IT COULD HAVE happened any time between yesterday and the 1860s. But it happened two years ago, in Why, Arizona.
There's nothing much to look at in Why. It's not a town so much as a wide spot on the two-lane blacktop that eventually bends northwest and runs through the slowly desiccating corpse of the former mining community of Ajo.
Or, if you're heading south, Why is nearly the last, tired gasp of shabby Americana on your way to the Mexican border. It's a ramshackle nowheresville -- a saloon, a couple of cafés, a gas station, some trailers and a few ratty houses -- hunkered down amid several thousand square miles of rocks, cacti and dust.
In short, Why, Arizona, suited David Bruce Peckham just fine.
Peckham, now 58, is one of those compact, sun-baked guys who looks as tough as a banty rooster, and who's every bit as fearless.
What you notice first about the man is his steady, gunslinger's gaze. (OK, so it's actually not a gunslinger's gaze at all, but probably comes from his years as a professional photographer, a business from which he's since retired.)
As he talks, you begin to understand that he lives the way he does -- all by himself in a dinky recreational vehicle, preferably in the middle of nowhere -- not because he's got a chip on his shoulder, or because he generally hates people, or because he's some weird conspiracy nut. Peckham, a U.S. Navy veteran, is not about any of that.
It's just that he understands that to live well and free a man should have the discipline to keep his wants simple and his needs to a bare minimum. And so he hightailed it out of the Midwest decades ago to embrace the wide-open life of an RV drifter and part-time solar-heating entrepreneur, paradoxically seeking in stark simplicity the royal road to a full and meaningful existence.
"It's a damn fine life," he says. "And I wouldn't trade it for anything."
Although he'd snort derisively at the characterization, Peckham is a bit of the grassroots American sage, having found plenty of time to read and cogitate during his endless string of TV-free nights in the boonies. He's what you might call a modern-day mendicant with don't-tread-on-me overtones.
And when our story opens, on Monday, March 10, 1997, he's happily holed up at Coyote Howls RV Park, in Why, Arizona, one of the last, lonely outposts of the Old West -- or the new, for that matter.
PIMA COUNTY SHERIFF'S records indicate that at about 8 p.m. Anna Denning calls dispatch to say her estranged husband, Lloyd, 36, has been bothering her again.
Anna, 45, has already taken out an order of protection against him, but Lloyd Denning, a big man with an even bigger reputation as Why's homegrown tough guy, apparently doesn't put much stock in mere legalities. He once beat the snot out of a fully armed Pima County sheriff's deputy nicknamed Ticket Bob. But that's another story.
For the record, Denning has politely but firmly declined to discuss his legendary tangle with Ticket Bob. Nor will he discuss his role in the series of misadventures that are about to unfold on this fateful night, other than to state, somewhat ambiguously: "I have all the sympathy in the world for him (Peckham). But the man put my eye out, and I still think he should have gone to prison."
These days Anna maintains that Ticket Bob probably had it coming, because he'd been needlessly harassing Lloyd. Furthermore, she says, Lloyd isn't as mean as his reputation.
"The cops are all afraid of him, a lot of people are afraid of him. And he uses that to keep people away from him. But Lloyd, all in all, is not really that bad of a guy," she says now.
That's more than generous on her part. Denning's rap sheet is fairly extensive for a small-town boy, and includes allegations of intimidation, threats with firearms and generally loutish behavior toward kin and non-kin alike.
According to Pima County Superior Court records: "Local law enforcement officers report [Denning] has a violent temper and believe him to be potentially dangerous. They take extra precautions any time they deal with him. They believe [his] family has protected him from the consequences of his behavior for years, out of loyalty and fear."
Lloyd and Anna's marriage, which began in 1992 after a "whirlwind romance," was full of boozing and mental abuse, she says. Lloyd was always out with his pals, she recalls, adding that he thought nothing of dragging his drinking buddies home, occasionally inviting some of them to live in her mobile home while these guys got over a run of hard luck or whatever.
"It got real old after awhile," Anna says. She left him several times, but always came back to the trailer home she owned on five acres just off the highway to Mexico. It was her property, and she was having trouble figuring out how to get Lloyd to leave.
"At one point we tried to reconcile our marriage," she says. "We put in a swimming pool. Well, things went from bad to worse. His ego just shot through the roof once I got a pool. Then he could have parties for all his buddies, and they were always there, you know. So, it was like, this isn't working out the way I thought. This guy is never gonna leave now that we've got the pool."
