Indignation, and some amount of beer, compelled Robert Carter's first telephone call. Carter had just seen Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio on television, he said.
The sheriff was bragging about the county's work-furlough program for jail inmates, and defending his department's recent inability to keep prisoners from escaping.
Carter had reason to quibble with the sheriff's remarks. A 36-year-old career scam artist of the nonviolent type, Carter knew that the work-furlough program was a joke, he said, because he had been in it. In fact, he had escaped from it earlier this year, and has yet to be caught.
As an escaped felon at large, he evinced little respect for the sheriff and Arpaio's men.
"These guys are so ignorant that I could arrange to sell hot dogs in front of the county jail and they wouldn't catch me," Carter boasted.
A curious, and irresistible, proposition.
Carter, we came to learn in subsequent conversations, not only could sell hot dogs in front of Madison Street Jail, he already had. Several weeks before he called New Times, he had manned a pushcart across the street from the downtown jail, one of the temporary jobs he's held since his escape.
Driven by, among other things, our obvious obligation to record rare and unusual events for the sake of history, we decided to re-create Carter's grandstand play.
A Mister Hot Dog stand operates on the sidewalk, smack in front of Madison Street Jail, which is directly behind the county courthouse. Between the two buildings, the street is constantly awash in jailers, police, attorneys and others with business at the jail or the courthouse.
Arranging temporary use of the cart was fairly simple, and Carter was willing to meet us there to pose.
One question remained. Who should be buying a hot dog from Carter?
Carter suggested it first. Would it not be ironic, he pointed out, for an escaped felon to sell a hot dog to the state's highest law enforcement official, Attorney General Grant Woods?
His logic was difficult to dispute.
Woods' penchant for publicity is legend. He has a reputation for trying to elbow his way into both society and news columns. It is risky to stand between the attorney general and a camera.
Last month Woods even capitalized on his spotlight-seeking reputation by hosting a campaign fund raiser featuring a movie, starring himself, called The Hound of Publicityville ("The Leading Man," June 30).
Pondering a possible challenge of governor and fellow Republican Fife Symington next year, might the hound hit on the scent of free publicity?
It was worth a try.
We called. For posterity's sake, we fudged a little. (History is more or less bunk." Henry Ford. 1916. Look it up.)
Would the attorney general be willing to meet us at a hot-dog stand and pose for pictures, we asked? It was, we explained, part of a promotion for the upcoming Best of Phoenix supplement. It took only mild persuasion before the state's attorney general agreed to pose with a hot dog.
(Others were not so agreeable. Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley said he would be out of town. Phoenix Police Department spokesman Sergeant Kevin Robinson, who, we gather, is a suspicious type, declined an invitation to pose.)
At the appointed time, Woods and First Assistant Attorney General Rob Carey strolled up to the Mister Hot Dog stand. Carter and our photographer were waiting. "Should I have my jacket on or off?" the attorney general asked. We told him on would be just fine.
The rest is now history.
Let the record reflect that shortly after 2 p.m. on Friday, July 16, 1993, a day with a recorded high temperature of 103 degrees and no breeze, the 22nd attorney general of Arizona stood in front of Madison Street Jail and received a hot dog from Robert Carter, escaped felon.
(We say "received" because Woods didn't actually pay for the hot dog. We did. We are not heartless. Woods took his dog plain. Carey got one with mustard.)
The attorney general soon had to leave for his next appointment. We gave him a complimentary New Times cap. He seemed to like it, and even put it on as he was walking away. Not once, in the roughly 45 minutes that Carter was standing at the jail's doorstep, was there any indication that the escaped felon elicited suspicion from passing jailers--not to mention an undercover Phoenix detective who stopped to buy a drink.
But then, the sheriff's department has had a surfeit of escapees to hunt down lately.
@body:"Yeah, he escaped," sheriff's department spokesman Sergeant Jay Ellison said after punching Carter's name up on his computer. "He apparently left on 5/9/93."
Carter escaped by simply walking away while he was out on work furlough. His flight merited little notice during what proved to be a tough month for the sheriff's department.
