Witness' death bears uncertainty on extortion case: FBI's 'Employee #3' allegedly 'closed deal' with ex-Mayor Sutton - The Explorer: Import

Witness' death bears uncertainty on extortion case: FBI's 'Employee #3' allegedly 'closed deal' with ex-Mayor Sutton

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Posted: Monday, August 14, 2006 11:00 pm | Updated: 7:52 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

August 9, 2006 - The FBI called him "Steven Jones" or "Employee #3."

Investigators wired the Waste Management employee, who captured on tape what the federal government claims will prove former Marana Mayor Bobby Sutton Jr. and businessman Richard Westfall tried to extort a job and thousands of dollars from the nation's largest hauler of solid waste.

A federal grand jury last spring indicted Sutton and Westfall on one count each of conspiracy and attempted extortion. Westfall faces an additional charge of lying to investigators.

On April 22, Dave Christensen - the FBI's "Steven Jones" - fell to his death while hiking in a canyon northeast of Phoenix, leaving the government without one of its key witnesses.

"I'm gonna, uh, call the people that I need to call to make this happen, and, um, um, you can tell [Westfall] . . . he should be looking for some money in his bank today," Christensen said during an April 5, 2002, conversation with Sutton, according to the indictment.

With those words, Christensen closed the alleged deal. Sutton had given the undercover employee Westfall's bank account number.

The defendants used Sutton's position as mayor to try to extort money and a lucrative consulting contract for Westfall from Waste Management, according to the indictment. Sutton threatened to use his influence to possibly shut down the company's transfer station on Ina Road if Waste Management failed to give Westfall what he wanted, the government alleges.

"It's a trust issue. It's a credibility issue," Sutton told a Waste Management employee on March 19, 2002, according to the indictment. "And at this point, I'd rather not do business with your … company in my town."

In 2001, an Arizona Department of Public Safety investigation revealed more than 3,000 incidents of overweight loads leaving the Ina Road station. Some trucks - operated by subcontractors, including Westfall - carried more than 25,000 pounds above the legal limit, according to records.

Sutton assured Waste Management employees that the alleged deal would gag Westfall and keep him from taking information about the illegal hauling to the press, according to the indictment.

The FBI brought in Christensen towards the end of the investigation. He worked as a security manager for Waste Management's western region, which includes eight states. The company refused to release his employment dates.

"Mr. Christensen played a minor role in the investigation at the request of the FBI," according to a written statement from Waste Management Attorney John Newell. "Mr. Christensen did exactly what the Government asked of him - no more and no less."

Christensen would have testified at Sutton and Westfall's trial, tentatively slated for January. His death leaves U.S. Attorney Howard Sukenic without one of three Waste Management employees who taped conversations with Sutton and/or Westfall, and the defense can no longer take a crack at Christensen on the stand.

"It's hard to assess at this point what effect his death will have on (the case)," Westfall's attorney Steve Weiss said. "It can't be good for the government."

Reached at his office on July 25, Sukenic declined to comment. He would say only that he learned of Christensen's death from a Waste Management representative.

Defense attorneys probably will make a motion to suppress the tapes on which Christensen appears. The prosecution has 49 pieces of evidence that document meetings and phone conversations Waste Management employees had with Sutton and/or Westfall, according to court records. The evidence includes audio and video recordings, as well as transcripts.

"It's the sixth amendment right of confrontation," Weiss said. "You can listen to a tape, but you can't cross examine a tape. Well, you can, but you won't get any answers."

Sutton's attorney Michael Piccarreta failed to return phone calls from the EXPLORER.

Christensen's relationship with Waste Management began 10 years ago in Irvine, Calif. While serving on the city council, Christensen in 1997 engineered a 10-year, $60-million contract between Waste Management and the city of Irvine, according to a longtime city official.

The Christensen-Waste Management deal got the nod over other bids, which went unconsidered, the official recalled.

"(Christensen) came in when it was time to review the competitive bids and said Waste Management had this great deal," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Next thing I knew, it was on the agenda."

Christensen's ex-wife Patricia Hoffman remembers two Waste Management executives coming to the family-run business in Laguna Hills to discuss the proposal.

"Dave had a lot of contacts," Hoffman said. "He was a mover and shaker."

During his four years on the city council, Christensen caught plenty of heat for his seemingly cozy relationship with companies that had contracts with the city.

