Every once in a while, the illusions that allow us to keep it all in motion fall away a bit—and on the other side is pure horror.
It happened in far west Phoenix in August 1991, when two teenagers executed nine people at the Wat Promkunaram Buddhist Temple, calmly walking in a circle around an assemblage of six monks, an elderly nun, a young acolyte and a temple visitor, pressing the muzzle of a .22 rifle against each head, and pulling the trigger.
Almost 20 years later, we still don't know why.
Writer and lawyer Gary Stuart's masterwork Innocent Until Interrogated: The True Story of the Buddhist Temple Massacre and the Tucson Four is the first book-length treatment of Arizona's worst mass murder, out now from the University of Arizona Press. He spent years immersed in the details of the crime: He listened to recordings of nearly every police interview; he read the trial transcripts; he interviewed everyone involved (with two glaring exceptions). And still, he doesn't know why.
It is likely that not even the murderers, Johnathan Doody and Alessandro "Alex" Garcia, could say why they did it. They said at the time that they went to the temple that night to commit their first burglary, or to play war games, or both. They had decided beforehand to leave no witnesses—and they left none. Then they drove down to a dry wash and split up less than $3,000 between them, and went about the business of being American teenagers again. For Alex Garcia, that included falling in love with 14-year-old Michelle Hoover. He couldn't convince her to have sex with him, but it didn't take much to get her to steal her dad's gun and shoot camper Alice Cameron in the back at a north Phoenix campground, just a few months after the temple killings.
Cameron would probably still be alive if not for the incompetence and tunnel vision of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, then under the direction of Sheriff Tom Agnos.
The investigation was flailing until leads No. 510 and 511 came in on the same day, about a month after the massacre. Lead 511 was about a .22 rifle similar to the one used in the temple murders being confiscated from two teenagers at Luke Air Force Base. As we know now, had investigators followed 511, it would have led them straight to Doody and Garcia. But deputies were already too hopped up on lead 510 to notice. Lead 510, which deputies would follow doggedly, blindly, over the next year or so, was a phone call from Michael Lawrence McGraw, a 25-year-old mental patient known in his South Tucson neighborhood as "Crazy Mike."
Thus began the interrogation of "The Tucson Four." Crazy Mike, for reasons still unknown, confessed to being at the temple that night, and implicated four of his "friends" from South Tucson, none of whom had anything to do with the crimes. But, as Stuart shows in his carefully researched and brilliantly reasoned page-turner, coercive—and illegal—interrogation techniques, mental exhaustion and basic human psychology made all four men confess to the horrific murders. Moreover, deputies got a mentally fragile Vietnam veteran to cop to killing Cameron.
Later, everybody would recant; investigators would be forced to look elsewhere; and Doody and Garcia would be brought to justice. But not in time to save Cameron.
Hoover spent just 15 years in prison for shooting Cameron; she's been out since 2008.
The fallout from those illegal interrogations and false confessions continues. In February, the 9th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Doody's convictions, saying that his interrogation was illegal, coercive and unfair. It is possible that he may yet walk free. Then there's a final twist: The botched investigation swept Agnos out of office. His replacement? Reformer Joe Arpaio, who promised a new era of professionalism for the sheriff's office.
Stuart's is one of the most unsettling works of true crime I've read, and it is a worthy addition to the UA Press' already impressive contributions to an often unworthy genre. He quotes from the recordings of the Tucson Four interrogations and those of Doody and Garcia, putting the reader right in that tiny room, tag-teamed by officers convinced of nothing but their suspects' undeniable guilt. It is truly terrifying reading, and it says nearly all there is to say about the shameful events of 1991.
Except, of course, why.