By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
THE HEAVILY TRAVELED highway from Phoenix to Las Vegas has often been called Blood Alley" because of its high number of deadly accidents.
These days, however, if you're in a gambling mood, there's another route to the action.
You start out the same way, northwest on Route 93, the Vegas Highway, but right after you leave sleepy Kingman, you turn left onto Highway 68. It looks as if you're heading nowhere.
Pretty soon you're in a shallow, scrubby depression surrounded by haphazardly placed mobile homes. The twin centers of this almost-town are nothing more than the King Tut and Maverick minimarkets. Off to the south is a peak called Mount Nutt. The place is known as Golden Valley, though that name appears on few state maps. Highway 68, which is under constant construction, winds through the Black Mountains until, suddenly, the Colorado River appears. On the far riverbank, in Nevada, is a startling eruption of hotel-casinos clustered around a power plant. That's Laughlin, the fastest-growing gambling town in America, a mecca for snowbird slot-machine players.
Most motorists drive immediately across the bridge and start gambling. They don't pay much attention to the Arizona side of the river. That's Bullhead City, which is Laughlin's bedroom community and Arizona's current boom town.
Gambling, of course, is illegal on the Arizona side, but plenty of people have flocked to Bullhead City to change their fortune.
In the case of a young woman named Dawna Straus, who sought only safety from Los Angeles violence, her luck ran out almost as soon as she got to town.
Then there are those people who have had time to test their fate. Fortune has smiled on ex-Phoenix news hound Verne Peyser, who has resuscitated his career. Political gadfly Roy Rick, on the other hand, has earned himself little but a reputation in some quarters as Bullhead's most bullheaded resident. Hopelessly enmeshed in Rick's lost causes is Bernie Lumbert, a chronic carrier of bad news who can't figure out why he seems to bring bad luck to everyone else.
When you pull the lever in Bullhead, don't expect to get four of a kind.
SEVEN MONTHS PREGNANT, Dawna Straus was walking through her living room one evening last October when she bent over to look into a bag of Christmas decorations.
She heard a bang. She looked down at herself and saw a hole in her chest.
Dawna Straus had just become the unluckiest person in town.
Only two months earlier, the 29-year-old woman had moved to Bullhead City to escape the gang violence of Southern California. Dawna says she and her construction-worker husband, Art, were scared of the drive-by shootings happening all around their Long Beach home. Dawna's mother and stepfather, Sherrie and Tom Rogers, had retired to Bullhead City. The family is close-knit, so that's where Dawna, Art and their two children headed.
What happened when the Strauses got to Bullhead? A stray bullet, apparently fired aimlessly from across the street, ripped through a wall of the Straus mobile home and smacked into Dawna.
Because she was bent over when hit, the bullet carved a channel through her body, wrecking her innards before lodging in her lower back.
She survived. But the baby growing inside her didn't.
We think this was a freak accident," says Tom Rogers. We're hoping it's a freak accident, although there's some doubt as to how a bullet that could have gone in one million directions could have done this."
That October night, when Dawna Straus collapsed on the living-room floor and started bleeding, her husband, Art, raced across the street to a neighbor's trailer to use the telephone. His neighbor was shaking, so Art had to dial for help.
A couple of days later, the neighbor, a casino cook named Jim Don Erwin, 56, was arrested and charged with one count of aggravated assault and two counts of felony endangerment. Erwin has pleaded innocent; his trial tentatively is scheduled for the end of this month.
That Dawna Straus didn't bleed to death is a miracle. The bullet passed through her aorta before ravaging her liver. The family credits the skill of the emergency-room doctors at the Bullhead City hospital; it turns out that the doctors were Vietnam vets and had seen lots of gunshot wounds.
Dawna Straus spent several weeks in a morphine haze in Las Vegas while surgeons repaired her. Her 7-month-old fetus did not even survive the ambulance ride to Vegas. The family says Dawna's drastic drop in blood pressure meant doom for the fetus, and it was removed. The fetus was cremated as Monica Wanda Straus.
