Greek Tragedy

Two Angry People Collide

IN THE HILLS above the small Greek town of Dara, Georgios Delfakis spotted his cousins returning with their horses, just as they had many times. But on this day in 1958, it was different. The cousins were preparing to leave their craggy Peloponnesian village for hopes, dreams, and even the chance at some real money in North America--first Canada and then the States.

Georgios was in his usual ragged clothes. Unaware that his cousins had already seen him, Georgios raced into his house and emerged wearing his finest. He would have them believe that all along he had been suitably dressed for their send-off. It was his message, too, that he would soon follow triumphantly--that he would somehow, despite lacking their finesse and their skill, show them up in Montreal, Chicago, and eventually Tucson, where only a half mile would ultimately separate Georgios' and Andreas Delfakis' restaurants.

But Georgios also planned for a triumphant return. He would retire before 60, he thought, and enjoy the money he shipped back to Dara for the new house, new car and new life he would enjoy away from his Marathon Greek Restaurant and Lounge, which he operated, for years with his family and then for years simply alone, south of the University of Arizona at 1134 E. Sixth St.

This would not happen. He would be denied. The combination of a drugged-out street rat and his own anger left Georgios to return to Dara only in a box for his funeral.

"Why did you bring him to me like that?" his 85-year-old mother wailed about her favorite child, in the week that followed his June 5 death.

Georgios was good to his mother. His father died eight years ago and Georgios, besides saving money for himself, was generous to her. The modern house he built in Dara replaced her ancient one, and they both looked forward to the day he would sell the Marathon to the University of Arizona and come home.

This was a side that few, including the Greeks of Tucson, saw.

Instead, they saw a self-centered man who snarled out his words, who was not above smacking his kids in public and who cared for little except hunting and fishing, the dog track and piling up more money. He was in another world from that built by the Tucson Greeks' old-school ambassadors like Mary Gekas (the Palomino) or her equally gracious brother, James Sfarnas (the Saddle & Sirloin and later the Old Pueblo Club). He could not compete with his cousin, Andreas, the compact, good-looking and generous Zorba of North Fourth Avenue.

"He was his own person, no doubt about it," said Panayiotis Delfakis, the eldest of Georgios' three children. "He saw things through his Greek soul."

He succeeded by some measures, despite running a restaurant where the food was as inconsistent as the hours. In the later years, ignoring the posted lunch and dinner schedule, he simply opened and closed when he chose. He amassed at least a couple hundred thousand dollars for retirement, to which he wanted to add nearly $1 million when the UA would buy his less-than-prime real estate, which is valued for tax purposes at $132,000. The UA had offered him between $600,000 and $650,000. Take it, friends and relatives implored. "Ohi! (No!)," he declared. Not enough for Georgios Delfakis.

NOT FAR BEHIND his cousins, Delfakis arrived in Montreal in 1958. Six years later he married a non-Greek named Gisele. By 1970 they were scraping by in Chicago, trying to open a restaurant.

Gisele, whom Delfakis divorced a dozen years ago, remembers him working "three jobs at a time, restaurants and painting."

Three children came, too; following Panayiotis (Peter) were Catherine and Alexandre. Consumed with getting a hold on their American dream, Georgios and Gisele dispatched the three children to Dara to be raised by "yia yia," their grandmother. The kids were accustomed to running and roaming when they eventually were returned to their parents in Tucson.

Georgios and Gisele had followed relatives here after struggling unsuccessfully in Chicago. They set out again to establish a restaurant. Georgios scouted for properties to open what he considered to be the first full-service Greek restaurant in Tucson. His peculiar, decidedly un-American ideas sometimes created a clash.

For example, he made an offer on a little property two blocks west of where Marathon would wind up, but was rejected. After the savvy Ptolemeos Kotzambasis, an immigrant from northern Greece, made a successful bid for the same spot to launch his popular El Greco's, Delfakis burst in to Kotzambasis' restaurant not to extend the "kali tihi" (good luck) wishes that even Greek rivals traditionally offer, but to proclaim that Kotzambasis could not operate a restaurant there because he wasn't the first to make an offer. Kotzambasis was hardly deterred, but he eventually was forced to move because of UA encroachment.

