Emily Decker stands on a narrow ledge more than 80 feet above the desert floor, clinging to the side of Flatiron Peak, a massive tower of rock in the Superstition Wilderness. She knows she's in trouble, and fear tingles through her body. Her boyfriend, John Wilkinson, hangs about 10 feet above her, gripping the rock, with no discernible path up.
Trapped, he searches for protruding rocks below him so he can descend off the jagged mountainside. Decker, too, also examines the wall as she ponders her next move.
Then, a split-second mistake.
New Times feature
The 20-year-old Wilkinson loses his grip, and Decker, 24, watches in horror as he slides past her on the rock's flat face.
Their hands graze each other as he falls.
The young couple's naive plan for a wilderness adventure on that beautiful day in March 2008 turns tragic as Wilkinson's face smashes into the mountain, the impact knocking out several teeth and ripping gashes in his face. His body bounces off the rock, and he slams to the ground, face and palms first, into a clump of brush.
"He hit hard," Decker recalls. "He landed flat, and his shoes flew off him, his backpack flew off. [His teeth] were just really ripped out, all the way out of the upper bone."
She calls down to him, and after a few breathless moments that seem like an eternity, he miraculously answers. As he lies there, she yells out into the expansive desert: "Help, help, help!"
Decker is rightly terrified that her screams are dissipating in the wind.
It's about noon, and Wilkinson manages to get up after his 80-foot fall, find his backpack containing his cell phone, and dial 911. Decker is feeling woozy; she leans her head against the wall to maintain her balance.
She closes her eyes and tries to focus on her breathing to control the fear. Everything goes black for a few seconds. She regains consciousness to a sharp ringing in her ears. Unbelievably, she hasn't fallen off the ledge.
Fear then turns into adrenaline. She spots a wider ledge above her and climbs to it. It offers enough space for her to sit.
Below, Wilkinson remains on his cell phone for two hours with the 911 dispatcher, as rescue workers use GPS to track the couple's location. They are nothing more than specks in the 160,000-acre wilderness east of Apache Junction. But, finally, a helicopter swings around the mountain.
Decker's instant feeling of salvation is short-lived as the chopper circles past them and appears to be flying away.
"They don't see us!" she shouts to Wilkinson, when the helicopter swoops in and out of her view several more times. She doesn't know that the pilot is dropping rescue workers, two at a time, into the desert and on top of the mountain 400 feet above her.
Eventually, she spots hikers closing in on Wilkinson; she had no concept of search-and-rescue teams at the time.
"I thought maybe they were all paramedics," she recalls, nearly five years later. "And when they told me they were trying to figure out how to get me down, I was thinking, 'Wait, who are these people?'"
The plainclothes superheroes — who spent about 12 hours saving Emily Decker and John Wilkinson — are members of Superstition Search and Rescue, a team of 34 highly skilled volunteers who put their lives on the line for people they've never met.
Rescue workers stabilize Wilkinson, strap him into a stretcher that winds up dangling 175 feet below the helicopter, and airlift him out of the desert.
To reach Decker, a volunteer rappels from the top of the massive rock formation, straps her into a harness, and scales down with her another 80 feet to the desert floor. It is near 10 p.m. by the time the team and Decker start walking. It takes team members two hours to guide her, using only headlamps, up and down fields of large boulders and out of the wilderness.
Superstition Search and Rescue has played a role in saving more than 2,000 lives over the past 10 years — and thousands more beginning in 1983, when the group formally organized as a nonprofit group. Its members also have provided closure for families by locating the remains of loved ones after official searches have been called off.
The team made national news in November after it located remains that almost certainly are what's left of Jesse Capen, a gold prospector from Colorado who went missing three years ago during his search for the fabled Lost Dutchman Mine ("Fool's Gold," April 22, 2010).
It was an emotional discovery for the team, which had combed the desert nearly every weekend since Capen went missing in December 2009. The Office of the Medical Examiner has yet to identify the body, but team members discovered what they believe are Capen's remains in a mountainside crevice, about a half-mile from where his campsite was found deserted.
