NORTHERN ARIZONA EXPOSURE
"NOT THIS WEEKEND," J.D. said. It was February 14, 1991, the Thursday before Presidents Day. Something was up his sleeve that he wasn't telling. "Loose lips sink ships," he said.
He didn't answer his telephone that Saturday.
Sunday night he finally answered. He was jubilant, but a little tired from his night in Coconino County Jail and the walk home, 15 miles around Elden Mountain.
J.D., a stocky 56-year-old with bristling white stubble, a crew cut, blue eyes and a hearing aid as big as your thumb, had spent Friday night and part of Saturday at Wupatki National Monument, northeast of Flagstaff toward the Hopi mesas. Wupatki encompasses 35,000 acres of windswept, orange-sandstone canyons scattered with Anasazi ruins, black lava rock hidden in sparse tufts of grass, and Sunset Crater, a lava dome with burnt-red crater that erupted in 1064.
J.D. had spent his time at Wupatki dangling from the flagpole at the Visitor Center with a noose around his neck, along with an upside-down American flag and a huge, chicken-wire and straw effigy of President George Bush-complete with black hood, white gloves that had been spattered with red and its own hangman's noose.
J.D.'s "February Surprise" was a protest against the Gulf War. He was also protesting his job. He was trying to get his employer to grant him medical retirement.
Finding J.D. dangling from a flagpole in a plastic eight-foot raft with a portable potty and three days of provisions probably didn't surprise Wupatki Chief Ranger Anna Marie Fender. She knew J.D.; he worked there.
That J.D. was about to draw a lot of heat probably didn't surprise anyone else, either; had there been a time when he hadn't? Certainly he'd had his scrapes with the U.S. Department of the Interior, which runs Wupatki. Interior had already fired him three times, twice when he taught at Leupp Boarding School on the Navajo Reservation, once at Wupatki. Each time he had appealed to the Park Service's Merit Systems Protection Board; each time he'd been reinstated.
His press conference a couple of years before at Flagstaff's Peaks Ranger Station had drawn a lot of attention, too. J.D. had given TV and radio interviews from the back of his pickup truck, where he sat atop his dead horse, holding U.S. Forest Service personnel responsible for killing the horse because they blocked off a road on which J.D. was riding in his buggy and forced him into a long detour.
Then came J.D.'s February Surprise at Wupatki. But that wouldn't be J.D.'s only encounter with the authorities in 1991. Toward the end of the year, Arizona Public Service Company found a one-pound magnet stuck to the watt meter on the back of his house. If those dials can't turn, it's hard to run up much of a bill, and J.D. hadn't. He was convicted last December 10 on two counts of theft, given six months' unsupervised probation and ordered to pay a $280 fine.
The February Surprise wasn't the first time J.D. was videotaped at Wupatki. In September 1990, his image was captured in his National Park Service uniform, wearing a sandwich board reading "SMOKING CAUSES CANCER." A film crew was trying to shoot a commercial for Lucky Strike, but J.D. kept getting in front of the cameras. On his pickup truck, a sign read, "We are mad as hell that the Park Service kowtows to a tobacco company at Wupatki Ruin."
J.D. HAD BEEN WORKING at Wupatki for eight years. During the winters, he was a maintenance man; summers, he stabilized the ruins. In February 1991, he was more trouble than usual. His employer, the Department of the Interior, hadn't been swayed by his request for medical retirement. Growing his hair long hadn't persuaded his bosses. Cutting off half his hair-everything on the left side from the part to the ear, cut and shaved shiny-hadn't, either. Shaving the other half and coming to work with his entire head painted white (except for those black rings painted around his eyes) hadn't persuaded them, either.
At the time, the Internal Revenue Service was garnisheeing J.D.'s wages for penalties and interest from ten years of failing to file tax returns. J.D. said he wanted a medical retirement so he could start drawing a pension the IRS couldn't touch. He said he hoped to swing this by convincing his supervisors that he was crazy and that his work had made him that way. "I want a `crazy' out," he said. He said his employer had a loophole through which it could medically retire him if it found him "bizarre and dangerous or whatever."
