Authors: Barry Siegel
Late that first afternoon, he took the flowers to the Bridgewaters’ home and sat talking to Shirley and Paul over a beer. They’d met and grown close through the Deer Valley Little League, Shirley the head of the auxiliary when Bill served as league president. Until now, Paul had seen Bill upset about only one thing: his separation from Carol. This murder charge was something else, though. In their living room, Bill looked destroyed. He kept saying, “I can’t believe she’s doing this to me.” He also said, “This is a farce.… I’m not going to have a problem because I didn’t do it.”
That appeared obvious to Paul. Bill’s arrest had shocked everyone in the neighborhood. Bill just wasn’t a killer—not the guy Paul knew. It seemed incomprehensible, impossible. Why would Bill go out and do something like that? One day so different from the entire rest of his life—what possible motive? And such irony: Carol knew he was a killer for years, then all of a sudden she’s scared for herself and the kids? No, things just didn’t fit. Pile of crap, Paul thought. He hadn’t hesitated to put up his house as bail collateral. He’d needed maybe two minutes to decide.
Macumber looked around their living room. The Bridgewaters’ house, like his, was a small, plain wood-frame rambler in a neighborhood of such homes, their community nearly rural, a modest suburb in the far northwest corner of Phoenix. When Paul bought his home, it stood on farmland. Bill pointed to their unadorned fireplace. “I’m going to build you a hearth,” he promised.
So it went at the start. Visits with friends, a picnic in the desert, quiet mornings with his brother, dinners out with his parents. But the tension and despair soon began to build again, not much different from how he’d felt during the endless hours in jail. He tossed and turned at night, sleeping on a foldout couch in his parents’ small living room. Several times, consumed by fear and uncertainty, he broke down and cried. He knew his anxiety came partly from not yet being able to see or talk to his boys. He’d also not heard from his attorney—not a word. His mood kept darkening. He hesitated now to visit with certain people. “No one seems very happy around me right at this moment,” he wrote in his journal. “I seem to cast a shadow over everyone and everything.”
Then on Friday, October 18—the fifty-second day since his arrest—his divorce attorney called to say Judge Ed Hughes, after holding a hearing and talking to Bill’s sons in chambers, had ruled that Bill should have adequate visitation rights. Macumber would get to see his boys that Sunday. He celebrated, the news dulled only by concern over what his boys thought of him now. Without his sons, he had nothing. He wanted them to believe in his innocence.
Sunday, he got the boys at noon rather than 10:00
, at Carol’s insistence. No matter. They rushed into his arms, hugging and kissing. Bill and Harold took them to buy motorcycle helmets for their bicycle races. Then they all had lunch together and spent the afternoon just hanging out. “Today has shown me how easy it is for a man to worry himself into the grave needlessly,” Macumber wrote. “It has been one of the most beautiful and wonderful days in my life.”
Macumber’s mood lifted even more when word came, on October 24, that Judge Hughes had granted him regular visitation rights with fixed hours: every other weekend from 3:00
on Saturday to 5:00
on Sunday. He could talk to his boys by phone now. He could buy them the off-road racing bike he knew they badly wanted.
That day brought other comforting news. “A very special and very wonderful woman,” Bill wrote in his journal, “told me that she was in love with me.… She said she is not ashamed of her feelings and told me of them openly and honestly. She cried for me and made me feel very special. She said she knows I am innocent and that nobody will ever be able to convince her differently.” They had met through Little League back in the spring of 1971, becoming good friends. By late 1973, they’d sensed an attraction that went well beyond friendship but had said nothing, as both were married. She could see straight into him; she understood him. He wished he’d met her long ago, although then, he reminded himself, he would not have his three beautiful sons. In the early summer of 1974, with Carol gone and this lady also working toward a divorce, they’d happened to cross paths at a Denny’s. Over coffee, they’d finally shared their feelings for each other. On occasion in the following weeks, they’d kissed or held each other, nothing more. His arrest that August had cut short their time together but hadn’t altered her belief in him. He valued this beyond words, but he cautioned her: If I’m convicted, you must never attempt to see me.