There are many volunteer-based search-and-rescue teams across Arizona, most working in cooperation with county sheriff's offices. Over three decades, SSAR worked closely and cooperatively with four generations of Pinal County sheriffs — always answering the call to search for and rescue lost and injured hikers, gold prospectors, Boy Scouts, rock climbers, tourists, and residents who ventured into the alluring but treacherous Superstition Wilderness.
They charged nothing for their services, saving Pinal taxpayers at least $7 million over almost 30 years by conducting otherwise costly rescues. They financed their operations out of their own pockets or through fundraising efforts aimed at paying for expensive rescue gear (think several hundred dollars for a single, specially designed rope) and extensive training.
This was until Sheriff Paul Babeu, a politician from Massachusetts with scant law enforcement experience and a shocking work history ("Paul Babeu's Suspicious Past," March 8; "Cracked Truth," May 17), was sworn in as Pinal County sheriff in January 2009.
Babeu wasn't in office long before the team, which had served the county without problems for 2 1/2 decades, found itself at odds with him.
Perhaps the rift started even before Babeu took office, when the team — according to SSAR commander Robert Cooper and member David Thompson — rebuffed the future sheriff's request for a campaign endorsement because of its nonprofit status and apolitical role in the community.
"Politics do not belong in search and rescue," Thompson tells New Times. "We as a group don't care about your party affiliation, your religious beliefs, sexual orientation, race. If you are lost or injured, we are here to help."
It's unclear whether the team's unwillingness to play politics led to the sheriff's starting his own rescue posse in December 2009. Thompson suspects that Babeu was jealous of SSAR and wanted a crew fully beholden to him whose rescues he could boast about publicly.
SSAR felt Babeu's wrath even before he announced the formation of his new PCSO Search and Rescue Posse. An SSAR member who doubled as a volunteer for the Sheriff's Office's Victim Services unit (she counseled families in crisis) was fired from her unpaid post after expressing concern about how a rescue incident was handled by Babeu's SSAR liaison.
Babeu decided to form his posse despite an annual report — published by the PCSO in 2007 — noting that SSAR's volunteer work had saved the Sheriff's Office an estimated $240,000 in that year alone.
Though SSAR was getting pushed out of rescue operations by Babeu almost from the start, it continued to respond to 911 calls to the PCSO until the sheriff's posse was up and running.
Babeu invited SSAR to work as volunteers in his new posse, but the team declined in a unanimous vote of members present at a meeting, citing safety concerns surrounding Sergeant Brian Messing, the sheriff's liaison to the team who was destined to head the posse.
SSAR had alleged in March 2009 that Messing pointed a scoped rifle at Thompson and other team members during a mountainside rescue at Picacho Peak. Thompson thinks Messing was trying to get a better look at the rescue of two teenage girls trapped on jagged rocks. Messing denies the allegation, which could have cost him his job if proved true.
An internal investigation by Babeu's office cleared Messing of wrongdoing — even though the sheriff's investigator who conducted it admitted that not everyone on the Picacho Peak rescue scene was interviewed.
On another occasion, a volunteer complained to the PCSO that Messing planned to leave two SSAR members in an unfamiliar canyon for 16 hours on a scorching summer day.
On still other occasions, Messing dispatched volunteers on search missions without keeping tabs on their safe return, SSAR complained.
It wasn't just SSAR members grousing about Messing. Ben Cook, a PCSO deputy supervised by Messing, was "screaming, yelling, and cursing" at his boss over safety issues, according to court records. Cook filed a notice of claim against the Sheriff's Office because Babeu fired him, purportedly for abusing overtime. To avoid a lawsuit, Babeu rehired Cook and reimbursed him more than $35,000 in lost wages and benefits.
Messing didn't respond to New Times' request for information.
New Times first asked Babeu spokesman Tim Gaffney on November 9 to provide public records and answer a host of questions for this story, including about Messing. When he didn't respond, Gaffney was contacted on November 27 and asked for a status report on the request. Gaffney responded that he never received the request sent to his PCSO e-mail address and demanded that it be sent to the office's records division. A subsequent request was sent there the next day.
Gaffney responded to that request on December 14 with a letter containing a few details about PCSO posse staffing, no public records, and some odd accusations. Chief among the latter was that SSAR commander "David Cooper" and his team refused to join Babeu's posse because Cooper wouldn't submit to a criminal background check.