We never use the word `fetus,'" says Tom Rogers. We say, `baby, baby, baby.'"
This family is a long way from recovery. Family members are angry that, because Monica Wanda was still a fetus, Arizona law does not recognize this as a homicide. It could have been considered a homicide, they say, if it had happened across the river in Nevada or California.
Tom Rogers and Art Straus have pointed out in a letter to Mohave County officials that there are Arizona laws preventing the killing of elk out of season but that there is an open season on little baby girls."
The timing of this tragedy was bitter. The day before the shooting, Dawna Straus had traveled back to Long Beach for an ultrasound reading.
As Tom Rogers says, That ultrasound is the only picture the family will see, as we are denied the ability to take future birthday and Christmas photos of her at our local K mart."
Dawna Straus remains stunned at what has happened. Sick of the nightly drone of police helicopters over her Long Beach home, she came to Bullhead to escape the random violence of big cities.
Tom Rogers says he and Dawna's mom had moved to Bullhead for the same reason: To get away from the cesspool." Rogers adds, But let's get factual. I'm retired. If I still had to make an income, I'd be in L.A. or Phoenix. I'm here only because I had the ability to escape the crime. This is all poverty-wage income. You don't come here to get a job. You come here to retire or to get into a community where you're not fearful."
Despite what happened, the clan apparently will stay put. Dawna intends to stay here and so does the rest of the family, because we do like Bullhead," says Rogers. Freak, freak acts do occur."
But the anger remains. Still recuperating at her mom and stepdad's home in Bullhead, Dawna has to wear an ostomy bag while her liver regenerates. Not all of her bile drains into that bag.
I'm very, very angry," she says during a mid-December interview. I would be having a baby in less than ten days from now. A little girl. She was cremated and neither my husband nor I ever saw her."
The sight everyone remembers is Dawna Straus strapped to her hospital bed and hooked up to tubes and a roomful of machinery.
They had to tie her down," recalls her mom, Sherrie Rogers. First, it was because she kept pulling her tubes out. Then, when she stopped pulling her tubes out, she kept crawling out of bed. But she still had IVs in her and they had to tie her down again. Being on the morphine, she didn't understand. She couldn't comprehend what was going on. She just knew she was tied to that bed."
Tom Rogers adds, That's your lovely daughter you're looking at. It's quite frightening."
As she recovered from her wounds and operations, Dawna Straus continued to be sick. Doctors concluded that it was a case of hospital virus" from which she wouldn't recover until she went home.
Now that she's home and better, however, her toddler son, Austin, doesn't recognize her. He calls her sister-mom." Dawna Straus lost 60 pounds while in the hospital. She's having a difficult time getting used to her radically different appearance.
The whole family seems to feel a void.
Dawna will live," says Tom Rogers. Dawna might have other children. She might forget most of this. But she'll never forget that she lost the baby.
That baby was stolen from me, her mother and the whole family, not just Dawna and her husband. When you're a close family and your life centers around grandchildren, that's a major loss. And in the state of Arizona, it doesn't exist."
Dawna still can feel the bullet in her back. Doctors haven't removed it, but she says she would allow them to do so if prosecutors need it for evidence.
Her laconic demeanor doesn't mask the bitterness. I'm just concentrating on being alive," she says. I just think about being here. That I'm here. Looking at the kids, my husband. Thinking about what it would have been like for them if I hadn't survived. Helps me go forward."
THERE ARE OTHER REASONS than safety for moving to Bullhead City.
It just happened to be the next stop for Verne Peyser, who has worked on newspapers since the Ice Age.
Peyser, a wizened, chain-smoking editor who's proud of being from the old school-not journalism school-was a key player a decade ago when noted military pilot Duke Tully was the highflying publisher of the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette. Phoenix was booming, and The Pize," seemingly a fixture as boss of the Republic's suburban staff, hired scads of reporters-many of whom still work there.
