By Monica Alonzo
By Stephen Lemons
By Jason P. Woodbury
By Dulce Paloma Baltazar Pedraza
By Ray Stern
By Pete Kotz
By Monica Alonzo
By New Times
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.
Wells didn't even get his driver's license until he was 19.
"That's the irony here," says Corona. "He was scared to drive, mainly. Guns, too. We'd go camping and he'd be scared to shoot."
Wells had piercings on his face and wore his long hair in dreadlocks, but at 5-foot-8, 120 pounds, he was hardly a menacing presence. From birth, Wells suffered from sciliac disease, which means, among other things, he couldn't drink beer.
After high school--he came a credit shy of graduating--Wells moved to Venice Beach, California, where he started his own street-wear clothing company and worked as a band publicist. He had a great ear for up-and-coming bands, and hoped to break into the music business as a talent scout.
Wells was visiting Phoenix when he got killed, handling business for his mother's entertainment management firm while she and Cristina were on tour with Sepultura.
He didn't own a car. The green Hyundai belonged to his girlfriend of eight months, Kristin Carneal, who still lived in Phoenix.
A recent weekday afternoon found Carneal baby-sitting for Gloria Cavalera in the north Phoenix home where Dana grew up, two minutes by car from where he died.
Carneal was spending the night at the Cavalera home on the night of the wreck. She remembers Shawn Thomas and Miles Graci coming to pick up Dana. She doesn't remember her boyfriend hanging out with them before. She remembers Graci's car wouldn't start, and Dana borrowing hers. Then she remembers Dana coming home sometime after 1 a.m. on August 16. She says he stayed for 10 or 15 minutes, playing a video game with his little brother Richie. She remembers Shawn Thomas in the house. Richie, now 13, remembers going to the bathroom and tripping over a phone cord. He says Thomas was on the phone, holding a scrap of paper.
Carneal recalls: "Dana came into the bedroom and told me, 'I've got to help these guys get home.' I went to sleep, and then the cops were knocking on the door, and that was it--it was over."
Three Phoenix Fire Department units were already there. A crowd of about 20 watched as the firemen worked to extricate the two survivors. One of the firemen told Neverman the driver was dead. Neverman moved the crowd back and strung police tape. Then he looked inside the car and observed:
"The driver hanging/laying upside down in the car. His torso was on the passenger side of the car and his legs were still pinned to the driver's side floorboard. Both front air bags were deployed. I also noticed a 12-pack of Coors beer in the rear passenger area of the car."
The firemen pulled Miles Graci from the car first. Salefsky interviewed him before he was rolled into an ambulance.
"As I spoke with Graci, he seemed coherent and answered my questions about himself," Salefsky wrote. "I did smell a faint odor of alcohol on his breath. An unidentified fireman asked him, 'How much have you had to drink?' Graci replied, 'I don't know.' I then asked him where he was sitting and he told me he was sitting in the front passenger seat. Graci said he had his seat belt on. Graci told me he did not know who was driving."
Both of Graci's legs were broken. He was transported to John C. Lincoln Memorial Hospital.
The firefighters used the "jaws of life" to pry Shawn Thomas from the wrecked Hyundai. It took several minutes, which Thomas spent with Dana Wells' body splayed over him. Witnesses heard Thomas screaming, "Get me out of here." And, "Oh my God, Dana's dead! Dana's dead!"
Thomas was transported to Lincoln Hospital with a broken jaw and facial abrasions.
Dana Wells was pronounced dead at 2:07 a.m.
Twenty minutes later, detective Don Ripley's home phone rang. He was instructed to go to 2300 East Cactus to investigate a traffic fatality.
Ripley got to the scene about 3:10 and documented the damage to the Hyundai. Blood still trickled from Wells' ears. Ripley searched the body, and found a full bottle of beer in a pocket, along with a passport. The photo matched the cut-up face in front of him. Ripley dispatched an officer to the address on the passport, then drove to John C. Lincoln Hospital. Shawn Thomas had already been treated for his injuries.
"I contacted Shawn in the intensive care unit, and he related the following: Shawn was with Dana Wells and Miles Graci at Liguori's bar located on East Indian School Road. Shawn stated they arrived at approximately 11:45 p.m. and stayed there for approximately one hour. Shawn stated they were headed home. However, he does not remember anything after leaving the parking lot of the bar. End of interview."
Miles Graci was in surgery. Ripley did not question him until the next day. By then, Shawn had already spoken with Miles, and their stories matched. Perfectly. Miles told Ripley he also could remember nothing, starting from the time he got into the car outside Liguori's.
"Pretty good, huh?" Ripley says today. "It's like, 'No, we didn't get together on this.'"
The detective catches the sarcasm in his voice and retreats one step.
"Obviously, I can't say they're lying. It's not uncommon for accident victims to have amnesia. But where does the truth start here? I think that remains a question."
As her son died, Gloria Cavalera's plane was landing at London's Heathrow Airport.
She was on tour with her husband, Max Cavalera, the lead singer and guitarist for Brazilian speed-metal heroes Sepultura, who were booked to play the annual Donnington megafestival. Gloria was Sepultura's manager at the time. Davenport, her eldest daughter, was traveling with the entourage.
