The 'untold' story

Miracle Valley incident revisited. Book was promise to late Sheriff Jimmy Judd

San Pedro Valley News-Sun/November 26, 2008

As he lay dying, former Cochise County Sheriff Jimmy Judd made his lifetime friend Larry Dempster promise that a book and movie script would reveal the untold story of what happened in Miracle Valley between 1979 and 1982.

Dempster made that promise to his friend in 2005, and recently delivered with the publishing of "Shootout at Miracle Valley." Author William R. Daniel took interviews, court documents, reports and statements and worked for 18 months to write a book that would expose what happened in one of the county's most controversial incidents.

On the back cover, Williams said, "A little over 100 years after the legendary shootout at the OK Corral, a radical South Chicago preacher named Frances Thomas moved to Miracle Valley, Ariz., a tiny community west of the San Pedro River along State Route 92 and southeast of Sierra Vista. She brought not only her congregation, but also a dangerous cocktail of fanaticism, faith healing, bigotry and dynamite. Believing God had called her to take over Miracle Valley, Pastor Thomas and her cult of followers set out to do just that - with explosive results."

Miracle Valley made national headlines Oct. 24, 1982, when tensions brewing since 1979, erupted in a shooting between Cochise County Sheriff's deputies and the all-black religious sect from the Christ Miracle Healing Center and Church.

Larry Dever, the current Cochise County Sheriff, said it was a dark day for law enforcement and a day he will never forget.

Dever, a deputy at the time, was injured in the ordeal, taking some shrapnel from a shotgun. The injuries were not life threatening.

Judd, described by many as a hero, was put in the middle of an impossible situation, with politicians such as then Gov. Bruce Babbittt and high-ranking officials of the Department of Public Safety telling him to do nothing, while at the same time residents were begging him to do something.

Longtime residents begged Judd to enforce the law against the increasingly militant cult that had started to harass Miracle Valley residents and torment school officials. Many feared the group would bring harm to not only sheriff's deputies, but also innocent citizens.

The book outlines some of those incidents as Pastor Thomas' son William Thomas Jr. became a militant leader and the cult started storing dynamite at the community swimming pool. As the book outlines, at one point, the dynamite was taken from the pool and was put inside a van referred as the "War Wagon."

Members of the religious group headed out to break a fellow member out of jail after he was arrested for assaulting a sheriff's deputy. The dynamite detonated accidentally on State Route 92, killing one of the church's members.

"It was a trying time for all of us," Dever said. "One minute we were told to stand up, then we were told to stand down. For Jimmy, it was his lifelong quest to get the story that was never told out there. We thought we would have our day to present all the evidence in court, but the insurance company ended up settling, and the department never got its day."

Dever said it would have been better had Judd still been alive, so he could have given even more insight to what the department went through. After the shooting, Judd and the deputies were criticized by the media, by African American leaders such as Rev. Jesse Jackson and were even investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Dempster, pleased with the book's outcome, said Daniel was able to take a complex story and turn it into an accurate account of what happened and what law enforcement officials went through.

In recounting the events, Daniel was able to capture the emotion of the sheriff's deputies who were trying to keep the peace and do a job that seemed impossible.

Dever said it was tough on all officers, especially Judd, who didn't want to see anyone killed.

It was hard for some of the deputies to go back in time and tell the stories, recall the bad memories and fulfill Judd's final wish. Some of those deputies shared stories about being surrounded by cult members, threatened with death and in some cases assaulted.

"It wasn't what these deputies lived through, but what they lived with," Daniel said. "They were carrying a lot more emotional baggage than they thought, and telling the story of what really happened during that time got some of that out. And it wasn't just about getting the stories out after 29 years, but it was about letting these deputies work through it."

For Daniel the biggest challenge was going through piles of information, interviewing the deputies on Judd's staff at the time, and writing something people could understand.

"Jimmy always wanted to just tell a story about what happened," Dempster said. "He wanted to tell the story and just let people believe whatever they wanted. He didn't want to be made into a hero, and wanted it said that he was not some red-necked sheriff, and he was not a racist."

Judd's son Virgil has said that the defining moment in his father's career was that shooting.

"Dad always remembered that horrible day," he said. "And he felt responsible. He wished there were something he could have done to make that time a little bit easier."

Daniel said while he never met Judd, through his research he has found that the four-term sheriff and Justice of the Peace in Benson was a man of his word.

"Jimmy Judd is a hero," Daniel said. "One of the things that I found most remarkable from this level of law enforcement was the desire to do what's right. He wanted to keep up with the letter of the law. I found it very impressive that back then these deputies didn't have any training on racial sensitivity, but for some reason these were the right people at that time."

Following the shooting, the headlines started and the incident received national attention. The shooting incident resulted in the death of William Thomas Jr. and church member Arguster Tate.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson visited Miracle Valley on what he called a "fact-finding" mission. Church leaders nationwide offered support to Pastor Sharon Thomas, and the bodies of the church members were taken to Chicago where Jackson's assistant The Rev. Willie Barrow spoke at the funeral.

"The slaying of Bishop Thomas and Brother Arguster Tate represents one of the greatest tragedies in our time," she said. "The Miracle Valley incidents, or more appropriately 'murders', are a travesty. Our organization accordingly has called for a full-scale investigation into the heinous crime."

While the sheriff's department was taking the hit in the headlines for the shooting, Judd went home, where his wife Edna recalls his weeping, telling her that despite those dead being bad men, they were still somebody's sons.

Dempster and Daniel said they realize that politicians such as Babbitt and The Rev. Jackson may disagree with the book, but they and the deputies telling the stories of those three years stand by every word.

Through tears, Dempster said he was happy that he had fulfilled his friend's request, noting that he would not be sending the politicians a copy because following Judd's code of living, "We do not go looking for a fight, but if one is brought to us, we don't back down."

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