By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
This mystery begins with the five known, credible witnesses to a car crash. The scene was north Phoenix. The time was 1:43 in the morning.
Robert Nettles was on his back patio, facing Cactus Road, when he heard the chilling scream of tires on pavement. Nettles told police he looked east and saw a green car, sliding sideways, going too fast for a happy ending. Nettles watched as the car struck, hopped and flew down a curb, then hit a mesquite tree and flipped over.
Carl Jones was driving westbound on Cactus Road at 50 mph, when two cars blew past him. Jones stopped for a red light at 24th Street. He told police he saw the cars swerving toward one another, then he saw the car in the curb lane slide sideways, hit a tree, and flip over. Jones said the other car stopped for a moment, then fled west on Cactus.
Aimee Nichols and Lorie Spellman were leaving T's Billiards, on the southeast corner of Cactus and Cave Creek. Nichols was driving. She looked east as she turned out of the parking lot and saw two vehicles racing toward her on Cactus--a green car in the curb lane, and a white car beside it, in the center. She saw the green car slide sideways, hit a tree, and flip over.
She drove toward the accident, and saw three people jumbled inside the overturned green car. The white car, which had a black pinstripe down the side, passed them going the other way. Spellman saw a Hispanic male driving and a Hispanic male in the passenger seat.
After studying tire residue and curb strikes, police estimated that the green car--a four-door, 1995 Hyundai Accent--was traveling at least 86 miles per hour before it bounced up and onto the curb of a median dividing Cactus from a residential access road. The speed limit on Cactus is 40.
Once the Hyundai was on the median, the driver was helpless, like a skateboarder sliding down a rail, one set of wheels on either side. The car hit the mesquite tree driver's door first. The collision destroyed the tree, and the Hyundai.
"Contact damage started approximately 6'4" back of the left front corner," Phoenix police detective Donald Ripley wrote in the accident report. "There was approximately 45 [inches] of penetration into the driver's compartment of the vehicle."
The driver was Dana Wells, 21, beloved son, and the fifth credible witness. Presuming that once the vehicle he was driving began careening down the median, Wells looked in his direction of movement, he saw the mesquite, then oblivion. The impact killed him in a snap.
What Wells witnessed in the last minutes of life is a question that has taunted investigators and tortured his family since the night he died: August 16, 1996.
His parents believe Wells was murdered, for no good reason, the victim of a botched attempt by gang members to kill or frighten his two passengers, Shawn Thomas, then 21, and Miles Graci, then 20, both of whom survived the wreck.
After the wreck, Thomas and Graci claimed--and continue to claim, even under oath--simultaneous amnesia.
Both say they can't remember the accident, or why and how it happened. Their blackouts begin at precisely the same moment--as they come out of a bar after playing pool, 30 minutes before Wells died.
Dana Wells' mother, Gloria Cavalera, has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Shawn Thomas and Miles Graci, and the teenager she believes was driving the white car, which might have been light blue.
The deposition of the alleged driver of the white car--and of a teen he says was in the passenger seat--became a seminar on hostile witnesses and conflicting testimony.
A police investigation of the accident remains open, but not active.
The official report states: "On 8-16-96 at approximately 0143 hours, Dana Wells was driving a 1995 Hyundai westbound on Cactus when, for reasons unknown, he lost control of the vehicle and collided into a tree."
Gloria Cavalera wants the reasons known.
"The last thing I can give my son is the truth," she says.
The marble slab lies in close-cropped grass, near a lake with swans.
Cristina Newport crosses herself, then kneels down to kiss a picture of her half-brother, younger by four years. Cut in stone near the embossed photo is a famous line of lyrics Wells penned for the speed-metal anthem "Attitude" recorded on the 1995 gold album Roots by his stepfather's band Sepultura:
"Live your life not how they taught you/Do what you feel."
The lyric is credited to "D-Low." Wells got the nickname from his penchant for C-Low, an East Coast variation of the dice game craps. His grave is surrounded with figurines, votive candles and decorative boxes full of trinkets, talismans and memorial notes.
Wells' friends visit his grave weekly, to party, meditate and roll dice.
"You want to know how good Dana was?" says Mark Corona, 24, one of his best friends. "Dana was even nice to the fat, ugly girls in high school. Most guys aren't close to that good."
Wells loved aggressive music--Sepultura, the Deftones, Clutch, Biohazard--and liked to stage dive, but his friends and family all say those tastes are misleading. Wells was mellow to the point where one word becomes two, as in mell-oooow, dude.