After his February Surprise, he was confident that the video footage the park rangers shot would help. "Anybody looking at those videos with me standing on top of the flagpole with a hangman's noose around my neck would believe that," J.D. said.
J.D. was pretty happy the Monday after his arrest. He was pleased with the conversation he had had Saturday afternoon with Coconino County Sheriff Joe Richards. After half a day balancing in his orange raft, as deputies and park rangers yelled that he was under arrest, and park personnel lay mattresses on the pavement 30 feet below, he had a good, 45-minute talk with Sheriff Richards. With Richards talking to him and to Wupatki administrators, J.D. said, he'd reached a verbal agreement: He'd come down, and they'd grant him medical retirement, $1,600 a month.
"I must be a fool of all fools to believe that," J.D. said that Monday. "I've been double-crossed so many times by the federal bureaucracy." The only thing different this time, he said, was Richards. "He really put on a professional example of how to negotiate," J.D. said. "He, at least, is aware there is a constitutional right to free speech, which is a quantum jump above the Park Service rangers."
Richards negotiated sincerely, J.D. said, and J.D. would "find out tomorrow, bright and early" if the Wupatki administration had. At work, of course. J.D. planned to put in only half a day Tuesday, what with the pretrial discussions that afternoon before a federal magistrate. He faced federal charges of violating regulations on trespassing, tampering and vandalizing; interfering with agency functions; disorderly conduct; and public assemblies and meetings.
J.D. was peeved because no press people had made it out. "I just can't be happy," he said. "I planned for every eventuality-I could not believe in America they'd prevent free access to the press. This shows how naive I am."
During the February Surprise, visitors to Wupatki were banned from the area. (It's possible to tour Wupatki without stopping at the Visitor Center.) An elderly trio, caught on videotape in the early morning walking past J.D.'s old black pickup truck with a "BUSH LIES" signboard in the back, were among the few unofficial witnesses. J.D. was delighted that he made the front page of the local newspaper, but he pointed out that the story never mentioned that he was a National Park Service employee.
"The only steppingstone to the media is bizarre behavior," he said. "If you make a quiet petition, it's totally ignored."
Tuesday, after his half-day at Wupatki, J.D. picked up copies of the charges at the federal magistrate's office. Did the Park Service give him his discharge?
"I still don't know," he said that day. "About 80 percent of them wouldn't even look at me. It was like I was the invisible man." He talked to his immediate supervisor, whose first words were, "What's new?" Then the supervisor departed for a meeting. J.D. expected to know his status by Tuesday night.
When he went to work, he checked in at the little maintenance building. "None of the other employees came in there," he said. "They all hung out around the coffeepot so they wouldn't have to come around me." While they were watching him, every time he went by the flagpole, he sized it up, looking it up and down.
COCONINO COUNTY Sheriff Joe Richards recalled thinking that he'd gotten there too late.
"I'd heard on the radio that the man was threatening suicide," Richards said. "I showed up...and here's this body dangling below the boat. I thought, `Oh no, the man's already hung himself.'" It was the Bush effigy, of course; J.D. was crouching in the raft.
"To establish a rapport with the man is key to any crisis situation," the sheriff said. However, J.D. wasn't talking; he was responding to sheriff's deputies and park rangers only with head shakes or nods. A strong wind buffeted everyone. Wupatki personnel had brought in a scissor-lift work platform; Richards got into the bucket and was lifted off the parking lot.
J.D. didn't answer when Richards called to him, the sheriff said, but when the platform was raised to the level of the raft, J.D. became "hypersensitive" and showed an "escalation of fear." From inside the raft, J.D. picked up the end of a rope attached to his raft hoist, revealing a hangman's noose. He put the noose over his neck, cinched it down and made a gesture as if to go over the side.
The sheriff said he kept up his efforts, and J.D. finally started talking. "He just seemed to spill forth," recalled Richards. "He began to vent his frustrations against the system he was demonstrating against...to vent hatred against what the president was doing with the war in the Gulf."