Of course, SSAR's commander is Robert Cooper. He responds that Gaffney's insinuation is absurd, that he passed 18 background checks when the team was affiliated with the PCSO.
"I don't have a criminal background," he says. "I've never been charged with anything."
When New Times asked Gaffney once more to release the requested public information, he repeated another of the accusations, wrote a little more about posse staffing, and said New Times' request for most of the information had to be submitted still again.
In announcing his new posse in October 2009, Babeu told local media that it would ensure the "best response to our citizens and visitors." He said his team would have an "even better" service record than other search-and-rescue teams.
Undaunted by Babeu's action, the Superstition Search and Rescue team continued to respond to direct calls from friends and family members of lost loved ones. And on several occasions, the unwelcome-to-Babeu SSAR team accomplished missions that Babeu's posse couldn't.
After Babeu formed his PCSO Search and Rescue Posse, he ordered deputies to arrest SSAR members for interfering with an investigation if they showed up at a scene, team member Thompson maintains.
Dan Block, brother of an Apache Junction man found dead in August at the bottom of a ravine outside Show Low, expresses frustration with the PCSO.
Block says his calls for assistance went mostly ignored during the two weeks his brother, Jeff, was missing. Cooper came upon Block's blog, which led SSAR to help Block conduct his own investigation. To figure out where to start searching, the team interviewed neighbors, searched Jeff Block's house and computer, and examined his credit card records.
SSAR's work with Dan Block illustrates that the team has moved on from Babeu. The team has conducted hundreds of searches in the sheriff's jurisdiction since ties were broken between the team and the PCSO. The team has forged an agreement with the Apache Junction PD to conduct search-and-rescue missions, and it has found a niche working cold cases — searching for the likes of gold prospector Jesse Capen long after official efforts are abandoned.
"Cooper and his group, they're the experts when it comes to search patterns and spotting clues when people go missing," Apache Junction Police Chief Jerald Monahan says. "They are well-thought-of in this community. Their reputation is stellar."
Robert Cooper has headed Superstition Search and Rescue for 19 years, during which time the team has maintained a flawless safety record.
Several team members describe him as an honest and humble man who always carries his Bible during searches.
"When we find remains, he reads some passages, shares some words," one volunteer says. "He has so much compassion for victims and the families of victims."
Cooper is reluctant to air grievances, and he is unsettled about rehashing his team's rift with the PCSO: "We're just trying to bring individuals home. It's what's most important. And I'm so proud of my team. It's amazing to me what these people go out and do for others."
Among the team members: a retired Green Beret, a former Marine scout sniper, two U.S. Air Force veterans, a retired Michigan State Trooper, a jeweler, a cabinet maker, an alfalfa farmer, a rodeo professional, an educator, a bank manager, several IT people, an engineer, a onetime Motorola executive, and a handyman.
Cooper's frustration with PCSO officials — especially how they respond to families of the missing — does surface at times.
During SSAR's search for Apache Junction resident Jeff Block and Blue, his wolf-mix dog, the missing man's brother says he couldn't get the PCSO to cooperate in his search effort, much less explain what it might do to help find his brother.
For several days after Jeff went missing on July 26, according to a blog Dan started to aid in the search, the PCSO didn't return his calls.
Dan Block's angst worsened, he says, when sheriff's officials limited their office's investigation because they assumed Jeff Block didn't want to be found. The PCSO also said it needed more information about Block's last known location before an air search could be initiated.
"Even when we knew [Jeff] had traveled the northern route to Show Low, [had been] just miles out[side] of Show Low about 3 p.m. during his last call, and had planned to be home by 7 p.m., [the] PCSO still professed we did not have enough information to call for assistance from [the Civil Air Patrol]," Dan Block wrote.
Dan isn't sure who finally made the call to activate the Civil Air Patrol to fly over an area where his brother's body was, as a result, found.
A pained Cooper told the Apache Junction News in August that the PCSO didn't do enough to help with the search.
"Pinal doesn't care," Cooper was quoted as saying. "Why didn't [Babeu's office] engage? . . . If you don't call back the family, you don't care."
