Info:Correction Date: 08/27/1998
Nearly three years after Amtrak's Sunset Limited was sabotaged near Buckeye, firefighters who rode to the rescue remain on the FBI's list of suspects
By Michael Kiefer
An hour and a half past midnight on October 9, 1995, when four cars of Amtrak's Sunset Limited passenger train fishtailed off a trestle into a remote desert wash somewhere west of Buckeye and east of nowhere, an army of sheriff's officers and firefighters raced to the rescue in helicopters, pickups and fire trucks.
Miraculously, only one person was killed, about 80 injured, and by first light, they'd all been trundled off to Valley hospitals, and the uninjured passengers were being towed back to Phoenix.
At first it seemed pure Americana--small-town volunteers, real people saving real people's lives. But soon it turned into America at its most cynical.
The track had been sabotaged, 29 spikes pulled out, the rails spread apart, still joined by a jumper wire so as not to short the electrical current that runs through the rails and alert Amtrak officials that there was a break.
Even then, it might have been written off as high-tech vandalism by desert rats on a bender who were looking for something to blow up real good. But rescue workers on-scene found the letters.
The letters didn't exactly claim responsibility; rather, they railed dramatically against the FBI and the ATF and sounded all the same tired liturgies about Waco and Ruby Ridge we've heard these last several years. They were signed Sons of the Gestapo, which sounded vaguely terrorist and militialike, a hot topic that year because the smell of explosives still hung in the air from Oklahoma City.
But there was no such organization. FBI investigators quickly dismissed the militia angle as a red herring, a distraction perhaps, or somebody trying to make . . . what point?
The investigation spread in a hundred directions. FBI special agents relentlessly interviewed railroad workers, businessmen who might make a profit from cleaning up the mess, subscribers to a magazine that described an unsolved 1930s derailment, desert hairballs, and the friends and neighbors and families of all of the above.
Most ironic, they pursued the very firefighters who pulled off the efficient rescue, assuming that some perverse paramedics had wrecked the train so that they could ride to the rescue, a twist on the archetypal deviant fireman who sets fires so that he can heroically put them out.
An Amtrak spokesman refers to the derailment as "not something we care to revisit." Too bad. A federal grand jury is revisiting it, and FBI agents revisit it every day.
Neither the FBI nor the U.S. Attorney's Office will let on how much it actually knows about the perpetrator or perpetrators. Rumor and hearsay follow the investigators around Buckeye and Tonopah and Harquahala Valley and Hyder, the towns nearest the train wreck.
Last September, an FBI secretary accidentally faxed to the media a confidential memo that implicated several former members of the now-extinct Tonopah Valley Fire Department, some of whom responded to the emergency.
Jack Callahan, spokesman for the Phoenix branch of the FBI, admits that the FBI has not ascertained any logical motive for the crime, but that some of the generic groups that his agency was looking into have been eliminated: railroad workers with a grudge, salvage workers.
Firefighters remain high on the list. Not so much in the spotlight as in limbo.
"It's not the type of case where you say it's that one group and it's simply a matter of assembling the proof," says one source close to the U.S. Attorney. "There are a lot of different leads that when you initially get explained why they're a lead, you go, 'Oh, they must have done it.' When you hear four or five of them, you go, 'Well, all of them didn't do it.'"
"We rarely tell people they are suspects, so we wouldn't tell them they aren't," the FBI's Callahan says.
When the train plowed through the desert wash, it plowed through some lives: the victims' lives, of course.
And the rescuers' lives as well.
They know they are suspects, but not how suspect they are.
The case may be unsolvable. They could be suspects forever.
From the way the Buckeye Valley Rural Fire Department command vehicle is rocketing down old U.S. 80 at 85 miles per hour, you might think it's on the way to an emergency. Firefighter Scott Shannon Benbow is behind the wheel; Buckeye Valley Rural Fire Chief Bill Lanford rides shotgun.
The truck swerves off the pavement onto Agua Caliente Road, a dirt road that winds 40 miles to the tiny town of Hyder. The road has just been graded and watered, and so Benbow only slows to 55 mph. The road is narrow, and the Ford Explorer goes up on two wheels on curves. Benbow's a paramedic, so if he flips it and survives, he'll be able to perform first aid on the other passengers in the truck.
About 18 miles in, Agua Caliente crosses the Southern Pacific tracks. This is where the rescue operation set up a triage and staging area. Injured passengers were flown here from the train, seven miles farther on, and then packed into waiting ambulances.
