Tucson musician Miguel Carter and his two brothers don't understand how their 65-year old mother was convicted of two felonies, but they're hoping and praying for justice through an appeal.
There's a slice of desert off state Highway 79 heading from Catalina toward Florence that surely must be God's country—it's thick with cholla holding up the sky along with saguaros and clusters of paloverde and mesquite trees, defying the East Coast mythology that our world is dry and brown.
It's easy to understand why someone like Pamela Jacqueline Williams bought property there, where the Milky Way still illuminates the night sky.
J. Miguel Carter says his 65-year-old mother purchased her property more than 15 years ago. She was semiretired after raising three boys on her own and wanted to find a little peace out in the desert. However, the past eight years haven't been very idyllic. Carter says his mother has had to deal with steady harassment from neighbors along with vandalism of her wells and the theft of property and gasoline from her truck.
Carter and his brothers contend that the Pinal County Sheriff's Office had been aware of Williams' harassment complaints for a long time but chose to ignore her, going so far as to characterize her as "a crazy old lady who complained all the time."
As we pull up to his mother's driveway, Carter points out the spot where Williams was arrested by Pinal County sheriff's deputies the night of Jan. 4, 2013, and where he found her tooth, knocked out during her arrest.
That night, Carter was talking to his mother on the phone, something he did almost every night. Carter says he needed to make sure she was OK because it seemed like the harassment was getting worse.
During their conversation, his mother complained to him that her dogs were barking and that she thought she heard noises outside. He told her to call the police before doing anything else. But he didn't hear from his mother again until she called him collect the next day from the county jail. She'd been arrested on suspicion of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated assault involving a law enforcement officer.
Williams, who was denied bail, would remain in jail for 230 days while awaiting trial. On Nov. 1, 2013, she was found guilty of two felony counts of aggravated assault and of marijuana use and was sentenced a month later by visiting Judge Boyd T. Johnson to two concurrent, 7 1/2 year prison terms (she was given credit for the 230 days served prior to sentencing).
Williams is now in the Arizona Department of Corrections' women's facility in Goodyear.
"We just want her back," Carter says. "It kills me thinking of her in there."
With a full moon still weeks away, it was pitch dark that January night when Williams stepped outside about 6:30 p.m. to investigate the noises she had told her son about. According to Carter, a witness living nearby and court documents, Williams was armed with her .22 pistol, certain that her neighbor's son was on her property after an altercation earlier that evening, and dozens of other altercations over the years. She walked to a wall on her property and stood near her chicken coop. From there, she saw what she believed was a group of several men, although all she could see was a flashlight beam.
In response to what she thought were trespassers, Williams fired what she described as warning shots into the ground. But the person holding a flashlight was a sheriff's deputy and his report contradicts Williams' statements.
In a report filed four days after the incident, a deputy wrote that he went to Williams' neighbors' house in response to a call that Williams had threatened their son. While talking to the neighbors, the deputy heard two gunshots coming from Williams' house on Shooting Star Road.
The deputy went to Williams' house, where he found her lying facedown in the driveway, her hands cuffed behind her back by a deputy who had arrived at her house earlier. That deputy was helping Williams get to her feet when she reportedly said, "I shot at the ground."
The deputy who first responded to Williams' house wrote that the entrance to the driveway was chained off, so he left his patrol car and walked up the long gravel driveway toward the house.
"I yelled 'Sheriff's Office.' I did not hear a response," the deputy wrote.
The deputy wrote that he continued to walk up the driveway and yelled "Sheriff's Office" twice more before he claimed he heard Williams say something that he didn't understand. As he stood behind some trees, he heard two shots and saw muzzle flashes from what he thought was a handgun. He reported the shots to Dispatch and ran to his patrol car to get his rifle. When he returned to the driveway he saw Williams, unarmed, walking toward him.
"I commanded her to get down to the ground facedown," the deputy reported. "She complied and stated, 'Why am I being arrested? I shot down.' I placed her in handcuffs behind her back. ... She again stated, 'I shot down.'"
Since his mother's arrest, Carter says he sometimes feels overwhelming guilt when thinking about her sitting in prison, and when recalling the times in the past few years that he wanted her to move from her Pinal County home.
