Tales from the Morgue: Battle at Miracle Valley

2012-05-04T00:00:00Z 2013-12-26T11:49:18Z Tales from the Morgue: Battle at Miracle ValleyJohanna Eubank, Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
May 04, 2012 12:00 am  • 

In 1982, a controversial church in Miracle Valley, Arizona, was the scene of a battle that ended with two church members dead, two lawmen with gunshot wounds and several more with less serious injuries.

Arizona Daily Star reporter Paul Brinkley-Rogers told much of the story of the fight in a first-person account. He and a Star photographer followed law enforcement officers to the scene as they responded to a call for help from deputies attempting to serve a warrant on some members.

From the Arizona Daily Star, Oct. 24, 1982:

2 die in Miracle Valley battle

Long expected, the shooting finally comes

By Paul Brinkley-Rogers
© 1982 The Arizona Daily Star

MIRACLE VALLEY — "You've got to kill us if you want us, man," Robert Luckett yelled at the sheriff's deputy backing away from a woman with a large rock in her hand.

Then Luckett screamed, "Wait right here till I come back with a gun, and then we'll see who's the dead man."

But by the time Luckett ran back, with nunchakus — an Oriental weapon — instead of a gun, Deputy Ray Thatcher was gone. He was lost in a sea of church members attacking him and 35 other deputies on Axehead Drive with everything from teeth to gun butts.

That's what Arizona Daily Star photographer Jim Davis and I saw first as we leaped from my pickup after following close on the heels of half a dozen sheriff's patrol cars responding to an urgent appeal for help.

A few minutes earlier, two deputies had driven into the valley to try to serve a warrant for a traffic violation on Frank Bernard, a member of the Christ Miracle Healing Center and Church. They were quickly surrounded by angry church members, and called for help.

We heard the backup sheriff's cars roaring into the valley from across Arizona 92, jumped into the truck, and stayed with them in the dust.

Standing there, watching the anger, the hate and the fury of the church members, it didn't really seem possible. Not in this quiet neighborhood of single-story homes built by ardent followers of Jesus Christ.

At times, in past months, deputies had told me that one day it would come to this — someone getting shot. I had agreed.

But when guns started blazing and both church members and deputies started dropping to the ground, shot, I felt like I had just been dragged against my will into a role in a real shoot-em-up movie.

"Murderers, murderers," screamed Sister Minnie Rae, an elder in the church, to the lawmen trying to fend her off. She was running from deputy to deputy trying to hit one and then another with her clenched fists.

I knew that lady. I had watched her before, Bible in hand, quoting the Scriptures to her enemies. We had even laughed together a few times.

But now she was creeping toward me, snarling, "You are writing your last story." I was trying to take down her words in my notebook and watch for the women behind me running toward the lawmen with ax handles, hammers, baseball bats, gardening implements, scissors and even a broom. I was worried about the rocks the size of coconuts whizzing through the air.

Sister Minnie Rae was saying, "You are writing your last story, Paul. You're hell-bound. You'll pay for this, just like the others, and I will send you to hell. If I don't kill you today, I'll kill you tomorrow."

I looked for a more rational church member. After all, I had reported the church's position on more than one occasion. There. There was Brother Brooks, the gray-haired man who always asked me in a kindly fashion what I was reading. He was fighting, too. But he was punching it out with another church member — Rickie Brown, a 20-year-old.

Brooks and Brown were hammering away at each other. Brown tried to break away and run toward the lawmen chasing a man with a shotgun. Brown had a knife. He waived it over Brooks' head.

And then came a bunch of tiny black children, all dressed up in their Sunday best, and they ran in among the pushing and shoving combatants screaming: "My momma's been shot. They shot my momma."

The shooting started with the pop of a gunshot to the rear of the quiet residential neighborhood. Heads jerked around in the direction of the shot, somewhere back toward William Thomas Jr.'s blue-painted home.

