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By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
One of Arizona's largest commercial-rafting operations is up the Salt River without a paddle--or any other equipment for that matter.
Salt River Rafting, which is based in Tempe, has had its river-running permits yanked by the White Mountain Apache Tribe and by the Tonto National Forest. And the company's owner, Clay Baldwin, is the subject of an FBI investigation into his business dealings with the San Carlos Apache Tribe, which shares a border with the White Mountain Apache Tribe--the Salt River.
Although the investigation began nine months ago, neither the San Carlos tribe nor the FBI will disclose its nature. Former Salt River Rafting employees and business associates who have been questioned by the FBI say it relates to misappropriation of funds and other fraud, and possibly with trafficking in Indian artifacts.
"I've been accused of everything," says Baldwin, a bearded bear of a man in his 30s. "Keeping indentured slaves, driving people to kill themselves, stealing money, stealing artifacts, child abuse. It's all just vague stuff."
But that hearsay has spread through the rafting-and-adventure-outfitting community like gasoline on water. Baldwin's had rafts of problems with the U.S. Forest Service and a record of floating bad checks. But no charges have been filed against Baldwin, nor has the San Carlos tribe so much as hinted at his alleged offenses. Yet that did not stop the tribe from confiscating the bulk of Baldwin's assets.
According to officials at the White Mountain Apache Wildlife and Outdoor Recreation Department, about 10,000 people set out from its shores each year on commercial-raft trips that can cost anywhere from $50 to $225.
Salt River Rafting was the first of commercial companies launched in 1975 by Baldwin's father. Clay Baldwin took over the business in 1987 and built it to a point where he was taking 4,000 people down the river each spring, grossing up to $400,000 a year. He ended up broke, anyway.
And he continued the family tradition of noncompliance with the Forest Service.
"I was not the most cooperative person," he admits. "I would do whatever they asked me to do, but they usually had to ask me twice."
In January 1994, Baldwin entered into a joint venture with the San Carlos Apache Tribe to renovate and manage the Seneca Lake Recreation Area on the San Carlos Reservation. The site consists of 1,200 acres of rolling, grassy meadows and juniper woodlands along Route 60, five minutes south of the Salt River Canyon bridge where commercial-rafting companies put their rafts on the water. There's a general store on the property, a lodge with a commercial kitchen, five cabins, a fishing lake and 150 campsites. The recreation area was originally built and run by Greyhound Bus Lines, but had been boarded up for more than a decade when Baldwin approached the tribe in 1992.
Baldwin thought he could turn a dollar on the resort, and, in his enthusiasm, thought he could add 50 miles of mountain-bike trails and rig the cliffs, which overlook the canyon and a breathtaking waterfall, for rock climbers.
The joint-venture contract stipulated that Baldwin and the tribe would split the profits 50-50. Baldwin was supposed to put at least $250,000 in cash, equipment and in-kind services into the property over the first three years, and the tribe would provide additional capital as needed. Baldwin asserts that he put up more than $200,000 in cash and another $100,000 in in-kind services, and that the tribe had only put up about $80,000. None of which is verifiable because, as Baldwin puts it, "Paperwork has not been my strong suit."
And creative paperwork lies at the heart of the FBI investigation.
Baldwin blames his FBI troubles on Rob Bond, a former employee who managed the Seneca Lake resort and who has since started his own rafting company.
Bond refused to comment; he reportedly accused Baldwin of adding names and hours to payroll invoices to be paid by the tribe and of misappropriating funds earmarked for specific uses, such as repairs.
Certainly, Baldwin has a history of mishandling money. A review of Maricopa County court records shows liens filed against his income for nonpayment of unemployment taxes, plus an assortment of lawsuits over unpaid bills and bad checks. Both the Forest Service and the White Mountain Apache Tribe have leaned on Baldwin to cover bounced checks and for late payment of fees.
"Clay is as bad a person as I've ever seen as far as bookkeeping," says Charlie Lutz, a Tucson travel agent who books clients for Salt River Rafting. "He is like a dumb blonde; when he wants to pay off a bill or write a check, he just writes the damn thing. And he has historically let other people [who work for him] cover his ass, scrounge around, get the money in the bank."
An adventure-travel outfitter who used to do business with Baldwin says, "Clay ignores a lot of details and figures they'll take care of themselves. And then one day he looks over his shoulder and someone's going to bite him in the ass."
The tidal wave hit Seneca when a domestic dispute involving a Native American employee who lived on the property turned into an armed stand-off with tribal police. The employee shot himself in the head, suffering considerable brain damage.