DYING TO BE FREE
When Deborah Stuart left the home of her elderly aunt last July--skipping out on her probation officer, stealing $300 and leaving behind an $875 phone bill--there was little doubt where she was headed.
The 31-year-old mother of two, a repeat felon, was making a beeline for Oklahoma--specifically for 1-918-596-5601, the number of a pay phone inside the Tulsa County Jail, where her husband, Perry Stuart, was being held on armed-robbery charges.
At the time, Deborah Stuart was on probation for helping her husband in an earlier escape attempt. She had smuggled a gun to him, and he had tried to bolt from the Maricopa County Courthouse, where he was making an appearance on charges stemming from yet another, earlier escape attempt.
That history--and a phone bill showing a steady stream of collect phone calls from the Tulsa jail to the home of Deborah Stuart's aunt, Verline Graham--made another escape try seem imminent.
After Graham got a look at her phone bill, she knew something was up. She had an attorney, Theodore Jarvi, contact the Maricopa County Probation Department on July 23, alerting the duty officer that Deborah Stuart had apparently fled the state. Jarvi also sent copies of the phone bill to Deborah Stuart's probation officer, Kim Ong, who had made no inquiries after Deborah Stuart missed a July 21 session with Ong.
Armed with strong indications that Deborah Stuart was en route to Tulsa to attempt to free her husband, Maricopa County probation officers did nothing. They didn't even contact Tulsa police.
By July 30, Perry Stuart was dead of a gunshot wound he sustained--authorities say it was self-inflicted--during a July 30 breakout attempt at the Tulsa jail. A jail guard was wounded. Deborah Stuart was arrested in Tulsa four days later for probation violations, and is suspected of somehow smuggling the gun her husband used in the ill-fated breakout attempt into the jail, Tulsa police say.
Jarvi says the Tulsa shootings might have been prevented if Maricopa County had alerted Tulsa police that Deborah Stuart might be headed their way.
"The probation officer had this information, and if they would have followed up on it, they might have prevented this crime," Jarvi says. "But it just sort of sat around."
Ong declined to comment, but Mike Goss, the probation department's custodian of records, confirmed that no effort was made to contact Tulsa police. Goss says Ong did not call Tulsa police because Jarvi told another probation officer on July 23 that Deborah Stuart was heading to Colorado.
"That's certainly not true," Jarvi says. "I never would have said that. There was only one place she would go, and that's Tulsa."
While Ong did not call Tulsa police, he did call the phone number listed on Graham's phone bill, the pay phone inside the Tulsa jail. "It was busy; he never got an answer," Goss says. Nevertheless, Goss says Ong "assumed it was the Tulsa jail."
The probation department finally contacted Tulsa authorities after August 1, when news of Perry Stuart's death reached Phoenix.
Besides the information provided to probation officers by Jarvi, Maricopa County court records also indicated that Deborah Stuart was likely to skip out on parole or probation. After Deborah Stuart had been arrested on charges of aiding her husband's August 1992 escape attempt, a sheriff's deputy filed a report stating that Deborah Stuart "will flee the state if released."
Despite the high risk she posed, Deborah Stuart served only nine months of a two-year sentence after she was convicted of helping her husband in the courthouse escape attempt. While imprisoned on that charge, she pleaded guilty to stealing $1,500 in cashier's checks in December 1991 and depositing them in her savings account. The plea bargain also wiped out armed-robbery charges stemming from the holdup of a Phoenix Circle K store in March 1991. But instead of increased jail time for the theft, she was given three years probation.
Upon her release last June, Deborah Stuart moved into Graham's home under the terms of her parole. She met with probation officer Ong two times before missing her third appointment.
Graham says Deborah Stuart took off about July 12, telling Graham that she was going to Tucson. But Graham says she realized Deborah might not be coming back when she discovered $300 missing from her purse.
"I didn't know she got it until I got out to the Indian reservation to go gambling," Graham says.
What happened once Deborah Stuart reached Tulsa is under investigation by the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office, says Lieutenant Dick Bishop. Police are trying to determine how Perry Stuart obtained a .25-caliber handgun after being moved into a jail waiting room. Perry Stuart and another inmate were moved to the room after jailers received a call from someone purporting to be from the U.S. Marshal's Office.
When jail officials learned that nobody from the marshal's office had called, a jailer was sent to bring the handcuffed men out of the waiting room and back to the jail. But when the jailer reached the waiting room, Perry Stuart and the other inmate had managed to bring their handcuffed arms in front of their bodies, and Stuart was armed with the handgun. He allegedly fired a shot at the jailer, grazing the worker in the head and triggering massive bleeding. The jailer recovered.
The inmates split up, and moments later, a single shot was heard. Police reportedly found Perry Stuart with what appeared to be a self-inflicted, fatal gunshot wound, Bishop says.
Although the Tulsa County medical examiner has not determined the cause of death, Bishop is certain that Perry Stuart--a career felon who had served prison time for rape, assault, robbery and escape--shot himself.
"There's no doubt in my mind at all," Bishop says. Investigators believe that Stuart may have taken his own life because he mistakenly believed he had killed or seriously wounded the jailer.
In addition to wondering why Maricopa County probation officials did nothing to alert law enforcement officials in Tulsa, Verline Graham wants to know who is going to pay her $875 phone bill. Graham says she can't pay it, but hopes Tulsa County will.
"The sheriff out there told me to mail him the bill," she says. "I'm waiting to hear what will happen.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.