The Cavaleras and Davenport made the four-hour drive from Heathrow to Donnington. Sepultura guitarist Andreas Kisser knocked on their hotel room door shortly after they arrived.
"Andreas told me to come out in the hall, and he said, 'I'm sorry to tell you Dana has been in an accident,'" says Gloria. "I said, 'Please don't tell me he's dead.' He got a blank look and said, 'I'm afraid so.' Then I started screaming."
Heavy-metal legend Ozzy Osbourne, also booked to play the festival, lent the Cavaleras his private jet so they could fly home immediately.
Friends and family had already gathered at the house when the aggrieved trio landed. Max Cavalera and Metallica bassist Jason Newsted holed up in Dana's room, making a mix tape for the next day's memorial service. Gloria went to the funeral home to see her son.
"I just--I remember Dana in the coffin," she says. "He was covered in plastic. It's very hard. You don't ever plan on making funeral arrangements for your son."
Cavalera says her son was not close friends with Thomas and Graci. "He never brought them to the house. They were groupies. Sepultura groupies, and therefore Dana groupies." But the three grew up within a mile of one another--Wells and Graci were in the same fourth-grade class at Gold Dust Elementary--and moved within overlapping social circles of youth who shared two common traits: enrollment at Shadow Mountain High in the early Nineties, and a taste for aggressive rock music.
A hurricane of rumors hit those crowds in the wake of the fatal wreck.
"There was all sorts of shit being said, but from what I heard, this much was [consistent]," says Phoenix telemarketer Chris Pekor, 21, who went to Shadow Mountain with Thomas, Graci and Dana Wells. "Either Shawn or Miles or both [were] enemies with someone involved in a drug deal who wasn't paid. After leaving a party that night, they were followed and run off the road, and Shawn and Miles knew who followed them and who ran them off the road, and the amnesia was a con.
"That's what everyone was saying, but no one knew exactly where it was coming from. It was always, 'Oh, so-and-so talked to Shawn at a party, and he told them the whole story.' Or, 'I know so-and-so, and they visited Miles at the hospital, and he told them they were being chased and shot at by these gang guys,' that sort of shit.
"Knowing Shawn and Miles, I tend to think there was something foul about that accident, you know what I'm saying? Unfortunately, Dana had a lot of fake friends who wanted to have a connection to his family, and used him as sort of a person who could hook them up with concert tickets or whatever. Pretty fucking sad, if you ask me."
A month after the wreck, Gloria Cavalera and her daughter Cristina both say they received phone calls from a friend of the family who claimed he had talked to Thomas. The friend said Thomas told him they were chased by two members of a gang known as LCM who mistakenly thought Thomas and Graci had ripped them off in a crack deal. The friend said one of the LCM members went by the name of "Wolfie."
Independent of those tips, in early October 1996, the reporter of this article heard an account of the wreck from a member of Las Victoria Locas, a Tempe gang. This LVL member--who refuses to be identified, for obvious reasons--said he had spoken the day before with members of LCM, a north Phoenix gang.
He said the LCM members told him that two LCM wanna-bes--aspiring gangbangers--had fouled up, big-time, by accidentally killing Dana Wells, the stepson of rock star Max Cavalera.
The story as he heard it was this:
Two white boys burned the LCM in a cocaine deal. Someone in the LCM directed the wanna-bes to put a scare into the white boys. Late at night, the wanna-bes confronted the white boys in a parking lot, and flashed a gun. Wells took off, and the wanna-bes gave chase. They pulled alongside the car driven by Wells, and one of them pointed a pistol. Wells looked over, saw the gun, and swerved to the right, causing his car to spin and crash. Wells died. The two white boys lived. The LCM wanna-bes were blacklisted.
Four Shadow Mountain graduates interviewed for this article refused--out of fear, they said--to even be named as having heard the rumors.
They all heard the stories, but more important, they say, they all knew Thomas and Graci. Corona, McDonald and Demare describe Thomas and Graci as two guys who acted tough, carried guns for show and hung out with "slingers," or drug dealers.
So what was mellow, innocent, nice guy Dana Wells doing in a car with them at 1:43 in the morning?
"Well, we knew these guys from parties and school and shows, and we never had a problem with them or anything," says Corona. "Still, the only reason I can think why Dana would even be with those dudes is all three of us were out of town."
"You know, as hard-ass as they play, Dana dying has still gotta be on their head," says Corona of Thomas and Graci. "I know they know more about what happenened."
Neither Thomas nor Graci has a criminal record. For all the allegations about guns and drugs, authorities have no knowledge that any were present that night. Neither Thomas, Graci, nor their lawyer would comment for this story.
After the accident, Shawn Thomas and Miles Graci collected on Dana Wells' insurance policy--Gloria Cavalera says they got 30 grand each--then sued Allstate, Kristin Carneal's insurance company.
On April 30, 1997, Thomas and Graci gave depositions for their lawsuit. It was the first time either of them were questioned about the accident under oath.
Graci said he called Wells on August 15, 1996.
"I just heard he was in town, so I called, and he just wanted to talk. And then I went over to his house, and we just hung out. That was it."