"The question is, did she fire on the cops knowing they were cops," Carter says.
He doesn't believe his mother knew the man with a flashlight was a deputy. He believes his mother thought intruders, possibly her neighbors, were trespassing on her property and that she fired two warning shots to scare them off.
"It was the reason she had guns, for protection," he says. "She didn't feel safe."
Four days after Williams was taken into custody, the Pinal County Sheriff's Office issued a press release that mirrored the deputies' reports that they had responded to a harassment call "by one neighbor against another neighbor."
"While driving to the scene, information was updated by the reporting party indicating the neighbor had threatened to kill him. There have been ongoing civil disputes between these same parties in the past."
The press release states deputies found a pistol grip and pump action shotgun on Williams' bed. "They could also smell the odor of marijuana and later observed it inside the bedroom. Outside of the residence, they observed a .22 caliber pistol on top of a shed in front of the residence. The pistol was the one used to fire at the deputy by Williams." The Sheriff's Office declared that the weapon must have misfired after the second shot because "the casing was wedged in the ejection port."
In the sheriff's press release, the person who called 911 that evening was identified as 53-year-old Bruce Fay, a neighbor of Williams who happened to have an "assault/domestic violence warrant" still outstanding for his arrest.
"As deputies attempted to take him into custody for the warrant, he attempted to run away and then when caught he resisted arrest. Eventually, he was taken into custody ... and booked into the Pinal County Adult Detention Center."
The press release included a statement from Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu: "Deputies are our first responders to emergencies when citizens call 9-1-1 for help. We are thankful our deputy was able to go home that night and he was not hit by one of the bullets fired by Pamela Williams. We also appreciate the fact that Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles and his chief deputy responded to the scene to assist with the investigation and also followed this case through her initial court appearance to make sure Williams was held on a No Bond Status."
That, Carter says, is when the case became a parody of justice. He notes that Fay was released shortly after being taken into custody while his mother, a 65-year-old woman without a criminal record who had dedicated her life to helping others, was still sitting in jail, considered a high-risk and dangerous inmate.
A grand jury determined there was enough evidence to bring criminal charges against Williams and to prevent her from being released. She was assigned a public defender and an investigator was approved to help her with her case.
"They never left her out on bond," Carter says. "For 35 years she worked for different organizations in Tucson—Primavera, Chicanos Por La Causa, a rape crisis center and with addicts. She cares about animals and she cares about people, and here she is, after defending her property, after being scared out of her mind ..."
Carter stops talking. We're driving back to Tucson through that beautiful desert. He pulls an envelope from his pocket that's stuffed with photos from his mother's house that he wants to send to her. They include pictures of his daughter and of the grandparents who helped care for him. There's also a photo of Carter with his brothers, Diego and Jade, taken long ago, with youthful smiles spread across their faces.
Patrick Cote, an investigator from Casa Grande hired to work with Williams' defense attorney, told the Tucson Weekly that he went to Williams' house to have a look around and to try to reconstruct exactly what happened the night Williams was arrested.
Witnesses told Cote that they did not hear sirens that night. Cote also said that the wall around her property makes it difficult to see who is walking up the driveway.
Cote was in law enforcement for more than 30 years, including a stint with the Pinal County Sheriff's Office. He figures that over time, the deputies decided Williams was a nut and stopped taking her seriously, which made him think of another incident at Williams' property, on Dec. 17, 2012.
Details of that incident are outlined in a presentence report by Pinal County probation officer Deborah Gaines for Williams' Dec. 2, 2013, sentencing. The incident involved an Oro Valley real estate agent and her client who accidently drove onto Williams' property after getting lost. Williams came out of her house carrying what looked to them like an assault rifle and fired two shots into the ground.
"They believed the woman was warning them, so they did not report it until the next day ... they only wanted the sheriff's department to be aware of the incident," the report stated.
The deputy who talked to the agent and her client went to Williams' neighborhood. A neighbor reportedly described Williams to the officer as "a little out there," and that Williams had shot a neighbor's dog. When the officer was close to Williams' house he saw her leave in her truck and stopped her to talk about the incident.
