John Unger couldn't believe his first assignment as a delivery driver for Pizza Hut.
It was April 1999. A few days earlier, he had spotted an Apache Junction newspaper ad touting delivery jobs at the local Pizza Hut, with pay starting at $12 an hour. He had just spent the last several months commuting from his Apache Junction home to Tempe every night as a graveyard-shift supervisor for directory assistance. It paid only $10 an hour and required him to come in on his off-hours and chew out workers who weren't pulling their weight. For Unger, it was too much responsibility for too little compensation. He figured with tips he could make up to $15 an hour at Pizza Hut, all for just driving around town delivering pizzas. It was irresistible.
But at his job interview, Unger immediately picked up on something unsettling about the store's manager, Rick Carter. A dark-haired, heavily tattooed guy in his mid-30s with the imposing build of an NFL defensive tackle, Carter seemed jittery and paranoid, Unger says. The pupils of his eyes were like golf balls and his jaw had a habit of grinding back and forth. Unger found it a little disturbing, but pretended not to notice.
Carter offered him a job on the spot, and on Unger's first day of work, Carter sent him out with one of his veteran drivers. His first task was to make a personal pickup for Rick, an incident recounted in a harassment lawsuit recently filed by Unger against Pizza Hut.
Arizona Coyotes vs. San Jose Sharks
TicketsTue., Nov. 1, 7:00pm
Phoenix Suns vs. Portland Trail Blazers
TicketsWed., Nov. 2, 7:00pm
Arizona Coyotes vs. Nashville Predators
TicketsThu., Nov. 3, 7:00pm
Arizona State University Sun Devils Hockey vs. University of Michigan
TicketsFri., Nov. 4, 7:05pm
"We went to Rick's apartment, and the other driver got a green bag out and put it in the back of my pickup truck," Unger recalls. "And we rode around for hours. The bag looked pretty stuffed. After a while I started to loosen him up and he told me it was illegal. It was crystal meth."
Unger, 37, says when he got back to Pizza Hut, he confronted Carter and told him he didn't want "that stuff" in his truck anymore. In response, Carter whispered to the other driver for a few minutes, and the other driver put the bag in his own car.
But, Unger says, his discomfort with his new boss was only beginning.
"He'd have me drop him off somewhere, and I'd have to wait outside for 20 minutes until he came out," the ex-delivery driver says. "Or else he'd leave the store with the worst type of people you've ever seen, really mean and really dirty. They were always hanging out in the parking lot, and he'd bring them in to the back kitchen."
In his complaint filed this April in Pinal County Superior Court, Unger says he discussed such erratic behavior with Carter's mother, Betty, a Pizza Hut area supervisor whose drill-instructor demeanor had made her the platinum-haired matriarch of fast food in Apache Junction. Overseeing the daily operations of eight different Pizza Hut locations, Betty routinely hired her family members to management positions. And, Unger says, she also expected the staff to cover for her son.
"Every morning, Rick would never be there [at the restaurant]," Unger says. "Betty would call me to go to his house and wake him up. That was my job, even if I was missing deliveries. And I couldn't wake him up. And he wouldn't go in there until nighttime."
But -- according to Unger's complaint, as well as a second lawsuit filed recently against the Carters and Pizza Hut, and New Times interviews with a dozen former employees -- despite such short hours, Rick Carter found time to create plenty of unrest at his restaurant.
In particular, some ex-employees are claiming that Rick asked his drivers to deliver crystal meth in pizza boxes, where they would encounter shadowy characters who handed them mysterious envelopes, and that members of the Carter family also repeatedly manipulated time cards, resulting in chronic underpayment of his staff.
Maria Crimi Speth, a Phoenix commercial-litigation and employment lawyer, filed Unger's harassment suit, and followed up on June 29 with a class-action, wage-claim suit on behalf of "all people, except defendants, who were ever employed" at the Pizza Hut of Apache Junction. In both lawsuits, the defendants include Pizza Hut of Apache Junction, Inc. (owners of the franchise), Tricon Restaurant Group (corporate owners of Pizza Hut) and Rick Carter, his brother Tim, and Betty Carter. None of these defendants has yet been served with the lawsuits, and none has issued any response to the charges.
"In my 14 years of practice, I've never seen a more egregious abuse of employees as what I've been told about at Pizza Hut by employees," says Speth, who estimates that as many as 1,000 employees may have been underpaid by the Carter family since the late '80s.
Unger's lawsuit alleges that he "was asked to participate in delivering and transporting illegal drugs," and adds, "from the moment that John expressed an unwillingness to participate in illegal activity, he was treated as an outsider by management."
