NEAR SAFFORD -- The five inmates weren't told why they were being transferred to Fort Grant.
Four of them didn't really care. In prison, you take any change of scenery you can get, and Fort Grant, the frontier fort turned minimum-security prison at the base of the towering, pine-capped Mount Graham, is the nicest change of scenery in the Arizona prison system.
As the old white prison van rattled past Bonita Elementary School toward the mountain range in early March, Steven Abney, who had already done a short stint at Fort Grant for theft, pointed out the sparkling dome of the University of Arizona observatory on top of the mountain's 10,700-foot peak.
Abney then directed the eyes of fellow inmates 5,000 feet below to a hodgepodge of buildings at the mountain's base. Their own prospects were much lower. Those old buildings are your new home, he told them. Welcome to historic Fort Grant, site of Billy the Kid's first murder, central hub of the Apache Wars and now the middle-of-nowhere home to 700 of Arizona's least dangerous cons.
The five inmates did know one thing. They were surely brought to Fort Grant for some sort of construction project. All five had been heavy equipment operators before they were sent to prison.
At first, corrections officers told them they were working on some sort of Department of Agriculture project. Later, they heard they were building a new landfill for the Department of Administration, then the Department of Transportation.
As the weeks passed, though, Abney and his crew began to believe they were being duped. In fact, they soon discovered, they had been brought in to do a job nobody else would -- or legally could -- do.
Their job was to make the old Fort Grant dump disappear.
And as they scraped and plowed over a quarter-mile-long field amid a dust storm of their own making, the inmates constantly unearthed and pulverized massive chunks of building materials as well as bag after bag of medical waste, apparently from the prison infirmary.
Soon after work began, several inmates say, they began experiencing sore throats and nosebleeds that wouldn't stop. Others, including Abney, began having trouble breathing.
"It felt like I had razor blades in my lungs when I'd try to take a deep breath," he says now, a few weeks after his release from the facility. Abney, who had dealt with every sort of building material in his 20 years of construction work, assumed the worst -- that he and at least 15 other inmates were being used as slave labor to illegally dispose of asbestos without any protective equipment.
Turns out he was right. Tests on material smuggled out of the cleanup operation showed two types of asbestos, one of which is the most dangerous form of asbestos on Earth.
Department of Corrections officials as well as inspectors from the Department of Environmental Quality say that Abney and fellow inmates are mistaken or lying.
DEQ officials say they inspected the dump several weeks ago and found no asbestos. They and DOC officials also say asbestos shingles blown from Fort Grant buildings in a freak 2001 windstorm were removed by EPA-approved means -- with proper safety gear for workers and double bags for the asbestos, which was then shipped to the Butterfield Station Landfill, a sanctioned site for asbestos dumping.
But a month ago, knowing that nobody on the outside would believe an inmate, Abney began sneaking pieces of insulated pipe and other materials from the landfill and hiding them along the perimeter fence of the prison. New Times and a Willcox inmate advocate who had befriended Abney retrieved the hidden materials.
Two weeks ago, an environmental laboratory hired by New Times, Phoenix-based EMC Labs, confirmed what Abney had feared -- that he had spent the previous two months breathing in the pulverized dust of two types of asbestos. One type, crocidolite, or blue asbestos, is considered the most hazardous form of asbestos in the world, according to Kurt Kettler, president of EMC Labs, which specializes in asbestos testing and removal.
Blue asbestos, medical researchers say, is 100 times more deadly than the more common white asbestos, which also was in the sample. Blue asbestos, which has been linked to deaths even after only days of exposure, made up between 5 percent and 10 percent of the asbestos used in the U.S. before the material was banned in the 1970s.
The samples retrieved by New Times also included a torn red-tagged medical waste bag.
A New Times reporter and photographer also observed broken piping similar to the type tested strewn in piles at the site of the landfill, which sits atop an aquifer only a half-mile up gently sloping rangeland from a country elementary school with 90 students. They watched as bulldozers bladed piles of debris, dust flying everywhere.
Werner Neubauer, a former Fort Grant correctional officer who recently took a job with an electric company in Willcox, confirms the inmates' contentions about the cleanup operation.