Such outbursts aside, it was in those days of a less-congested, more laid-back Tucson that Delfakis found some comfort. His pleasure would manifest itself in ways not seen today.

Once, when starting a drive to Mount Lemmon with his cousin Andreas and several other Greeks, Delfakis was so moved by a Greek song playing from the car's 8-track that he ordered a stop at Speedway and Wilmot so the crew could get out and dance in the middle of the intersection. Those in what was then sparse traffic applauded.

The joy evaporated the next day with a minor tragedy that exposed Delfakis' bitterness and anger.

The same group was hunting for doves west of Tucson and decided to seek a rabbit or two before they headed home. But one of the rifles jammed. Incomprehensibly, Delfakis poked a fishing pole into the barrel as a hunting partner held the rifle with his finger obviously close to the trigger.

Bam. Delfakis' right index finger was blown off.

Andreas wrapped his cousin's hand and rushed him to University Medical Center. All along the way and in the hospital, Andreas heard Georgios' complaints.

"He did it on purpose," he barked. "He shot my hand on purpose because he is jealous that I am the better hunter."

A top surgeon repaired the hand, essentially converting the middle finger into the index finger. So good was the job that Delfakis never missed a hunting season. It was hard enough to detect that not even the pathologist who performed the autopsy on Delfakis on June 6 noted any abnormality of the hands.

"He loved the outdoors. That would set him free--hunting and fishing,'' son Alexandre said. "And he would eat what he caught or killed."

Peter and Alex, both trim and muscular, marveled at the way their dad would revel in the outdoors, how he would scale ridges and peaks with great speed. And everyone remembers how Delfakis, also fit and trim, would drink healthful juices he would prepare for himself.

Yet there was a time bomb inside him.

His anger made his blood pressure soar. And despite the health kick, his heart was working overtime to get blood through his clogged and narrowing arteries.

ANDREAS DELFAKIS, A talented builder and carpenter and already a pro from restaurants and clubs in Montreal, Chicago, New York, California and Nevada, helped establish his cousin in Marathon. He built the dining rooms and bar and set up his kitchen. Andreas and his wife also contributed recipes that Georgios would later declare "improved" with undisclosed "secret" ingredients.

Georgios' appreciation was odd. Andreas received no pay, but got what Georgios considered a loan to start a construction business. Georgios reasoned that he shouldn't have to pay his cousin because Andreas and his family stayed at his home for a month.

When Georgios got antsy about his $1,500 or so, he quickly availed himself of American justice, suing his cousin. Indeed, he became a regular litigant in Pima County Superior Court.

Despite a settlement with his cousin, Delfakis somehow felt cheated. And in the summer of 1985, he was accusing Andreas of concealing assets. On July 8, 1985, Delfakis' lawyers served papers at Andreas' house, disturbing his wife at 6:50 a.m. They demanded an appearance on August 15--one of the holiest days in the Greek Orthodox calendar, Panagia, the repose of the mother of God--for Andreas to show all sorts of material such as jewelry, insurance documents, car titles and lists of furniture.

Eleni Delfakis, since divorced from Andreas but still a partner in their Athens On Fourth Avenue restaurant, remembers taking it all in stride.

"This is what you get for getting involved with them," she recalls telling Andreas.

Yet when Delfakis died, Eleni joined Andreas without hesitation in hosting two lavish dinners for Georgios' family.

Andreas didn't complain, either. He also handled negotiations with the funeral home and, in an emergency trip to the Greek Consul in Los Angeles, ensured the shipment of his cousin's body to the village of Dara.

DIVORCED AND FOR long stretches alienated from his kids, Georgios Delfakis assumed a solitary life that for much of the year was enclosed within Marathon. He would open and close on whim. He would shut down for months at a time, erecting a chain link fence to close off his parking lot while he vacationed in Greece.

He scarcely had help in the restaurant. He cooked, he cleaned, he served and he took the money. The crowded menu prompts disbelief that all those items were available on any given day or night.

It is not out of the ordinary, then, that Delfakis shut down early on Monday, June 5. He made a stop at the dog track, but still headed to his rented home early.