The suit also states that both Rick and his brother Tim -- who subsequently managed the store -- "began threatening [Unger's] life and safety, first in a veiled manner, and later more blatantly." It goes on to say that the two brothers relentlessly taunted Unger about his homosexuality, and fired him because he was raising too many questions about their behavior.
At the June 23 opening of a new Apache Junction Pizza Hut (around the corner from the old building, which has recently become home to the Longhorn Bar & Grill), Betty Carter briefly spoke with New Times about her history with the franchise.
But when New Times raised questions about her sons' conduct, she firmly responded, "I don't even want to talk about it," and walked away.
Neither Rick nor Tim Carter returned New Times' phone calls.
Patty Sullivan, spokeswoman for the Dallas-based Pizza Hut, Inc., also declined to discuss the Apache Junction controversy, saying the company cannot comment on pending litigation involving one of its franchises.
But Doug Kreie, co-owner of the Apache Junction franchise, and its chief spokesman, dismisses the attacks on the Carter family as an attempt at "extortion" by disgruntled ex-employees.
"Betty's integrity is matched by very few people out there," Kreie says. "She's never done anything in any way, shape or form to be questioned. She's thought of very highly in the professional world of Apache Junction by all the other business people, by lots of customers. This is just a vicious attack."
Kreie says franchise owners have reviewed the company's payroll over the last several years and "can't find any doctored payroll records or time cards."
Meanwhile, other former workers at the Carters' pizza parlor are leveling charges similar to Unger's.
Ra'Yana Hansen, 19, worked for Rick Carter in the winter of 1999, while she was still a student at Apache Junction High School. In a sworn affidavit submitted for the class-action suit on March 5, she contends that he asked her to "pick up his drugs, that while I was out he would still pay me and would have someone else do my work for me."
Hansen says she also observed Rick altering employee time cards, and warning employees "if they were to tell anyone about what goes on here in our family, that they will regret it."
Betty Carter is thin and wiry, with short, straight hair and wire-rim glasses. Her face is a road map of worry lines, and the sandpaper rasp of her voice attests to years of smoking. Employees say she likes to describe the Pizza Hut of Apache Junction as a family restaurant, and she often speaks of her three children, 17 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren, and how much she likes to include her family in the business.
"Betty was really nice at first," remembers Todd Liby, 21, who applied for work at Pizza Hut in June 2000, after talking to a neighbor who'd been hired as a driver. "She spoke with my parents. My dad's from Kentucky and she's from Kentucky, so they got along pretty well."
Keeping him in the store after hours to chat, Betty opened up to Liby about her life. She talked about how she'd grown up in Kentucky, then moved to Indiana, married and divorced, and eventually met her current husband Micky, who has also worked for her at Pizza Hut and is named as a defendant in the class-action suit.
In her brief interview with New Times, Carter said she relocated from Indiana to Apache Junction in the mid-'80s, taking a job as a Pizza Hut dishwasher. She worked her way up to manager of the store, and by the early '90s was named area supervisor, orchestrating the management of stores in Winslow, Gold Canyon, Globe, Holbrook and Apache Junction, among other places.
Since then, Carter has been a significant employer in the small desert town -- along with neighboring Gold Canyon -- that is dominated by mobile-home parks and is fairly reliant on service-industry jobs. Chamber of Commerce representatives describe Betty as a prominent local citizen, and note that the Chamber participated in her recent ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Pizza Hut location.
Indeed, former employees say Carter often told them that she was well-connected with both the Chamber and the Apache Junction Police Department. They say she made a point of chatting up cops and giving them free pizza and beer whenever they stepped inside her restaurant.
In his harassment complaint against Pizza Hut, Unger alleges that "Betty would brag that she knew people in the police department who would protect her. On one occasion, Betty threatened John that he should be compliant because she knew police officers who would do anything for her." Apache Junction Police Department spokesman Senior Commander Dan Scott did not respond to New Times' requests for an interview.
But the lawsuits allege that Betty was more than just a domineering boss. Marissa Jones, 22, worked as a cook at Pizza Hut from July to October 1999. She was supposed to earn $5.25 an hour, but she says Betty often changed her hours on the time cards. "She always wrote our times in pencil and she would go back later and erase it," Jones says. "And you could tell from a lot of the time cards that they had been erased. And people would tell her, but she didn't care."
Ex-staffers say Betty also persuaded them to stay in the restaurant after they'd punched out, usually by asking them to sit and talk with her. Before they knew it, she had them mopping up, or doing some other chore, off the clock.
These allegations turn up in the class-action suit, along with claims that the Carters "withheld the first week of pay for each employee," "regularly held mandatory meetings for which plaintiffs were not compensated," and "regularly required plaintiffs to clean the restaurant in advance of health inspections without compensation."
