The story of the recent murder of a young west Phoenix couple has become an Elmore Leonard novel, with its bounty hunters and police snitches and thieves and aspiring ninjas and murderers and strippers.
On September 13, in the latest chapter, Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley made a jolting announcement: The five men who were charged the week before with second-degree murder for killing 23-year-old Christopher Foote and his girlfriend, 19-year-old Spring Wright, now would be charged with first-degree murder.
Just before dawn on August 31, five men wearing face masks and black paramilitary fatigues had sledgehammered their way into the Foote-Wright home.
First, the intruders entered the guest bedroom and whacked a woman there with a flashlight. Then, one goon held the woman and her three children at gunpoint while the others pounded the bedroom door of Foote and Wright.
Foote shot at the door with a gun he kept by his bed.
The intruders returned fire. Foote and Wright died instantly in their bloody bed linens.
Then the brutes in black ran away.
Michael Sanders and David Brackney, who had worn body armor in the assault but were nevertheless slightly wounded by Foote's bullets, sought treatment at a Maryvale hospital. At the hospital, Sanders and Brackney told police the entire affair was a tragically botched but perfectly legal manhunt. The wounded men and their co-commandos were bounty hunters in search of a bail jumper whom they mistakenly assumed was in the Foote-Wright house. When Foote fired at them, they said, they had no choice but to shoot back in self-defense.
Phoenix police didn't swallow the story. Sanders and Brackney were arrested and booked on second-degree-murder charges. Then the Phoenix cops arrested three more men: Sanders' brother-in-law Brian Robbins, David Brackney's son Matthew Brackney, and Ronald Timms. They, too, were charged with second-degree murder.
And then the second-degree-murder charges were upgraded by Romley. The county attorney asserted that Sanders and his gang of aspiring samurais weren't really bounty hunting that night, they were committing a robbery.
The bounty hunting had just been a ruse, Romley said, but he wouldn't explain further. Which leaves us all wondering: What were these five potbellied goofs in Bruce Lee garb trying to steal--drugs, money?
Or were they out to kill someone in the house?
From the very beginning, the assassination of Foote and Wright caused a public commotion. The apparent ringleader, Michael Sanders, an embittered white-trash criminal, became the focus of the fuss. For years he had kept himself out of jail by being a police snitch, first committing crimes, then earning kid-glove treatment by ratting on his accomplices. Defense attorneys hollered that the Phoenix cops and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office were wrong to protect such felonious snitches. Of course, the defense attorneys neatly forgot to mention that it's only natural for them to jump on the cops for coddling informants. It's the defense's job to disparage the credibility of informants who wind up testifying against their clients.
In the midst of all that, State Senator John Kaites led a public outcry for bounty-hunter regulation, even though these guys weren't really bounty hunting.
Everyone seemed to miss the point. It's not that there's something unusual about cops using cretins like Sanders to help solve crimes. After all, they have a working knowledge of the trade.
Police and prosecutors use snitches out of necessity.
But the problem arises when the cops protect informants and use them when they really don't need them, when the crime could be solved without them. In these instances, it's almost as if the cops forget what side the informants are on. Good cops know the relationship is a sensitive one. They need these guys, and sometimes it's only natural to waffle a bit when it comes to choosing between protecting the snitch or enforcing the law.
Glendale police seem to have found themselves in exactly that fuzzy area with the home-invasion ringleader Sanders back in early 1995.
Simply put, the Glendale police protected Sanders by not thoroughly investigating him for his role in Glendale's most notorious crime: the robbery of a Wells Fargo van and the horrible murder of the driver.
Court records show that the Glendale cops did not act on leads from James Gonzales, a former bounty hunter who implicated Sanders in the Wells Fargo robbery. Gonzales was not a typical snitch--he had had a clean record and had recently retired from the Border Patrol. Gonzales told Glendale police that on bounty-hunting sorties, he'd heard Sanders plan the Wells Fargo robbery. He offered to testify about it.
Instead of investigating Sanders, police brought him into their circle. They used him as a snitch. They protected him by ignoring that Sanders had lied about his alibi. And when they got a videotape of a witness who saw a man who looked like Sanders speeding by in the armored car, they didn't log it into evidence.
Michael Martin Sanders was 24 and a prison guard in Texas when he committed his first big crime in 1981. Even then, Corrections Officer Sanders was bitter--he didn't think he was earning the kind of money a man of his intelligence and talent deserved. His big mistake: He tried to befriend an inmate. The prisoner later told authorities the gasbag prison guard tried to involve him in a stupid plot to rob a country-western bar, that Sanders claimed he was going to kill a snitch for money, that Sanders planned to help a prisoner escape.
An investigation ensued, and Sanders eventually went to prison for two years for retaliating against a witness in the investigation.
When Sanders got out of prison, he headed for Phoenix and decided to be an informant himself. He got involved with some thugs who plotted a contract killing, stole, sold drugs. When it looked as if the cops were wising up, Sanders ratted out his pals to Phoenix police.
When he wasn't a snitch, Sanders was a welder.
And when he wasn't welding, he was bounty hunting.
Not always successfully. In 1994, he was sentenced to three years' probation for shooting somebody during a Tucson bounty hunt. During probation, he wasn't supposed to carry a gun.
But Sanders loved guns. For fun, he shot in competitions and visited gun shops and gunsmiths.
He shared his passion for guns with two boneheaded Arizona Department of Corrections prison guards--Tim Ring and James Greenham (a man so ugly his friends called him "Yoda," after the Star Wars creature)--and with a Federal Bureau of Prisons investigator named David Brackney.