Graci said he and Wells made plans to go out that night. He said Thomas joined him, and they traveled together to Wells' house in Graci's '85 Pontiac Firebird. He said they hung out at Dana's for about 45 minutes, smoked a joint and decided to go play pool at Liguori's.
Graci said when they tried to leave, his car wouldn't start, so Wells borrowed his girlfriend's Hyundai. He said he couldn't remember what time they arrived at Liguori's, or how long they were there, but said they were still playing pool at 1 a.m., because the bartender said they could stay past closing to finish their game. He said he and Thomas split a pitcher of beer with some girls, and Wells drank one or two drinks, vodka and cranberry juice.
"Before you left Liguori's, did you talk about what you were going--the three of you were going to do after you left Liguori's?" Sinner asked.
Graci said no.
"When you left Liguori's, was Dana driving?"
"Then where did you go?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know where you went after that?"
"That's the last--no, that's the last memory I have."
"Do you have a memory of someone eating some kind of chips or something that had ants in it?"
"As we were leaving Liguori's, we got into the car, and Shawn had a bag of chips he had thrown down on the way to Liguori's. And then on the way out, he thought that he'd take a bite of them again, and there was ants in the bag. He opened up the car door and then ran into Liguori's and asked them to open it up again real quick so he could go in and wash his mouth out, and that's the last thing I remember."
"Where had the chips come from?"
"I don't know."
"Do you recall him coming back and getting into the car from washing his mouth out?"
"What is your very next memory after that?"
"Being inside the car with the paramedics talking to me."
"Have you talked to Shawn about what happened that evening?"
"Yes, I have."
"Has he given you any information about this period of time during which you say you can't remember anything?"
"In thinking back to the time of the accident," Sinner asked, "was there anyone you were in a fight with or anyone who you can think of who would have wanted to hurt you or scare you?"
Allstate Insurance attorney Keith Forsyth took over the questioning.
"Both of your legs had multiple fractures in the accident, true?"
"Did you hit your head in the accident, as far as you know?"
"I have no idea."
"Did anybody ask you in the hospital whether you suffered any amnesia?"
"I don't remember."
"That may look like an ironic answer later. The hospital records as to you indicate that the people at the hospital found you alert and oriented and that they wrote that you did not suffer any amnesia at all, retrograde or antegrade. That means before or after. First, do you know that the records said that?"
"You do, however, have some amnesia?"
"All right. Did you ever speak to a neurologist?"
"Did you ever have any concerns--once you recognized that you had amnesia, did you have any concerns that you might have suffered a head injury?"
"Did I have concerns? No, I wasn't concerned."
Sinner spoke again, asking Graci where he was on the afternoon before the deposition.
Stanley Jerman protested: "What does that have to do with this?"
Sinner kept her attention on Graci.
"You were with Shawn yesterday afternoon, weren't you?"
"I don't know. No, not that I know of."
"Did you talk to him yesterday about the depositions today?"
"What did you guys talk about?"
"I said, 'Shawn, we have to be there at 11:00, so don't sleep in.'"
"And you were at his house?"
"Actually, no. Yesterday I did not go to his house. I remember that very, very vividly, not going to his house."
"What kind of car do you have?"
"And you're telling me it wasn't parked at his house yesterday afternoon?"
Jerman broke in again: "Just a minute. What is the relevancy? What does this have to do with the cause of the accident, or--"
Sinner cut him off. "Now it has to do with credibility."
"What does yesterday have to do with this accident?" Graci said between them.
"If they discussed the depositions, I'm entitled to know that," Sinner told Jerman. Then, to Graci: "Was your car at his house yesterday afternoon?"
"Was he at your house anytime yesterday?"
"When was he at your house?"
"I don't know. Daytime. We went and got some lunch."
"And what else did you talk about the depositions other than the time of them?"
"Nothing but we had to come here and meet."
"Did you discuss with Shawn his memories of the accident?"
"What has he told you about his memories of the accident?"
"That he can't remember. He remembers eating the ants, and then that's the last time he told me he remembered."
"You both have the exact same last memory?"
"Is that a yes?"
Sinner asked Graci if he suspected he might have been chased the night of the accident.
"No, I can't--I don't know what's the case. I'm just saying, listen, as far as I know, everyone else has come up with this story that we were being chased. As far as I know, I woke up and I was in an accident. Everybody else put together the case--the story. I didn't put--I have no idea. So if everyone---then, yeah, they're detectives. If that's what they put together, then fine, yeah. If that's the answer they came up with, it's better than what I can come up with."
Sinner asked Graci if he owned a different car from the time of the accident.
"Yes, I do."
"And that's the Mustang you just talked about."
"Did your mom buy that for you?"
"You paid for that?"
"That's from the monies from the settlement of the accident?"
Jerman erupted: "You know, I'm sorry, but I've got to bring this to an end. This is so far afield."
Sinner: "That was my last question."
Two defendants in a civil case over a fatal car wreck--one suffered broken legs, the other a broken jaw and facial abrasions--both claim simultaneous amnesia, starting after one of them found ants in a bag of Funyons.