Benbow turns west onto the primitive double track that follows the rails to the wreck site, only then slowing to at least a respectful speed, to bounce the truck through washes without bottoming out.
On the night of the wreck, this road was even more rugged. The first firefighters in had had to haul away the beef-jerky carcasses of cows that had been hit by trains. Seventeen sheriff's Crown Vic cruisers that forced their way in earned flat tires. Benbow had called on local farmers to come out with tractors and grade the impassable stretches and the helicopter landing zones. Later, a road had to be built to bring in heavy equipment so that the railroad could hoist the cars back onto the track.
Most of the washes are spanned by picturesque 1930s wooden trestles. The trestle at Quail Springs Wash, where the saboteurs moved the rails, is long enough to require steel beams. Benbow and other firefighters had scratched their first names and last initials where the trestle's original commemorative plaques had been. In the underbrush along the wash are hinges and pieces of rail and other debris left over from the wreck and its repair.
The derailment site is ringed by mountains that made it near impossible for the rescue workers to stay in radio contact with each other and with their dispatchers. It's parched and desolate, but pretty enough to make you die of heartbreak, if you didn't die of thirst.
Lanford bends over and mugs as if he is trying to pull the rails out of place, and he looks strong enough to do it. He's a big ol' boy, tall and lanky, a full-time cotton farmer and small-town stalwart.
When the Buckeye school district auctioned off its outdated equipment, he bought the big, old-fashioned slide from the school he attended as a child and set it up as a monument of sorts in his front yard.
Benbow looks like the late lead singer of the rock group Sublime: shaved head and a little mustache, with arms like hams and a beer drinker's belly. He likes to tell jolly stories about barfights or baby rattlesnakes falling through a roadhouse roof onto the pool table and interrupting his game.
They shuck and joke and jive like good ol' boys, but if somebody needs to save your sorry ass someday, these are the fellows that you want to see running to your rescue.
And this has not gone unnoticed. Lanford was one of the first firefighters on-scene, and he shared command with the Sheriff's Office, and consequently he's been invited to tell his story to firefighter gatherings all over the country.
Sometime on the night of October 8, or the morning of October 9, 1995, at the gentle, 50-mile-per-hour curve leading up to the trestle, someone pulled 29 of the spikes that hold the rails in place, levered one rail out of place and buttressed it so it wouldn't slip back. The rails carry an electrical current, and if the current shorts out, then railroad maintenance workers know there's a break in the track. The saboteurs ran a wire from one rail to the next before they separated them so that to the railroad personnel monitoring the controls, it would appear that the tracks were still connected.
The sabotage probably only took about 15 minutes; the last train had passed that site unscathed just 18 hours before.
At 1:22 a.m. on October 9, the Sunset Limited, Amtrak's cross-country passenger train, en route from Orlando to Los Angeles, came around the curve at 52 miles per hour. When it hit the break, the train's two engines and its first car left the rails but stayed upright on the trestle, skidding all the way across and gouging two-inch-deep ruts in the railroad ties beneath.
The next five cars, however, buckled and plunged 30 feet down into the deep sand of Quail Springs Wash. Miraculously, only one person was killed, an Amtrak porter named Mitchell Bates, who died in his bunk of a broken neck.
The train engineer radioed his dispatcher in Denver, who called the Amtrak office in Phoenix, which in turn picked up the phone and dialed 911. The Phoenix Fire Department operator who took the call was at first confused: The wreck was at "milepost 847," and the operator knew there were no roads that long in the state. Once it was ascertained that this was a train wreck, phone calls flittered among DPS and Rural/Metro Fire Department and the Yuma and Maricopa County Sheriff's Offices. Then MCSO called the Buckeye Police Department, which called Bill Lanford at home. It was 1:52 a.m.
Lanford threw his gear into the back of his personal pickup truck, and as he was backing out of the driveway, two MCSO Crown Victorias sped past. Lanford followed them; three Buckeye Volunteer firefighters pulled into the convoy along the way.
The dust thrown up by the road nearly obscured the full moon. Lanford listened as the radio dispatchers fine-tuned directions, wondering what he'd find when he got there.
They reached the wreck at 2:35 a.m., an hour and 13 minutes after it derailed; a DPS helicopter had landed on a low rise along the wash seven minutes before.
"They said 300 people on the radio," Lanford recalls, "so I'm thinking carnage."
