Dead or Alive? Paul Babeu's Wilderness-Rescue Unit Once Again Proves Inept

Chris and Tonya Hensley
Courtesy of Tonya Hensley

Is Daddy living in the mountains now?"

It's a heartbreaking question that 5-year-old Alexa has been asking her mom, Tonya Hensley, since her father went missing on April 15.

It's been three weeks since members of Superstition Search and Rescue (SSAR) traced Chris Hensley's steps into the Superstition Mountains and located his remains in an area known as No Name Canyon.

"He's in Heaven watching over you," Hensley says, trying to explain their father's absence to Alexa and 7-year-old Alyssa.

When they get older, she will tell them that he fell about 200 feet off the face of a massive rock, that he slammed against at least two rock ledges before landing on the ground. She'll tell them that death investigators say his broken ribs punctured his left lung. She'll tell them that he died unattended in the wilderness after having been missing for more than three days.

Chris Hensley set out on the afternoon of April 15 for Flatiron Peak, a rock tower in the Superstition Wilderness more than four miles from his mother-in-law's house in Apache Junction.

The search-and-rescue team that discovered his body had worked alongside the Pinal County Sheriff's Office for more than two decades. But after Sheriff Paul Babeu took office in 2009, he snubbed the all-volunteer team and started his own crew.

Although the PCSO and other search volunteers scoured the desert and mountains for more than 800 collective hours, it was SSAR members who found Hensley's body just two hours after they joined the search early Friday.

Hensley and desperate family members stumbled upon Robert Cooper, commander of SSAR, as they combed the Internet for ways to accelerate the search. He met with Tonya on April 19, a Thursday evening, and agreed his team would help her.

Hensley says she's grateful to each search-and-rescue volunteer who risked injury or worse looking for her husband. She says she had no confidence in PCSO officials managing the search because they didn't listen to her when she told them where or how high up the mountain they should look.

She believes that if they had, Chris would've been found much sooner, and it would've at least shortened the days of agony that the family experienced not knowing what happened to him.

When Chris failed to come home, Tonya Hensley drove around the area for hours and eventually called the PCSO. She says she gave the Sheriff's Office information about where her husband entered the Superstition Wilderness and where he intended to hike.

Tonya says PCSO officials told her that her husband couldn't have made it as far or as high as she thought and that the office's insurance didn't cover deputies in such a rugged area.

Tamra Ingersoll, a Sheriff's Office spokeswoman, defended sheriff's searchers and incident commanders, saying they looked several times in the area where Chris eventually was found and that the office's insurance coverage didn't limit them.

Ingersoll said Tonya Hensley didn't give searchers enough information at first, such as that Chris previously had hiked No Name Canyon. She said the PCSO had to send detectives to her "to fill in the holes."

She also said the information Tonya passed along to SSAR came out of the PCSO's research and its narrowing of the search area.

Hensley isn't sure why the PCSO now denies what they said to her, not in private, but in front of her mother and other volunteers.

"Tuesday, after the first search team went out, I told them that Chris hiked before and made it to the bottom of Flat Iron," she says. "I may not have known the names of the canyons, but I pointed everything out to them."

Tonya now says that even if, as it claims, the PCSO gave her the information she passed along to Superstition Search and Rescue, the fact is that SSAR managed to use it and find her husband's body within a couple of hours.

Cooper says he didn't know where the PCSO had or hadn't searched. He just had the information that Tonya gave him and his team.

Tonya couldn't contain her mounting frustration and exasperation with the Sheriff's Office, and on April 24, she stood up and vented it during a Pinal County Board of Supervisors meeting.

"I was lied to and treated with disrespect," she told the supervisors. "The Sheriff's Office personnel acted like Chris was a bad person because he had a rough past. I felt they didn't care about my family."

She also told them that if "the sheriff's search team would've only listened to the information" she gave members, her "husband wouldn't have been lying at the bottom of a canyon for [almost] four days."

Cooper says his team tracked Chris Hensley's shoe prints up the mountain, spotted his brand of cigarettes from butts on the ground, and had half the team search up the mountain, while the other half searched from the top down.

Ingersoll said everybody wanted to give Tonya answers.

Under most circumstances, who discovers a body wouldn't matter much. Families would focus on healing and closure.

But in this case — and others like it — families have expressed frustration with the PCSO's handling of searches. The rift between the PCSO and SSAR only makes such tragedies worse.

New Times reported late last year ("Lost," December 20) that the messy split between the two might may have started because the team wouldn't support Babeu when he asked for its endorsement during his first run for office in 2008. SSAR members also expressed a lack of trust in PCSO officials overseeing searches. SSAR members say their complaints weren't fully investigated.

Although there are searches that the PCSO has conducted successfully, high-profile failures stain the department's record.

Dan Block, brother of Jeff Block, an Apache Junction resident who went missing along with his dog on July 26, complained that the PCSO failed to communicate properly. Its officials didn't return his phone calls, were slow to conduct an air search, and wouldn't dispatch personnel to areas where the family knew the missing man had gone.

Crystal Hayes reported her fiancé, Raymond Churchill, 26, missing on January 1, 2010.

She told the Apache Junction News that two days of searching the San Tan Valley canal by the PCSO turned up nothing. Then, someone she would identify only as a "guardian angel" gave her a phone number for Cooper's team. She called, and SSAR volunteers searched the canal after the PCSO left the scene. Within an hour, members discovered Churchill's body.

The PCSO also searched for Kelly Tate, whom friends reported missing in September 2009, when he didn't return from a wilderness hike. A PCSO sergeant commanded a search by more than 150 volunteers, who hunted through the desert around the clock for five days — on foot, on horseback, and by helicopter.

When the PCSO called off its search without finding Tate, SSAR members arrived on the scene. About an hour into their search, members found the missing man's body crumpled on a trail, just 150 yards from the parking lot where the PCSO had set up its command post.

Tami Villar, then a Sheriff's Office spokeswoman, told New Times after the body was discovered by SSAR that the PCSO didn't set out to do a "half-assed search."

And Villar also wondered aloud at the time whether Tate, who'd suffered a heart attack, might have survived had he been found sooner ("Searchers Disappointed," September 16, 2009).

It's that thought that haunts Tonya Hensley as she struggles with her family's life without Chris. What if she had found a phone number for SSAR sooner? Would she be listening to her husband sharing a harrowing near-death story instead of waiting for his funeral services in Indiana this summer?

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