By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Although William Kenneth "Taz" Stoner told the Los Angeles Times that he dynamited the Salt River's Quartzite Falls to save lives, U.S. Forest Service documents suggest that Stoner had more self-serving motives, as well: Quartzite Falls was an obstruction in the flow of Stoner's weekend job as a river guide.
The documents reveal that Stoner had a reputation for jumping ahead of other rafting groups at Quartzite Falls, a nasty spot of white water that caused a bottleneck.
On December 2, Stoner pleaded guilty to one count of destruction of federal property by means of an explosive. Stoner, 34, and his seven accomplices--Richard Scott; James Lewus; William Kelley; Christopher, Mark and Michael Meehl; and Stephen Cortwright--had hiked and floated into Quartzite Falls to try to level it and lessen its hazards.
"I kinda knew we were doing something wrong," Stoner told the L.A. Times. "But I had no idea it was a felony. I had no idea you could go to jail for it."
Though the demolition could have earned him a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, Stoner reportedly has bargained for a jail term of no more than 18 months; he will be sentenced in late January.
After he entered his guilty plea, Stoner found a newspaper willing to print his destruction-for-the-public-good premise. While reading his version of the story, one can almost hear the peasants in the mountains singing folk songs about him.
"We removed a rock, we didn't obliterate a pretty, beautiful waterfall," Stoner told the L.A. Times in an exclusive story published December 12 and reprinted later in the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette. "Sure, this may have taken something away from a very few people who were qualified to run it in its previous condition.
"But we had a purpose that will benefit all people for years to come, and ultimately save lives. And if we're guilty of anything, we're probably guilty of weighing out human life as being worth more than that rock."
In fact, there have been only three documented drownings at the falls--one in 1969 and two in 1993. By comparison, at least two people have died on the trails of Camelback Mountain and Squaw Peak this year alone--a tourist fell to his death on Camelback just two weeks ago--yet no one has threatened to blow up trails.
Quartzite Falls was not the straight-drop waterfall its name implies. Instead, it was a narrow sluice of canyon that funneled the Salt River over a pair of rose-quartz ledges just beneath the surface and created a hydraulic effect that rafters call a "keeper hole." What goes into the whirlpool doesn't come right out, but instead gets bounced and buffeted. If there were few actual drownings, it was because boaters had a healthy fear of death. Commercial river tours would not run Quartzite Falls; instead, they portaged around it or "lined" their boats through the rough water with ropes.
But it was a rock of rages. "There were fistfights at Quartzite," says Patrick Blumm, owner of Desert Voyagers, the rafting company that employed Stoner as a guide. "There were arguments. People got hurt. People drowned there. Quartzite was a problem."
Most rafting companies run the 56-mile length of the Salt River in three days. Desert Voyagers runs it in two weekend days, an attractive alternative for tourists and guides who work 40-hour weeks at other jobs. Stoner, for example, had a day job as a construction engineer for McDonald's; his weekend guiding was more of an avocation--perhaps an identity--than a needed source of income. If the trip took longer than a weekend, it cut into his career.
But rafts making a two-day trip couldn't afford to wait at Quartzite Falls. Stoner was the head guide for the two-day trips, so Quartzite was more than a bottleneck, it was a pain in Stoner's neck.
The Forest Service was skeptical about the specifics of Desert Voyagers' two-day itinerary. "It filled a need," says district ranger Larry Widner, "but it created problems at Quartzite."
Blumm is more blunt, saying the Forest Service "hates" the two-day trips. Blumm contends the Forest Service has been gunning for Desert Voyagers for years.
In a November 1993 letter to Blumm, Widner wrote, "As discussed with you during the last two years, there have been problems at Quartzite caused by your two-day groups jumping ahead of other groups." Unbeknownst to Widner, the falls had already been blown up by that date.
After hearing months of "river talk," Widner had been documenting incidents at Quartzite regarding Desert Voyagers in the event the Forest Service had to step in and end the two-day trips.
On April 11, 1993, after being hung up for five hours waiting for inexperienced rafters to get through the falls, Stoner was still a few miles from his takeout point when night fell. Though regulations for commercial rafters dictate that the guides bivouac for the night in such situations, Stoner decided to push on, and reached shore an hour after dark.
"I chewed his ass out," says Blumm, "but I didn't think it was the end of the world. That section of the river does not present any health hazards. He's not navigating any difficult rapids in the dark."