Then, in the mid-Eighties, Duke Tully was unmasked as a phony. He had never been a pilot in any war. He'd never even been in the military. Tully left Phoenix in disgrace, and Peyser, a Tully man, wound up working for him in the little burg of Ojai, California.
But that, too, ended, and in April 1990, the peripatetic Peyser found himself in Bullhead City, and editor of a little rag called the Booster.
Fortune is now smiling upon Peyser. While daily newspapers around the country are folding, Pize has helped transform the weekly Booster into a daily newspaper called the Mohave Valley News. Circulation is climbing. And there's even newspaper competition. Another newspaper in town, the Bee, also is expanding.
Pize gets to hire people and make like an old-time news hound. He's old enough to be a snowbird, but since he'll never retire, that label doesn't apply.
Once again, he bosses reporters in an Arizona boom town.
It's a blast!" says the leathery Peyser, looking around his bustling newsroom. I practically live in this place. I don't mind it."
The area around him never sleeps, either. On the Nevada side of the river, Don Laughlin built the first casino in 1966, when the only hot thing in the area was the blistering heat itself.
But more and more casinos opened, and more and more snowbirds drove here. Bullhead City housed the casinos' employees, and snowbirds joined them. Construction jobs became plentiful.
A few years ago, Don Laughlin built a bridge across the river, ensuring Bullhead City's boom. Now that Laughlin has financed the construction of a runway directly across from his casino, the area is accessible by jet. In the Sixties, only a handful of people lived in Bullhead; the current estimate is 30,000-not counting the gamblers.
The recession? It hasn't hit here. Laughlin's casinos raked in $113.8 million during the first three months of this fiscal year-a 15 percent increase from the same period the previous year. (Meanwhile, the casino haul in Vegas and Reno declined slightly.)
Laughlin is not Vegas. Card Player Magazine columnist Nathan Chicago recently described it as a family gambling resort-if any place can be so described."
The town brings to mind the tee shirt for snowbirds that announces, We're spending our grandchildren's inheritance." They are.
There are more than 10,000 slot machines in Laughlin. One estimate is that, unlike the other gambling meccas, 78 percent of the Laughlin casinos' revenue is from slot machines. And 70 percent of that take is from the low-priced slots-the ones that swallow only nickels or quarters.
Gamblers call it a place for low rollers."
TEN THOUSAND slot machines notwithstanding, some people across the river in Arizona insist that the real bandits are over at Bullhead City Hall.
While the casinos are packed with elderly people grimly pouring small change into someone else's piggy banks, there's one retiree who's engaged in even more futile acts.
Bullhead City (named after a rock that's now submerged) was incorporated in 1984, and, since its very first council meeting, it's been hounded by a California retiree named Roy Rick.
He says he loves constitutional" government and hates commissions. See, I don't trust commissions," says Roy Rick, now 77. I'd like you to tell me one commission that you know of that has served anything but itself."
The city's politics have always been tumultuous-it's a new place that's growing fast, and such basic services as paved streets and garbage pickup still are huge problems. Bullhead City has endured recall elections and a parade of city managers.
But no public official in town seems safe from Roy Rick's wrath. He wants everybody recalled. The city and Roy Rick currently are ensnarled in a battle over Rick's allegation that he was unjustly arrested last year.
If you're a public official around here, you've probably had to listen to Roy Rick or look at the enormous paperwork he's generated. There's no question in Mr. Rick's eyes that I'm the Great Satan of Bullhead City," says city attorney Paul Lenkowsky, actually a graduate of the University of Arizona law school.
Some of Roy Rick's targets speak of his lengthy laundry list" of supposed culprits. It's an unwitting pun. Roy Rick even has a conspiracy theory that revolves around washing-machine bacteria. After all, he is a retired appliance dealer.
