Sheriff reflects on unhappy aftermath of 1982 Miracle Valley shoot-out

The Herald, Sierra Vista/October 13, 2009

Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever described as a "punch in the gut" the events that took place in 1982 after he and three other deputies were injured in the Miracle Valley shoot-out.

Dever spoke to law students at the University of Arizona in Tucson last week about the shoot-out.

Dever was joined by Larry Dempster, who spearheaded efforts to publish the book "Shootout at Miracle Valley" last year and the author of the book, William R. Daniel.

Since its release, the book has sold about 6,000 copies.

Dempster said the UA legal department invited the trio to talk about the book and the legal ramifications of the widely publicized shoot-out that left Dever and fellow officers injured.

The book is said to be the untold story of what happened in Miracle Valley between 1979 and 1982, as the Cochise County Sheriff's Office struggled with a radical South Chicago preacher named Frances Thomas, who moved to Miracle Valley, along State Route 92 southeast of Sierra Vista.

Thomas is said to not only have brought her congregation, but also a dangerous cocktail of fanaticism, faith healing, bigotry and dynamite.

Dempster has stressed that he promised former Cochise County Sheriff Jimmy Judd on his death bed that he would get the book finished and tell the story from the law enforcement side.

The book talks about the sheriff's office's struggles and how after three years of intense relations with the group, the conflict came to a head. 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.

In talking to about 40 law students, Dever said he was reluctant to even participate in the book, noting he wanted to put the event behind him.

In recalling the conflict, Dever said the day of the shoot-out was a dark day for law enforcement.

"We were out of our league and unprepared for that kind of fight," Dever said. "We had deputies injured that day who should not have been injured."

After three years of dealing with the cult, Dever said it came to a point where they knew there would have to be some kind of resolution, but "you didn't want to be the one to pull the trigger. You didn't want to be the one to light the fuse."

But for Dever, the worst part of the incident happened after it was all over. Looking at the legal aspect of the situation, Dever talked about what happened after the guns were put away, and the courts and investigation into the incident took over.

"There was no justice here," the sheriff said.

"The media portrayed Jimmy Judd as a redneck bigot. My partner was called a murderer. When no charges came against these church members, it was a real punch in the gut. When no charges are brought after deputies have been injured, it's again, a punch in the gut."

Further, Dever said the FBI began an investigation, and a grand jury was convened to decide whether deputies should be indicted in the incident. No charges were ever brought against deputies, and the grand jury never actually voted.

Dever, a. St. David resident, said the third punch in the gut for deputies involved the civil lawsuit Thomas filed against the county. Dever said he was looking forward to having his day in court, to telling the public what law enforcement had gone through that day and the three years leading up to it.

But Dever said on the courtroom steps, lawyers informed them that an undisclosed settlement had been reached, and there would be no trial.

However, Dever's and other deputies' stories may be told after all, since Daniel is writing a second book to show what happened after the shoot-out.

"Really the first book only told half the story," Daniel said. "What happened after the shoot-out is just as interesting as what happened at the shootout, and that story has essentially gone untold. To tell the whole story, it was decided that we had to write another book."

Daniel has done extensive research, going back into the depositions, court records and statements provided by each side after the shootout. Daniel said once published, the public may be interested in what he found.

A hint of what may be coming in the book, Daniel talked about finding that the county might have failed to indict any members of the church because of a lack of funding.

Daniel said as he continues to move forward, one of the legal questions he has asked, is "How far should a lawyer go to get a client off?" Going back to those days, Daniel asked the law students when is the line drawn to defend a client such as these cult members.

The second book, for which a publishing date has not been set, will look at the moral questions and the legal ramifications for the county and the cult.

For the most part, the UA students listened to Daniel and Dever speak about the book and the events that led up to the shootout.

One student questioned why the sheriff's department didn't take a stronger stance against the cult prior to the shootout, and some brought up the issues of racism that were reported around that time.

Dever stressed that it wasn't an issue of race, stating that after Thomas came into town, the tensions began and a complete disregard for the law became the group's priority.

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