HIME FOR CHRISTMAS
It was early Christmas Eve morning.
Wade Arnold, 34, climbed into the back seat of the transportation vehicle at the state prison facility in Tucson. Hampered by leg irons and handcuffs, Arnold moved awkwardly.
The night before," Arnold remembers, I had packed up my 13-inch television set and all my personal belongings into four boxes. I was ready to go home." However, Arnold still faced a big hurdle; a crucial court hearing in Phoenix. He had already served 16 years and 158 days of a 25-year sentence for second-degree murder.
The hearing before Superior Court Judge Ronald Reinstein was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. If things went well, Arnold might be released this very day.
Two prison transportation officers sat in the front seat. Arnold was alone in the back. When he entered prison at 17, he was 5 feet 9 and weighed 135 pounds. Now, he is 5 feet 11 inches and weighs 185 pounds. After years of hard work as well as lifting weights five days a week, Arnold can bench-press 300 pounds. He has jet-black hair and wears a full black mustache. He looks more like a professional actor or athlete than a penitentiary inmate. In 16 years of prison life, Arnold never got into a single argument or fight with another inmate or guard. He had been a model prisoner during his entire incarceration.
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
Now, the guard on the passenger side turned around to look back at Arnold.
²ÔHey, Wade. You won't be terribly disappointed if this hearing doesn't work out, will you?" Arnold smiled back.
I hope to go home today," Arnold said. My mom's coming to court with a change of clothes. But don't worry. If it doesn't work out, I won't give you guys any trouble." ²The guard shook his head.
Kid, I wish you luck," he said. But I've got to tell you something. I've been on this job a lot of years. And every time we make this trip, the men we transport think they're gonna get released. So far, not one of them ever has. For your own sake, don't get your hopes too high, okay?"
Arnold settled back in the rear seat. The drive from Tucson to Phoenix on Interstate 10 is one of the most boring on the North American continent. There is nothing to see. Arnold stared out the window at the grim, unchanging landscape.
His thoughts drifted back to the morning of June 1, 1975, and how this had all begun. Arnold was a 17-year-old student at DeVry Institute in Phoenix when he was approached by a heavy-duty burglar named Gary Cagnina, then 20. Cagnina told Arnold he needed someone who had a car to help him commit a no-risk burglary for easy money. Targeted was the home of Dr. Harry Schornick, 82, at 925 West Palm Lane in Encanto Park. Cagnina normally specialized in hitting drugstores. He'd been working with Buster Holsinger and his wife, Jeannie. Holsinger, a local character, was a pollution-control inspector who set up hits on the side. His wife had been an English instructor at Arizona State University. The Holsingers, who had a long-standing grudge against Dr. Schornick, actually had made arrangements with Cagnina to kill the doctor. The only one who wasn't in on the plan was young Wade Arnold. He was told only that it was a burglary and a car ride.
Jeannie Holsinger told the two young men that Dr. Schornick always kept as much as $3,000 in cash in his bedroom. She warned them he also had a gun, but calmed their fears by telling them he was such an old man he was a terrible shot.
And Buster Holsinger gave Cagnina a .22-caliber pistol to bring along on the job. Holsinger promised to pay him well for his efforts. With Cagnina carrying the weapon, they entered Dr. Schornick's home in the early hours of June 1, 1975.
Almost at once, the burglary turned sour. In the hallway, Cagnina encountered Dr. Schornick's housekeeper, Theresa Bortz, 81. In a panic, Cagnina opened fire, killing the old woman. Dr. Schornick emerged from his bedroom. He had heard the shots and the woman's cry. Cagnina shot Dr. Schornick, too, wounding him slightly. Arnold ran out of the house even before the shots were fired. Cagnina caught up to him as he was starting to drive away.
The pair fled the scene. Arnold never even realized anyone had been hit by Cagnina's shots, and Cagnina never told him. From this point on, Arnold became little more than an inexperienced victim who was in way over his head.
In its day, the crime was sensational. Police figured it as a contract murder attempt on Dr. Schornick. Buster Holsinger was the main target of the investigators. Holsinger had, after all, plotted the crime and provided the weapon. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death.
Arnold merely did what his lawyer told him to do. He remembered that he was to tell the judge he had fired two shots, even though he hadn't even had the gun. His lawyer assured him it was part of the plea agreement and that it made no difference what he said in court. Arnold was led to believe his sentence might be as high as ten years but that he could get out of prison in five. Instead, Judge Roger Strand, now sitting on the federal bench, sentenced him to 25 years to life.
