ON THE MORNING of his release from jail, erstwhile murder suspect Mike McGraw blinks in the broad sunlight and lowers his thick body into the shotgun seat. He tosses a plastic bag full of personal effects into the back seat.
He's about to take a trip to Wat Promkunaram. He swears it'll be his first visit to the Buddhist temple west of Phoenix, where nine people were killed in August.
Other Tucson suspects in the temple murder case are met on this Friday morning by jubilant, weeping relatives and friends, sweeping past an army of reporters and photographers at the county courthouse in downtown Phoenix. Not Mike McGraw. Jailers spirit him through a tunnel and he emerges practically unnoticed.
McGraw claims he has a girlfriend named Pam who drives a white Corvette. But she's not around. So he climbs into a reporter's car. He always has a story to tell.
He complains about "bad press," but in the next breath he wants to know when the story's coming out. In the course of a morning, his mood swings back and forth from euphoria to dark depression.
"Man, it's like my lawyer told me, they don't care about me," McGraw says as he cranks down the window. "All they want to do is sell papers." He grins, his pneumatic cheeks rolling back on his face, two brown softballs beneath dark eyes. "I shaved off my goatee, so they wouldn't recognize me. Do you think it makes a difference?"
From his jail cell, McGraw talked with several reporters, insisting upon his innocence and spilling out quotes. In the ten days before the suspects' release, despite the warnings of his lawyer not to discuss the case with anyone, including "police, family, friends and probation or parole officers," McGraw called New Times more than a dozen times.
He's been calling people for most of his life. He racks up triple-digit phone bills.
Still, he insists, he did not make that fateful phone call from the Tucson psychiatric hospital that led to the arrests of him and several of his friends. Court documents say otherwise. Investigators for Maricopa County Sheriff Tom Agnos say it was the phone call on September 10 from Mike McGraw that was the first "break" in the temple murder case.
During extensive interrogation, sheriff's investigators claim, McGraw confessed that he and his friends murdered nine people inside the Thai Buddhist temple. Then his friends allegedly confessed. Then they all recanted.
Interrogation? Mike McGraw does not have to be interrogated. He spews out information, whether or not you want to hear it.
Known in some Tucson circles as "Crazy Mike," and described by some friends and family members as a "chronic liar," 24-year-old Mike McGraw was the linchpin of the government's case.
Until the case apparently fizzled. Two teenagers from the west Valley were linked to the murder and allegedly confessed, leading to public arguing between the sheriff and County Attorney Rick Romley over who botched the internationally notorious murder case.
All this because of Mike McGraw.
Some people from his neighborhood in Tucson blame McGraw for the entire mess--not for the murder but for causing his friends to be arrested. The word is that he's reluctant to return home to face their accusations. McGraw denies there's a rift. He swears his old neighborhood pals are eager to see him.
While the families and friends of the other Tucson men jailed in the case organized protest marches and trekked to Phoenix to await their release, members of McGraw's family sent him a bus ticket for the ride back to Tucson and, during his stay in jail, wrote him admonishing letters.
"Maybe if you admit it was all to get attention or you just lied about everything, maybe you'd all get out of this mess quicker," his sister Gina wrote him in early October. In another letter, she pleaded: "I love you, Mike, you're my only brother. You've done lots of stupid things in your day, but everyone knows you're no killer. But also everyone knows you like to open your mouth about things that you don't know about. But hey, if you said what they said you said, I know you're lying, Mike. I wish I knew what made you do something like that. . . . Please don't talk to anyone except your lawyer."
During the 40-minute drive to Wat Promkunaram last Friday, McGraw does nothing but talk--about cotton bolls, electrocution, new shoes, babes, whatever.
Like a hyperactive child, McGraw turns halfway around in his seat and takes a copy of a newspaper off the back floorboard. He begins to broadcast the stories about the case. He clips the words, rattling them off in rapid fire.
His mind seems to skitter along--he looks up from his newspaper to evaluate the young woman in the car that has just pulled alongside.
"Naw, well maybe, she's a little skinny," he says, twisting in his seat. "I don't know. There was this guard in jail, and she was a really fine babe. She wanted me to call her when I got out, she said she was kind of excited by me being accused of murder, you know."
He launches into a detailed saga of sexual teasing and intrigue that he swears happened while he was in jail.
But he never did have sex with the jailer, he says. McGraw says it may be hard to believe but he's "not really promiscuous."
Besides, McGraw says he already has a girlfriend--the one with the white Corvette who owns her own business.
