Payson Detective Puts 'Human Element' on the Face of Flash-Flood Tragedy

Lindsay Moore
Sergeant David Hornung holds a press conference describing the transition to a Type 3 Incident team.
At 7:50 p.m. Monday, Sergeant David Hornung was still returning phone calls. He had been on the scene of a flash food in Tonto National Forest with little cellphone service for the past three days. Rounding out what would be another 15-hour work day, he went back to the Gila County Sheriff's Office and listened to 51 voicemails.

The majority were journalists nationwide asking for updates on the rescue case. Nine messages were from volunteers hoping to help the search for Hector Miguel Garnica. A couple more were critics telling him how the investigation could be better.

One phone call, though, offered gratitude.

The woman on the other end of the receiver told Hornung that he added "a human element" to the case and reminded her that police are people, too.

"Thank you for what you do," she told the detective.

Hornung has been with the Gila County Sheriff's Office for 13 years. The flash flood incident at the Water Wheel campsite was his first case as a Public Information Officer. He was trained in the military to be a PIO, which meant 40 hours of learning how to write, speak, and act around reporters. But that was 17 years ago.

This week, Hornung is fresh-faced in front of the cameras as the story of 14 people being swept down a river in a flash flood becomes a national story.

Hornung says he gets in trouble because he "has a big mouth." It's not classified information he's leaking though, it's his emotions.

"I feel like I have to hold back," he said. "You're not suppose to let the emotional part show, but that ... that I could talk about for days."

This case in particular is hard for Hornung. As a father, he feels compassion for the family who lost nine members with one still missing.

"I thought to myself, what would it have been like to lose my three sons," he said. "I can't even begin to think about it."
All of the Hornung men are in the business of serving and protecting.

Hornung's middle son, who works as a firefighter and EMT, was part of the team that rescued 29-year-old Julio Garcia, 28-year-old Esthela Atondo, 8-year-old Acis Garcia, and 1-year-old Marina Garcia.

He told his father that the young girl's face was covered in dirt and ash. When he cleaned her eyes off she lit up. She had the most beautiful eyes he had ever seen, he told his father.

He later teased his father for not mentioning him to the press conference Saturday.

In contrast, Hornung's youngest son called him Sunday to ask if he was watching the new Game of Thrones episode. In the thick of the search and miles from cell service, Hornung didn't answer.

The next day his son went into work as a juvenile corrections officer and saw his father on TV and he immediately understood why he didn't get a call back.

After his ex-wife died in August, Hornung became both mother and father to his children, but in many ways his sons parent him, too. They teach him how to use his new iPad, help him keep the Star Wars movies straight and, most importantly, make sure he's okay.

Hornung's sons called frequently to check in over the last four days.

"Are you taking care of yourself?" they ask.

"Did you eat today?" they nag. The answer is no, except for a few carrots.
Hornung says he has trouble taking his own advice when it comes to taking a break. On Tuesday, a flock of reinforcements came in for the search and rescue volunteers and command personnel. The volunteers were running off adrenaline, Hornung said, and a crash was inevitable.

"The emotional ties will keep you going even when your body tells you no," Hornung said about the rescue units.

But his own emotional ties are what kept him on the case. He requested to stay on after three straight 15-hour days. The Type 3 Incident team agreed, saying they could use his intimate knowledge of both the case and the area.

click to enlarge Sergeant David Hornung explains the increase of search and rescue teams on Tuesday. The teams doubled from 35 to 70 with six K-9 units. They split up into three sections along the East Verde River. - LINDSAY MOORE
Sergeant David Hornung explains the increase of search and rescue teams on Tuesday. The teams doubled from 35 to 70 with six K-9 units. They split up into three sections along the East Verde River.
Lindsay Moore
He continued to talk to reporters alongside Type 3 Incident PIO Tiffany Davila. His upbeat attitude remained constant through the change of power. 

He's still friendly to press and treats them all fairly. He believes the most respectable quality is following through, so if he tells a reporter, a volunteer, or a victim family member that he will come back with answers, then he will.

He's one of the few law enforcement officers on the scene who didn't shy away and say they're bad on camera, despite this being his first spin as PIO. When he's on camera, he often pauses looking for the right word to describe the situation, but it never comes out scripted, always conversational.

He's become the face of a national story, which has prompted phone calls from former high school classmates, neighbors, and friends saying they saw him on TV.

This is a job Hornung said he knew he could do, even if his bosses took some convincing. Hornung says he's outspoken in the office, and the sheriff's office was worried how that would translate on camera. But now the sheriff's department has been praising his work.

"I always like having him as my sergeant," one officer said of Hornung. "He's so personable. He's human."

This is the X-factor Hornung possesses that is lost on so many law enforcement officers but not that one caller  — the human element.

Where does this come from? Years of stacking marbles.

Hornung uses a metaphor to describe emotional trauma law enforcement endures. Every domestic dispute, every child-abuse case, every hit and run — they're all little marbles that officers take and they stick in a jar. The jar fills up every day until eventually it breaks and so does the officer.

"Most of these guys won't admit it, but sometimes after a call you just need to pull off the road and have yourself a cry," Hornung said. "Because the next call is coming."

Hornung spent 21 years in the Coast Guard after dropping out from Indiana University's geology department.  After retiring in 2000, Hornung joined the forest fire team in Young, Arizona, for three summers but was told that at 42 he was too old to be hired on.

"I would have died doing that," he said of firefighting. "I loved it."

Looking for his next challenge, he became a deputy in Young in 2004. After five years as a small-town cop, he became restless. Every two weeks, he would take his sons grocery shopping on payday at Walmart. They would play a game of how many people Hornung recognized as someone he had arrested in the store. 

The record was seven in one shopping trip.

The combination of restlessness in a small town and stress of  law enforcement led to Hornung's divorce and eventually a move to Payson. There, he took a job at the Gila County Sheriff's Office where he's been for 13 years.

Hornung wears many hats. In addition to being a detective and now PIO, he also serves as an accident re-constructionist and is training to be an arson investigator. Recently, he opened up a 38-year-old homicide cold case he is confident he can crack.

In short, he throws himself into his work.

So then, when does he have time to empty his jar of marbles?

Hornung said he goes home and cleans to relax. He cranks the music from his favorite bands, The Allman Brothers or Rush. In true symbolic nature, his anthem is "Working Man" by Rush. He's also working on building himself a dory fishing boat. He drew out the blueprints but hasn't revisited it in almost a year due to his workload.

The project he gets most excited to talk about is the American Legion Law Enforcement Career Academy, which hosts 11- to 18-year-olds for a weeklong boot camp. Last year, Hornung took over as state director.

He serves as a father figure for his graduates. Sometimes this takes the form of something as simple as a couple of  bucks to take a trip, but often it's an emotional relationship that leads Hornung to attending high school graduations and driving kids to the hospital.

"It's given me new hope for the future," Hornung said.