But when he got out of his truck, he saw that most of the train cars were upright and the victims were quiet.
An Amtrak employee came up to him and shouted, "We were sabotaged." Lanford thought, "Maybe so," but hurried past to the train.
He crawled through the overturned cars to get to the injured. "Everyone was real calm," he says.
Benbow went first to the Buckeye firehouse, loaded backboards and mass-casualty kits, batteries and other supplies into a one-ton truck and hooked a generator and a light tower to the back and set out. Other rescuers were complaining of the dust on the road in, so Benbow got on the radio and called for a water truck to spray it down and called farmers to come grade the road in and landing zones for the helicopters at the site and at the staging area set up where Agua Caliente Road crossed the tracks.
When he reached the train, Benbow claims he found a lot of drunks. Apparently, after they'd counted teeth and fingers and toes, the passengers broke into the train's bar car and liberated the alcohol, presumably for medicinal purposes. One man, Benbow maintains, came through the crash unscathed, but then got so drunk that he fell and hit his head and had to be airlifted to a hospital.
Of 248 passengers on the train, only 83 were injured. They were gathered and tended to on the south side of the trestle where the wash was wider and the med-evac helicopters could land and take off more easily.
As the scene filled with firefighters and their trucks, the commander radioed back to Agua Caliente Road to close access. All ambulances would stay there and await patients.
Most of the firefighters already out at the train were from Buckeye Rural, but at least one crew from Rural/Metro's western station, and two fire captains from Tonopah Valley Fire Department, arrived before the road closed.
Tonopah Valley was an upstart squad from north of I-10 near the Palo Verde Nuclear Power plant. They'd "jumped the call," that is, heard the dispatch go out to the Buckeye Rural Fire Department, and decided they'd go, too.
Captain Steve Hurley arrived in a firetruck with several volunteers. Captain Robert Spinner was behind the wheel of a four-wheel-drive "attack truck," a small pumper used to fight brush fires. Hurley initially stayed at the staging site while Spinner followed the tracks to the train, slowing only to tow another truck out of a ditch. When he reached the train, he approached Lanford and demanded they share "incident" command.
Lanford was somewhat put off. Spinner had no subordinates on-scene--Lanford had nearly 60. And so Lanford, who was sharing command with MCSO, suggested instead that Spinner tend to passengers in the fallen cars.
"I thought he was kind of an asshole, myself," Lanford says of Spinner.
There was bad blood between the two departments. The fledgling Tonopah company was just months old and muscling into Buckeye's call area. Buckeye medics looked at the Tonopah crew as cowboys, and they'd get in arguments at emergency calls and car wrecks along I-10.
Shortly after the derailment, other Tonopah firefighters told New Times that Spinner had been the first to discover the wire connecting the separated tracks. Spinner had told New Times in 1995, "I was walking by when they found the wire." Spinner has since left the state for parts unknown.
As the scene was becoming increasingly chaotic, with trucks rushing in and helicopters landing, Hurley hitched a ride to the train on a med-evac helicopter whose pilot he knew, leaving his volunteers with Bill Ballard, a Harquahala Valley volunteer who then had been assistant chief at Tonopah.
Radio transmission in and out of the scene was largely blocked by the mountains that ringed the site. And the ever-increasing media types were clogging all cell phone channels. Hurley claims he spent about 15 minutes at the train and then volunteered to stay in the helicopter overhead, relaying radio messages.
At around 3:45 a.m., a sheriff's officer came up to Lanford and an MCSO sergeant and said, "Sarge, maybe you want to take a look at this."
It was the Sons of the Gestapo letter, two copies of which had been found on the tracks on either side of the train.
"I got goosebumps when I read that thing," says Lanford, "and I thought, 'They could blow the trestle.'"
Deputies checked beneath the trestle, and Lanford and the deputies started wondering who could be watching from the darkness of the desert and whether they'd have guns.
Meanwhile, Lynn Bartley, a Buckeye volunteer firefighter, stopped to talk to three passengers smoking cigarettes outside their sleeper car, and they showed her another copy of the letter that they had found taped up inside the car.
"The sons of bitches tried to kill us," one woman said to Bartley.
A fourth copy of the letter was later found tacked to a fence post several miles back down the track road.
Lanford didn't see the tacked-up copy as he'd driven in, and he feels strongly that if it had been there before the rescuers arrived, it would have shown bright and white under the full moon, especially as they were inching along, unsure where the train would be and looking closely at everything in their path.
