, two of her sons and two of her daughters, two of their spouses, and seven of her grandchildren. The oldest child was 13. The youngest, baby Marina, was 1.

Selia's daughter Maria was turning 27, and the day trip was a birthday celebration. They had headed north from Phoenix, not even sure where they would end up. During a rest stop in Payson, they made a snap decision: a spot by the East Verde River, a set of swimming holes near an old mill wheel. The Forest Service calls the place Water Wheel.

The walk in was easy, from the parking lot to the path along the little brown ribbon that is the East Verde River, up to where the canyon makes a 90-degree right turn onto Ellison Creek. The creek trickles down a sloping gray face of smooth rock in two thin streams.

Julio Garcia, who goes by his middle name, Cesar, said they had been walking for what he thought was at least a mile. There was very little water in the river, he remembered.

That changed in an instant.

West and his buddy had been in and out of the creek. They were standing on a rock ledge up above the surface, and suddenly, within seconds, the water was up to their knees.

They were both big boys: West is 6 foot 3 and 260 pounds; his friend Joe was over 300. The water took Joe’s legs right out from under him and shot him downstream, though he was able to work his way quickly to the side and scramble out.

West had taught Lucky to jump on his back on command.

"Gimme hug!" he shouted.

The dog jumped up. But they didn’t make it out of the water.

Instead, they were stuck under a log that mercifully was diverting the water to each side of them. Still, they were getting buffeted by the garbage in the river. Lucky, who weighs about 75 pounds, took the brunt while balanced on West’s back and shoulders.

Then West decided they had to get out of there, and as soon as he moved, the water took them.

"I went under, gasping," he said. Lucky was floating next to him, and West managed to hang onto the dog. They went over a waterfall, then another, then a third, dropping about 4 feet each time.

On the third drop, he lost hold of Lucky. His backpack was filling with mud, and it was dragging him backwards. But when he let go of Lucky, he popped back upright.

He had had a tutorial once before a whitewater rafting trip on how to survive in fast water.

"I just kept hearing my buddy’s voice saying, 'Keep your feet in front of you. Face first and you’re done,'" he said.

West grabbed a root and pulled himself up on a rock, gasping for air.

Moments later, he saw Lucky trotting toward him. The dog had lived up to his name.

Downstream, not everyone was as fortunate.

The Garcia family, amid their birthday excursion, had fanned out across the slick-rock slope.

Cesar was holding his year-old daughter, Marina, in his arms. The rest of the kids were big enough to climb on their own with the adults.

Then Cesar saw it.

“I looked up and saw this huge wave coming toward us,” Cesar said. In minutes, the family would be gone.


Anyone can get to Water Wheel: Turn right off State Route 87 at the Home Depot on the north end of Payson, drive eight or nine miles up Houston Mesa Road, otherwise called Forest Road 199.

Some of Arizona's more famous swimming holes require miles of hiking and expensive permits.

But Water Wheel is an easy hike down sandy paths gentle enough for a child to walk herself. It's easy enough to carry the baby in one hand and a picnic basket in the other. Then there are plenty of flat rocks on which to sit while dangling feet in the water and watching the dragonflies and the canyon walls flecked with red and green lichens.

And who thinks about flood dangers on a quiet summer day?

Before the storm, there was a sandy beach shaded by tall cottonwood trees on one side of the canyon, the perfect place to put a folding chair or spread a towel.

Those trees were about the only thing that stopped the flotsam that shot down the water chute. Months later, the beaches remained practically impassible, clogged with logs and branches and wood chips and ash. Forty-foot tree trunks still dangled 8 or 9 feet above the soil.

The East Verde River and its tributaries such as Ellison Creek drain water off the slopes of Arizona's Mogollon Rim. The rim is a 200-mile-long line of cliffs where the high-altitude table-flat pine forest suddenly drops thousands of feet to the forest below. When water falls on top, it has a long way to go downhill.

Though there are few roads into the area, it is cut through with dry gulches. They are referred to as ephemeral streams and are ironically named creeks because of how fast and deep they run when it rains or when snow melts — Lewis Creek, Moore Creek, Bonita Creek, Ellison Creek, especially Ellison Creek, because the others feed into it like crow’s feet converging on the corner of an eye, and propel the water downhill another eight miles to where it meets the East Verde River at Water Wheel.

In this steep swath of the wild, one formative force of nature is water. The other is fire.

The Highline Fire sparked on June 10. It burned in a spot you can’t easily get to, which made it harder to extinguish. There are no roads to the portion of the fire that burned below the Rim and only the most rudimentary of trails, which are mostly accessible from distant trailheads.

Firefighters had to fight through rocky terrain and dense manzanita and scrub oak that sprang up after the catastrophic Dude Fire of 1990, which had destroyed the native ponderosa pines and changed the area’s flora forever. And they had to keep an eye out for flaming logs and other debris hurtling downhill.

Over the course of two weeks, the Highline Fire scorched nearly 7,200 acres, climbing right up the rocky walls of the Rim, then taking off into the ponderosa pine forest above.

But all that was over by July. The Highline Fire, which burned no homes, was a blackened scar miles away, and not even a memory. The Rim country's creek beds sat mostly dry in the summer heat.

Indeed, the Ellison Creek drainage is normally dry for most of its length until water bubbles into it on Cold Springs Ranch, a private property just above Water Wheel.

At the private-property line, the creek flows through a high grid of barbed wire posted with "No Trespassing" signs. It dribbles down a waterfall into a pool. And sticking out of the pool is a much-photographed tree trunk, peeled of its bark and carved into steps. From there the shallow water trickles through the pocked gray stone and then splits into the two streams that empty into the East Verde.

Though the East Verde is called a river, anywhere else but the Southwest it would be called a creek.

From there, the river flows into a 10-foot-wide slot that drops precipitously in a two-pronged waterfall down into a slightly wider canyon.

It is a beautiful place to spend a hot summer day.


Selia Garcia, 57, was a single mother of six grown children, who brought her family from the Mexican state of Michoacán. 

Hers was a tight-knit family that spent a lot of time together, in restaurants and at home, kids with their own kids. They were well-known in Cave Creek, where at least three of them worked as cooks in restaurants.

And nearly all of them would be together to celebrate Maria's birthday. She was turning 27 the next day. They talked about going to California and Vegas, and then decided at the last minute to go to Tonto Natural Bridge State Park, north of Payson. 

Maria went with her husband, Hector Garnica, 27, who went by his middle name, Miguel. They took their kids, Daniel, 7, Mia, 5, and Emily, 3.

Cesar went with his girlfriend, Esthela Atondo, 28, a teacher’s aide, who goes by her middle name, Abigail. They took their daughter, Marina, 1, and Cesar’s son, Acis Raiden, who was 8.

Their sister Maribel Raya Garcia, 24, brought her daughter, Erika, 2.

Their brother Javier, 19, came, too.

A third Garcia sister, Susana Villanueva, had stayed home because one of her teenage daughters was ill. Her other teenage daughter didn’t particularly want to be on the trip with all the little children, but their younger brother Jonatan Leon, 13, was happy to go with his grandmother, cousins and aunts and uncles.

Cesar was watching the weather, because it was supposed to rain, but Maria said that it would be just fine. They set out from Phoenix that morning in a caravan.

They stopped at Wendy’s in Payson for a bathroom break. That’s when Maria called Cesar to say that they had found a place on the internet that looked like fun, and was closer than Tonto Natural Bridge. 

And so they went to Water Wheel.


The monsoon is a summer weather pattern that defies Arizona's image as hot and dry. The monsoon marks the arrival of summer thunderstorms in the dry Southwest.

After the heat of early summer, the winds shift, drawing tropical air north from the Gulf of Mexico instead of from the dry California deserts. With that air comes moisture, enough to turn the desert from a dry sauna into a steam bath.

By the time it reaches the Mogollon Rim, the moist air can easily condense into concrete-gray towers of thunderclouds that bubble up along a hundred miles or more of mountains.

But unlike a storm front, each monsoon cloud is a concentrated explosion that strikes at random. A monsoon storm can create a downpour in one spot, while a half-mile away, it's dry.

The Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 Arizona firefighters in 2013, was an unremarkable brush blaze until a sudden monsoon draft whipped it into a monster. Arizona's deadliest day of flooding came in 1970, when a sudden storm that dropped the most rain ever recorded in Arizona also fueled its greatest natural disaster: Floods killed 23 people, also in the forests outside Payson.

Both of those deadly storms were spawned when monsoon air condensed above the Rim.

On July 15, 2017, when a line of thunderstorms moved southwest across the Rim, the National Weather Service was watching. Between 1:20 and 2 p.m., the storm dumped an inch and a half of rain on the fire scar of the Highline Fire. As it did, the two defining natural forces of Arizona's high country intersected.

The rain washed away what was left of the soil, taking with it the scorched logs and trees and rocks and ashes.

The National Weather Service issued a flash-flood warning at 1:43 p.m., which would not only go to local media, social media and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather-radio broadcasts, but would trigger beeping emergency alerts on smartphones as well.

It would take the water about two hours to travel the 18 miles or so to Water Wheel Recreation Area.

Down there, it barely sprinkled. The swimmers and hikers may have seen the clouds well off in the distance a couple of hours earlier. Cellphone signals there are as ephemeral as the streams, and it would be unlikely they would be carrying a NOAA radio.

They would have known nothing at all. Then, suddenly, the water was on them.

As floods go, this one was not much. It was less than a five-year event, meaning that the likelihood of a flow of this magnitude could occur every five years or so.

"This is an event common to the area," said Brandon Forbes, a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. "This is an event that could occur at any time of the year."

After the flood, Forbes calculated the flow as 1,950 cubic feet (14,586 gallons) per second, meaning that about as much water as it takes to fill a suburban Phoenix swimming pool rushed by every second, more water than the ground could absorb, coursing down washes already carved by centuries of similar storms.

"If the rain had fallen two miles in either direction, it would not have happened," said Sgt. David Hornung of the Gila County Sheriff's Office. The water would have run elsewhere.

But on July 15 it ran down Moore and Lewis and Ellison creeks, all of which originate up in the Highline Fire scar, and down Pyeatt Draw (which does not) into the main branch of Ellison Creek. And in flood stage, the built-up force of water that had dropped down the cliffs of the Rim, descended hundreds of vertical feet more through the dry gullies, blasted through the barbed-wire wall at Cold Spring Ranch.

“It’s gonna be a minute and a half until it’s on you,” Hornung said.

One video taken just a few miles upstream from the tragedy shows a group of hikers remarking on a barely visible black mass at the top of the frame. They are standing in a wide forest clearing that is so thick with brush that one would not realize it was an ephemeral stream bed: Ellison Creek.

The flood inches into view and within minutes fills the hundred-yard-wide clearing. Except it looks more like an avalanche than a flood. It’s charcoal black, the color of crude oil.

But it’s not liquid. It’s a log jam, a giant flowing mosaic of branches and logs, some of them 40 feet long. Stumps and logs and ash are deposited on the sides of the floodplain at the very feet of the hikers watching it come right at them. It flows past for at least five minutes before the debris starts to clear, and it looks instead like a wide and fast and powerful river.

It would be difficult to withstand the debris. There is no space to swim, and the unfortunate person in the way would seemingly be crushed by tons and tons of charred timber.

But then the water funneled down into Cold Spring swimming hole and Water Wheel, picking up velocity and standing up tall, intensifying like wind through a canyon of city high-rises.

The water belched debris up on the banks where it peaked.

It came this fast: That afternoon, there was already a Gila County search and rescue team at Water Wheel, Hornung said. They’d been called to take out a young woman who had suffered some sort of extreme allergic reaction, and they had just put the woman in the ambulance in the parking lot a few hundred yards away when they heard screams.


Cesar saw the wave bearing down on his family.

It was black, 2 feet high, what hydrologists call a "wetting front." Another wave, 5 feet tall, was right behind it. There was no time to react, and it was on them instantly. They would never get to see how high the water really rose because they were already in it.

Cesar was carrying the baby, Marina, and when he saw his nephew fall from the first wave, he reached down quickly and grabbed the boy by the shirt. But then the second wave hit him from behind, slamming him, and he lost hold of the boy just as they were all washed away.

He and Marina went under, and he could no longer see where anyone else was. He just knew that Marina was still in his arms.

"All I could think of was to hold onto her," he said. "She almost slipped away, and I held her tighter."

Marina's mother, Abigail, went under, too.

"It started going like a water slide," she said. "It was a waterfall, and I was in the middle."

She grabbed onto a tree and held on, worried that the branches wouldn't hold because the water was raging so strong. Then she saw that Cesar’s 8-year-old son, Acis Raiden, had managed to swim to the side and was clinging to a rock when a man reached down and pulled him from the water.

Cesar was washed downstream. He grabbed onto one tree, then lost his grip. He went under again, still clutching Marina, and then grabbed a branch as he washed past.

If he had not caught on, within seconds he and Marina would have been swept over a waterfall where the stream pinched into a tight vee. But he held onto a tree right at the confluence of Ellison Creek and the river — though they were one vast, indiscernible torrent by then.

Baby Marina stayed calm in Cesar's arms.

“She was really brave,” he said. “She hardly cried at all.”

People on shore called to him. They told him there was a woman in the water upstream and a boy on the rocks. Likewise, people who had been higher up on the rocks told Abigail that there was a man with a baby in the water. They knew their little piece of the family was intact.

But Cesar already sensed the rest were gone.

He spent hours in the water, still clinging to the tree. In videos recorded by more fortunate bathers, he is finally walked out of the water by rescuers. One of them hands Marina to a woman standing by. The little girl buries her face in the stranger's shoulder.

Just uphill and across the water, a helicopter sets down on one skid to collect Abigail.

The ambulance driver who took Cesar and Marina to the hospital stayed as the nurses cleaned the black sludge from her body. When they cleared it from her eyes and eyelids, her whole affect changed.

She smiled and the ambulance driver said hers were the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen.


The bodies started turning up a little before 5 p.m., about two hours after the flood — first Maria, buried in debris, then her brother Javier, and one of her children down by the bridge where the East Verde flows under Houston Mesa Road.

Cesar had called family members still in the Valley. His relatives and those of his brother-in-law Miguel mobilized and were already searching before the county search parties reported for duty at daylight.

Cesar and Maria's sister, Susana Villanueva, the mother of Jonatan, found the body of Maribel's daughter, Erika. And when the county search-and-rescue team arrived, Miguel’s father had to be dissuaded from diving into the pools without equipment, searching for his son.

Searchers found three more bodies by the end of the day: Maribel, Jonatan and another of the children. Meanwhile, as news of the flood spread, sheriff's switchboards were deluged with calls from people whose relatives only seemed to be missing because of spotty cell coverage and traffic jams.

Selia and the last of the children were found dead between 1 and 3 p.m. the next day.The rescuers brought in cadaver dogs to scour the riverbanks. They had to dig through the mountains of sodden debris to extract the battered bodies of the victims, whose skin was caked in black ash, and whose lungs were clogged full of the same. Their autopsies showed that several had suffered severe lacerations and head trauma.

The last victim, Maria’s husband, Miguel, was found days later, four miles farther downriver, spotted from the air on a leg of the Verde far from roads or footpaths. The rescuers had to be flown in on an Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter to recover the body.

Over the next week, well-wishers and family friends mobilized to support the Garcia family. They staged taco sales and started GoFundMe accounts to pay for the funerals. They held memorial services at the restaurants in Cave Creek, where many of the family members worked, and released balloons in the athletic field at one of the children's schools in north Phoenix.

On July 24, nine days after the flood, there were 10 caskets arrayed in a U-shape around the altar in the round at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in north Scottsdale. The Garcias were not members of that parish, but there was nowhere else that could accommodate a wake or a funeral of that size.

Nine of the caskets were open. Miguel had spent too much time in the river, and the lid of his was closed. It was placed at the base of the U, right next to his mother-in-law, Selia Garcia.

Otherwise, the caskets were identical: polished alabaster white with white interiors and matching crucifixes. Maria was next to her husband, their three children lined up next to her. On the other side was Maribel, then her daughter, Erika, whose casket was draped in a Disney-princess blanket; then brother Javier, and Selia’s other grandson Jonatan.

Whereas in life, judging from photos, they were beautiful and vibrant, in death they looked pained, saddened, older.

The church was filled with mourners who sat stunned in the surrounding seats, not knowing how to approach the family survivors.

What was there to say?

"When you see an entire generation of a family is gone, that has to affect you," said Hornung, the Gila County sheriff's sergeant, who handled media during the search. "And when you see their grief, it has to affect you as a family and an agency."

Brandon West, who said the flood "felt like an end-of-the-world kind of thing," broke down and cried during a TV interview as he recounted his narrow escape.

"I don’t know why I made it out," he told The Arizona Republic. "But I'll tell you I appreciate life 100 percent more, and you're talking to someone who loves life."Cesar Garcia mused on the randomness of the tragedy. If they had gone to Tonto Natural Bridge as they planned, they might all still be alive.

But he knows that the giant family gatherings he loved will never happen again.

"It's been hard," he said, finally giving in to a silent sob after speaking stoically for more than an hour. "You don’t expect something like this to happen to you. Not until you’re there."

And little Marina, who is now 2, seems a happy little girl, traviesa, which in Spanish means “mischievous.” She laughs like any little girl and takes off running just to be chased by her parents, squealing as she goes.

But Abigail, her mother, says that Marina wakes up in the middle of the night, frightened and trembling, and says only one word:


How to Speak Euro English




How to speak Euro-English

Among the lesser-known entries in Leonardo DaVinci’s notebooks is a sketch for a perpetual-motion machine powered by the hot air from a single Italian tour guide.

They can talk forever. Every church, every piazza, every village is the most be-you-ti-ful in all of Italy.

Then follows a stream of nouns and verbs that you recognize as English words, but somehow you can’t figure out the meaning of the sentences, because he’s pretty much speaking Italian with English words. 

English is the universal language in Europe. It just may not be the same English you and I understand.

I call it Euro-English.

And it’s not just in Italy: Once I was in a group that was running a few minutes behind, which in Switzerland is a cardinal sin.

"I will invite you to follow me with a nice speedy leg," the guide said to us.

To me, it sounded like she wanted a swift kick in the pants, but it made perfect sense to the other people on the walking city tour of Lausanne: a Spaniard, an Italian, a Belgian, a Russian, two Germans, a French- and a German-speaking Swiss. They dutifully picked up the pace. I took out my notebook and jotted down the sentence.

The tour was a planned event at a gathering of journalists from eight different countries. In Lausanne, the language on the streets is predominantly French, but the language of the gathering was English, though very few of the participants were native speakers.

The Swiss are phenomenal linguists. So, I have noticed, are Scandinavians. Not so much the citizens of other countries of Europe. They don't seem to learn each others' languages, sometimes because of deep-seeded cultural conflicts. 

Instead they communicate with each other in English, or rather, in Euro-English, which, like Yiddish in another century, is an amalgam.

And it makes perfect sense to them, because the syntax and cognates of their own languages may be more similar to each other than they are to English.

"You go always straight," I was told after asking for directions of a Swiss woman in Lugano, which in Euro-English, means, "It's straight ahead."

The native languages wired into our brains make second languages seem like Microsoft programs running on Apple computers. It's just language interference.

A lot of Euro-English sentences start with "It is possible to...," or "It is necessary to..." because that's how sentences start in French and Spanish and Italian. In standard English, we state options with "either/or" constructions. In Euro-English, as in most European languages, it's an "or/or" choice, as in, "Or you go this way, or you go that way."

And don't confuse a strong sense of time to translate to a sense of tense.

"Charlie Chaplin has been living a long time in Vevey, Switzerland," I was told, though the man has been dead for decades. It makes sense to French or Italian speakers, because they use the present perfect tense in their languages to convey the past.

Once, in Italy, I heard a woman explain that cypress trees came to Italy from "actual Lebanon," because in most languages, "actual" means "present-day," and not "real." It's commonly heard in Euro-English.

Or, "This metro is very particular, because it has wooden wheels," as I heard in Lausanne, meant that the metro was "unique," not that it was "choosy" or "specific."

And occasionally there will be a real whopper, like the time I heard a guide tell a group of female American tourists that gelato was “Like an orgasm in the mouth.” 

Once upon a time, I was a college Spanish instructor, and as part of my training, I had to study French and Italian as well.  No one complains about my accent in French when I am in France. I get complimented on my Spanish by Spanish-speakers.

But I can’t open my mouth in Italy. I am told my Italian has a Spanish accent, my Spanish is suspect because I speak it with a Mexican accent, and my English, worst of all, is American, whereas they speak good British English, or so they say.

Or maybe it’s Euro-English.

An Italian friend who works at a small magazine in Umbria recently posted a blurb about an upcoming festival in his town. It featured hand-crafted goods, and the organizers had named it “Week Hand.”

Now, in Italian, you could name something “Settimana Mano,” which we would probably translate as “the week of the hand.”

I sent my friend a nice note explaining that you really couldn’t make that construction in English. 

“Oh, it’s a play on ‘weekend,’” he responded.

Uh, no, it doesn’t work, I told him. It sounds like “weak hand,” I said, which would be “Mano debole.” I suggested “Handicraft Week.”

He just said “Thank you very much,” with no intention of taking my advice.

In November, in the Italian city of Pesaro, I was visiting the birthplace of the composer, Gioachino Rossini, and the tour guide was describing Rossini’s beautiful soprano voice when he was a child. They would castrate young boys, the guide explained, so that they wouldn’t lose their voices to puberty.

“Rossini risked castration,” he said.

Those of us listening winced, and then, surprisingly, the guide started talking about Rossini’s children and grandchildren.

“Um, how could he have children if he was castrated?” I asked.

“I said he risked castration,” the guide countered.

“Yes,” I said, “so how did he have children?”

“He risked it.”

I eventually got through to him that his sentence didn’t mean what he thought, that sometimes things don’t translate across the languages. I told him about my friend’s “week hand” festival.

“Oh, that is a play on ‘weekend,’” he said immediately.

Once, on a plane home from Rome, I picked up the in-flight magazine, which was ostensibly bilingual, Italian-EuroEnglish-bilingual, that is.

I found my Horoscope.

“Mars is toning up and vitalizing your everyday life,” it said. “And you, overloaded as you are, can let off your best shots. Especially at work, generous and fertile. Your love life though is exciting as the biography of an angling referee. Fornication looks more prosperous than is has for a long time. Enjoy!”

Amused, I posted it to Facebook with a crack about translation.

Immediately, an Italian Facebook friend shot back an angry comment. 

It was a very funny joke, she wrote, and I just didn’t get it.

Indeed, I did not. I told her it made no sense in English.

“That’s because you just don’t understand British humor or British English,” she wrote.

Or Euro English anyway.





After the quake in Castelluccio

Castelluccio di Norcia sits like a fairy-tale castle on a hill above tree-line, 4700 feet up in the Apennine Mountains of Central Italy. 

Until last October it was a tourist stop-over, an idyllic, out-of-the-way village that was also famous for lentils, or more exactly for the fields of lentils in the high surrounding basin that shimmer iridescent with red poppies, purple gentian and other “weeds” that grow among the legumes.

And in fact, on that late June day, there were crowds of tourists along the two-lane road bisecting the fields, sitting on the grass and gazing into the flowering fields, though it is now a more difficult destination to reach.

From the distance, Castelluccio looked like many medieval villages in this part of central Italy, southeast Umbria, that is, nearly straddling the border with the neighboring region of Marche.  But as we got closer, it looked more and more like a wedding cake that had fallen.

Buildings were literally bent in the middle, interspersed with piles of rubble that had once been homes and businesses.

On October 30, Castelluccio was at the epicenter of an earthquake that measured 6.6 in magnitude, the strongest in 35 years.  It was the second quake that fall. The first, in August, had killed 300 people across the region. And though no people were killed in the October quake, it rendered the village uninhabitable.

Chain link fences had been erected all around the hill and the city above it. Young Italian soldiers stood guard next to a large complex of chemical toilets where the city entrance meets the road that on its way down the pass to Marche. The soldiers stopped every car to ask the intentions of the travelers and tersely answered their questions, turning many of them back. You need government permission to get there, and permission to get back out.

