Crime Me a River
One of Arizona's largest commercial-rafting operations is up the Salt River without a paddle--or any other equipment for that matter.
Salt River Rafting, which is based in Tempe, has had its river-running permits yanked by the White Mountain Apache Tribe and by the Tonto National Forest. And the company's owner, Clay Baldwin, is the subject of an FBI investigation into his business dealings with the San Carlos Apache Tribe, which shares a border with the White Mountain Apache Tribe--the Salt River.
Although the investigation began nine months ago, neither the San Carlos tribe nor the FBI will disclose its nature. Former Salt River Rafting employees and business associates who have been questioned by the FBI say it relates to misappropriation of funds and other fraud, and possibly with trafficking in Indian artifacts.
"I've been accused of everything," says Baldwin, a bearded bear of a man in his 30s. "Keeping indentured slaves, driving people to kill themselves, stealing money, stealing artifacts, child abuse. It's all just vague stuff."
But that hearsay has spread through the rafting-and-adventure-outfitting community like gasoline on water. Baldwin's had rafts of problems with the U.S. Forest Service and a record of floating bad checks. But no charges have been filed against Baldwin, nor has the San Carlos tribe so much as hinted at his alleged offenses. Yet that did not stop the tribe from confiscating the bulk of Baldwin's assets.
According to officials at the White Mountain Apache Wildlife and Outdoor Recreation Department, about 10,000 people set out from its shores each year on commercial-raft trips that can cost anywhere from $50 to $225.
Salt River Rafting was the first of commercial companies launched in 1975 by Baldwin's father. Clay Baldwin took over the business in 1987 and built it to a point where he was taking 4,000 people down the river each spring, grossing up to $400,000 a year. He ended up broke, anyway.
And he continued the family tradition of noncompliance with the Forest Service.
"I was not the most cooperative person," he admits. "I would do whatever they asked me to do, but they usually had to ask me twice."
In January 1994, Baldwin entered into a joint venture with the San Carlos Apache Tribe to renovate and manage the Seneca Lake Recreation Area on the San Carlos Reservation. The site consists of 1,200 acres of rolling, grassy meadows and juniper woodlands along Route 60, five minutes south of the Salt River Canyon bridge where commercial-rafting companies put their rafts on the water. There's a general store on the property, a lodge with a commercial kitchen, five cabins, a fishing lake and 150 campsites. The recreation area was originally built and run by Greyhound Bus Lines, but had been boarded up for more than a decade when Baldwin approached the tribe in 1992.
Baldwin thought he could turn a dollar on the resort, and, in his enthusiasm, thought he could add 50 miles of mountain-bike trails and rig the cliffs, which overlook the canyon and a breathtaking waterfall, for rock climbers.
The joint-venture contract stipulated that Baldwin and the tribe would split the profits 50-50. Baldwin was supposed to put at least $250,000 in cash, equipment and in-kind services into the property over the first three years, and the tribe would provide additional capital as needed. Baldwin asserts that he put up more than $200,000 in cash and another $100,000 in in-kind services, and that the tribe had only put up about $80,000. None of which is verifiable because, as Baldwin puts it, "Paperwork has not been my strong suit."
And creative paperwork lies at the heart of the FBI investigation.
Baldwin blames his FBI troubles on Rob Bond, a former employee who managed the Seneca Lake resort and who has since started his own rafting company.
Bond refused to comment; he reportedly accused Baldwin of adding names and hours to payroll invoices to be paid by the tribe and of misappropriating funds earmarked for specific uses, such as repairs.
Certainly, Baldwin has a history of mishandling money. A review of Maricopa County court records shows liens filed against his income for nonpayment of unemployment taxes, plus an assortment of lawsuits over unpaid bills and bad checks. Both the Forest Service and the White Mountain Apache Tribe have leaned on Baldwin to cover bounced checks and for late payment of fees.
"Clay is as bad a person as I've ever seen as far as bookkeeping," says Charlie Lutz, a Tucson travel agent who books clients for Salt River Rafting. "He is like a dumb blonde; when he wants to pay off a bill or write a check, he just writes the damn thing. And he has historically let other people [who work for him] cover his ass, scrounge around, get the money in the bank."
An adventure-travel outfitter who used to do business with Baldwin says, "Clay ignores a lot of details and figures they'll take care of themselves. And then one day he looks over his shoulder and someone's going to bite him in the ass."
