As a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come at you.
--Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried
Judge Gregory Martin leaned forward in his chair. Martin enunciated each word with great care. The young man standing before him had admitted to taking part in ten murders. "Tell me what you did that makes you guilty of these ten crimes." Judge Martin's voice sounded hollow, even hesitant. It was as though he were holding Yorick's skull in his hand and playing Hamlet on the legitimate stage.
Alex Garcia, 17, a former student at Agua Fria High School, held three white sheets of paper in his hand. For the level of emotion Garcia displayed, his handwritten remarks might have been nothing more than a weekly essay-writing assignment.
Garcia is six foot three inches tall. He weighs 220 pounds. He wore a blue denim jail suit. His hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Garcia might have been portraying John Steinbeck's unfortunate semilunatic, Lenny, in Of Mice and Men.
What Garcia read stands as a remarkable document. Unfeeling and compressed, it is comparable in length to Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.
Garcia read without faltering:
"Your Honor, in June of 1991, Johnathan Doody and I got together and planned to rob and burglarize the Thai Buddhist temple.
"During the planning of June, July and early August, we obtained clothing, equipment and guns which were to be used in the robbery and burglary.
"Part of our plan was to leave no witnesses. On the evening of August 9, 1991, we started to put our plan in action.
"Johnathan and I drove to the temple. I was armed with a 20-gauge pump shotgun. Johnathan was armed with a .22-caliber semiautomatic rifle. We entered the temple without permission, armed with the rifles I just told you about.
"Johnathan and I entered the temple with the intent to rob, burglarize and kill the people inside. We were inside the temple for about two hours.
"During that time, Johnathan and I took property and money from the people living at the temple. This included cameras, stereos, jewelry, money and other property.
"We didn't have permission to take this property. Before leaving the temple, Johnathan told me, 'No witnesses.' "I told him, 'Robbery is one thing, but murder is another.'
"Johnathan repeated to me that there could be no witnesses.
"He then stepped to my right and, while armed with the .22-caliber rifle, began shooting the nine occupants while they were laying on the floor. I began firing my 20-gauge shotgun, but fired not to kill anyone. I fired four rounds from my shotgun toward the nine people laying on the floor.
"We both then ran from the temple with the property and money we stole.
"About two and one half months later, we were arrested. Before our arrest, the police arrested four men from Tucson and charged them with the murders that Johnathan and I committed at the temple. These four men had nothing to do with the case that has become known as the Temple Homicides. "Johnathan and I committed these crimes by ourselves. For this I am deeply sorry." Garcia spoke each word without displaying the slightest sign of human emotion. Not once did he falter.
As he spoke, a television pool cameraman, seated in the front of the jury box, recorded his words. There was a still photographer in the jury box, too, acting as a pool representative for the newspapers.
During Garcia's recitation, not a single person in the packed courtroom made a sound.
I sat off to the side, in the front row. Halfway down the aisle was Dennis Wagner, the excellent daily columnist for the Phoenix Gazette. He scribbled notes rapidly with a No. 2 lead pencil with his left hand. Gazette court reporter J.W. Brown, dressed in a plaid suit, was next to Wagner. Lynn Debruin of the Mesa Tribune was there, too. Reporter Abraham Kwok of the Arizona Republic, wearing a pink shirt and tie, sat on the other side of the room. The remarkable Kwok, who came to this country from China at age 11 and worked his way through the University of Arizona, speaks faultless English, with no trace of an accent.
Most of the television reporters viewed the proceedings from a monitor set up in a corridor outside the court.
Garcia's father, the career Army sergeant who had advised him to confess, was not present. Four members of the Buddhist temple sat in the second row. The delegation consisted of a man and three women. As Garcia read his statement, the three women appeared on the brink of tears.
It was as if that terrifying night stalker who had perpetrated perhaps the most heinous crime in Arizona history was no longer connected to the hulking figure who stood before us.
But, of course, Garcia was no longer holding a shotgun in his hands--merely a three-page confession.
Judge Martin asked K.C. Scull, the lead prosecutor, if he was certain Garcia was the defendant the county wanted to make its deal with. Scull is like a barrister out of Dickens. Beady-eyed and bearded, he has a middle-aged paunch and an offensive, self-important air about him. Scull bolted from his chair. In an oily voice, he told Judge Martin that Garcia was indeed the man with whom the county had chosen to make its deal.
The question seemed strange to the reporters present. None remembered such a query being made by a judge at this stage of a hearing.
It wasn't until later that it was learned why Judge Martin asked his question. It turned out that Garcia has been allegedly involved in still another murder, this one two months after the temple massacre.