We had seen the first signs of the quake damage in the streets of Norcia, a small city that dates to Roman times down on the plains below. Norcia is so well-known for its pork and wild -boar meats, prosciutto and salami, that butcher shops in this part of Italy are called norcinerie.

The city’s ancient basilica tragically had sections that had been reduced to rubble, as did the ancient city walls. Some businesses seemed untouched, and others had erected tents or trailers in parking lots beside the piles of block and lumber that had been their stores and offices.

The salumeria seemed untouched, however. Inside haunches of pork and wild boar, which is called cinghiale, salami and prosciutto hung from ceiling hooks next to mule balls and pig bladders, and the butchers bustled to take care of customers.

From there, it was a winding hour drive or more up the mountains to Castelluccio, and the once-modern highway had taken a hit. Guardrails hung from the side of the pavement, which had fallen down the steep cliff-sides. Sometimes around a blind corner, a front-end loader or bulldozer would be clearing rock fall and other debris from the road. Then over a final pass, we stopped a moment to look at the old town from afar, from where it still looked magical.

Only a few of the town’s 300 residents remained, we were told Someone had to take care of the fields and the livestock. On one hillside, I saw a small portable trailer and what appeared to be a sheep camp, but I saw no people there.

But on that one open side street that dead-ended after about 10 yards, was a sign of persistence. Next to a hotel and restaurant, the owners had set up a food truck serving pork chops,  pasta with mushrooms and cinghiale, and of course lentils. The hotel was closed, but the open-air porch of its dining room was still usable.

I ordered a beer and a bowl of lentil soup with a sausage in it. It was in a plastic dish, something you don’t often see in Italy, and I had to eat with plastic silverware. It tasted as rich and savory as defiance.

While I ate, the owner of the restaurant stood by proudly, wearing a white tee shirt with these words in big letters: Resto in piedi.

“I’m still standing.”           


The Myth of Parole in Arizona

Hundreds of people were sentenced to life with chance of parole. Just one problem: It doesn't exist

Parole for murderers was abolished in Arizona in 1993. So what will happen to more than 200 people who have been given the sentence since then?

Michael Kiefer , The Republic | azcentral.com

Murder is ugly, and murderers are not sympathetic characters.

But justice is justice, and a deal is a deal.

We expect the men and women who administer the criminal justice system — prosecutors, defense attorneys, and especially judges — to know the law and to apply it fairly.

Yet, for more than 20 years they have been cutting plea deals and meting out a sentence that was abolished in 1993: Life with a chance of parole after 25 or 35 years.

Some of those deals are about to come due.

Danny Valdez, for example, was part of a 1995 drug deal that went bad in Glendale. One person was killed, and no one was sure who fired the shot.

Valdez took a plea deal to avoid death row, and following the terms of the agreement, the judge sentenced him to life in prison with a chance of parole after 25 years.

The only problem: Parole was abolished in Arizona in 1993. As of January 1994, it was replaced by a sentence that sounds similar, but in fact nearly eliminates the possibility of ever leaving prison alive.

Valdez should have been sentenced to “life with chance of release after 25 years.”

“Parole” was something that could be granted by judgment of a parole board, based on the prisoner's behavior and rehabilitation, without the approval of a politician.

But release is a long shot, because it requires the prisoner to petition the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency, which can only recommend a pardon or commutation of sentence by the governor.

Valdez has served 22 years of his sentence.

"He's not a bad person, and he's done well in prison, and he would be good on the outside," his sister-in-law, Cassandra Valdez, recently told The Arizona Republic. Referring to his crime, she added, "He's not normally like that."

But he was involved in a murder. He is doing his time.

No one — not Valdez’s attorney, not the prosecutor, not the judge — ever told Valdez that he was not legally entitled to parole or a parole hearing. He found out when he received a letter last December from The Republic.

He didn’t want to believe it.

"Why would they sentence me with parole if it was abolished?" he asked in a return letter.

 “I was sentenced in 1995 and will be eligible for parole in 2020,” he wrote. “If I would of (sic) known that I would have to go through the process of pardons and commutations, I would of (sic) went to trial.”

Valdez is not alone.

What if they passed a law and nobody noticed?

Between January 1994 and January 2016, a study by The Republic found, half of Arizona murder defendants sentenced to less than natural life sentences — at least 248 current prisoners in the Arizona Department of Corrections — were given sentences of life in prison with a chance of parole after 25 or 35 years.

The sentence has not existed since the law was changed in 1993. But judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys continued to crank defendants through the system, seemingly unaware of the mistake.

Duane Belcher, a former head of the state clemency board, started gathering examples early in this decade, but he was fired by former Gov. Jan Brewer before he could do anything about it. He took the issue to the Arizona Supreme Court, which oversees all state courts.

“People are going into an agreement with the understanding that they will be eligible for parole, and it’s not the case.”

Duane Belcher, former head of state clemency board

Belcher, appointed to the Arizona Board of Pardons and Paroles in 1992, remained in the office long after it became the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency under the new law. He served many years as its chairman.

“I started asking the question in 1994 when the law changed,” Belcher said. “What’s going to happen when 25 years comes? Nobody seemed to have the answer.”

Belcher was only talking about how the state was going to handle those prisoners sentenced to life with a chance of release. Then he noticed that some defendants were still being sentenced to life with chance of parole. He started to collect examples, concerned about the inaccurate sentences.

Belcher, a former parole officer and former supervisor at the Department of Corrections, looked at it from both sides.

“People are going into an agreement with the understanding that they will be eligible for parole, and it’s not the case,” he said.

But he also worried about whether it could be grounds for reversing a sentence.

“We don’t want to go back to the public and say we paved the way to letting go a murderer.”


Belcher started to tell people about the error, including the administrative offices of the Arizona Supreme Court.

“Nobody really gave a damn, because (it was as if to say) ‘In 2019, I’ll be gone,’ ” he said. “Nobody wants to look in the mirror and say, ‘I screwed up.’ ”

Defense attorneys have brought it to the court’s attention, too.

But courts tend to kick matters down the road until someone files a lawsuit. The first attempts to correct the problem by individual prisoners have been easily knocked down in court. Several were rendered moot when the state was forced by a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision to reinstate parole for juveniles. The decision barred mandatory natural life sentences for murderers younger than 18.

As for the rest?

The first cases will not become ripe until at least 2019, 25 years after the new law was enacted. The question is, what happens?

The best remedy for what could be a judicial error is a new trial. But will defendants really want to go there and face anew the possibility of a death sentence? Some have already entered new pleas to the correct sentence — life with chance of release after 25 years.

“The reason why I signed the contract was for the chance to get out after 25 years, and that was in the plea I signed. … I am prepared to pay for my error, but neither should they hide something so important from me.”

Juvenal Arellano, sentenced in 2004 to life with chance of parole

Several prisoners contacted by The Republic were unaware they were not really eligible for parole.

“When they sentenced me, they did not say that parole didn’t exist,” Juvenal Arellano said in a letter to The Republic. Arellano killed a man while stealing his car in 2004, and he, too, pleaded to life with chance of parole.

 “The reason why I signed the contract was for the chance to get out after 25 years, and that was in the plea I signed. … I am prepared to pay for my error, but neither should they hide something so important from me.”

He thought he would someday see his family again.

So, too, Jock Coker, who beat a man to death in 2009 and then stole his truck to use in armed robberies.

 “When I signed my plea agreement, I was told by my then-attorney that after I serve 25 calendar years that I will be eligible for parole,” he wrote. “That is the sole purpose of me signing the plea agreement. Because I felt by me getting paroled after 25 years that I have a chance of enjoying my kids, mother and the rest of my family out there in the free world.”

He has practically no chance at all.

Truth in Sentencing

The change came in 1993, when the Arizona Legislature followed a national trend by passing a series of tough-on-crime laws under the name Truth in Sentencing, which was a national buzz word.

It was championed by then-Gov. Fife Symington, who repeated the slogan “Do the crime, do the time” as a rallying cry. And he mustered outrage for his cause with the complaint that a convicted murderer named James Hamm had been granted parole after serving 17 years of his sentence.

Ironically, Symington later resigned the office after being convicted of seven counts of fraud in federal court. But he never had to do the time. His conviction was overturned and remanded on appeal because of juror misconduct. Before he could stand trial a second time, he was pardoned by college chum, then-President Bill Clinton.

Hamm, on the other hand, became the poster child for rehabilitation, earning a law degree from Arizona State University. Though the Arizona Supreme Court would not allow him to be admitted to the state Bar, he became a paralegal and a prisoner-rights advocate.

Among the components of Arizona’s Truth in Sentencing bill to make life harsher for bad guys was language to abolish parole and disband the parole board. It established the Arizona Board of Executive Clemency in its place.

The sentence of “life with chance of parole after 25 years,” the third-harshest sentence possible in Arizona, was eliminated. It was replaced by “life with chance of release after 25 years,” 35 years if the murder victim was a child. The other sentence options for first-degree murderers were death or natural life, which means no possibility of parole or release, ever.

Life with chance of release, in effect, is a mitigated sentence, meaning it is imposed when there are circumstances that render the crime less horrible than a murder that calls for natural life or death. Life sentences also may be imposed for conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, sexual conduct with a child, and in certain cases where a repeat offender is deemed incorrigible.

'25 to life' — and then what?

The two sentences sound very similar. And this has become a problem, because judges and lawyers tend to conflate the two and use the shorthand phrase “25 to life” to describe either, without defining the end result.

But they are substantially different.

Those eligible for parole could get a guaranteed hearing before the parole board, a state-appointed panel that had the authority to release the prisoner. It was not a guaranteed release, but instead depended on the prisoner’s behavior and rehabilitation while in prison. And if denied, the prisoner could re-apply after six months to a year.

But under the new system, there is no automatic hearing. Instead, the prisoner has to petition the Board of Executive Clemency, which would likely require a lawyer. The board can then choose to hold hearings on the prisoner’s likelihood to stay out of trouble and make a recommendation to the governor. Rather than parole, the prisoner needs a pardon or a sentence commutation. Only the governor can provide those.

In essence, the process ceased to be a rehabilitation matter and became a political decision.

The earliest “life with chance of release” cases will reach the 25-year mark in 2019. But there is no mechanism set up to handle the cases yet, and most of the prisoners are indigent and unlikely to be able to hire attorneys to start the process.

In the end, “life with chance of release” differs very little from “natural life.” And that has become a problem in federal court.

The law was altered slightly in 2013 to make it even harsher. "Life with chance of release" was eliminated for those convicted of premeditated first-degree murder, but remained in effect for juveniles and for those convicted of first-degree felony murder, meaning that someone died during the commission of another felony.

How the affected defendants get a chance at possible release remains in question.

Petitions for clemency would go to the Board of Executive Clemency, but that agency has no authority to set up the process.

"Whose problem is it?" asked Ellen Kirschbaum, the board's executive director. "As the Board of Clemency, we have to stay neutral. We're a board that follows the law set out for us."

Board chairman C.T Wright agrees.

"We're in a precarious situation," he said. "We will follow the dictates of the Legislature."

If it makes any.

In 1994, the first year that the new sentencing was in effect, judges and attorneys paid attention to it. There was only one defendant accidentally sentenced to “life with parole” in the entire state.

The next year, 1995, there were three such sentences, including Danny Valdez, who thinks he is eligible for parole in 2020.

But by 2001, the number of “life with parole” sentences had risen to 16 statewide. Between then and 2013, it averaged about 15 per year. The peak was 27 in 2008 — all but four of them from Maricopa County Superior Court.

Judicial imprecision

Law is a very precise discipline, and in their motions and oral arguments, in case law and court orders, judges and attorneys parse words, stressing the differences between “shall” and “will”; “probable cause” and “preponderance of the evidence”; and “reasonable doubt” and “beyond all doubt.”

The Arizona Revised Statutes define a life sentence in this way: “If the defendant is sentenced to life, the defendant shall not be released on any basis until the completion of the service of twenty-five calendar years if the murdered person was fifteen or more years of age and thirty-five years if the murdered person was under fifteen years of age or was an unborn child.”

Minute entries, which are a Superior Court judge’s record of what transpired in open court, and also the record of the judge’s orders in a case, are full of boiler-plate language.

But when it comes to notarizing a life sentence, the state’s third-harshest possible after death and natural life in prison, judges follow no set language.

Instead, the minute entries may say “life with chance of parole after 25 years,” “life with no chance of parole for 25 years,” “life with chance of release after 25 years,” “with eligibility for release,” “without eligibility of release or parole for 25 years,” “life,” “25 years to life,” “lifetime,” or myriad other combinations.

The Republic reviewed minute entries for more than 500 life sentences imposed between Jan. 1, 1994, and Jan. 30, 2016. Most of the cases came from a list of prisoners with life sentences provided by the Arizona Department of Corrections, but others excluded from the DOC list turned up over the course of research. After sorting out some natural-life sentences accidentally included in the list, and other errors, and then adding other cases that were uncovered, The Republic was left with 490 cases.

Most of the defendants had pleaded to or been found guilty of first-degree murder. Some were convicted of conspiracy to commit first-degree murder or sexual conduct with a child. A few were repeat offenders.

The database does not include defendants sentenced to multiple consecutive sentences of life with chance of parole, only those prisoners who would have a reasonable chance of living out the specified time before they are eligible for parole/release. All of the prisoners in the database were confirmed on the Department of Corrections website as being currently in the state prison population.

Sentencing minute entries show:

  • 158, or 32 percent, were precisely written to specify a chance for “release” after 25 or 35 years.
  • 84, or 17 percent, of the sentences are written as “life” or “lifetime” or “25 years to life,” which is imprecise, but not inconsistent with the wording of the 1993 statute.
  • 248, or 51 percent, offered a chance of parole after 25 or 35 years, contradicting the law. The lion’s share of those sentences — 175 — were imposed in Maricopa County Superior Court, which is widely regarded as a worldwide model for court administration and efficiency.
  • Of the invalid sentences, 90 were the result of plea agreements, meaning that the defendants pleaded guilty with the expectation that they would get a hearing before a parole board after 25 or 35 years.

Courting confusion

Some judges interviewed by The Republic theorized that the incorrect sentences on minute entries could be clerical errors, or a faulty template for the documents.

But 248 times? That number does not include numerous "life with parole" sentences excluded from The Republic database because the inmates have so many consecutive sentences to serve that they could never live long enough to have a parole hearing.

To the inmates sentenced under those terms, it is the formal record of their sentence. All of those minute entries bear the judges’ signatures.

 “In 2006, I was sentenced to life with possibility of parole,” said Francisco Centeno-Lopez, who shot and killed his brother-in-law after an argument and a long-running antagonism. He took a plea agreement.

“At the time of signing, I was not told by my lawyer that I would have to apply for a pardon or a commutation of sentence,” Centeno-Lopez wrote in Spanish in a letter to The Republic. He was told that if he had a good record in prison, he could get out after 25 years.

“When I spoke to my attorney about the plea agreement, he said it was the best he could negotiate, and it was sign the plea or go to trial, lose and spend the rest of my days in prison,” he wrote.

Needless to say, judges and attorneys, the people who are expected to enforce and interpret the law, are confused.

In 2004, for example, a defendant who discovered that there was no parole wrote to the judge who sentenced him, Jeffrey Hotham.

Hotham fired off a letter to the Arizona Department of Corrections, and notarized it in a minute entry, saying, “The court has received a letter from the defendant indicating that the Department of Corrections has communicated to the defendant that the defendant is not eligible currently to see the parole board.

“This court sentenced the defendant to life in prison, with the possibility of parole after serving 25 calendar years. This minute entry will serve to notify all involved that under the law, although currently not eligible for parole consideration, the defendant will be eligible for parole consideration after serving 25 years.”

The general counsel for the Corrections Department responded, “Truth in Sentencing came into effect on January 1, 1994, and there was no stated review for release from a life sentence after twenty-five calendar years. Truth in Sentencing has no mechanism for parole review on life sentences after 25 years.”

Of the defense attorneys interviewed by The Republic, some said they were aware of the misuse of parole but have taken advantage of it, advising clients that there is no such thing, but urging them to accept the plea deal offering it because it is better than facing a jury in a death-penalty trial and because it may someday give them a bargaining edge in getting out of prison after 25 years.

Other defense attorneys denounced it as a prosecutor’s trick, to scare juries into thinking that a craven murderer may someday get out of prison if they don’t sentence him or her to death.

Many others were confused, as if they had used the term “25 to life” generically, without any idea of what happened after the term had run.

Look at the transcripts

Ronald Reinstein spent 22 years on the Maricopa County Superior Court bench and is remembered as an excellent trial judge. After he retired, he went to work for the Arizona Supreme Court as a judicial consultant, especially on death-penalty and victims-rights issues.

“You have to look beyond the minute entry. It could be an error. You have to look into the record and look at the transcript.”

Ronald Reinstein, Arizona Supreme Court judicial consultant and retired Maricopa County Superior Court judge

“I’m not as troubled as you by the minute entries,” he told The Republic.

“You have to look beyond the minute entry,” he said. “It could be an error. You have to look into the record and look at the transcript.”

In case law, the oral pronouncement in open court takes precedence over the written document.

But that argument cuts both ways. This reporter covered a sentencing in 2010 at which the judge talked at length about a defendant’s slim chance of ever getting parole. But he said it would be available to him.

The minute entry, by contrast, simply said he was sentenced to “life (25 years flat time).”

As a judge, Reinstein sentenced at least eight people to life with a chance of parole, according to minute entries. After speaking to The Republic, he went back and reviewed one of the cases and found the term was included in the plea agreement generated by the prosecutor.

He conceded that a defendant who entered a plea agreement specifying a chance for parole might have more of a chance of staging a legal challenge than someone sentenced after a jury verdict.

That logic was echoed by defense attorneys as well.

“It’s a contract. It’s a deal,” said Kathy Brody of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.

Referring back to the standard language of plea agreements, Brody said, “How can you say it’s a knowing and voluntary decision (by the defendant) if it’s an incorrect sentence?”

And Marty Lieberman, the director of the Maricopa County Office of the Legal Defender, said, "If somebody entered into a plea agreement, they've got a right to the benefit of a contract."

But Lieberman was uncertain what would happen to those who were sentenced to life with chance of parole after a trial.

"Are you ever entitled to an illegal sentence?" his colleague, John Curry, asked. "I think it will come down to the facts of the case."

“I think it’s going to be a case-by-case basis. I don’t know if you’re going to get an answer until one of these cases goes to the Supreme Court and gets a written opinion.”

Mary Jane Gregory, former clemency board general counsel and assistant Arizona attorney general

Barring a class action, however, Reinstein said the cases would have to be considered one at a time on appeal, an opinion echoed by Mary Jane Gregory, a former assistant Arizona attorney general who pondered the question as general counsel to the Clemency Board.

“I think it’s going to be a case-by-case basis,” she said. “I don’t know if you’re going to get an answer until one of these cases goes to the Supreme Court and gets a written opinion.”

High-profile Phoenix defense attorney Larry Hammond, who is involved in the Arizona Justice Project, said, “The right thing to do would be to have a resentencing for all of these defendants, at which time they would be told what the law is.”

That would entail more than 200 resentencing hearings in an already busy court calendar.

Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery thinks the solution is just to admit that the sentences were in error and correct the paperwork.

“I would look at that and say, ‘That’s a mistake.’ Life without release: And then proceed on that statute," he said.

But retired Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Fields countered, “Arizona doesn’t have the ability to correct sentences.”

“You can’t have it both ways,” Fields said. “You can’t go back and make (the sentence) more. That’s a jeopardy argument. Usually you have to live with what the judge did.”

Kicking the question down the road

State courts, however, have been hesitant to acknowledge the conflict.

Jesus Godinez and a fellow gang member drove to a rival gang party in south Phoenix in 2008 and started a shootout. Both were wounded, as were several other party-goers. The friend and one of the rivals died of their wounds.

Two years later, Godinez entered a plea agreement to avoid a capital trial and was sentenced to two concurrent sentences of life with possibility of parole after 25 years. His attorneys took note of the erroneous sentence, and in his post-conviction relief hearing, they argued that he did not enter into the plea “knowingly, voluntarily and intelligently,” because his trial attorney had not correctly advised him that parole was not available to him.

The trial judge denied relief. Godinez took the case to the Arizona Court of Appeals, which concluded that the judge had erred in allowing the terms “parole” and “release” to be used interchangeably. But it gave the judge the option to simply correct the wording in the sentence.

In an earlier case, the appellate court found a problem with the sentence, but sent it back to the trial court to fix.

Darius Agboghidi was just 16 when, in 2004, he and another teen shot a man to death during a burglary. He, too, entered a plea agreement to life with chance of parole. His attorneys argued that he had been misinformed by his trial attorney and that the terms “parole” and “release” were used interchangeably.

The trial judge refused to grant relief. But this time, the Arizona Court of Appeals said that he had a point, though it was not merely being misinformed by his trial attorney.

“Because the potential for early release after 25 years appears to be illusory under current law, Agboghidi’s claim is colorable,” the appeals panel of judges wrote. His case went back to Superior Court and stayed there until 2014, when the trial judge dismissed it because it had since been rendered moot by federal court decisions regarding juvenile murderers with life sentences.

Agboghidi will get his parole hearing after 25 years, but not because a Superior Court judge erred in sentencing him in the first place.

The 'illusory' chance of release

Leave aside the question of parole for a moment.

“The bigger problem is, there’s not a mechanism for reasonable consideration for those people whom the judges decided should have a chance for release,” said Keith Hilzendeger, an attorney at the Federal Public Defender’s Office in Phoenix.

That’s a fact that has chipped away at Arizona’s current sentencing statute in federal court.

Agboghidi’s case was one of more than 70 affected by a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller vs. Alabama. The high court ruled that it was a violation of the 8th Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment to sentence a person who committed a crime as a juvenile to a mandatory natural life sentence without parole.

The logic followed that of a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision barring the death penalty for juveniles: that a juvenile’s brain is not fully developed, leaving him or her impulsive and irrational.

In the Miller case, the high court ruled that life without parole could be imposed only on the “rarest of juvenile offenders, those whose crimes reflect permanent incorrigibility.”

A subsequent Supreme Court ruling made the ban retroactive to cases that had already been decided.

When defense attorneys in Arizona first tried to apply Miller to their clients, they were stymied by the argument that Arizona’s sentencing scheme already had an alternative to life without parole, specifically, life with possibility of release after 25 or 35 years.

But the federal court did not agree. The U.S. Supreme Court had specifically referenced parole, and the concept that the actual chance of “release,” as the Arizona Court of Appeals put it, was "illusory."

“If we’re going to use that standard for commutation, it renders release void — because they’re never going to get it,” said Katherine Puzauskas of the Sandra Day O’Connor School of Law at Arizona State University and a former attorney for the Arizona Justice Project.

In 2014, the Arizona Legislature changed the law and reinstated parole for those, like Agboghidi, who were convicted of murder as juveniles and given less than natural-life sentences.

Puzauskas and the Arizona Justice Project lobbied on behalf of the juveniles serving life sentences in Arizona prisons. And a Maricopa County Superior Court judge ruled that they were to be afforded legal relief under Miller and the subsequent rulings.

At first, that affected 73 prison inmates. Remarkably, the post-Miller change legitimized more sentences than it undid.

Forty-one people had been sentenced as juveniles to life with chance of parole, and with the ruling, their sentences became valid. Thirty-two others sentenced for crimes as juveniles, whose sentences had not mentioned parole, will also now be eligible for parole after 25 or 35 years.

The 2014 legislative change did not apply to juveniles sentenced to natural life, meaning they would never be eligible for release.

In December 2016, the Arizona Supreme Court threw out the natural-life sentences of two additional Arizona prisoners who were convicted as juveniles. They sent the cases back to Superior Court for resentencing, with a suggestion to the Arizona Legislature that it amend the law to grant parole eligibility to other juveniles sentenced to natural life as well.

Meanwhile, the federal courts are chipping away at the Arizona life-sentencing statutes elsewhere, most recently a U.S. Supreme Court decision in May 2016 accusing Arizona prosecutors of using the threat of release to scare juries into imposing the death sentence for fear that the defendant will someday get out of prison.

“Under Arizona law, ‘parole is only available to individuals who committed a felony before January 1, 1994,’ ” the court wrote.  “… But under state law, the only kind of release … is executive clemency.”

