IT COULD HAVE BEEN A NIGHTMARE, but it was terrifyingly, inexplicably real. At 4 a.m. on Aug. 31, Jason Foote woke from a deep sleep to find a gunman in a black ski mask and SWAT fatigues straddling his chest, threatening to blow his head off and shouting, mysteriously, "Where's Victor?" From the next bedroom, Foote, 20, could hear the horrified screams of his girlfriend, Luisa Sharrah, 24, her three children and a friend's son as four other masked intruders dragged them into the living room of the house in Phoenix they all shared with Foote's brother Chris and his girlfriend, Spring Wright. "Jason heard Luisa scream," says his father, Tom Foote. "Then Chris shouted, 'What in the hell is going on out there?' " from behind his locked bedroom door.
Instantly two of the intruders, one wielding an automatic rifle and the other a handgun, kicked down the door to face Chris, 25, armed with the 9-mm Luger pistol he kept on a bookshelf above the bed. A gunfight ensued. When the shooting ceased, dozens of bullet holes pocked the walls, the raiders had fled into the night, and Chris and his girlfriend lay dead. "They didn't have a prayer," says Tom Foote, 55, who arrived at the house after a call from Jason. Chris and Spring, 19, lay slumped on the bed, their bodies pierced with bullets.
Chris Foote, the third of eight children, was a construction worker, a lanky 6'2" blond with a lopsided grin. He was devoted to the Dallas Cowboys, the rock band Metallica and, most of all, his love of three years, Spring, a petite cashier at Arby's. "She was an angel, and he was her protector," says Tom, his voice cracking. "I don't understand why they did it."
If the murders seemed senseless at the time, they have only grown more so. That morning, police arrested Michael Sanders, 40, and David Brackney, 45, as they recovered from gunshot wounds at a local hospital. Claiming they had killed the couple in self-defense, the men said they were bounty hunters who had made a house call at the wrong address. As proof they produced documents referring to a former California fugitive, Victor Alcantar, who had skipped on a $25,000 bail bond for a drunk-driving charge in 1992.
Although both men had worked in bail recovery previously, police didn't buy their explanation. "The bounty-hunter story was just a ruse," said Maricopa County attorney Rick Romley, who believes the shootings were part of a bungled robbery. Police later arrested Brackney's son Matthew, 20, Brian Robbins, 28, and Ronald Timms, 32, eventually indicting all five on two counts of first-degree murder and additional charges of aggravated assault, burglary and unlawful imprisonment.
Whatever the truth of their story, the men's arrests have shone new light on the murky world of bounty hunters, whose work is, in most states, totally unregulated and open to anyone who chooses to do it. Only in four states—Florida, Indiana, Nevada and North Carolina—must bounty hunters be licensed. Still, a federal supreme court ruling from the 1870s allows them free rein. In Arizona, a person needs only a bail contract signed by the defendant, says Phoenix police Det. Mike McCullough, to "go into your house, kick in the door, arrest you and drag you out at any time of the night or day."
Yet even in the gun-toting demimonde of bounty hunting, Sanders and Brackney were considered by some as loose cannons. Linda Ownbey, a bounty hunter at Liberty Bail Bonds in Phoenix, says her company stopped hiring Sanders for contract work because he was too "aggressive" toward fugitives. "He was yanking them around and being extremely rude to these people," says Ownbey.
Nor was Ownbey impressed by David and Matthew Brackney when they asked her for work in June, she says, after completing a three-day bounty course. "They came in here dressed in these little black combat pants and black lace-up boots with the attitudes that they were the toughest things that ever walked," she says. "It's all I could do to keep from laughing. Tweedledee and Tweedledum."
Either as bounty hunters or thieves, their incompetence might have been laughable—had it not resulted in tragedy. Police say the bond for Victor Alcantar, who had no connection with the victims, expired in 1993, making his capture worthless. And if robbery was their motive, the intruders would have found nothing in the small white brick house at 5035 W. Windsor Ave., whose residents were too poor to afford even a telephone. Nor were there drugs on the premises. All of which has baffled even police. "Are they stupid and don't know anything? Who knows?" asks McCullough. "Are they home invaders? We've checked out the victims. They have no criminal record. They're upstanding citizens."
Tom Foote, a truck driver, can barely suppress his anger at "what these morons have inflicted," he says. "It just upsets the hell out of me." So much so that he and his wife, Kay, 50, a technician in a cellular-phone factory, haven't been able to face telling Andrew, Chris's 3-year-old son from a previous relationship, that his father is dead. "He thinks he's coming home," says Tom, "and bringing him a present."
Chris and Spring were both high school dropouts drifting between jobs when they were introduced by a friend in 1993. "Things went 'click,' and they straightened each other out," says Spring's mother, Melody Mueller, 39, a daycare center worker who is divorced from Spring's father, Michael Wright, 40, assistant manager of a fast-food restaurant. In the months before they died, Chris had finally found steady work, and Spring, who had enrolled in community college courses to complete her GED, hoped to become a paralegal. "They changed each other for the good," says Mueller.
More than unworldly, Spring "was the kind of person who thought you could write a check and didn't have any concept you had to have money in the bank," her father says fondly. "You could tell her a joke, and 10 minutes later she'd laugh." Entirely smitten, Chris never seemed to mind. In fact he was fiercely protective of Spring. After thieves broke into an apartment they shared six months ago, making off with a TV and VCR, he bought the 9-mm pistol, telling his father, "I don't want anybody to hurt her. They'll have to walk all over me to get her."
Although money was tight, Chris worked overtime to buy his girl a gold-and-diamond "promise-to-be-engaged" necklace and matching heart-shaped ring last Christmas. He planned to propose marriage, he had confided to his father, on Spring's 20th birthday—two days after they died.
As the accused killers await trial on bonds of $1 million each (except Brackney Sr., who is held on $2 million), the Foote family has gathered more than 30,000 signatures for a petition to force a change in Arizona's bounty laws. Jason, Luisa and her children, ages 6 to 12—who were so traumatized from the night's events that for two weeks they would only cry and stare into space—are in counseling. On Sept. 4, Chris, dressed in his Dallas Cowboys shirt, and Spring, wearing a white dress and her promise necklace and ring, were buried, one coffin above the other. "Just like a married couple," says Mueller. "God took them together because they wanted to be together."
MICHAEL HAEDERLE in Phoenix
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