Once Jeff Block's body was found, SSAR members volunteered to look for Blue at the bottom of the 1,000-foot canyon. After about five hours, they spotted the dog's decomposing remains and carried them out.
Today, reflecting on the 14-day ordeal, Dan Block is reluctant to open old wounds.
"My brother died instantly. Nothing the Sheriff's Office did or didn't do would change that," he says. But, Dan adds, a humane response from the PCSO might have saved him, his 84-year-old parents, and more than 100 volunteers many days of desperate searching.
Crystal Hayes expressed similar frustration when she reported her fiancé, Raymond Churchill, 26, missing on January 1, 2010. Churchill, who lived in San Tan Valley, called Hayes on New Year's Eve to tell her he was heading home from a local bar, but he never showed up. She told the Apache Junction News that two days of the PCSO's searching the San Tan Valley canal turned up nothing. Then, someone she would identify only as a "guardian angel" gave her a phone number for Cooper and SSAR.
She called, and Cooper's team searched the canal after the PCSO left the scene. Within an hour, members discovered Churchill's body.
"The thing that upsets me the most is the relationship between the Pinal County Sheriff's Office and Superstition Search and Rescue," Hayes told the A.J. newspaper. "The fact that we had to notify [SSAR] ourselves. I don't know that the outcome would have been any different, but we wouldn't have had the stress of not knowing any answers for so long."
During a December 2009 celebration honoring the team for its long service, former Pinal County Sheriff Chris Vasquez, whom Babeu had defeated in the 2008 general election, told members that his "most sincere desire is that one day soon the . . . Sheriff's Office will once again restore the relationship between [it] and SSAR, [because] without you, the PCSO's responsibility for search and rescue will be costly and not as successful."
Vasquez's words brought to mind the PCSO's search for Kelly Tate, whom friends reported missing in September 2009, when he didn't return from a wilderness hike. Sergeant Messing commanded the search by more than 150 volunteers, who scoured the desert around the clock for five days — on foot, on horseback, and by helicopter.
When the PCSO called off its search without finding Tate, SSAR members arrived on the scene. The team has learned over almost 30 years not only how to search but where. About an hour later, members located the missing man's body crumpled on a trail, just 150 yards from the parking lot where the PCSO had set up its command post.
It was an embarrassing moment for Babeu's posse.
Tami Villar, then-spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Office, told New Times after the body was discovered: "We never set out to do a half-assed search." She also wondered aloud whether Tate, who had suffered a heart attack, might have survived had he been found sooner ("Searchers Disappointed," September 16, 2009).
Fielding criticism after the botched PCSO search was publicized, Messing told the Arizona Republic: "I understand the public looks at it and says, 'How did they miss him so close to the command post?' . . . You don't expect to find someone in an area where they shouldn't get hurt."
The tipping point for Robert Cooper and his team came about three months after Babeu took over the Pinal County Sheriff's Office — when, according to them, Sergeant Brian Messing pointed the scoped rifle at SSAR members during the Picacho Peak rescue.
They don't believe an internal investigation of the incident, which cleared Messing of wrongdoing, was conducted fairly by Babeu's office.
Sergeant (now Lieutenant) Wayne Cashman, who conducted the probe, didn't conduct interviews with everyone at the scene of the incident, which Messing denies ever happened.
Louis Villa, a volunteer with Sonoran Search and Rescue, another private group of volunteers, told Cashman and Babeu that he was at Messing's side during the entire operation and didn't see him point a scoped rifle.
During a meeting in October 2009 between Babeu and SSAR members, other volunteers contradicted Villa's assertion.
But their statements never wound up in the investigation report, because they were never interviewed by Cashman.
Villa's statement was enough to create conflicting stories and render the allegations by SSAR members unfounded.
About why he didn't interview everybody present at the Picacho Peak scene, Cashman said at the meeting: "Time constraints."
During that same meeting, Babeu revealed that he spoke to witnesses privately before the investigation was completed.
He says he wanted to hear their firsthand accounts of what happened, but SSAR members believe it was inappropriate for a politician interested in positive publicity to reach out to potential witnesses during an ongoing probe.