Nor was it likely that the copy inside the sleeper car had been there, unnoticed on the ride from Phoenix, suggesting that whoever left it had either been waiting in the dark for the wreck and slipped in and out during the commotion or that one of the rescue workers had planted it.
By 8:30 in the morning, all of the injured had been evacuated from the train, and an hour later, an Amtrak locomotive chugged in to drag the standing cars and the remaining passengers back to Phoenix.
The Buckeye Rural Fire Department sent a bill for $12,716.87 to the Arizona Division of Emergency Services, its calculated price for 53 firefighters, four command officers, one mechanic, 14 vehicles and a generator. The state wrote back saying that Buckeye had overcharged by $181.
"They say I screwed 'em," Lanford says with a cynical laugh.
The Sons of the Gestapo letter began with a writerly flourish about how the Branch Davidian complex in Waco, Texas, burned down in its stand-off with federal agents.
Before dawn the women awoke to say their morning prayers. They lit their kerosene lamps because the electricity had been turned off. After observing lights in all the upstairs windows, the FBI ordered the tear gas bombardment. [. . .] Over the next few hours ventilation holes were poked in the walls. The holes made the fire burn very much faster. Otherwise the fire department would have had the time to put out the fire before the women and children died in the flames. [. . .] A minute afterwards, black smoke started to pour out of the windows where the lamps had burned. This is the normal time needed for a kerosene fire to build up.
All of which are details notable to the authorities because few people would know or care about them unless they had a working knowledge of fire behavior. The letter's ending rails about the FBI, ATF, state and local police departments. It mentions Ruby Ridge, then localizes the rant with an allusion to the chokehold death of Eddie Mallet at the hands of Phoenix police. To the FBI experts composing a profile of the perpetrator, this suggested some law enforcement experience.
Operation Splitrail, as the investigation came to be called, had little else to go on.
"By the time we responded, hundreds of people had been through the crime scene," says the FBI's Jack Callahan.
The evidence had been trampled, the rumor mill filled with reports of mysterious vehicles stuck in the road and strangers with cowboy hats.
On his way in, Scott Benbow had encountered a man in a pickup truck going in the wrong direction who told him that the train wreck was still a couple of miles farther on. Benbow had not thought much of it at the time, but later wondered if it had been a saboteur making his escape. Benbow brought it up over and over to FBI agent after FBI agent and became increasingly frustrated that it always seemed to be news to them.
One source familiar with the FBI investigation said that Benbow's trucker "was picked up on very quickly, and, I think, turned out to be a first responder who, after he got out there, was called and told, 'No, you were supposed to bring the goddamned firetruck.'"
That dismissal infuriates Lanford.
"They're full of shit," Lanford says. "We had tons of people coming out to the scene. Why would we send someone back?"
Furthermore, he points out, not only did most of the rescuers arrive in their private vehicles, but fire trucks that could make it to the scene wouldn't have been of much use.
"So whoever you got that from, you tell him that I said it was bullshit," Lanford continues. "I'll tell him personally."
To the rural firefighters, the endless stream of special agents seemed to be a parade of rubes in rental cars, Barney Fife cops in suits, asking the same questions over and over.
"Sometimes we go back to people nine or ten times," says Callahan. And if his agency comes back, Callahan continues, "then there's reason to be there."
On one occasion, Lanford claims, FBI agents searched for days for a local suspect without finding him. When a TV reporter came to the Buckeye station to ask for advice, Scott Benbow had the "suspect" on the phone within minutes.
Lanford lashed out in the press at repeated FBI visits. As recently as February 1998, the FBI demanded that Buckeye open its personnel files to look for any employees who had left the department after or shortly before the wreck.
But the first firefighter suspect to show up on the public radar screen was Tonopah Captain Steve Hurley.
By November 1995, Hurley's name arose in the whispering fraternity of firemen because the FBI had asked former employers to provide his employment records.
Hurley is a gung ho sort. He's 30 years old, of average height, with a doughy build and a fireman's mustache, and on first meeting he seems so nerdily sincere that he could be the basis for a character played by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live. He doesn't swear. He wants nothing more than to be a fireman, and he's got reams of certification papers and membership cards--sheriff's posse, search and rescue certification--to prove it.
"I'll tell you this about Steve Hurley," his former Tonopah chief, Steve Mills, says now, "He's one of the best emergency medical technicians I've ever seen."