The Supreme Court justices threw out that death sentence. In December, they knocked down a second for the same reason. There probably will be more to come.

But what of the defendants who were adults when they were sentenced to life with chance of parole? There are still more than 200 Arizona prisoners who were told by a judge that they would someday be granted parole hearings.

“I think the state has to uphold its side of the bargain,” Puzauskas said.

It will likely require a lawsuit.

“I think what will happen is, if a number of people are successful, someone will go to the Legislature,” said Reinstein, the retired judge. “It’s an executive issue to do that or to let them ride one at a time.”

And the suggestion from the Board of Executive Clemency?

"I think the best process is no longer here, which would be parole," said the board's executive director, Ellen Kirschbaum. "It's here for others," she said, referring to the juvenile killers and those convicted before 1994. "It's a fair process."

Wright, the board chairman, agreed.

"I would say at the moment, parole is the way to go."

Arizona's 'dirty little secret'

Venus Lopez and a friend tried to steal a vehicle at a Circle K store near 43rd Avenue and Thomas Road in Phoenix in 2000. According to media accounts at the time, Lopez, who was then 19, pressed a shotgun into the driver’s side and demanded his keys.

But her mother, Sophia Lopez, who was a well-known anti-gang activist at the time, told The Republic recently that there was no gun, and that the car's owner was inside the store when they took the vehicle.

The owner saw them, ran from the store, pulled out a 9mm handgun and emptied a magazine in Lopez’s direction. He missed, and instead, he shot an innocent bystander between the eyes, killing him.

It was Lopez's second armed robbery. According to her mother, Venus started using drugs and going downhill after she graduated from high school and was turned down when she tried to enlist in the U.S. Army. She started getting in trouble.

And even though she didn’t pull the trigger in the fatal shooting, Lopez and her friend were both charged with first-degree murder under Arizona’s felony murder laws. It was a high-profile case because of her mother's reputation as a community activist, and it was prosecuted by the flamboyant and usually successful Juan Martinez.

Venus Lopez was convicted after a trial and she was sentenced to “life with eligibility of parole after 25 years.”

In December she wrote to The Republic.

“I’ll be direct. NO, I wasn’t aware that parole was abolished at the time of my sentencing. Nor did my attorney inform me of this, as he understood that I would have a parole hearing after serving 25 years,” she said.

 “Because of my legal illiteracy then, ‘clemency’ and ‘parole’ were synonymous. I believed I would appear before a ‘board’ who would decide my release.

“Now I am being told the decision to release me will be a gubernatorial decision.

“My quest to clarify what my sentence truly is began in 2008 and continues,” she wrote.

Lopez wrote to her trial attorney, to judges, to officials at the Department of Corrections. So did her roommate, Veronica Torres, who killed a woman in a drive-by gang shooting when she was 14 years old.

“I know it is difficult to get people to care, after all, we made some really bad decisions. It doesn’t mean the justice system should be allowed to perpetuate the practice of revenge or disregard the essence of what justice is, if it even really exists.”

Venus Lopez, inmate

Lopez studied the case law, like the Agboghidi case and Miller vs. Alabama. She talked with her fellow inmates to learn their stories.

“The reality of my sentence was clarified when Miller vs. Alabama was decided and applied to Arizona juveniles serving life without the eligibility of parole,” she said. “This is when I realized that I am undeniably serving a natural life sentence, meaning I am not guaranteed a board hearing of any kind unless I file the paperwork. If I never file I am never released. And if I file for a pardon or sentence commutation (clemency), statistically, in Arizona, it is unlikely that either will be granted because it is a gubernatorial decision.”

Lopez didn’t actually kill anyone; Torres did. But ironically, because Torres was a juvenile when she committed murder, she is eligible for parole under the Supreme Court’s Miller case.

“There are cases that have challenged this sentencing scheme based on pleas taken that gave the impression parole was a possibility,” Lopez continued. “It’s a fact that much of the legal committee, lawyers, prosecutors and judges did not fully grasp the meaning of this sentencing scheme.”

“The abolishment of parole and what that meant to those sentenced to ‘Life’ after 1993 is now being called Arizona’s ‘dirty little secret’ among the legal committee. Why? Because they know the law is vague, no process was established on how these cases would be handled 25 years later, and the probability of release is not probable statistically.”

“The sentencing scheme for felony murders is an issue in itself because we did not commit murder. The psychology associated with the intent to kill versus the intent to steal is significantly different and does not warrant a life sentence, which is what Arizona law allows.”

“I know it is difficult to get people to care, after all, we made some really bad decisions. It doesn’t mean the justice system should be allowed to perpetuate the practice of revenge or disregard the essence of what justice is, if it even really exists.”

Reach reporter Michael Kiefer at 602-444-8994 or michael.kiefer@arizonarepublic.com.


Murder by Proxy

Publication: The Arizona Republic
Publication date: Sunday, August 28, 2016

A car chase, a shooting and 'murder by proxy'

Jessica Hicks' boyfriend was shot dead by police; she's facing life in prison

Michael Kiefer


Jessica Hicks never killed anyone, but she has been sitting in jail for more than two years, awaiting trial on a first-degree murder charge.

She was living a transient's life with her boyfriend, Craig Uran, a known car thief with a string of weapons charges.

A Phoenix police officer killed Uran. Under state law, because she was with him at the time, Hicks can be held responsible for his death and can be sentenced to life in prison.

It's a sordid story, involving seemingly disposable people.

It began on March 18, 2014, when a Phoenix officer spotted Uran and Hicks at a motel on Interstate 17 as they got into a pickup truck Uran had stolen.

Uran pointed a gun at the officer, police said, and the chase was on.

They careened and swerved on the freeways and onto service roads, and by the time the pair reached central Phoenix, a squad of marked and unmarked police cars and an armored mini-tank were waiting for them.

Uran pulled into the parking garage on Jefferson Street between First and Central avenues in the commercial development known as CityScape.

It was about 11 a.m., and people were milling on the sidewalks.

Inside the garage, Uran carjacked a woman. Whether Hicks was helping him or just going along to stay alive is in dispute. Uran told the victim he had a gun. Hicks helped him wrestle away her keys, and they took her Ford Escape. Then they screeched out of the parking garage and turned east on Jefferson with the rear window bouncing open.

The Escape was immediately rammed by the police mini-tank. It spun around and catapulted over light-rail tracks and onto the sidewalk in front of the Subway sandwich shop in the historic Luhrs Building. Uran gunned the engine as people scrambled out of the way.

Two officers in pickup trucks tried to ram the Escape. The second one struck, rattling Uran and Hicks.

The little SUV's airbags blew. Its tires went flat. The car stopped.

Nearly 60 seconds later, a police bullet tore through Uran's skull, killing him instantly.

Police pulled Hicks out through the passenger-side window, cuffed her and took her to the ground, hard.

She was charged with auto theft, armed robbery and first-degree murder — Uran's murder — because under state law, if someone dies while you are committing certain felonies, you can be held responsible, regardless of who did the actual killing.

Police spokesmen told the media that they had to shoot Uran because he had refused to follow directions to surrender, that he had ducked as if to pick up a gun off the seat or the floor.

At the time, they would not provide the shooter's name, telling The Arizona Republic that the officer was a "victim."

In the probable-cause statement filed in court at the time of Hicks' arrest, police wrote, "A police special assignments officer, fearing for the lives of bystanders, fired his rifle 1 time striking and killing Uran."

Yet there are many questions that remain surrounding the shooting.

In one cellphone video taken by a witness and reviewed by The Republic, three police snipers can be seen taking cover behind one of the pickup trucks and pointing their rifles.

According to police records, David Norman, the officer farthest to the right, squeezed off the fatal shot. And on close examination of the video, a small white spot — presumably, the spent cartridge — can be seen flying from Norman's gun stock and over his shoulder.

At the same instant, another of the officers reaches to adjust the scope on his rifle with his left hand, and before he gets that hand back to the gun barrel, his arms jerk in a way that makes it appear that his weapon has discharged. The officer then looks to the fellow officers at his side. One Phoenix police source told The Republic that the officer was startled by the shot, but did not say why.

Norman unequivocally told The Republic that he, and only he, took a shot.

"This is a really cut-and-dry kind of shooting," he said.

But Phoenix police have not released a report on the internal investigation of that shooting to Hicks' defense attorney or to The Republic.

There was a second bystander video: two police officers subduing Jessica Hicks, bending her first to her knees and then to the ground. She is not resisting.

Suddenly, a third officer steps in and grabs Hicks by the back of the neck. He slams her forehead into the ground and leans his weight into her, grinding her face into the pavement.

There was no firearm found in the Ford Escape. Police found it on the floor of the stolen pickup truck in the CityScape garage. It was a pellet gun.

An unsympathetic duo

Neither Jessica Hicks nor Craig Uran is a sympathetic character. She was 23; he was 26. They were transients who lived to smoke meth.

Hicks' problems began when she was 15. Her stepmother suffered from multiple sclerosis and cancer, and Hicks took some of her pain medication to school. She shared it with another teen, who became sick. And at that point, according to her father, Eric Hicks, state Child Protective Services became involved in their lives.

Jessica was taken away. Her father was branded as violent after shooting some of his neighbor's horses that he claimed had come onto his north Scottsdale property and trampled one of his other children, breaking her leg.

Jessica went in and out of group homes. She took up with an older man and got pregnant twice. She lost herself in drugs. She first went to jail in 2012, after being arrested and charged with possession of black-tar heroin. She was sentenced to probation. But after her arrest, she told police, she continued to use heroin and methamphetamine, and she had drugs in her possession when she was arrested the day Uran was shot. She eventually lost her first two children to their father.

Then she took up with Craig Uran.

"The first time I met him, he pulled a gun on me," Eric Hicks said.

He had come to rescue his daughter from Uran. In a scene that presaged his final day on Earth, Uran pointed a gun at Eric Hicks, and then, as the elder Hicks drove away, Uran swerved around him, pulled in front of him, slammed on the brakes and acted intimidating.

"He's done that more than once," Eric Hicks said.

The father said he rescued his daughter several times. She would call him and ask him to come get her. There would be a confrontation with Uran. But then, she would inevitably go back to Uran.

Eric Hicks said Uran even stabbed her while she was pregnant. She gave birth to her third child on Dec. 24, 2013, just three months before she went to jail again.

Hicks' last Facebook post before her March 2014 arrest said, "Why, God why can't things be better, and why can't I get my head out of my ass when they do get better I don't get it."

In between the usual selfies, some of them in her underwear in front of a bathroom mirror, wearing dark eye makeup, her hair cut bluntly, she laments not being able to see her children on a regular basis. She apologizes to her father for the trouble she has been in.

"Wish he knew how much I really envy, admire and love him. I just don't know how to fix the problem and turn me back to who I was," she wrote.

Occasionally her father chimed in with advice. On Jan. 3, 2014, she wrote a plaintive post to someone else.

"You promised me everything was gonna be ok. ... You promised me you wouldn't leave and that you loved me, you also promised that you would make sure I was safe and my heart would be within arm's reach. You broke all those promises. ... U have officially helped cuz now what can you do when your there and I need to be saved from myself, huh, Craig Uran."

Uran responded with one word: "Blaahh."

A rebel without a clue

Mug shots, Facebook selfies and arrest reports suggest Uran was relatively short and relatively heavy. He sported a little mustache. He had black tattoos on his arms, back and chest. Across his shoulders, in 4-inch-high Gothic letters were the words "Crazy Craig." His Facebook posts, which end in 2011, are mostly bloated, angry and illiterate.

"peeps here in ohio just don't know my status," he wrote that December. "az peeps let em know what im about !!! the biggest peeps out here haven't pushed what ive pushed within a 4 hour drive ! people just don't know ! listen u may learn something ! attention is the key ! im only lookin out ! been there done it ! shed blood for it got ink to prove it ! with a paper trail from the scum that disrespect the code of honor !!! stay by my side & youll last the long roads of hell ! it is the key u here! C is here if ur down ! but show me some damn attention ! I offer & get shut down & silence witch I did ! where u at !"

Uran had a long rap sheet of traffic offenses. He had been sentenced to prison three times.

In April 2005, he stole a car and was sentenced to 31/2 years. Before he even went to prison, he was arrested again in connection to a drive-by shooting. He had been out of prison for less than a month in 2008 when he was arrested for aggravated assault and misconduct with weapons, on suspicion of punching a man in the face and firing a weapon into the wall of the house where he was staying.

He was released from prison again in August 2011.

Early in 2014, he was back in trouble, arrested on an outstanding warrant at a motel on I-17, where he was staying with Hicks. Police found a large knife in his possession, as well as ammunition, but no gun. He was again charged with misconduct with weapons because, as a felon, he was prohibited from having them.

That charge was dismissed on April 14, 2014. Uran was already dead.

A fatal mistake

Uran thought he could drive like Steve McQueen, but his last day alive was not so much a McQueen movie — more like "The Blues Brothers," or perhaps the final scene of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

Hicks and Uran were staying at a motel near 20th Avenue and Van Buren Street on March 17, 2014, she would later tell detectives.

They were driving around, and she said she jumped out of the Honda that Uran was driving near I-17. Hours later, he returned and found her in the same neighborhood, except he was driving a gray Dodge Ram pickup truck he had stolen sometime between 2 and 5 in the morning. The ignition lock had been broken off.

She said he pointed a gun at her. Hicks told police she got in the truck because Uran was schizophrenic and bipolar, and she was afraid she would be beaten because he treated her like "a security blanket."

As they drove around through the morning of March 18, Hicks said, Uran realized they were being followed by a police officer in an unmarked car.

At that moment, Uran made his first fatal mistake: He pointed the pellet gun at the officer. The officer had no idea whether it was a real gun.

Thus, many of the police reports from that day do not refer to investigations of auto theft or carjacking or murder. They reference officers joining an investigation of "aggravated assault on a police officer."

Point a gun at police, and the whole force will come after you.

The officer later said in his interview with police investigators that when he started to follow the gray truck, the driver made a U-turn and pointed a pistol at him as he sped off in the other direction, first through a neighborhood and then south on I-17. Hicks said Uran was smoking meth as he drove.

A group of gang-crime detectives joined the chase and tried to pull him over. He took off, according to police reports, driving down dirt roads, going around barriers, swerving from the HOV lane to the right-hand shoulder and barely avoiding collisions.

More and more officers joined the chase.

The officer who drove the mini-tank, called a Bearcat, was monitoring radio traffic from an office near Third Avenue and Washington Street. He asked if he could step in.

Police officers undergoing training exercises near downtown Phoenix showed up, too.

Uran sped into the parking garage at CityScape. If he and Hicks had just left the truck there, they might have escaped. Instead, Uran stopped with his lights on next to the Ford Escape. He never even turned off the ignition.

Uran screamed at the owner to get out of the Escape. When she did, she took her purse and car keys with her. Hicks and Uran chased her down and wrestled with her. Hicks later claimed she only helped Uran get the keys to keep anyone from being hurt.

The driver surrendered the keys. Then, as Uran and Hicks sped out of the garage in the stolen car, Hicks threw the victim's purse out the window.

Police were waiting outside in force — 70 to 100 of them, according to witness accounts. Uran drove right through the parking-garage gate, breaking it off. He was driving so fast the Ford became airborne as he swerved onto Jefferson Street.

The Bearcat struck quickly, hitting the Escape on the rear driver's side, which propelled the SUV across two lanes of the street, then made it boomerang up and over two curbs of the light rail and the sidewalk. According to reports, a bystander told police he saw Hicks in the car and "she appeared to be holding on and was scared."

Police reports detail witnesses seeing people fleeing into doors and alcoves on the sidewalk. Witnesses told The Republic that day how they had pulled people into the Subway restaurant to get them out of the way, seconds before the Escape came to a halt there.

An officer in a pickup truck tried to ram the car on the sidewalk but was stopped by the light-rail berm. A second, larger pickup crossed the curb and hit the car on the passenger door, where Hicks was sitting.

The car stalled. Its air bags deployed. The tires were flattened.

Four Special Assignments Unit officers took cover about 20 feet away from the disabled Escape, behind the second pickup that had rammed the car. One was ordered out of the way by Norman, who took his place. Another stepped back.

Bystanders said they could hear officers shouting, "Get out" and other orders, but whether Uran could get out even if he wanted to is questionable. The air bags had deployed, and the driver's-side door could only open about a foot because it was so close to the building.

One witness, who asked not to be identified, said he watched Uran and Hicks through the windshield.

"I could see them rattle around from being rammed, and then I could see they were not moving whatsoever," he said. "No one was moving in that vehicle. I thought they were potentially unconscious."

Then, after a long moment, a shot rang out, and he assumed it was "an officer taking tactical steps toward the car," a description that matches Norman's moves in the video.

Right before, according to the police report, a Phoenix police lieutenant approached the passenger side of the Escape with his gun drawn, made eye contact with Uran and ordered him to put his hands up. Uran did for a moment, then reached back to the steering column to try to restart the car, or, as the report said, "may have been reaching for a gun."

The lieutenant did not shoot, however. When he heard the "pop," he did not know who had fired.

Norman's account also has Uran raising his hands briefly, then leaning over "very deliberately" toward the passenger side of the car.

Hicks told police that Uran tried to restart the car. Then, she said, he uttered his last words: "I don't know what to do, Jess."

The bullet tore through Uran's skull and lodged behind his left eye.

Customers cowering inside the Subway snapped pictures of the body, slumped in the front seat, blood dripping from his eye socket, literally a foot away from the restaurant's front doors.

In the exact same instant, the Bearcat ran over the foot of an officer crouched behind a squad car, pinning him against the hood of his vehicle. The Bearcat backed up and the officer fell to the ground.

The officers next to Norman, including the one whose gun appeared to discharge in the bystander video, later wrote in their reports or told detectives in interviews that they had Uran in clear view through the open rear window of the Escape. They also said that he seemed to lean over as if grabbing something from below, possibly a weapon. It was in that moment, they all said, that Norman fired.

But there was no weapon to reach for. It was on the floor of the truck Uran had left, with its engine running, in the parking garage.

Police cut through the air bag blocking the broken passenger window and pulled Hicks out. She immediately told police that she had been forced into the car.

Although police reports say Hicks was resisting, or "somewhat resisting," witnesses told investigators she was not.

One officer tells of assisting in taking her down because she was "flailing her arms."

In the witness video, she does not appear to be resisting. Rather, she appears to be handcuffed as one male and one female police officer start to bend her forward to take her to the ground.

Then a third, male officer, in a bulletproof vest and carrying an automatic weapon, steps in. When Hicks is already on her knees and about to be laid prone on the street, the third officer grabs the back of her head and pushes her face down so hard that, in the video, he can be seen compressing her forehead. The officer puts his weight on his arm and rolls and grinds Hicks' face into the pavement.

Uran was left sitting in the driver's seat of the Ford Escape. Officers covered the windshield with a tarp.

On officer-involved shootings

Maricopa County law-enforcement officers shot 40 people in 2015 — nearly one a week — and 23 of them died, according to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. This year, as of Aug. 19, there have been 29 shootings by police, 19 of them fatal.

During the same period, from January 2015 to Aug. 19, there have been 10 fatal police shootings in New York City and 14 in Chicago, compared with the 42 in Maricopa County, according to a database of officer-involved shootings compiled by The Washington Post.

Whether an officer-involved shooting is "justified" is a question of whether it fits within allowable parameters under state statute — though other law-enforcement officials, including from the same agency, make the assessment. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office then reviews the in-house investigation.

The officer is given the benefit of the doubt in his or her instant judgment during an emergency.

In July 2014, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office reviewed the Phoenix police investigation of the CityScape shooting and determined that "Officer Norman did not commit any act that warrants criminal prosecution."

It is clear from video of the shooting obtained by The Republic that the scene was chaotic in those moments before Uran died.

An officer wearing a white baseball cap moves into place behind the gray pickup truck that rammed the stolen Ford Escape. He points his M-4 rifle, then takes his left hand off the gun barrel and places it momentarily on the rifle's scope. The gun appears to go off before he has a chance to aim. The officer in the baseball cap then looks in Norman's direction.

It is a marked jolt that people familiar with firearms took for an accidental discharge. A lieutenant from the Phoenix police Internal Affairs Department thought so, as did a private investigator who specializes in shootings, and also retired Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Fields, who was an Army Ranger in Vietnam and a federal prosecutor.

At the same instant on the video, the Bearcat pins another police officer to a squad car. The armored car backs up and the officer falls to the street.

"Bad training. Bad leadership. Who was in control?" Fields asked after reviewing the video. "No one was in control.

"This is not a combat zone," Fields continued. "Their job is law enforcement. They're not given free rein to shoot anyone they want."

Phoenix police stand firm, however.

"There is no evidence to support a second shooter or an accidental shooting," Phoenix police spokesman Sgt. Jonathan Howard told The Republic.

When asked if he was the shooter, Norman point-blank told The Republic, "Yes, sir, I was."

Norman also told The Republic he was the only officer who fired.

A source inside the Phoenix Police Department told The Republic what appeared to be an accidental shot from the officer in the white cap was actually the officer flinching because he was startled by Norman's shot. None of the other officers fired, including the police lieutenant who made eye contact with Uran.

"Usually, in that situation, those officers are communicating verbally to each other," said Mike Clumpner, a South Carolina police SWAT team member with a Ph.D. in homeland security. "But when the decision is made to shoot, it is such a fluid situation."

And national standards for SWAT teams recognize that officers may have to step outside of lines of authority to respond to the crisis at hand. "We are always under standing orders to stop perceived immediate acts of violence," Clumpner said. "We are always under orders to neutralize the threat."

Norman told The Republic that it was a "very dynamic incident. I just responded and ended things and did my job."

"How they want to charge her is not my decision," he said.

But other details are fuzzy in the police report, such as the weapons the officers held.

For example, in a narrative Norman gave to detectives, he is said to be carrying a type of rifle called an AR-15. Later in the report, when Norman's weapon is checked, it turns out to be an M-4.

Hicks' defense attorney, Jeffrey Swierski, asked to have his experts examine the guns, but was told in an email by the prosecutor Aug. 15 that "those weapons were inspected, tested, photographed and released back to the respective officer. There were no weapons impounded as part of the investigation."

The Republic has requested the Professional Standards Bureau report on the shooting, an internal investigation that might shed more light on events. It was redacted and forwarded to the Phoenix Police Department Public Records Division, which then said it needed further redaction, with no explanation other than that it was going to take a long time.

The official police report states that one bullet was missing from Norman's ammo clip. An expended cartridge was recovered from the light-rail tracks.

But the police report said the cartridge could not be matched to any officer's gun.

On felony murder

Felony first-degree murder is charged when someone dies during the commission of certain felonies, regardless of who kills whom. The minimum mandatory sentence is life in prison with no chance of release. Prosecutors may also seek the death penalty but are not doing so with Hicks.

In most felony murder cases, the person who committed the so-called predicate felony also committed the murder, but the evidence does not indicate that it was premeditated — a bank robbery gone bad, for example, where the robber is challenged and shoots in an attempt to evade arrest. Or it could be an accomplice in the bank robbery who is helping carry out the crime when someone else does the killing. Both are culpable.

Sometimes prosecutors will charge both premeditated and felony murder to help ensure conviction. First-degree murder jury verdicts have to be unanimous, but if half of the jurors think the crime is premeditated and the rest think it's felony murder, the verdict is still considered unanimous.

More rarely, as in Hicks' case, felony murder is charged against an accomplice when one of the criminals is killed by police or by accident.

Technically, even if the police and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office found that the shooting was accidental or unwarranted, they could still charge Hicks with Uran's death if they could prove there was a qualifying felony in progress when he died. Armed robbery and flight from law enforcement are both qualifying predicates for charging felony murder. Prosecutors have discretion to charge to the max and then leverage plea agreements. If there is no such plea, the jury's verdict would then hinge on whether Hicks was an active participant in the felonies and whether the felonies were still in progress when Uran was killed.

Witnesses told police that the shooting took place 40 to 60 seconds after the Escape came to a stop. The ramming by the Bearcat and the pickup trucks probably took 10 seconds.

"The armed robbery was over, and there was no killing during that armed robbery," Fields, the former Superior Court judge, said after seeing the video. "The event was over. It was during the arrest that he was killed. There was not a murder that occurred while the felony was being committed."