As J.D. "vented his frustration," Richards said, the danger was being defused. Yet, with the noose on, if J.D. had unintentionally slipped, or if either the quarter-inch nylon rope or the flagpole had snapped, the sheriff said, "we'd have had a dead man on our hands."
Richards told J.D. he was in the wrong place to put his message across. "I will see that you're given a forum" to send your message, Richards said he told J.D.; the sheriff offered to make available a contact person with the news media. But, according to Richards, J.D. said, "Nope, this is where I want to be." J.D. felt compelled that to send his message he had to spend three days up there," Richards said. J.D. began to pull on the rope at his throat, according to Richards, and said, "I've got it on and I can't get it off."
Richards asked J.D. if there was anybody he would talk to, and J.D. finally named someone. When contacted, the woman agreed to come out and listen to J.D. "Eventually," said Richards, "we did get him talked down."
PARK SUPERINTENDENT Sam Henderson had been at Wupatki only four months when the flagpole incident occurred. He'd never seen any signs in J.D. of suicidal behavior, but he had talked with him about retirement. Henderson said he had told J.D. he was eligible for a "discontinued service" retirement, but J.D. turned it down and pressed for medical retirement because it meant more money.
Henderson said he offered to help J.D. get an interview with a medical professional. "If he had a job-related medical problem, I would help him get a retirement," the superintendent said. Whether J.D. was eligible would be determined by the U.S. Department of Labor's workers' compensation officials after they received a doctor's evaluation.
That medical retirement, at $1,600 a month, that J.D. had talked about during an interview? "Those are J.D.'s figures," said Henderson. "I offered J.D. a discontinued service retirement."
What would park personnel have done if J.D. hadn't agreed to come down?
"We discussed the option of leaving him up there for three days," said Henderson. ÔBut once he put the noose around his neck, we figured there was a potential for disaster, and we'd do what we needed to get him off the flagpole."
APRIL 9: FEDERAL Magistrate Stephen Verkamp heard the case, United States of America v. James D. Protiva, in a room in his private office in Flagstaff, a rock one-story with an apple tree in the yard. J.D. represented himself at the proceedings, which may have been a mistake: It was hard to tell where the parts of his defense fit together.
What did the Lucky Strike filming have to do with the February Surprise? How was what he called the "commercialization" and "desecration" of an Anasazi ruin by the Park Service relevant to his defense? Did the "Disneylanding" of the park justify his actions?
Could a lawyer have explained away the dramatic videotape in which J.D. stands on his hoist, which was clamped to the flagpole four feet above the raft, the noose hanging loosely around his throat, pulling and pushing the pole with both hands, making it sway and veer so much that Chief Ranger Fender's camcorder picked up the creaking noise? Why couldn't he have just sat on his flagpole quietly?
Why did the United States try to prevent J.D. from testifying about the Lucky Strike filming, or his "political, religious and/or moral views," or his three previous firings and rehirings by the Department of the Interior? Could a lawyer have exploited that?
What dangling strings could J.D. have tied together in his defense? What was the relevance of maintenance foreman Kerry King's testimony that he once told J.D., "Come on, ya Communist bastard, let's go outside and we'll settle this"? What was J.D. trying to show when he asked King to explain how his job would be easier without J.D. around, and King said he wouldn't have to see somebody working "with their face half-painted and ladies' underwear on their head"?
When an Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter landed near J.D.'s truck, why did he pull that long, metal pole out of his raft and lean on it? Why did the arresting officers find a can of charcoal lighter fluid in the raft? Could a lawyer have shown these to be standard equipment for a weekend dangling from a Park Service flagpole?
part 1 of 2
NORTHERN ARIZONA EXPOSURE J.D. RAN HIMSE... v1-29-92
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.
- Struggling Phoenix Workers Demand $15 Minimum Wage
Wed., Oct. 14, 3:00pm
Thu., Oct. 15, 7:00pm
Thu., Oct. 15, 7:00pm
Sat., Oct. 17, 7:00pm
- Shooting at Northern Arizona University: 1 Dead, 3 Wounded, Shooter in Custody
- Arizona Medical-Marijuana Lawsuit Ruling Exposes Ugly Side of Business