Waste Management contributed to his campaign for city council in 1996, a few months before the council voted on the company's contract. A handful of companies helped fund his auto racing team, including developer Trammel Crow Co., where Christensen worked as a security director for six years prior to winning a seat on the council. He also received a loan from Trammel Crow's managing director in 1998.

Christensen never recused himself from votes involving the companies in question, according to city records.

A University of California Irvine political science professor filed seven complaints against Christensen with the Fair Political Practices Commission about a month before the November 2000 election. The complaints resulted in several fines for Christensen.

Despite his reputation as "an extremely charismatic councilman" as one official put it, voters handed him a loss in the election, spurred on by a last-minute series of unfavorable mailers sent out by Christensen's opponents.

"He made a lot of enemies," Hoffman said. "I always told him he was swimming with sharks, but he wouldn't be pushed around."

Hoffman never wanted her husband to run for city council. The more he became involved in politics, the less time he devoted to the family's embroidery and screen printing business, which Hoffman still operates today.

Waste Management came to Christensen's rescue after his failed attempt at re-election, hiring him to oversee security for its Western region. The former Chicago cop also found work as a private investigator, which by all accounts continued when he moved to Arizona.

Christensen had impeccable detective skills and could "get someone to fall into a trap," Hoffman said.

In late 2005, Christensen got an internship at KMOG, a country music station in Payson, where he lived with his second wife. With his deep voice, he slid effortlessly into the world of radio, General Manager Blaine Kimball said.

Christensen sometimes left town to do investigations, the manager said.

"He would let me know when he had something to investigate," Kimball said, adding that Christensen mentioned the Sutton case on at least one occasion.

"I never got any details."

If Christensen worked as a private investigator in Arizona, he did so illegally.

The 60-year-old never possessed a valid license to do private investigations in Arizona, according to DPS, which issues the licenses.

If someone does as little as a stakeout for $1 payment, that person has committed a class 1 misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of a $2,500 fine and six months in jail.

A couple weeks before his death, Christensen somewhat jokingly investigated a political group that set out to bash then candidate and current Payson Mayor Bob Edwards.

Christensen and the mayor met at a town hall meeting in 2005. Christensen came to the meeting as a reporter for KMOG, but his political insight earned him a spot on the mayor's campaign strategy team.

So when a certain group of developers began running negative ads and hurling personal attacks at Edwards, Christensen stepped in to find out who belonged to this "mystery group," Edwards said.

"Dave said, 'I'll go in and be a private investigator. Hire me for a dollar,'" Edwards recalled. "So, we paid him a dollar and the next thing we know, this group starts saying we've hired this big-time, high-priced investigator to look into them."

About a month before his death, Christensen got a job as a copy editor for Westwood One's MetroSource News, a wire service that generates news copy for radio and television stations.

"Radio is the place where he belonged," said Edwards, who belongs to the search and rescue team that tried to save Christensen's life in April. "He lived in your face and was bigger than life."

Born in New Hampshire, Christensen mostly grew up in the Chicago area. The son of a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, he had a younger brother and two younger sisters.

Christensen's body matched his big voice. He stood 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighed 255 pounds at the time of his death, according to a Gila County Sheriff's Office report.

His size and athletic ability earned him football and baseball scholarships to Northern Illinois University. A pitcher on the baseball diamond, Christensen played defensive end on the gridiron.

Football left him with knee and back problems the rest of his life. In fact, Christensen dropped out of college when he broke his collarbone. He entered the Army at the height of the Vietnam War and served just 11 months and 11 days, thanks to another injury.

After a short stint as a crime scene investigator, Christensen moved to California and became head of security for a hotel in Newport Beach.

Christensen made friends easily, Hoffman said. When he met Newport Beach resident and Western movie icon John Wayne, the two hit it off. Wayne even hired Christensen as a bodyguard shortly before the actor's death in 1979.

Christensen met Hoffman while on an undercover assignment to nab a tip-stealing busboy. Christensen thought he and his police partner needed a better disguise, so he requested a waitress seat the next two women who came in at their table.

Hoffman and a girlfriend came in and sat down with the two men.

"I never had so much magnetism toward someone so quick before," Hoffman recalled. "And 14 days later, we were married."

Christensen left Hoffman in February of 2000, after almost 24 years of marriage. He gave no reason, Hoffman said.

Known as an adventure freak, nothing Christensen did surprised his friends and acquaintances. However, his death leaves some scratching their heads.