He says he showed pieces of the material to the project's managers, Ray Snow and Don DeBrular of the Arizona Department of Administration, after inmates he guarded at the dump began complaining.
"Ray and Don examined it and told me it was totally harmless," Neubauer tells New Times. "This really concerns me. I was telling the inmates everything was fine. But we were all covered in the dust of this stuff for a couple months."
Neither Snow nor DeBrular returned calls seeking comment for this story.
Abney and others say when they began to question prison officials about health concerns they were threatened with charges of attempting to incite a riot.
One vocal inmate, a big Swede named Richard Northrup, was quickly shipped to another Arizona prison 200 miles away.
And a prison advocate helping Northrup, Carolyn Vilhelmsen of nearby Willcox, found herself being investigated by correctional officers for "fraudulent activities" after she contacted a federal judge about the landfill.
But the prisoners refused to shut up. They felt their lives depended on talking.
"I've got to know what the hell is wrong with my body," says Abney, who was released from Fort Grant last month and now is working construction in southeastern Arizona.
"As far as I'm concerned, I feel like I've been sentenced to a slow death by asbestos poisoning. They just figured nobody would care. They just figured they could do anything to inmates because they don't consider inmates to be human beings.
"Give me a backhoe and I can pull up anything anybody wants to see in five minutes," Abney says. "It's all out there."
On a hot afternoon in the summer of 2001, two years before Abney and his crew were brought to Fort Grant, a violent windstorm swept through Aravaipa Valley at the foot of Mount Graham.
The winds tore apart several of Fort Grant's oldest and most dilapidated buildings.
According to documents ferreted out of the prison by released inmates or sent to inmate advocates over the last year, prison officials called their insurance provider to assess the damage.
The company determined the building materials strewn across the fort's grounds were made of asbestos. The company gave written orders that the inmates were not to be used to clean up and dispose of those materials.
DOC officials told New Times the materials were handled properly and shipped off to an out-of-state landfill built to federal standards for the disposal of asbestos.
In a letter written to state and federal officials in December, inmate Richard Northrup disputed those claims.
"Deputy Warden Bazurto ordered his staff to have several inmates, of which I was included, pick up, sweep up and physically carry and load the materials into trucks to be disposed of by illegal burying of the materials here on Fort Grant's outlying premises without any protective clothing, training or respirators," Northrup wrote.
"The warden willfully and knowingly violated EPA's Clean Air Act regulations in the method and manner of the cleanup and disposal of the asbestos materials, as well as federal laws governing the unusual and cruel punishment of inmates, by exposing them to the potentially dangerous carcinogenic materials."
Northrup and several other inmates asked state and federal regulators to investigate Fort Grant, saying they could prove their contentions.
The inmates received no response. But their concerns apparently sparked DOC and the Department of Administration to move quickly to cover up the Fort Grant dump.
Prior to writing the letter, Northrup, incarcerated for theft, had been working on an inmate labor crew for the Department of Transportation. One of his supervisors was a Willcox DOT employee named Kai Vilhelmsen.
Northrup told Vilhelmsen about the illegal dumping at Fort Grant. Vilhelmsen then told his wife, Carolyn, who was studying to be a paralegal at the time.
The Vilhelmsens agreed they had to help Northrup and other the inmates who, they were convinced, had been exposed to asbestos.
"It just seemed so wrong," Carolyn Vilhelmsen said in a recent interview at a truck stop restaurant outside Willcox. "It was clear to us that these guys were being treated like animals. Worse than animals."
Around the time Northrup sent his letter, though, DOC officials apparently began moving quickly on plans to cap the landfill, which sits about a quarter-mile downhill from the fort. At the time of Northrup's letter, the dump was dotted with heaping above-ground piles of building materials and medical waste bags, inmates say.
About two and a half months ago -- on March 25 -- the Arizona Department of Administration awarded a $200,000 contract to Schwab Sales for rental of the heavy equipment for the job. The equipment arrived at Fort Grant that same week.
Abney and his crew had been brought to the fort two weeks before. Their transfers also were a rush job.