Speaking of such a case hypothetically, Phoenix forensic psychiatrist Steven Pitt, a clinical associate professor at the University of Arizona medical center who has testified in numerous high-profile murder trials, has this to say:
"It is possible to sustain amnesia absent a head injury, such as a scenario where an individual watches someone get run over by a truck, but has no memory of the event. The sheer trauma of witnessing or experiencing such a horrible event could cause an individual to disassociate from the event.
"However, is it incredibly suspicious for two individuals to report the same level and degree of retrograde amnesia, right down to the last bag of chips? I would say it's certainly cause for concern.
"Given the legal and medical context of this case, one would be remiss if they didn't consider such individuals could be malingering their amnesia."
Gloria Cavalera has certainly considered it.
Two weeks after Dana died, while Graci was still in the hospital, she and Mark Corona drove to Thomas' house and rang the doorbell.
This is Cavalera's and Corona's story of what happened next:
Thomas answered. He had a group of friends over. He went inside, grabbed a coat, and told his company he'd be back soon. Then he got into Gloria Cavalera's car.
"I don't even know where we're going," he said.
"To see a friend," Corona told him.
Cavalera took Thomas to her son's grave.
"I thought it might jar his memory," she says.
Standing over the headstone, Cavalera and Corona badgered Thomas for information.
"He just kept saying, 'I don't remember,'" Cavalera says. "Then he started to yell: 'I'll take a damn lie-detector test, because I know it wasn't me.' And I looked at him and asked, 'What wasn't you? And how do you know it wasn't you, if you can't remember?'"
Corona jumped in.
"How can you sue Kristin's insurance company, dude? How can you go after money, when Dana died?"
"Everybody sues," Thomas replied. Then he said he wanted to go home.
Shawn Thomas was sworn in at 3:33 p.m. on April 30, 1997, shortly after the conclusion of Graci's deposition. Graci stayed in the room.
Thomas also estimated that he, Graci and Wells spent 90 minutes at Liguori's, playing pool, and left around 1:30 a.m., about 15 minutes before the accident.
"What do you recall after you left the doorway of Liguori's and headed for the car?" Sinner asked.
"I recall looking down and picking up the bag of Funyons that I had previously bought and thinking to myself I might go for a little bit of Funyons right now. So I started to eat them, and there were ants in them. And to my dismay, I realized there was ants in my mouth. So I ran back to the bar, and it was already locked. So I knocked on the door. [The bartender] came, and I said, 'Man, I got ants in my mouth. I need some water.' So I swished around, spit out, you know, what was in my mouth, and then from that point got into the car."
"Okay," Sinner said. "And was there any discussion between any of the three of you about where you were going to head after the bar closed?"
"I don't remember."
"Where did you think you were going when you thought you might have a bit of Funyons?"
"I assumed I was probably going home."
"Which would mean going back to Dana's first?"
"No, home to where I was living."
"Well, you thought Dana was going to take you home or--"
"Well, yeah, because Miles' car would not start so somehow I would have had to get home."
"Then what happened?"
"I don't remember."
"So the last thing you remember is what, exactly?"
"Spitting a bunch of ants out of my mouth and then getting into the car."
"And you remember absolutely nothing else?"
"What's the next thing you remember?"
"Waking up in the hospital bed."
Thomas was released from John C. Lincoln later that day. Sinner asked him if he saw Miles during the time he was in the hospital.
"No," Thomas said.
"Before you were released, you didn't see him?"
"I'm sorry. I did see Miles right when I was getting released. He had just gotten out of surgery."
Graci was in the hospital for 16 days.
"How many times did you go see Miles in the hospital?" Sinner asked Thomas.
"More than a few."
"That's your best estimate?"
"That's my best estimate.
"'Few' meaning three?"
"More than three times, less than 30 times."
"Okay. And what did you discuss with him about the accident?"
"I asked him if he knew what happened."
"And he said?"
"That was the only thing you guys said the whole time about the accident?"
"No. I mean, other things like the events leading up to it were discussed, and both of us, you know, really did not have any insight for one another. So there wasn't much more, you know, to talk about."
"At one point, you stated to Gloria [Cavalera] that you'd be willing to take a lie-detector test. Do you remember that?"
"Are you still willing to do that?"
"Are you willing to be hypnotized?"
"What's the reason you're not willing to be hypnotized to try to find out what happened that night?"
"First of all, I did not appreciate the scare tactics that were involved, being taken out to Dana's grave site. I didn't appreciate the way in which I was approached and being pretty much called a liar by your client."
"Don't you agree it's kind of remarkable that you both have the exact same last memory?"
"I don't think it's remarkable."
Graci interjected, "I don't think it's remarkable at all. I've got to go to the bathroom."
Sinner: "True or not true--You went and visited Miles in his room at the hospital and said to him: 'The story is we don't remember.'"
"Not true," Thomas answered. "Not true."
Her son was two months dead, and Gloria Cavalera still boiled with fury and grief. Thomas and Graci claimed they couldn't remember anything, and Detective Ripley had essentially shelved the case. Cavalera says Ripley mentioned the beer in Dana's pocket, and told her he believed her son, Thomas and Graci were probably drag racing the white car down Cactus after a night of drinking.