Then another pop from somewhere else. The lawmen, fighting with the yelling, kicking, screaming, spitting mob of men, women and children, tried to push them away and level their weapons at the sounds of the shots at the same time.

"I don't believe this," marveled a young deputy trying to halt an angry woman waving a rake at him like a spear. "I might get shot."

The woman lunged at him, calling him a "filthy honky killer," and he used the butt of his Mini-14, a semi-automatic assault rifle, to crack her on the jaw and knock her to the ground. Then he turned toward the popping shots and pulled the trigger.

The woman on the ground grabbed his ankles and pulled the deputy to the ground. Another woman with a rock banged away at the gold-colored crash helmet on his head. Children jumped on his back and tore at his clothes.

Somehow he got out of it. There wasn't really time for anyone else to run over to help him. Each deputy was busy fighting off three or four attackers. In a swirl of dust in the middle of the street, Luckett and his friends were taunting other deputies. Luckett had a pair of nunchakus in his hands. He lunged this way and then the other, swinging the heavy ebony sticks by a chain around his head.

"Come on, fight me, fight me," he yelled, baring his teeth. "Kill me, kill me."

There were bursts of automatic rifle fire. A Mini-14 firing on the right. A .30-caliber carbine pumping away. People staggered. People ran for cover. They looked at each other to see if they had been shot. Here and there men and women were wailing as they picked up a body from the ground.

Finally the deputies were ready to pull out. "Let's back up, let's back up," shouted Lt. Frank Peterson as the lawmen ran for their cars.

"Let's make sure we haven't left anybody in the grass." the deputies made one more quick sweep. They had gotten their injured out.

Now it was the turn of the church members to search for the dead, wounded and injured. "Honkies, honkies, you are going to be killed," they shouted, as the deputies gunned their engines. Some of the church members were crying. Others were still taunting remaining lawmen to fight.

I looked for Jim. He was still shooting pictures. A man was walking closely behind him as he walked toward me, and the man was telling Jim he was going to die, too. But Jim was able to jump into my truck, and we sped away.

Back at the highway, 300 yards distant, the retreating deputies moved out as shocked residents who are not members of the church stood open-mouthed, watching the convoy go by. For 12 months they had told Sheriff Jimmy Judd they wanted decisive action. But it appeared even they could not quite believe that death had come again to the valley the church said was chosen by God for the redemption of souls.

The news account of the fight also ran on the front page of that day's Arizona Daily Star:

Effort to arrest 3 leads to violence

By Paul Brinkley-Rogers, R.H. Ring and Don Dale
The Arizona Daily Star

MIRACLE VALLEY — A leader of a controversial all-black church here and another church member were shot to death yesterday in a wild melee that left at least two lawmen wounded and dozens more with broken arms, cuts and bruises.

Nine people were arrested after the bloody confrontation. It errupted shortly after 9 a.m. when deputies keeping watch on the community from the sheriff's substation across the road responded to a call for help from two other deputies, who were shot as they supported Deputy Pat Halloran, who was trying to serve three traffic-related arrest warrants.

An attempt to serve the same warrants Friday night failed when the two arresting officers were surrounded by scores of club-wielding church members and forced to withdraw.

One of those killed yesterday was William Thomas Jr., 33, son of the church pastor, the Rev. Frances Thomas,  and the militant theoretical leader of the church. He suffered gunshots in the arm and the side. The other church member killed was identified as Augusta Tate, 52. Tate was William Thomas' father-in-law. Autopsies are to be performed today in Tucson.

At least five injured lawmen were taken to Sierra Vista Community Hospital, two suffering from gunshots and the rest suffering from broken bones, cuts and bruises. One sheriff's deputy, David Jones, was transferred to St. Joseph's Hospital in Tucson. He suffered shotgun wounds in the face and upper chest, and was reported in stable condition last night.

The other lawmen, including Sgt. Larry Dever, who was shot along with Jones, were treated at the Sierra Vista hospital and released.

