Odd as it was, the caller's request didn't shock Leigh Wilson. "This woman on the other end said she had plenty of money and that she wanted a certain person killed," says Wilson, a 48-year-old Scottsdale businessman. "This may sound crazy, but I'm one of the few people in the Valley who would get a call like this and not be a bit surprised."
There's a good reason: Wilson owns a company known as Gunsmoke, Guns for Hire--it's in Phoenix's Yellow Pages. He provides entertainment. Among other things, Guns for Hire puts on Wild West theatrical shows for conventions, private parties and the like.
Thousands have enjoyed Wilson's kitschy Arizona revue for more than twenty years. Out-of-towners want to think of Arizona as the shoot-'em-up state of a century ago, when men settled spats on dusty Main Streets beneath an ever-blazing sun. The Guns for Hire concept feeds that fantasy in a colorful and harmless way.
The name generates prank telephone calls all the time.
"I get stuff like, `Hi. Is Matt Dillon there?'" Wilson says. "Or `Hi, do you have someone who can do a hit for me tonight? I need a hold-up man.' Kidding-around stuff."
But the call on the morning of January 4 was different from the others. "It took me a minute to comprehend what in the world I was really listening to," Wilson recalls. Finally, it struck him: "This woman wasn't kidding. I just knew it. She was cool as a cucumber. She did want me to get her a hit man. It was bizarre. Really."
The woman's "bizarre" telephone call to Leigh Wilson last January started a chain of events that culminated four days later in the parking lot of a Mesa restaurant. Police there arrested Sharleen Bath, a 46-year-old Canadian mother of two grown children.
Bath's intended victim was her husband of 28 years, James, the well-to-do owner of a construction company near Vancouver, British Columbia. Her alleged motive, police and prosecutors say, was one of the oldest in the book. Sharleen Bath had become enmeshed in an extramarital love affair and she apparently couldn't face the public humiliation of divorcing the man whom she married at eighteen. She resolved, the prosecution theory goes, to have James Bath murdered by a contract killer. She says she wasn't in it for the insurance money.
No one disputes that she handed MD120 Col 1, Depth P54.02 I9.03 almost $2,000 in Canadian and American currency to an undercover Phoenix detective masquerading as a professional killer. But her defense attorney is expected to argue she is legally insane.
Bath remains in the Maricopa County Jail in lieu of a $1 million bond. The erstwhile snowbird faces a 25-year prison term if convicted of conspiring to commit the premeditated murder of her husband.
She declined an opportunity to speak publicly about her case. The details have been gleaned from other interviews and from Phoenix Police Department reports.
The case's oddest detail, of course, is Bath's attempt to find a hit man by letting her fingers do the walking. She called Wilson back twice in three days. During their final conversation of January 7, Wilson put his "hit man" on the line to do business directly. Bath and the "hit man" agreed to meet in person the next day.
Unfortunately for Bath, the "hit man" was an undercover cop. Leigh Wilson has a hard time believing all this has happened. Upon reflection, however, he says, "This is Arizona, get what I'm saying? That this woman would want to pay for a hit isn't the amazing thing, I guess. The amazing thing is the way she went about it. `Hi, stranger. I want someone killed.'"
SHARLEEN BATH moved last November from her home in British Columbia to a Mesa trailer park. She needed an extended period of rest and relaxation, her Canadian doctors had told her, and a winter's stint in the Valley of the Sun seemed to fit the bill.
According to Bath's defense attorney Allen Bickart, doctors had diagnosed her as suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome about four months before she moved here for the winter. CFS is a baffling illness that wasn't identified until 1988. It's characterized by extreme fatigue and related symptoms that often include headaches, joint and muscle pain, and depression.
Defense lawyer Bickart is expected to contend at trial that Bath's condition caused her to believe her husband had shipped her to Arizona because he had tired of her. She had contemplated suicide for a time, Bickart says, then transferred her antipathy to James Bath.
"This was a caring and loving mother and wife whose whole personality changed because of her illness," Bickart Col 3, Depth P54.10 I9.14 get involved in something until we knew a little more about what's goin' on."
Replied Bath, "Basically, it would be best if it was in Canada. And the sooner the better. I could send you something as a deposit to show good faith."
Bath said she'd call back two days later, and Wilson promised to have his hit man standing by. That's where Detective Jack Ballentine comes into the picture.
The thirteen-year Phoenix police veteran had been working for months behind the scenes of AzScam, the state's biggest political-sting operation. One of Ballentine's supervisors at the Organized Crime Bureau told him to take a break from the sting to act as a "hit man" for a while.
Jack Ballentine has honed his hit man act almost to perfection. A good-natured man in real life, the detective can easily transform himself into a very believable crook when he has to. At six foot five, he's physically imposing, and his size helps sell the image.
Over the years, Ballentine has fooled bikers, sex perverts and businessmen into thinking he's a fellow scoundrel. Sharleen Bath, a middle-aged former Sunday-school teacher with no criminal record, promised to be no match for him.
Bath telephoned Guns for Hire late on the morning of January 8. Leigh Wilson soon put undercover cop Ballentine on the line.
Ballentine introduces himself as "Jake."