In the subsequent murder, Garcia and a 16-year-old girlfriend had shot a 50-year-old woman, Alice Cameron, to death in a $20 robbery. Judge Martin knows about making deals in murder cases. For years he was a criminal defense attorney. One of his clients was John Harvey Adamson, the man who placed the bomb under Republic reporter Don Bolles' automobile. Adamson made a deal for his life by turning state's evidence in the case.
In fact, Judge Martin and the bomber remain close friends to this day.
Judge Martin, a dedicated jogger, is an ascetic who eats lunch in his office every day. He is also independently wealthy and lives in a palatial home. When appointed to the bench, he arranged a gala inaugural affair for himself at Phoenix Country Club. Chief Supreme Court Justice Frank X. Gordon swore him in.
The event was attended by members of the local bar. There was also a large delegation from the County Attorney's Office, a group with a notorious penchant for free hors d'oeuvres and cocktails.
@body:The day after the hearing, I drove out to Agua Fria High School. I wanted to get a look at the school Garcia and Doody had attended.
It's an easy place to find. You take the highway that leads to California and hang a left to the south on Dysart Road. Agua Fria High, with its proliferation of playing fields and single-story classroom buildings, takes up an area as large as Phoenix College.
If you wanted to pick a school simply for a pretty campus, Agua Fria might be your choice. When I arrived, it was lunch hour. Students were bustling about the walkways. Many of the male students wore jackets with professional-sports-team logos like the 49ers and the Raiders. Most of the boys wore baseball caps with the brims turned to the rear. Many wore ponytails like Garcia's.
"I knew him," one student said. "But there's not much to say about him. He was in ROTC. But he wasn't on any of the teams. He was quiet. Everyone finds this to be pretty bizarre."
John Durbin, the superintendent, was in his office but on the telephone.
I sat down to wait for him and glanced through the school newspaper, the Desert Howl.
On the editorial page, there was an article comparing Agua Fria to Brophy Prep.
The article, written by Ashley Wells, points out that most people think of students who go to prep schools as "snotty, rich eggheads who have no fun."
On the other hand, the perception of students at Agua Fria is that of "normal, fun-loving, 'All-American' teenagers."
Ironically, the other article on the editorial page was from a student in the Netherlands who admitted shock at finding out that there are places in the United States that still have the death penalty.
The writer, Nathalie Verhaug, tells of a case in her town where a 16-year-old was sentenced to death after shooting a jewelry-store owner in a robbery.
"I would like to know how you feel about the death penalty," she asks, "when it is applied to teenagers."
Superintendent Durbin invited me into his office. He has been at Agua Fria three years, after spending 22 years in the Scottsdale system.
"I wish there was something I could tell you about these boys," he said, "but they never made trouble on campus. They never did anything to draw attention to themselves."
Durbin realizes what the admitted crimes of Doody and Garcia do to the school's image.
"It's not a place like that at all," Durbin said. He spoke of the advances being made on the modern campus. Within months one of the most sophisticated computer systems in the state will be installed.
"Why, this year the kids even won the state football championship," he said.
@body:I drove back downtown to visit the county courthouse, so I could read the report in Garcia's file in which he admitted killing Alice Cameron.
Judge Martin had ordered this portion of the file sealed at assistant county attorney Scull's request.
It had since been opened.
Judge Martin was sitting at his desk with the door open. His robes were off. He was drinking from a can of juice. I made for the door, with the intention of asking him why he had sealed the information about the Cameron murder.
One of his assistants raced to cut me off. The woman then darted into Judge Martin's office and slammed the door behind her.
In a few minutes, she came back out.
"Judge Martin won't see you now," she said.
I noticed she didn't say that the judge "can't" see me. The operative word was "won't."
I told her I'd like to see the Garcia file.
"It's in the other room," she said. Then she led me to a side office.
"He wants to see the Garcia file," she told her fellow worker.
The woman shrugged her shoulders.
"It's not here," she said. "Judge Martin told me to take it downstairs to the record room right after we finished with it."
I thought nothing of it. I took the elevator down to the record room.
"The Garcia file's not here," a clerk told me. "It's probably still up in the judge's chambers."
I told the clerk how the file had been carried down to the record room by one of Judge Martin's staff.
The clerk looked again.
"Sorry," he said. "It's definitely not here."
He agreed to call Judge Martin's office.
A few minutes later, the clerk came back.
"The Garcia file is up there," he said. "They say the judge is not going to let anybody see it."
The file is a public record. If Judge Martin were not afflicted by a case of galloping robitis, he would have been able to understand that fact.
