The Saga of Three Points

The settlement 25 miles southwest of Tucson has an awful reputation. Is there hope for the place?

Know one thing: Hector Soria doesn't personify Three Points. He only lived there. That's it.

But when his name hit the papers last September, you could almost hear a cry of despair rising from that odd, grubby, inhospitable-looking crossroads settlement on the Ajo highway, 25 miles southwest of Tucson.

Here we go again, said the anguished voices. Another black eye for Three Points.

You remember Soria, the 19-year-old, unemployed butcher who--according to police--kidnapped three illegals and tried to extort money from their relatives in Mexico? The illegals were tortured with a screwdriver. They had their toenails pried off with pliers, their front teeth beaten out and were threatened with castration.

The kicker, cops say, is that Soria and his buddy, Barry Joseph Vanbrocklin, forced the illegals to strip down to their underwear before the alleged torture, and that one of the kidnappers asked his victims to "pray and to forgive him" for what he was about to do.

It doesn't get much darker than that.

For Tucson, the episode only confirmed Three Points' long-standing reputation as a gruesome place, good only for a bag of chips and a six-pack at the market on the way to Rocky Point.

"Tucson thinks of us as drugs and crime and bodies in the desert or stuffed into the trunks of cars," says local activist Marion Whitfield. "That doesn't help when we're trying to stabilize the community."

As much as she loves the place where she's spent most of her 72 years, however, Whitfield admits that there's a measure of truth in the reputation.

"Some neighborhoods out there," she says with a sigh, "are straight out of Steinbeck."

If you listen to the old-timers, they'll tell you that Three Points shouldn't even be called Three Points. They insist the correct name is Robles Junction, after Bernabe Robles.

In 1864, at the age of 7, Robles crossed with his mother into Southern Arizona on donkeys, in search of a new home and new opportunities. Eventually, the family opened a market in Tucson, and Robles started a ranch in what was then a way-out desert west of town.

Robles worked hard, acquired large tracts of land and got rich--an American success story. But oral and written accounts of early settlers tell of a man given to hard-core business tactics, and they include the charge that Robles loaned money to strapped ranchers, then took their land when they couldn't repay it. His methods reportedly made him few friends, and if history leaves footprints on the land--a sort of genetic trail for those who come later--then the trail from Three Points leads back to hardscrabble, tough-as-bad-jerky Robles.

Sparsely populated for much of its early life, Three Points has encountered rip-roaring growth since the early 1980s. The 2000 Census counted 5,200 people in the 44 square miles around Three Points, though many suspect that Census counts grossly underestimate the populations of low-income areas.

In the much larger area stretching from White Horse Ranch on the south to Mile Wide Road on the north, and from Ryan Field on the east to Coleman Road on the west, the number rises easily to 30,000 or more.

The growth is easy to understand: The Altar Valley is a beautiful place, a broad sweep of endless desert under blue sky, with purple mountains that frame the horizons to the south and west.

Good country for dreams.

It's also good country for hiding out--from ex-wives and husbands, from the law and from civilization in general.

"People move here for the same reason people historically moved out west," says Paul Afek, a doctor at Three Points Clinic. "They don't want people telling them what to do; they like their independence and don't trust the government."

Put another way, Three Points attracts isolationists, those fleeing their past and those partial to night (the darker the better), people who live in fixer-upper mobiles dropped onto cheap land protected by nasty dogs and tall fences.

Makeshift signs hang everywhere, nailed to street posts and stuck in the ground. They serve as a kind of roadside eBay, telegraphing what people value and how they live.

"Hay for sale" ... "Call for well pump repair" ... "Danger, bees, no trespassing" ... "Double wide, $1,000 down" ... "Guinea hens cheap."

Drive down Taylor Lane, off Highway 86, and you don't have to look hard to see--well, the grapes of wrath.

Wrecked trailers. Junked cars. Choking dust. Vacant faces.

The Taylor neighborhood--believed to consist of around 500 homes--got national notoriety when The Wall Street Journal called it one of the worst wildcat subdivisions in Arizona, "a sprawling tract of land divided by a succession of owners that leaves them exempt from basic county building requirements."

No paved roads, sewers, sidewalks, and frequently no addresses. "If you don't want to be found, who needs an address?" says businesswoman Cindy Lucas.

Certainly, the bad guys don't, and locals will tell you that Three Points attracts more than its fair share, such as the illegal backpackers recently spotted strolling across Sierrita Mountain Road. (Rest assured they weren't hauling Grape Nuts.)

But Pima County Sheriff's Deputy Al Williams, who patrols Three Points, isn't convinced that the area is any worse than comparable places in Tucson.

In fact, six years ago, Williams moved to Three Points from near Pantano and Escalante roads, tired of indignities such as random gunfire crashing through his home air conditioner.

"I don't see Three Points as dangerous," says Williams. "There are a lot of stories, people making things up. The drug trafficking--that's going to happen."

The sheriff's department could provide no useable crime statistics by press time, and even if they had, according to Whitfield, they'd be of limited value.