Two injured church members were transferred from Sierra Vista hospital to Tucson hospitals. Roy Williams, whose spine was severed by a gunshot, was listed in critical condition at Tucson Medical Center in Tucson. And John Jamison, who was shot in the shoulder, was taken to University Hospital, where he was listed in serious condition.

Deputies who responded to the call for help were punched, beaten with pipes and sticks, stabbed with broken soda bottles and then shot at with shotguns and rifles.

In all, as many as 100 men, women and children from the church were involved in the fight with 35 Cochise County deputies. Other than the two who were initially taken to the Sierra Vista Hospital, it was not known how many church members were injured in the fighting, but the number appeared to be high.

Dever said that when he and Jones arrived at the scene, several other officers already had been surrounded and were fighting with church members armed with “pipes and other things.”

When he and Jones stopped their police truck, “we saw a lot of people with weapons, pointing them at us,” Dever said. Jones stepped out of the truck and was hit by a shotgun blast, Dever said.

Dever also was hit by a few shotgun pellets in the face, but he was able to drag Jones back into the truck, he said.

Lawmen who were not struggling directly with their assailants and who were able to fire back used a variety of weapons, including assault rifles, carbines, shotguns and handguns. They shouted warnings to each other as church members ran toward them firing their weapons.

Other deputies held off men and women swinging clubs, and they dodged large rocks hurled at them by the cursing crowd.

After 15 minutes of fighting, in which as many as 100 shots were fired, the deputies withdrew to Arizona 92 and set up roadblocks on both sides of the community.

Within minutes, five carloads of church members appeared with wounded people inside. The deputies checked the occupants quickly and then sent them up the highway toward the hospital in Sierra Vista, instructing other units along the way to let them pass.

An air of tension spread across this border area as the day progressed. Roadblocks diverted Arizona 92 traffic between Sierra Vista and Bisbee, and some people living close to Miracle Valley blocked their driveways with vehicles.

Until about noon, it appeared that church member Julius Gillespie was involved in negotiations with Sheriff Jimmy Judd. He entered and left Miracle Valley at least three times in the company of Sheriff's Lt. Frank Peterson.

Judd would not comment during the day, but last night Department of Public Safety spokesman Allan Schmidt said Judd had met with the Rev. Thomas and Harold Hurtt of the Phoenix Police Department, who has been involved in previous Valley negotiations. Schmidt would not elaborate except to say the talks and force of lawmen are designed to “ensure that peace will prevail.”

Lawmen running “hot,” with lights flashing and sirens screaming, sped down County roads to take positions of reinforcement.

Police from neighboring communities including Huachuca City, Sierra Vista, Douglas, Benson and Bisbee were called in to back up Sheriff's deputies, and the DPS later took over the investigation of the morning shooting.

Jim West, aide to Gov. Bruce Babbitt, said, “the governor is monitoring the situation closely and is in communication with Cochise County Sheriff Jimmy Judd and DPS director Ralph Milstead. He has instructed Director Milstead to provide Sheriff Judd with additional Highway Patrol manpower and other assistance Milstead deems necessary. The governor has also asked the FBI to investigate the shootings, and they have agreed to do so.” FBI agent John J. Hinchcliffe later said he would look into any civil rights questions.

The Pima County Sheriff's  Department's special weapons and tactics squad appeared in the early afternoon to help secure the perimeter around the church property. The county also sent a large motor home to serve as a command-and-control center.

By that time, the situation appeared to be a standoff between as many as 80 lawmen and church members, some of whom, lawmen said, were holed up in their church building with rifles. Police sharpshooters crouching behind their patrol cars kept scope-equipped rifles trained on the building. The Pima County SWAT team, dressed in camouflage uniforms and heavily armed, stayed in the background at the Southern Arizona Bible College across the highway from the church. Judd, in almost constant conference, was in his substation trailer nearby.