"Pamela told the deputy she was having problems with some 'tweakers,' who were trying to steal from her, and she fired two shots into the ground to scare them away after they came onto her property," Gaines' report stated.
"He reminded her that she cannot fire warning shots arbitrarily without justification. Pamela told (the deputy) that she understood, and she apologized to the real estate agent and her client. Pamela agreed that the best course of action would be to contact the sheriff's office in the future."
That details of that incident ended up in the evidence presented to the grand jury and to the judge in Williams' sentencing. But Cote says if that incident was so serious, why wasn't Williams arrested then? Cote also says evidence he uncovered proves that Williams didn't fire at deputies.
"She was protecting her property," he says. "I agree that if someone shoots at a deputy they should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, but that didn't happen here."
Cote says that although the deputy who stepped onto Williams' driveway claims he announced himself three times, a witness says he never heard the announcements. Cote said a re-enactment of the deputies' version of events showed that there was little to no visible muzzle flash and that when he dug in the area where Williams stood near the wall, he found projectiles in the ground.
"First, gun flash on a .22 is not very discernable," Cote says. "Then, we found red projectiles in the ground where she was standing and we found a shell casing nearby. Deputies never found those, but we dug until we found them exactly where she said she was standing."
A sheriff's press release claimed Williams kept changing her story, but Cote insists Williams was always consistent about what happened that night.
"In this case, though, the prosecutor decided that when you shoot in the ground or up in the air—as long as a deputy feels in fear of his life—it is aggravated assault," Cote says.
Cote says one problem during the trial is that he doesn't feel all the evidence was presented to the jury at Williams' trial. The projectiles and casing he found on Williams' property weren't allowed to be entered as evidence and other testimony was excluded. The veteran investigator says it seems as if the prosecutor, under the direction of a brand-new county attorney, wanted to win at all costs when maybe he "should have checked out the deputies' stories a little closer."
And the biggest—and saddest—story in this tiny part of God's country is that "an innocent woman was found guilty," Cote says.
Cote says that what happened on the night of Jan. 4 didn't occur in a vacuum. He says Williams had dealt with years of harassment, including someone vandalizing one of her wells. And there was an ongoing property dispute that the prosecutor never examined. Referring to cut fencing on Williams' property, Cote says, "It was cut after she was put in jail."
A few days after Williams was convicted, the Pinal County Attorney's Office issued a press release."
"The case began four days into newly elected Pinal County Attorney Lando Voyles' term, on January 4, 2013, when Pinal County Sheriff's Deputies responded to a dispute between neighbors," the press release said. "One of the neighbors was the defendant Pamela Williams. As one of the deputies approached the defendant's home to protect the peace of the community and to ensure the neighbor dispute did not escalate, he heard two gunshots and saw a muzzle flash of a gunshot from the property. The defendant only stopped firing because the gun jammed."
The Weekly contacted Voyles' office twice for comment on Williams' case and to request an interview. Spokesman Jim Knupp said there probably wasn't anything to be said that wasn't already in the press release, which said that Williams changed her story numerous times about where she fired and why she fired, and that she consumed marijuana before firing the shots.
The message that Williams' conviction sends is that "Pinal County cares about the safety of our sheriff's deputies and police officers who protect our Pinal families. Arizona deserves the protection of the law and law enforcement should not face the danger of gunshots when they walk up to investigate crimes or protect the peace of our communities," the release said.
Voyles is quoted in the release as saying, "If you believe you're entitled to the right to lawfully carry a gun in AZ, you're right. If you believe that you're entitled to protect yourself when faced with imminent serious physical injury, you're right. But, if you believe that you're entitled to shoot at a deputy or officer, you've got another thing coming! While we live in the West; this is not the Wild, Wild West."
The press release also quotes Sheriff Babeu. "This conviction underscores the change in prosecution of violent criminals in Pinal County. Law enforcement is very thankful for this more aggressive approach that guarantees stiff consequences when a criminal fights or shoots at a cop."
To Diego Carter, the oldest of Williams' three boys, the idea of his mother as a threat to the safety of a community is absurd; what was absurd was sitting in the courtroom watching the trial. His said his brother Miguel was not allowed in the court because he was considered a hostile witness after he kept walking out during the grand jury hearing. So Diego said he sat in the courtroom with just his 15-year-old son, being stared down by the arresting deputy while that deputy testified.