But Betty's biggest misstep, in the eyes of some employees, was hiring her eldest son, Rick, to manage the Apache Junction store in 1998. They say his drug habit was common knowledge among staffers.
Josh Littell, a Pizza Hut delivery driver for more than a year, says Rick would make him wait in the car for up to an hour while Rick was making a personal pickup. He says Rick started going with him on these errands after Littell complained about having to pick up an envelope that he believed contained illegal drugs.
Tony Carter (no relation to the family operating the restaurant) worked for Rick as a delivery driver for five months in 1999, coming in at 10 a.m. every day, and signing out at midnight. He says he did crystal meth with Carter on a daily basis, and that Carter used his drivers to make drug pickups and deliveries for him.
"He tried to get me to [make the drug deliveries]," Carter says, "but I wouldn't. But I delivered messages for him. And I took him to people's houses."
Tony says he'd battled a drug problem in the early '90s, but had been clean for several years until he met Rick.
"We were driving down the road coming back from a delivery, and he pulled out a pipe and asked me if I wanted some," Carter says. "At first I didn't join in, but I gave in."
Then, in August 1999, Rick Carter left his management position under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Some had heard that he'd quit; others heard he'd been fired; the eventual word from Betty was that he was on medical leave.
Within a few months, Rick was replaced by his blond-haired, blue-eyed younger brother Tim, who wasted little time in asserting his authority, according to Unger's complaint.
"The first day Tim Carter was manager, I had to bring him to the store," Unger says. "And he told me that anybody who fucks with his family is dead."
The incident was not isolated, he says. In the documents contained in his harassment suit, Unger claims that the Carter family "bragged about how dangerous they were, and boasted about how they framed an innocent man at Betty's request, and sent him to prison. Rick told John that he had killed two people."
By early 2000, Unger says the atmosphere had grown unbearably tense for him. His complaint alleges that on one occasion, Tim turned to him and said, "I'm going to kill you, faggot," right in the middle of the restaurant.
By this time, Rick Carter had also returned, initially to manage the store in Winslow, but eventually to serve as a floating manager, filling the gaps at various locations when someone was needed. Unger says he began turning up at the Apache Junction store, sitting in the same corner booth every day, often glaring at Unger.
In her sworn affidavit, Ra'Yana Hansen supports Unger's recollections of personal abuse: "I never knew John Unger personally. I did hear them call him a fag in a nasty and threatening way."
Increasingly rattled by the Carters' behavior, Unger sought out the help of Ed Magidson, a self-styled consumer advocate who runs the watchdog Web site badbusinessbureau.com. With Magidson's help, Unger contacted Pizza Hut corporate officials and spoke to Apache Junction police officers about the threats he says he received from Tim and Rick Carter. According to Unger, when the Carters found out about these efforts, the work environment only grew worse for him.
"I went over to Pizza Hut one day, and they were calling John a faggot, spitting at him and talking about beating him up after work," Magidson says. "It was even worse than he said it was."
During this period, Unger received what he describes as a dubious speeding ticket from an Apache Junction police officer. His harassment complaint against Pizza Hut argues that "his actual speed was 35 mph and he was ticketed for 49 mph." Although the ticket was eventually dismissed in court, Unger says it became another excuse for the Carters to hassle him. He says Betty informed him that she had called his insurance company to let them know about the citation.
"I got a call from my insurance company saying I couldn't deliver pizza on that insurance," Unger says. "This other delivery driver got a DWI and they never called his insurance company."
Despite the sense of open warfare that existed between himself and the Carter family, a desperate Unger clung to his job. He had no confidence in his ability to find solid work in Apache Junction, and he worried that he wouldn't be able to keep up the payments on the roomy house he'd bought with help from his parents.
But it was too late. One night, in May 2000, he says he was spooked by Rick's repeated efforts to get him alone outside the restaurant. In response, Unger says, he sneaked out the back door to make a delivery. When he returned from the delivery, he says he was overwhelmed by anxiety and told the restaurant's new manager that he needed to go home early. The next morning, when he called to check on his hours, he says staffers repeatedly hung up on him. Finally, he says, he spoke to a newly hired delivery driver, who told him, "I heard you'd been fired."
Unger now talks of selling his house -- which he had to sign over to his parents -- and moving out of Apache Junction. Possibly even changing his name. He says he doesn't feel safe living in the same town as the Carters.
Although for many Pizza Hut employees the gig was little more than a chance to earn after-school spending money, for Unger it meant much more. It meant a way out of the dead-end life he'd been trapped in.
"This was my one shot at saving some money and investing, which is all gone now," he says. "That experience ruined things for me.
"One thing I do want [from the lawsuit] is for all those people to be fired. I don't think it's right that Betty gets them jobs, no matter what they've done. And then they screw with people's lives. I don't want that to continue."
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.