He only emerged once, at 4 p.m., to talk briefly in a strained voice with reporters. “We are here to do one thing,” he said. “We're here to do our job.”

As dusk neared, lawmen watched the community from behind the line of cars parked on the highway. They leaned on their cars, and used binoculars and kept shotguns handy.

About 20 church members stood in front of the church store, Crescendo Limited, about a hundred yards from the watching lawmen. One man carefully cleaned windshields on several cars parked in front of the store.

At one point, a car with two women in the front seat and four children in the rear pulled out of the community and slowly drove across the front of the line of lawmen.

Deputies picked up their shotguns and cocked the hammers, keeping watch on the car until it passed and turned back into the community with children peering out the rear window.

Just at dusk, when deputy yelled out to reporters and lawmen: “Look out, you got a rifle sighted on you out of the doorway of that store.” Lawmen and reporters hunched down as some deputies hurried away in a crouch, and a truck of lawmen drove out at high speed.

Nothing more came of the warning, or of similar incidents throughout the day.

Meanwhile, investigators worked hurriedly to review film that was taken by police photographers during the fight, trying to identify some of the church members.

And by late afternoon, the last three church members were arrested when deputies moved in squads into the community to seek out church members they had recognized in the morning confrontation, Schmidt said.

However, the three men deputies were trying to arrest when the melee broke out were still at large last night. All were wanted on traffic-related counts: one of felony fleeing and two counts of failing to appear in court.

A man who saw the fight that those warrants sparked said it was a church member who fired first.

Urbane Leiendecker, 59, watched “from the next yard over” and said the shooting was triggered by teen-age church member who had charged into the fight with two pieces of lumber he used as clubs.

After the teen-ager was disarmed, he ran back into a nearby house and came out with a rifle, Leiendecker said.

“He got down behind a tree and shot through the fork” in its branches, Leiendecker said.

“I suppose he took dead aim on a deputy,” he said. “He fired one shot and went back into the house. He seemed very nervous.”

Leiendecker, the landowner who gave two square miles of land to enable evangelist A.A. Allen to build Miracle Valley in 1958, said he was watering trees in the yard adjacent to where the deputies fought with church members.

He said he saw the first two deputies to arrive at the scene. The deputies drove up, knocked on the door of the house and got no response.

Four or five church members approached and surrounded the deputies, Leiendecker said, and were quickly reinforced with others who arrived in cars.

The church members “started pushing” the deputies, “trying to pull their guns away, just picking on them, maybe slapping them,” Leyendecker said.

The deputies called for help on their radios, and about 10 patrol cars showed up, he said.

Then more church members came “from every direction,” he said. “There were women with rakes in their hands, men with shovels, picks, axes, two-by-fours. Some of them didn't have anything, so they pulled off their shoes and used those,” Leiendecker said.

One man, apparently a lawman, was taking photographs with one hand while he kept attackers that day with the pistol held out straight in the other, Leienecker said.

“He said, ‘Back off, boy,’” Leiendecker said.

About that time that first shot was fired, Leiendecker said. “It appeared none of the deputies knew where the shot came from,” he said.

A second church member who aimed at lawmen with the rifle from a nearby vacant lot was “cut down” after he refused to drop his weapon, Leiendecker said.

“It almost made me vomit that I didn't have a pistol in my hand,” he said. “I'm a dead shot.” He said he fled on his bicycle when rocks started to fly.

Articles that ran in the Star on the 10th anniversary of the battle included a timeline on Miracle Valley.

From the Star, Oct. 25, 1992:

MIRACLE VALLEY: A CHRONOLOGY

Fall 1978: Members of the Christ Miracle Healing Center and Church begin to arrive in Miracle Valley.

Summer 1980: The Rev. Frances Thomas and other church leaders move to Miracle Valley.

Fall 1980: Church members organize an armed security patrol in response to theft and vandalism.