Driving north on Euclid, Delfakis was cruising in his van where the street gets a little dark before the lights of Speedway.

Crash--a rock hit his windshield.

Delfakis spotted a young woman. Furious, he stopped abruptly, turned off the engine and gave chase. He was in a rage that some street trash would try to kill him with a rock. His rage built as she outraced him.

He was sweating. He was breathing hard. He was getting dizzy.

Passersby called 911 and police arrived shortly after 9 p.m. The young woman came to talk to the police and Delfakis, who now collapsed.

Paramedics arrived. They couldn't revive him. He was whisked to UMC. ER specialists could not revive him. The effort was great. Seven of his ribs were broken--normal for vigorous attempts to restore someone's life.

Eight minutes after 10, he was pronounced dead.

MICHELLE DAWN PIERSON, a 34-year-old drug abuser and former Arizona Department of Corrections prisoner, threw the stone.

"I'm sorry," she told police as she cried. "I'm very sorry. I wish there was something I could do to change what has happened."

She spat out that she was "stupid," "negligent," "irresponsible."

"I was hallucinating and stuff," she said. "I thought people were going to kill me. I freaked out.

"I know now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that I cannot handle drugs in any amount," she said in self-assessment.

Pierson, a divorced mother of two girls, was on methamphetamine when she smashed Delfakis' windshield and angered him to death.

But, she said, she wasn't aiming for him, but for some perceived attacker.

Pierson was taken to jail and booked on a charge of second-degree murder.

Andreas Delfakis, on his way back home from a wedding in New York, heard G. Gordon Liddy on his radio show saying that a woman in Tucson was being charged with second-degree murder after a man died of a heart attack when he chased her after she threw a rock at his van. Liddy said the charge was wrong. It would never stand.

Liddy was right.

The Pima County Attorney's Office is under Barbara LaWall, a Democrat completing her first term. Like her five-term Democratic predecessor Stephen D. Neely, she says over and over, particularly in the budget battles in which she highlights her office's high trial rate--much higher than Maricopa County's--"I was not elected plea-bargainer."

But Pierson, thanks to court-appointed counselor David Alan Darby (secured for $400 of taxpayers' money), got charged merely with endangerment. She hung out in the Pima County jail for 83 days. She made no attempt to contact the Delfakis family to apologize or express remorse.

Alex Delfakis, who with his serene wife has three daughters, is deeply troubled by the reduced charge.

"I know all about the justice system," he says. "What does my dad get?"

This is hardly the first time Pierson has erupted in violence. She was brought up with it.

A native of San Manuel, Pierson grew up in Oracle, Thatcher and Safford, the older of two children of Walter and Shirley Costello. Her father was an abusive alcoholic who killed himself in 1989.

A graduate of the Safford College of Beauty Cosmetology, Pierson blew up at her husband and Clifton and Greenlee County cops after she went on a drinking binge on a summer night four years ago.

After arguing with and yelling at her husband, Pierson struck him with a chair. When police arrived, she fought them, too, kicking and hitting. When a cop told her she was now in trouble for resisting arrest and felony assault, she snapped, "I'll kick your ass, too."

Soon after she was jailed, she lit her shirt on fire.

Pierson told Greenlee County probation officers that she had started using booze and marijuana between the ages of 10 and 12. She also used cocaine and crystal meth from her senior year in high school until she got married in Tucson in March 1988.

After the domestic-violence incident, Pierson was sent to 30-day rehab programs in Chandler and Wickenburg, as well as a treatment program in Tucson at Amity.

"All through the (Amity) program," she said, "I just kept telling myself 'I just want to use it one more time,' and when I got out, I did."

That's the night she smashed Georgios Delfakis' windshield.

"Alcohol makes me violent," she told Pima County court officials who prepared her pre-sentence report. "It's my real demon. I know I can be responsible when I'm straight."

DELFAKIS HAD SEEMED in the months before his death to arrest his demons. He was friendlier and more open. He was managing to be nicer to Greeks he had shunned and had more time for those who had been strictly "kalimera, kalispera" ("good day and good night"). He would now occasionally spring for a Metaxa. In the weeks before his death, he hosted his cousin and some in his crew to a dinner of the game he shot. All were amazed by his transformation and his graciousness.