Mills once watched Hurley heroically resuscitating a cardiac victim in the sleep compartment of an 18-wheeler on I-10.
"I always admired Hurley," Mills continues. "He always had confidence when he went to work on somebody."
But Hurley also had a dark side that got him booted from at least three other Valley departments, a drug habit and a penchant for abusing the truth.
"He's a fucking idiot," one chief said, asking not to be identified. "I think he's a psychopath."
He'd been fired from Rural/Metro in 1986. A year later, he sued Rural/Metro and the Phoenix Fire Department, alleging that they had called him an arsonist and ruined his reputation. He lost the suit because he couldn't prove the accusation had ever been made.
He'd been in criminal court as well. In 1989, a former girlfriend accused him of sexual assault, and whether he was guilty was not determined because he was acquitted on a technicality. Then in 1994 he was convicted of forging prescriptions for painkillers.
He first heard he was a suspect in the derailment in November 1995, when a New Times reporter contacted him.
"The FBI is nowhere in the case," he said at that time. "I've been a fireman for 13 years now, so I've done arson investigation myself. You know what they call 'helpful arsonist syndrome'? It's an arsonist who sets fires and wants to be there to help. Well, they're going the same way on this train accident--it's something any good investigator would [do]."
He spoke with confidence. A few days later, facing Channel 15 TV cameras, he looked more like a deer in the headlights than a terrorist.
Though he apparently washed out of the FBI's investigation, in short order he lost his job.
Then he dropped from sight, and even the branch of the state Department of Health Services that regulates emergency workers couldn't find him to question him about his drug conviction.
He recently resurfaced, with an alibi that has been polished during the last two and a half years.
"I was working the night of the Amtrak train wreck," he says. "So unless I disappeared for three hours or drove the fire truck down there and ordered the guys to look the other way, there's no way I could have did it."
The FBI kept agents on the case full-time without leaking many clues about what they did or didn't find. A month shy of the second anniversary of the derailment, they slipped up and revealed that they still had firefighters on the short list of suspects.
On September 2, 1997, at the close of a business day, a distracted secretary at FBI offices in Phoenix put a memo in the fax machine. It was from Special Agent Gary Woodlin, the agent in charge of "Splitrail," to Assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Jarosz. Instead the secretary pushed the automatic dialing button that sent the fax to the media.
The memo turned up in the news the next day and rattled those firefighters who had returned to lives of quiet desperation, thinking they were free from federal scrutiny.
"For information purposes, the Phoenix Division has developed an additional suspect in the SPLITRAIL investigation by the name of Steven Albert Mills," the memo began.
In passing, it named Captain Steve Hurley, Bill Ballard, the former assistant chief, and a Tonopah garage owner named Allan Gustafson, who had been a Tonopah Valley volunteer and member of the department's governing board. (Gustafson refused to talk to New Times.) And without elaborating on details, the memo went on to say that Mills suspected that another Tonopah captain named Larry Leforte was somehow involved in the crime.
Except for Spinner, that covered the entire full-time staff of the Tonopah department and one of its volunteers, though it's hard enough to imagine the former Tonopah Fire Department working together well enough to put out a fire, let alone sabotage a passenger train and keep quiet about it.
Mills, 47, has short, dark hair and mustache and a middle-age paunch. He wears wire-rimmed glasses and speaks with a Southern accent. He comes from North Carolina; sometime after the wreck, he moved back there, but has recently returned to live in Buckeye.
He was hired by the Tonopah Fire board to start up the department in the spring of 1995, and never really hit it off with his employees. In fact, he lasted in the job for only a few months and had been gone just 18 days when the Amtrak train was derailed.
The FBI memo later said he had been fired from his last three jobs, an error, at least semantically. He and the Tonopah board came to agreement that he'd done what he'd come to do and he should resign. He'd been laid off from his job in emergency planning at Palo Verde Nuclear Power Plant, and might have been hired back if he hadn't done a stint as chief of the Harquahala Valley Fire Department just west on I-10.
Mills brought Bill Ballard from Harquahala as his assistant chief, and in June 1995, he hired Spinner, Hurley and Leforte as the department's full-time firefighters. Then, at Hurley's suggestion, he promoted them to the rank of captain to distinguish them from the volunteers.
Leforte says now that Mills "had no clue what he was doing."
"Me and Spinner both agreed that Mills was out of control. And we weren't too happy with Hurley, because Hurley is the one who forced us into captainship relations with the fire department. We were hired as firefighters, and somehow Hurley convinced Mills that we had to be captains."