"It felt like I was in the middle of a high school brawl," he said.
When Williams' marijuana use was brought up, Diego says he was amazed at how it was portrayed to the jury, as though she was so high that she was out of control.
"Yet nothing was ever said about the trespassing or the harassment my mother had gone through. The fact that she had called the sheriff's department for help, but at some point they quit responding and quit answering her calls. The incidents had become so bad that having dogs wasn't even enough for my mom. She had to lock her truck in a cage because a locked gas cap wasn't enough to keep gas from being stolen out of the tank," Diego says.
His mom, he says, was a taxpayer who called for help, and then was treated like she was crazy.
In an assessment by the probation officer for the presentencing investigation, Williams doesn't come across as a crazy lady who was uncontrollable due to marijuana use. Instead, the assessment paints a picture of a woman who worked as caregiver before going to jail, and before that worked for several nonprofits in Tucson. She was a single mom who worked her way through school, with the only blemish on her record a misdemeanor conviction for driving under the influence more than 28 years ago. She has participated in Alcoholics Anonymous as a sponsor ever since.
The probation officer said that when interviewing Williams, she was cooperative and admitted that she smoked marijuana, usually in the evening to help her relax, but took no other drugs besides medication for depression.
"Ms. Williams has a low risk of reoffending, given her lack of a prior record, her age, her education, and her community ties; therefore, a minimum prison term is recommended. In addition, she will be prohibited from owning a gun in the future, unless she gets her gun rights restored after being released from prison," the report states.
The probation officer recommended five years on both charges to run concurrently, and 230 days' credit for the time she spent in jail.
"I wish they understood what a good person she is," Diego says. "She taught me all my morals and helped me raise my two children. I've never seen her do anything bad to anyone, but the way they portrayed her in court. ... I've never seen anything like it before. It was the fastest, most uncontested trial. ... I've lost all respect for the judicial system. Right now it feels like an industry."
Diego lives in Phoenix, where he works as a project supervisor for a luxury pool builder. Miguel Carter, a local musician, lives in Tucson with their youngest brother, Jade, who works as a machinist. The brothers are now raising money to put in their mother's prison commissary account and to hire an attorney to appeal her case.
Miguel, the frontman for the bands Helldriver and Great American Tragedy, held a fundraiser for his mother last month at Club Congress that brought in about $1,000. But he says more fundraisers will be needed for his mother's legal defense fund.
"That's all we want to do right now is get her out," he says. "She doesn't belong there."
Others agree, such as Steven Cohen who testified on Williams' behalf. He was living in a van on an adjacent property on the night of the Jan. 4 incident. He describes the neighborhood as unusually quiet, where almost every step of neighbors and pets can be heard among the cluster of houses.
"According to what (the deputy said) he hollered three times," Cohen told the Weekly as he stood outside Williams' house.
"I would have definitely heard it, but I didn't. ... If you ask me, Pamela was railroaded."
Williams' court documents include 15 letters asking for leniency in her sentencing. Three of them are from Williams' sons. There are also letters from her sons' childhood friends. They describe a woman who made them feel safe and welcome in her home and offered them respite when their own families couldn't. In his letter to the court, her son Jade describes his mother as the one who taught him right from wrong, and "how to be a positive member of society. ... She always does the right jobs, the jobs that help others. My mom took many of my friends in like they were her own, and looked after them. ... I miss my mom and want to hug her. Please."
On the morning of her sentencing, Williams wrote to the judge asking for leniency. "I pray to God that you will not give me more than five years regular time. ... I can't believe that my trial did not find me innocent. Never in a million years did I believe that a jury of my peers would find me guilty beyond a doubt."
As Miguel Carter and I drive back to Tucson after visiting his mother's house, we approach a road that marks the Pinal County line and he points to a stretch of desert on the other side of the road. That's Pima County, he says, where his mother once thought of moving to. "I wish she did. I don't think this ever would have happened in Pima County. I think someone would have listened to her. I think she would have been safe. When she gets out I won't let her move back here. She's never coming back to Pinal County."