When federal agents arrested a dozen members of the Viper Militia on weapons charges, that was news to Gordon Tunstall of Phoenix, whose fledgling business had just enjoyed its three best weeks since getting off the ground.
But it was even bigger news to him when a newscast the next day misidentified his business as one of several sites raided by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms in connection with the arrests.
And Tunstall found it simply mind-blowing that the segment continued to air even, he says, after an assignment editor for KSAZ-TV, Channel 10, the area's Fox affiliate, called him to apologize for the error.
"That's what gets me," says Tunstall, who sells ramps--for vehicles, for businesses, for the disabled--through EZ-N-Ramps, the business he and his wife, Geni, started ten months ago. "They knew it was wrong. And they showed it anyway."
Now, Tunstall says, business has slowed to a crawl. "We're just a small retail outlet," he says. "We depend on our clients to stay alive. But since then, our phone has been dead. In a matter of 48 hours, they put us in an ugly light and pretty much shut us down."
Not until Friday, after New Times had contacted the station for comment, did KSAZ-TV retract or apologize for prolonging the error, despite what Tunstall thought was a pledge on its part to do so earlier. But if business continues to slump the way it has been, he says, he will be forced to close.
"I don't want to bash Channel 10," he says. "We're just trying to stay alive and sell ramps. I want our business to be known as not the bomb factory, and just the place you buy ramps from. Like it was before."
Gordon Tunstall spent ten years as a corrections officer for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department and the Department of Justice's bureau of prisons before deciding it was time to be his own boss. After some entrepreneurial research, he and Geni saw ramp sales as a niche that needed filling.
When they started last September, they operated out of their home, testing the waters: Gordon would do a graveyard shift as a corrections officer, then spend days making calls, pitching the product. Business grew. Tunstall gave his notice at work. In March, EZ-N-Ramps opened at its current site, at 20th Avenue and Glendale.
Since then, the Tunstalls say, they've worked six days a week and 12 hours a day at the site, a small office-park area that includes a tree-trimming service, an auto repair shop and a storage facility--the one that had been raided by federal agents.
"We could see that the work we'd done was paying off," Tunstall says. Customers would stop by or call in the mornings, even while the couple was setting up. June brought three increasingly successful weeks of sales.
Then, on the morning of July 2, the day after the militia arrests, the Tunstalls were outside accepting a delivery when they noticed a guy with a camera and tripod in the parking lot. "We didn't know why he was in the corner of the lot, doing this," Tunstall says.
Later that morning, a Denver reporter showed up with court documents showing that ATF agents had raided a storage facility rented by militia member Randy Nelson at 2009 West Glendale Avenue, lot number four. "It specifically said a storage facility," Tunstall says. The address for EZ-N-Ramps, meanwhile, is 2007 West Glendale Avenue.
The Tunstalls pointed the reporter in the right direction.
With the flurry of media attention surrounding the arrests and the paucity of business signs in the area, it would be one of many media requests for directions the Tunstalls would receive. "We've had the New York Times in here asking us," Tunstall says. "The only one that didn't have the guts to just come in here and ask is Channel 10. We were the only people with a sign in front of the building. We didn't even know it [the storage facility] was raided."
In the meantime, he headed to Tucson on business while Geni stayed behind to run the show. Just after noon, someone from the auto repair shop came in to tell the Tunstalls that EZ-N-Ramps had been shown on Channel 10 in connection with the arrests.
Gordon Tunstall returned from Tucson just in time to see the station's 4:30 newscast, then called KSAZ-TV to complain.
He says he got a call about 5:15 from assignment editor Jay Mueller, who apologized for the error and said a new crew would be coming out to film new footage. "He said, 'We're sorry, we made a mistake,'" Tunstall says.
Relieved, Tunstall told the guys at Duncan's Auto Repair that the station was going to pull the story. On the six o'clock newscast, the footage showing his store had indeed been pulled, and a crew did show up around 7 p.m., presumably to film the new one. "I figured it was over and done with," he says.
But it wasn't.
That night, he got a call saying the original footage had reappeared on the 9 p.m. broadcast of KSAZ-TV's Arizona Prime Time.
Flabbergasted, he set his VCR and waited for the station's 10 p.m. newscast.
As seen on Tunstall's videotape of that broadcast, anchors June Thomson and Bob Bruce led off the newscast with the militia arrests, "The Big Story," as indicated by a screen-filling graphic. The subsequent segments were each accompanied by a "Bomb Plot" logo showing a large government-type building partially obscured by a major explosion reminiscent of the Oklahoma City bombing.
There are suspect profiles of the Viper Militia members, then a segment noting that ATF agents had raided a third site, finding amounts of explosive materials. In the report, the camera clearly shows people outside EZ-N-Ramps conducting a transaction, then zooms in briefly on the business sign itself.
The footage, Tunstall says, ran again the next morning, and that's when he called an attorney.
A business associate, Greg Mann of Classic Vespa of Phoenix, had just recommended EZ-N-Ramps to a customer when he saw the story showing Tunstall's ramp business that night.
"It took a second for it to set in," Mann says, "and then it was, 'Oh, my God.' There was this truck out front, and I thought, 'There's the ATF guys, unloading the bombs out of EZ-N-Ramps--we tried to help this guy, and then look what he did.' And then I thought, 'Maybe these guys really are normal Joes.'"
And a friend who still works at the Department of Justice says co-workers have been asking whether Tunstall is in jail.
Contacted late July 11, KSAZ-TV assignment editor Jay Mueller said, "I basically need to refer you to management on this one." But news director Bill Berra was unavailable last Friday, and no one else returned a call seeking comment.
Channel 10 ran its first explicit correction of the Viper foul-up ten minutes into its noon newscast on Friday. Tunstall's attorney, Dave Derickson of the law firm of Burch and Cracchiolo, said he first heard there would be a retraction from KSAZ-TV attorneys last Thursday afternoon, after New Times had contacted the station.
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"I've basically taken the position that, 'I present you [KSAZ-TV] with this problem; you find a way to solve it,'" Derickson says. Despite the correction, "It doesn't mean we have settled this potential lawsuit."
Even with the retraction, Tunstall says the effect of the original story on his business remains to be seen. "Our retail last month was $15,100," Tunstall says. "Right now we're at $1,000, and we should be around $4,000. The phone yesterday was completely dead. We know this has affected us."
He and Geni will decide by July 31 whether to stay open.
"You don't just step on a little business," he says. "They can't just crush us like a little bug."
Mann, from Classic Vespa, says the situation is a genuine injustice to the Tunstalls. "He and his wife were finally starting to achieve the American dream, and now it's all wiped out. Everything they've earned. Here's a guy who's basically running a service for the community, selling disability ramps for old folks' homes. I really feel bad for him. He just wants people to know he's not a bad guy.