Mills left the department on September 21, 1995, just months into his yearlong contract.
"That's probably when the weird stuff started," Leforte continues. Mills "got kind of weirded out on us. We were concerned. We'd lock the doors at night. He was seen parked in the parking lot staring at the fire station one night."
Mills then took a job as a photographer at the West Valley View, a community newspaper serving Buckeye and environs. After the train wreck, the FBI came to visit him there.
He had no idea they were looking at him.
"They said they were interviewing me to check out somebody else's theory that two other people had the ability to pay for others to do it," he later told a reporter at the View.
And he told New Times, "I answered their speculative questions--you know, who has trucks and who carries equipment and those kinds of questions. They made conclusions from it."
When Mills spoke to the agents, he produced a large file on the train wreck, which he says actually belonged to the paper, not to him. He also mentioned that he had been out to the site to take photographs.
Mills and his wife had moved to North Carolina to be close to his mother. He'd taken a job at another small-town paper, and he was there last September when the news of the memo broke.
Mills received a call from a reporter at his old newspaper.
"I thought they were playing with me," he says. "I thought it was a joke. I really did."
The memo about him states that the FBI went to talk to him to see if he had written two anonymous letters to the FBI implicating Hurley and volunteer firefighter Allan Gustafson.
Mills, in turn, implicated Larry Leforte, though the memo does not say how and Mills won't say. But the FBI was interested in Mills' interest in the case. And furthermore, he fit the profile that FBI technicians in Quantico, Virginia, had generated from the Sons of the Gestapo letter.
"The 'traits' Mills is believed to possess are listed as follows," the document says.
"1.) Mills is a white male, between 35 and 45 years old (Mills was 45 at the time of the derailment), and is a U.S. citizen. 2.) Mills is a College graduate with above average intelligence and had good writing skills. 3.) Mills is a fireman and is believed to be both a police officer, and a former government employee. 4.) Mills knew the area around the derailment site, was known to camp in the area near the site, and lived within one hour of the site. 5.) Mills is described by friends and associates as a liberal in his political beliefs, is a private person, a loner, and shows signs of paranoia. 6.) Mills has no history of criminal or violent behavior."
"If you believe that document, it's like Ted Kaczinsky living in the wilds of Maricopa County," Mills says now.
The memo also mentioned that Mills had a computer and a pickup truck with wide tires.
"Some people are going to read that and see right through it," Mills says. "It says the guy has a personal computer. Well, of two million people in Maricopa County, maybe one million have a computer. It says the guy's a certain age bracket, so now maybe we're down to 660,000. Then does he have a pickup truck? How many males in this valley have pickup trucks? Well, all right then, now we're down to 400,000."
The memo also claims that the FBI had confiscated from the Harquahala Valley Fire Department a metal pry bar of the sort that could be used to pry up rail spikes, and it says that Bill Ballard claimed the pry bar had been given to the department by Mills.
Ballard denies having said that and further says that the FBI has recently given the bar back to Harquahala.
Ballard and Mills, who are close friends, say they won't talk to the FBI anymore, and neither has apparently been subpoenaed to appear before the Federal Grand Jury investigating the case.
Mills left his job at a newspaper in North Carolina after the news hit the national papers that he was a prime suspect. And it has come up when he applied for newspaper jobs since.
"It's very difficult to go out on an interview with a resume that has accomplishments on it and then to have a document in the public domain in which the FBI says you were fired from your last three jobs [as the memo said erroneously]. It's hard to fight, especially if you can't talk about it."
"I'm sure it has caused him some troubles that we would rather not have," Callahan says.
Mills still burns that the FBI never apologized for outing him.
"Mr. Callahan issued a statement to the press that they had issued an apology to me," Mills says. "It did not happen. That conversation with the FBI agent that night lasted no more than 20 seconds. It was:
"'We'd like to talk to you, etc., etc.'
"'I have answered all your questions in [the preceding] December, other questions you have of me since this document's been released; I have nothing to say to you.'
"Well, he interrupted me in the middle of those two sentences and said, 'I wasn't responsible for that. I didn't do it.'
"It's malarkey. After a while you get so pissed off about it that there's nothing to do but laugh."
Larry Leforte claims he doesn't know why Mills would think he had anything to do with the wreck, other than that he had lobbied for Mills' removal from the chief's job.
"I was home in bed when it all [the wreck] occurred," he says. "I got a phone call from Tonopah in the middle of the night that said get down here. . . ."