"As a prosecutor, I wouldn't touch this," he said. Or, he said, he would plead it down to a lesser offense.

David Derickson, another former Superior Court judge who is now a defense attorney, said, "The case can still go forward" because Uran died and Hicks was an accomplice. Then he added, "All this evidence is going to be heard by a jury."

But two years after the incident, all the evidence has not been disclosed.

Norman's statement about the shooting, and any shooting investigations, were absent from the materials initially turned over to defense by the case prosecutor during the discovery stage. The Republic obtained those materials through public-records requests.

The Professional Standards Bureau investigation has yet to be turned over.

Nor has the defense been allowed to examine the car in which Uran died.

On July 21, more than two years after the shooting, prosecutor Ed Leiter finally informed Hicks' attorney, Swierski, that the car had been returned to its owner's insurance company and was unavailable.

As for the officer slamming Hicks' face into the ground, both former judges said they were appalled. "I don't think there's anything that shows he needs to be involved in that take-down," Derickson said. "That's assault."

The official Phoenix police response on whether Hicks was abused: "It's hard to tell," police spokesman Jonathan Howard said.

In late June, Leiter offered a plea deal: If Hicks pleaded to manslaughter, he would ask for seven to 101/2 years in prison. Swierski wanted time served. There was no deal.

At a hearing Monday, which was Hicks' next court appearance, Leiter told Superior Court Judge Joseph Mikitish he was making counteroffers to Swierski.

Until then, Jessica Hicks still faces trial for first-degree murder.






Publication: The Arizona Republic
Publication date: Tuesday, October 4, 2016


Woman charged in 2014 police shooting agrees to plea bargain

Michael Kiefer


A woman charged with first-degree murder after a 2014 police shooting in downtown Phoenix entered into a plea deal that will keep her in prison for five years instead of the life sentence originally sought by prosecutors.

In March 2014, a car thief named Craig Uran pointed a pellet gun at a Phoenix police officer, then led officers on a chase to the downtown retail development called CityScape, where he carjacked an SUV.

A police tank and two unmarked police vehicles rammed the stolen vehicle on a busy city street shortly before the lunch hour, and seconds later, a police sniper shot Uran dead.

Uran's girlfriend, Jessica Hicks, was in the vehicle with him at the time. She claimed Uran had forced her to go with him, though the owner of the carjacked SUV claimed Hicks was an active participant. Police pulled Hicks out the window of the wrecked car and slammed her face-first into Jefferson Street.

Hicks, 26, was charged with first-degree murder under Arizona's felony murder law, which allows a person to be charged with murder if anyone — even an accomplice — dies during the commission of certain felonies.

The police shooter and some of his fellow officers told investigators Uran appeared to reach for a weapon he no longer had. Other witnesses claimed Uran was not moving or that he had his hands in the air.

In late August, The Arizona Republic reported that police and prosecutors had still not provided full police accounts about the shooting to Hicks' defense attorneys.

The Republic was able to obtain those reports under the Arizona Public Records Law. They revealed multiple discrepancies.

Only weeks before, prosecutors admitted to Hicks' attorney that neither the death car nor the police weapons were available for defense experts to examine.

The Republic also obtained videos that police and prosecutors were unaware of, showing the shooting and the use of force on Hicks.

On Monday, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office entered into a plea deal with Hicks for substantially less-serious crimes.

Hicks pleaded guilty to armed robbery and automobile theft in exchange for a five-year prison sentence. Because the offense was designated "non-dangerous," a legal distinction that affords some leniency, she might only have to serve 85 percent of the sentence, or four years and three months.

Hicks already has been detained for two years and eight months, meaning she could be released as early as June 2018. She also must serve an as-yet undetermined term of probation.

Hicks will be sentenced Nov. 8.


Bonnie and Clyde for the Millenials

Publication: The Arizona Republic
Publication date: Sunday, January 17, 2016

Lured by easy money, trio ran afoul of the law – and are paying the price

Michael Kiefer


Youth, looks, money: They say you need at least two of those qualities to live life in the fast lane.

Billy Brymer had all three.

Also, he was smart, and the boy knew how to talk.

"I just like money and research everything I can do to make it without working," he once texted a friend. "I'm a mastermind at making money without doing s--t. Write an e-mail, make a phone call and come up with 10k."

Never mind that none of it was legal.

He was big and buff, 6 feet 4 inches tall and 240 pounds, a weightlifter who used and sold steroids. And though he was only in his early 20s, he had a luxury apartment in Tempe and a fast car.

The women noticed, and the men were filled with envy.

Jillian Bagley was just 19, an artist studying design at Arizona State University and waiting tables to make ends meet. She liked glamour. She needed a place to live.

Joel Thomas was 21, finishing up a dual-degree program at ASU, working 30 hours a week at a bank and caring for his 12-year-old sister.

They both fell under Brymer's sway.

"Whatever he told her to do, she would do it," Thomas said of Bagley in an interview with The Arizona Republic.

She became a Millennial Bonnie to Brymer's 21st-century Clyde.

In Thomas, they found a sidekick.

Bagley said Thomas was wowed by Brymer when they met at a party.

"You've got money, you've got women," Bagley describes Thomas as saying.

And she said Brymer responded, "Well then, you're ready to get started."

They started in August 2011 and by the end of February 2012, Brymer and Thomas, working with a host of stooges and flunkies, including Bagley, stole or scammed nearly $380,000 from banks where Thomas worked, according to court records.

That was their undoing.

"It's a tough crime to get away with," an FBI agent told The Republic.

And they all were sentenced to prison.

Brymer never spoke to The Republic. His lawyer said he shouldn't. He doesn't show up in the prisoner locator systems; the FBI agent said that he is in federal protective custody.

Thomas still denies conspiring with Brymer.

"It's all on him," Thomas said. He says Brymer was just a big flamboyant guy he knew from parties.

"Billy Brymer didn't even know where I lived," Thomas told The Republic in an interview in jail.

Bagley was labeled a getaway driver in one bank job. She claimed she was just along for the ride.

"I didn't think I was in trouble," she said, "even up to the point where I was arrested and indicted."

But she did 31/2 years in jail and federal prison and still has to serve stints in a halfway house.

Brymer had the good luck — and the good lawyering — to get a plea deal with only a 12-year sentence.

But Thomas, the alleged inside man, went to trial and was sentenced to 49½ years in federal prison, which he is appealing. He still has to stand trial in state court for bank fraud.

Sometimes, the fast lane ends in unexpected exit ramps.

Billy Wayne Brymer:

A smooth talker

Billy Wayne Brymer III told different stories to different people. He would say he was a student, or an e-trader, that he sold real estate or played for the Arizona Cardinals.

This portrait is drawn from court and FBI records and interviews with people who knew him well.

He was a smooth talker. He saw vulnerabilities, and he capitalized on them.

One scam was to get strippers to harvest credit-card numbers and security codes from unsuspecting clients.

According to court records, he gave his pitch in 2012 to a person he was trying to pull into the scheme, saying that each girl who stole credit-card numbers would make $1,000 in her first week and the go-between would make $200 to $500 for each girl recruited.

"I've been doing for 3 years (sic) and I've made a little over 800k just so you have an idea of the money that's made doing this," he wrote in a text message captured by FBI agents.

Like a modern-day Fagin from "Oliver Twist," Brymer enlisted homeless teens in Tempe and had them open bank accounts. Then, using a Square reader, of the sort plugged into a phone or tablet to make charges on credit cards, he would drain money from the bank accounts and let the "bums," as he called them, keep a pittance.

The bums had to call Brymer "boss," according to Bagley and to court records, and Bagley said they were told not to talk to her.

One of the homeless teens, who was sentenced to prison for his participation, said that "someone" driving a BMW gave him $500 so he would have a place to stay.

"The defendant was told that someone from Mexico wanted to use his account to wire money from Mexico," one investigative report said. "This person could not do it himself because he did not have a green card."

Jillian Bagley:

Met Brymer at Hooter's

Jillian Bagley grew up in the West Valley. She met Brymer the day before her 19th birthday in July 2011, while she was working at a Hooter's restaurant.

She waited on his table, and he left her a $50 tip.

A few minutes later, he came back into the restaurant and told her he needed his $50 back. When she gave it to him, he handed her a $100 bill instead.

Two weeks later, she said, she was living in his 900-square-foot, 18th-floor apartment in the Tempe Towers complex.

Brymer would wake every morning before she did, buy her breakfast from a takeout stand and then drive her to class in his Beemer or new Camaro.

"He treated me like a princess," she said in an interview with The Republic.

Bagley thought Brymer went to college, but she didn't know where. She said she assumed he had family money, and lots of it. In fact, he was the son of a small-time shyster with felony convictions for assault and drug offenses who was mysteriously shot to death in front of his Laveen home in 2013, shortly after Brymer, his son, entered into his plea agreement.

Bagley began to wonder who she was living with. She wondered what Brymer did to have so much money.

Then one day she asked.

"I know it's none of my business, but what is it?"

He told her that he would call people on the phone, claim he was raising money for breast-cancer research and then take their credit-card numbers, she said.

"I just wanted to ignore it because I needed a place to live," she said.

After about a month, Bagley said, she tried to leave. Brymer took her cellphone and hid it; it was later found on top of a tall refrigerator where she couldn't see it. He convinced her to stay.

"It didn't feel stable, like maybe the cops would bust in the door any day," she said.

But she gave in.

"I just turned a blind eye," she said.

Then Brymer ran into Thomas.

Joel Thomas:

Caring for 12-year-old sister

Joel Thomas was 21, living in El Mirage and caring for his 12-year-old sister because their mother was on active duty in the U.S. Navy.

He was also attending ASU, working on dual bachelor's degrees in justice studies and criminal justice, and working 30 hours a week at a Wells Fargo bank in Surprise, he said. He wanted to go to law school and was preparing to take the LSAT exam, a law-school prerequisite.

Thomas claims he knew Brymer from high school and saw him at a party he only attended because he had just split with his girlfriend.

"He was a big dude, hard to miss," Thomas said in an interview with The Republic.

Thomas, by contrast, is short but muscular, a round-faced young Black man. (Brymer is White; Bagley, of mixed race.)

Thomas denies associating with Brymer outside of the party scene, but the record suggests otherwise. (And his appellate lawyer says Brymer extracted information from him.) They went shopping for guns together, according to court records, for example.

According to police and prosecutors, Thomas helped Brymer by singling out vulnerable Wells Fargo accounts and then feeding the information needed to pillage them.

"Hey and try to get as many card numbers with security codes that you can because I can set up a square account for the bums and get 4k a week," Brymer wrote in a text to Thomas in September 2011. "Even if a person only has a thousand or two still try and get the info."

Thomas texted back: "Okay I'll work on that I have to be careful if all the fraud is coming from ppl coming in here."

And people did notice.

A presentence report for one of the "bums" described how Brymer and Thomas exploited a 97-year-old woman. She thought it strange that Thomas, a teller at her bank branch, was overly friendly to her when she came to his window.

"Shortly thereafter, she stopped receiving bank statements," the report said. The woman, "who still balances her checkbook, called the bank. Once she received the statements she noticed someone had made several withdrawals from her account without her permission, totaling $55,000."

In a text exchange with Brymer, Thomas wrote, "And that lady with 100k we are going to do everything!!! Lol."

Brymer replied, "Yea...I'm even gonna go to her house and rape her."

Between Aug. 23 and Dec. 30, 2011, Brymer and Thomas' bank scheme took in $124,405, according to court records.

But Thomas had come under suspicion and was fired. He was hired as a teller at a Chase bank in Peoria.

On Dec. 26, 2011, Thomas and Brymer exchanged texts about ways to keep the money flowing in without including so many other people, according to Brymer's sentencing memorandum in federal court.

"Within a few weeks, they committed their first bank robbery," the memorandum says.

Jan. 21, 2012:

'Let's do it!'

Bagley told The Republic she thought she was going out to lunch with Brymer, her cousin and her cousin's friend, when one of them said, "Let's do it!"

It was Jan. 21, 2012, and "it" on that day was robbing a Wells Fargo bank in Surprise.

Jillian's cousin, Daniel Bagley, had become friends with Brymer; he and Jeffrey Edwards, his sister's boyfriend, had just shown up at Brymer's Tempe apartment, where Jillian Bagley lived. Then they set out for lunch, she said.

Jillian Bagley said she was told to wait in her cousin's car in front of a pharmacy a few blocks from the bank.

Edwards went in first and pulled out his gun. Daniel Bagley was supposed to follow him in and back him up, but he panicked and turned and ran, nearly running into Brymer, who assumed the robbery was done.

So instead, according to Jillian Bagley, Brymer pulled his gun on a customer at the ATM and took his money.

Edwards, meanwhile, could not get anyone to open the bank vault, so he turned to the tellers and took nearly $7,200 in cash.

The three rejoined Jillian Bagley. And then they all went to lunch, she said.

The second bank job went even worse.

On Feb. 25, 2012, Brymer recruited two of his Tempe "bums," and drove them to a Safeway supermarket in Surprise that had a Wells Fargo branch inside. The robbers did not even know Brymer's name, referring to him only as "boss."

One of the two was afraid to go through with the robbery. The other marched in and handed a note to a teller, who handed him $1,687 and then hit the panic button. Both men ran to Brymer's car and took off. Brymer gave one of the men $60 for his efforts.

Girl Scouts selling cookies outside the store gave descriptions to the police.

It was not a successful heist. When none of the bums was available for the next job, court records say, Brymer and Thomas apparently decided to take matters into their own hands.

Feb. 29, 2012:

Things begin to go wrong

Thomas had been working at the Chase bank in Peoria for about two months. On Feb. 29, 2012, he was scheduled to help open the bank, which is a two-person job.

According to an FBI deposition in the court records, here is how the final bank caper played out:

Thomas met the bank manager there at 7:30 in the morning. His task was to stand outside while the manager went in and swept the bank to make sure no one was inside. Thomas was supposed to watch for suspicious activity at the ATM and signal the manager if there was a problem.

Brymer was at the ATM, wearing a gray hoodie sweatshirt. Thomas said nothing. When the manager signaled for Thomas to come inside, Brymer made his move.

Thomas did not even pretend to stop him.

Brymer pushed through the door and the manager was not strong enough to keep him out. For some reason, Brymer waited until he was already inside before pulling a ski mask over his face. The manager got a good look at him. Brymer drew a 9mm hand gun, pointed it and said, "Don't do anything stupid because I'm willing to kill both of you and kill myself."

He demanded to be taken to the vault; it took two keys to open it, and the manager and Thomas then shoveled cash into the black duffel bag that Brymer had brought with him.

Then Brymer asked to get to the tellers' money; Thomas opened his "cubbie," and gave him a bag with the cash that would have filled his till at his window. Brymer demanded money from the ATM and the manager said he couldn't get into it.

But Brymer already had stuffed $246,000 into the bag.

He carried a walkie-talkie and asked into it if any police were in the neighborhood. The voice on the other end belonged to one of Brymer's weight-lifter buddies, Ernie Lerma, who answered, "No." Lerma would be the getaway driver.

Brymer then told Thomas and the manager to go into the bathroom, lie down on the floor and wait five minutes until he was gone.

A minute later, the manager called police.

Thomas claimed to be a victim of the robbery, but authorities found his story to be fishy. And when Peoria police showed up, one of the officers took the others aside and told them he had an open investigation implicating Thomas in fraud at the Wells Fargo bank. Furthermore, Thomas had an associate named Billy Brymer, who fit the description of the armed robber.

The FBI was called in, and when the agent looked at surveillance video of the robbery, he immediately picked out fatal errors.

When Brymer was pushing his way through the front door, "Joel just stands there with his hands at his sides and doesn't even try to help his managers," FBI Special Agent Lance Leising told The Republic. That, Leising said, could be a shock reaction.

But then, Leising noticed that Brymer had let Thomas walk behind him while he pointed the gun at the manager, instead of making them both stay in front of the gun. The robber, in other words, was only concerned about the actions of one of the men he was supposedly robbing.

Thomas told The Republic that the manager sprinted to the vault under Brymer's command and that Brymer followed, leaving him standing behind.

"This dude just pulled a gun on me," he said.

He still maintains that he was Brymer's victim.

But his story about the robbery unraveled quickly, and the hunt was on for Brymer.

Police stop the getaway car,

and let it go

On the way back from the Peoria bank robbery, Lerma and Brymer were pulled over by police on a traffic violation. Brymer did not let on that he was the owner of the car. Lerma was issued a citation for driving without a license or registration. They went back to Brymer's apartment and played video games.

Then Brymer had Lerma drive him and Bagley to a shopping mall to buy a backpack to hold the money. They were recorded on surveillance cameras. Then, as he and Bagley checked into a Scottsdale hotel, Brymer sent Lerma in his BMW to go back to his apartment to dispose of evidence: the gray sweatshirt Brymer wore during the holdup, as well as illegal steroids and syringes.

But police spotted the car and pulled it over. In addition to the illegal drugs, police found the walkie-talkies from the robbery, a stack of crisp bank notes and Brymer's iPhone, according to court records.

Lerma was not arrested. Brymer got his car back. And by the time police came looking for him, he was gone.

That afternoon, Brymer and Bagley went to a dealership in Scottsdale to buy a Porsche. Brymer told the salesperson he played for the Arizona Cardinals and had a trunk-load of money. He wanted to put the car in Bagley's name, but she refused.

Brymer was supposed to throw half of the money into Thomas' backyard, Leising said, but since Thomas was already under suspicion, he told Brymer not to.

Instead, Brymer and Bagley and a friend drove the BMW to Las Vegas, checked into the Luxor Hotel, and went on a shopping spree. Brymer bought Louis Vuitton shoes and a handbag for Bagley, records show. He also bought her a dress and a Fossil watch. They went to see "Peepshow," a striptease revue at Planet Hollywood.

"The money just didn't feel like mine," Bagley said.

She returned to Tempe, and Brymer stayed behind.

But the FBI was on to him. They had a woman call him to lure him out of the hotel, and they arrested him. He had more than $100,000 in his possession, according to court records.

Bagley was arrested in Tempe.

Joking about Bonnie

and Clyde on Facebook

Bagley was released on her own recognizance, charged with armed bank robbery and aiding and abetting. But she didn't think she was really in trouble.

"I would just come in looking cute, and they wouldn't convict me," she thought.

Neither she nor Brymer could follow the rules set out for them. Her judgment failed her.

Her friends at work made jokes about her and Brymer being Bonnie and Clyde, the legendary 1930s bank robbers, and so she posted that to Facebook.

"Me and my man are on some 2012 Bonnie & Clyde s--t," she wrote. That would be used against her in court.

"I guess everyone else didn't think it was so funny," she said.

Even though the two were forbidden from talking as terms of her release and Brymer's case, Brymer kept trying to call her from jail. She refused to answer at first.

Then Brymer's parents came into the restaurant where Bagley worked and handed her a cellphone.

"Just pick up when he calls," the father said.

Eventually, she did — more than a hundred times. The calls were recorded at the jail, and Bagley was arrested for not complying with the terms of her release.

"I just wanted to know he was OK," she said.

She wanted to go to trial, but her lawyer talked her out of it and negotiated a 42-month sentence. She spent a year and a half in jail and two years in prison.

Ernie Lerma entered a plea deal and served his time. He is out of prison and living in the Phoenix area. Daniel Bagley and Jeffrey Edwards also pleaded out and were sentenced to prison for the first bank robbery. Many of the "bums" have already been adjudicated and were sentenced to prison for bank fraud.

Brymer, the smooth talker, talked first and talked plenty. The FBI investigation and state-court records paint him as the leader of the conspiracy, saying he took most of the money and was referred to as "boss." But by the time it went to court, he was just another one of the bums.

Thomas was treated as if he were the mastermind of the conspiracy.

In a response to Thomas' pending appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the government argued that he was the "brains."

"How could I be the mastermind when I never got a dime?" Thomas asked The Republic. "If I am the mastermind, I may not be the worst mastermind in history, but I'm definitely on the list."

Has anybody learned

a lesson?

Bagley was surprised to hear that Thomas was supposedly in charge of the conspiracy.

"That's messed up," she said.

Thomas decided to go to trial in federal court on the bank robberies. It was a bad idea, because most cases are settled by plea agreements, and most of those that go to trial result in convictions anyway, except with harsher sentences. Thomas' case was no exception.

Brymer's lawyer, Clark Derrick, said Thomas"lied through his teeth and got hit with every possible aggravator," referring to mandatory sentence enhancements in federal court.

Thomas, on the other hand, says Brymer was the untruthful one.

"Their star witness was Billy Brymer," Thomas told The Republic, and Thomas said Brymer claimed the others set him up.

Thomas still denies he helped plan the robberies or the fraud. Brymer just happened to show up at the banks he worked at, he says. Again, the court record suggests otherwise.

The prosecutor argued Thomas was present at planning meetings, lurked nearby during the robberies, met with the others afterward, and participated in dress rehearsals.

"The defendant, as a bank insider, provided security information about banks," reads one brief filed by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Thomas' appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. "He was the only member of the conspiracy who had experience working in a bank and was considered the most knowledgeable member."

With aggravating factors and mandatory sentencing, the judge had no choice but to sentence Thomas to 49½ years in federal prison, just for the bank robberies. Thomas still faces trial in Maricopa County Superior Court on 42 counts of fraud, one count of participating in a criminal syndicate and one count of aggravated identity theft.

In his court appearances, he is defiant and blames his lawyer for not doing his job. He believes his conviction will be overturned any day in the 9th Circuit.

Brymer's name was blacked out of the state bank-fraud indictment. The Maricopa County Attorney's Office can't comment on whether the case will go forward against him, but even if it does, Brymer has reached an agreement that he won't do more than the 12 years he faces in federal prison.

"I have rarely seen anyone make the huge transformation from the time he was arrested to now," Derrick, his lawyer, said. "I doubt you'll see him in a criminal case again."

Said Bagley: "I think he's a very good liar."

She said she is the one who's not going back.

Bagley is now 23, a muscular woman with a face fixed in a half-smile. She speaks in a low voice and exudes serenity as if four years of incarceration brought her peace of mind. Her Facebook page is full of glamour shots of herself posing in bikinis, showing off a weightlifter's body.

She would like to continue her education in design, and she is a muralist and illustrator. She spent much of her time in prison creating murals for prison walls. Photos of her paintings show a sophisticated and complex style.

She is working again as a server in a restaurant but has to spend her nights and days off at a halfway house. Soon she will be placed on home detention. She has a new boyfriend.

She still says she doesn't think she did anything wrong but says she has learned a few life lessons.

First among them: "To be humble."

"I thought I deserved everything and didn't have a strong work ethic," she said. "Then when you go to prison and earn $12 a month, you learn a lot."

Summer of Fear

Publication: The Arizona Republic
Publication date: Sunday, September 4, 2016

Part 1: Summer of Fear: When smoke turns to fire

Michael Kiefer


Paul Patrick wanted a pack of cigarettes.

He knew there were two different serial killers crisscrossing the Phoenix area, one of them a sniper prowling Patrick's neighborhood at night, shooting people out of car windows. But the mini-mart was just blocks away, within sight of his house. He was craving a smoke.

So at 11:30 on that hot evening, June 8, 2006, the 45-year-old Army veteran who worked as a supermarket stocker ventured out on Indian School Road in west Phoenix.

He didn't hear the shotgun blast so much as feel it slam into him.

Before he fell to the ground, he stood for a moment, frantically trying to hold his entrails in his hands to keep them from spilling onto the street.

He screamed for help.

When he looked up, he saw a Hispanic man standing over him, holding a pistol. He expected the gunman to finish him off.

Patrick thought, "Please make it fast."

Instead, the man said, "No one's going to hurt you."

The man was Saúl Guerrero, an Army National Guardsman, a combat veteran of the Iraq War. He worked as an MP at the Phoenix Armory and lived in the neighborhood.

When he heard the shot, Guerrero thought, "It's Maryvale," a tough west Phoenix neighborhood where shots are heard frequently.

Then his mother asked him to come outside. A man was screaming on the sidewalk across the street.

Guerrero called 911.

But when he saw that people were only walking up to look at the screaming man, then walking away, he told the 911 operator, "You're going to have to talk to my mom. She only speaks Spanish."

Guerrero ran into his apartment, got his gun and a simple first-aid kit. Then he ran, barefoot and bare-chested, through the traffic on Indian School Road.

