The Pope of Gringo Pass

Al Gay's border town kingdom of Lukeville is booming, thanks to the rising popularity of Rocky Point. Welcome to Pima County's last frontier.

A big, silver Cadillac inches along the dirt runway a few hundred feet from the Mexican border. The driver--a geezer in a straw hat--holds a Mexican stogie, and he's waving it like a wand as he holds forth on the state of border politics, smuggling, power-hungry bureaucrats, dark-eyed senioritas and what he calls the U.S. Border Patrol's "Gestapo tactics."

He chomps the end of the cigar and spits the wet leaf out the window. Some of the brown produce fails to attain the requisite arc and sticks to the upholstery on the driver's door, while other bits dribble onto his shirt, polka-dotting the thing with glistening tobacco blobs.

"See, I don't smoke them," he says of his Ornelas cigars. "I chew the bastards."

It's a quiet summer morning at the bottom of Arizona, and 76-year-old Al Gay is patrolling his kingdom, looking for troublemakers, interlopers--anyone who might violate the sanctity of his private town.

It's Pima County's last frontier.

On maps, it's called Lukeville, a dust-speck of a border town 37 miles south of Ajo and 160 miles southwest of Tucson. But it's also known by another name, one that shakes the spines of the politically correct.

Gringo Pass.

Eight years back, Gay wanted to formally bestow that name on the town, which--with the exception of a 60-foot strip at the border and a five-acre federal compound--he owns, about 70 acres in all.

The proposal drew howls from those claiming the appellation was offensive, derogatory, abhorrent and a major slap in the kisser to Ajo-born Frank Luke, Arizona's famous World War I flying ace, whose brother Charles once owned the place.

Gay's reaction to the tender hearts was typical, a four-word character study: Kiss my substantial fanny.

He threw up a sign proclaiming, "Welcome to Gringo Pass," and made sure that references to the name were as visible as possible all over town. Gay likes the name so much that his many businesses here have operated under the longstanding umbrella of Gringo Pass, Inc., since 1970.

The proposed name change never happened--Lukeville remained Lukeville--and at first blush, the place hardly seems worth the fuss.

The part of town most people see sits at the end of a road-kill highway in a spot wide enough to accommodate a gas station, general store, bar and restaurant, Laundromat, duty-free shop and post office.

With the hanging dust, blinding light and omnipresent federal cops wearing sidearms and wraparound shades, it looks like the setting for a bad movie about a down-and-outer and his trashy babe plotting their last score. But stay around long enough, and you notice something else: traffic, and lots of it.

Even on a blazing summer day during the so-called "off" season, it's constant--car after car, SUV after SUV, camper after camper. Something's clearly going on here, and that something is Rocky Point, aka Puerto Peñasco, only 60 miles south of the Lukeville crossing.

It's an oceanfront boomtown, Arizona's Acapulco, recently described by 60 Minutes as the fastest-growing tourist destination in the world. The growth is fueled mainly by well-off beach-lovers from Pima and Maricopa counties who pass through Gay's businesses in their flip-flops and ridiculous hats, turning his town into a momentary Margaritaville.

Port officials count 450,000 vehicles traveling up from Mexico through Lukeville every year, carrying 1.5 million people. Although corresponding figures aren't available for vehicles and people headed into Mexico, we can assume these figures are also high, and rising all the time. This past Memorial Day weekend, the line to get into Mexico stretched back 5 1/2 miles on State Highway 85. And if only, say, one in 15 of those Rocky Point-bound travelers stops to buy gas and a six-pack, the fellow selling it is going to make substantial bucks.

Talk about being in the right place at the right time: Who would've guessed that this once-lost border outpost would become a major crossroads of growth and tourism?

Al Gay did. He visited Rocky Point for the first time in the late 1950s, gazed down those long, white beaches and thought: "There's potential here. This might make a good investment."

Can you say jackpot?

Gay likes to present himself as a rube who doesn't know much, touting his ninth-grade education the way some do a Harvard degree, and talking about how smart he's not. Don't believe it. When it comes to business, he has a sharp mind and good instincts. He never loses focus, all of which have made him a man of wealth and influence.