In April, he went hiking alone in the rugged terrain of Pine Creek Canyon Narrows.

"The area he was in was unbearable," friend and rescue team member Edwards said. "It was probably the most rugged area I've ever been in. He shouldn't have been in there, but that was Dave - he pushed the limits."

Known to experienced rock climbers as "Isolation Canyon," the area has no maintained hiking trails.

"You never see anybody in that area," said Marissa Christman, whose rock-climbing group heard Christensen yell for help when he fell 35 feet from a steep cliff. The group glimpsed the hiker kneeling on a rock shelf by a waterfall a few minutes before he fell.

Christman and her group found Christensen with a broken arm and leg, soaking wet and struggling to breathe. Christman talked to the still-conscious Christensen for hours while waiting for a search and rescue team.

"I kept asking him what time he was expected back," Christman said.

"I'm not. Nobody knows I'm here," she recalled him saying.

The rock climbers removed a revolver and hunting knife from his belt, which Christensen said he needed for protection.

"I assumed he meant from wildlife," Christman said.

Christensen told the climbers that he went hiking down the canyon to surprise his wife, a realtor who had an appointment at a house on the other side of the canyon.

"It's just not logical," said Kimball, who lives near the canyon. "You can go a different way down the canyon and just fall off a little hillside. There's just a lack of logic."

Christensen died before rescue workers reached him. A sheriff's report cites a collapsed lung and internal bleeding from a lacerated liver as the causes of death.

Some, including Kimball, believe marriage problems played a role in what the Gila County Sheriff's Office dubbed an accidental death.

Payson Police officers in January arrested Christensen for reckless behavior with a deadly weapon after an argument with his wife.

An intoxicated Christensen walked through the couple's home with a .45-caliber handgun pressed against his temple, telling his wife "You'll be sorry." His wife dialed 911 on her cell phone, because he had torn the phone cords from the wall, according to police reports.

After the arrest, he informed one officer that he would use a .44-caliber pistol, not the .45, if he wanted to shoot himself, reports state.

Reached on her cell phone on July 26, Pam Christensen refused to comment on her late husband's involvement in the Sutton and Westfall case, which she described as "high profile."

Defense attorneys in the past have accused Waste Management and the FBI of creating a crime, not reporting one. One of the investigation's architects, FBI Agent Cliff Goodman clashed with Sutton's attorney once before. A Pima County Superior Court Judge used the words "zealousness" and "exaggeration" to describe Goodman's testimony in that case.

Contacted in person at the FBI headquarters in Tucson, FBI Agent Bob Zalina, also a participant in the investigation, declined to comment. Goodman no longer works out of the FBI office.

Waste Management described Sutton's and Westfall's claim of an FBI-Waste Management setup as "nonsensical," according to court records.

The defense team recently tried to get documents from Waste Management that would shed light on the overhauling from the Ina Road station. U.S. District Court Judge Cindy Jorgenson ruled against the defense in their motions to obtain an alleged audit of overweight loads and a list of 50 problems needing attention at the station. If the latter existed, it burned in an August 2003 fire, according to Waste Management.

In court filings, the company called the defense's effort "a classic attempt to divert attention from the criminal charges … Mr. Sutton has chosen to attack the victim of their criminal conspiracy … The defendants have not explained how those problems would have given them a legal justification to attempt to extort money and a job from Waste Management."

The company "has nothing to hide," attorney Steve Madison wrote in the same June court filing.

"(The U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI) taped hours and hours of conversations with the defendants, sometimes with the help of (Waste Management) employees," Newell wrote in an Aug. 3 e-mail to the EXPLORER. "These tape recordings will substantiate Waste Management's belief that the company was victim of a crime by Mr. Sutton and Mr. Westfall. Waste Management looks forward to the trial and allowing a jury … to hear the tapes and decide for themselves what happened."

Sutton has failed to return phone calls from the EXPLORER for more than a month. He can no longer be reached at Dex Media, where he worked as a Yellow Pages ad salesman.

Sources inside Dex allege Sutton took part in several unethical and deceptive practices at the Yellow Pages company, including selling ads to a garage door business he owns.

A source confirmed that Sutton no longer appears on the company's employee roster or e-mail list. Sources at Dex also informed the EXPLORER that they received an e-mail last month, stating that Sutton no longer worked at the firm.

A manager at Dex last week declined to comment before abruptly hanging up the phone.

Judge Jorgenson has scheduled a September conference with attorneys in the extortion case.

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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