He identified himself to Patrick and used what he could from his first-aid kit. He held Patrick's guts in to stanch the bleeding until the ambulance and police showed up.

The police took Guerrero's gun from him until they were sure he was not a threat; then they took his name and told him they would contact him if they needed him.

They never did.

Dozens attacked, 17 people dead

Ten years later, another killer is stalking victims in Phoenix, several of them in the Maryvale area where Patrick was shot.

Police are baffled now, much as they were in the summer of 2006.

Two separate sets of serial killings had plagued the Valley for more than a year. Over 16 months in 2005 and 2006, at least 17 people were killed, and dozens more were assaulted and injured, before police arrested suspects in August and September.

One of the killers was referred to as the "Serial Shooter," though eventually, two men were convicted in the killings and a third was convicted of crimes related to the carnage. They were sniping out of cars at transients, prostitutes, immigrants or just regular people they mistook for any of the above.

The other was called the "Baseline Killer." He snatched women off the street, often in broad daylight. If they didn't give in to his sexual demands, he shot them in the head and left them tauntingly near where he had abducted them, then disappeared like a wraith.

Guerrero had never heard of the Serial Shooter, who cut down Patrick that summer night.

He learned only months later, when Patrick's family came looking for him to thank him.

By the end of the summer of 2006, nearly everyone in metro Phoenix knew about the murders.

It was a summer of fear.

I covered the killings as a reporter for The Arizona Republic, from the shootings to the eventual arrests, the murder trials and sentences, the appeals, even the death of one of the killers.

I knew the judges, the prosecutors, the defense attorneys, the police officers, the victims, the bad guys, the families of the victims and the families of the accused. I visited the sites where the crimes took place, searching for clues.

And now, a decade later, I still drive the streets of the Valley thinking, "Someone was shot on that bench, in front of that store," or "Someone was abducted at that ATM," or "They found a body there by that building."

There are stories about the victims and survivors I still cannot tell out loud without my voice cracking.

And this summer, I find the same reactions — in many cases stronger — from the police officers who cracked the cases, the judges who tried them, the lawyers who defended and prosecuted them.

And from the victims, whether the family members left behind or those who weren't killed, who all remain permanently scarred.

There was no reason why

Paul Patrick survived — barely.

The shooting took his legs and his livelihood from him. For years, he used a scooter wheelchair to get around.

He attended every day he could of the trials and waited patiently for the testimony of the man who shot him.

When he finally heard it, the realization came over him: There was no reason.

Near the end of the first trial, Patrick had a massive stroke that nearly killed him. Doctors could not measure the extent of the brain damage by MRI because the magnetic force would have pulled the buckshot pellets that remained in his body and sliced him to pieces.

I remember visiting him in the hospital then. A piece of his skull had been removed to ease the swelling. Just a flap of skin covered his brain.

He had several more strokes over the years and came so close to dying that his family was called to come see him for a last time before he died.

Each time, he pulled through.

Recently, I visited him in the nursing home where he is confined to a hospital bed, able to move only his left arm and leg.

I was surprised he remembered me; he smiled, and I realized I was part of the life he used to have.

We talked about the day he went out to buy a pack of cigarettes, against his better judgment.

He grinned.

"Smoking can kill you," he said.

The unspeakable violence begins

The first ominous signs were dogs, horses and other animals found shot to death in West Valley yards in mid-2005.

Then there were immigrants on bicycles, and transients sleeping on benches in west Phoenix or panhandling under an overpass in Tolleson, all of them shot dead with .22-caliber slugs.

In August 2005, the sexual assaults started along Baseline Road, from Tempe to Laveen. A group of teenagers. A mother assaulted in front of her daughter, then forced to drive while the daughter was molested.

The events seemed isolated at first. They spanned multiple jurisdictions, so police departments did not immediately see a pattern.

There was no Twitter, no Instagram, fewer Facebook users. Information — and fear — took longer to take hold in those days.

But the bodies added up.

Georgia Thompson was 19, an exotic dancer from Idaho. On Sept. 9, 2005, she was found on her back in the parking lot of a Tempe apartment complex, with a bullet in her head.

Her keys were still clutched in her hand. She wore an orange T-shirt that said, "Better luck next time."

Her pants were unbuttoned, but she had not been sexually assaulted. The only evidence found at the scene was a spent .380-caliber cartridge casing.

Ballistics experts needed months to link that casing to other murders.

At about 7:30 the evening of Dec. 29, 2005, someone started shooting from a car at a Tempe bartending school.

Over the next five hours, the car meandered through central Phoenix. The shooting continued: A dog was killed as it was being walked by its owner; then a man named Jose Ortis was murdered; then a second man, Marco Carillo, was shot to death.

A block and a moment later, Timmy Tordai had just gotten off the bus after working a shift at the post office. He was walking home when he felt a pop under his collarbone and fell to the ground, paralyzed.

"I thought I was having a heart attack," he said later, in court. "And then I saw the blood."

Before the night ended, three more dogs were shot dead in central Phoenix.

Sometime after 1 a.m, a woman was turning tricks on Van Buren Street.

She had just gotten out of one john's car and was scanning the street for her next when a light-blue, four-door car passed her and made a U-turn. She thought it might be her next john until she saw the gun barrel come out of the driver's-side window.

She lived: A passer-by stopped his car and drove her to a hospital.

Just as police realized that the car-sniper incidents were linked to a serial shooter, the shootings stopped for five months.

Police had not yet connected any murders to the rapes along Baseline Road.

In February 2006, Romelia Vargas and Mirna Palma Roman were found dead in a lunch wagon in southwest Phoenix with gunshots to the head, their pants unbuttoned and pulled down slightly. At first, police thought it was a drug deal gone bad.

Then, in March, Chao Chou and Liliana Sanchez Cabrera were abducted at gunpoint as they got into a car behind the restaurant where they worked at 24th Street and Indian School Road. Both were found dead within a mile of each other.

Police now knew they had two serial killers on the streets and began sounding the alarm in the media. One killer was shooting out of cars. The other was on foot, appearing out of nowhere to assault women and shooting them in the head if they resisted.

"The police chief and the city manager asked to see me, and they closed the door," said Phil Gordon, who was mayor of Phoenix at the time.

"We made a public-policy decision," Gordon said. "Nothing was going to be spared."

More attacks, more bodies: A dead prostitute, Kristina Nicole Gibbons, was found stuffed between a building and a shed on 24th Street in Phoenix.

A woman was abducted at gunpoint at 32nd Street and Thomas Road by a black man wearing a fright mask and pushing a shopping cart.

She was forced to drive to a secluded area nearby and strip naked. When she refused to perform oral sex on her abductor, he put the gun to her head and told her that her parents would read about her in the newspaper the next day. He pulled the trigger, but the gun misfired.

As soon as she heard the click, she leaned on the door handle and fled, naked, to the nearest house.

Then the shootings from cars picked back up: in central Phoenix, in south Scottsdale, in Maryvale and near Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.

But now, instead of a .22 rifle, the shooter was using a shotgun, which cannot be traced as easily as a rifle's bullets. Investigators wondered at first if it was yet another assailant.

The police came up with nicknames for the killers.

They named the car-window sniper the Serial Shooter. They had no descriptions of the driver or shooter. They only knew he drove a light-colored sedan.

The other suspect was first known as the "Baseline Rapist," because of his early victims near Baseline Road. Then, when police connected the rapes to the murders, they changed his handle to the Baseline Killer, even though many of his targets were in the square-mile area between Indian School and Thomas roads and 24th and 32nd streets.

Police circulated a sketch of a suspect: a light-skinned black man who wore a Gilligan-style fishing hat and a dreadlocks wig.

The phone went dead

On June 29, 2006, the Baseline Killer struck again, in a terrifying, lightning-quick attack that was caught on video and rocked the city of Phoenix.

At around 9:30 p.m., a woman named Carmen Miranda was talking on the phone to her boyfriend as she vacuumed her car at a car wash on Thomas Road at 29th Street. She told the boyfriend that a panhandler was approaching her. She screamed, and the phone went dead.

The boyfriend called police. He called Miranda's sons. They all raced to the car wash. Miranda was gone.

Hours later, Miranda was found dead in her car behind a building next door to the car wash — a bullet between her eyes, her pants unbuttoned.

But there was a surveillance camera at the car wash. Police woke the owner that night to get the footage. They shared the video with the media the next day.

In the blurry video, a man wearing a Gilligan hat and a dreadlocks wig shuffles up to Miranda. He abruptly grabs her and throws her into the back seat of the car. Then he gets in and drives off.

When TV stations broadcast the video, people realized the sudden ferocity of the attacks, and it fueled the city's terror.

Over the next days, I walked the streets of the neighborhood where Miranda had been snatched. I talked to women waiting for buses or tending shops along what should have been a peaceful neighborhood.

There had been robberies at the stores and restaurants and an ATM at 32nd Street and Thomas Road, murders up and down 24th Street, rapes along 32nd Street.

And the people I spoke to could recite every incident and every rumor that seemed to fit the pattern, but police could not or would not confirm the information.

That made them only more worried. The neighborhood was working class. The women, especially those who worked at night, were watching over their shoulders.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Valley wondered if that car coming down the street while they were walking the dog was going to slow down so someone could shoot. And, if so, where would they run?

Police held meetings to talk to neighborhoods affected by the killings.

"We were speaking to a community of people who were so fearful for their families that it felt like an epidemic," former Phoenix police Officer Paul Penzone said.

Police held regular press conferences to share information with the media.

Still, the public remained confused about the two killers.

"I spent months trying to explain the differences between the two cases," said Andy Hill, a retired Phoenix police sergeant who became the public face of the investigation.

Phoenix Detective Clark Schwartzkopf added, "You couldn't have two more different dynamics in these two murderers, but the public was mixed up."

Camille Kimball, who wrote the book "A Sudden Shot" about the Serial Shooter case, summed it up.

"That was part of the terror," she said. "We didn't know one from the other. The cops didn't know one from the other."

Hundreds work the cases

To keep the cases straight, law enforcement came together across the Valley and created not one, but two task forces.

"There were 375 people involved in the Serial Shooter case," Schwartzkopf said, and 100 on the street for the Baseline Killer.

Officers were working double shifts and overtime.

The Republic, like most media outlets, had its own task force. At least six reporters covered the cases full time. Others would be called in as things happened.

But neither the police nor the media knew enough. The public was terrified, because the killers struck in every kind of neighborhood, good and bad, rich and poor.

The Serial Shooters worked from Tolleson and Avondale to Mesa and Chandler. The Baseline Killer even assaulted people in a parking lot used by patrons of a wine bar in the tony Arcadia neighborhood of Phoenix.

And they struck without warning.

"There was an acknowledged crisis," Gordon recalled. "Should we take our children to school? Should we go out at night? Should we cancel the Fourth of July?"

Billboards bearing the police sketch of the Baseline Killer went up all over the metro area. A reward of $100,000 was offered for information leading to either suspect.

But he remained at large.

Miranda would be the last of the Baseline Killer's victims. After June 29, 2006, the killer went into hiding.

But the Serial Shooter amped up in July 2006, wounding eight more people and killing the last victim on July 30: a young woman talking on the phone while walking to a friend's house in Mesa. She felt so safe she was wearing pajamas.

By then, the Baseline Killer had forced himself on at least 33 victims over 13 attacks, and had killed eight women and one man.

The Serial Shooter case had eight dead — though police still suspect at least four more murders that they could never conclusively prove were related. Eighteen more had been wounded, and at least 10 animals had also been killed.

Police worked around the clock. The public waited fearfully.

By the end of the month, there had been no arrests.

A $100,000 gamble pays off

Five hundred to a thousand people a day called in to the Silent Witness hotline with tips on the Serial Shooter and the Baseline Killer.

"We got calls from every part of society, and we took it seriously," said Penzone, who ran Silent Witness at the time.

He called the $100,000 rewards for information leading to the arrest of either "two lottery tickets."

In the case of the Serial Shooter, the lottery paid out.

A man named Samuel Dieteman was a regular at a northwest Phoenix tavern called the Star Dust Inn. And once, when he was drunk — and he was always drunk — he became remorseful, and he confessed some of the shootings to his friend Ron Horton.

Then, that July 30, the young woman who was walking in her Mesa neighborhood, Robin Blasnek, was shot and killed. Horton felt responsible and realized her death might have been prevented.

Horton dropped a dime. He gave police Dieteman's cellphone number, which they traced. And he also provided them with the name of a man with whom Dieteman had once lived: Jeff Hausner. Police put Hausner's apartment under surveillance.

And they asked Horton to arrange to meet Dieteman for drinks.

On Aug. 1, 2006, the task force staked out the Star Dust Inn, with undercover officers inside and out. Schwartzkopf was sitting in an unmarked car in the parking lot when a light-blue Toyota Camry pulled in.

"That's our car," he recalled thinking. "It was an enormous relief. I've got the car. I've got the guys."

The officers ran the plates. The number came back to Dale Hausner.

They had already heard of Jeff Hausner, but it was the first police became aware of his younger brother, Dale.

In the car, with a gun

Dale Hausner dropped off Dieteman at the bar, then drove away. Officers followed Hausner as he drove to the Metrocenter mall. When Hausner went into the mall, the officers put a GPS device on his car.

Then Hausner drove to Mesa, where he and Dieteman shared an apartment, taking the long way down Van Buren Street, as if casing out future victims, Schwartzkopf said.

Horton stayed behind at the bar with Dieteman, calling police detectives when Dieteman went to the bathroom, according to Kimball's book.

Then Horton drove Dieteman to Wild Horse Pass Hotel and Casino on Interstate 10. Horton tactfully asked Dieteman if he could find another way home. Dieteman told him Dale Hausner was coming to pick him up. Horton left.

Undercover police were there to watch Dieteman and Dale Hausner as they talked in the casino. Then they left for Hausner's car in the parking lot, stopping to open the trunk and take out a bag that was about the length of a shotgun.

Instead of heading directly for the apartment in Mesa, the Camry wandered into Chandler.

Police were now following them on the road and in the air. They realized with shock that Hausner and Dieteman were on the hunt, looking for victims, slowing down when someone passed on a bike.

They would make U-turns and wander into neighborhoods that were not on the way to anywhere.

"For an hour and a half, we followed them as they cruised," Schwartzkopf said. "It was the worst night of my law-enforcement career."

Schwartzkopf and the other officers worried that the gun could come out of the window at any moment, and they would not be able to intervene.

Hausner and Dieteman could kill someone right in front of them.

The undercover cars passed one another, switching positions to avoid detection and to foil the shooters.

After the Camry would pass by, one of the officers would shout out the window at people on the street and tell them to go home and take cover, Schwartzkopf later told Kimball.

"We were hoping and praying to God they wouldn't shoot anybody," he said.

Dieteman and Hausner never got off a shot that night. The Camry drove back to the apartment in Mesa under the watchful eye of undercover officers.

The officers on the task force knew they needed to act fast.

Coming Monday: The race to get a warrant.



Publication: The Arizona Republic
Publication date: Monday, September 5, 2016

Part 2: Summer of Fear: 'What about the ... guy I shot on 27th Avenue?'

Michael Kiefer


On Aug. 2, 2006, with officers still staking out the apartment where the suspect "Serial Shooters" were living, Phoenix police investigators met with County Attorney Andrew Thomas and his executive staff to request an emergency wiretap.

Thomas approved their request through a process that allows law enforcement to begin surveillance before a judge has signed off.

"The sun was starting to go down, and I did not want to take that chance of another loss of life," Thomas later testified in court when the legality of the wiretap was challenged.

At 11 p.m., detectives drove to the home of Judge James Keppel to sign off on the emergency wiretap warrant. Then they bugged Samuel Dieteman and Dale Hausner through a next-door apartment and recorded their conversation.

The officers couldn't believe what they heard. On the recording, according to transcripts, Dieteman told Hausner, "On the 5 a.m. news, it was when they first said ... Phoenix and Mesa police have now officially linked the shooting death of a young Mesa woman to the serial killer, which now brings their total to six." Hausner said, "It's higher than that. What about the guy I (expletive) shot on 27th Avenue?"

Dieteman continued to tell Hausner that the police were working with the feds in other states, looking for similar crimes and evidence. Hausner: "So we're being copycatted, Sam? We're pioneers, Sam? We're leading the way for a better life for everybody, Sam?"

As police listened to the wiretap, Hausner talked about wanting to be the best serial killer ever. The two joked about the most recent murder, of Robin Blasnek, and Hausner made cartoonish, mocking voices as he described her reaction. Officers could hear the movie "The Jungle Book" in the background, playing for Hausner's toddler daughter.

Hausner said, "I love shooting people in the back. That's so much fun. That (expletive) old man I shot in the back."

Dieteman said, "My favorite thing is, you know, when somebody is walking away ... it gives me ... an extra couple seconds to aim. I don't have to worry about them looking."

That night, Aug. 3, police made their move. Dieteman and Hausner were inside the apartment. Because the child was there, police did not rush the building. They waited for an opportunity.

Finally, near midnight, Dieteman came outside to throw out the trash, carrying a garbage bag that contained a shotgun shell and a map of the shootings. SWAT team officers in helmets and body armor confronted him. When Dieteman saw the guns, he surrendered. He gave them a key to the apartment.

The police entered quietly. Hausner was preoccupied with something on the counter, and didn't notice. But when the police announced their presence, he was startled and shouted, "Jesus Christ!"

Then he fell to the floor.

Police bound his wrists with zip ties.

The first glimpse of the monsters

At 5 p.m. Aug. 4, 2006, I sat on a bench in the Initial Appearance Court in the Fourth Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix, waiting for a first glimpse of the Serial Shooters.

Maricopa County sheriff's deputies led Hausner, short, blond and scruffy-bearded, into the courtroom.

He was wearing only a pair of green gym shorts and a pair of pink handcuffs. His hair was mussed. His love handles hung over the elastic waistband of his shorts as he shivered from the air-conditioned cold. His eyes were red-rimmed from weeping and sleeplessness and police questioning.

The hearing was short and sweet. Hausner was charged with murder.

An hour later, deputies led Dieteman in. He was tall and dark-haired, and he wore a rugby shirt and a worried expression. There was a large skull tattoo on his arm.

His attorney, Maria Schaffer, said he was "hungover out of his mind."

Hausner never admitted a thing, though he was clearly the mastermind.

But Dieteman let it all spill out the day he was arrested. He and Hausner, he told police, were engaged in what they called "random recreational violence."

There were muggings, stabbings, palm trees ignited, stores set on fire, tires slashed. And the shootings: Essentially, they were playing video games in real time while smoking meth.

"Everything they did was about creating havoc," Phoenix police Detective Clark Schwartzkopf said.

Once, they even shot a man, then parked the car and went to look at the damage they had done. Police were already on the scene. They questioned Dieteman and Hausner, who gave their names and made up stories about what they had seen and heard.

Then the officers let them go.

Hausner was 'Jekyll and Hyde'

Hausner was glib. He was a janitor at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and had clearance to secure areas at the facility.

He was so arrogant and so certain he would not be caught that in April 2006, in the midst of the hunt for the Serial Shooter, he did an interview with The Arizona Republic about his job. In the interview, he gushed about the old Terminal 2 where he worked, saying he hoped to retire there.

Hausner also freelanced as a photographer and was involved in the Phoenix boxing scene as a promoter and a photographer. He had a public-access TV show and had done a TV commercial for a law firm that specialized in personal-injury cases.

And he ran a lucrative steal-to-order shoplifting service. He would take orders from fellow workers on the types of alcohol or music or movies they wanted, go out and steal it, and sell it to them at a discount.

"He was Jekyll and Hyde," said Roland Steinle, the Maricopa County Superior Court judge who presided over Hausner's trial. He noted that Hausner was dating a woman who holds a doctorate degree, then going out to kill people after seeing her.

And, unexpectedly, he was a ladies' man who kept journals about his dates with multiple women, as he said later in court, so that he could keep his stories straight.

He used many of them as alibis, saying he had been with them on nights he was supposed to have committed crimes. Those stories fell apart when the women took the stand.

"He was always pleasuring some lucky woman," or so he told his defense attorney, Tim Agan.

"He was easy to get along with," Agan added.

But Hausner had dark secrets and came from a troubled and abusive family background, which Agan could not share because Hausner had not allowed it to be used as mitigation during his trial.

He was also a doting father, but a heartbroken one. In 1994, Hausner was married and living in Texas with his wife and two young sons. One night, while the family was on a road trip, Hausner's wife fell asleep at the wheel and their car was catapulted into a river.

Hausner was sleeping in the passenger seat, but awoke and managed to get out of the sinking car. Then he repeatedly dived down to the submerged vehicle to try to rescue his sons, who were trapped in car seats in the back seat. Both died.

His wife survived, and the two divorced.

Hausner fathered another child, a girl, whom he also doted on. On the night police eventually bugged his apartment, they heard Hausner talking to the child, and then heard her telling Dieteman good night.

"Don't kill anybody," she said in a tiny voice.

"Oh, all right," Dieteman replied. "Since you asked."

Partners in crime

Dieteman was an electrician by trade, but unable to hold down a job because of his substance-abuse problems.

He grew up in Minnesota, married young, fathered a child and then drifted off into entropy, amassing a long record of petty criminal arrests.

He was unemployed and homeless and ended up living with Hausner's older brother Jeff in west Phoenix. The two would go out and shoplift bottles of booze so they could get drunk, testimony later revealed.

Jeff introduced Dieteman to Hausner, telling him that Dieteman was as good a shoplifter as Hausner was.

Dieteman and Dale Hausner became fast friends and partners in crime, shoplifting at first, earning hundreds of dollars from the enterprise.

But they also reveled in vandalism.

They drove to local casinos to gamble, and when they left the parking lots, they often slashed the tires of cars parked near them. They set fire to palm trees or garbage piles. And before they were caught, they were photographed on surveillance video as they set fires in two separate Walmarts. Dieteman was even arrested once for shoplifting at a Walmart.

"Sam was looking for a place to stay and booze to drink and drugs to take," Schaffer said, adding that he needed "someplace to lay his head after the drugs and booze."

They did meth all night, and then Dieteman would be dropped off at the bars that opened early in the morning so he could drink some more.

Most of what police and prosecutors know about the early stages of the Serial Shooters came from Dieteman. As he drank and did drugs with Jeff and Dale Hausner, they would regale him with their exploits. He later related those stories to police.

At first, he told them, Dale and Jeff Hausner drove together, shooting animals and people.

Once, for example, in November 2005, Dieteman said, Jeff was drawing a bead on a dog in an alley near 20th and Monroe streets when a transient cussed them out. His name was Nathaniel Schoffner. He threw a beer can to keep them from shooting and called Dale Hausner a "Bill-Clinton-looking motherf--ker."

Dale Hausner grabbed his .22 rifle and pulled the trigger, but it misfired. Then he grabbed a .410 shotgun and, according to Dieteman, he and Jeff argued over whether you could kill anyone with such a small gauge. Dale Hausner fired anyway, killing Schoffner.

But after an overnight shooting spree in late December 2005, they shut down.

Jeff Hausner got a job. And the brothers likely destroyed the .22 rifle.

Shootings start again

Five months later, on May 2, 2006, Dale Hausner was driving down Van Buren Street with his new bestie, Dieteman. He turned left onto 44th Street, powered down the passenger window and told Dieteman to lean back.

Then, Hausner pulled a sawed-off shotgun from between the car seats and pointed it across Dieteman's body, aiming out Dieteman's window.

A teenager named Kibili Tamadul was on his way to a convenience store to pick up milk for his mother. Hausner fired, striking him but not knocking him down. Tamadul jumped and shouted, and Dieteman and Hausner laughed like they were watching a Warner Bros. cartoon.

Fifteen minutes later, they turned onto Thomas Road. Hausner handed the shotgun to Dieteman and said, "Your turn."

A young woman named Claudia Gutierrez Cruz was walking on the sidewalk near 61st Street; she had just missed her bus connection as she tried to get home from work. Hausner did a U-turn to give Dieteman a good shot. He fired and blew her off the sidewalk.

They passed by again to see where she was. She was found by a passer-by; in the 911 call, Gutierrez Cruz could be heard pleading for someone to call her sister. She died at the hospital.