The tidal wave hit Seneca when a domestic dispute involving a Native American employee who lived on the property turned into an armed stand-off with tribal police. The employee shot himself in the head, suffering considerable brain damage.
According to several accounts, the Tribal Council held an emergency meeting and, within days, ordered the shutdown of the Clay Baldwin/Seneca Lake joint venture. Tribal agents boarded up the property and confiscated everything on the grounds, including Baldwin's property and the property of his employees and associates.
"I got a three- or four-sentence letter saying, 'It's over, all the stuff here is ours, do not come back,'" says Baldwin. "And that is the only official piece of paper that I've ever gotten. I've never had a conversation with the tribe."
Baldwin's contract stipulates that all disputes were to be referred to arbitration. The tribe instead terminated the deal without due process.
"This is to give you notice that the joint venture between the Tribe and Salt River Canyon rafting has been abolished," read the letter from tribal Chairman Raymond Stanley. "All property real and personal is the sole ownership of the Tribe and should be kept at the current site.
"Financial records pertaining to transactions of the joint venture are requested to be returned to the Tribe for our analysis. The Senaca [sic] Lake property is on Tribal land and since the joint venture is now abolished you are not allowed to return to the site until further notice."
Charlie Lutz, the Tucson travel agent, had a trailer and rafts worth about $13,000 seized. After eight months, he managed to get the trailer back, but is still waiting for the boats. Lutz holds a lien on some of Baldwin's equipment as well. And another creditor, an Idaho-based river-supply company, hopes to recover some of Baldwin's rafts, which were never paid for.
No charges have been filed, and Baldwin claims that no one has contacted him to resolve the disputes.
"We have offered to bring all of the records we have and sit down with them and talk about it per the agreement," Baldwin says. "That invitation hasn't been [extended]. My personal opinion is that they wanted the joint venture to end and so they ended it."
Baldwin, a hopeless optimist, geared up for the 1996 rafting season with fliers advertising Christmas gift certificates for springtime rafting trips and ads in daily newspapers looking for river guides.
In late November, the White Mountain Apache Tribe told Baldwin that his rafting permit for the portion of the river that borders its reservation would not be renewed.
"We basically felt there was a lack of business professionalism in dealing with the tribe, specifically in the problems we had collecting payments on time," says John Cooley of the White Mountain Apache Wildlife and Outdoor Recreation Department. "And we based our decision also on correspondence and meetings we had with Tonto National Forest and the San Carlos Apache Tribe and the problems they had with him [Baldwin]."
In January, the U.S. Forest Service followed suit, suspending Baldwin's permit to raft through the Tonto. His Forest Service rating for 1995 was deemed "less than acceptable" because of safety violations and "pirate trips," essentially running more people downstream than he was declaring.
It looked as though Salt River Rafting would go belly up.
But Baldwin continued to tread water, soliciting new partners among the remaining four rafting companies that operate on the Salt River.
"We all assumed that sooner or later there were going to be problems with Clay. He was running too many people," says Pat Blumm, owner of Desert Voyagers rafting company.
Nonetheless, Blumm took up Baldwin's offer, and took him on as a partner in an agency to book customers for Blumm's boats.
Blumm's company also received an unsatisfactory rating from the Forest Service for 1995, which he appealed. And, although he assured New Times that his rating had already been upgraded to satisfactory, a Forest Service official says that such an upgrade is merely under consideration. If the unsatisfactory rating sticks, Blumm is essentially on probation and must perform satisfactorily for a season to keep his permit.
This year, it's a moot point. Because of the dry winter in Arizona's mountains, the Salt River is running at less than a tenth of its usual spring flow. Blumm has chosen not to run it at all and instead has rerouted his rafts to the Gila River, which is a slower, scenic float, as opposed to whitewater rapids of the Salt.
The authorities remain skeptical.
"We've made it clear to all the outfitters that are presently permitted on the reservation that Clay Baldwin is not allowed to operate on the river," says the White Mountain Apache Tribe's John Cooley. "What Pat Blumm has expressed to the tribe is that he has gone into a partnership of some sort with Clay Baldwin, not as an operator, but using Clay's marketing and sales organization to help Pat book trips. And under that scenario, the tribe doesn't really have a problem. The difficulty is in proving exactly who's doing what."
Stu Herkenhoff, a river ranger for the Forest Service, adds, "We would be very concerned if Clay went out on that river in any sort of commercial way."
Baldwin, meanwhile, is waiting for his river of troubles to crest.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.