ARIZONA'S WHITE WATER SCANDALTHE RIVER GUIDE WHO DESTROYED QUARTZITE FALLS HAD PLENTY OF MOTIVES--NOT ALL OF THEM NOBLE
Although William Kenneth "Taz" Stoner told the Los Angeles Times that he dynamited the Salt River's Quartzite Falls to save lives, U.S. Forest Service documents suggest that Stoner had more self-serving motives, as well: Quartzite Falls was an obstruction in the flow of Stoner's weekend job as a river guide.
The documents reveal that Stoner had a reputation for jumping ahead of other rafting groups at Quartzite Falls, a nasty spot of white water that caused a bottleneck.
On December 2, Stoner pleaded guilty to one count of destruction of federal property by means of an explosive. Stoner, 34, and his seven accomplices--Richard Scott; James Lewus; William Kelley; Christopher, Mark and Michael Meehl; and Stephen Cortwright--had hiked and floated into Quartzite Falls to try to level it and lessen its hazards.
"I kinda knew we were doing something wrong," Stoner told the L.A. Times. "But I had no idea it was a felony. I had no idea you could go to jail for it."
Though the demolition could have earned him a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine, Stoner reportedly has bargained for a jail term of no more than 18 months; he will be sentenced in late January.
After he entered his guilty plea, Stoner found a newspaper willing to print his destruction-for-the-public-good premise. While reading his version of the story, one can almost hear the peasants in the mountains singing folk songs about him.
"We removed a rock, we didn't obliterate a pretty, beautiful waterfall," Stoner told the L.A. Times in an exclusive story published December 12 and reprinted later in the Arizona Republic and the Phoenix Gazette. "Sure, this may have taken something away from a very few people who were qualified to run it in its previous condition.
"But we had a purpose that will benefit all people for years to come, and ultimately save lives. And if we're guilty of anything, we're probably guilty of weighing out human life as being worth more than that rock."
In fact, there have been only three documented drownings at the falls--one in 1969 and two in 1993. By comparison, at least two people have died on the trails of Camelback Mountain and Squaw Peak this year alone--a tourist fell to his death on Camelback just two weeks ago--yet no one has threatened to blow up trails.
Quartzite Falls was not the straight-drop waterfall its name implies. Instead, it was a narrow sluice of canyon that funneled the Salt River over a pair of rose-quartz ledges just beneath the surface and created a hydraulic effect that rafters call a "keeper hole." What goes into the whirlpool doesn't come right out, but instead gets bounced and buffeted. If there were few actual drownings, it was because boaters had a healthy fear of death. Commercial river tours would not run Quartzite Falls; instead, they portaged around it or "lined" their boats through the rough water with ropes.
But it was a rock of rages. "There were fistfights at Quartzite," says Patrick Blumm, owner of Desert Voyagers, the rafting company that employed Stoner as a guide. "There were arguments. People got hurt. People drowned there. Quartzite was a problem."
Most rafting companies run the 56-mile length of the Salt River in three days. Desert Voyagers runs it in two weekend days, an attractive alternative for tourists and guides who work 40-hour weeks at other jobs. Stoner, for example, had a day job as a construction engineer for McDonald's; his weekend guiding was more of an avocation--perhaps an identity--than a needed source of income. If the trip took longer than a weekend, it cut into his career.
But rafts making a two-day trip couldn't afford to wait at Quartzite Falls. Stoner was the head guide for the two-day trips, so Quartzite was more than a bottleneck, it was a pain in Stoner's neck.
The Forest Service was skeptical about the specifics of Desert Voyagers' two-day itinerary. "It filled a need," says district ranger Larry Widner, "but it created problems at Quartzite."
Blumm is more blunt, saying the Forest Service "hates" the two-day trips. Blumm contends the Forest Service has been gunning for Desert Voyagers for years.
In a November 1993 letter to Blumm, Widner wrote, "As discussed with you during the last two years, there have been problems at Quartzite caused by your two-day groups jumping ahead of other groups." Unbeknownst to Widner, the falls had already been blown up by that date.
After hearing months of "river talk," Widner had been documenting incidents at Quartzite regarding Desert Voyagers in the event the Forest Service had to step in and end the two-day trips.
