By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The coroner's report said it all; Ric Rankins' death on July 10 was a "homicide." A scrawny 144 pounds, Rankins had his voice box crushed by a choke hold. Unnamed employees of Smitty's grocery chain killed the 43-year-old black man in a west-side parking lot.
Three days later, the Arizona Republic's Abraham Kwok unearthed an eyewitness to the killing who recounted in savage detail the beating of Ric Rankins.
Describing the black man as a "suspected check bouncer," Kwok wrote the eyewitness saw Smitty's employees kicking the victim's head repeatedly, "smashing it against the concrete pavement."
When the eyewitness, Bob Hess, attempted to intervene, he remembered a Smitty's worker snapping, "Stay out of this or you're next."
The stomping was labeled an "uncalled-for attack" by Hess, who said the grocers continued to assault the defenseless Rankins "viciously" after the black man was subdued and "hog-tied in knots," even going so far as to taunt and laugh at the dying check bouncer.
Although the death of Rankins had stirred blacks, the homicide had been in the media for two and one-half days without causing tremors outside the minority community. It was Kwok's incredible eyewitness account on the front page of the Arizona Republic that shook the Valley.
Unfortunately, Kwok's story was a lie.
There is no Bob Hess. There is no eyewitness who saw Smitty's employees put the boot to Rankins.
That is not how the man died.
On the morning Kwok's article appeared, Arizona exploded.
The phone lines into Smitty's were so tied up that the chain's director of personnel, Kevin Salcido, had to help answer calls.
"On Friday morning, we switched them [phones] on at 8 a.m.," said Salcido. "Immediately, there was an overwhelming negative response. Hundreds of people were calling us murderers. Friday was the worst day. I just pled with people to keep an open mind. That article was what got things going."
Reached for comment, Kwok admitted he was the victim of what he called a "hoax."
According to Kwok, he received a call from someone claiming to be Bob Hess who recounted over the phone what he'd seen. Hess said his wife also saw the attack.
"Hess" also called Smitty's, where he spoke to Stan English, telling Smitty's lawyer he had photographs of the incident.
When Hess called the police, he left the phone number and address he'd been dropping all over town with the message that he was a witness to Rankins' death.
Later, when detectives attempted to locate "Hess," they discovered there was no such address and the phone number was that of a gas station pay phone.
The day before Kwok ran with his phony story, he checked with the cops.
The police say they told the reporter that while they had a name, they'd been unable to verify the witness's existence. Kwok claims the police identified Hess as a credible witness.
All this finger pointing over Hess is beside the point. If Kwok was as concerned about Hess' story as he claims, it was easy enough to check out.
Had Rankins been kicked about the head and had his skull pounded into the pavement as Hess said, the evidence would have shown up in the autopsy.
Maricopa County medical examiner Heinz Karnitschnig, when asked by New Times, stated there was "no significant physical trauma to the head." But Kwok never took the obvious step of checking with the medical examiner before writing his story. Neither did he check a cross-index directory for the Valley that would have shown him the address he had was phony.
Kwok claims he called the number "Hess" had given him and it was answered by a child who said his daddy wasn't home. Kwok can't explain who answered the gas station pay phone number he'd dialed.
The Arizona Republic bannered the fabricated story across the top of the front page.
The "Hess" article "just about ruined my life," said Kwok.
The reporter's remorse, however, was not accompanied by a retraction.
If Abraham Kwok was devastated, imagine then the effect his story had upon the family of Ric Rankins, upon Valley blacks or upon the executives of Smitty's who, the very morning Kwok's incendiary article appeared, were scheduled to meet with a delegation from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Black Muslims.
THE CORPORATE HEADQUARTERS of Smitty's in Arizona sits in an industrial park on South Seventh Street, over the viaduct and just north of the dry Salt River channel. In this generic setting on July 13, after everyone had had an opportunity to digest the brutal "reality" of Kwok's article, an improbable meeting took place.
Rankins' death generated such shock in minority circles that Black Muslims, in an unprecedented move, closed ranks with a group it normally ignores, the NAACP, to confront the suits from Smitty's .
Just before the meeting, Phoenix Police Chief Rubin Ortega phoned Smitty's lawyer Stan English.
"He was pretty upset about the article," recalled English. "He said this witness [Hess] is not a true witness. Ortega said `We told the reporter to be very careful. We haven't talked to the guy. We don't know if he's legitimate. You can do a lot of damage if you publish this story.'"