If you want to get something done in this part of Pima County, it never hurts to get a benediction from the Pope of Gringo Pass. As environmental activist Carlos Nagel says, "He's a powerful person accustomed to having his way, and a very important player in that part of the world." After serving as a Marine in the Pacific during World War II and later making a bundle as an Alaskan bush pilot, Gay bought Lukeville in 1966. He immediately began building up his town.

He was living in Phoenix at the time and spending summers in Arizona's White Mountains. Every morning, he boarded his private plane in Pinetop and flew almost the length of the state down to the border, arriving in Lukeville at 6 a.m., ready to supervise the construction crew he'd hired.

At 4 p.m. --the day's work done--he re-boarded his V-Tail Bonanza and flew back to Pinetop.

"I've worked hard all my life," he says. "I don't go for all this free stuff Americans have today. The way I see it, if you want to eat, you have to work."

It took about five years to nail together what he has now, which, in addition to his interests near the international line, includes the Gringo Pass Motel, the Gringo Pass RV Park, a two-story apartment building and four houses for employees.

These properties sit on the east side of Highway 85, amid a quiet complex of mostly dirt roads, oleander bushes and buzzing cicadas. Gay has about 30 year-round residents and 40 employees to keep his kingdom humming along. He even has a one-man police force and fire department, a fellow who patrols the kingdom after midnight in a red Chevy Blazer, emergency lights on the roof, the door marked "Gringo Pass Police and Fire."

This private cop has no police training, and the fire department consists of a few extinguishers tossed into the back of the Blazer--both, in Gay's view, minor details not worth quibbling over. Except for your occasional drug shootout or high-speed chase, it sounds like a perfect world--low-key, sun-drenched, quiet.

But Gay doesn't do quiet. He's a hell-raiser who believes he knows how life should be lived in Southwest Arizona and, figuratively at least, tips over the furniture when it doesn't work out that way.

Name a private group, government agency or person with an interest in what happens around Lukeville, and Gay has probably taken them on, either nose to nose, in a letter-writing campaign or through a lawsuit.

Few will say much about him for print, reacting only with sour-milk faces and gritted teeth. Choosing his words carefully, Jose Cordero, assistant chief at the U.S. Customs inspection station at Lukeville, says simply, "He leaves us alone, and we leave him alone. But there are always issues with Mr. Gay."

Gay's philosophy, if it can be called that, is a curious mix of 1950s American values, conservative self-reliance and private-property activism, with a few black helicopters tossed in to keep the conspiracy buffs interested. In a wide-ranging interview in his office, Gay speaks openly of all this, with surprising good cheer. He isn't--on the surface--an angry man, smiling and hollering across the room as you swing open the door and walk in for a scheduled interview.

"This must be the reporter now! I can spot them a mile away! Take a seat right here!"

He reminds you of the fellow nursing a Pabst Blue Ribbon and playing the ponies at the OTB counter on a Wednesday afternoon. He talks like one, too, utterly unconcerned about the notepad-scribbler sitting opposite him. (Gay later declined to be photographed by the Weekly.)

Gay refers to Mexicans who sneak across the line as "wetbacks," while at the same time offering his admiration for how hard they work. He made the papers earlier this year for allowing Mexican families from neighboring Sonoita, Mexico, to rent space in his RV park for $100 a month, considerably less than the normal $250. The gesture allowed the families to claim residency and their children to attend public schools in Ajo for free. Gay wound up on a CNN broadcast in February, during which he said he did it to create goodwill with the Mexican people.

He sometimes gives money to Mexicans who've been caught entering the country illegally, thus allowing them to get back home, and some 30 years ago, he donated a wad to Mexicans building a Catholic kindergarten across the line in Sonoita.

Goodwill, again. He uses that word a lot.

But in the next breath, he'll take off on a bitter rant about what he considers the corruption of the Border Patrol, whose agents, he alleges, take bribes to let certain people into the country.

"I hear they get $10,000 a head for a Chinaman," he says, without offering a hint of proof.

Some of Gay's brawls with government agencies--such as the Border Patrol and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, his immediate northern neighbor--have been almost epic, and especially nasty.