She says she left Lloyd -- for the last time -- one night after he pulled a .22 pistol from under their bed and started waving it around, accusing her of all sorts of bogus crap, and finally putting a bullet through the bedroom door.
That night, she says, was the final straw. "I knew that I would never leave unless I broke a trust thing. So I had an affair.... You know, you get accused of stuff over and over, and pretty soon you feel like going out and doing it for real."
So she fled her home and promptly began a short-lived fling with a local hombre, who shall remain nameless. Suffice it to say the man in question was definitely not David Peckham.
At any rate, on this chilly March evening Anna tells the sheriff's dispatcher that Lloyd spotted her at the Outback Saloon, called her a whore and a slut, and followed her outside into the parking lot. When she got in her truck and drove off, he followed in his van, chasing her down the road, eventually running her off into a ditch. She sat there awhile, with the doors locked and the windows rolled up, while Lloyd raged and fumed and stomped around. After a while, he gave up and left. Anna drove to a female friend's house, where she called the S.O.
The dispatcher tells her everybody's out on official police business at the moment, and it might be a couple of hours before a deputy can take her complaint. Anna says she and a friend have to get up before dawn to go clean the Native American casino down the road, and she doesn't want to wait. She says she'll drop by the station the next day to fill out the paperwork.
Anna doesn't want to endanger her friend by staying there for the night -- Lloyd's likely to come by looking for her, she calculates -- so, lacking a plan, she heads back to the saloon.
She finds Peckham sitting at the bar, jawboning with his buddy Ray, the barkeep.
Anna tells them her troubles. She recalls, "David says, 'Hey listen, you're just agitating the situation drinking at the bar. If you want to talk and have a beer, come over to my place.' "
Coyote Howls is a big park, with no electricity. So it's dark and hard to find your way around on the dusty, curving roads. This early spring night it's full of snowbirds enjoying the good life in hundreds of RVs. [Most have since deserted the place in protest of what they see as Pima County's onerous new stadium tax.] Lloyd doesn't know Peckham that well, doesn't know where he lives, and would find it difficult to look for her there, Anna theorizes.
"David seemed like a really nice guy," she recalls. "I stayed over there a few times. Went there and slept in my sweats. He never tried to bother me."
Anna, since divorced, lives in Tucson now. It galls her to think that tongues have been wagging in Why ever since "the incident," whispering that she and Peckham were in his RV "making out" when all hell broke loose.
"No way," says Peckham of the rumors of hot and heavy romancing going on at Coyote Howls that fateful night. "I wasn't attracted to her, and we never had anything going between us. She needed somebody to talk to. I was a good shoulder to cry on."
Besides, Peckham confesses, he's had several heart attacks since 1963 and he's popping nitroglycerin pills and doing his best to stay calm, cool and collected. The slightest physical or emotional jolt, negative or positive, and his dangerously faulty ticker could flatline him quicker than your average Peterbuilt pulverizes a polecat.
Anna gets to Peckham's about 9:30 p.m. "And we talk," he says. "She's drinking. I'm not. So then about 11 p.m., we're still sitting in my RV. We're at my dining room table, I'm facing the door and her back is to the door, which is open; the screen is shut. I see this figure coming around the corner, approaching my door."
Yep, it's Lloyd.
"I'm her husband," Lloyd says.
Anna doesn't say anything, her eyes wide as pickup headlights.
Peckham says to Lloyd, "You're not welcome here. Get off my property."
Lloyd reportedly says, "I been here over 20 years and I can go any goddamn place I want." He opens the screen door.
Only a fool would sit in a tin can in the dead of night in the middle of nowhere with the estranged wife of a certifiably violent man without first taking certain precautions. And Peckham's no fool.
Lloyd maybe gets one foot in the door, and Peckham has already pulled a 9-mm pistol from out of nowhere.
The rest happens just as fast.
The pistol goes off accidentally, tearing a hole through Peckham's brand new 8-foot RV awning outside. ("That pisses me off every time I look at it," Peckham says in retrospect.)
Peckham smacks Lloyd across the face with the pistol, and the two men tumble outside into the darkness to continue the fight.
"And they're like 20 foot out there," Anna says. "And I'm like, holy shit, I think I need another beer."
Says Peckham, "I beat him. I hit him. We fight for a few seconds -- 10, 15, 20, I don't know. Finally Lloyd says, 'I'm outta here,' and leaves. I go back inside, and Anna's all distraught and crying. She decides she wants to leave."
Says Anna, "So David comes back in and he's got like blood all over his shirt. And I'm like, oh my God, you know? And I say, David, David, he'll be back. I know him. And he says, 'No, the safest place for you is right here.' And I say, David, he'll be back."
Sure enough, three minutes later and Lloyd's back. He's yelling something incomprehensible.
"It's dark as hell, and there's no moon at all," Peckham says. "I go out the other side of the trailer and I see a form. I tell him, I says, 'Boy, I'm gonna shoot your ass this time.' He says, 'You hurt me, and I want Anna to take me to the hospital. She hollers back, 'Lloyd, I'm not taking you anywhere. Get away from me.' "
Lloyd Denning stumbles off into the darkness.
Anna remembers that part differently. She says Peckham went outside with a flashlight.
"I guess that's when David saw how bad he was. Lloyd's eye was pretty bad. David comes back in, and I think he's scared now. And he says, 'Yes, I think you're right. I think you should go somewhere else.' "
They plan it out. Anna takes the back route out of Coyote Howls as Peckham stands lookout to make sure Lloyd is gone. Anna goes to stay at her girlfriend's, while Peckham goes back to his RV.
Which pretty much sums up the shootout, such as it was, at Coyote Howls -- just another manly, brutal brouhaha in the pointlessly violent Old West tradition of a thousand dusty and mostly forgotten frontier outposts. Right, pardner?
WELL, NOT HARDLY. It's the 1990s, not the 1890s, after all. And in these sorry-ass fin de siécle sissy times there are far more meddling officials with their nit-picky procedures and bureaucratic agendas to needlessly complicate the primal human squalor that produced some of Arizona's finest Old West legends, petrified bullshit though they may be.
So instead of a tough, quick-witted loner defending, at great physical odds, a helpless damsel...instead of a lightning-fast gunslinger fighting off a dangerous intruder and trespasser nearly twice his size with fists and steel, end of story...
...We get (sigh) the following:
Back in his RV, Peckham is lying down, sucking prescription oxygen and popping nitro, trying desperately to calm his potentially fatal ticker. The only thing that'll do it for him at this critical juncture, he swears, is a hit of good, old-fashioned pot.
It just so happens Peckham has a pound of the forbidden weed in his RV this night.
"It's strictly for medicinal purposes," he says. "It really works great with the nitro. And when you buy a whole pound it's a helluva lot cheaper than an ounce or two."
Hey, we'll take our shopping tips wherever we can get 'em. And anyway, who are we to judge? The voters of Arizona, in their august wisdom, not all that long ago legalized doctor-prescribed marijuana. Never mind that the meddling feds with their nit-picky procedures and bureaucratic agendas subsequently raised enough holier-than-thou hell to bully the craven state Legislature into rescinding the will of its own voters.
Besides, Peckham is nowhere near a VA doctor this night, and it's a life-or-death emergency, for chrissakes.
The pot and the oxygen and the nitro work their magic. "I'm just about down to where I can control myself pretty good," he says...
...When suddenly Peckham's homey little hobbit on wheels lights up "like nuke blast." It seems as though the Pima County Sheriff's entire crack Ajo Division, Barney Fife Contingent, is outside and wants a word with our, uh, hero.
"Seven cops, guns drawn, are flashing lights in my eyes," he recalls. "And they say, 'Mr. Peckham, come out with your hands up, right now!'
"They grab me and throw me up against my truck, cuff me. I don't know what's going on. Then they ask me what happened here tonight. This is two hours after this whole thing happened -- it's taken them that long to creep up on my trailer. Some of these guys are wearing night-vision goggles. So I tell them, Lloyd Denning came over here and threatened me and Anna, and I kicked his ass.
"They say, 'Did you use a weapon?' No I didn't use a weapon -- what difference does it make? They say, 'Based on Lloyd Denning's story, you are under arrest for aggravated assault.' "
APPARENTLY, WHEN LLOYD leaves Peckham's place for the second time, he staggers down the road to a neighbor's lighted RV and pounds on the door. That guy takes him down to the Coyote Howls office, and folks there call 911.
The dispatcher sends an ambulance and a sheriff's deputy, because, Peckham theorizes, "Lloyd tells them that for no reason whatsoever I leaped out my RV, beat him in the head, grabbed him by the hair and fired three rounds at him and hit him."
When the deputy and the meds people get there, they all notice the strong odor of alcohol on Lloyd's breath.
"There's no evidence of a gunshot wound. No powder burns. But that doesn't mean a thing to them," Peckham says. "They totally ignore that."
End result: Lloyd gets choppered off to Maricopa Medical Center in Phoenix. Meanwhile, Peckham -- who's never been suspected of, accused of, charged with, or arrested for even the slightest misdemeanor in his 56 years, and who's the only man ever to stand up to Why's violent town bully -- gets tossed in the brig.
As Cicero -- the guy, not the town -- once lamented: O tempora! O mores! Oh, and there's more crap to come.
In his civil lawsuit for unlawful arrest and detention as well as intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress, Peckham, in his quest for unspecified damages, is alleging the following against the Pima County Sheriff's Department, as well as the County Attorney's Office:
· Katherine Kimball, owner of the Outback Saloon, told investigators that Lloyd was drinking and aggressive that evening -- "his usual drunk self," as she so eloquently put it.
· Prior to Peckham's arrest that night, Anna told deputies Lloyd was drunk and aggressive and on Peckham's property to harass her. She also noted that she had an order of protection against Lloyd -- all factors the lawmen ignored, Peckham charges.
· While an investigator noted that Mona Bean, manager of Coyote Howls, informed him that Peckham might be heavily armed, Bean denies making such a statement to the deputy.
"I don't remember saying that at all," she recently told a reporter. In their official reports, deputies cite other unnamed "neighbors" as saying roughly the same. But Peckham says he suspects the deputies fabricated these "lies" after his arrest in order to justify their search warrant.
"Don't you think that 'reports from neighbors' and 'additional persons' would be documented with the names of the people giving that information?" he asks. "There are no names because no one made those statements to these corrupt deputies. The sheriff's deputies lied to the justice of the peace in order to obtain their illegal search warrant to enter my home and illegally confiscate my legal firearms."
As it turns out, Peckham did have a cache of weapons in his humble abode -- 19 to be exact. "Only 10 belonged to me," he says, "and two of those were hand-operated air guns." The rest he claims to have been holding for the relatives of a recently deceased neighbor.
· Peckham alleges a deputy told the magistrate that night that Lloyd was believed to have been the victim of a gunshot. Four hours earlier, however, records indicate a Maricopa Medical Center doctor told investigators there was no evidence of a gunshot wound. "So this was a blatant lie told to obtain the search warrant," Peckham says.
The subsequent search turned up not only the weapons, but also his medicinal marijuana stash, leading some Whyites, who don't know the man particularly well, to speculate that the friendly, well-read loner was into trading guns for pot with the Mexicans just across the border. It's talk Peckham angrily labels "outrageous slander."
Somehow, on the way from the Ajo hoosgow to the Pima County Hilton, another rumor got started: "A deputy told my jailers in Tucson that I was an ex-Special Forces 'Nam vet and that I should be handled accordingly," Peckham says.
Why's pained drifter, a proudly free man accustomed to going where he pleased when he pleased, was incarcerated, mostly in isolation, for more than three weeks.
"That will never happen to me again," Peckham says darkly. "They'll never take me alive."
AT THE CRIMINAL trial, the state's case against Peckham, fearless defender of women and foe of bullies, quickly fell apart.
Lloyd's own brother, Vern, testified on Peckham's behalf. The courtroom was packed with elderly snowbird supporters from Coyote Howls, many of whom Peckham had helped with repairs on their RVs or advice about solar heating and such. More than 70 of them had signed a petition pointing out that Lloyd was an aggressive drunk and a bully, and Peckham was a local hero for standing up to him.
Peckham was acquitted on the charge of aggravated assault causing serious physical injury. The jury hung 11 to one in his favor on the charge of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Six days before he was up for retrial on that charge, it was dismissed.
The judge gave Peckham unsupervised probation on the pot charge -- on the condition that he no longer reside in Why.
"Absolutely nothing good has come of any of this," Peckham says from exile in Pietown, New Mexico. "An innocent man was charged and persecuted; he was financially broken; his health has deteriorated; his reputation besmirched; his property was illegally seized; he was forced to move; his solar business was shut down. And a dangerous and violent man is still running loose."
With his civil case currently scheduled to go to court in the new year, maybe the shiny new century will be kinder to an old-fashioned hero like David Bruce Peckham.