At the trisaion, the brief prayer service that precedes a funeral, the Rev. Anthony Moschonas spoke about Delfakis' dedication and perseverance, and his little-known custom of going to St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church on the solemn Holy Thurday before Easter to receive communion.

But all along, the time bomb had been ticking inside. Delfakis had ignored it, obtaining neither surgery nor sure control of his anger.

The autopsy revealed that Delfakis suffered from "severed coronary artery and aortic atherosclerosis." Pathologist Andrew Sibley noted "up to 90 percent focal stenosis of the left anterior descending coronary artery by atherosclerosis." The circumflex and right coronary arteries were 80 and 70 percent narrowed.

In other words, his pipes were blocked.

ON AUGUST 28, Pierson sat in Judge Richard S. Fields' courtroom awaiting what would turn out to be a maximum sentence--one and a half years.

Neither ugly nor beautiful, Pierson resembled a groomed animal. Her below-the-shoulder hair was pinned back. She turned away from the Delfakis family and others to confer briefly with Darby, her attorney, who showed up casually in a Ventana Canyon golf shirt. Cuffed and with a white T-shirt under her orange county jail jumpsuit, Pierson kept averting her eyes when Darby left the chair next to hers.

She nodded her head to Judge Fields, who was characteristically polite but direct as he read off the details of the plea agreement.

Lewis Brandes, a $65,369-a-year deputy county attorney, handled the assembly-line sentencings that day that included Pierson's.

He said the case presented the "great demonstrative difference in law and justice."

Peter Delfakis and his mother, Gisele, sat near Brandes, an 11-year veteran. Only Gisele rose to speak. Peter, looking like a young scholar, said he was too upset. "I was going to unleash it. But I do still want to ask (Pierson), 'What were you thinking? What was going through your mind?'"

Gisele Delfakis later said she was troubled by Pierson's cleaned-up appearance. "It hurts. She's the age of my children."

In court, Gisele told Judge Fields in a weepy, choked voice that people like Pierson "have no idea what they can do to hurt others. We are speechless. The sad thing is he never got to retire. All he did was work."

Pierson has promised to make restitution to pay funeral expenses. But with the overseas burial, she has little idea of the high cost. Pierson asked Fields to send her to the state prison immediately rather than make her wait in the county jail until the restitution hearing that is set for September 28.

PETER AND GISELE sat in a darkened Marathon after Pierson was sentenced. It was close to noon and, with the UA back in session, Marathon would likely have been busy with nerdy professors had Georgios been there to open the place. Instead, it is frozen in time and quiet. The fake grapes still hang in the first room of the three-room restaurant. A Paul Akmajian mural evokes the past.

Neither Peter nor his mother believed Pierson was sincere when she told Judge Fields that she was sorry.

"She needs something different," Peter said. "These people they sentence and they go to treatment, they end up doing the same things or worse."

Gisele said her kids were still in mourning. Alex took his family to Dara, the quirky village of his father. Shrunk by emigration, the village hosts expatriates every three years. Many celebrate the village's fierce independence, made famous by the larger-than-life Mayor Lambropoulos in the late 1800s and early 1900s. By staring down the central government and monarchies on several occasions, Lambropoulos gave rise to the "ethno-Dara" movement.

That drive for independence and the defiant tone set by Lambropoulos (who has descedants in Tucson) seems to have carried Georgios Delfakis through life. He was pleasant and receptive to a small inner circle, but also suspicious and solitary and isolated even from family when it suited him.

Now the family has another fight on its hands, a fight with the ever-sprawling UA.

"We are in mourning," Peter says, echoing his mother. "And now they want to take advantage of my father's death."

Not unexpectedly, the university's purchase offer now is way down from when the restaurant was up and going. Before, the UA was essentially buying out a business; today, it's just trying to obtain an empty building.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Georgios Delfakis was to return triumphantly to Dara, to his mother and four sisters (leaving a brother and sister in Canada). He had shown his cousins on that day 41 years ago that he, too, would set out for America and reap success.

But all that ended when anger, his own and that of a stranger named Michelle Dawn Pierson, collided on a shadowy Tucson street.

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