On April 11, 1993, after being hung up for five hours waiting for inexperienced rafters to get through the falls, Stoner was still a few miles from his takeout point when night fell. Though regulations for commercial rafters dictate that the guides bivouac for the night in such situations, Stoner decided to push on, and reached shore an hour after dark.
"I chewed his ass out," says Blumm, "but I didn't think it was the end of the world. That section of the river does not present any health hazards. He's not navigating any difficult rapids in the dark."
Then Blumm wrote to ranger Widner, "Ken informs me he had no idea he was in violation of any rules."
On May 2, 1993, river ranger Kevin McCombe watched as Stoner's group started to line its boats before another group was out of the eddy below the falls.
"A boat was shoved off from shore upstream and it got away from the boatmen," McCombe tells New Times. "The rescue rope, which was tied on the boat, became taut and swung across and almost took off the head of one of [the other group's] boatmen. It was a very rude act, and not following the proper river etiquette."
In his report on the incident, he noted, "Only the keen attention and fast reactions of guides on the other trip prevented potentially serious injury."
Coincidentally, that trip was the one on which Stoner met his partners in crime, including Richard Scott, who is an alleged demolitions expert. According to investigators, they joked about blowing up Quartzite Falls while on the trip.
The next weekend, on May 8, ranger McCombe showed up unannounced to accompany Stoner's trip downriver. Although he remarked on the efficiency and expertise of Stoner's crew, he wrote that "they can be kind of pushy with other groups at the Falls." Furthermore, he faulted them for joking with clients that they had never run the river before, for skimping on telling clients how to cope with possible emergencies and for other minor matters.
But McCombe concluded in his report that the two-day itinerary pushed the limits, and wrote, "While evidently marketable, these trips are reckless and discordant."
Blumm, displeased with the evaluations his guides had gotten, decided not to give them bonuses at the end of the season. "Ken took it upon himself to go up there to talk to Larry and Stu [Larry Widner and Stu Herkenhoff, the Forest Service rangers to whom McCombe reported]."
Two weeks after McCombe's unannounced visit, on May 23, three rafters who were not on a commercial trip went over Quartzite Falls and flipped in the keeper hole. One was found alive the next day, huddled on the rocks beneath the falls; the other two were floating dead in the water, miles downstream.
Stoner faxed a copy of the news reports on the drownings to Scott, and they began plotting in earnest. Then, between August and October 1993, they hiked in to the falls four times and floated in once to set off explosions and break a chunk out of the quartz ledge.
They were not indicted until mid-October 1994, a year later. They were caught, according to ranger Widner, because someone bragged about the crime. And according to Forest Service sources, the informants who turned them in were so disgusted with the act that they refused to accept the cash rewards offered by the government.
Because water flow was scant because of a light winter snow pack, there was very little rafting done through the Salt River Canyon last spring. The effects of the demolition remain to be seen.
"I don't know what Quartzite is now," says Widner. "There may be less of a hazard. The pool is still there. I don't know if the hydraulics are or not."
It must be pointed out that the Forest Service investigators have cleared the owner of Desert Voyagers, Blumm, of having anything to do with the vandalism, but he is not without his opinions on the matter.
"It really doesn't bother me that Quartzite has been altered," he says. "What bothers me is the way it was altered, that it didn't involve the public process and input from other people. . . . It certainly had been mentioned in the past. Quartzite was a big source of frustration to just about everybody who had ever been through it."
Stoner has not talked to New Times about his motives. He had agreed to a meeting, but failed to show up.
"He's not a flake," Blumm says in Stoner's defense. "A lot of river guides are flakes and real hotheaded. I felt he was more mature."
For the record, Blumm only half-accepts Stoner's rationalization about saving lives. "It certainly wasn't a mindless act," he says. "There was a tremendous amount of thought that went into it. Now, what pieces of the puzzle came together to make him do this is something he's got to tell you."
Ranger McCombe has his theories, as well. "He blew it up so he could get through there on weekends," says McCombe. "He blew it up because he and his buddies had some damned Rambo complex."
McCombe does not disguise his bitterness about Stoner's demolition of the ledge. He recalls another encounter with the bomber: "About three, four years ago, I ran into him and a friend of his at Quartzite Falls. The river was really cranking, and they were in a little raft and they were going to run the falls. I talked them out of it. I wonder if I made the right decision.
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