"They always low-key it, say the crime isn't that bad," she says. "But the other problem is, and I know this for a fact, the sheriff isn't called on a lot of crimes, because people are tired of them not doing anything. It takes them so long to get there."

See the paradox? Residents want to be unburdened by government, except when something goes wrong. Then the sheriff had better land on their doorstop--address or not--and pronto.

But with two deputies per eight-hour shift covering Three Points and the surrounding area, the total of which runs 35 miles long and 20 miles wide, good luck.

Response times can take up to 30 minutes, and Williams admits people get upset at that.

"Yeah, they yell at us," he says, "and sometimes, they take care of the problem themselves, but usually they don't."

By one seat-of-the-pants estimate, 80 percent of Three Points' residents own guns. In the schools, 80 percent of the students receive free or reduced-cost federal lunches, because their families live below the poverty line, or close to it.

The Border Patrol presence in the area is almost overwhelming.

Three Points sits 45 miles from Mexico, at the crossroads of Highway 86 (which runs east to west between Tucson and Ajo) and Highway 286 (which runs south to the border at Sasabe and is called simply The Corridor).

These two roads rank among the Southwest's most active smuggling routes.

The Border Patrol's mobile spy towers hover everywhere over the route into town, and choppers voop-voop-voop across the sky.

"I hear people complain that we're occupied territory," says Dane Miller, pastor of Serenity Baptist Church. "They say it feels like we're living behind the Berlin Wall."

Here's a crazy story: A year ago, 25 illegals walked up to the Range Market on Sierrita Mountain Road, tired and hungry. They dropped two quarters into the parking lot pay phone and reported themselves to the Border Patrol.

Please, pick us up, they begged. The drivers who were supposed to take us north never showed, and now we just want to go home.

It took the Border Patrol nine hours to get there, and by then, only half the group remained. The others had since gotten their rides.

Closer to the border, the human tide has left ranches trashed.

Pat King and her family, owners of the King Ranch, eight miles south of Three Points, say the destruction of property--anything in the illegals' path, really--has become wanton. The threat of break-ins is so great that the Kings cannot leave their ranch unguarded for any length of time. At Christmas, they attend family get-togethers in Green Valley in shifts: One group going one day, while other stays home.

The Kings have been ranching at Three Points since the 1890s, a living link to a more dignified past. Lucas, the aforementioned businesswoman, is among the newcomers, and to some extent, she's typical--she moved from Tucson in 1985, because she wanted horses. Now she owns and manages the Range Market, and if Three Points is the Old West in Pima County, her store is a little bit of Tombstone, and she's Wyatt Earp.

The market occupies lonesome ground four miles south of Highway 86, and is darned close to the middle of nowhere. There are trailers around it (hidden back in the desert), some jackrabbits and not much more.

"There's one rule out here, and everybody knows it," says Lucas. "'Do whatever you want, but don't mess with mine.' That's where I draw the line. I won't tolerate drug dealers making drops outside my market."

Lucas might be getting on and may move with a hitch, but she has juevos. She marches right out to the parking lot and runs the druggies off herself.

"My clerks just about have a heart attack, but the dealers don't give me any trouble," says Lucas. "They all know me."

Lucas pauses, shakes her head. "You know, I had a cop tell me there are 16 meth(amphetamine) labs around Three Points. That's a lot."

Gun, horses, meth and killer sunsets. This is a long way from Swan and Sunrise.

Whitfield tells a similar story.

"When I lived on Fuller Road," she says, "I used to feed my chickens with a gun in my belt, because the guy living next to me dealt drugs. The youth drug problem is horrible. It's not a pretty picture out there right now."

Although Whitfield is still working to improve life in Three Points, she recently moved away. Her grown kids insisted; too dangerous, they said. And for Whitfield, too depressing.

"The woman living behind me literally threw her trash into the front yard," she says, "and her Rottweilers were always loose. It broke my heart to see people take no pride in the area where I grew up. Now that I don't live there anymore, I don't have to have my heart broken every day."

Three Points might be down, but it's not out.

In numerous interviews for this story, almost every longtime resident began by acknowledging serious problems, but also expressed frustration at the portrayal of their home on TV news and in the press. They were especially concerned about the effect that Three Points' negative public image has on its kids.

King says that when local youngsters go to high school in town--usually Marana or Flowing Wells--they get an earful from peers about crime and drug busts in Three Points.

"Some get so tired of it, they go under themselves, becoming what everyone says we are," says King, a school board member. "We don't want our kids ostracized anymore. We've been beat up enough."

Miller says that when his daughter Jessica attended Flowing Wells, she'd invite pals out for dinner or to spend the night. But many of their parents refused to let them, citing the crime and saying Highway 86 was too dangerous to drive.

"It was astounding," says Miller. "They'd say, 'Don't you have pigs and goats out there?'"

But in 1997, Jessica was valedictorian of her class, beating out the same Tucson kids who weren't allowed to visit. She's a Three Points success story, and there are others.

