Mutiny on the Bounty

During a recess in the final week of his monthlong murder trial, David Brackney turned to his friends and family members in the gallery and softly said, "It looks like I'll be bringing cookies to church soon."

Brackney, 47, and his attorneys were convinced they had cause for such optimism. While the prosecution had hammered away at the theme that Brackney -- a security specialist and veteran law enforcement employee -- had knowingly taken part in a phony bounty-hunting mission that resulted in the shooting deaths of two people, defense attorneys believed that they had successfully portrayed Brackney as a conscientious, law-abiding citizen. The kind of man who baked cookies for Sunday church services.

They offered character witnesses who described Brackney as someone who would never knowingly take part in a burglary. They offered a police officer who testified that Brackney had warned him days before the west Phoenix raid about a potentially dangerous bounty-hunting mission he was involved in. Surely, the defense argued, someone planning a criminal act wouldn't alert the authorities ahead of time.

But it was a notion the jury rejected. On Tuesday, February 8, after more than five hours of deliberation, they found Brackney guilty of first-degree murder. In all, he was convicted on 10 felony counts, including multiple counts of aggravated assault and unlawful imprisonment.

More than two years after a young couple was gunned down in the bedroom of their west Phoenix home, the case of the bad bounty hunters is still playing out in state court. Ringleader Michael Sanders, who also garnered headlines when jail guards reported an inappropriate romantic liaison with his defense attorney, was the first to be convicted of first-degree murder. He's been sentenced to two consecutive life terms.

The bounty-hunter killings forced a new look at an old Western tradition -- sending hired guns with surprising legal authority after runaway crooks. Until the Legislature revamped the law after the shootings, anyone could be a bounty hunter in Arizona. A bail contract provided a license to break into someone's home and drag them out with no explanation. Now, bounty hunters in Arizona must be licensed and need to get permission from the occupants of a home before entering.

Just before dawn on August 31, 1997, Sanders, Brackney, his son and two other men burst into a home, dressed in black paramilitary attire, their faces covered by dark ski masks. When they kicked down the locked bedroom door of Christopher Foote, a gunfight ensued. The 23-year-old Foote and his 19-year-old girlfriend, Spring Wright, were killed. Brackney is believed to have been the first to shoot Foote; the bullet penetrated his chest. Brackney suffered a bullet wound to his right hand.

Sanders had described the incident as a bounty-hunting mission in search of a California bail jumper, Victor Rodriguez Alcantar. But Alcantar's bond had expired in 1993, and to go after him was pointless. Prosecutors successfully argued that Sanders used Alcantar's expired bail-bond paperwork to cover what was really an effort to steal drugs and money from the home.

Brackney's attorneys, Joe Heinzl and James Lagattuta, contended that Brackney didn't know what Sanders had planned, that he believed he was entering into a legitimate bail-bond enforcement.

But Ronald Timms, one of the five men involved in the raid and the prosecution's crucial witness, testified that Brackney was in on the ruse. Timms -- who pleaded guilty to second-degree murder -- said that everyone involved in the raid -- including Brackney and his son Matthew -- had looked at the expired bond paperwork. He added that Brackney wanted nothing to do with drugs and was merely interested in money, so Timms and Sanders had a side deal to take any drugs that were found.

After the trial, Lagattuta told New Times that Timms lacked credibility, and that Brackney didn't have a history of criminal behavior.

"It [the verdict] is real disappointing because we thought David was in a different position than the other people in this case," Lagattuta said. "I guess a lot of what they did rubbed off on him."

Lagattuta said another of the raid participants, Brian Robbins, who is also Sanders' brother-in-law, had recanted an earlier story that incriminated the participants, but his attorneys would not allow him to testify because it would cost him immunity he'd received under a plea agreement with the state. Robbins pleaded guilty to manslaughter in 1998.

"He came to us and basically broke down and cried," Lagattuta said. "He had absolutely nothing to gain by talking to us, but he told us that he'd made up his story, and that as soon as he saw David Brackney was involved, he knew that the mission was legit."

Prosecutor William Clayton declined to discuss specifics of the case and merely said, "Justice was served."

Ultimately, the case hinged on Brackney's credibility. The burly, bearded firearms expert, invariably dressed in a conservative blue blazer, was a calm, low-key witness. But Clayton raised numerous questions about the raid and about Brackney's possible motives for "crossing the thin blue line" and agreeing to participate in a robbery. For every answer, Clayton seemed to find a contradiction.

Why, Clayton wanted to know, had Brackney and his cohorts covered their truck's license-plate number with cardboard before the raid? Brackney responded that he'd been told that residents of the house might be associated with the Aryan Brotherhood -- a white-supremacist gang -- and he feared possible retribution. If that was the case, Clayton questioned, why would Brackney have expected Alcantar, a Hispanic, to be at the house? Brackney didn't have an answer.

Even Brackney's security experience worked against him. Brackney testified that he'd been on about 250 "pickups and apprehensions," including 30 to 40 bounty-hunting missions, in more than 17 years of law enforcement and security work. With such credentials, Clayton wondered, why would Brackney have been naive enough to have accepted Sanders' information without asking to look at Alcantar's paperwork or questioning the logistics of the mission?

Clayton also portrayed Brackney as a desperate man who was $36,000 in debt and going through a divorce at the time of the incident.

Spring Wright's mother, Melody Mueller, sat through the trial. She believed Brackney was guilty, because "with his experience, he had to have known what was going on."

"I think [Brackney] really thought that he was going to get away with it, but his expression changed when they started reading the verdict," she said.

Brackney will be sentenced on March 27. His 22-year-old son, Matthew, also participated in the mission and awaits trial on first-degree murder.

Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address: [email protected]

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia