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Puroll continued, "When I saw him, I had dropped my cell phone and my GPS to the ground and grabbed my rifle, which was slung in front of me, and began to bring it up. Before I could get it up to shoot, his first round struck me in the side. I felt it. It felt like being popped with a wet towel. . . . I knew I'd been hit, and I knew if I went down or stopped shooting, there was a good chance I was gonna be killed."
Puroll said he fired at his assailant and saw him fall to the ground: "He immediately went out of my sight. I never saw him again. . . . No one spoke a word."
The deputy said, "Before I could do anything else, I started taking fire from my right; a rifle and a pistol began firing off to my right, as close or closer to me than [the first shooter] was. Everything occurred within a 25- to 30-yard circle, at most."
Puroll said he dropped to the ground, as more rounds whizzed over his head. He said he emptied his rifle while he was sitting there, and then laid that weapon on the ground and drew his pistol.
(Detective Nelson speculates that the smugglers may have had "brass catchers" on the end of their AK-47s to snare the used shell casings, which would keep their DNA from discovery—and would account for the paucity of AK-47 shell casings. But Luke Haag, technical director of the Phoenix Police Department's crime lab for 17 years before retiring, says, "I have yet to be aware of a crime scene in my 45 years in the business in which a brass catcher was used. And getting DNA off fired cartridges is virtually impossible. It sounds like . . . this is scrambling for an explanation.")
During the firefight, Puroll said, he took a fresh M-16 ammunition magazine out of his pocket with his left hand and reloaded the rifle. "At this time, my pistol went empty. I laid it on the ground and picked my rifle back up. . . . Everybody quit shooting at this point."
Puroll said he took the opportunity to reload his Glock, "and I thought I put the pistol back in the holster. I picked up my rifle. I picked up the cell phone that was on the ground and put it in my shirt pocket. Grabbed my pack—my pack has water in it and my survival gear. I knew I had to get out of there before they could pinpoint just where I was."
The deputy's statement about the backpack raises questions about how, when, where and, specifically, why Puroll took it off his back.
Was he carrying it for some reason when he crested the hill (along with his phone and possibly his GPS unit)? Says Weaver Barkman, the former homicide detective, "Carrying a pack into a situation like he has described is out of the realm of reality. And the likelihood of him taking off when he's being fired at and he's trying to save his life? Improbable."
Asked about the backpack, which later showed no sign of damage from gunfire, Hausman says, "I honestly don't know how to answer that."
Puroll described how shots continued to sail over his head as he retreated about 50 yards and moved off the dirt trail.
It was only then, the deputy insisted, that he made his "I've been hit!" call to dispatch.
(Cell-phone records and dispatch recordings refute that. They show that Puroll called at 4:04 p.m. from the spot where he emptied his M-16 and Glock. The spot is precisely where he dropped the Glock and the GPS unit, not more than 50 yards back.)
Shortly before the helicopter picked him up, Puroll recalled, he heard in the distance "four distinct pistol shots. Boom, boom, boom, boom. And I remember thinking, 'Gunmen are shooting the guys carrying the backpacks. They don't want anybody to identify them.'
"That just flashed in my head. Or the guy that I had shot was wounded bad, and he was a liability and a burden to them."
Investigators found no signs of blood at the shooting scene and recovered no bodies from the area.
Hausman had but one question of the deputy at the end of the interview—about the first shooter's intent.
"He was intending to kill me," Puroll replied.
Messing is standing on a dirt road in the Vekol Valley, a few yards from where Puroll parked his SUV on April 30.
At dawn, Messing and a county SWAT team, along with case investigators Hausman and Nelson, had led a Phoenix New Times reporter to the shooting site near Antelope Peak.
Everyone but the sergeant and the reporter left the area after returning to the Vija Truck Stop a few hours later.
Messing tries to explain himself and his role in this complicated and significant case.
"I wonder," he says, "did [the alleged smugglers] hear me on the phone when I was speaking with Louie? Did I screw up? It kind of eats you up."
The sergeant says he did not write a police report of his role as a possible "ear-witness" to the shooting because no one asked him to. And he notes that criminal investigators didn't interview him until almost three months after the incident.