By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
The story of the recent murder of a young west Phoenix couple has become an Elmore Leonard novel, with its bounty hunters and police snitches and thieves and aspiring ninjas and murderers and strippers.
On September 13, in the latest chapter, Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley made a jolting announcement: The five men who were charged the week before with second-degree murder for killing 23-year-old Christopher Foote and his girlfriend, 19-year-old Spring Wright, now would be charged with first-degree murder.
Just before dawn on August 31, five men wearing face masks and black paramilitary fatigues had sledgehammered their way into the Foote-Wright home.
First, the intruders entered the guest bedroom and whacked a woman there with a flashlight. Then, one goon held the woman and her three children at gunpoint while the others pounded the bedroom door of Foote and Wright.
Foote shot at the door with a gun he kept by his bed.
The intruders returned fire. Foote and Wright died instantly in their bloody bed linens.
Then the brutes in black ran away.
Michael Sanders and David Brackney, who had worn body armor in the assault but were nevertheless slightly wounded by Foote's bullets, sought treatment at a Maryvale hospital. At the hospital, Sanders and Brackney told police the entire affair was a tragically botched but perfectly legal manhunt. The wounded men and their co-commandos were bounty hunters in search of a bail jumper whom they mistakenly assumed was in the Foote-Wright house. When Foote fired at them, they said, they had no choice but to shoot back in self-defense.
Phoenix police didn't swallow the story. Sanders and Brackney were arrested and booked on second-degree-murder charges. Then the Phoenix cops arrested three more men: Sanders' brother-in-law Brian Robbins, David Brackney's son Matthew Brackney, and Ronald Timms. They, too, were charged with second-degree murder.
And then the second-degree-murder charges were upgraded by Romley. The county attorney asserted that Sanders and his gang of aspiring samurais weren't really bounty hunting that night, they were committing a robbery.
The bounty hunting had just been a ruse, Romley said, but he wouldn't explain further. Which leaves us all wondering: What were these five potbellied goofs in Bruce Lee garb trying to steal--drugs, money?
Or were they out to kill someone in the house?
From the very beginning, the assassination of Foote and Wright caused a public commotion. The apparent ringleader, Michael Sanders, an embittered white-trash criminal, became the focus of the fuss. For years he had kept himself out of jail by being a police snitch, first committing crimes, then earning kid-glove treatment by ratting on his accomplices. Defense attorneys hollered that the Phoenix cops and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office were wrong to protect such felonious snitches. Of course, the defense attorneys neatly forgot to mention that it's only natural for them to jump on the cops for coddling informants. It's the defense's job to disparage the credibility of informants who wind up testifying against their clients.
In the midst of all that, State Senator John Kaites led a public outcry for bounty-hunter regulation, even though these guys weren't really bounty hunting.
Everyone seemed to miss the point. It's not that there's something unusual about cops using cretins like Sanders to help solve crimes. After all, they have a working knowledge of the trade.
Police and prosecutors use snitches out of necessity.
But the problem arises when the cops protect informants and use them when they really don't need them, when the crime could be solved without them. In these instances, it's almost as if the cops forget what side the informants are on. Good cops know the relationship is a sensitive one. They need these guys, and sometimes it's only natural to waffle a bit when it comes to choosing between protecting the snitch or enforcing the law.
Glendale police seem to have found themselves in exactly that fuzzy area with the home-invasion ringleader Sanders back in early 1995.
Simply put, the Glendale police protected Sanders by not thoroughly investigating him for his role in Glendale's most notorious crime: the robbery of a Wells Fargo van and the horrible murder of the driver.
Court records show that the Glendale cops did not act on leads from James Gonzales, a former bounty hunter who implicated Sanders in the Wells Fargo robbery. Gonzales was not a typical snitch--he had had a clean record and had recently retired from the Border Patrol. Gonzales told Glendale police that on bounty-hunting sorties, he'd heard Sanders plan the Wells Fargo robbery. He offered to testify about it.
Instead of investigating Sanders, police brought him into their circle. They used him as a snitch. They protected him by ignoring that Sanders had lied about his alibi. And when they got a videotape of a witness who saw a man who looked like Sanders speeding by in the armored car, they didn't log it into evidence.
Michael Martin Sanders was 24 and a prison guard in Texas when he committed his first big crime in 1981. Even then, Corrections Officer Sanders was bitter--he didn't think he was earning the kind of money a man of his intelligence and talent deserved. His big mistake: He tried to befriend an inmate. The prisoner later told authorities the gasbag prison guard tried to involve him in a stupid plot to rob a country-western bar, that Sanders claimed he was going to kill a snitch for money, that Sanders planned to help a prisoner escape.