A local boy just won the VFW's Patriotic Pen Contest for an essay detailing his dream for America. Entries came from around the state, but eight-grader Tyler Madore beat them all.

Last year, Kyle Cass, another eighth grader, won a statewide art contest sponsored by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His painting of a duck will appear on the stamps attached to hunting licenses.

Three Points has a new school, Robles Elementary, a new clothing bank stuffed with donations, and as of May 2002, a new community center housed in Bernabe Robles' old ranch house.

As with most good news out of Three Points, it's followed closely by bad--the center has been broken into nine times in 22 months. Even more embarrassing, the building sits right next door the sheriff's substation.

Even so, the effort has been a success, thanks to Whitfield, King and several others who banded together to save the long, white, hacienda-style building, which the government had seized in a drug case in the mid-'90s.

The ranch has hosted local weddings and civic meetings, and in the process, has given Three Points a small measure of what it has never had--a center, a place for people to gather.

"That lack of any sense of community is a profound fact of life here," says Miller.

Many residents only see their neighbors through the car window as they leave for work in the morning--a drive to Tucson for most--and once again on the return home.

Three Points doesn't even have a post office--workers on contract with the U.S. Postal Service deliver the mail, and residents say the service stinks. The Altar Valley School District has tried to do bulk mailings to families to report school news, but without success.

"Some kind of breakdown occurs from when the mail gets put in the HCR (Highway Contract Route) person's car, to the mailbox," says Superintendent Doug Roe. "Somehow, it doesn't get there. We've gone around with the Post Office about this."

It makes communication difficult in a district that covers 680 square miles. The Three Points Clinic has given up on bulk mailings, too.

"Have you ever heard of that problem in 21st-century America?" asks Laurie Jurs, executive director of the United Community Health Center, which operates the clinic.

Factors such as scattershot living, isolationist residents and a lack of organization make it hard to get much accomplished. It also makes it hard to get Pima County to pay attention.

One example is the youth group Whitfield started in 1994. It began with a nucleus of stable families, a safe environment with well-adjusted kids. But as more families relocated to Three Points from Tucson and elsewhere, escaping gangs and other troubles, the atmosphere changed.

"We started getting kids that scared us, and the good ones drifted away," says Whitfield. "And there's really nothing for the kids to do."

To remedy that, she appealed to Pima County and eventually received, through the state, a Juvenile Justices annual grant of $8,000 for a period of three years. It allowed Whitfield to hold dances once a month and take the kids on field trips, thus exposing them to successful people and different ways of living.

But when the funds ran out last September, she went back to the county for replacement money and was turned down. Whitfield was crushed.

"The county didn't have time to be bothered with us," she says. "It's so damn sad, because I could tell you stories about some of these kids that would just break your heart. They need someone to give them hope, but the county let us down.

"Sometimes, I think we're like the lost tribes of Israel, 25 miles outside town and forgotten."

The future? Expect to read about more Hector Soria types. It's inevitable. There are too many gaping cracks for youngsters to fall through.

But Three Points also has a core group of eight or so activists committed to making good things happen, and they're not going away in the face of big odds. Everyday, they encounter two complex, international problems--drugs and illegal immigration--that have a huge impact on their lives.

"A lot of the crime has to do with drugs, and the fact that they're not controlling this border," says King. "We have drug-drop spots and coyote-drop spots all over. Until they shut down this border and stop allowing people to come in to work in hotels in Las Vegas, nothing will change."

That sound you hear--footsteps pounding across the desert--is a human tide of illegals. President Bush's recent immigration proposal, a quasi-amnesty by any definition, only promises to increase the flow.

"It already has," says Mike Albon, a retired Border Patrol agent who runs the local agents' union. "I'm hearing the numbers are up, and the people they're apprehending are demanding their amnesty."

Lucas draws some hope from the new residents she sees moving to Three Points--a higher-income group that seems "friendlier and less paranoid." Many live in a swank development called Diamond Bell Ranch; populated by retirees and professional people, it's also part of the Three Points mix.

But the key to real change, Lucas points out, is to develop a sense of belonging.

"The more we can make this a community, the more people get upset about drugs and illegals running through their backyards, the better we'll be," she says. "We need middle-class people who want to be safe.

"We need to get rid of the meth labs, for instance. But you need a community to stop that kind of thing, people who, if they see a drug deal going down, they'll call it in. Now what's going to happen? I doubt the cops will show up, and if the dealers find out, they'll slit your throat."

Meanwhile, Lucas will continue to fight to protect what's hers against bad guys, big and small.

In the latter category, she met two young desperados about eight months ago. They tried a beer run on her, each bolting from the market carrying a 30-pack, but had no getaway car. These geniuses had getaway horses tied up behind the store, and that lack of foresight left them with beer too heavy to hold while climbing into the saddle.

"You can't get on a horse with both hands around a 30-pack unless you're the Lone Ranger," says Lucas, laughing. "So they just dropped their beer and rode off."

Funny story.

Truth is, though, Three Points could use the Lone Ranger right now.