Nine other inmates fled county jails in May. Five escaped from a recreation area at First Avenue Jail by overpowering guards. All were ultimately recaptured.
Two inmates jumped the fence at Durango Jail, another slipped out of Madison Street Jail by hiding in a food cart, and a female trusty ran away while working on a landscape detail outside Estrella Jail.
Those four remain at large.
Two more female trusties walked away in mid-June, while they were being escorted back to Estrella Jail, and have not been recaptured.
Amid the breakout of breakouts, Carter's decision to set himself free did not even make the newspapers.
Ellison said he did not know how many other work-furlough inmates may have walked away and may still be at large.
Probation department spokesman Mike Goss said a warrant was issued for Carter four days after he took off, but the probation department has had no luck locating him.
Asked what the sheriff's department thought of an inmate who escaped from its custody selling hot dogs under jailers' noses, Ellison demurred.
"I don't feel I'm in a position to comment on that," he said. "But stranger things have happened." (He would not say what.)
@body:"I am not, by definition, an honest person," Robert Carter points out during one of our conversations. Last February, Carter was extradited back to Arizona from Virginia. By leaving the state--a trip home for his parents' 50th wedding anniversary that ended up stretching out to four months--he had violated his probation on an earlier theft conviction.
The original theft charge, he says, came after he and his wife were fired by a Phoenix property-management company. Carter and his wife were responsible for collecting rent from tenants, he says.
After they were canned, Carter's version goes, the couple decided to get even with the management company by giving tenants receipts for rent they hadn't actually paid.
"We got no money in return," he claims. "We just gave everybody a free month."
Sergeant Jay Ellison confirmed that Carter's original conviction was for a theft charge, but said the sheriff's records did not provide details on the incident.
Carter says his previous record includes 5 1/2 years in a Texas prison on fraud charges. He describes himself as a simple con man.
Back in the custody of Maricopa County, Carter says, he was given a choice of several years in jail or eight months in the work-furlough program. Naturally, he opted for the latter.
But it didn't take long, he maintains, to learn that the work-furlough program the sheriff brags about on television is "a joke."
Carter says inmates are given no assistance in finding a job. They are given no help with transportation to and from work. If their job requires them to leave before breakfast is served, or return after dinner is finished, they do not get to eat.
"I left before breakfast. I could not make it back until after dinner, so I had no meals," says Carter, who claims he lost 30 pounds while in the program.
On top of that, he says, inmates are charged $8.50 per day to be in the program. Add to that bus fare to and from work--and the cost of food, since his schedule forced him to miss jail meals, Carter says--and he was left with little money to support his family, one of the program's supposed goals.
"How can you expect people to start with nothing, give them nothing and end up with something?" he says. "You can't live like that."
After about a month, Carter says, he went out to work and didn't go back. Since then he has been on the lam, although he says he has seen no indication that the law is seriously trying to catch up with him.
Inclined not to reveal too many details, Carter says he has mostly stayed away from his wife and daughter since his escape, and found odd work where he can.
One such job was manning a hot-dog cart on Madison Street behind the courthouse.
Mitch Homsey, who owns a local pizza joint, confirms that a man he knew as "Bob," who matched Carter's description, worked a hot-dog cart for Homsey several months ago.
Bob, Homsey says, had been referred to him by a mutual friend. Homsey says he never knew Bob's last name, since Bob used several of them, and that their relationship did not end well. "The last time I saw him, he wanted money to go get an apartment, and said he'd be back in a couple of hours," Homsey says. "The man never came back."
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Told that Bob is an escaped convict, Homsey swells with laughter. "That's ballsy," he says. "The man's a walkaway, and he works in front of the jail."
Carter says he worked for Homsey for about a week, and has worked odd jobs since, although he does not want to say where.
We last saw Carter at a bar near downtown, where we went to drink a toast to Grant Woods. It was just after the photo session.
He was still sitting there when we left. He looked up. "Life is fun. Life is weird," he said. "Life is weird fun.