After McGraw found out his family was not coming to pick him up, he says, he called Pam, the woman with the Corvette. She was supposed to pick him up at the jail, he says, but the crowds scared her off.
"She's got money too, you know," he says. "She's got her own house, a business--she may not be the finest woman in the world, but she's got the biggest heart. She stood by me through all this."
"All this" started with McGraw's fateful September 10 phone call and included about 75 days in the Madison Street Jail for him, Mark Nunez, Leo Bruce and Dante Parker.
Even McGraw's public defender, Charles McNulty, seems to have accepted that his client was the one who first turned suspicion onto the Tucson men.
Sheriff's investigators insist that blustery Mike McGraw is still a suspect in the case, even though investigators supposedly have physical evidence linking Agua Fria High School students Johnathan Doody and Alex Garcia to the slayings. After the Valley teens supposedly denied the Tucson men had any connection to the crime, the confessions of McGraw, Nunez, Bruce and Parker--although recanted--hung around like a bad smell.
How could anyone confess to a crime he didn't commit?
On the trip to the temple, McGraw denies he tipped off the cops. He explains it this way:
He was in a mental hospital in Tucson when a jealous boyfriend called police and said McGraw was somehow involved in the temple killings. When police questioned him, he denied any involvement, but they decided to transport him to Phoenix for questioning anyway. He says police "ordered" a doctor at the clinic to give him a sedative for the ride. What he said while under the influence of the sedative, McGraw says he doesn't know.
"They, like, coerced this confession out of me," he says. "They kept me up, they kept all of us up, and told us that if we'd admit we were involved they'd let us go. They took us to this hotel and they let me get a shower and then they questioned me for like 21 hours--they've got like 21 hours of me on tape. Finally, I just said I did it so they would leave me alone. I slept for like three days after that, and when I woke up it was like, `What the fuck did I do? Did I confess to a murder?' We were lookin' at the gas chamber."
McGraw can't stay on a topic for long. On the drive, his eyes dart like guppies. He apprehends a scene for a split second, then releases it and searches out another objective, the whole time spinning out Neal Cassady- type patter. His lawyers, he says, have told him that the government will be watching him, looking for an excuse to re-arrest him on the murder charges. The authorities are everywhere, Mike says.
A red Camaro slides by on the right, and McGraw announces: "That dude in that IROC, he's the cop that drove us from Tucson."
Its driver, prematurely gray with a bushy mustache, looks like a made-for-TV version of a police detective. He glances at McGraw, then fixes his eyes on the road. "He's FBI," McGraw says. "My attorney said I wouldn't be able to take a shit in my own house without them knowing about it."
The Camaro continues north up Seventh Street as the car containing McGraw turns onto westbound Interstate 10.
It isn't McGraw's idea to go to the temple this morning--he wants a burger and a pack of Marlboros--but he tells a reporter he thinks the trip is "cool," that he thinks it will make him seem unafraid.
McGraw says he has never been to Wat Promkunaram before, that the only time he ever spent in Phoenix before his arrest was when he was a little kid. He says he had an uncle in Phoenix whose house had a room full of pinball machines and a swimming pool. "When I was here before, I never left his yard, man," McGraw rhapsodizes. "There was just too much to do. He had pool tables and everything was just so cool I never wanted to go anywhere else. He must have had a lot of money."
After his stay in jail, McGraw's financial life is in disarray. He says the bank repossessed his own IROC Camaro--a machine that he says could take him from Tucson to San Diego in five-and-a-half hours--and he lost his $7.57-an-hour job at the McCulloch chain-saw plant.
He says he's confident, however, that things will work out. McGraw has been in trouble before, but he's vague about it, admitting only that he has done prison time for auto theft and that after his mother died in 1976 he was in and out of "juvie." It's already been reported that Mike McGraw lived in a series of foster homes, that he dropped out of high school in the tenth grade, that he served time in juvenile prison and spent four years in Florence for auto theft.
McGraw says he never knew his father, that he grew up without "bonding" to any "role model." So far, he has lived a thwarted life, but his first free moments since September 10 seem flush with optimism.
His family apparently has heard plenty from Mike about his big, optimistic ideas.
In late September, after he was jailed, his Aunt Mona wrote him a warning not to try to "snow her." She wrote that, while his family tried to love him, "your view of love is not the same. Yours is, `I must be admired, I must be valued more overall and given every opportunity to take over and take advantage of people, while still being forgiven for whatever sin or grief I've caused.'"