The way he sees it, they've grown too big and too powerful, always demanding more tax money for additional agents, bigger guns, bigger everything. In their drive to control illegal activity, Gay believes, the feds are controlling ordinary people's lives in ways they never did before.

How bad is the smuggling and crime in the vast deserts around Lukeville?

Chief Ranger Fred Patton says the Organ Pipe Monument has 200 miles of illegal roads, 1,000 miles of illegal trails and, conservatively, $1 million in illegal drugs passing through every 24 hours.

"In Al's perfect world, he probably sees these as victimless crimes, and he wouldn't be alone in Southern Arizona in thinking that," Patton says. "But we're bona fide law officers, and we have a responsibility to enforce the law. We're not here just to give out water."

But Gay sees it from the other end, countering that most of those roads have been made by law enforcement, especially the Border Patrol, "who never get out of their trucks," and he ticks off the long list of police agencies with a presence in Lukeville, including, now, the FBI.

"Who knows what they're doing here?" His voice goes higher as he talks, and has a little squeak at the top. "They come down and have their secret meetings. It's bullshit."

What about terrorism? Isn't the sieve-like border a threat to American security?

"There are no terrorists coming in here now," Gay says, with a forget-about-it wave. "They're already here."

How do you know?

"My informants."

Gay fondly remembers the old days, illustrated by a picture, circa the 1930s, hanging on his wall. It shows the old customs building at Lukeville, a broken-down adobe straddling the border, half on the Mexican side and half in the United States. Outside stands a sandwich board, reading simply, "Stop, U.S. Officers."

Small, simple, almost friendly--the way it should be. When Gay bought Lukeville, the Border Patrol supervisor set up his office at a table in Gay's restaurant.

Not anymore.

"These days, if you're brown, they harass and intimidate you," says Gay.

In 1999, he went to court seeking a restraining order to prevent the Border Patrol from coming onto his property. Gay says agents were pounding on doors at his motel, asking those inside to prove citizenship, questioning his employees and harassing shoppers in his store.

In one episode, he claims that a non-Spanish-speaking agent approached a woman in a wheelchair from Sonoita who spoke no English. The conversation went nowhere, so, in Gay's telling, the agent handcuffed her in her chair and wheeled her across the street for deportation. The woman, it turned out, was an American citizen.

"People don't remember WWII and what the Nazis and the Gestapo were like, but I do," Gay says. "It ain't right. I just bulled my back and went after them."

A Tucson judge denied his request for a restraining order, but Border Patrol supervisors did enact a new policy, telling agents to stay away from Gay's businesses, except in hot pursuit.

Two years later, Gay alleges that two uniformed Border Patrol agents approached him on the street in Lukeville, in broad daylight, and knocked him into a building. He yanks from his desk drawer an April 15, 2001 photograph of himself, shirtless, his right arm in a sling, bruises covering much of his right side and some on his face and head as well.

But he provides few details of the encounter, only saying over and over, "They kicked the shit out of me! I raised hell, and they kicked the shit out of me for it!"

Gay claims to have witnesses but won't name them, and says he took no legal action because, "You think I want to die?"

The Border Patrol did not return a phone call seeking comment on Gay's allegations.

In the early and mid-'90s, Gay also fought Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument over several issues surrounding the use and safety of Highway 85, which passes the visitor's center and splits monument property.

In keeping with his theme of government as master, he hired a cartoonist and took out newspaper ads depicting rangers of the National Park Service, which runs Organ Pipe, as goons with bazookas.

He also pushed supporters to write letters to newspapers. One, penned by one of Gay's sidekicks, was so long it would've taken up an entire page of the Ajo Copper News, according to publisher Hop David.

At that length, David told the writer he'd have to buy an advertisement. A short time later, Gay himself walked in to the paper and announced his intention to take out a full-page ad.

"He dropped a roll of hundreds onto the counter and said, 'I guess if I want my voice heard, I'll have to pay off the newspaper,'" remembers David. "Someone suggesting our editorial stance could be bought really rankled me."

Gay's most virulent objection was to the idea--floated by the superintendent at the time--of turning Highway 85 into a toll road, requiring passing motorists to pay a fee. He whipped up public opposition, and monument officials withdrew the plan in 1996.