The odds of Roy Rick ousting the rascals" range from zero to nothing. His kamikaze approach currently includes a lawsuit against the State Bar of Arizona in which he maligns several members of the Arizona Bar.
Roy Rick claims the government took him prisoner" in February 1991. Some people say it's the other way around, pointing to Rick's constant anger, as expressed through a torrent of venomous memoranda and other missives aimed at various officials' actions and characters.
In a former life, Roy Rick ran an appliance store in the San Fernando Valley for 34 years. He recalls his business as a nice place with a balcony where he says he used to drink coffee and chew the fat with noted conservatives.
And from 1945 to 1974, Roy Rick says, he never missed a utility hearing in Los Angeles. Why? I was in the appliance business and the gas company was stealing my business," he says.
Ma Bell" is the real villain in his conspiratorial view, which starts with the problem of faulty drainage in the laundry room.
Your washing machine never empties," Roy Rick explains. It has a perforated tub and so it's filling an outer `sanitary drum,' as it's called. I call it a waste drum, sewer drum. Once you've taken any kind of disease home and planted it in that washing machine, it never leaves. It's always got bacteria to start growing."
And the drainage problem leads to overflows and even electrocutions when unsuspecting people walk into flooded rooms to turn off the water to their washing machines.
In the early Seventies, Roy Rick and his wife moved to Bullhead City and used it as their home base in traveling around the country in a 28-foot-long Travel Queen RV. I said back then," he recalls, no matter how crooked these real estate people were, this was going to be the greatest place in the United States."
All he's ever wanted to do, he says, is exercise his right to redress government." Now, though, he claims to be ready to move back to California because he's living in fear" of the government.
Public input is worthless in this city," he says. If this is what's going on all over the United States, you and I better start worrying about it. We'd better hope a few Madisons and a few Monroes show up."
So far, however, only a Lumbert has appeared on Rick's behalf.
I'M 60 YEARS OLD, I have terminal cancer and I'm deadly accurate!" says chronic tipster Bernie Lumbert. After the millionth telephone call, however, reporters tend to hang up on him.
Lumbert recalls one such case: $100 million in land not on the assessment rolls-big story! The reporter agrees it's a big story. And he says, `Who is this?' I say, `Bernie Lumbert.' `Bye, Bernie.' Click. Is my credibility that low?"
Bernie Lumbert never waits for answers. His own answer? Yes. Lumbert says he's convinced, to his own sorrow, that once he gets involved in an issue, people quit taking the issue seriously.
Roy Rick's a classic case," Lumbert says. Had it not been for me, he probably would have been a free man! He never would have been taken prisoner!"
Bernie Lumbert, who briefly ran for Arizona attorney general in the last Republican primary, seems to like trouble. To hear him tell it, that's why he moved to Golden Valley, that sizable cluster of unincorporated territory midway between Bullhead and Kingman. He says the only reason Golden Valley isn't on most state maps is that he lives there.
Why does he live there? It was deliberate," he says. I wanted to be where the action was. I came because I wanted the crookedest valley I could find, and this is it."
He says he bought his trailer for $1,200. It looks it. During one chilly evening last month, only the conversation was warm. Seems that Bernie Lumbert hadn't paid his propane bill. He says the county's trying to kick him out because his trailer's not legally hooked up. In the meantime, he even has to haul water inside.
Once or twice a week, he says, he takes his wife to one of the Laughlin hotels so they can shower.
The permanently peeved Lumbert lives like a person under siege. People perceive me as paranoid and irrational," he says, but I'm pragmatic."
He spends quite a bit of his time roaming around Bullhead City, taking up issues like Roy Rick's cause, whatever it is.
Rick's my beautiful dear friend," says Lumbert. He's so strange, but he's got a heart of pure gold. Such a beautiful heart. The sad thing is that Rick really has a story! A real story!"
THE FALAFEL TRUTH ... v1-22-92