By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
By New Times
Police reports, interviews with Boys Ranch employees and documents and information obtained by McDonald's investigators give a detailed picture of what happened last June 27 in a remote section of the Sonoran Desert 15 miles north of Florence.
Shortly after 11:15 a.m., Boys Ranch employees Michael Graham, 49, and Charles Fleishman, 42, along with prospective employee John Goldsmith, 44, piled into Graham's Ford LTD at the Boys Ranch's main campus in Queen Creek.
The men drove across the campus to a cottage and picked up Lorenzo Johnson, who was to be transported to another ranch facility in Oracle. Graham, with seven months' experience at the ranch, barely knew Fleishman, a 14-year employee.
Neither man had met Goldsmith, who was visiting from San Diego, prior to that morning. And none of the men had had previous contact with Johnson. All four would soon experience a horrifying afternoon when one life was saved--and one lost.
Johnson, wearing boots without shoelaces and a yellow Boys Ranch tee shirt, which signified that he had broken a ranch rule, sat in the rear seat behind Graham, the driver. Fleishman sat next to Johnson. Goldsmith joined Graham in the front seat for the 90-minute drive south to Oracle.
A door lock, which could not be operated from the back seat, was engaged to keep Johnson, who had a long history of running away from family, relatives and foster homes, inside the car. And ranch employees had reason to believe he might try to run.
Johnson was being transported to Oracle to work in the camp's Civilian Conservation Corps. The transfer was a demotion for Johnson. He was being punished for twice having fled a ranch honor camp west of Flagstaff a few days earlier. He voluntarily returned from the second escape after spending two days on the lam.
A few minutes after leaving the Boys Ranch camp in Queen Creek, Johnson indicated he needed to use a rest room. Fleishman asked Johnson whether he could wait until they got to Florence, approximately 15 minutes down the road.
Johnson said he could not. Graham pulled off the paved road and drove three-tenths of a mile down a dirt road. Fleishman and Johnson got out of the car, and Fleishman allowed the boy to walk behind a nearby desert shrub.
Fleishman stood about 15 feet away while the boy defecated. Graham and Goldsmith remained in the vehicle, with Graham monitoring Johnson through a rearview mirror.
Johnson hiked up his jeans, fastened his belt and suddenly ran, scrambling beneath a barbed-wire fence several feet away. The chase was on.
"I really think this was a spur-of-the-moment thing," Fleishman said in an interview last week. "It wasn't something he planned." Johnson began running in a zigzag pattern across the desert, with Fleishman giving chase. Johnson was a little overweight, carrying 160 pounds on his five-foot, four-inch frame, but his youth gave him the advantage over his pursuers in the midday summer heat.
Johnson's flight across the Sonoran Desert was stopped as suddenly as it started. Without warning, Johnson came to what must surely have been a strange sight for someone from rural Mississippi. Stretched across the desert, as far as the eye could see in either direction, was the Central Arizona Project canal.
Johnson ran down a dirt road parallel to the canal, with Fleishman several hundred yards behind. By this time, Goldsmith also was closing in on Johnson. Graham, meanwhile, had driven the car down the dirt road and stopped at a bridge that crossed the canal, blocking Johnson's path.
"We had him cornered," Graham said in an interview last week.
Graham approached to within a couple of feet of Johnson, but the two were separated by a wire fence. Graham is a specialist in crisis intervention. He teaches other Boys Ranch counselors techniques for dealing with juveniles in precisely these types of situations.
But the techniques weren't working.
"He never would really engage with me. He just kept being hostile, being threatening," Graham said.
Johnson halfheartedly threw a couple of rocks, one at Graham and another at Goldsmith. He also tossed a rock into the canal, as if he were trying to determine how deep it was.
"At that point, I said, 'Forget that, kid, nobody can swim in there,'" Graham said.
Everyone was winded and sweating profusely under the summer sun; Graham said he decided to back off a few feet and let Johnson settle down.
Johnson began studying the canal more intently.
The cement banks of the canal were clearly steep, pitched at a 33-degree angle. The width of the canal to the top of the other bank was a daunting 94 feet, with 69 feet of water in between.
The CAP canal, however, can look deceptively shallow and placid.
Goldsmith asked Johnson if he knew how to swim, and Goldsmith understood Johnson to say he did. During their conversation, Fleishman continued moving down the canal path toward Johnson's location.
Suddenly, Johnson ran over a dirt embankment next to the edge of the canal wall and started running at an angle down the treacherous slope.
"I thought it looked like he was gonna try to run underneath the bridge" that crossed the canal in an attempt to bypass the three men, Fleishman told sheriff's investigators.