April 1981: The congregation's belief in faith-healing is blamed in the death of Theriel Drew, 6, and prompts accusations of neglect by physicians and state officials.

June 1981: State officials serve notice on the parents of Drew that they will supervise the care of the family's other children.

July 1981: Cochise County sheriff's deputies attempting to arrest a church member on traffic violations are forced to retreat after they are surrounded by angry church members. Sheriff Jimmy Judd travels to Phoenix to consult with Gov. Bruce Babbitt and DPS Director Ralph Milstead. Integrated patrols begin, using black Department of Public Safety officers teamed with the all-white Sheriff's Department.

August 1981: A confrontation between armed church members and deputies trying to make an arrest stemming from a traffic citation prompts a massive show of force. Judd says it is intended to show that "no one is above the law."

September 1981: A bomb explodes in a van two miles west of Miracle Valley. One passenger, a church member, is killed. Investigators speculate the church members were headed to Sierra Vista to force the release of two church members arrested earlier in the day.

December 1981: The Arizona Court of Appeals rules there is sufficient reason to declare the Drew children dependents of the state to ensure their proper medical care. The decision is later overturned by the state Supreme Court.

January 1982: Teen-age members of the church attack deputies as they attempt to reunite a 17-year-old girl from Sierra Vista's Buena High School with her Mississippi father under a court order.

April 1982: Law officers try to arrest a church member on trespassing charges, prompting a 100-mph chase in which three officers are injured.

May 1982: Gov. Babbitt intervenes to negotiate the surrender of 14 of 15 church members named in arrest warrants stemming from the confrontation with deputies a month earlier.

June 1982: Church members file a $75 million federal civil-rights suit naming eight county officials, including Judd.

October 1982: Miracle Valley residents who are not members of the church meet with Judd to demand law and order in the community.

Oct. 22: Stick- and bat-wielding church members force the retreat of deputies attempting to serve an arrest warrant on a church member.

Oct. 23: Judd sends two deputies, backed by 35 other law officers, into Miracle Valley with orders to make the arrest foiled by church members the night before. The deputies are attacked by dozens of church members. The confrontation escalates and shooting breaks out. Two church members are killed; five deputies and two church members are hospitalized.

Oct. 30: Ten church members are indicted by a Cochise County grand jury on charges stemming from the shoot-out. Another nine members of the church are later added to the indictment on charges related to the shooting incident. Other church members return to Chicago to bury their dead.

Nov. 11: The Rev. Jesse Jackson conducts a fact-finding visit to Miracle Valley and urges peace.

Nov. 15: A Cochise County judge removes himself from the case and orders it moved to Tucson.

May 1983: Church members announce they will not return to Miracle Valley from Chicago.

February 1984: Charges against the church members are dismissed by a Pima County Superior Court judge after Cochise County officials said they no longer could afford to pay the indigent defense costs associated with the case.

September 1984: A federal grand jury declines to indict either deputies or church members in the case.

June 1985: Cochise County and church officials reach a $500,000 out-of-court settlement in the $75million civil-rights suit.

Fall 1987: Twenty-six former members of the Christ Miracle Healing Center and Church file a lawsuit against the Rev. Thomas, charging her with fraud stemming from the purchase of property in Miracle Valley. The lawsuit is later dropped.

February 1990: Properties owned by the Rev. Thomas in Miracle Valley, more than 36 parcels including the former church building and a small trailer park, are donated to the Christ Miracle Healing Center and Church.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

About this blog

"Tales from the Morgue" is a way for the Star to share stories from the treasure trove of information held in its old files.

Johanna Eubank, aka the Morgue Lady, was a research assistant in the Star Library — also known as News and Research Services — for 18 years before becoming an online content producer. She has had her share of sneezing fits after digging into dusty old files, so she's sure to find a few old stories to re-examine.

If you have suggestions, comments or questions about this blog, e-mail jeubank@tucson.com

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