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Business Was Booming

The munitions-plant explosion west of Buckeye last week that decapitated one man and injured two others came as no surprise to Sandy Coe-Davis.

Three years ago, her husband Steve's face was nearly blown off in a similar accident at a plant owned by the same man, Charles M. "Chuck" Byers of Phoenix. And ever since then, Davis has been warning federal, state and local officials about conditions at Accuracy Systems Incorporated, where she was production manager for two years prior to her husband's injury.

"This just makes me sick," Davis says. "A guy is dead and for three years I've said, `Please, do something about [Byers] before someone is killed.' I've put my whole life on the line and everyone told me there was nothing they could do." Each time Byers has been pressured to close, he has reopened in a new location and operated without hindrance--at least until another accident made his location known. Prior to last week's accident, Byers had relocated Accuracy Systems twice from locations on North Cave Creek Road and near New River. Last week, Davis looked back at the strange world she once inhabited, surrounded by guns and paranoia. As bizarre as her account sounds, records at the state Industrial Commission substantiate in great part her allegations about working conditions at Accuracy Systems at the time she was there. (Byers did not return repeated calls by New Times for comment.)

"When I took the job with Accuracy Systems I thought I would be building security alarms," she recalls.

But in the back room of the modest strip-mall storefront on North Cave Creek Road, which advertised security systems and firearms training, was a small munitions factory. "The first day on the job I learned to assemble hand grenades," Davis recalls.

From that point until her future husband was injured, Davis says, she entered an oddly cult-like existence, in which workers circled around their leader like so many planets around the Sun.

For training, new employees received 18 hours of instruction in hand-to-hand combat and quick-kill techniques, Davis says. Their instructor was Charles Byers, a handsome, articulate man with silver hair and chiseled features. Davis describes his appeal as "magnetic, almost hypnotic."

"He said we were doing government work, highly classified, and that we had to protect ourselves against a terrorist attack," she recalls.

Employees received almost no conventional safety training, she claims, but were told to "use common sense." Byers removed the labels on containers of chemicals and explosive powders as they arrived at the shop, she says, citing "security" and "trade secret" reasons. He replaced the labels with crude directions of his own making, sometimes offering no more information than instructions to mix bottle "A" with bottle "B."

Byers spun a cocoon of unseen menace around workers with his warnings about terrorists and secrecy, Davis claims. "He required all of us to be armed at all times when we were at work," she says, "and he always wore a 9 mm semi-automatic handgun."

Davis says no one in the little gaggle of workers--no more than a dozen were employed at any one time--questioned what Byers told them.

"He had a way of drawing you in completely," she says. "You were ready to die for him." Davis, who has spent twenty years on the Valley's high-tech assembly lines, some of it involving top-secret government defense contracts, was named production manager of the small plant only three weeks after arriving. "I truly believed what I was doing was for the government," she says, "that I was aiding my country in the fight against terrorism."

In fact, Davis says, Accuracy Systems operated somewhere between official and unofficial government.

"People with all kinds of badges and in all kinds of uniforms came to see Chuck," she says, including men in the uniforms of several Valley police forces, military branches, and bearing credentials of the CIA and FBI. Davis says, however, that no police agency in Arizona purchased materiel from Accuracy Systems. All of the orders she could recall were destined for out-of-state buyers.

Both the handling of orders and their transport were unconventional, Davis contends, despite tight federal and state rules for transporting hazardous materials. She adds that paperwork also was chaotic, again despite tight federal rules governing the manufacture and transport of explosives.

"We sometimes shipped UPS. Sometimes someone would pick it up in a suitcase and take it somewhere by airplane," she says. Davis could not recall the company ever identifying packages as carrying explosives. "We never identified the packages as carrying explosives."

Such was the esprit at Accuracy Systems, however, that workers sometimes helped Byers keep secrecy, Davis says. During a fire in 1985, she claims, she and other employees working under Byers' direction canceled a call to firefighters and then removed and hid several hundred pounds of explosive powders in an effort to conceal the presence of the munitions operation from fire officials who subsequently visited the site. A second employee confirms Davis' account.

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Kathleen Stanton