As Dieteman would later testify, the next day, Hausner put the morning newspaper on the kitchen table. "Hey, dude, you got the first murder of the year in Scottsdale," he said. "I'm jealous."

He probably was.

Hausner later told detectives about his fascination with Charles Starkweather, a teen from Hausner's native Nebraska who killed 11 people in 1958.

And after Hausner's arrest Aug. 3, police found scrapbooks filled with newspaper articles about the Serial Shooters and about the "Baseline Killer," and they realized that Hausner was actually competing with his rival murderer.

The Baseline Killer hadn't struck in nearly two months, but he was still on the loose.

Tuesday: Waiting for Goudeau


Publication: The Arizona Republic
Publication date: Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Part 3: Summer of Fear: Legwork leads to arrest of Goudeau

Michael Kiefer

The Serial Shooters were caught because one of them confessed to a friend and the friend had a guilty conscience.

There was no such tip to catch the Baseline Killer, so police had to depend on old-fashioned legwork.

Police had a video of him, a composite sketch and they were canvassing the neighborhoods where he had struck. They had suspects under surveillance. They were searching for DNA matches. Though they had calls to Silent Witness — and a $100,000 reward for information leading to his capture — none was enough to make an arrest.

One woman, who is still afraid to give her name, remembers an encounter in her print shop on Thomas Road near 24th Street.

A man who fit the killer's description walked into the shop and started to come over the counter toward her.

He had a very strange voice, she said. He was wearing a black, long-sleeved T-shirt and khaki pants. The rubber edge of his sneakers was so white that it looked bleached.

"He was so clean. There was no wrinkle in his clothes," she said, "and although it was a hot day in Phoenix, there was no smell to him and not a trace of sweat."

"I was terrified," she said. "This is 10 years later, and I am shivering just bringing it up."

She was able to scare the man away when the phone rang and she pretended it was workmen in the back of the shop.

The man ran out the door and disappeared. She called police, but the information was of little use.

A suspect: An ex-con convicted of rape

The sexual attacks began in August 2005, and the first of the murders that September. They were attempted rapes that turned fatal if the women refused to comply.

Even if the women did comply, the Baseline Killer never completed sexual intercourse with any of his victims, which made it more difficult for police to track him with DNA.

None of the women he murdered had been raped. Instead, they were posed, as retired Phoenix police Detective Benny Piña told The Arizona Republic. Their pants were pulled down slightly, the zippers undone.

"It's not about the act," Piña said. "It's about remembering the act later with mementos in quiet time back home."

Among the suspects was an ex-con construction worker named Mark Goudeau, who lived with his wife in a house on Pinchot Avenue near 28th Street in Phoenix, at the epicenter of one of the neighborhoods that was preyed on.

Goudeau had a past: He had been accused of rape as a teenager, but the woman refused to press charges.

In 1989, Goudeau was arrested in the same neighborhood for raping and beating a woman senseless with a shotgun and a barbell, then chasing two witnesses and threatening them with the gun.

He entered into a plea agreement, but a year after the assault, before he was even sentenced, he robbed a supermarket at Thomas Road and 30th Street to get money to buy crack cocaine. He was sentenced to 21 years in prison.

But in 2004, after 13 years, he was granted clemency and released. Among the people testifying on his behalf was Wendy Carr, who had married him while he was in prison.

Goudeau went home to live an outwardly quiet and lawful life.

When he came under suspicion in 2006, police put him under surveillance, Piña said. They watched him meet with women in the park. But as the police moved in, he would disappear, perhaps up a tree, maybe down an alley.

"That whole surveillance was a nightmare for us," Piña said.

He ordered her to beg for her life and her baby's

Detectives finally broke the case with DNA, though not from semen.

In September 2005, a man matching the description of the Baseline Killer jumped two sisters in their 20s as they walked from a water-play fountain in a city park near Baseline Road in south Phoenix. They were forced into the bushes at gunpoint, ordered to the ground and forced to disrobe. One of thesisters was six months pregnant.

The assailant tried several times to have intercourse with the younger sister, who was not pregnant, but he could not stay erect. He fumbled with a condom.

He told the women not to look at his face. One sister noticed that he had put the gun down. She grabbed it and tried to shoot but could not figure out how to fire it. The attacker wrestled with her and the other sister seized the gun. She could not figure out how to shoot it either.

The attacker got the gun back and touched it between the pregnant sister's legs. He ordered her to beg for her own life and the life of her unborn baby, according to testimony.

Then he decided to let them live.

But first, he made both women spit into his hand. Then he stirred in mud and rubbed the mess on the breasts of the sister he tried to rape in an attempt to cover the DNA he had left there in saliva.

The ploy almost worked.

Technicians at the Phoenix police lab were unable to pull a DNA profile out of the gumbo. Detectives then sent the remaining sample swabs to the state Department of Public Safety lab for a new DNA test that isolated the Y chromosome, or male hereditary genes.

It took nearly a year but they came back with a hit: Goudeau.

Police wasted no time. On Sept. 6, 2006, they arrested him in front of his house as he got out of his pickup truck on the way home from work.

It was his 42nd birthday.

Only DNA from a single incident

Sept. 6 was my daughter's birthday, too, and we had celebrated at a restaurant in Scottsdale. I had only been asleep for a half hour when the phone rang.

It was my editor, and she asked if I could go down to 28th Street and Thomas Road because the police had just arrested a man they thought was the Baseline Killer.

It was about 11 p.m. I took a shower and went to work for the next straight 48 hours.

My colleague Judi Villa was already there, in front of a little house in a neighborhood that would have been quiet, if not for the TV trucks and the police evidence vans and squad cars.

We quickly figured out the name of the suspect.

The neighbors were shocked. At least one of them recounted that Goudeau had told him he was under police suspicion. The next afternoon, I was back in the Initial Appearance Court at the jail when they led him in.

He wore a black long-sleeve T-shirt and khaki pants, the same blend-in-with-the-background outfit that his surviving victims described, except that it was flecked with cement dust.

He bore a strong resemblance to the composite sketch police had circulated, a light-skinned and muscular black man with a mustache, except he was not wearing the dreadlocks wig or the fishing hat he wore during some of his attacks.

Goudeau gave his name and address and no more. He was charged with two counts of aggravated assault, two counts each of sexual abuse and sexual assault, and two counts of kidnapping, stemming from the sexual attack on the two sisters walking home from the water park near Baseline Road the year before.

Police suspected Goudeau of all the Baseline Killer crimes, but at the time, they had DNA from only that single incident. They didn't have enough evidence to charge him with any of the murders.

But the sexual-assault charges would make sure Goudeau stayed in jail as police continued to work the case.

They did not seem frightening

What was perhaps most frightening about Dale Hausner, the mastermind of the Serial Shooters, and Goudeau, the Baseline Killer, was that they did not seem frightening.

If either one sat down next to you at a bar or coffee shop, you might end up in conversation with him, even buy him a drink.

"That's how psychopaths live among us," said Phoenix police Detective Clark Schwartzkopf, who first identified Hausner as a killer.

By coincidence, Schwartzkopf had arrested Goudeau 13 years earlier after he committed the 1989 assault and robbery that sent him to prison for 13 years.

Goudeau was handsome, with an athlete's figure and an upright carriage.

At the time of his arrest in 2006, his neighbors called him "sweet" and "hard-working." They saw him with his wife, or out tending his yard on the little house they shared.

Goudeau's wife, Carr, still professes her husband's innocence. She said over and over that her husband wasn't evil or violent, that he was kind and funny and hardworking.

"The guy I saw, he never came off as a jackass," said one of his defense attorneys, Corwin Townsend. "He always was cordial to everyone on our team."

Goudeau worked as a concrete finisher for a company that set foundations, and it took him to construction sites all over the Valley — including several near to where his attacks took place, the two women killed in the lunch truck, for instance.

Detectives remember that Goudeau would go there to buy breakfast for his crew, and that in itself points out the yin and yang of his being.

When police finally searched Goudeau's home, they found mementos of his crimes, like jewelry taken from his dead victims. And they found traces of blood.

But they didn't have enough to charge him with murder.

A son views a tragic scene

The break came accidentally from a murder that seemed unrelated to the Baseline Killer attacks.

On April 10, 2006, Sophia Nuñez was found dead in the bath tub of her west Phoenix home by her 7-year-old son. She had taken the day off from work, and she and her family attended a giant march through downtown Phoenix, which was part of a national day of protest in favor of immigration reform.

When she failed to pick up her son at school, he walked home and crawled under the garage door, which had been left open about a foot.

The water was running in his mother's bathroom, so he assumed she was in the shower. But she didn't come out, and he saw that water was running under the bathroom door and soaking the bedroom carpet.

He walked in and found her half-dressed and under the water, with a bullet in her cheek under one eye, which was open.

The boy valiantly tried to administer CPR, and then ran to a neighbor's house to call police.

At first, police suspected Nuñez's ex-husband, but they cleared him. They took DNA swabs, collected the bullet, but had no leads.

The connection came when they went through Goudeau's phone records and checked a number he had called repeatedly: Nuñez's.

Nuñez's aunt and best friend, Alicia Bell, said Nuñez and Goudeau met at a bar in northwest Phoenix.

He told her he was a professional baseball player on the disabled list, but she didn't believe him, partly because of the old truck he drove. He called her repeatedly, then apparently gave up on her.

"She just thought he was weird and married," Bell told me some months after Nuñez's death.

He called her over and over, but she was not interested.

One afternoon, Nuñez was with her teenage daughter, Unique Martinez, at Arizona Mills mall, and they ran into Goudeau at an arcade.

"He seemed like a friendly guy," Martinez remembers. "I wasn't skeptical of him."

They all chatted and Nuñez remembered that Goudeau said he did odd jobs, so she asked if he could install a security door at her house.

When he came to the house, she didn't want to be there with him to hit on her, but she didn't think he was a threat, and left her children as he worked. He never finished the job.

On April 10, 2006, he came back to the house uninvited and killed her.

'Hey, that's my mom's friend'

After Goudeau was arrested for the rape of the two sisters in south Phoenix, Martinez saw him on TV. "Hey, that's my mom's friend," she thought.

She called the detective on her mother's case.

Investigators realized they had lifted Goudeau's DNA from saliva on her breast. The bullet in her head matched the ballistics of the other murders.

On Jan. 16, 2007, Phoenix police called Nuñez's mother, Maria, and asked her to come to police headquarters on East Washington Street, and they broke the news. Families of other victims were there too.

Goudeau was already charged with 19 counts including sexual assault, sexual abuse, kidnapping and aggravated assault for the attack on the two sisters, and one charge of possessing cocaine when he was arrested.

Now, he was indicted on 74 more counts including nine murders, which would go forward as a second case.

Maria Nuñez came out of police headquarters and handed a photo of Sophia to a television cameraman, who taped it to the side of a TV live truck to photograph it.

I took my cellphone out of my pocket and snapped a photograph of Sophia's image and emailed it to the newspaper's photo editor.

It ran on the front page of The Republic the next day.

Wednesday: The police had their suspects, but would juries convict them?


Publication: The Arizona Republic
Publication date: Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Part 4: Summer of Fear: 'Evil doesn't have a face'

Michael Kiefer


How does a jury respond in a case where a rapist presses a gun to a pregnant woman's private parts and asks her to beg for the life of her unborn baby?

Predictably, with horror.

Mark Goudeau was the first of the suspected serial killers to go to trial.

But initially, he was charged in the only attack for which police and prosecutors had sufficient evidence, the sexual assaults on two sisters in south Phoenix in September 2005.

They had been playing with friends and family at a water feature in a public park just north of Baseline Road. Because it was a nice evening and a good neighborhood, they decided to walk home instead of drive with their companions.

Goudeau dragged them into the bushes and repeatedly assaulted them sexually, then uncharacteristically let them go free.

But investigators were able to lift Goudeau's DNA from saliva on one woman's breast. He was charged with 19 counts including sexual assault, kidnapping and aggravated assault.

He was charged with the murders under a different case number that would be tried separately.

The rape case went to trial on July 23, 2007, a little more than 10 months after Goudeau was arrested. The jurors knew nothing about the murders. The words "Baseline Killer" were never mentioned, so as not to prejudice them.

Corwin Townsend and his co-counsel, Cary Lackey, fought with prosecutors Suzanne Cohen and Bill Clayton over how the DNA was obtained and whether it was a true match.

Goudeau had made the women spit in his hand and rubbed it on the woman's breast in an attempt to foil DNA testing. And it almost worked. Phoenix police, however, sent the sample out for a new sort of testing that was able to isolate a profile they said matched Goudeau.

The defense attorneys objected.

For one thing, the police labs had consumed all of the sample swabs, leaving nothing for the defense to test independently. For another, Townsend and Lackey argued that because the experimental DNA testing focused only on the Y chromosome, which is passed genetically among males in a family, the DNA could have been from any one of Goudeau's male relatives

But the sisters bravely took the stand. The testimony was horrid.

On the day the guilty verdict came in, my story was posted online before the jury had even left the courtroom to gather their thoughts in the jury room before coming back out to talk to the media.

While in the jury room, one juror took out his phone, called up azcentral.com and learned for the first time that Goudeau was also suspected of being the Baseline Killer.

On Dec. 14, 2007, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Andrew Klein sentenced Goudeau to 438 years in on the numerous accounts of sexual assault.

And he still had to stand trial for the nine murders.

Letters from the killers

One week earlier, Dale Hausner, the accused mastermind of the "Serial Shooters," attempted suicide in jail by hoarding over-the-counter medications and taking them all at once. He was revived so that the authorities could try to get a death sentence against him and kill him with different drugs.

His attorneys, Tim Agan and Ken Everett, tried to exclude the damning tapes from police wiretaps, in which they were overheard bragging about their prowess as serial killers. They lost the bid, and the case lumbered on toward trial.

In April 2008, Samuel Dieteman, who had already confessed everything, pleaded straight up to the two murders he took part in. He killed Claudia Gutierrez Cruz on his first night shooting with Hausner. And he was in the car when Hausner shot and killed Robin Blasnek.

Dieteman testified that he deliberately missed other times he was handed the shotgun. But he still needed to stand trial so that a jury could decide whether to sentence him to death or to life in prison.

The next month, Jeff Hausner, Dale's older brother, was finally publicly identified as a participant in the Serial Shooter crimes. He was indicted for two incidents that occurred while all three were joy-riding in Dale's car. Dale Hausner would create a distraction and Jeff would sneak up behind the victim and stab him. He pleaded guilty to one stabbing and faced trial for the second.

By then, I had received the first letter from Dale Hausner, though it came signed, "A Loyal Reader; (Name withheld for fear of ridicule by co-workers and family members for not jumping on the 'guilty' bandwagon.)"

In it, he accused Dieteman and his brother of the crimes. The letter painted Dieteman as a violent criminal with a long rap sheet. It ridiculed County Attorney Andrew Thomas' assertion that the shootings had stopped since Dieteman and Hausner had been arrested.

In the letter, Hausner tried to say that police had misunderstood his statement on the wiretap tapes — "It feels good doesn't it?" — as referring to scratching an itch. The writer knew all this because, he wrote, he had written to Hausner, who told him he was being framed.

The next letter was dated May 22, 2008. Hausner continued to place blame on Dieteman. It was signed only with the letter "D," but he wrote about inaccuracies in my coverage.

"Last, could you possibly put a worse photo of me in the paper?" he wrote. "Maybe you should photo-shop one of me with devil horns. That would sell a lot of papers!!"

A day later, I received a letter from Dieteman to clear up the general perception that he had been present at all of the Serial Shooter crimes, which most media outlets assumed, not yet knowing precisely how the attacks had played out.

"I am in no way trying to play 'Mr. Innocent,' as Dale Hausner is," Dieteman wrote. "I have taken responsibility for my crimes. I signed a plea agreement to where I'm still going to death row, the only benefits I get out of that deal are avoiding an unnecessary trial and being able to put Hausner away."

'A long, painful, bloody road'

Dale Hausner's trial started in September 2008 in front of Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Roland Steinle.

By the time the case came to trial, the charges had been winnowed to eight counts of first-degree murder, 25 counts of drive-by shooting, 17 counts of aggravated assault, 18 counts of attempted murder, nine counts of cruelty to animals, three firearms violations, two conspiracy charges and one for arson.

The trial lasted seven months.

"This is going to be a long, painful, bloody road," Deputy County Attorney Vince Imbordino told the jury as he showed them photographs of the victims. "This is not a crime show. People were actually killed. The bullets were real, the blood was real."

Much of the case was built on Dieteman's statements, but he was present with Hausner only after April 2006; many of the crimes were committed before that time. So investigators had to establish Hausner's presence, using cellphone records to show he was in the area of a crime, surveillance cameras, shell casings found in his car., etc.

The trial droned on. At Christmastime, I received a Christmas card from Hausner. He wrote a message inside: "My wishes for you is that the lord bless you in all you do."

He signed it "Dale."

'Evil doesn't have a face'

In February 2009, Hausner took the witness stand and denied any involvement in the shootings. But he said enough on the stand to "open doors," that is, to bring up issues that had been judged off-limits to prosecutors. His girlfriends and an ex-wife were all brought to testify to refute his alibis.

In his closing statement, Vince Imbordino, the lead prosecutor, drew in the jury in a soft voice.

"He doesn't look like much," Imbordino said as he pointed at Hausner. "You might have passed him on the street and not noticed him. He doesn't look like a killer. Evil doesn't have a face."

Imbordino asked the jury the same question Paul Patrick, one the victims, had asked over and over: What could be the reason for the shooting spree?

"Unfortunately, there's not always a reason," the prosecutor said.

He held up the box of newspaper clippings that Hausner kept of the crimes.

Imbordino recalled his own childhood growing up on a ranch in Texas and wondered who could ever shoot a horse or a dog.

"Ever have a puppy lick your face?" he asked. "You couldn't kill one."

Then he pointed to a stack of pink folders, one for each of the victims.

"This is what their lives have been reduced to," he said.

The jury found Hausner guilty — but not of everything he was charged with. The jurors felt there was not enough evidence to find beyond a reasonable doubt that he was guilty of two of the murders and five of the other crimes.

Two weeks after the conviction, the families of the victims made their statements. Adriana Gutierrez Cruz, whose sister Claudia had been killed by Dieteman, read an impassioned speech about having to call her parents in Mexico to tell them Claudia was dead.

Then Adriana raised her voice and her eyes to the ceiling and said, "I wonder if I will ever again be able to tell her that I love her and I need her. If you can hear me, please forgive me for not being able to defend you."

The entire courtroom was in tears.

Comparing himself to Manson

Hausner also addressed the jury, and compared himself to 1960s cult leader and murderer Charles Manson.

"When you think of Manson, 50 years from now you'll think of Hausner," he said.

But he did not try to talk anyone out of a death sentence.

"I died Nov. 12, 1994, when my children died," he said, referring to the traffic accident that killed his two sons.

"I've been waiting to die since then, so if you want to kill me, go ahead," he said.

He got his wish: After the jury foreman read the death verdicts, Hausner gave a thumbs up to the media in the back of the court room. And he said "thank you" to the jurors as he walked past them on the way to death row.

"You're welcome," a juror answered.

Thursday: 'Never forget them.'






Publication: The Arizona Republic
Publication date: Thursday, September 8, 2016


Part 4, Summer of Fear: A decade later, still haunted by the memories of tragedy

Michael Kiefer


"Years of suffering still lay ahead for the victims and the families."

Andy Hill

Former Phoenix Police Sergeant

Dale Hausner's trial was drawn out and exhausting. The rest of the "Serial Shooter" trials were short and anti-climactic by comparison.

Jeff Hausner, Dale's older brother, went on trial next, and in June 2009, he was found guilty of attempted murder and aggravated assault for one of the stabbings. He was given 11- and 18-year sentences to be served simultaneously, and he was already serving 71/2 years for the other stabbing. He was never charged in any of the shootings.

Samuel Dieteman had his sentencing trial a month later. The jury considered his testimony against Dale Hausner and spared his life. He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance of release.

The final and most dramatic trial from the summer of fear did not start until June 2011, nearly five years after Mark Goudeau was arrested.

Goudeau had been cordial and seemed sincere in the first trial; in his second, he was a simmering ex-con already facing five lifetimes in prison.

Suzanne Cohen, one of the prosecutors who had tried him in his rape trial, invoked the Bible in her opening statements.

"Beware of the predator who comes to you dressed in sheep's clothing but inside is a ravenous wolf with an appetite to rape," she paraphrased from the Book of Matthew. "You shall know him by his deeds."

She showed photos of the raped women to the jurors. Then she showed photos of those who died, smiling and alive — then dead and bleeding on the ground or in cars. Sophia Nuñez was shown where her son found her, blood dripping down the side of the bathtub.

"He took what he wanted," Cohen said.

'Stuck in my head'

The trial lasted four months. Cohen and her co-prosecutor, Patricia Stevens, organized the case into 13 chapters, each on a scene or murder.

A woman testified as to how she and her 12-year-old daughter were taken in her car at gunpoint from the parking lot of a taco stand in south Phoenix. Goudeau made her strip naked and sexually assaulted her, then made her drive while he assaulted her daughter. Then he jumped out of the car and ran.

"His voice always stuck in my head," the mother said on the witness stand. "It's something I hear over and over. That's been my nightmare."

Goudeau does have a distinctive voice, creaky, almost twangy, in a pitch that defies description as high or low, but is sort of modulated in between.

The woman who had been ordered to strip naked but refused to perform oral sex on Goudeau took the stand. She told of the terror of having a gun pushed to her head and being told she would die, then hearing the click of a misfire and bolting from the car to safety.

The two sisters from Goudeau's first trial also testified. So did another rape victim who said she was hysterical and called her brother instead of police. The brother told her to calm down and he came to her, and together they called police. Then, as she told the court, when the reporting officer arrived he told her, "You don't look like you just got raped."

At that moment in testimony, the case agent, Alex Femenia, a former Phoenix police detective who helped spearhead the Baseline investigation, sat up in his chair at the prosecutors' table.

His eyes got big and he started dialing he phone as he stormed out of the courtroom to find out who that officer was.

Sharing their grief

In August 2011, a dairy worker told how he found the bodies of Romelia Vargas and Mirna Palma Roman in the lunch wagon where they cooked and sold breakfast burritos to workers at a west Phoenix housing development under construction.

He had arrived before dawn and saw that the lights were on in the truck, but he didn't see the ladies who worked in it. When he finally went in and found them dead, he tried to administer CPR, but it was too late. They had been posed like the other female murder victims, their pants unbuttoned and pulled down slightly; they had bullets in their heads.

When the dairy worker finished and left the court room, I saw Vargas's husband, Alvin Hogue, get up and follow him out. I followed Hogue.

Outside, the two men stood in the courthouse hallway. They were both enormous. Hogue extended a hand and said, "I want to thank you for what you tried to do for my wife."

Hogue's voice cracked as he explained he had been told that someone had tried to save her, but he didn't know who it was.

"I wish I could have done more," the dairyman said. The two giant men embraced.

His final say

At the end of October 2011, the jury found Goudeau guilty of 67 crimes, including nine murders.

He refused to cooperate with his lead attorney, Randall Craig, and when a mitigation expert began testifying about Goudeau's impotence during the sentencing phase of the trial, Goudeau pulled the plug and would go no further.

Still, he asked the jury to spare his life. "The only reason I'm standing here in front of you is because of my past," Goudeau said, referring to his 1989 convictions.

"People can change," he said. "I changed. ... I got out of prison and never looked back."

He criticized his attorneys for not representing him adequately.

"You know I can't talk about the crimes you found me guilty of," he said. Defendants aren't allowed to claim innocence after being convicted.

"But I can look you in the eyes and say, 'Mark Goudeau is no wolf in sheep's clothing.' And I can't blame you for the decision you made," he continued. "But I pray that one day you learn the truth about this case and the crimes I have been accused of. They assassinated my character. They painted me as a monster. I am no monster. Mark Goudeau is no monster. I am no monster."

The families of his victims got to speak, too.

Liliana Sanchez Cabrera's mother, Juana, who had attended every day of the trial, spoke to the jurors in Spanish, her words translated: "For a moment, I thought that if I could pull out my heart with my hand, I could show you my pain."

On Nov. 30, 2011, they sentenced Goudeau to death nine times.

