THE HEAVILY TRAVELED highway from Phoenix to Las Vegas has often been called Blood Alley" because of its high number of deadly accidents.

These days, however, if you're in a gambling mood, there's another route to the action.

You start out the same way, northwest on Route 93, the Vegas Highway, but right after you leave sleepy Kingman, you turn left onto Highway 68. It looks as if you're heading nowhere.

Pretty soon you're in a shallow, scrubby depression surrounded by haphazardly placed mobile homes. The twin centers of this almost-town are nothing more than the King Tut and Maverick minimarkets. Off to the south is a peak called Mount Nutt. The place is known as Golden Valley, though that name appears on few state maps. Highway 68, which is under constant construction, winds through the Black Mountains until, suddenly, the Colorado River appears. On the far riverbank, in Nevada, is a startling eruption of hotel-casinos clustered around a power plant. That's Laughlin, the fastest-growing gambling town in America, a mecca for snowbird slot-machine players.

Most motorists drive immediately across the bridge and start gambling. They don't pay much attention to the Arizona side of the river. That's Bullhead City, which is Laughlin's bedroom community and Arizona's current boom town.

Gambling, of course, is illegal on the Arizona side, but plenty of people have flocked to Bullhead City to change their fortune.

In the case of a young woman named Dawna Straus, who sought only safety from Los Angeles violence, her luck ran out almost as soon as she got to town.

Then there are those people who have had time to test their fate. Fortune has smiled on ex-Phoenix news hound Verne Peyser, who has resuscitated his career. Political gadfly Roy Rick, on the other hand, has earned himself little but a reputation in some quarters as Bullhead's most bullheaded resident. Hopelessly enmeshed in Rick's lost causes is Bernie Lumbert, a chronic carrier of bad news who can't figure out why he seems to bring bad luck to everyone else.

When you pull the lever in Bullhead, don't expect to get four of a kind.

SEVEN MONTHS PREGNANT, Dawna Straus was walking through her living room one evening last October when she bent over to look into a bag of Christmas decorations.

She heard a bang. She looked down at herself and saw a hole in her chest.
Dawna Straus had just become the unluckiest person in town.
Only two months earlier, the 29-year-old woman had moved to Bullhead City to escape the gang violence of Southern California. Dawna says she and her construction-worker husband, Art, were scared of the drive-by shootings happening all around their Long Beach home. Dawna's mother and stepfather, Sherrie and Tom Rogers, had retired to Bullhead City. The family is close-knit, so that's where Dawna, Art and their two children headed.

What happened when the Strauses got to Bullhead? A stray bullet, apparently fired aimlessly from across the street, ripped through a wall of the Straus mobile home and smacked into Dawna.

Because she was bent over when hit, the bullet carved a channel through her body, wrecking her innards before lodging in her lower back.

She survived. But the baby growing inside her didn't.
We think this was a freak accident," says Tom Rogers. We're hoping it's a freak accident, although there's some doubt as to how a bullet that could have gone in one million directions could have done this."

That October night, when Dawna Straus collapsed on the living-room floor and started bleeding, her husband, Art, raced across the street to a neighbor's trailer to use the telephone. His neighbor was shaking, so Art had to dial for help.

A couple of days later, the neighbor, a casino cook named Jim Don Erwin, 56, was arrested and charged with one count of aggravated assault and two counts of felony endangerment. Erwin has pleaded innocent; his trial tentatively is scheduled for the end of this month.

That Dawna Straus didn't bleed to death is a miracle. The bullet passed through her aorta before ravaging her liver. The family credits the skill of the emergency-room doctors at the Bullhead City hospital; it turns out that the doctors were Vietnam vets and had seen lots of gunshot wounds.

Dawna Straus spent several weeks in a morphine haze in Las Vegas while surgeons repaired her. Her 7-month-old fetus did not even survive the ambulance ride to Vegas. The family says Dawna's drastic drop in blood pressure meant doom for the fetus, and it was removed. The fetus was cremated as Monica Wanda Straus.

We never use the word `fetus,'" says Tom Rogers. We say, `baby, baby, baby.'"
This family is a long way from recovery. Family members are angry that, because Monica Wanda was still a fetus, Arizona law does not recognize this as a homicide. It could have been considered a homicide, they say, if it had happened across the river in Nevada or California.

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Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy