On April 22, the day he fell 35 feet from a rugged mountain, Dave Christensen carried a secret for the U.S. Department of Justice.
Some believe the former Irvine city councilman's death in Pine, Arizona, was no accident, but they have nothing more than hunches. Hikers heard a scream and later found Christensen with a broken arm, broken leg and internal wounds, barely alive. According to a local newspaper, he died before a rescue helicopter could reach him.
This much is sure, however: at the time of his death, Christensen was scheduled to be a key government witness in an upcoming federal extortion case. His role in their investigation has been masked by federal prosecutors, who referred to him publicly as "Employee #3," according to court records obtained by the Weekly.
The case involves a cast and plot that could have been lifted from an Elmore Leonard novel. There's Bobby Glenn Sutton Jr., the once popular mayor of Marana, an Arizona town of 20,000 on Interstate 10 northwest of Tucson. Sutton makes a living selling phone book ads, sometimes allegedly to companies seeking city business. There's the mayor's best friend, trash hauler Richard Arthur Westfall. Prosecutors say Westfall wanted a $60,000-per-month cut of the city's trash contract. There's the ubiquitous Waste Management Inc., a mammoth company with a roster full of tough guys determined to play the victim in the extortion saga.
And then there's Dave Christensen himself, a Waste Management corporate security manager who adopted an alias and went undercover for the FBI. Sutton and Westfall knew Christensen only as Steven Jones.
Christensen's ties to Waste Management weren't new. He lost his Irvine City Council seat in 2000 in part because of his cozy relationship with companies doing business with the city, including Waste Management. In 1997, he crafted a deal that gave the firm a $50 million, 10-year city contract without seeking competitive bids. The company responded enthusiastically, giving Christensen campaign contributions, paying dining bills and helping sponsor his car-racing habit.
So it's no surprise that Waste Management would hire Christensen when he lost his council seat and moved out of state. In his Payson, Arizona, funeral home obit, there was only a hint of his espionage experience and no mention of the trash company or the federal extortion case. It simply read, "He was a former Chicago police officer and lifetime corporate private investigator." Oddly, his stint on the Irvine City Council was also missing despite at least one major accomplishment: in 2000, he angered then-Mayor Larry Agran by predicting (correctly, as it turns out) that city taxpayers would someday foot Orange County Great Park bills.
By early 2002, Christensen found himself working for Waste Management in Marana. From January through May of that year, Sutton and Westfall met with him, unaware that he was using an alias. Nor did the pair know that federal agents had equipped Christensen with a wire to record conversations at, for example, the Timber Lodge Steak House or the Omni Tucson National Golf Resort.
According to a federal grand jury, Sutton threatened to use his power as mayor to shut down a waste transfer station, a move that could have cost Waste Management $30,000 per day in income—unless the company paid Westfall $60,000 per month. If that wasn't enough incentive, prosecutors say Sutton and Westfall threatened to go public with claims the company hauled more than 3,000 overweight loads per year through the Marana station.
"If nothing else, you gagging him [Westfall] helps your company tremendously," Sutton said to Waste Management executives in a recorded conversation. "I don't know if you, if you're really graspin' that."
According to the indictment, two unnamed Waste Management employees also informing for the FBI—known only as Employee #1 and Employee #2—were tough on the pair. At one point, Westfall was allegedly willing to accept $15,000 a month plus a vehicle allowance. Later, the amount dropped to $9,500 a month; no mention of the car.
The closer on the deal was Employee #3, Dave Christensen, the man Sutton and Westfall knew as Steven Jones.
On April 5, 2004, Christensen convinced Sutton that Waste Management had accepted his terms. A transcript provided by federal officials shows the mayor telling Christensen to deposit money in Westfall's Bank One account.
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"Okay," Christensen said. "Sounds good. I will, uh, get on that right now. I'm gonna, uh, call the people that I need to call to make this happen, and, um, um, you can tell [Westfall] he should be looking for some money in his bank today."
Seventeen days later, FBI and IRS agents arrested Sutton and Westfall for extortion. The men have pleaded not guilty.
Relying exclusively on a city of Irvine press release, an obituary in the April 25 Orange County Register said the 60-year-old former Irvine city councilman had "died over the weekend in a hiking accident in Arizona." The paper then noted Christensen's interests (auto racing, redevelopment and criminal justice), skipped the last six years of his life and concluded, "No further details were available on his death."