He didn’t fear dying, and given the choice between that and spending the rest of his life in prison, he knew what he’d pick. The notion did not depress him, really. For all his efforts to be upbeat, he realized he very possibly could be convicted. He had to face reality, however frightening. People who knew him believed him innocent, but what of all those who didn’t know him? They could judge only from the evidence they heard.
Macumber felt that few days of freedom remained. One weekend he played football with his boys on Saturday, then the whole extended family spent Sunday riding dune buggies in the desert. On their next visit he took his sons to the county fair. Two weekends later, in a wave of forced optimism, he took them house hunting—for when “this is all over.” Other moments he spent with his “very special woman,” who pledged to attend every day of his trial.
On Friday, November 1—the sixty-sixth day since his arrest—Macumber met with his attorney Jim Kemper, who had a great many questions. Bill thought he managed to answer most of them. Yet they still had the palm print and shell casings and Carol’s statement. Kemper wasn’t terribly encouraging about their chances. He faced the daunting problem of reaching back twelve years, trying to reconstruct events from 1962. At least he had more time now: The trial, scheduled to start in five days, had been postponed until after the holidays. Macumber regretted the postponement, really. The sooner it started, the sooner it would be over.
He’d grown ever more aware of how his dark moods were affecting others. He’d drawn back from everything, becoming almost reclusive, blocking out even his dad, and this, he sensed, hurt his parents a great deal. He’d always been an outgoing and supportive person, so the change was readily apparent to not only his family but his friends. He resolved to hide his fear and loneliness. He started making a point of laughing and joking with those around him. Playing golf with his dad, talking on the phone with Shirley Bridgewater, taking his boys to the movies and agate hunting out in Buckeye—he could see the infectious impact of his high spirits. He’d always been totally honest with everyone, but no longer. He would put on a false front in order to make those he loved happy.
On Tuesday, November 12, the seventy-seventh day since his arrest, Macumber heard bad news from his attorney: The possibility of getting Ernest Valenzuela’s confession introduced at his trial looked slim, maybe nonexistent. Because of attorney-client privilege, Jim Kemper explained, Judge Hardy probably would not let it in. Macumber thought it almost beyond belief that a man might end up going to prison because the guilty person’s confession could not be used.
As the days passed, he grew increasingly nervous and afraid. His hands shook badly at times. Despite his efforts at a false front, he feared being around people, worrying about how he should act. One Saturday, he spent the entire day walking out on the desert by himself. This normally brought him piece of mind, but not now. He started sitting for hours in front of the television. He was no longer seeing or hearing from many people. He knew he could call the Bridgewaters—they’d gone quarry-rock cutting together a while back, and he’d built them that fireplace hearth—but he didn’t want to intrude or force himself on them. When he did go see them, he couldn’t be upbeat. This is not looking good, he told them. And I can’t do anything about it.
Only the weekends with his sons brought him comfort. Those he savored. Bowling, fishing trips, dinners out, sleeping in Bill’s camping trailer—at the end of the visits he always thought himself the most fortunate man in the world. Yet two weeks would then pass without the boys. Despite people being around, treating him well, he felt terribly alone. In truth, he’d been lonely much of his life. He could not deny this fact. He didn’t want to be lonely anymore but didn’t know how to fix it. One long evening, Macumber stayed home by himself, staring into a mirror, rather than go with his parents to Bob’s house for dinner.
Another day, he and his dad drove to Safford, Arizona, in hopes of locating a motel where he and Carol had stayed over a weekend in the late spring of 1962—Bill thought they might have been out there at the time of the murders. They found the motel, but the owners’ records didn’t go back to 1962, so they had another dead end. One afternoon in late November, his friend Jim Wollum took him out to lunch, concerned about his low spirits. If I were in your shoes, Jim told him, I’d be tempted to up and leave the country. Bill allowed he’d considered that; he’d be a liar to say he hadn’t. But he couldn’t run from his children and all those who believed in him. Running would be an admission of guilt.