One of the women coming out of T's Billiards reportedly told a police officer it looked like the cars were racing, as they were side by side and nosing ahead of one another.
Cavalera didn't buy it.
"First of all, Dana couldn't drink beer. Second, Dana wouldn't drag race in any car, let alone his girlfriend's Hyundai." Cavalera believes her son had the beer in his pocket as a weapon.
In any case, she was outraged.
"I think the police looked at his long hair, and all his body jewelry, and they found a beer in his pocket and beer in the car, and it was 45 minutes after the bars closed, and they just closed the book on Dana way too early," she says.
So Cavalera hired a private investigator--retired Arizona Department of Public Safety narcotics agent and helicopter rescue pilot Jim "Mac" McMinn.
McMinn went house-to-house in the neighborhood near the accident, asking questions and leaving business cards.
The man who answered the door at one house was Donald Barcello, who pointed to the DPS retirement ring McMinn wore and asked if he was an ex-cop.
"There's not too many people who would recognize that ring," McMinn says.
Barcello did, because he wore one of his own.
"I didn't know Mr. Barcello, but he had over 25 years in DPS as well," McMinn says.
Barcello didn't have information on the accident, but promised to call if he heard anything.
Weeks passed. On October 27, Wells' friends put up 500 posters in north Phoenix. The posters showed a picture of Wells and stated, "$10,000 REWARD for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the parties involved in the death of Dana Wells, (1:45 a.m., 8/16) on 23rd and Cactus. You may remain anonymous."
The posters listed McMinn's name and phone number.
The day after they went up, McMinn spent all day on the phone. "Most of them were groupie calls from [Sepultura] fans, with more of the same rumors," he says. "One wasn't."
It was Donald Barcello. His son, John Barcello, then 16, was a junior at Shadow Mountain High School. John and his best friend, Mike Henry, had come home with one of the posters, and told Donald Barcello they knew who was driving the other car.
McMinn called the younger Barcello and Mike Henry. They told the same story, which was this: A kid named Mike Gibbons had told them on two recent occasions in the Shadow Mountain lunch room that he was the driver of the phantom car in the crash that killed Dana Wells.
Barcello and Henry said Gibbons, who is Hispanic, told them he and his cousin were in the parking lot of a liquor store near the intersection of 32nd Street and Cactus, and got into a confrontation with three older white guys with long hair who were "talking trash" to his cousin.
Barcello and Henry said Gibbons told them he acted like he was going to pull a gun. The white guys jumped back in their car, and took off down Cactus. Gibbons and his cousin gave chase. They were in the middle lane, the other car was next to the curb. Gibbons supposedly told them both cars accelerated to about 90 miles per hour. Gibbons said a passenger in the other car was about to throw a beer bottle at Gibbons' car--Gibbons was driving--so he swerved toward them. The other driver swerved to the right and rolled his car.
Barcello and Henry said Gibbons told them he and his cousin slowed down, saw the damage was severe, then took off. Barcello and Henry said Gibbons didn't seem to be bragging. He seemed scared. It was Barcello's impression that Gibbons was talking to him because he knew Barcello's dad used to be a cop, and Gibbons wanted to know what crimes he could be charged with.
If Gibbons--or any other driver--deliberately ran Wells' car off the road, gun or no gun, he could be charged with a number of crimes, from aggravated assault to second-degree murder. If Wells simply lost control while being chased, the charge could be lessened to reckless endangerment.
It's doubtful Thomas and Graci would be charged with any crime related to Wells' death.
After he interviewed Barcello and Henry, McMinn called Detective Ripley, who called Barcello and Henry, who told Ripley the same stories. On November 8--more than a week after he got the tips--Ripley went to Shadow Mountain High and asked to see Mike Gibbons.
"I first spoke to an assistant principal," Ripley wrote in a police report. "He stated he first had to call [Gibbons'] parents to get their permission. He contacted Marilyn Gibbons and explained to her that I wanted to speak to her son. I spoke with Marilyn and explained to her why I needed to speak with Mike. She stated I could; however, she wanted to be there during the interview. She also told me Mike is deaf and only reads lips. It was decided to conduct the interview at their residence the following Monday."
Ripley called Gibbons' house at 6:30 a.m. on Monday. "I contacted Mike's father, Oscar Gibbons. Mr. Gibbons stated he had spoken to an attorney over the weekend. His attorney instructed Oscar not to allow me to talk to his son at this time."
Oscar Gibbons told Ripley to call his attorney, Richard Trujillo, to schedule an interview. Ripley set it up for November 26. When Ripley arrived at Trujillo's law office, Mike Gibbons was there, in a separate room, along with his mother and a speech therapist.
"I related to Mr. Trujillo the circumstances involving this incident," Ripley wrote. "I advised him I wanted to talk to Mike about the story he was telling his friends. I related Mike was not a suspect at this time and I only wanted to find [out] if the story was true or not."
Trujillo left the room to go talk with Mike and his mother. When he came back about 30 minutes later, he told Ripley the detective could not interview Gibbons. "He advised me he does not feel Mike had anything to hide; however, he felt that because of Mike's impairments he might be misunderstood."