In an audiotape of the meeting obtained by New Times, Babeu can be heard telling the audience that he asked Villa and others whether they saw Messing pull a gun. The sheriff claims Villa laughed at the suggestion.
Babeu insisted that the PCSO took the allegation against Messing "seriously, and we told people that this person's job was on the line."
The sheriff also said he could feel the "animosity" of SSAR members in the room that night.
After Babeu dismissed the team's complaint, SSAR member David Thompson filed his own, seeking a criminal investigation of Messing in the alleged rifle-pointing incident.
"I know what I saw and verified," Thompson says to New Times.
Instead of gathering the remaining witness accounts, the Pinal County Attorney's Office, citing a conflict of interest, forwarded Cashman's incomplete investigation to Gila County Attorney Daisy Flores' office — and Flores determined that there was "insufficient evidence" to prove a crime was committed.
Further shaking Cooper's team's confidence in Messing was an incident during the search for two men in summer 2009. The sergeant arranged for a state Department of Public Safety helicopter to drop two SSAR volunteers into a remote desert canyon to search for the men. When Messing was ready to leave the search command post, he directed the helicopter pilots to leave and return in the morning to pick up the searchers in the canyon.
Joyce Wilson, an SSAR volunteer on the scene, pressed Messing to get the volunteers out of the canyon before the pilots flew back to their base — and he eventually conceded.
"What was he thinking?" she wrote to Babeu regarding the incident. "It was 115 degrees out," and they would have spent 16 hours in a "wilderness area they'd never searched before."
Messing, she added, earlier had told the SSAR group that, in a flyover, he had spotted three bears in the canyon, which also contains lots of black rattlers and other "aggressive snakes."
Deputy Ben Cook, who worked for Messing at the time, also appeared to have longstanding issues with him over safety, according to a legal deposition of Messing in July 2010.
Messing's deposition was part of a lawsuit filed by the family of Sergeant Tate Lynch of the Casa Grande Police Department. Lynch died during a rappelling accident in October 2007. He was participating in a training exercise with the sheriff's SWAT team at the county Detention Center in Florence.
Lynch was rappelling down a two-story wall when he suddenly fell and suffered a severe head injury. He died about five hours later.
An investigative report "determined the training exercise involved several safety violations," according to a July 2012 Police Training Fatality Report by the National Tactical Officers Association.
During the exercise, according to court records, Cook called Messing and asked him whether there were helmets for participants. Cook recalled that Messing told him, "We're SWAT; we don't need any stinking helmets."
In his deposition, Messing said he doesn't recall making that statement to Cook. He testified that he was in charge of firearms training, not rappelling.
An attorney representing Lynch's family stated to Messing during the deposition: "[SSAR commander Robert] Cooper has testified that the reason Superstition Search and Rescue no longer works with [the] Pinal County Sheriff's [Office] is because of his concerns about safety and the fact that, in his view, you run an unsafe operation."
Messing claimed, "I don't know that allegation. The teams [SSAR and Sonoran Search and Rescue] were revamped and turned into a posse, and [Cooper] chose not to come. That's why we don't use Superstition."
The attorney also asked Messing whether there were other times when Cooper accused him of caring too little about safety.
"There was a situation, I don't recall the date; it was in a summer month," Messing responded. "It was on a search [when] I had left people out there — or not left people out there — the people had been deployed into an area that was too far, too hot for them, and that was a safety concern for him at the time, even though he wasn't on scene."
The attorney then queried, "And so he accused you of deploying people in an area where their health would be threatened because of not having access to water and necessary protection?"
Messing said, "He made the accusation that I was being unsafe, putting them into an area that . . . he felt was unsafe."
The exchange apparently was in reference to Joyce Wilson's complaint about Messing's leaving the two SSAR searchers in the canyon replete with bears and dangerous snakes during extremely hot weather.
Messing also testified in the deposition that he and Cooper did "not get along" for "personal" reasons.
As for Messing's statement that Cooper wasn't on the scene of that rescue effort, the SSAR commander says he continually checks in with his team to ensure operations are running smoothly and to assess members' needs.
Messing testified that Deputy Cook was "yelling and screaming and cursing" at him over inadequate "safety measures" — and that this caused him to write up Cook for insubordination.