Cagnina, who fired the shots, received the same sentence. He is still serving time in an out-of-state prison. ²Holsinger himself was murdered in prison on March 4, 1982, while awaiting execution. He was set afire by fellow death-row inmate Robert Wayne (Bonzai) Vickers.
Holsinger's wife, Jeannie, was sentenced to life imprisonment. Her case was overturned on appeal. She was convicted a second time and again her conviction was overturned. She committed suicide while awaiting her third trial.
The car carrying Arnold and the deputies was passing Picacho Peak now.
Hey," Arnold asked, Ôcan we stop here? I have to go to the bathroom." Don't worry about that, kid," the driver said without turning around. We'll be in Phoenix in just a couple of minutes." But Arnold knew how far they still were from Phoenix. He knew he'd be doubled over in pain by the time they pulled up to the Maricopa County Courthouse. But his long time in prison had taught him the futility of trying to complain.
So the three men drove the rest of the way in silence.
The first man to greet Arnold at the courthouse was his lawyer, Don Bennett Moon. Tall, rangy, bearded, Moon is a larger-than-life character who lives to the hilt. He drives big cars, smokes big cigars, wears Rolex watches, picks up dinner checks freely and often creates social outrage. But on this obscure case, Moon had worked more than five years without a fee. I know people find it hard to accept," Moon explains, but there are some times when a lawyer wants to do something merely because it's the goddamn right thing to do."
Moon became acquainted with Arnold's case years before, because he originally represented Holsinger. Moon's knowledge of the facts convinced him Arnold's sentence was excessive.
Moon had made his feelings known many times to George Mount, the original prosecutor in the case. Surprisingly, Mount, known as a hard-liner, agreed that under present sentencing guidelines, Arnold had already served more than enough time.
Two years ago, Moon had the case almost won. Governor Rose Mofford was ready to issue a pardon. The Board of Pardons and Paroles had recommended it unanimously. But an ironic circumstance turned the tide against Arnold's release from prison. Ralph Milstead, Mofford's top assistant for prison affairs, opposed it.
Milstead had been on the Phoenix Police Department at the time of the shooting, and Arnold's arrest had been made by one of his former partners.
The first thing Judge Reinstein did at the hearing was to assure both prosecutor Mount and Moon that they all were doing the right thing both for society and for the defendant.
I can't prove who pulled the trigger," Mount said, but I don't believe Arnold did. A lot of people who have done more horrible things have served a lot less time. Based on today's sentencing scheme, he's already served more time in prison than if he entered a second-degree-murder plea today." Said Judge Reinstein: The key factor in the case is the sentencing range today. Arnold deserved to go to prison, no doubt about it. He was in the house where the murder was committed. It's just a matter of when enough is enough." Mount admitted Arnold's release would actually make him feel good. This is actually one of the most memorable court proceedings I've been involved in." ²Reinstein decided on a bookkeeping strategy to handle the matter. The judge tossed out Arnold's previous guilty plea and ordered a new trial. Arnold then entered a guilty plea and was promptly sentenced to time served.
Arnold turned around to the two prison guards who had transported him to the courthouse. How about getting me out of these things?" he said, indicating his handcuffs.
The two guards now seemed to be as happy as Arnold about the turn of events. They rushed forward to help.
Arnold hugged his mother. A few minutes later, he had changed to the civilian clothes his mother had brought. He was headed out the door with her when Moon stopped him. Moon was as elated as Arnold. They made arrangements to go back down to the prison together within a few days to pick up Arnold's personal belongings.
In the meantime, take care of yourself," Moon said, and shook hands. Arnold explained later, with awe in his voice: When we shook hands, Moon slipped me five one-hundred-dollar bills." A few minutes later, Arnold and his mother went out for his first restaurant meal in years. Arnold picked the spot. They went to a Jack in the Box, where Arnold feasted on a chicken and mushroom sandwich.
The next day was Christmas. Wade Arnold sat in front of the Christmas tree with his parents, exchanging gifts.
I couldn't imagine how loyal my mom and dad were going to be," he said. They've just gotten to be better and better people with age. I owe them more than I'll ever be able to repay."
The day after Christmas, Arnold, accompanied by his mother, went to renew his driver's license. He explained to the clerk that he hadn't renewed his license, which had expired 15 years before. The clerk was suspicious. She thought he might be trying to hide some traffic arrests.
You mean to tell me you haven't renewed your license in all those years?" she demanded.
To tell you the truth," Arnold said, I just got out of prison." The clerk's attitude changed at once. She smiled.
Now I understand," she said. Let me be one of the first to wish you lots of good luck."
A week later, Arnold met the flamboyant Moon at Sky Harbor's Terminal Four for a flight to Tucson to pick up Arnold's personal belongings.
Moon, who lives in Prescott, had missed his flight to Phoenix. Moon wasn't stymied, however. He merely called for a charter airplane to fly up to Prescott and pick him up. He made it to Sky Harbor with minutes to spare.
Arnold was clearly excited. He wore a new Levi's jacket with a sheepskin collar and a blue-striped dress shirt. He looked the picture of health. He had spent his first week out of prison constructing bookcases for his father. I don't think I want to sit in the middle seat," he said.
Don't worry," Moon said. I have a special boarding pass that will get us on the plane with the women and small children. The plane is only going to be half-full, anyway. You can sit pretty much where you want to." The flight from Phoenix to Tucson consists of little more than a takeoff, a leveling, then a landing. The airplane was on the ground before Arnold became accustomed to being in the air.
Moon called for a limousine to take them to a car-rental place. He had called ahead for a Cadillac to be waiting.
I'm sorry," the desk clerk said, the only luxury car we have is a Chrysler." Moon's face fell.
Young lady," Moon replied, the only luxury cars made in America, I assure you, are the Cadillac and the Lincoln." I'm sorry to tell you this," she said, but all we have available today is a Dodge Dart." An attendant had already brought the offending Dodge from the parking lot and parked it by the door. Moon looked at the car with obvious distaste.
I can't stand Lee Iacocca," he said. But Moon decided to accept the car anyway.
I'll bring it back to Phoenix and dump it," he said. Then I'll pick up a Cadillac." The drive to the prison didn't take long.
Here it is," Arnold said. I spent the last years of my prison life in that building right there." Arnold pointed to a one-story building. Inside, he had an eight-foot by eight-foot single room with a small closet and a television stand. There was a bed and a chair. The communal bathroom facilities were down the hall.
It wasn't that bad," Arnold said. It was the kind of life I got used to living. I never felt I belonged in prison that long."
It had been such a long time. The year Arnold entered prison was the same year that H.R. (Bob) Haldeman and John Ehrlichman were convicted of conspiracy in the Watergate bungle. Saigon fell. Jimmy Hoffa disappeared. All in the Family was the top-rated TV show. Jack Nicholson won the Best Actor Academy Award for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and John Havlicek of the Boston Celtics was on the NBA All-Star team. Muhammad Ali beat Joe Frazier by a TKO in the 15th round in what we now know as the Thrilla in Manila." Arnold knows how much life has passed him by. But I realize I can never give that woman's life back," he said. She didn't deserve to die. I will always have to live with that." Moon and Arnold drove silently to the prison administration building. Arnold walked to the front desk. They were expecting him. A clerk presented Arnold with a check for $50. This is what the state pays every discharged inmate to help him get started with his life again. Arnold also collected an additional check for $90 for wages he had earned in prison at the rate of 50 cents an hour.
Arnold looked at the check for $50. That's not much more than three dollars a year, is it?" he said. He made no further comment.
The two men climbed back into the Dodge for the trip to the prison property room where his belongings were stowed. A guard brought the television set and the boxes out in a truck. Quickly, Arnold and Moon loaded the things into the trunk of the car.
They drove slowly away from the prison. A long chapter in Arnold's life was ending.
I remember what it was like that first day they led us new prisoners in through the main gate at Florence," he said.
It was in the middle of summer and blazing hot. They gave us new clothes and marched us in through the main gate while all the old cons sat around in the yard watching us. There had been a racial disturbance that day on the athletic field. I remember when they brought us into the cellblock, a burning bedsheet was tossed down at us from the fourth tier. Other inmates were tossing toilet-paper rolls, which came down at us in streams.
There was so much noise and so much shouting. I thought there was some mistake. I couldn't be here. I was only 17 and intimidated as hell. But then the reality of it hit me. This is the place I was going to have to spend the next 25 years of my life." Wade Arnold sat in the front seat of the car as it headed back to Phoenix and his parents' home.
Life has changed dramatically for him now. While in prison, he earned more than a full year of college credits. He became an excellent carpenter. He can drive any kind of truck. He is fully qualified to run computers and even to write computer programs.
His attitude is remarkably upbeat. If you didn't know where he was coming from, you would think he had just graduated from West Point.
I changed in there," Arnold said. You know what happened to me? One day, after I'd been at Florence for about a year, I realized something about my situation. I understood that nobody was going to come through the door and take me out. Prison became my reality. `I'm here,' I told myself. `There's no saving grace. I'm going to have to save myself.'" Moon drove the car slowly away from the prison. Neither man looked back.
MICHAEL JACKSON BROKE MY HEART HE CHANGE... v1-08-92
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.