Ripley--who says he investigates between 80 and 100 car accidents per year, not counting nonfatal hit-and-runs--never questioned Mike Gibbons.
On December 4, he went to the Gibbons residence and asked Mrs. Gibbons what she knew about the incident, and the name of the cousin Mike was with that night. She told him her son had not been involved, refused to name the cousin, and suggested he get the information from Trujillo.
Ripley called the lawyer on December 6 and asked for the cousin's name. The last entry in Ripley's investigative report is that as of December 18, 1996, Trujillo had not called him back.
In April 1997, Gibbons was subpoenaed to testify in Thomas and Graci's lawsuit against Allstate Insurance--a case that eventually was settled out of court. Gibbons refused to answer any questions, invoking his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.
Gibbons was subpoenaed again in November 1998 as part of Gloria Cavalera's wrongful-death lawsuit, in which he is named as a defendant.
This time, Gibbons did not take the Fifth. Cavalera's lawyer in the lawsuit, Frank Powers, provided Gibbons with written questions, which Gibbons answered in writing, under oath.
He named friend Eli Miller as his passenger that night. Miller is not Gibbons' cousin. In his written response, Gibbons said that on the night in question:
". . . while driving southbound on 32nd Street near Sweetwater, a dark-colored passenger vehicle cut me off. I thought my car had made contact with that vehicle. I pulled into the parking lot at Bob's Liquors. The other vehicle pulled across the street at Jack-in-the-Box. Three individuals got out of that vehicle and began shouting obscenities. One of the individuals approached me and it looked like he had a gun tucked in his pants. As a result, I drove away going westbound on Cactus to escape from this situation. However, by 28th Street the other vehicle had begun to catch up to me. Something thrown from the other vehicle hit against my vehicle. The next thing I saw was the other vehicle fishtailing. I moved over to the fast lane of travel and ultimately made a right-hand turn onto Cave Creek Road."
Gibbons failed to say what happened to the other car after it started fishtailing. And essentially, Gibbons flipped the script from what Barcello and Henry had claimed he'd told them: The other guys had the gun, not him; the other guys chased him, not the other way around.
On November 20, 1998, Gibbons testified under oath. He was questioned by wrongful-death attorney Frank Powers, who quickly cut to the chase.
"Do you understand that you are here concerning an accident that happened on August 16, 1996?"
"Yes, sir," Gibbons answered.
"You witnessed that accident, didn't you?"
"No," Gibbons said, "I didn't."
Gibbons' account gradually unfolded. He testified that on the night of August 15, 1996, he spent several hours aimlessly driving around north Phoenix with Eli Miller.
Powers asked Gibbons how long he had known Miller.
"Since he's been born," Gibbons said.
Powers asked Gibbons if he knew Shawn Thomas, who grew up across the street from Gibbons. Gibbons said yes. Powers asked Gibbons if he had heard Shawn Thomas dealt drugs and carried a gun. Gibbons said he had.
"Do you use drugs?" Powers asked.
"Only drug is weed and that's it," was Gibbons' reply. "I tried it once."
Gibbons said he and Miller hung out at the Paradise Valley Mall until 10 p.m. on the 15th, and pulled into the Trails head shop at 32nd Street and Bell just before midnight, only to find it dark. (Trails closed at 11 p.m.)
Powers asked him why they'd gone to Trails.
"Because they have cool posters and stuff."
Gibbons couldn't recall what he and Miller were up to between 10 p.m. and midnight.
"Certainly it didn't take two hours for you to get from the Paradise Valley Mall to Trails, right?" Powers asked.
"Do you recall any other place you went or if you met up with any other people during those two hours?"
"I don't recall if I met with anybody."
Gibbons testified he was driving his parents' 1993 Dodge Shadow, which is light blue with pinstripes. He said his curfew was midnight, so from Trails, he headed home, about five minutes south on 32nd Street. Two blocks before Cactus, Gibbons said, a car pulled out in front of him. Gibbons said he slammed on his brakes.
"Did your tires lock up and skid?" Powers asked.
"Did you slam on your horn?"
"Yes, I did."
Gibbons added that he yelled, "Watch where the hell you're going."
"I take it the windows in your car were rolled down?" Powers asked.
Gibbons then reiterated his written statement: He pulled into the parking lot of Bob's Market. The other car pulled into Jack-in-the-Box. Two white guys with long hair got out, Gibbons said. "I didn't recognize either of them."
"Was Shawn Thomas in the car?" Powers asked.
"I said, I did not recognize any of them."
Gibbons testified that one of the white guys started running across 32nd Street, raising his shirt and reaching for what looked like the butt of a pistol.
"I said, 'Holy shit,' then I jumped in my car and took off."
Gibbons testified he made a right on Cactus and floored it. Still, the other car caught up with him, and pulled alongside, traveling in the curb lane at high speed.
"Did Eli have his window rolled down?" Powers asked.
"From what Eli told me, no."
"Did you have your window rolled down?
"No, I didn't."
Powers: "Tell me this, sir: Did you at any time notice how many people were in the other car?"
