By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
"I know," the dispatcher said. "What are you doing out there by yourself?"
"I'm not by myself," Puroll quickly replied. "I've got about five or six guys. Bye."
This is where memories and evidence diverge.
Sergeant Messing says he was at home in Oracle grilling ribs when Puroll first contacted him about the smugglers:
"He says, 'Hey, I've got these backpackers. They're loaded. They've got dope, they're northbound, and this is where I'm at.' I said, 'Okay, I'll get guys started out there,' and he said, 'You know the area we're talking about.' He meant that if I called Joe Deputy out there, they'd have no idea how to get there or have the equipment.
"I said, 'Do the smugglers know you're there?' He says, 'No clue.' I tell him to keep his 300 yards back. Border Patrol does this all day long—follow the dope until you get your guys in an area, and then take them down."
Why, Messing is asked, would Puroll call an off-duty supervisor and not someone closer to the scene and on duty?
"I am his supervisor pretty much all the time," the sergeant says. "We have a unique unit."
Messing becomes emotional as he continues with his recollections of April 30.
"We had some bad tactics that day, errors we had to look at," he says. "As a supervisor, I'll take the heat on that. I probably should have told him to stop and turn around. But Louie's a very competent deputy."
But there's a problem with Messing's account: Verizon cell-phone records (and Puroll's interview with investigators) suggest that Messing and the deputy didn't speak that day until 4:04 p.m., when the deputy says he was shot.
"I've been trying to figure this all out in my head," Messing says after the Phoenix New Times points out the discrepancy. "In my head, I'm sure I spoke with him right after he spotted those guys."
The records do show that a dispatcher contacted Messing at 3:50 p.m., shortly after she had spoken with Puroll.
The deputy spoke with a dispatcher again just after 4 p.m.
"This phone's gonna quit on me any second," he told her. "I'm coming down from the south toward the truck stop on I-8. We're passing through the saddle right now. It looks like we're headed toward that cell tower, and I think Brian [Messing] is trying to call me. Pass that on to him in case I'm not able to reach him. They're laid up in the brush ahead of me resting right now. So am I."
How the deputy knew that the smugglers were "resting" over a ridge a few hundred yards ahead of him is uncertain. And why he waited just a few minutes before moving over that same ridge into a known stopping point for undocumented aliens—alleged drug smugglers, in this instance—is another question.
Verizon records show that Brian Messing finally did contact Puroll at 4:04 p.m.
"I was asking him what was going on, telling him to stay back," the sergeant says. "I don't know how to describe it. You're in the midsentence of asking him how far away they are, and he says they're 150 to 200 yards away. He says, 'They're laying down; they're resting up.'
"I say, 'Don't move any closer.' Then, just like that, I hear the gunfire. A lot of shots. I could hear it in the background at a distance. Then I heard gunfire from his end start back. It boggled my mind. I got disconnected at that point."
Puroll dialed 911 seconds later.
Those 36 seconds—the "I've been hit!" call—later would be played across the nation and around the world.
Some of what transpired in the chaotic minutes after Puroll's 911 call is retraceable through dispatch recordings, reports and interviews.
Sergeant Messing took almost two minutes—an eternity under the circumstances—to call in after he and Puroll got disconnected.
"I was talking to Louie, and I started losing him, and it started like shots being fired," he told the dispatcher.
She calmly told Messing they were on it.
At 4:08 p.m., Puroll again got through to dispatch.
"I had to move," he said, speaking loudly.
The dispatcher asked him where he had been hit.
"Left side above my belt. I don't have time to look at it. AK-47 rounds. There's at least three of them with AK's, maybe more. I can't tell. I'm gonna shut up so they don't hear me. You got my [GPS] position, so get here!" the deputy replied.
"Here" was more than three miles from the Vija Truck Stop on I-8 and more than four miles to Double Gates Road (from where Puroll had driven into the desert).
Afterward, Pinal County Chief Deputy Steve Henry insisted to the news media that Puroll's would-be killers could have escaped in a "nearby" vehicle before law enforcement began to arrive en masse.
But it takes an average person 15 to 20 minutes to walk a mile, even without having to carry a heavy backpack up and down mountainous terrain.
GPS calculations by the Phoenix New Times show that the distance south from the shooting site to the closest dirt road passable by car (near the deputy's vehicle) is about three miles, which would take at least 45 minutes to travel on foot. It would have taken the smugglers about another 15 minutes by vehicle over the treacherous dirt road to I-8. The escape to the interstate within 30 minutes of the "I've been hit!" call would have taken about an hour.