"My concern when [Leigh] said to call back another day, it could have been a setup," Bath tells Jake. "I have to trust you."
Jake turns the tables by asking Bath if she's an undercover cop. After she insists she isn't, Jake makes his pitch. "You hire me to do something, I do it, period. I wanna see a face so that I know who I'm dealin' with."
Bath MDRVagrees, but also MDRVinsists that the murder be committed in the next ten days. "Maybe I'm really off-base," she MDRV says, "but is it possible that it be done in a car? Is that kind of thing possible, or is that back to Al Capone days?"
Jake MDRVassures her that murder by car bomb is a distinct possibility, but he wants to know something. "Is it an `ex' or is it a boyfriend or what?" he MDRVasks.
"A husband," Bath MDRVsays, adding that James Bath is planning to visit her in Phoenix on January 17. That's why the job MDRVhas to be done so soon, she MDRVsays.
"What are you willing to pay?" Jake MDRVasks. "Have you thought replies, "and maybe I'm so far out of my field, but I thought $10,000."
Jake MDRVasks Bath for "a couple thousand on top," which she soon MDRVagrees to. "I don't ever fail," he MDRVpromises her.
"That's important. You've been able to do this before?" she MDRVasks. Sure, he MDRVsays.
Bath MDRVwants Jake to take pains that her husband's murder will appear to be business-related. Then she MDRVgets down to the potentially gory details:
"He lives on a boat, but I don't want anything happening down there at the marina," she MDRVsays, trying to keep her marina-manager boyfriend out of it.
She MDRVadds, "This isn't anything to do with insurance money. I don't even know what he has."
Bath and Jake MDRVconclude their telephone conversation by agreeing to meet in person the following day. "In Canada, by the way, there's not a death penalty for things the way it is down here," she MDRVreassures her new associate. After some discussion, Bath MDRV recommends that they meet in the parking lot at the Black Angus on Alma School and Southern in Mesa.
"I'll wear jeans, and my jacket I'll have on is a hot pink and black," Sharleen Bath MDRVsays. "'Bye."
SHARLEEN BATH drove into the Black Angus parking lot in her maroon 1990 Lincoln, five minutes before her scheduled 10 a.m. meeting with "Jake."
Jack Ballentine was waiting for her in front of the restaurant, wired for sound and within sight of Phoenix police technicians and their hidden VCR camera. What the detective saw was a deeply tanned bleached blonde whom, as advertised, was wearing her hot pink and denim outfit.
Bath MDRVpulls out a list of handwritten questions she MDRVwants to ask the soon-to-be-hired hit man. "I've been reading true-crime books since I decided this," she MDRVtells Jake. "This has been a decision for about a year and not a couple of weeks. So it's not like I'm going to change my mind."
Bath MDRVseems to have contemplated every angle. She MDRVtells Jake she wants to put $10,000 in cash in a storage locker at the Vancouver airport. MDRVShe'll send the killer the key to the locker after the deed is done. "I have been pulling it out a little bit at a time, so there is no trace on the money I've been taking," she MDRV advises him.
Things MDRVget personal. Bath MDRVconfides to is involved romantically with a man other than her husband. "I've been married for 28 years," she MDRV tells him, "and everybody including Mom thinks we're the most happily married couple they have ever seen. Two wonderful kids. If I was to tell them I was in love with the most wonderful person in the world, if I was to divorce, it would devastate my family."
Bath MDRVadds, in an unintentionally funny aside, "This kind of thing does not happen in Vancouver. In Montreal, maybe." She MDRVtells Jake she's been suffering from Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and MDRV says she came to polluted Phoenix "to get my lungs cleared up."
Then MDRVit's back to talking turkey. Bath MDRV draws maps for Jake that MDRVwill help him find James Bath's place of business from the Vancouver airport. She MDRVshows Jake a photograph of her husband.
"He'll be easy to pick out," Jake MDRVsays. "You don't want him shot or kidnaped, right?"
"I don't want him kidnaped. Absolutely. Shot, um. Would you be more happy to do it that way? I'll give you license to change."
In the end, after discussing drowning and shooting her husband, Bath MDRVseems satisfied that a car-bomb explosion MDRVwill do the trick. "This has to look like a professional hit," she MDRVurges Jake time and again.
MDRVIt's all set then. All MDRVthat's left MDRVis for Sharleen Bath to pay Jake the previously agreed-upon $2,000 in advance money. She hands Detective Ballentine $1,984 in Canadian and United States cash, apologizing for slightly miscalculating the value of the Canadian dollar.
Bath MDRVwalks to her Lincoln. "Go ahead and take her off," Ballentine MDRVwhispers into his hidden microphone. A small army of officers MDRVswoops in and MDRVarrests her without incident.
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As Ballentine MDRVprocesses Bath's paperwork at the downtown Phoenix police station, he MDRVasks her the $1 million question: How in the world had she come to ask Guns for Hire for someone to murder her husband?
"She looked in the phone book," the detective later wrote of her response, "and found Outlaws Casino under `Casinos.'"
Her logic had run something like this--casinos, Mafia, hit men. She had considered calling motorcycle clubs and an Italian-American association.
But Outlaws Casino isn't a Mafia front. It's another Leigh Wilson