Longform

THE SPAN OF AN INJUSTICE

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Jerry Span, the oldest child, started his labors as a baby sitter when he was 7. He was never good at reading or writing, but he says that by age 16, he was the youngest house wrecker working in Arizona. For almost 20 years, he operated a snack stand at Encanto Park.

Darlene, the fifth Span child, started selling Christmas cards door to door when she was in second grade and didn't stop working until the fracas with the marshals knocked her life off track.

By nature and profession, the Spans were salvagers. When they moved here, the parents bought land on Buckeye Road near 19th Street. Over the decades, children bought nearby property as they moved out on their own, and the family also acquired a second house on Fillmore Street near downtown.

Among other businesses, the Spans ran a demolition and salvage company. Different children developed varying interests over time--collecting antiques or old stagecoaches.

By the late 1980s, the Span property on Buckeye was a pack rat's treasure trove. Movie companies would come to rent old building faades and wagons for use as props. Art students would come pick through junkpiles in search of materials.

Jerry Span, in fact, once dismantled a two-story home and kept it in his backyard for 20 years because it seemed a shame to throw it away. It turned out to be the historic Cole House, which has now been rebuilt in Olde Towne Square in Tempe.

But progress rolled in and wiped away the enclave that the Spans spent decades building. The 15 parcels of land owned by various family members north and south of Buckeye were part of a huge condemnation executed by the city to amass land for development near the airport.

In 1988, the Span family and the city were engaged in a heated dispute over how much they would receive for their property and--even more cumbersome--how to move all the piles and sheds full of stuff that the family had amassed over the years.

"One of the city people told us that we were the biggest move ever in the state," Darlene recalls. "We had invested 35 years of our lives in that ground. That place. That land was our future."
On April 7, 1988, the impending move was very much on the family members' minds. In fact, several members of the Span family were taking pictures of all the things they owned to have a proper inventory for the move.

Then the marshals came calling.
Marshals David Dains and Garry Grotewald would later testify that they were seeking a fugitive named Mickey Michael. One of the Span children was named Mike Michael.

They first went to the Fillmore Street house, where father Bill Span was that afternoon. The marshals would later testify that they simply looked around and left, but Alice Span said she found her 74-year-old father crying, apparently beaten, huddled on the kitchen floor, after the visit by Dains and Grotewald.

The marshals then went to the family business on Buckeye, where they found Jerry, Darlene, Pete, Virginia and Bonnie Span.

Jerry, Darlene and several customers who witnessed the ensuing violence say Dains and Grotewald did not identify themselves as marshals. The marshals testified at trial that they did.

(Dains and Grotewald, both still with the marshals service in Southern California, did not respond to requests for interviews channeled through their attorney.)

The Spans say they explained to the men that their brother, Mike Michael, was only 39 years old, not the 63-year-old man pictured on the wanted flier they were being shown. Darlene and Jerry turned and began walking away from the marshals, they say.

Then things became violent. The marshals would later testify that Jerry Span, a slight, 130-pound man, started the fight by slugging the 220-pound Grotewald in the chest and going for his gun.

Jerry and other family members were primed for conflict, the prosecution would later argue, because of the ongoing dispute over the land condemnation.

After Jerry started the fight, the marshals claimed, Darlene jumped into the fray, as did the elderly Virginia.

All three Spans were arrested.
The Spans--and other eyewitnesses--testified that it was the marshals who started the fracas, grabbing Darlene and Jerry as they walked away and slamming them into a car and a fence.

Remarkably, there was more than just eyewitness testimony to contradict the marshals' story. Virginia and Pete Span, who had been taking pictures for the inventory, started snapping shots of the incredible scene unfolding before them.

The marshals seized the Polaroid photos shot by Virginia. Pete Span, who was shooting with a 35mm camera, says they crushed one roll of film he shot into the ground. But he was able to get away with one roll of film.

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David Pasztor