By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Environmentalist Debbie McQueen was aghast last October when she opened the public file she had obtained from the state Department of Environmental Quality. The file was on Marsh Aviation, a crop-dusting company that had been the subject of numerous McQueen complaints.
Inside the file, McQueen found a handwritten note that stuck out like a weevil on a cotton boll. It read, "Applicator has been shot . . . Debbie McQueen is being investigated by the AG's Office." Flabbergasted, she turned the page and found another handwritten note: "Debbie was investigated as a sabotage suspect."
"Me?" she thought. "I'm the one who complained to the attorney general in the first place."
Yet another page read: ". . . one of Marsh's aerial applicators was shot at while applying pesticides. . . ." And another stated that Rhonda Davis, then an assistant attorney general, was "conducting a criminal investigation." McQueen's thoughts raced back five years, to the extensive meetings she had had with Davis. McQueen had believed Davis was looking into McQueen's allegations that she and her children were illegally sprayed with pesticide outside their Glendale home, possibly by a Marsh helicopter. Now McQueen wondered whether Davis had really been checking out McQueen, a housewife and mother of two boys.
In any case, anyone inspecting the public file could have erroneously inferred that Debbie McQueen was taking pot shots at aircraft. Because she has been a thorn in the side of DEQ and of other state agencies, McQueen became convinced that DEQ was attempting to defame her.
McQueen became a diehard activist in August 1987, after she took her two young boys outside to watch a helicopter hovering in a field near her home. She claims the three were sprayed with a dose of an unknown pesticide. She and her kids developed numerous health problems after the incident. She complained to government officials, but she didn't know who the applicator was, and there were no records that anyone had actually sprayed on the day in question.
So McQueen went looking for the applicator herself, visiting the nearby facilities of Marsh Aviation. There she photographed the company burning what she says were 55-gallon drums of pesticide. She also saw a helicopter similar to the one she claims sprayed her and her kids.
Both DEQ and the attorney general launched investigations. While DEQ later cited Marsh for several violations, including burning the drums, the attorney general began to investigate the spraying incident. McQueen now believes that the attorney general also began to scrutinize her at the same time.
Melody Baker, an environmentalist interviewed by AG investigators at the time, remembers being asked if "I ever knew her [McQueen] to do anything crazy . . . go overboard and react violently."
In March 1988, Al Brown, manager of DEQ's Hazardous Waste Compliance Unit, took notes during a conversation he had with Bill Keane, Marsh Aviation's attorney at the time. Keane told Brown that pilots for Marsh had reported being shot at, and Keane thought the attorney general was investigating the possibility that McQueen was involved. A memo Brown would write later indicates that he confirmed the investigation in a telephone call to Rhonda Davis, the assistant attorney general assigned to the Marsh case.
"I remember talking about it with her, yeah," Brown later told McQueen in a telephone conversation that McQueen taped. "It came up. I don't think she was hot on your trail. But she had to consider it."
The Attorney General's Office denies ever investigating McQueen. Davis, who has left the agency, tells New Times she can't recall whether she investigated McQueen.
Brown kept the notes of his conversations with Keane and Davis, placing them in a confidential file, accessible only to department employees. Brown says he kept the notes because he had "no way of knowing if the Keane allegations were accurate or if they would have some impact on ADEQ's case against Marsh."
In August 1989, after McQueen watched DEQ grant Marsh Aviation numerous extensions to comply with environmental regulations, she blasted Brown in a letter to then-DEQ director Gerald Teletzke, who asked for Brown's assessment of the case.
Brown compiled a summary, again making reference in his notes to an Attorney General's Office investigation of McQueen. Brown hadn't checked to see where the probe stood, but he placed the new notes with the others in the confidential file. In the summary he provided to Teletzke, Brown said McQueen's letters were "threatening, insulting and clearly indicative of her distrust for government."
Brown was later transferred out of the Hazardous Waste Compliance Unit. And in spring 1992, DEQ moved to its current headquarters on Central Avenue. It was during the move, current DEQ director Ed Fox says, that the confidential notes about McQueen made their way to the public Marsh Aviation file, where they were inspected by Marsh's new attorneys (although the spraying case has been closed, the state is investigating Marsh for other, unrelated violations).
When McQueen saw the records, she exploded. "Words cannot describe how violated I feel," she wrote to DEQ. "Trying to cope with the perversity of this government-sponsored witch hunt has induced serious health complications."
She demanded that the records be destroyed and that Brown be punished. The agency balked. Fox determined that no one in the agency had acted maliciously or attempted to defame McQueen's character. "There was never action on the part of anyone in DEQ to get Debbie McQueen," he said. "There was no conspiracy."