In late July 2012, Hausner wrote me a letter from death row.

The Arizona Supreme Court had just upheld his death sentences, and he wanted to give up and die. He had asked the high court to waive further appeals and speed up his execution. Ironically, such requests make authorities question the sanity of the prisoner asking to die, so Hausner was assigned an attorney to represent him against himself.

"Now that I want to get executed, suddenly my mental state is in question. ... I am not insane," he wrote. "... I mean really, what's a guy got to do to get snuffed out?"

He figured it out.

Nearly a year later, on June 19, 2013, Hausner was found unresponsive in his cell at the Eyman Prison in Florence. He had overdosed on the antidepressant amitriptyline, also known by the brand name Elavil, obtained from another prisoner.

Arizona Department of Corrections officials said Hausner died at a hospital in Florence.

A video, released under the Arizona Public Records Act, shows correctional officers putting Hausner's inert body, blood dripping from a corner of his mouth, on a gurney and administering CPR as they wheeled him to a first-aid room where paramedics took over. Then they rolled him out to an ambulance.

One of Hausner's cell-block neighbors wrote me saying he had tried for hours to get someone to investigate the noises from Hausner's cell.

Dieteman and Jeff Hausner are both serving their sentences. Neither would agree to be interviewed. Nor would Goudeau, whose nine death sentences were affirmed by the Arizona Supreme Court on June 17 this year.

Even after 10 years, the emotion has not subsided.

When reached by phone, Goudeau's wife, Wendy Carr, said she did not want to talk about "the summer they railroaded my husband."

Those we lost

Demetris Coachman, who was a juror during Goudeau's death-sentence trial, told The Republic, "I think about it on a day-to-day basis."

When he goes by a car wash, he thinks of Carmen Miranda. When he goes by a charity donation box, he thinks of a woman taken at 32nd Street and Indian School Road. When he goes by bushes, he thinks of the two sisters in south Phoenix.

"I think about the girl in the Volkswagen who heard the gun click and ran; she testified and could hardly talk," Coachman said.

Paul Patrick, who was going to buy a pack of cigarettes when he was shot by Dieteman, waits out the days in his hospital bed in west Phoenix.

Saúl Guerrero, the combat veteran who saved Patrick's life by holding in his guts after he was shot, was inspired to become a paramedic.

I honestly still start crying every time I try to repeat aloud Adriana Gutierrez Cruz's plaint to her sister Claudia, who was killed by Dieteman, calling to her in heaven to please forgive for not being there to protect her.

Sophia Nuñez's daughter, Unique Martinez, posted a rap video called "Last Words" on YouTube to commemorate her mother.

Sophia's mother, Maria, lives in a house in south Phoenix. Inside the living room, the walls are covered with framed photographs of Sophia.

"The life sentence isn't just for Mark," she said. "All of us, our lives changed."

'Don't forget them'

Former Phoenix police Sgt. Andy Hill, the public face of both investigations, handed me a copy of an email he sent out about the two cases in 2011.

The last words of this tale are his:

"A city, a metropolitan area in fear. Two serial-killer cases at the same time in the same city; one a lone predator and the other with two suspects arrested and possible third investigated.

"Seventeen murder victims ...

"A child raped.

"Women raped, sodomized, shot and killed; men shot and killed or paralyzed or permanently injured.

"A child came home to find his mother brutally raped and murdered, a mother watched her daughter raped, a woman forced to undress and when she refused her attacker's attempted rape, had the gun pointed to her head and the trigger pulled. It clicked and she ran.

"Finally arrests.

"But years of suffering still lay ahead for the victims and the families. One child raped still remains institutionalized. ... Many other children of victims have endured years of loneliness, without help, trying to grow up, live, provide for themselves. ...

"Then the trials: rehashing the horrible events, hoping for justice, knowing nothing can change what happened. ...

"Except for a few, the media has long forgotten the victims. ...

"Surely the victims who survived and all the family members and loved ones don't forget. Even a conviction will not stem the tide of the torture of the memories of the evil acts. But a loving and caring community can help comfort.

"Don't forget them, don't forget them, don't forget them."


Getting small in Italy

You have to duck to get through the front door of the apartment building where Giampaolo Tomassetti has his artist studio, a testament to the height of the average Umbrian during the Renaissance, when the building was built.

It was my fourth visit to Città di Castello, a city of about 40,000 in the northwest corner of Umbria, near the Tuscan border, but the first time I had come just for fun and not for research. The city is surrounded by the walls built during the 16th century, when it was under the dominion of the Borgia family and the Papal State, and it's a short walk through tobacco fields to the Tiber River, il Tevere, flowing milky brown all the way to Rome, 140 miles to the south.

Tomassetti, 60, is an accomplished painter and sculptor, a native Umbrian who lives and works in Città di Castello. His studio is a jumble of frames and paintings and other detritus of the artist's life. In the entranceway is a self-portrait of himself as Don Quijote, and it bears three long diagonal slashes across the canvass over the face, the handiwork of an ex when she was through with him, he explained, and he kind of liked the way it looked so he left it.

There were other self-portraits, and paintings of animals and zaftig women, collages with newsprint and straight-lined buildings, evidence of manic work habits.

"When I get depressed, I work, I paint, I play music," he said, and indeed there were guitars all over the three-room apartment; leaning against the wall was a guitar case that had obviously got in the way of his paintbrushes, I imagine, during an evening filled with wine or rage or rapture.

His pallette looked like the midden of a pack rat on drugs, mounds of dried paint built up over years of art and angst.

"You can see I'm using a lot of yellow these days," he said, pointing to a still-wet glob.

We had interrupted him in the middle of his work day, my friend Roberta and I, but it was no problem, and he bustled around to fix us coffee.

We talked excitedly about where ideas come from. Only later did Roberta, whom I have known for years, let on that Tomassetti was her ex-boyfriend, and I didn't ask if she was the one who slashed the painting, though I knew she was capable of it.

Roberta and some of her local associates had lured me to Città di Castello to write a book about the region, and I did, kind of, with a collection of travel stories I wrote while researching my last novel, which I set in the city. I would go for weeks, spending hours in the main piazza, sitting and watching and listening, gathering conversations and observations to flesh out the book. This time, I was back just to relax.

There are no tourists to speak of in Città di Castello, other than the art aficionados who come to see the two museums dedicated to the artist Alberto Burri, who was born there. One of them is housed in a palace in town, the other in a giant black building that was once a tobacco-drying shed. In October, the Guggenheim Museum in New York will hang an exhibition of his work titled "The Trauma of Painting," to commemorate his centennial.

Città di Castello was the high point of a quick trip that started and ended in Rome.

Tourist Italy can be aggressive. The waiters and staff in the hotels and restaurants that cater to English speakers — which includes tourists from all over the world who speak to each other in English instead of learning each others' languages — can be impatient, even rude. But if you speak Italian — mine is passable — you step into a different Italy. And the farther you get from Rome, the more affordable and friendly it gets.

The truth: I had been to Italy many times, but had never gone to Rome except for the airport and a single dinner there before a flight home. So on this trip I made a point of getting lost in the tangled narrow streets of the old city, stumbling by accident upon the Spanish Steps, Piazza Navona, fighting off vendors trying to sell me selfie sticks, eating panini and porchetta from storefronts, failing miserably to decipher the map I bought, and not really caring.

I asked the bartender at my hotel where she would go for dinner if she were me, then armed with a name and a vague location, I flagged down a cab. The driver was a petite and pretty woman in her 20s with primped and tinted hair. Her car radio blasted Madonna, and she chair-bopped as she drove me to the Trastevere neighborhood, then stopped abruptly at a traffic light and pointed me up a pedestrian walkway to my restaurant, an outdoor cafe where the owner hand-carved the prosciutto. On the piazza nearby, a young woman twirled fire pots on chains and collected euros from bystanders. Then, also at the hotel bartender's suggestion, I descended into a basement bar where no one spoke English except the featured musicians, and only when they sang because they were a Beatles tribute band.

From Rome I went by train to Assisi, a medieval walled city on a hilltop that fills with pilgrims to the basilicas of Sts. Francis and Clare; at night the tourists go home and the empty city becomes mystic in the moonlight. Then: local trains to Città di Castello.

It was like peeling away layers. Life became calmer, food and wine were better and cheaper, service got more friendly, even as the Wi-Fi in the hotels got worse. Dinner for two in Rome, maybe 130 euros. In Assisi 70. In Città di Castello, 25. Breakfast at a cafe on the main piazza was coffee and sweet rolls. How much for the coffee? One euro. The sweet roll? One euro. Those panini? One euro. The next day, the silent old lady behind the counter at the cafe did not seem to recognize me, but the cost of breakfast was half again what it was the day before.

My friends would refuse to let me open my wallet. "This is my town," growled my friend Sandro, and after drinks, he marched me to what he thought was the best restaurant in town, showed me the raw steaks in the meat case and told the owners to take care of me. Roberta did the same with the best place to eat pizza.

On my last night in town, I was walking with a friend to have a nightcap in a bar near the edge of the walled city, when I heard someone call out my name.

It was Tomassetti. He was sitting with friends drinking fine red Montefalco wine at an outside table, and he invited us to join them. The night whizzed by, sometimes in English, sometimes in Italian, and sometimes in sign language. And then the surreal happened. Tomassetti made a remark about Americans and a song popped out of my mouth, "Tu vuo fa l'americano," a 1950s novelty song about Italians who wanted to be Americans, a song so kitschy that it has recently been remixed and launched into cybersharing.

And suddenly, all the Italians were happily singing along with me, there at midnight, on a cobblestone sidewalk in Città di Castello, Umbria, Italy, though I think it was me who wanted to be Italian, not they who wanted to be American.


A Vail Tale

From the balcony of my condo at the Antlers, I could hear Gore Creek burbling below me, and I could look up into Vail Mountain, its Aspens shimmering so brightly gold in the late afternoon sun that they looked like they were emitting light and not merely reflecting it.

I had spent the day hiking up to the summit, which you can’t even see from town. I took a zip-line ride. I ate grilled trout at a Creekside restaurant.

It was a home-coming of sorts.

I’ve had a 30-year relationship with Vail, Colorado, but I had been away a while.

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I was a magazine ski and adventure-travel writer, and I was a regular visitor to Vail, dropping in to interview downhill racers or ski-town chefs, or just to ski. I had my favorite guides, my favorite drinking buddies.

Then, somehow in the late 1990s, I got seduced away by Utah, which was easier to get to from Phoenix than Colorado, and didn’t require a two- to three-hour drive from the airport.

But on this particular fall weekend, the flights were cheaper to Denver than to Salt Lake City, and on impulse, I called around and booked the condo in Vail.

Back in the day, the word on Vail was that it was an ersatz Tyrolian village pinched between 1-70 and the mountain. It has grown. The Antlers is at the western edge of town in an area called Lionshead Village, after the Gondola station there. And the architectural style resembles classier cities I’ve visited in Switzerland and Italy, pastel stucco shops and restaurants, arches and cobblestones, and flower-planted patios, all under the glowing greens and yellows of the snowless ski slopes above.

It’s a pleasant place. Vail’s management has always made sure of that, unlike many Colorado resort towns where the attitude tends toward “I live here, you don’t.” It has a certain serenity, as if stress were not allowed by zoning. It was full of people on that weekend, but somehow it seems to absorb the crowds, and seems wide open.

But it’s also a self-contained Disneyland. Sure, you could plan long daytrips, map out scenic drives. I chose to stay on the property.

The first evening I walked along the length of town (there is a free shuttle bus) trying to decide where to eat before settling at Up the Creek, where I sat at a table right on Gore Creek.

I was up early in the morning and bought an all-day ticket for the gondola ($28) out of Vail Village. The ride itself is scenic, and it drops you off mid-mountain at a couple of trailheads across the slopes and through the woods to the top of the Lionshead gondola a mile or so away, where there is a family-oriented activity center.

There are ropes course towers for adults and children, stables and restaurants, a couple of zip lines (one of those activities, like ballooning and parasailing, that feels less dangerous than it probably is), and climbing walls.

And trails snake up to 12,500 feet where you can look out over the vast back bowls that make Vail one of the largest ski areas in the world.

A thunderstorm shut the gondola down briefly, and the rain cooled the air to jacket temperatures. But the clouds put on a worthy show, and I drank a coffee until I could get back down.

That evening, I drove to the supermarket and bought a bottle of red wine and a steak to cook on the grill on my balcony. It was cool enough to light the fireplace in the living room, and by nightfall, the skies had cleared enough so that the stars filled the slim slit of night sky between the mountain and the eaves of my balcony.

I’ll be back, maybe this winter.


On the death of writer Charles Bowden

This morning I got an email from the newsroom asking if I could help them confirm that the Tucson writer, Charles Bowden, had died.

I hadn't been in touch with Chuck for years, I didn't realize that he had moved to New Mexico, but I sent a few emails myself, one to my friend, the Scottish novelist Barry Graham, and he sent a few more emails, and within minutes, he told me it was true.  Bowden was 69.

I read in the Tucson Weekly that he died in his sleep while napping. The reporter writing the story for my newspaper told me that it was not yet certain how Bowden had died -- possibly of complications from Valley fever, which Barry told me he had for years. 

Bowden was the author of more than two dozen books, mostly about the Southwest, ranging from the environment to the border and its drug wars, some of them so intensively researched and attributed that I felt vertigo wondering how he could juggle so much information in his mind and then get it down in words.

I went to my library and took down the copy of my favorite, Blues for Cannibals, which he published in 2002,  a wandering memoir and extended metaphor in which life is a mesquite tree; the book's prose is as lush and tangled as the branches of that hard-to-kill tree.

He wrote it as he was struggling with the deaths of four close friends, from cancer, a freak accident, and suicide. But it's about life, or rather the things that make life:  sex and lust and art and beauty and hate and murder and weather, and things you knew but never thought of, like inhaling the scent of a dog's face. 

It is episodic, picaresque, expressionist, old testament prophetic. On one page he's gardening, on the next he's banging a woman on the hood of his pickup truck in the desert, then at an execution, then writing about a historic Yaqui hero, then telling of an uncle cutting down a nephew who hanged himself. He writes about food and cooking in ways that are lustful. When he writes about desert flowers, it is near pornographic.

I was very pleased when he told me that the title was inspired in part by a story I once wrote about an Arizona State University professor who proved that the ancient Anasazi Indians were not peaceful potters and pueblo builders, but in fact cannibals.

He inscribed my copy with the words, "Michael, I hope you can tolerate this stuff, Chuck Bowden."

Today, I opened to this passage:

"I live in a time when death is off the table, the thing unsaid. We wish to live forever and because of this desire, we hardly live at all. I am trapped in the great age of caution, of watch out, of fear. But I was blooded in the age of desire and lust and love. I will always be a mesquite waiting for the rain and knowing it is coming even in those summers when it never comes at all."

And now he is gone.

We were not friends. I did not know him very well. But we had things in common; we wrote for some of the same magazines, we both started out in academia and then covered murder and mayhem for newspapers. He taught in Chicago, and I had spent so many years there that I started to think that I was from Chicago, too.

Bowden was almost famous. He had a cult following. His books sold. He was a regular contributor to the best magazines. And he was a mentor to me and to so many other less successful aspiring writers.

"I can't think of a writer who was more generous to other writers," Barry Graham told me today over the telephone.

Indeed, he wrote flattering blurbs to two of my books. He seemed aware of what I had been writing.

A few times I had the pleasure of visiting with him on the back patio of his Tucson home, drinking so much red wine that I was unable to drive home to Phoenix and would have to get a hotel room in Tucson. Barry Graham was even less polite than me and would linger until he was invited for dinner. Bowden was an accomplished cook.
"I often think about how, when I spent the night at his place, and we were up late and drunk, he'd still get up at three in the morning to write, a routine he stuck to no matter what," Barry told me today.

But the visits were really more like having an audience with a great mind; Bowden did most of the talking, and that was fine because the stories were so intriguing, like how he was pulled over by a cop as he was transporting the corpse of a friend packed in ice in the bed of his pickup truck. I particularly liked that he would play with young and full-of-themselves New York magazine editors by telling them something along the lines of, "I have to get off the phone, because it's Tuesday, and this is the day the mail truck comes down to the junction," when in fact, he lived in a Queen Anne bungalow in town near the University of Arizona.

Truth be told, there are stories that I can't recall whether he actually told me or I read them. It was the same voice, deep and resonant, ironic yet basic, full of wisdom, full of life. And I hardly knew the man.

The end of Blues for Cannibals:

"Rise now, kick the legs, ignore the screaming of the lungs. Back to shore.
The salt taste bites the tongue.
I think a woman is part of the answer, but then, I am a man."

Back to Lac Leman

It took two trips to Lausanne, Switzerland, to discover my new métier: absentee vintner of Chasselas, a fine, buttery, white Swiss wine from the Lavaux region on the banks of Lac Leman -- which English-speakers call Lake Geneva. 

I came to it through mental acumen, competitive superiority. Never mind the details.

As a long-time travel writer, I have a longer list of places I want to go back to than places I want to visit for the first time. Lausanne was near the top of the list, with its impressive views of the pre-Alps behind and the mountains of Evian, France across the water. I look at the views every day at home in the screensaver photos of two different computers and the background photos on my website and Facebook pages.

My first trip there was in April 2013. It was overcast and unseasonably cold. The vineyards were trying to come out from under winter brown; the mountains were still snow-capped, the gray clouds made the light on the lake flat and mysterious. But the flowers on the lake front promenades were exploding in pink and purple blooms.

I went back last month, July 2014. It was still overcast to the point of rain, languidly humid, achingly beautiful, green as Eden. I walked along the lake for hours, beyond the hotels and the Olympic Museum to where the path is just wide enough for two-way foot traffic, past sun bathers and swimmers, villas and boat docks.

In the evening I returned to the nightclubs in the city’s downtown, which is really uptown in an area they call the Flon after a river that ran there until they covered it over to keep it from flooding. Now it’s a conclave of rehabbed warehouses that throb with techno music from happy hour into the morning.

The Chasselas, the Pinot noir; hot chocolate as thick as hot pudding; fera, a white lake fish that swims twice, according to a local saying: once in the lake and the second time in butter and wine sauce.

Lausanne is headquarters for the International Olympic Committee, but the Olympic Museum was closed for renovations during my last visit. This time it was open. A German journalist there asked me, "Would Americans actually visit the museum?" Well, yes, I thought. There are exhibits of the torches carried, dioramas, photos, uniforms, history. It's worth the time.
Montreux is a short bus ride to the east, and the Montreux Jazz Festival seems to go on all summer long, and that is a fantastic thing. Outside the venues, it's a carnival of colored lights and booths selling everything you want, from food and drink to memento t-shirts.
This year’s performances included Van Morrison, Milky Chance, Stevie Wonder, Buddy Guy, Pharrell Williams and Outkast.
I was given tickets to see Robin Thicke, who I liked better than I expected, the debonair singer playing a baby grand like he was channeling Ray Charles, backed by a spectacular all-Black soul band.
But the opening act, Paloma Faith, blew me away. She's a bleached blonde, working class London girl with a tight dress and a big voice that ranged from baby doll to sultry. She did her genuine best to speak French, and murdered it, but it charmed the audience anyway. She sang Billy Holliday and Van Morrison and Sly and the Family Stone. And the final numbers rocked so hard, I thought the stage would levitate. I never felt such energy in a concert hall. I had tears in my eyes.
Ah, but the wine…
The vineyards at Lavaux are a UNESCO heritage site, and the wines, mostly Chasselas, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot noir and Viognier, are superb. Very little is exported, because the Swiss drink it all themselves. I had hiked here on my last visit, sampled the wines. This time, I sat on my ass on a covered sun deck, drinking Chasselas and watching rainclouds over the lake below.
And that’s where I discovered my new métier. Truth be told, I won a trivia contest. The prize: Three vines in the Lavaux vineyards and a plaque with my name on them next to the vines. And since each vine produces about a bottle of wine per year for four years, I had won three bottles of wine per year for the next four years.
Now when people ask me what I do for a living, I can tell them I'm part owner of a Swiss vineyard.
They won’t know any better.

How to speak Euro-English

We were running a few minutes behind, which in Switzerland is a cardinal sin.

"I will invite you to follow me with a nice speedy leg," the guide said to us. 

To me, it sounded like she wanted a swift kick in the pants, but it made perfect sense to the other people on the walking city tour of Lausanne: a Spaniard, an Italian, a Belgian, a Russian, two Germans,  a French-speaking and a German-speaking Swiss. They dutifully picked up the pace. I took out my notebook and jotted down the sentence.

The tour was a planned event at a gathering of journalists from eight different countries. In Lausanne, the language on the streets is predominantly French, but the language of the gathering was English, though very few of the participants were native speakers.

The Swiss are phenomenal linguists. So, I have noticed, are Scandinavians. Not so much the citizens of other countries of Europe. They don't seem to learn each others' languages, sometimes because of deep-seated cultural conflicts.  

Instead they communicate with each other in English, or rather, in what I call Euro-English, which, like Yiddish in another century, is an amalgam. 

Often, in effect, they are speaking their own native languages using English words, and it makes perfect sense to them, because the syntax and cognates of their own languages may be more similar to each other than they are to English.

"You go always straight," I was told in Lugano after asking a Swiss woman for directions. In Euro-English, that means, "It's straight ahead."

But language is more round-about than straight, and how multilingual people decide which language to use when they speak to each other is a mystery.

Most of my Spanish-speaking friends at home in Arizona also speak perfect English, but when we get together as friends, we usually speak Spanish, I assume because Spanish has elements built into it to express friendship and affection.

But while my friends born in Mexico talk to me in Spanish, their kids talk to me only in English, even though they speak Spanish to each other and to their parents. So if someone of the younger generation speaks to me in Spanglish,  another amalgam, it's a showing of trust and acceptance.

Language flows like water. It seeks its own level based on comfort and linguistic ability. If you speak English better than I speak Italian, we're probably going to speak English

I have a journalist friend in Lausanne who comes to Phoenix regularly. His English is not bad. My French is ok. But because one of his parents is from Uruguay, his second language is Spanish, and that is the language we gravitate towards because we both speak Spanish better than I speak French or he speaks English.

Sometimes ego gets in the way: While in Lausanne, I made a remark in Italian to an Italian journalist, and she immediately corrected my pronunciation before asking my name. I offered to help her with her even worse command of English, and she was offended.

Then, later that week, in Lugano, I spoke Italian everywhere, with no complaints. Still and all, the day I spent there with a guide of Italian-Argentine origin was mostly conducted in Spanish, because my Spanish was better than her English or my Italian.
Nuance gets lost across cultures: One evening in Montreux, an Englishman and a Scottish woman and I were reflecting on the variants of our mutual language and discussing how the closer you are to the streets and the farther you are from education the less intelligible your accent will be to foreigners. A Russian woman thought we were talking about politics and excused herself because her bosses had told her to avoid political discussion at all cost.

I wonder how we might have expressed it in Euro-English.

The native languages wired into our brains make second languages seem like Microsoft programs running on Apple computers. It's called language interference. 

A lot of Euro-English sentences start with "It is possible to...," or "It is necessary to..." because that's how sentences start in French and Spanish and Italian. In standard English, we state options with "either/or" constructions. In Euro-English, as in most European languages, it's an "or/or" choice, as in, "Or you go this way, or you go that way."

So many things in Euro-English are "typical," apparently meaning "locally common," or "roman-teek," and I haven't figured out if that refers to a period or a mood. 

And don't confuse a strong sense of time with a sense of tense.

"Charlie Chaplin has been living a long time in Vevey, Switzerland," I was told, though the man has been dead for decades. But it makes perfect sense to French or Italian speakers, because they use the present perfect tense in their languages to convey the past. 

Once, in Italy, I heard a woman explain that cypress trees came to Italy from "actual Lebanon," because in most languages, "actual" means "present-day," and not "real." It's commonly heard in Euro-English usage.

And in Euro-English, the sentence "This metro is very particular, because it has wooden wheels," as I heard in Lausanne, means that the metro is "unique," not that it is "choosy" or "specific."

What to think of a person who is "world-known" in Lausanne? And what to make of a town whose "downtown" is significantly uphill?


Maybe that can be the title of a PBS series on Euro-English.


France for a day

I went to France last week for the first time.