"Robitis" is an affliction which attacks many judges in our court system from time to time. The outward signs are easy to detect, because they are always accompanied by decisions which place them above the law they are appointed to uphold.
@body:Despite Judge Martin's attempt at obstruction, here is what the sealed part of Garcia's file contains.
When Garcia was offered the plea by the County Attorney's Office, they warned him he must tell them of all crimes in which he was implicated or the plea agreement would be abrogated.
If that happened, Garcia would face the death penalty rather than life imprisonment.
With this in mind, Garcia admitted that on October 18, 1991, he and a girlfriend had killed Cameron at a camping site near Horseshoe Dam. This was two months after the temple murders.
Garcia told the investigators it was the girl who pulled the trigger and not him. Once again Garcia says he was in a situation where he didn't fire the fatal shots.
But the state has made the uncomfortable decision to go with the testimony of a defendant who now admits he is a serial killer.
As attorney Peter Balkan, who defends Johnathan Doody, says: "How much credibility can anyone give the testimony of an admitted mass murderer and serial killer?"
@body:Those who derive their information about the temple murders only from Richard Romley's televised press conferences may view Romley as a savior of justice.
However, an examination of the court documents shows Romley in a harsher light. A reading of the documents reveals Romley as a slippery incompetent. He is desperately attempting to cast the blame of his own botched operation on former Maricopa County Sheriff Tom Agnos.
Romley moved last week to extricate himself from political damage as he has in the aftermath of AzScam. Not only has he turned into a crank letter writer to the Republic's editorial page, but he has developed the strategy of opening his own expensive media room for TV press conferences any time he feels his name is endangered.
For a sleazy politician like Romley, a press conference becomes a license to lie. All he needs to do is express concern for justice and then jump off the stage before his own shortcomings are exposed. For Romley the method works. For this reason, the average television viewer may even be convinced this most incompetent of all county attorneys is even being sincere.
But the blame in the temple murders investigation does not belong solely to Agnos and the way his investigators worked to gain confessions. The blame should be placed directly in the lap of Romley and the lawyers from his County Attorney's Office assigned to the case.
Assistant county attorneys K.C. Scull and Paul Ahler have behaved throughout this episode like a pair of arrogant louts. They were only too anxious to accept the confessions handed to them without question. It was their responsibility to make certain the cases protected the rights of the innocent. They, not Agnos' deputies, were in charge of taking the cases to court. But they rushed to file first-degree-murder charges against the four suspects from Tucson without any corroborating evidence.
So it was Romley's office which was ultimately at fault, not Sheriff Agnos'. The only difference is that Romley rushed to the television cameras first. So he may have succeeded in making the average voter think he's the Great White Knight.
Now Romley tells us he will review all the confessions obtained by the sheriff's office in murder cases. This is a smoke screen. It has been his job all along to review these cases in the most careful manner possible, so that the rights of the accused are protected.
If Romley were reacting honestly, he would admit that county attorneys rarely question confessions or look behind them to find corroborating evidence. To them they represent easy cases and fine additions to their records. You should not be surprised to learn that prosecutors keep score as to the number of cases they win.
And what about all the sitting judges who let the charges go through without enough examination?
Romley's charges against the sheriff's department will not stand a close examination. The sheriff's office simply does not have that much power. It is Romley's County Attorney's Office that has all the power.
One final question: Since it was Romley's staffers that mishandled these cases, why should they be the ones to review them? Wouldn't everyone feel more secure if the review was handled by an outside agency? I come away with a single, arresting memory.
For a second in that courtroom the other day, I saw Alex Garcia's eyes. There was a hint of cruelty and indifference in the quick, furtive gaze he cast around the packed courtroom.
The vision of hatred and defiance lasted just seconds. Then, the self-confessed architect and participant in the ritual murder of nine helpless people in the Wat Promkunaram temple lowered his glance. The savage light disappeared.
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With his head down, the anger that glows beneath the surface of this 17-year-old former Agua Fria High School student was no longer visible. I remember, too, a perhaps fairly important detail Garcia admitted to the County Attorney's Office investigators about Alice Cameron.
The police arrested George Peterson, a mental defective, for the crime. He has been in jail for more than a year, after signing a coerced confession of first-degree murder.
Garcia never cared that an innocent man was perhaps facing the death penalty. Garcia and his girlfriend shot the woman in the back twice, for $20. She begged them for her life, to no avail. Garcia admits waiting at the murder scene for an hour to make sure his victim was dead. This is the defendant Romley chose as the one whose life should be spared.