"When I was a kid," says McGraw, "I used to lie a lot. I admit it. If I could lie my way out of it, I would."
McGraw says that lying is "futile" and that he doesn't do it anymore.
Exiting I-10 at Reems Road, on the western edge of the Valley, McGraw marvels at just about everything. "It's hard to believe cotton actually grows!" he says without elaboration.
During a stop to consult a map, McGraw is asked where the temple is. He laughs easily and says he doesn't know. He gets out of the car and crumples the can of Coca Cola he's been nursing for a half-hour. "This is my first mark on civilization," he announces as he carefully places the can in the sand. His arms strain under his sweatshirt as he stretches. He picks a cotton boll and compresses it between his fingers, moves it up to his cheek to feel its softness. "Man, I've never seen it like this," he says. "This is just the way it is, isn't it? Arizona's main products are cotton and citrus."
Back in the car, McGraw's eyes go moist. "I'm so happy I'd fuck a snake in the mouth if you'd hold its head," he says. "I didn't think we'd ever get out."
The threat of execution--whether by gas or electricity--seems distant. "Part of me really believed we were going to go into that courtroom this morning, and the county attorney was going to come up with something to keep us here," he says. "I really thought they were going to put us on trial and that they might rev up Old Sparky. Man, I'm so happy."
The temple is still farther west, down a rutted road. It is not a place one would be likely to just happen upon, and the immediate area is pimpled with a few residences. Black iron gates have been erected and secured with heavy padlocks since the murders. It appears deserted; the patchy grass has grown up a few inches around the tires of a station wagon parked in its lot. Despite the number of dwellings within sight of the temple, and the traffic on Cotton Lane, it feels desolate, as though a neutron bomb had dissolved all surrounding life.
Mike McGraw's face grows ancient, and he trembles as he regards the scene. He is solemn, and he looks as if he's about to bolt.
"This is kinda eerie, to think that nine people were killed in there," he says softly. "And that I was charged with their murder. I feel bad, you know, for their families, and for the families of the kids who confessed. They're going to try them as adults, to try and get the gas chamber for them."
As a white Honda Accord passes by, McGraw shoots it a suspicious glance. There are two silver-haired gentlemen inside, definitely not police officers. One flutters his hand in an approximation of a wave.
"There's cops watching us, I know it," McGraw says.
A moment later, a Chevy Blazer trolls past from the opposite direction, driven by a lean, bearded man. He lifts a walkie-talkie to his lips and moves them, his gaze fixed on McGraw.
McGraw shudders and clenches his teeth. He is racked with a sudden stiffness, his eyes lose their animation. He seems depressed and morbid.
"I'd like to see photographs of the crime scene," he says abruptly. When investigators were trying to "coerce" a confession from him, he says, they showed him diagrams of the temple, but no photographs. He looks as if he might weep.
Now McGraw is quiet, willing to be led around but not quite cooperative. "I didn't want to come here," he says. "I'm scared to be here. This is too eerie."
Back in the car, it takes a while before the spell breaks. In a conversation a few days before his release, McGraw noted that depression was "one of my things." He had signed himself into the Tucson clinic because he was depressed, because someone talked him into getting help after he asked a group of friends at a party if they knew "what a bullet could do to a man's head."
According to published reports, a counselor back in 1985 described McGraw, then 18, as having the "mental capacity of a 9-year-old" and "no sense of reality."
But McGraw is a fluent reader, and there's plenty of evidence of his linguistic and literary ambition in the scores of pages of his jailhouse journal. There also are many references to suicide. At one point, he selects c'est la vie as his "word for the day" and proceeds to define it as "good-bye."
On the ride back from the temple, McGraw's mood perks up. He again attacks the newspaper pages, scouring them for articles on his case. "We were kind of like the hostages, you know," he muses. "It's like we were heroes or something. When the judge dismissed the charges against us, everyone was cheering and shit. I think a lot of people are on our side."
At a Carl's Jr. on 51st Avenue, McGraw devours his first free-world meal in ten weeks. He is giddy while chomping on his cheeseburger and onion rings. "Everybody knows who I am," he says. "Everyone's looking at me."
It's true that McGraw, probably by virtue of a newspaper photographer's interest in him, has attracted some attention. After he walks outside for some more photos, a man approaches the table and wants to know if an advertisement is being shot.