* * *
Over the long Thanksgiving holiday, Macumber had his boys with him for a three-day weekend. It was a wonderful interval, just being together with them. By Sunday night, he’d made a decision: For thirty-nine years, he’d lived in a protected dream world, having been raised by parents who taught that truth and justice prevail, that God will always protect you from harm. He’d now been forced to face reality, to exit his dream world. He’d survive but he did not intend to keep writing in his journal, saying the same things day after day. Except for significant or special moments, “this will be the last night in 97 days on which I shall commit my thoughts to paper.”
Macumber had his sons again over the Christmas break, from December 23 to January 3, when they returned to school. With his trial due to start in four days, on January 7, he felt panic, fear and the urge to run. He and his boys had spent much of the break out on the desert, where it seemed nothing could ever be wrong. “Yet our world is very possibly coming to an end and I am powerless to stop it,” he wrote. “I want to scream and cry and beg but I cannot do that. My boys must remember their father as being a proud man. They must remember me as a father who always loved them. I want them to cherish those thoughts because it is all I have to leave with them.”
Just ten years old, the Maricopa County East Court Building, on West Jefferson Street in Phoenix, was decidedly utilitarian, a plain ten-story brick-colored box planted on an unremarkable downtown intersection. Bill Macumber’s trial unfolded in a compact courtroom on the sixth floor, a windowless chamber featuring eight rows of spectator seating and walls covered by flat pieces of dark wood held together with aluminum. The defense and prosecution teams sat at separate tables, with deputy county attorneys Larry Cantor and Tom Henze nearest the jury, Jim Kemper and Bill Macumber on the far side. At thirty-five, Kemper appeared younger than his years, an impression helped by his preference for sporty sweaters over suits. He and his client offered a study in contrasts: Kemper casually sprawled in his chair, boyishly grinning, talking in a southern drawl; Macumber sitting upright in a coat and tie, always the taciturn cowboy. Kemper had spirit but little trial experience; he’d mainly done appellate work, one of the reasons the Macumber family could hire him to handle a murder case for only $5,000.
On the bench, Judge Charles Hardy had just finished presiding over another notorious Arizona murder case. On January 6, 1975, the very day before jury selection began in Macumber’s trial, Judge Hardy had sentenced John Henry Knapp to death, a jury having convicted him of setting a fire that killed his two young daughters. In certain quarters, Hardy had a reputation for falling asleep during trials, perhaps due to narcolepsy, but others believed he just tended to close his eyes as he followed the testimony. Lawyers considered him caring and evenhanded, if not the brightest judge in the state. He let them operate without a lot of close control. Some attorneys, for this reason, thought him easily swayed, but this would not prove to be the case at Macumber’s trial.
The state’s case, though entirely circumstantial, without proof of a motive, featured extensive testimony over the course of a week from an overwhelming run of investigators and forensic technicians. Carol’s statement came in, though because of marital privilege, she did not testify. Sergeant Jerry Jacka linked Macumber’s palm print to the victims’ Impala. An FBI firearms expert, Robert Sibert, offered his unequivocal conclusion that three of the four shell casings found at the murder scene had markings produced by the ejector in Bill’s .45-caliber pistol. Deputies Richard Diehl and Ed Calles recounted their versions of what Macumber said on the day of his arrest; though their memories faltered and evolved at moments under cross-examination, each recalled Bill admitting that he’d told Carol he’d shot the two kids.
After listening to Calles testify on January 16, Macumber wrote in his journal, “Right now I see very little hope that I will not be convicted. The fact that I’m innocent has no bearing on what is about to happen to me.… I met with my attorney tonight to go over my testimony.… Jim Kemper was very candid when he said that the jury was not likely to believe me because though true it did sound ‘fishy.’”
* * *
Most striking at this trial was what the jury didn’t hear. Kemper had told Judge Hardy he thought his case would take about a day and a half. As it turned out, he wouldn’t need even that much time, for Hardy now, after the state ended its case on January 17, ruled that three key witnesses for the defense could not testify.
The first two: Thomas O’Toole and Ron Petica. Both of Valenzuela’s former attorneys stood ready to take the stand, O’Toole after writing Judge Hardy in early October. In Hardy’s chambers on the morning of January 20, Kemper and the prosecutors discussed that prospect, with Bill Macumber present. They were making a record for appeals more than debating, since Hardy had already decided he would not let the jury hear about Valenzuela’s confessions.