"When we got there, all our paperwork had beat us to the fort," Abney says. "The correction officer handling us said he'd never seen DOC get that paperwork moved so fast. He said he didn't know why we were there, but that it must be important."
Indeed, Abney and his crew say they were immediately treated like prison royalty. They were given "C Clearance," the lowest level supervision rating a prisoner can receive, and were placed into newer barracks that inmates usually wait months or years for.
Inmates say officers even seemed to look the other way when the crew broke prison rules. One inmate, Brad Merrill, was caught smoking twice. One violation usually means an inmate gets yanked from a plum assignment. But not Merrill.
"Brad's a blade man," Abney says. "You couldn't pull this job off without a blade man."
On Monday, March 24, Abney and the others were taken out to the landfill to survey the job. Everything was to be leveled and capped, they were told by officers.
They began work with the heavy equipment that Thursday. Abney and other operators immediately began encountering massive chunks of what looked to him like asbestos. His bulldozer was pulverizing the pipe, sending roiling poofs of gray dust into the air around him.
As the days went on, the spring winds blew constantly across the job site, sometimes sending clouds of dust toward the prison, sometimes sending dust toward the elementary school and on toward the town of Willcox.
"It was awful dusty out there," says Clyde Silversmith, who was among the other 15 inmates working on the landfill. "Everything was blowing around."
That included the torn waste bags from the prison's infirmary, says Silversmith, who was in prison for aggravated DUI but has since been released. He says he was told to dig a hole and bury the medical waste bags he found, bags that he says he could see held feces, dried blood, syringes and needles. Two of the inmates stepped on needles that lodged in their boots, he says.
"The CO told us to bury the bags because some inspectors would be coming from the state," Silversmith says. "The stuff was scary as hell, though. You've got all kinds of diseases in a prison -- tuberculosis, AIDS, whatever. And we were just out there with no protection handling this junk."
Werner Neubauer confirms that inmates were uncovering medical waste bags. But he says he never saw blood or feces in the bags. "They looked like they were pretty old," Neubauer says. He says he told inmates not to touch the bags as they buried them.
Like asbestos, medical waste is, according to state and federal law, supposed to be bagged and hauled away for dumping in specially designed facilities.
By the next week, the construction crew was uncovering asbestos and medical waste bags from every corner of the sprawling dump.
On March 31, Abney was told to knock down and level a large mound in the western part of the landfill. As Abney worked the pile, he uncovered what he estimated to be two dump truck loads of broken pipe that was clearly asbestos.
Abney got two other workers to look at the pile.
"They were in awe," he says. "It was like the tip of the iceberg."
The three inmates then flagged down their supervisor, Ray Snow, to show them what they had uncovered.
"Ray just looked at it and said, Push it down and bury it,'" Abney says.
"At that point, we started getting scared," Abney says. "That's when we knew something awfully bad was up and we were in the middle of it."
Snow did not return calls to his home seeking comment for this story.
That night, Abney and several other equipment operators met secretly to discuss their predicament.
They were angry. They all wanted off the job.
But prison officials, they say, wouldn't let them quit. They were, by any definition of the term, a captive labor force.
And they felt they needed to get that proof to someone outside the prison system. They believed prison officials would only listen to their complaints if officials were convinced someone on the outside had been contacted about the illegal dump.
The inmates were scared, too. "We were genuinely afraid of what they might do to us," Abney says.
The group chose Abney to collect the information and get it to an outside party. The soft-spoken Abney was to be released from prison the soonest of the group. He would be out in mid-May.
He was also the most sympathetic character of the bunch. He was near the end of a two-year sentence for the theft and destruction of a truck that had been lent to him by his partner in his construction business. Abney says he took the truck after he caught his partner in bed with his wife.
The day after the group decided on a plan, Abney began keeping a journal of the inmates' work at the dump.
He began stashing pieces of the dump material in his 'dozer. When he was a safe distance from supervisors, he'd hide the pieces so they could be retrieved later by investigators.
Abney then began drawing a map of the dump with directions to where the heaviest concentrations of asbestos and medical waste had been buried.
