"He's pretty heavy," Diane Putnam says of her late husband, Gary. "But I'm used to toting him around." She's talking about the big-as-a-brick box containing Gary's ashes that she's kept with her since he died six years ago after a brief battle with cancer. But there was a week late last month where dragging Gary's ashes around with her wasn't an option, because Diane's car -- in which the late Mr. Putnam had been taking a joy ride -- was stolen. The car was returned, but Gary's ashes remained at large for several weeks, until the long arm of the law reached down from Heaven and reunited the couple.
Diane, a hairdresser turned Maryvale apartment manager, is convinced that Gary's return was orchestrated by recently slain Phoenix police officer David Uribe, who was killed in May during a routine traffic stop. Friends of Uribe's built him a homemade memorial near the site where he was shot, and Putnam's ashes mysteriously showed up there one day shortly after. It was that nice dead policeman, Diane swears, "helping Gary out from up there."
New Times: So somebody stole your husband.
Diane Putnam: Yeah. And what was funny was I was moving, and I had him in the car, and I thought, "I'm going to take him up to the mountains and release him." And Thursday morning I woke up and my car was gone. And he was in the back seat.
Putnam: I called the police and I had to go through this rigmarole of paperwork. And they said, "Is there anything valuable in the car?" And I said, "Just my husband!"
NT: So, did you file a missing persons report?
Putnam: Well, see, that's the thing. I wanted to, but [the police] just listed it as a stolen car. And about a week later, we found the car. I went to get it and he wasn't in it. Everything else was there -- I was taking some stuff over to my friend, some pretties she wanted -- and they weren't touched at all. I was to the point where, "What in the hell am I going to do?"
NT: What in the hell did you do?
Putnam: I started calling the recovery rooms at the police stations, and they didn't know what I was talking about half the time when I said, "An urn." I tried to get a girlfriend of mine to put an ad on the Internet, but she wouldn't do it. And then I was on the news, and the next day a police officer called and said, "I know where your husband is."
Putnam: He was at the memorial service for that police officer [David Uribe], and someone came up to him and said, "I found this in the trash." And it was Gary.
NT: He died six years ago, and you still had his ashes. Why?
Putnam: Why not? I hadn't been ready to release him yet. I was getting ready to. I wanted to take him to the Superstition Mountains, where he wanted his ashes sprinkled. It just was a comfort to me, having him around. When he was stolen, I said to my girlfriends, "What if someone came and just took your husband's body out of the grave?" You'd want that body back. And that's how I felt.
NT: Don't you need a permit to spread ashes in a public place?
Putnam: No. I guess if they caught you, they might get you. But I doubt it.
NT: So you'd put the ashes in your car and you were going to take him to the mountain, and the next morning the car was gone. Any idea who might have stolen Gary?
Putnam: Yeah, because I had just evicted these people, and I was going to court that day. They were a black family with teenage boys who'd been causing a lot of trouble around here. And lo and behold, I'm going to court that day, and then it's, "No, she's not; she doesn't have a car!" But I can't prove it. Then when they found the car, all the tires were off the rims. And it was Mexicans they arrested on that.
NT: Were these thieves after Gary's ashes?
Putnam: No. He was sitting in the back, and I think when they lifted it and saw how heavy it was, they thought it was something of value. Until they got it out and saw what it was and it scared them or upset them. Or as my brother-in-law said, "Well, they'd probably smoked it by the time they figured out what it was."
NT: And then someone found Gary in the trash.
Putnam: Yeah. And Gary did more after he died than he did when he was alive. He went for a ride in a stolen car; he was in the trash; he went to a policeman's memorial; he got a ride in a police car.
NT: Are you sure the ashes you got back are his?
Putnam: Yeah. You can tell it hasn't been tampered with. One little edge was tampered with, but it's fine. He's leaking a little, though.
NT: Do you still sense his presence?
Putnam: Oh, yeah. Of course. I'll hear something and I'll say to him, "Well, can you imagine that, Honey?" I haven't dated [since he died]. Not ready to move on, I guess. I've moved a couple times, but he's still with me. It's like a tingling. It's peaceful. I don't know. It's probably like you would feel if you went to your wife's grave and sat there and talked to her.
NT: Not my wife. Now, do you think Gary might have been sending you a message from beyond the grave? Like, "It's time to move on!"?
Putnam: Oh, definitely. He used to have to wait for me to put my makeup on: "Hurry up! Come on!" And he was waiting on me to release him, and when I didn't, he decided to do it himself. He just took off!
NT: And you think that Officer Uribe, the one who died, helped get Gary back to you? Like he's a celestial cop now?
Putnam: Uh-huh. And there's more to the story. I hadn't talked to Gary's family for a couple years, and I knew if they heard about this they'd say, "What have you done with Gary's ashes?" But they called after they heard I got his ashes back, and now they're real happy and they want some of his ashes. When his mother dies, I'll give half of him to his family, and then I'll take him up to the mountain and release him. Let him go.
NT: But then you'll be alone.
Putnam: No. He's still here. It's not his ashes that make him a part of me. He's here in my heart. I won't be alone.
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NT: If Gary were here, what would he say about all this?
Putnam: "Messed with you even after I died, didn't I?" He was a hell-raiser. An ornery little shit. Big shit -- he was a big guy. Yeah, you can't even go out in style, can you, Gary?
NT: (Places bag on table.) Well, ever since I heard your story, I've been carrying these around with me. These are the ashes of my mother-in-law's dog. She gave them to us to sprinkle on the beach in San Francisco, and we haven't done it yet.
Putnam: Yeah. It would be horrible to lose them. That's why I won't leave [Gary] in the car again 'til I'm ready to let him go. But don't be like that. Put him somewhere where he'll be comfortable, like your kitchen, but don't hold onto it. You just have to let life flow.