In 1992, Ring and Sanders occasionally stalked fugitives with a former Border Patrol agent named James Gonzales.
But Gonzales became disturbed when, during a bounty hunt, Ring whacked the back of a man's head with his rifle butt for no apparent reason.
He was even more disturbed when Sanders and Ring began talking about plans to rip off a Wells Fargo armored car. They asked Gonzales to join in. He refused. The trio broke up.
Sanders and Ring made pals out of other goons--Yoda, Sanders' brother-in-law Brian Robbins and a retired Phoenix police officer named Bill "Fergie" Ferguson, who during his years as a cop had gotten in trouble for using police computers to get the skinny on rock stars, models and newscasters. When asked to explain, Fergie said he was a "psycho."
On November 28, 1994, the crime of the century hit Glendale. A Wells Fargo armored car had stopped behind Dillard's at a west-side mall to make a delivery. Three men shot the driver and sped off to a church parking lot in Sun City. Nearly $1 million was missing.
Early on, law enforcement authorities had identified Ring and Yoda as suspects, but the third crook remained a mystery. As early as January 3, 1995, Glendale cops were tipped by the FBI that the third man might have been Sanders. The same day, Glendale Police Detective Tom Clayton looked up Sanders' rap sheet in the police computer.
Sanders went to the police himself in early January. First he told police he had nothing to do with the robbery. Then he said he wanted immunity. Then he said he and another suspect had planned the Wells Fargo heist "early on." Then he said he'd testify at the trial.
Sanders never got the immunity he was seeking.
He wouldn't need it.
In early January, Gonzales called the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, his ex-bounty-hunting clients, and informed ATF that he'd heard Sanders and Ring plotting the crime many times. ATF told Glendale police that a reliable source knew about the robbery. Gonzales then telephoned Glendale cops, implicated Sanders as the mastermind of the heist, then noted that Sanders seemed to be living better since the robbery. He volunteered to assist in the investigation and to testify.
But Glendale police chose to work with Sanders instead of investigate him.
With Sanders' permission, police tapped his phone and recorded Ring, Yoda and Fergie talking to Sanders about the heist.
Glendale detectives apparently didn't ask themselves why Ring, Yoda and Fergie trusted Sanders enough to speak freely about the crime if Sanders hadn't been involved.
They didn't think to bug Sanders' phone without his knowledge, to see if he'd implicate himself.
They didn't search Sanders' house even though they searched the homes of Ring, Yoda and Fergie.
The cops insist even today that they had absolutely no reason to suspect Sanders.
On February 18, 1995, Ring, Yoda and Fergie were arrested for the Wells Fargo murder-robbery, largely because of the wiretaps, and because the cops had searched the homes of the suspects and found money in bags and notes about the heist.
"We just didn't believe Sanders was involved," Matthew Brown, the spokesman for the Glendale Police Department, tells me over and over.
The day after the arrest of Ring, Yoda and Fergie, Sanders paid Gonzales a terrifying visit. Sanders had called ahead, which gave Gonzales time to wear a wire and tape their conversation.
The two took a walk. Sanders informed Gonzales that he knew Gonzales had snitched to Glendale.
"Umm, like I said, Glendale guys said you came forward," Sanders said. "All right, I'll take that with a grain of salt. Umm, but just watch your back, that's all. All right, 'cause like I said, nobody else needs to come up dead. . . . Besides, if you come up dead, it complicates my life because they're gonna come and talk to me again and I don't fuckin' need the headache. All right, that's all.
"You got to be careful. Okay? About what you say to them," Sanders warned.
Then Sanders said: "For 250 bucks, I can get you killed, okay?"
Gonzales took the conversation as a threat. He turned over the tape to Glendale police, who apparently didn't think the tape was significant.
Gonzales was so terrified of Sanders that he moved out of state.
William Ferguson is the only one of the three men arrested for the Wells Fargo robbery-murder who has not yet been tried.
Yoda copped a plea and is serving 25 years to life.
Ring was convicted and faces a death sentence.
As the criminal proceedings against Ring, Yoda and Ferguson unfolded, it became clear that Glendale police ignored red flags while investigating the crime.
Sanders, for instance, lied to cops about his alibi. The robbery was committed at 1:30, and Sanders told Glendale police he clocked into work at 2 p.m.
But Sanders' employer told Detective Clayton that Sanders showed up for work at 3:30--two hours after the crime was committed.
"That doesn't mean he committed the crime," says spokesman Brown. "If we had thought he was involved, we would have thought it was weird."
Another Glendale detective, Robert Hawkins, failed to log in evidence--a videotape of an eyewitness who described a man matching Sanders' looks speeding away in the stolen van. Instead of logging the tape into the evidence room or onto his computer, Hawkins locked the tape in his personal filing cabinet.
"It was an oversight," says Brown.
We don't know why Glendale cops made these blunders.
We don't know why they were so determined Sanders was not involved that they didn't search his house or bug his phone without his knowing it.
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We don't know if they were pressured to solve this notorious crime too quickly. Or if they were merely stupid. Or if Sanders had something on one of them.
All we know for sure is that Christopher Foote and Spring Wright were shot to death in their bed shortly before dawn on August 31 after Sanders and the others broke into their house.
By choosing Sanders as their snitch, Glendale cops may have made a fatal mistake.
Contact Terry Greene Sterling at 229-8437, or online at email@example.com