He also made copies of documents detailing the project and he mailed them to outside sources for safekeeping. Those documents list the Arizona Department of Administration officials involved in the project as well as the Tucson engineering firm that drew up the plans for the capping of the dump.
Three Department of Administration officials listed in the documents -- Jayne Long, Don DeBrular and Clyde Ray Snow -- did not return phone calls for this story.
A representative of Stearns, Conrad, Schmidt Consulting Engineers also did not respond to New Times inquiries.
"We figured everybody would be awfully tightlipped about all of this," Abney says. "That's why we felt we had to be the ones who provided the proof."
There were three types of asbestos used in building materials in the United States before the remarkably fireproof material was banned for health reasons.
Chrysotile, known as white asbestos, accounts for 90 percent to 95 percent of the asbestos contained in building in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
White asbestos is considered the least dangerous. Amosite, known as brown asbestos, is more deadly but less prevalent.
Crocidolite, the infamous blue asbestos, was rarely used in the United States because its dangers were identified as early as the 1930s.
Apparently, officials at Fort Grant, which served as an industrial school after it was retired as a military fort before becoming a state prison in 1973, didn't care what type of asbestos they used in numerous additions over its 120-year history.
"There is definitely crocidolite in these samples," says Kurt Kettler, the Phoenix asbestos expert who examined the material provided to New Times by Steven Abney.
"And it's definitely nasty stuff."
Blue asbestos is particularly deadly because of the structure of its fibers. While other forms of asbestos fibers are curly, blue asbestos fibers are needle-like and extremely brittle.
"It becomes so fine you can take a lot of this stuff into your lungs," Kettler says. "Then the small fibers stick in the sacs and nodules of the lungs. It breaks down to such a small size you can't expel it by coughing.
"It actually contaminates your lungs. Then you see the cancers form."
Although heavy exposure to blue asbestos has been known to cause immediate respiratory problems, it usually causes the most damage decades after exposure.
Blue asbestos, according to research conducted by the Industrial and Research Laboratory in Bristol, England, is 100 times more carcinogenic than white asbestos.
Those exposed to blue asbestos have much higher incidences of four diseases: mesothelioma, a rare cancerous tumor that usually causes death within 16 months; asbestosis, which causes difficulty breathing; pleural disease, which causes an inflammation of the lung membrane and often leads to mesothelioma; and lung cancer.
Pleural disease can begin appearing soon after exposure to heavy levels of asbestos, particularly blue asbestos.
The most comprehensive study of the effects of blue asbestos was conducted in the 1990s in the town of Wittenoom, Australia, site of the notorious Blue Asbestos Ltd. mine.
Researchers estimate that more than 1,000 former Wittenoom residents have died of asbestos-related diseases. A quarter of those who died never worked in the mine.
Many of those deaths were linked to one-time or short exposures to high levels of airborne blue asbestos. Blue asbestos can also be deadly if swallowed.
Asbestos experts point out that the very worst thing you can do is pulverize blue asbestos into dust, which is exactly what the inmates at Fort Grant did with their heavy equipment.
The Environmental Protection Agency has had strict guidelines for the disposal of the dangerous forms of asbestos since the 1970s. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration tightened those restrictions again in 1995.
Prison and state administrators clearly violated regulations laid out by the Clean Air Act, the National Emission Standards for Asbestos, ADEQ, EPA and OSHA in their handling of the asbestos at Fort Grant.
It is unclear, however, how much protection state prison inmates legally must be given by prison officials.
Indeed, state inmates are not protected by the state's OSHA rules, according to a state OSHA official. Prison guards like Neubauer, however, certainly fall under OSHA rules.
But Arizona statutes clearly state that inmates are not to be forced to do jobs that endanger their safety.
Carolyn Vilhelmsen has stated this fact in writing to a federal judge in Tucson. She hopes that as more information comes out, the judge will order a widespread investigation of the landfill.
But regardless of whether inmates' and correctional officers' rights were violated, nothing is going to remove the asbestos from their lungs.
"I'm going to have to be worrying about this for the rest of my life," Abney says.
"There are so many people out there that were exposed to that stuff," Neubauer says. "I guess anybody who has ever been out there has something to worry about. And when you consider how old that fort is, that's a lot of people."
