Buzz Kill

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"No unifying disease process was found to explain the patient's pulmonary and renal failure," medical records state.

Hegi's family still blames pesticide exposure.

"He had always been healthy, so it was surprising," says John Hegi, who expected his father to live into his 90s, as Carl's brothers did. The family sued the applicator, Pierce Aviation, but no doctors would back up a cause of death because of pesticides, says Ian Neale, the family's attorney.

"The obvious reason was that he had been drenched from head to foot by methyl parathion," says Neale. "We were absolutely stymied by their medical opinion and the autopsy."

John Hegi says the lawsuit was settled for a token amount. Jim Pierce, owner of Pierce Aviation, remembers only that Carl Hegi's daughter contacted him, but he doesn't recall the details or the lawsuit. Pierce's lawyer wouldn't comment.

John Hegi says he's not sure whether his father's death was reported to the Department of Agriculture. Officials say they do not remember the case. "We would have liked to know about this," says Peterson, manager of the environmental services division.

Les Davis, executive director of the Arizona Agricultural Aviation Association, was surprised and skeptical when told about the Hegi case. It's critical that people have proof before they accuse aerial applicators of injury, he says. A lot of people complain about pesticide odor, noisy planes and the nuisance of crop dusting, but the evidence of damage is often not there.

"I have never heard of anybody in Arizona being killed by being sprayed by a pesticide. It's just the family saying that's why he died," says Davis, who has operated an aerial application company and is a longtime advocate of pilots. "It's a disservice to agriculture when people make these claims."

Davis, who is adamant that the name "crop duster" be replaced with "aerial applicator," was the last administrator for the Board of Pesticide Control before it was eventually folded into the Department of Agriculture. "I helped write the rules operating right now," he says.

Those rules require a burden of proof that is so high, critics say it is extremely difficult for a pilot to receive a serious penalty and a steep fine.

Poor enforcement was the theme of a scathing report on the department's pesticide compliance program by the Arizona Office of the Auditor General last September. The crux of the problem: Fines are too low to be a deterrent. The auditor found that the point system for determining fines, even when used liberally, was incapable of awarding the maximum fine of $500 for a non-serious violation, a Class 1 misdemeanor. Serious violations, a Class 6 felony, carry a maximum fine of $10,000, but nearly all violations in the last five years were deemed non-serious, even with clear evidence of serious misconduct.

When the audit -- by far the most critical of seven audits of the department's programs -- was released last fall, it was virtually ignored by the media, lawmakers and Governor Jane Hull, who signed a bill to continue the department after its 10-year sunset review.

"It's not a question of getting into some sort of brinkmanship in a sunset bill," said Francie Noyes, a spokeswoman for the governor, when asked about the audit. "The governor is confident that the agency is doing its job."

Peterson agreed, saying the audit didn't sound the alarm bell. "I don't think they found any glaring problems."

If any pilot should have set off alarm bells, it was Joe Henderson. The department investigated 27 complaints against him, fining him in half the cases -- none considered serious.

Pesticide from Henderson's plane hit cars, horseback riders, a plant nursery and a day-care center, according to department records. He sprayed a manufacturing plant while employees were working inside -- twice. He sprayed an entire subdivision in Queen Creek, where neighbors ran for cover from the pesticide that eventually killed the trees lining their front yards. And three years before his death in a plane crash, Henderson killed 80,000 fish in one morning at the University of Arizona's Maricopa Agricultural Research Center.

Fellow pilots say the number of complaints against Henderson should be taken in context. His company, San Tan Dusters, did a high volume of business, and Henderson's clients were primarily farmers whose land came right up next to subdivisions from the East Valley.

"He had a wonderful operation," says Davis. "He was very careful with chemicals and one heck of a pilot."

But to some people on the ground below, Henderson was a daredevil. He was once fined $240 for a complaint that he was "flying like a maniac," department records show. Bill Day, a Chandler rancher, pulled out a rifle and shot Henderson's plane when he continued to buzz Day's horses, according to news accounts in April 1994. Day was charged with aggravated assault and criminal damage, and Henderson was cleared of any wrongdoing by the Federal Aviation Administration. About the same time, Cheryl Livermore told the media that she and two friends were "blitzkrieged" by Henderson while horseback riding.

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Jennifer Markley
Contact: Jennifer Markley