So the attorney for the Casa Grande police sergeant asked Messing whether Cook believed that Messing was "unsafe . . . put people's lives in danger . . . put people at risk of injury . . . and didn't provide adequate safety measures" for PCSO personnel.
Messing acknowledged only one conversation in which Cook was upset because "I didn't buy helmets in the time that he wanted them purchased."
Not long after Robert Cooper and his band of rescuers saved Emily Decker and John Wilkinson at Flatiron Peak, the pair returned to the site of the rescue to search for Wilkinson's favorite baseball cap. But it was green and yellow — just like everything else in the desert that time of year — and they never found it.
Decker says they did find "some of his teeth, some bloody gauze, a piece of a rubber glove," adding that from time to time she thinks about her rescuers.
"They're amazing people," she says. "And it's pretty cool what they do, buying their own equipment and paying for their own training. They saved me. No one else could've done anything."
These days, Wilkinson lives in Hawaii and Decker lives in Alaska. She was visiting relatives in Arizona when New Times spoke with her in Mesa.
Because SSAR made formal its four-year partnership with the Apache Junction PD earlier this year, they'll get back the insurance coverage lost when Babeu formed his own posse.
Apache Junction Police Chief Jerald Monahan says the team's presence is good for the community's quality of life and peace of mind.
In 2009, the AJPD called Cooper's team when a 2-year-old girl was abducted in a trailer park by a sexual predator.
The team applied techniques it would use in wilderness rescues.
"When we turned the information in to the detectives, with their past knowledge of the community, it all added up to one guy," Cooper said.
Within 18 hours, the toddler was found and an arrest was made. Police believe the baby was inappropriately touched, but she was alive.
This means that SSAR has expanded from just a wilderness-rescue team.
"We're a full urban search-and-rescue team. And we also do cold cases; that's something that no [other such search team] does."
Cooper says his team is changing the way it approaches searches, taking a cue from what Dan Block did when his brother turned up missing. For instance, SSAR, which always has had a website (www.superstition-sar.org), is starting a blog.
Block continually updated his blog as clues came in. He even detailed his problems with Babeu's office. In addition, Block got people to post flyers across several counties, and he spread the word about Jeff and his dog on Facebook.
He asked people to flood the phone lines of police agencies, especially those of the PCSO.
Cooper's team now is searching for Joe Domin, known in hiking circles as "GPS Joe."
The experienced hiker was reported missing on December 1, 2010, in the Mazatzal Mountains in south-central Arizona, about 45 miles northeast of Phoenix. While the official search was called off long ago, SSAR is working this cold case.
The team has gone on two aerial reconnaissance missions to establish the search area and has taken high-definition photos.
"GPS Joe left information about his plan — he said where he was going to start, what his goal was, [and that] he had GPS on how to get there," Cooper says. "The only thing working against us is time. As far as the search area, he gave that to us."
Cooper says he and the team have learned much working cold cases where there are no tracks to follow and the area has been compromised by time and weather — rain, snow, intense heat.
"In the last three years, I've learned more than in the previous 15," Cooper says. "Our searches are so meticulous, as we look for clues [under] every rock. We [consider] why they were out there — are they mountain men, hikers, rock climbers?"
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Phoenix New Times's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Phoenix's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
It's "too expensive to train everyone in technical search techniques," Cooper says, so the team also utilizes volunteers who can "clear parking lots, clear trails, look at aerial photos, post reward posters, update information online."
Testament to SSAR's effectiveness is the 2,000 lives it has saved over the past 10 years. That the team continues to evolve is a good thing for those who venture into the Superstitions. (The PCSO has yet to answer New Times' question about how many lives its posse of four sworn officers and about 55 volunteers may have saved in its three-plus years in existence. Its spokesman, Gaffney, did say the sheriff's unit responded to 313 calls to help missing or injured "hikers.")
Despite Paul Babeu's bluster about his new search-and-rescue posse, former PCSO chief deputy and Apache Junction Police Chief Monahan is thankful to be partnered with SSAR in life-and-death situations.
"I would trust Cooper and his team with my life," he says, "and with the lives of my family."