On March 29, just days after inmates began complaining about their work on the Fort Grant landfill, Carolyn Vilhelmsen drove from Willcox to Fort Grant to visit inmate Richard Northrup.
Vilhelmsen had been helping Northrup file documents in court regarding another case. Northrup had granted Vilhelmsen full power of attorney so she could submit the documents.
For months, Northrup had been telling the Vilhelmsens about the dumping of asbestos at Fort Grant. They had also been speaking with Steven Abney.
During the visitation, Vilhelmsen says, Northrup handed her a packet of documents. He asked her to drive off prison property and open the packet and take the documents to the Graham County sheriff's department if she felt it was necessary.
Five days later, a friend at her workplace, Dunlap Oil in Willcox, informed her that she had been contacted by Fort Grant correctional officers who said they were investigating Vilhelmsen for fraudulent activities at the fort.
According to Vilhelmsen, the friend said the two guards had visited her home and asked her to listen in on Vilhelmsen's phone conversations and monitor her activities in the office, particularly Vilhelmsen's use of the company fax machine.
The friend confirmed in an interview with New Times that she was contacted by officers, but asked that her name not be used in this story. The friend told the officers she would not spy on Vilhelmsen.
Vilhelmsen found out the next day that her boss had twice been contacted by correctional officers about Vilhelmsen's use of the Dunlap Oil fax machine. Vilhelmsen had sent faxes to Northrup at the prison during her break times using a calling card, her boss told the officers. It was not an issue.
Vilhelmsen and those around her saw the "investigation" as nothing more than attempts to intimidate her into keeping quiet about the dump. She sent an angry letter to DOC and other state officials.
"It appears that . . . I now am enjoying reprisals set forth by DOC or their staff," she wrote.
In the meantime, inmates were becoming more vocal about their health concerns over the asbestos.
Abney says that one member of the construction crew complained about nosebleeds and other health problems to a correctional officer and the officer told him "to shut up or you'll end up buried out there too."
Other inmates say they were told that if they did not shut up, they would be charged with trying to incite a riot.
In early April, inmates were told by Neubauer and other landfill supervisors that they needed to speed up completion of the job because inspectors of some sort would soon be visiting the fort. Abney says he was told by Ray Snow to take shovels and bury all the remaining medical bags that could be seen strewn across the dump.
"He told me EPA or somebody was coming," Abney says.
In fact, the rumor was wrong. Inspectors apparently were called out to the Safford area to inspect a different dump.
But at the end of April, the dump did get inspected. Abney says Meg Savage, an assistant director for DOC who oversees prison operations in the Safford area, came to Fort Grant.
Abney says he overheard Savage angrily asking the prison's warden and deputy warden who had authorized the material to be buried.
DOC spokesman Mike Arra tells New Times that Savage "never made any such visit" and that she wasn't available for an interview.
Neubauer, however, says he met Savage at the work site that day.
"What the heck are they thinking?" Neubauer says. "She introduced herself to me at the landfill. We had to get the whole fort in tip-top shape for her visit. I know who she is. And I know she was there."
About the time of Savage's visit, Abney decided he could no longer just stand by as he and fellow workers got sick. Abney marched into the fort headquarters and demanded to see one of the fort's top supervisors, Captain Jim Bond.
Earlier this month, that supervisor refused to answer questions about the dump, instead referring all questions to the DOC's public information officers in Phoenix.
In mid-May, two weeks after his discussion with Bond, Abney was released from prison. With help from the Vilhelmsens, Abney landed a construction job and found an apartment near downtown Phoenix.
"I'd like to put all this behind me," Abney says. "But I promised the guys who are still out at Fort Grant that I would tell our story. There are just too many people affected for me to walk away quietly."
The Vilhelmsens and the Fort Grant inmates now are hoping for a full investigation by state or federal authorities of Fort Grant and its landfill.
"Whoever is responsible for this, they need to pay," Carolyn Vilhelmsen says. "They've put so many people in jeopardy.
"In my mind, they've done nothing less than give everybody out there a sentence of death."
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.