Outside the restaurant, McGraw makes a few phone calls. He laughs, rolling back his head. A week before, McGraw was confined to a wheelchair because of a bad back, and he was rolled through the jail with his hands and feet shackled. He looked dwarfish, his heavy arms foreshortened and his large head lolling like an infant's. Now he seems almost athletic, with his stout chest a few inches wider than his gut (he says he lost 25 pounds in jail) and a robust smile. Freedom washes over him, giving him an aura of luck and hope--this sturdy, five-foot-six kid could pass for a fast-food poster child.
He says he has Pam--his girlfriend, the lady with the white Corvette--on the phone. An address in Mesa is scrawled down, and plans are made. There is a problem: He's still wearing torn, jail-issued shoes.
"I can't go see Pam in these shoes," he mutters. "The county is keeping my shoes as evidence. The dude asked me what size I wore, and I told him eight-and-a-half, so he gave me an 11."
The shoes are pitiful. So it's off to Mesa for shoes and then a "reunion" with Pam.
He has to borrow money to buy new footwear--the jailers sent him off with the $5 he had when he was arrested weeks ago.
The subject of money sends him into another reverie. McGraw talks about whether he wants to file a lawsuit against Maricopa County. He says he'll take $15 million as a settlement if the county wants to avoid going to court.
"Hell, I'd really take $10 million," he confides. "I don't need that much. But I could spend $1 million so fast, I could spend it in my dreams."
When he was still in jail, McGraw said that if he won a large settlement from Maricopa County, he would "take one or two million and just go from city to city, handing it out to people." Now he reveals other, less altruistic, plans.
"First thing, I'm going to buy me a really fine car, and tint all the windows," he says. "You know what my license plate is gonna say?"
Not a clue.
Which stands for?
"Thank you, Tom Agnos."
At Tri-City Mall in Mesa, a search for shoes is conducted. McGraw tromps in, biting on a toothbrush he has pulled from his bag. He looks like a husky Ratso Rizzo.
He can't help but leer at several females. "I'm going to get in trouble if I stay here," he says as a woman bends over to adjust a display case.
There is no one in the Foot Locker store except for a zebra-striped teenage clerk. McGraw bounces in, toothbrush still clenched in his mouth. "Hey man, you got any of those `pump' shoes?" he asks. Assured that the store carries that style of Reebok, McGraw advises that to put one's hand in the shoe and pump it up is a peculiar sensation. "Isn't that weird?" he grins, as the clerk laces up a pair of much cheaper Nike shoes, black with white stripes, on sale for $39.99.
"Cool benches, dude," McGraw tells the clerk. "We had some just like them in high school. I used to be the guy who brought the buckets of water out. I just got out of jail, I'm one of the guys they had locked up for those temple murders. We just got released."
"That was you?" "Yeah," says McGraw, but his attention is diverted by a swim-suited woman on the store's piped-in video monitor and he asks the clerk: "Man, you sell her here?"
The clerk is quick. "Sure, we got them in the back. Just have to blow 'em up."
McGraw laughs, and tells the kid he can keep the genuine jail shoes as a souvenir. He adds: "Or you can burn 'em, I don't care."
Money changes hands, and it's off to find Pam, his girl with the Corvette.
The destination is a beauty salon in a fresh, upscale shopping center, painted cheerfully blue and white, right next to a sports bar. (Later, in this bar, McGraw will again discover undercover police officers watching him. He will be tipped off by the weapons they carry "in their socks.")
With his new shoes apparently comes confidence, and McGraw bounds into the beauty shop like a clumsy pup yet to grow into his paws. His voice booms. He doesn't notice that he startles some customers, who glare at his wide back. The receptionist says Pam is applying a facial to a client and he will just have to wait.
Too much energy swims through McGraw for him to be comfortable on one of the salon's plush sofas, so he saunters outside to the parking lot.
Hands on his hips, he leans back and lets the warm sun bathe him.
It may be hard to believe, but Mike McGraw really does have a girlfriend who has a white Corvette.
"Everyone knows you like to open your mouth about things that you don't know about," Mike's sister wrote him.
"They took us to this hotel and they let me get a shower and then they questioned me for like 21 hours--they've got like 21 hours of me on tape."
McGraw says that lying is "futile" and that he doesn't do it anymore.
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"This is kinda eerie, to think that nine people were killed in there. And that I was charged with their murder."
"We were kind of like the hostages, you know," he muses.
"Everybody knows who I am. Everyone's looking at me."
"Hell, I'd really take $10 million," he confides. "I don't need that much.