Gibbons: "I'm not looking in the other car. You'll have to ask Eli on this."
Powers: "Did you at any time see anyone wave a gun or anything?"
Gibbons: "I didn't see anything. You'll have to ask Eli about that. He's my witness."
Gibbons then testified that just before the intersection of 24th Street and Cactus, the other vehicle began to "fishtail," losing control.
"Did the other car hit the curb?" Powers asked.
"I didn't see nothing," Gibbons answered. "All I saw was the car fishtailing."
"Did Eli ever tell you he saw the other car fishtailing?"
"I'm not sure."
"Did Eli ever tell you he heard the other car hit a tree?"
"He said he didn't hear or see anything."
"Did you and Eli look back to see what happened to the other car?"
"I believe Eli looked back, because he told me it was clear; the car wasn't there no more."
"I'm asking you, sir, at any time as you were driving down Cactus as fast as you could on August 15, 1996, after you went through the intersection of 24th Street, did you look in your rearview mirror to see what happened to the other car?"
"Yeah. I told you, it wasn't there anymore."
"So you looked in your rearview mirror and you didn't see any vehicles whatsoever. Is that your testimony?"
"That's my testimony."
"Did you think that other car that started fishtailing crashed?"
"I don't know."
"Did Eli Miller think the other car crashed?"
"You never asked him?"
"He said he didn't see anything or hear anything."
Powers suspended the deposition there, then resumed it a couple of weeks later, on December 7. Powers began by asking Gibbons if he had spoken with Eli Miller about the accident or the lawsuit since the first part of his deposition. Gibbons said he hadn't.
Powers got tricky.
"Now, during your first deposition, you mentioned that you were coming from Bell Road down 32nd Street before you had the encounter with another vehicle that was dark green; right?"
"I didn't say dark green. I said dark-colored."
"All right," Power continued. "You told me during your first deposition that two guys got out of that dark-colored car and flipped you off; right?"
"Is it possible you were mistaken; there were actually three guys who got out of the vehicle?"
"All I saw was two."
Powers handed Gibbons the statement Gibbons had filled out and signed under oath.
"Look at the very first page, line 25. How many people did you say exited the dark-colored vehicle?"
"So it may have been two or it may have been three individuals that got out of the vehicle?"
"I don't know. Too long ago to remember that."
Gibbons had less trouble recalling precisely when he rolled his windows up and down. In his first deposition, he testified that his windows were down when the car cut him off, but up when he was speeding down Cactus with the other car beside him. Powers asked him to explain the contradiction.
"I rolled them back up."
"You rolled them up while you were at Bob's Market?"
"While I was pulling into."
"Habit, I guess."
Gibbons next testified that he remembers talking with John Barcello and Mike Henry about his altercation with the two or possibly three white guys in the dark-colored car. However, Gibbons said Barcello and Henry must have misunderstood him on the points of who raised whose shirt to go for a gun and who chased whom.
Powers asked Gibbons to refer to Detective Ripley's report on his interviews of Barcello and Henry.
"It states that you were driving at a high rate of speed and you swerved toward the other vehicle, causing it to lose control. Do you see that? Front page."
"I didn't swerve into nobody."
"So you deny saying it to John and Mike?"
"I deny it."
"And then it says you watched as the vehicle rolled. You watched Dana's vehicle roll, didn't you?"
"I didn't see anything. I didn't even see the accident. All I know is I saw him fishtailing."
"Can you tell me what it was you said that John and Mike got confused and thought you were telling them that you watched a vehicle roll?"
"I never even said it. They're lying."
"Did you tell them you got scared and left the scene of the accident?"
"I didn't leave no scene. All I said is I was scared because somebody pulled a gun on me."
"Your voice is sounding a little bit angry," Powers noted. "Are you getting angry about this, sir?"
"I'm not getting angry," Gibbons said. "I'm getting angry at what--these guys pulled a gun on me. Mike Henry and John Barcello is lying, and I didn't do anything wrong."
"After that last answer, did you mouth some word to me?" Powers asked.
"Yes I did."
"What words were you mouthing, sir?"
Gibbons pinned the time of his altercation with the two or perhaps three long-haired white guys and the ensuing chase at just a few minutes either side of midnight.
He was crystal clear on this point, he said, because his curfew was midnight, and when he and Miller left the Trails parking lot, it was close to curfew, and he was eager to get home.
If Gibbons' story is true, it means there were two car chases that night, down the same road, where one car began to lose control in the same block, on the same night, but an hour and 45 minutes apart.
Police investigators documented only one set of fresh skid marks on Cactus, and they were made by the Hyundai.
Eli Miller, who was 14 at the time of the accident, testified two weeks after Gibbons. Gloria Cavalera was present for his deposition. So was Miller's mother, and Gibbons.
Miller agreed with Gibbons that there was an altercation and ensuing chase down Cactus, certainly no later than a few minutes after midnight.
However, he then proceeded to contradict Gibbons on numerable key details. Among them: Gibbons testified that after the chase, he dropped Miller off, then went home. Miller said Gibbons spent the night at his house. He also said the car windows were rolled up when the other car cut them off, and neither of them shouted anything. Miller said Gibbons did not slam on his brakes, or sound his horn. Miller said he didn't see any of the guys in the other car run across the street, and said none of them made a gesture like they had a gun. Also, Miller testified he never saw the other car start fishtailing.