He lives just south of Prescott, an hour and a half from his old job.
"By the time I got down to Tonopah, all the equipment had been pulled out of the district and sent to the train, and so I found the only thing running and drove down there and told everyone to come home," so that there would be fire coverage in the district.
Leforte's got dirty blond hair and aviator-style glasses that cover a lazy eye. He left Tonopah on his own, seeing that the department would go under financially, but not without lodging a 1996 complaint with the Department of Health Services against the Buckeye Valley Rural Fire Department after he got in an argument with a Buckeye paramedic on an ambulance call to which both companies responded. Unlike Hurley and Mills, he's been able to continue his career as a firefighter for the state. But he claims that the recurring FBI visits that followed Mills' accusation spooked his wife. She took their child and left. And he hopes the FBI will soon solve the crime so he can get his life back to normal without wondering when they'll be back.
As a parting shot at Mills and Hurley, he says, "They were total messes when they started. I don't think their lives have changed any."
A month and a half ago, in late May, Steve Hurley resurfaced. He called New Times from a hospital bed with big news:
"I have the information on the Amtrak train derailment," he said, breathlessly. "Who did it, why they did it, and where the FBI's going with it, and it's going to break real big in the next--I would say--less than a week."
It was a wild goose chase worth looking into.
He was lying flat on his back in St. Joseph's hospital with an IV pumping painkillers into his arm, a deep knife cut on his hand and a whole gallery of bruises on his head and torso.
He'd been beaten up the night before, right after he'd been released from jail. That much of his story, at least, was true.
He claimed he'd been sent there because he came home from the Amtrak wreck, found his wife in bed with another man and then beat up the lover. In fact, court records show that he was convicted of trying to run down his wife's boyfriend with a car in 1996 and of then trying to get his real estate agent to lie about where he had been at the time of the attempted assault.
Then, Hurley claims, he was beat up repeatedly in prison because other inmates recognized him from his work with the sheriff's posse. In fact, his lawyer plans to file a civil lawsuit against the Sheriff's Office to that effect.
He ended up in the hospital, he claims, because one of his jailhouse assailants was released the same time as he. That fellow prisoner enlisted some friends, followed Hurley and beat the tar out of him.
He was found lying in a doorway on West McDowell at 8:45 in the morning on May 21. The police report said little to corroborate his story.
"Stephen seemed to have difficulty answering any of my questions and seemed to have to think about the answers for some time prior to answering," wrote the cop who scraped him off the sidewalk in his police report.
Now in the hospital, Hurley was ready to talk about his relationship with the FBI and give an update on the Amtrak investigation.
"I was supposed to not speak about this, but after everything that's happened to me and my career being cost, it's time to tell the story," he said.
"I was ordered by the FBI not to talk about the wreck," he continued, "me being the first one on the scene and them not knowing who did it, they focused on EMS workers."
He had been in frequent contact with the FBI, he maintained, and it was pressing him on Steve Mills, and, in fact, it wanted his records of a training session that Hurley had presented to his fellow firefighters. Mills supposedly had interrupted that session to interject a word about how easy it was to derail trains.
Neither Larry Leforte nor Ron Sattelmaier, who succeeded Mills as Tonopah fire chief, remembers that incident.
During the weeks following his hospitalization, Hurley got a job working for the Arizona Republic. He stuck by his story: The FBI wanted his records, and his lawyer, Daniel Inserra, was negotiating with it. But none of it checked out.
When asked whether Hurley was really in contact with the FBI, Inserra blurted out, "If he is, it's without . . .," then stopped, realizing he couldn't speak without violating attorney-client privilege.
Then he conceded, "You'll probably guess by my answer."
The Splitrail investigation lumbers on.
The FBI and the U.S. Attorney's Office assure New Times that indictments are not imminent. Rumors are.
A source who claims to be familiar with the investigation whispers that the FBI knows who did it and is just waiting to gather enough evidence to prove it. Another confides that the trail is cold and all leads fizzling.
Jack Callahan says the FBI is waiting by the phone.
"We're not going to solve it," he says. "Somebody's going to solve it for us."
Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: email@example.com
Published:In "Trainspotting" (Michael Kiefer, July 16), former Tonopah fire department captain Steve Allen Hurley was mistakenly identified as having been accused and acquitted of sexual assault in 1989. In fact, that case involved another man by the same name. New Times regrets the error.
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.