The pile in the road didn't look human. It was a cardboard box, crushed and mangled by Friday evening's rush hour, or a pile of stray clothes, fallen from the turtle shell carrier of a cross-country traveler's car. It didn't seem at all like a man.
But it was.
He was middle-aged, black, wearing dark trousers and a tee shirt. He lay at angles suggesting no possibility that he was still alive. His cheek was pressed against the pavement, lips parted and smooshed the way people look just before they wake up in the morning. His torso was twisted with one leg bent at an obtuse angle. His wrist peeked out from under his chest, just far enough to confirm he had no pulse.
Fifty feet up the road, a white tennis shoe lay carelessly on its side.
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Other cars stopped to block oncoming traffic. A young man got out of one saying he knew CPR. He approached the body, and stopped in abrupt realization. The man was clearly dead. The would-be savior instead offered cigarettes to the people circled around the body. The helpless onlookers smoked in silence.
The driver of the car that hit the victim looked as if he'd just gotten off a roller coaster, fighting the inevitable urge to vomit by trying to remain very still.
Minutes later, an ambulance arrived and whisked the body away. Police took statements and the streets cleared. As if it never happened.
Friday, August 11, 2000, Jack McGhee was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he was left there by two Phoenix police officers. Miles from home, disoriented and highly intoxicated, McGhee tried to cross East Washington Street from south to north, and was struck mid-block by a red Jeep. He sustained fatal injuries.
The newspapers didn't report the incident. The police didn't press charges against the driver of the red Jeep. It is a closed case, says Detective Gary Lipko of the Phoenix police's traffic safety department. A simple accident. He says McGhee was homeless by choice, and died from a blunt-force trauma. End of story.
Except, it isn't.
The last few moments of life slipped from a man named Jack McGhee, homeless by choice, dead by accident, crumpled in a heap on the pavement of a darkened Phoenix street. And his family members want to know why. They recently filed a wrongful-death suit against the Phoenix Police Department, and officers Howard Goldman and Ronald Ayres.
The suit claims the officers acted with negligence when they picked up McGhee, who had consumed a toxic amount of alcohol that night, drove him miles from where he lived, and left him in the dark on the six-lane street where he was killed.
The family's hope, above all, is to find out what happened to their loved one.
"I'm not going to stop until I feel better," says Patricia Blueford, the youngest of McGhee's sisters. "My whole family is grieving."
Lipko may have called McGhee "homeless by choice" because the dead man had so much family in the area that he could have lived with any of them. He was the youngest of 17 children, 10 of whom are still living. He had seven sisters and nearly 50 nieces and nephews who live in Phoenix. He was closest to Blueford, and would often stay at her house.
"Jack wasn't just some bum on the street. That's the way the police look at it and that's the way they want the family to accept it," Blueford says. "But Jack was always clean. He ate a good meal every day."
McGhee spent most of his time at a 7-Eleven at the intersection of 16th Street and Southern. Blueford had given the 7-Eleven owner her phone number and asked him to call her when McGhee bothered customers. In the past, she and her husband had picked up her brother there, and she says police officers had delivered him to her doorstep 15 or 20 times before.
On August 11, two officers responded to a 911 call regarding two black males panhandling in front of the 7-Eleven at 1601 East Southern, one of them identified as Jack McGhee.
According to a police department internal investigation, Officer Goldman had had several past contacts with McGhee, knew him by first name, and reported that each time he responded to the 7-Eleven call it was the same thing: McGhee was on the property begging, and the store owner wanted him gone. That night, the officers reported, McGhee agreed to leave the property when they offered him a ride elsewhere. They say he asked not to be taken to jail.
The officers could have taken McGhee to the Local Alcohol Reception Center (LARC), which accepts anybody with a substance abuse problem who needs to be observed. Or they could have taken him to jail to sleep it off. Or to Blueford's house, a few blocks from the 7-Eleven.
Instead, they headed east on Southern Avenue.
Fifteen minutes and nearly 10 miles later, the officers found what they say in their report looked like a good spot to leave McGhee. They deposited him at a bus stop on the south side of the roadway at 5300 East Washington. The officers left, and by about 10:40 p.m. McGhee was dead in the road.
Randy Force, the department's public information officer, says it is the officers' discretion what to do in such situations. In hindsight maybe it wasn't in McGhee's best interest to drop him on the street far from his neighborhood, but Force believes "the officers were trying to do a good thing." An internal investigation absolved the officers of any wrongdoing.
Force's claim that the officers meant well, and could not have anticipated the end result, is complicated by the fact that McGhee was so drunk that night it's surprising he was even conscious.
A toxicology report put McGhee's blood alcohol content at .50, five times the legal limit for driving a vehicle, and an astounding level even for a heavy drinker.
According to a nurse practitioner at LARC, people brought into the facility against their will typically have a BAC of .20 to .30, and still function. Above that it's rare. A non-alcoholic is considered legally dead at .40. An alcoholic would likely be passed out at this level of intoxication. A .50 BAC is not a functional level of intoxication -- even for an alcoholic.
Yet in their reports, the two officers claim they did not realize McGhee was so drunk. Officer Ayres says McGhee's composure was such that "if he was wearing clean clothes and shaven and all that, I wouldn't have known the guy was drunk."
According to the internal investigation, Vaneet Sapra, a clerk at the 7-Eleven, saw that McGhee's eyes were bloodshot, his speech heavy, and that he did not walk properly. Daniel Taylor, a security guard who works at 5300 East Washington, says he saw the police drop McGhee off about 10:30 that night. "When he went across the road, he was stumbling pretty good, so it looked like he needed assistance," Taylor says. "He'd move an inch or two this way, correct himself and then walk a couple of steps, move an inch or two this way, correct himself."
Common sense would seem to dictate that leaving a man who could barely walk in the middle of nowhere, on a six-lane road, in a part of town he doesn't know, might not serve his best interests.
When Jack McGhee's mother died, she made her oldest daughter, Irma Jones, promise to look after him. He wasn't like her other children. Jones calls it "artistic," means "autistic," and isn't quite sure if that's the name for what made Jack different. She says McGhee's mind just didn't work in the same way as other folks'. He was like a child.
Jones pulls out a framed, black-and-white photo of her mother. Her mother's jaw is set with the determination of a woman who raised 13 children alone. "When I go to bed at night and when I wake up, Jack is always on my mind," Jones says. "I can't bear to look at my mother's picture because her eyes seem to be saying, 'You ain't doing nothing.'"
Jack was a triplet, and the second of the trio to be killed by a car. A drunken driver hit the other, Oscar, when he was 8. Jones says the surviving triplet is now scared to leave the house.
Jones and Patricia Blueford did their best to look after McGhee. But he was never able to keep a steady job. "He just loved being with alcohol," Jones says. "He didn't bother nobody, he just loved to drink."
When her brother didn't show up for several days, Blueford assumed he was in jail. She called the police looking for him, and found out he was dead. Jones says McGhee's body was almost taken to potter's field, the cemetery for indigents.
"He may have looked like a bum and acted like a bum, but he had family and we loved him," Jones says. "He was our baby brother. The police act like he was garbage."
When the sisters heard McGhee was killed at 53rd Street and Washington, they didn't understand how he got there. They say they have not been able to get a satisfactory answer from the police. "The way Lipko talked to us was like he's supposed to be dead," Jones says. "Like he's just one more nigger out of the way."
The sisters hope the lawsuit will illuminate the events that led to their brother's death, but Jones remains skeptical about whether she'll ever know the truth.
"Jack died alone in the dark, and whatever happened to him went to the grave with him."
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