I learned to speak French when I was 11, majored in French in college, minored in it in graduate school, but it took me until I was 61 to actually get there.

Three times in the last nine years, I was close enough to see it. Two years ago, I saw it from the top of a tower in Basel, where Switzerland, France and Germany all come together; last April, it teased me from across Lake Geneva in Lausanne, the snowy mountains of Evian, France, made famous by the logo for the bottled water. The closest I came was in 2005, when friends and I decided to ski across the border from Sestriere, Italy, but it was snowing too hard and we had drunk too much grappa at lunchtime to venture just one mountain farther to France.

So last week, when I arrived in Lausanne a day ahead of my business obligations, I got on a boat and headed across the lake.

It was an overcast morning, which turned the sky and the water into reflective whirls of gray. But the ride was smooth, and the benches on the outside deck were almost dry. And after about 35 minutes, I was walking along the promenade in Evian, looking back at Switzerland.

The difference between the two countries was nowhere near so dramatic as driving across the border from Arizona to Mexico, but it was still palpable, a wrinkle in time and space and attitude, perhaps:  The same colorful row houses and baroque buildings with elegant storefronts, though maybe a bit less freshly painted, the same accent in the voices of the waitresses, if just a little bit less polite, the same wafting restaurant aromas, if a bit stronger and more garlicky. It was delightful.

I strolled along the narrow cobblestone streets, watching people and eaves-dropping on conversations. I sat at a cafe and drank coffee and ate crepes. I sought out the source of the bottled water --  It runs anticlimactically out of two spigots on the retaining wall beneath a hillside park, and local residents trundle their empty bottles there to fill them up for free.

Maybe I stayed for two hours. Then I went back to the ferry and dozed in a sling-style deck chair for the short ride back to Lausanne.

It wasn't much. But now, if someone asks me if I've been to France, I'll answer, "Why yes, of course, yes I have."

"Mais oui."

Eternally existential

Barefoot dude in a flannel shirt hanging off a building.

I'm somewhere outside of Lausanne, Switzerland, sitting on the grass, waiting for the show to begin. It's a play of sorts, a supposed one-room apartment seen from above,  except it's really hanging perpendicular off a building that looks like a junior college. The silent protagonist is supended from wires, standing sideways on the side of the building, and the intended effect is that we are seeing him as if from above, except he's sidewqys. This is art.

"Je tombe," a voice intones, in a classically deep French voice, which makes it seem all the more profound.

"I'm falling. And I'm running, though I never leave my room."

Oh, OK, it's a millenial theme, but that's all right by me, because when I was 20, I had my mattress on the floor, too, and I read Sartre and Camus and considered myself an existentialist. 

So I sit through the next hour, and I clap when it's done, not because it's good, but because I appreciate the youthful artiness of it all, and I appreciate that the protagonist was hanging off the drop edge of yonder during the whole performance.

Then  I go to a disco in the Flon district and watch Swiss and Russian and Italian girls dance desperately to forget it all.

All Along Lac Leman

The Swiss are so incredibly polite.

This was my sixth trip to Switzerland, but I had to come to the French-speaking part of the country before anyone ever told me that my family name in Swiss German slang means "stoner" or "pothead."
I'd been traveling around all these years and my name might as well have been Michael Reefer instead of Kiefer, and yet no one had ever so much as cracked a smile until my new friend Pascale blurted it out in a wine bar in Vevey. We'd had a glass of the digestif abricotine,an apricot white lightning, and more than a bottle of Chasselas, a dry and buttery white wine grown here in the Vaud region. You see the vineyards all along the shores of Lac Leman -- Lake Geneva to you -- and it's so good that the Swiss drink it all so there isn’t enough left over to export.
It was a cloudy evening in Vevey, but that just enhanced the light off the lake along the promenade. You could see all the way past Montreux to the eastern end of the lake, and across to the south, less than 20 miles away, the glaciers atop the French alps shone like night lights. Though spring was late this year, the flowers were everywhere in beds along the lakefront. More than one Swiss I talked to grumbled about their tax dollars going to flowers, but I loved it, and I loved watching the lovers walk hand in hand, hugging and kissing without caring who was watching. They called out to perfect strangers. “BON-soir,” the women practically sang in soprano voices.
Charlie Chaplin lived and died here in Vevey. The 18th Century philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau lived here as a young man, and folks still gossip about how he seduced a beautiful and rich married woman who lived in what is now the music academy on the grand square. Such things usually end badly, philosophically speaking, and poor Rousseau has been accused of contributing to upheavals like Romantic fiction and the French Revolution.
I started out in Geneva at the westernmost edge of the lake and took the train to Lausanne, less than an hour away, at about the lake's midpoint. There, I checked in to the venerable old Beau Rivage-Palace Hotel in a waterfront neighborhood called Ouchy. From the balcony of my room, I could look across at Evian, France, or more accurately at the Alpine mountain ridge that became the logo on the famous water bottles.
The metro is just a block away from the Beau Rivage, and with a card they give you at the hotel, you can ride for free. Most transportation in the region uses the honor system; they only occasionally check for your ticket or Swisspass or regional transport card, but if they catch you without one, you pay a fine of 80 Swiss francs, which is about $84.
The night clubs and fancy restaurants are four or five metro stops uphill in a neighborhood called Le Flon, and from there you can easily walk up toward the historic university and the cathedral, which I mention mostly because you want to take the stairs down from the cathedral and stop at the cafe called Le Barbare, where they prepare an incredible cup of hot chocolate. The Swiss didn't invent chocolate -- it came from the new world -- but they did figure out how to whip it into the smooth confection we know today. And a man named Nestle, who lived nearby in Vevey, figured out how to mix it with milk powder to make milk chocolate.
There are some things about a lake: the light, the smell, the sound of the water lapping against the rocks. In the summertime, there's swimming and water skiing as well, but it had been a long wet and cold spring, and I wasn't going in, though I saw some foolish college boys shrieking as they jumped off a dock in a residential area, and a couple of old men floating like walruses on what I had to imagine were lifelong daily regimes despite the snow-melt temperature.
But I went out on the water in one of the ancient steam-powered paddle wheelers that skirt the shore past the vineyards and take families and couples on afternoon cruises from town to town. I thought it might be a touristy thing to do, but soon realized that it was a local outing, lunch and a boat ride, and I rode it all the way to the castle of Chillon, a thousand-year old bastion on the lake that is so romantic that the poet Lord Byron sulked and brooded and composed one of his more famous works, The Prisoner of Chillon, about a monk named Francois Boniver, during his stay in Ouchy. He also committed vandalism by scratching his name into a column in the Chilllon castle dungeon where Bonivar had been imprisoned.
The next day I was in the village of Chexbres a few train stops west of Vevey in a vineyard area known as Lavaux, which since 2007 has enjoyed status as a UNESCO World Heritage site, a designation that affords protection of cultural resources.
"Il faut arriver a une heure buvable," said winemaker Eric Bovy, as he drew shot glasses of his 2012 Chasselas from an oaken barrel bearing a scene painted by his grandfather."You need to come at a drinkable hour," which means something like "It's five o'clock somewhere."
To be exact, it was 11 in the morning, and it was already Bovy's second wine-tasting appointment of the day. Nonetheless, he uncorked a bottle of his 2011 Chasselas and helped my companion and me finish it off. (Buvable, I also learned, could be said of a woman who becomes friendlier after a few drinks.)
Just then one of the paddle wheelers steamed into the dock below at Rivaz.
"When the whistle blows, you are allowed to have a glass of wine," Eric said.
Rationalizations, justifications; we were drinking anyway, and maybe his conscience was bothering him more than mine was. He threw a big hunk of salty cheese up on the slicer and laid a full plate in front of us.
"What kind of cheese is this?" I asked.
"I don't know. Something my wife bought."
The boat whistle blew. We raised another glass.
An hour later we were hiking through the vineyards with a nice wine buzz, my friend and I. There were no cars on the narrow roads, no people on the paths and walkways. The vineyards above were just trying to leaf out. The redbuds and fruit trees were in spring bloom. The grass was already a foot tall, and lilac-colored wisteria hung from the fieldstone walls of the houses. Below, the lake shimmered. We walked to the village of St Saphorin, then caught the train back to Vevey.
There was a fruit plate and a half bottle of wine waiting for me in my room at Les Trois Couronnes, which I partook of before going to the hotel spa to sweat out the day's excesses and exercises in the hammam steam room.
The manager at Les Trois Couronnes is a handsome young man named Jay Gauer, and one night over dinner, he explained the concept of wellness food.
"When you think of detox, you think of punishment," he said. "We think of pleasure."
Indeed, the hotel's food concept is based on wellness, a European word that means healthy more than it means fitness or diet. It's based on a Mediterranean diet high in grains and olive oil. After a year, it earned the chef a Michelin star, so, "Why change it?" Jay said.
Indeed, a bite of pan-seared tuna on a bed of riced squash. White and green asparagus on an asparagus puree with delicate sauces. Broiled sea bream with pistachios and hints of mint and lemon grass. A cheese plate. The usual Chasselas or pinot noir from the region.
Jay likes for the hotel visitors to return home with "stories": a romantic dinner for two at a solitary table above the lake in the vineyards; a watch-making class for two.
But let's talk more about food. The lake is there, so there is a lot of fish, specifically perch and a Lake Geneva whitefish called fera, which of course go nicely with all that white wine. Asparagus with every meal. Beef, though horsemeat is a local favorite, and rosti, which is a bed of fried, shredded potatoes with onions, which can be served as a side of potatoes or as the base for egg, ham or vegetable dishes.
Believe it or not, I had come to the region with the hope of staying outside as much as possible, but Mother Nature did not cooperate as much as I would have liked. The Swiss are always so prompt -- they make watches, remember -- and everything is so on time and organized. But even they can't control the weather.
I was supposed to go traipsing through Alpine meadows at 10,000 feet at a place called Rochers de Naye, the terminus of a cog railway that climbs straight up from Montreux. It was May after all. And indeed the meadows below were green and grassy under drizzly skies. The views were steep and spectacular--until we came out of the last tunnel near the top into a February snowstorm. So when things don't work out the way you planned, you can eat lunch. I opted for fondue, and my guide Angela ordered an asparagus salad with cherry tomatoes that looked someone had plopped a garden on her plate.
Angela is Italian, and she has a habit of quite innocently speaking in three languages at once. The first sentence might be French, the second Italian and the third English, and she would only linger in one language or the other if the subject matter demanded it. Every now and then she would burst into Spanish, just to see if I were paying attention.
Talk about global citizens: I met a woman in the Geneva airport who learned Danish as a child, but was raised in Colombia and lived in Lausanne. She spoke Spanish at home with her Swiss French husband and her three-year-old son, who was born in Singapore, though he spoke French at school. And she spoke English with her own parents whom she was going to visit in Miami, and she hoped her mother wouldn't speak Danish because four languages, as opposed to three, just might short-circuit the kids.
Back to the traipse: Angela and I rode the cog railway down below the snow line and into the greenery and got off to walk down staircases and pathways to the lake in Montreux.
Montreux is famous, among other things, for its annual music festival. Outside the casino is a statute of Freddie Mercury, the late lead singer of Queen, who lived and recorded in Montreux.
The weather did not cooperate the next day either. I took the train to the village of Aigle, beyond the lake, with the intention of continuing up to the glacier above the ski area, Les Diablerets. It, too, was socked in, so I hitched a ride to Les Bains de Lavey, a water park filled with hot spring water, where families go to pass the day on a weekend when the weather is ugly. The largest pools are outdoors, and the water is warm enough that you don't really care if it's drizzling or snowing on you. As a relief to most Americans, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, people wear bathing suits in the saunas and steam baths, an apparent Calvinist hangover in contrast to the rest of Switzerland where everyone tends to go nude. But it becomes a social event, with whole groups of friends gather to talk and lovers float by locked in embrace.
On Saturday night in Vevey, they had set up a giant party tent in the Grand Place, with beer taps and giant sausages. Inside, a band played guitars and other stringed instruments I didn't recognize. A piper played, and the percussion was provided by one band member who stomped his feet rhythmically on some sort of board. The words were in French, but the melody and the music were decidedly Celtic, and though most of the partiers were sitting at tables drinking beer or leaning on the bar, a few brave souls hopped and bopped in front of the stage.
I wandered back through the crowds on the waterfront to the bar at my hotel. The bartender warned me that the beer on tap (although very good) was more expensive than the pinot noir I was drinking. I sat trying to figure out what language the piano player was using as he sang a Billy Joel tune. After a few lines, I realized he was singing in English, and I asked the bartender if he could tell.
"I'm English, and I can't understand a word," he said in French. We laughed and switched to English ourselves.
Somehow, after a few more glasses of wine, the lyrics to the songs became more understandable. The piano player’s voice went gravelly, his eyes winced as he sang a version of Lionel Ritchie's "Easy Like Sunday Morning" that was so beautifully smooth and soulful that I asked in French if he had been a black man in an earlier life. He didn't understand, so I repeated it in English -- he was singing in English after all. Still no.
"I'm Italian," he said, and he smiled when I posed the question a third time in Italian. Then he asked if I would like for him to serenade me in Italian.
"Certo!" I answered.
"Bien sur!"
"You bet!"

For Dad

May 17, 2014

My father, Robert Taylor Kiefer, died this morning.

He was 88, and he had been fighting cancer for several years. Doctors thought he would be dead a long time ago, and I have joked, as recently as yesterday, that he was as hard to kill as the mesquite tree in my back yard, which has fallen over twice and though I’ve sawed it up, it keeps growing back.

Bob Kiefer could be a generous man if he liked you, and he probably liked you from the start, unless you gave him good reason not to. He liked to tell jokes and give you the needle. He could be extremely difficult.

I know a lot of you are thinking  that sounds a lot like me, but it’s probably just a Pennsylvania Dutch genetic trait. My mother adapted an old “Dutchie” adage and said, “You can always tell a Kiefer, you just can’t tell him much. I’ll admit that we fought bitterly for many years.

Before he got out of the Army, my father had been a drill sergeant, and he thought he wanted to be a physical education teacher. He played football and basketball in college. But when he started interviewing for teaching jobs and they told him he couldn’t smoke or drink, he decided to go into some other line of work – not that he was a smoker or drinker, mind you, he just didn’t want anyone telling him what he could and couldn’t do.

Instead he went into sales, but he remained a jock, and I remember all during my childhood and young adulthood that he played softball and basketball and tennis and handball. My mother said that, even as an old man, if she didn’t know where he was, she’d look for the nearest ball game in the neighborhood, and find him there watching.

My father was a large man, more than six feet tall, and he weighed well over 250 pounds for most of his life, though the cancer whittled him down to my size at the end. He asked to be cremated, and my mother and my brother want to have a military funeral for him and have his ashes interred in a veterans’ cemetery in Cape Cod, where he spent his last years.

When I was a kid, I used to look at the medals in his closet, a couple of bronze stars that he’d earned in the Army Air Corps during World War II as a nose gunner in a B24 bomber. His leather bomber jacket hung in the closet. On the shelf nearby he kept a photo album from the war, full of tiny little black-and-white photos with scalloped white edges of his crew and his plane, “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” with its requisite nose cone painting of a scantily clad All-American babe.

My father and I had both attended Lafayette College in Easton, PA, where my grandfather had been an administrator. When I went past the shoemaker’s shop or into the butcher store, they would ask about my father, though he hadn’t lived there in decades. We actually shared one professor, my grandfather’s friend, Sam Pascal, a gnarled little, one-armed Italian dynamo, who taught me to speak Spanish and Italian. When my father came back from Italy after the war, Dr. Pascal told me, he had asked him several questions in Italian, which my father understood, but answered in English.

But my father never told me how he earned the medals, because I think it scared the shit out of him.  It took my mother half a lifetime to convince him to go back to Europe for a visit. My mother told me that at one of the squadron reunions they attended later in life, a man my age approached my father and shook his hand reverently because his own late father had talked about him

When I was in my early 20s, my parents invited my brother’s girlfriend’s parents over to the house for dinner. They were Germans, and the girlfriend’s father had spent time here in Phoenix at the prisoner of war camp during World War II. After the war, he made his way to New Jersey, where he settled down to raise his own family. At the dinner table that night, the talk turned to the war. My father explained that he had flown in the daytime air raids on the oilfields of Ploesti, Romania. Heinz, the girlfriend’s father, replied that he had been an anti-aircraft gunner at Ploesti. There was a long silence, and then the two men started laughing.

Two and a half years ago, I was in Assisi, Italy, eating dinner in a small trattoria off a side street from the main piazza and enjoying a glass of Montefalco red wine. The couple seated across from me was from New York via California. Their waiter had brought them a carafe of wine but had forgotten to give them glasses. They called the manager, who could only shrug and turn his palms up to say, "No Eeng-leesh." As he walked by to fetch the waiter, I stopped him and translated. He smiled, the New York Californians got their glasses, and everyone was happy.

I chatted through dinner with the couple, and they mentioned that a museum in town had an interesting exhibit about Assisi during World War II, and how the Assisi Underground had sheltered Jews who might otherwise have been sent to concentration camps.

I told them what little I knew about my father’s service in the Army Air Corps during the war, how he celebrated his 19th birthday in Naples, that he'd seen a prodigious number of planes go down on his first bombing mission over Ploesti. I repeated the few stories he had told me, about bullet holes stitching down the glass of his turret, where he had nowhere to duck, about seeing German jet prototypes zipping past the lumbering old propeller-driven bombers, about how they would return from missions in the freezing early morning hours and line up on the tarmac for a shot of whiskey poured into a metal mess cup, about the need for constant vigilance on the ground, never knowing which Italians were on which side.

Three Italian couples were seated at a nearby table, and one of the women seemed to be listening to our conversation. When they got up to leave, the woman said good night to me. I asked her in Italian if she understood English.

"Yes," she said. "Tell your father, 'Thank you.' "


Covering Marissa

Juror: DeVault’s three children saved her life

Michael Kiefer

The Republic | azcentral.com

April 30, 2014

Marissa DeVault's children saved her life.

DeVault had certainly plotted the murder of her husband, Dale Harrell. She had taken out insurance policies on him, talked to her lover about having him killed, asked an ex-lover to "take care of him," had told people he was already dead.

And ultimately, she confessed to caving in his head with a claw hammer in January 2009 in the bedroom of their Gilbert home.

Her trial began in early February in Maricopa County Superior Court. DeVault claimed that Harrell was abusive and that she killed him in self-defense. Prosecutors paraded friends and neighbors to the witness stand to say they had never seen Harrell raise a hand against her.

But then their oldest daughter took the stand in late March.

"It happened fairly frequently," Rhiannon-Skye DeVault Harrell, 18, told the jury as she detailed the beatings. Rhiannon testified again during the sentencing phase of the trial, and so did her two younger sisters.

It was not enough to persuade jurors to acquit DeVault, or to find her guilty of the lesser crime of second-degree murder. On April 8, DeVault, 36, was found guilty of first-degree murder. A week later, the jury determined that the murder was especially cruel, qualifying DeVault for the death penalty.

But the testimony affected the jury members as they pondered whether DeVault, 36, should spend her life in prison or take a one-way trip to death row.

On Wednesday, after three days of deliberations, the jury chose life.

On June 6, after hearing from the victims and DeVault's family, which in this case are the same people, Judge Roland Steinle will decide whether DeVault gets natural life in prison or if she will have a chance for release after 25 years.

The children swayed the jury.

"I absolutely think they did," said juror JoAnn Verdun, 33, of Peoria. "It was a big part of my experience and that of others."

Rhiannon was relieved.

"When you grow up with this kind of thing, you get used to bad news," she told The Arizona Republic on Wednesday after the verdict. "Slightly less than bad news is really good news. Sometimes not losing is the same as winning."

Not everyone agreed.

Harrell's cousin, Becky Mott, of Gilbert, told The Republic, "I wanted the death penalty. I didn't want her to have any freedom at all. I wanted her to have solitary confinement."

But Amy Dewey, of Tempe, who was friends with both DeVault and Harrell and once lived in their house, had mixed emotions.

Dewey attended nearly every day of the trial.

"When I first started coming, I was so angry. I wanted the death penalty," she said. "But now, I'm hoping for life as long as there's no chance of release."

Verdun, the juror, had a similar change of thinking. When she came into the trial, Verdun says, she believed in the death penalty.

"I no longer think that death is a logical penalty — in any case," she said.

It was a brutal murder.

When police responded to DeVault's 911 call at 2:45 a.m. on Jan. 14, 2009, they found her hysterical and covered with blood outside the Gilbert home she shared with Harrell, the children and DeVault's friend, Stan Cook.

Harrell, 34, was upstairs on the floor next to his blood-soaked bed, writhing and thrashing, with the right side of his face and head caved in. Cook, had apparently taken the hammer away from her. Harrell died three weeks later.

Police coaxed a confession out of DeVault on the morning of the attack. She claimed that she killed Harrell in self-defense because he had raped and choked her and had abused her for years.

DeVault was bailed out of jail by her lover, Allen Flores, whom she had met two years earlier on a website that helped women meet "sugar daddies."

But then DeVault changed her story: She suddenly claimed that Cook, who has brain damage that seriously impairs his memory, had killed Harrell while defending her. Flores helped out by editing Cook's confession letter.

Police did not buy the new story. The prosecution claimed that DeVault killed Harrell to collect on insurance policies she had taken out on him.

The details were sordid. During a forensic examination of Flores' computer, a specialist hired by the defense uncovered child pornography. Flores has not been prosecuted for the pornography or for his assistance to DeVault before and after the murder. Instead, he was granted limited immunity by both the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and the U.S. attorney in Phoenix, though County Attorney Bill Montgomery avers that he could still be prosecuted. In fact, the prosecutors defended Flores by trying to have the pornography precluded from evidence, claiming that the defense had violated his Fourth Amendment rights against illegal government search and seizure.

Flores became the principal witness establishing DeVault's premeditation in the murder. On the witness stand, Flores told how he had lent more than $360,000 to DeVault, money she told him she would pay back from trust funds and insurance monies she was due.

She told friends and family that Flores was her dead stepfather's gay lover, even though her stepfather was neither gay nor dead. And Flores isn't gay. She told Flores on one occasion that Cook already had killed Harrell and on another that she would have Harrell killed while the two stayed at a casino hotel.

Another of DeVault's former lovers also testified that DeVault had approached him to "take care of" her husband. He refused.

The trial was tumultuous. Superior Court Judge Roland Steinle frequently sent the jury out of the courtroom to reprimand the prosecutors and defense lawyers for their tactics.

He scolded the defense for arranging a telephone conference with one of DeVault's daughters despite a court order and for trying to introduce a PowerPoint display without prior notice.

He scolded the prosecutors for trying to embarrass witnesses with sexual details.

The jurors took a week to come back with a guilty verdict. They refused to agree that DeVault had committed the murder for monetary gain, even though the prosecution based its case on DeVault killing Harrell for insurance money.

"There was too much circumstantial evidence," Verdun said.

Instead, the jury settled on the more vague aggravator that the murder was especially cruel.

DeVault seemed optimistic as she waited for the jury's decision on Wednesday. She was dressed in a black blazer, with her auburn hair pulled into a ponytail that reached most of the way down her back. She gasped and cried and smiled and patted her attorney on the arm after the verdict.

Mott sat with her husband and Dewey in the back row. DeVault's mother and daughters did not attend.

Dewey was reflective after the verdict.

"We were friends," she said of DeVault. "There were times (during the trial) when I felt sorry for the person who used to be my friend — not the person who was manipulative, but the one who used to be my friend."

DeVault's mother, Samantha Carlson, was driving Rhiannon to work when she was reached for comment.

"I am grateful and relieved because I don't want the children to have any misassigned guilt for not speaking well enough when they look back on this," Carlson said.

Rhiannon got to the point.

"If she had gotten the death penalty, I would have been two for two on parents," she said. "She is going to get life now, so I'm at one and a half right now."

Juror JoAnn Verdun went home and posted on Facebook.

"At the beginning, I was sitting across from a monster who killed her husband for money," she wrote. "At the end, I was sitting across from a human being. I voted for life because her children should have the right to a parent, if they choose, at 18. When an 11-year-old tells you, 'I know why my mom did it, but two parents are still better than one,' I couldn't vote to take away another one."