Lannette Phipps, who runs a mail service between Rocky Point and Lukeville and whose father publishes the Rocky Point Times, says if it wasn't for Gay, she and thousands of others might be paying a fee to use that highway today.

"He believes in things and fights for them," says Phipps. "And money is no object. I admire him for sticking up for his little town and the people here."

But publisher David describes Gay as a "shrewd, cynical guy."

Control of the highway (a longstanding issue between Gay and the Park Service) would affect vehicle access to Lukeville and Rocky Point--Gay's meal ticket--leaving some grumbling that his activism and his bank account are one and the same.

But Gay sees himself as something of a caped crusader. "I protect the rights of the American people and the Mexican people, and see that they get justice," he insists. "I buck the system."

Well, sometimes. And sometimes, he's just loud, bombastic and downright outrageous.

Gay's staff includes a remarkably efficient fellow who patrols the parking areas outside his businesses, "ticketing" cars that have been left too long. If not moved quickly enough, the parking guru sometimes chains a 500-pound drum to the axle and tows the car to Gay's personal impound lot. "We don't do that too often, because there's no money in it," says Gay. "It's more of a threat."

But it's often enough to concern Pima County Sheriff's Sgt. B.J. Clements, who says that it's against the law. "He can't hold someone's vehicle for any kind of fine that he imposes," says the Ajo-based Clements. "That's a civil action, and for not releasing a vehicle, he can be charged with theft."

Back in 1998, one of Gay's employees impounded a car parked on Gay's property and demanded $240 in towing and storage fees to release it to the owner. Unable to get her car back, the woman summoned a deputy, who went to Gay's office to convince him to release the vehicle. But he refused, saying he'd never get his $240 if he did.

The standoff got ugly, fast. When threatened with arrest, Gay became red-faced, loudly declaring, "Are you threatening to use physical force, because you're going to have to use your gun!" He then formed his fingers into a handgun.

Finally, according to the police report, the deputy told Gay he was under arrest, and to put his hands behind his back. Gay asked if he could use the bathroom.

The deputy again asked Gay to put his hands behind his back, whereupon the Pope unbuckled his pants and peed into his office garbage bin.

After getting hauled to the Ajo jail and booked on a theft charge, Gay sued Pima County for false arrest.

On it goes.

But Gay's antics sometimes have an unpredictable ending.

Carlos Nagel remembers an organizing conference in Ajo in the early 1990s for his preservation group, International Sonoran Desert Lands. Gay showed up, totally opposed to any cooperation with environmentalists, and at one point stormed the podium and grabbed the microphone from the speaker.

He told the audience not to believe anything they were being told, that it was another government takeover. Later, the attendees broke into small groups, hoping to find common ground. Gay left early, but he told Nagel his ideas were interesting and to keep him posted.

"A month later he sent me a check for $5,000 to get the effort off the ground," says Nagel. "That support came at a critical time for us, and Al Gay provided it."

The silver Caddy crunches along the pebble and weed airstrip, probably its fifth pass this morning. Everything is quiet, the kingdom secure. But as the morning heats up and Gay prepares for the day's rush to Rocky Point, he falls into a reflective mood, saying he's beginning to wear down from so many battles.

"You get older, and you start not giving a shit," he says.

He describes visiting Organ Pipe recently to meet Kathy Billings, the new superintendent, and put relations right after bitter wrangling with the previous boss.

When he walked in, to his glee, Billings said, "Semper Fi," and Gay told her, "The mountain doesn't come to Mohammed; Mohammed comes to the mountain."

It set the tone for what turned out to be a productive talk. "She's a nice gal," Gay says. "We're off on the right foot."

Is this a mellower Gay, one who, as rumors suggest, might be ready to sell his beloved kingdom? Got a spare $10-$12 million to buy a border boomtown?

"I'll sell anything if the price is right," he says, adding that the National Park Service approached him recently with an offer to buy Gringo Pass based on their own appraisal. Gay promptly hired a separate appraiser, who came in 2 1/2 times higher.

His reaction?

"The Park Service tried to screw me!" Gay bellows. "I won't sell anything to somebody trying to screw me!"

So much for mellow.

Comments (0)

Add a comment

Add a Comment