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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.

In January 1986, a fire erupted among chemicals at the Cave Creek Road plant where Davis and another employee were working. The second employee, Laurel Welker, suffered third degree burns on her back and buttocks as she struggled to escape through a small back window.

"When Chuck showed up at the scene," Davis recalls, "he pulled me aside and said, `If anybody asks you about the fire, you don't know what caused it or what's in there.' He leaned into the ambulance where Laurel was laying on her stomach, her back all burned, and told her the same thing. I said, `But Chuck, they've got to know what burned her so they know how to treat it.' So he told her, `If anybody asks, tell them you were reloading ammunition with gunpowder.'" Merely reloading ammunition would not have been a violation of city zoning and fire codes, but Davis says the workers actually were making small incendiary devices. The manufacture of such devices would violate those codes.

Welker declined to be interviewed by New Times but made the same allegation in a written statement filed with state Industrial Commission investigators several months later in connection with their probe of Steve Davis' injury.

Phoenix has no zoning category that would permit a munitions factory, and Byers was forced out of his shop on north Cave Creek Road after the January 1986 fire drew a fire marshal's investigation. At the same time, he was ordered by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) to stop production because he did not have the required federal license. However, Davis claims, "We never stopped production for a day. We just moved down the alley to his house."

Within the next few weeks, however, Byers opened a factory at a remote spot near New River. Almost immediately, neighbors began complaining to county authorities. They contended the place was crawling with men in camouflage, that shots and explosions went off at any and all hours, and that people armed with guns were initiating ugly confrontations with area residents.

Inside the locked, chain-link security gates, says Davis, workers--by now including her future husband, Steve--continued to produce stun grenades, "minimore" mines and other anti-terrorist explosives. Davis says--and state records confirm--that the building in which they worked did not have running water, phone service, fire extinguishers, or ready transportation to the main road several miles away.

"We had it prehistoric out there," Davis recalls. "Chuck lived about a mile down the hill and he told us in case of emergency to fire three shots and he'd come up for us in his Blazer."

On June 27, 1986, slightly more than six months after the fire that injured Laurel Welker, Steve Davis was injured in an explosion that nearly destroyed his face and left him blind in one eye.

He had just completed custom-mixing a large order of explosive powder when some spilled on the ground outside the New River building, where he was working. Davis stood over the pile leaning on a broom while a co-worker went to find a dustpan when, without warning, the powder exploded.

The force of the explosion tore loose his nose and lips, blinded both eyes, ruptured his right eardrum, and sprayed gravel into his legs as if it were buckshot.

"It threw him forty feet into the air," says Sandy Davis. She grabbed a rifle and fired three shots. Byers responded and together they hauled the injured man down to the nearest fire station. Once there, she says, "Chuck forced Steve to walk from the Blazer into the station so the firemen wouldn't see the explosives and everything he had in there."

Byers also argued with paramedics over calling in an AirEvac helicopter, Sandy Davis claims. "The paramedic told Chuck, `That boy'll die if we take him by ground, he'll die,'" she recalls. "Chuck turned around to Steve and said, `Aw, don't listen to him. What you've got is nothing worse than a good ass-whippin'.'"

State worker-safety investigators learned of the accident more than a week later, when federal ATF agents contacted them. According to state Industrial Commission records, the federal firearms officials expressed "fear of severe employee injury/death" at Byers' New River operation.

The state investigation substantiated Davis' assertions that Byers' employees were not trained to handle explosives, were working with unlabeled or mislabeled explosives and without a written safety plan, and lacked phone service, water and transportation to and from the site. Inspectors found that the factory was not even equipped with a first-aid kit or fire extinguisher.

However, rather than ordering the facility closed under a finding of "imminent danger," the state agency proposed a $1,350 fine that Byers has so far refused to pay. "They are attempting to coerce and harass us with paying their bribes," Byers said in a letter last December to a state administrative law judge assigned to the case.

In January, Byers' New River neighbors prevailed upon Maricopa County officials to force closure of the plant because it violated the site's residential zoning. He reopened the same month at a new location in the Harquahala Valley, site of last week's explosion.

The Davises and Laurel Welker all are receiving worker compensation for injuries they suffered while working for Accuracy Systems. Sandy Davis' injury--a damaged sciatic nerve--occurred when she slipped and fell while carrying a box of grenades.

"The first day on the job I learned to assemble hand grenades."

Workers circled around their leader like so many planets around the sun.

The force of the explosion tore loose his nose and lips, blinded both eyes, ruptured his right eardrum, and sprayed gravel into his legs as if it were buckshot.

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