"Eli, are you sure you were in the car that night?" Powers asked.
"It wasn't someone else in the car?"
"No, it was me."
Powers asked Miller again if he saw the other vehicle start fishtailing or go out of control. Miller again said no.
"It was just all of a sudden gone?"
"Yeah, pretty much."
"And you didn't look back to see where it was or anything else?"
Powers was incredulous.
"Does that seem a little odd to you?"
"No, not really. I just would think that's what a normal kid would do."
"Did you think they may have gotten into any kind of an accident?"
"I didn't hear or see anything."
"Mike says you saw them fishtail. Did you see them fishtail?"
"If he would have told you they were fishtailing at that high rate of speed, you would have thought they probably crashed, right?" Powers asked.
"Well, yeah, I think anyone would."
Based on Gibbons' and Miller's jumbled and contradictory testimony, neither Powers nor Gloria Cavalera believes Eli Miller was even in the car with Gibbons that night.
Cavalera says, "Somebody prepped him, but they didn't prep him well. I think he's doing it for either a) someone he's scared of, or b) someone he cares a lot about."
Eli Miller, a junior at Shadow Mountain High, answered the phone at his mother's apartment on February 4.
"I'm not supposed to answer any questions," he said.
New Times asked if he was in the car with Gibbons that night.
"I'm not really sure, because I'm just a little kid who doesn't really know anything.
"Call back and talk to my mom, or just ask Mike."
Through his attorney, Gibbons refused to comment for this story. Several messages left at his home number went unanswered.
She's played it over in her mind thousands of times, and what Gloria Cavalera believes happened the night her son died is this:
Thomas, Graci and her son left Liguori's the time Thomas gave Detective Ripley in the hospital--about 12:45--not 1:30 a.m., as both swore in their depositions. The later time would have made it practically impossible for Thomas and Graci to have returned to Wells' house between leaving Liguori's and the wreck.
Cavalera believes Wells and Thomas were in her house again that night, as Carneal and Wells' little brother had said, and that Thomas used the phone to call or page someone, probably Mike Gibbons. (Gibbons testified that he had a pager but received no pages the whole night.)
She believes Thomas arranged to meet Gibbons in the parking lot of Bob's Market, three blocks from her house. Cavalera believes her son thought he was dropping Thomas and Graci off to meet some friends, who Thomas and Graci thought would either get them home eventually or jump-start Graci's Firebird (Wells didn't have cables).
"Dana left the front door unlocked," she says. "He wouldn't have done that with his girlfriend and his little brothers and sisters inside if he didn't think he would literally be back in a minute."
Cavalera believes her son drove into a trap. She thinks Thomas and Graci had been set up by Gibbons, who waited for them at Bob's Market with his cousin, not Eli Miller. There was a confrontation in the parking lot, during which Dana grabbed one of the beers behind his seat to arm himself.
For whatever reason, Cavalera says--perhaps because he believed the other guys had a gun--her son took off, turned a fast right on Cactus, and floored it. Gibbons and his cousin gave chase, and purposefully or accidentally caused Wells to crash.
That's her theory.
It's just one of many that fit the known facts.
Here's another: Wells decided to give Thomas and Graci a ride home, and simply forgot to lock the front door. As he was exiting his neighborhood, he accidentally cut off Gibbons' car, or vice versa. Harsh words and middle fingers were exchanged between parties in both cars, and a gun was pulled. Wells took off down Cactus, and died a few seconds later.
Here's one more: Wells knew more about the danger Thomas and Graci were in than his friends and family would like to believe. He knew they were heading for trouble at Bob's Market, and that's why he had the beer in his pocket.
"Dana would never start a fight," says Corona. "But if you were his friend, he'd back you up, big-time, anytime."
There's no end to plausible scenarios of how and why Dana Wells died.
No end, unless Thomas, Graci, Gibbons or Miller is lying and decides to tell the truth, or a new witness to the accident comes forth.
Detective Ripley says he needs more than rumors to reactivate a police investigation.
"One of the players would have to come clean, or someone who was actually there would have to step forward and say, 'This is what happened,'" he says.
Frank Powers says he will question Thomas and Graci under oath sometime next month, in depositions for the wrongful-death suit against them.
"I think we know with reasonable certainty the general circumstances surrounding Dana's death," says the lawyer. "Unfortunately, the only people with firsthand knowledge of those circumstances are dead, claiming amnesia, or lying."
Cavalera admits the purpose of the lawsuit is to crank up the pressure and hope the truth pops out.
"I want to know how he died, and I want to know why," she says. "I want to know if he was angry or scared as he was driving down the road. I want to know if he was screaming or silent. I just want to know."
Max Cavalera's new band, Soulfly, released its first album last year. The art inside the CD shows a picture of Dana Wells standing in front of a roller coaster, and this inscription:
"'Bleed' and 'First Commandment' are dedicated to the people involved in the murder of Dana Wells and the cover-up of his death. You know who you are. Justice is coming."