Trainspotting

Nearly three years after Amtrak's Sunset Limited was sabotaged near Buckeye, firefighters who rode to the rescue remain on the FBI's list of suspects

Hurley is a gung ho sort. He's 30 years old, of average height, with a doughy build and a fireman's mustache, and on first meeting he seems so nerdily sincere that he could be the basis for a character played by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live. He doesn't swear. He wants nothing more than to be a fireman, and he's got reams of certification papers and membership cards--sheriff's posse, search and rescue certification--to prove it.

"I'll tell you this about Steve Hurley," his former Tonopah chief, Steve Mills, says now, "He's one of the best emergency medical technicians I've ever seen."

Mills once watched Hurley heroically resuscitating a cardiac victim in the sleep compartment of an 18-wheeler on I-10.

"I always admired Hurley," Mills continues. "He always had confidence when he went to work on somebody."

But Hurley also had a dark side that got him booted from at least three other Valley departments, a drug habit and a penchant for abusing the truth.

"He's a fucking idiot," one chief said, asking not to be identified. "I think he's a psychopath."

He'd been fired from Rural/Metro in 1986. A year later, he sued Rural/Metro and the Phoenix Fire Department, alleging that they had called him an arsonist and ruined his reputation. He lost the suit because he couldn't prove the accusation had ever been made.

He'd been in criminal court as well. In 1989, a former girlfriend accused him of sexual assault, and whether he was guilty was not determined because he was acquitted on a technicality. Then in 1994 he was convicted of forging prescriptions for painkillers.

He first heard he was a suspect in the derailment in November 1995, when a New Times reporter contacted him.

"The FBI is nowhere in the case," he said at that time. "I've been a fireman for 13 years now, so I've done arson investigation myself. You know what they call 'helpful arsonist syndrome'? It's an arsonist who sets fires and wants to be there to help. Well, they're going the same way on this train accident--it's something any good investigator would [do]."

He spoke with confidence. A few days later, facing Channel 15 TV cameras, he looked more like a deer in the headlights than a terrorist.

Though he apparently washed out of the FBI's investigation, in short order he lost his job.

"Basically after that incident, my name was mud, and they were looking to get rid of me anyway because I was such a hot potato."

Then he dropped from sight, and even the branch of the state Department of Health Services that regulates emergency workers couldn't find him to question him about his drug conviction.

He recently resurfaced, with an alibi that has been polished during the last two and a half years.

"I was working the night of the Amtrak train wreck," he says. "So unless I disappeared for three hours or drove the fire truck down there and ordered the guys to look the other way, there's no way I could have did it."

The FBI kept agents on the case full-time without leaking many clues about what they did or didn't find. A month shy of the second anniversary of the derailment, they slipped up and revealed that they still had firefighters on the short list of suspects.

On September 2, 1997, at the close of a business day, a distracted secretary at FBI offices in Phoenix put a memo in the fax machine. It was from Special Agent Gary Woodlin, the agent in charge of "Splitrail," to Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Jarosz. Instead the secretary pushed the automatic dialing button that sent the fax to the media.

The memo turned up in the news the next day and rattled those firefighters who had returned to lives of quiet desperation, thinking they were free from federal scrutiny.

"For information purposes, the Phoenix Division has developed an additional suspect in the SPLITRAIL investigation by the name of Steven Albert Mills," the memo began.

In passing, it named Captain Steve Hurley, Bill Ballard, the former assistant chief, and a Tonopah garage owner named Allan Gustafson, who had been a Tonopah Valley volunteer and member of the department's governing board. (Gustafson refused to talk to New Times.) And without elaborating on details, the memo went on to say that Mills suspected that another Tonopah captain named Larry Leforte was somehow involved in the crime.

Except for Spinner, that covered the entire full-time staff of the Tonopah department and one of its volunteers, though it's hard enough to imagine the former Tonopah Fire Department working together well enough to put out a fire, let alone sabotage a passenger train and keep quiet about it.

Mills, 47, has short, dark hair and mustache and a middle-age paunch. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and speaks with a Southern accent. He comes from North Carolina; sometime after the wreck, he moved back there, but has recently returned to live in Buckeye.

He was hired by the Tonopah Fire board to start up the department in the spring of 1995, and never really hit it off with his employees. In fact, he lasted in the job for only a few months and had been gone just 18 days when the Amtrak train was derailed.

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