|The Arizona Republic
Richard Ruelas, The Arizona Republic
They released Robert Louis Armstrong from the Madison Street Jail around 11 a.m. a week ago Saturday, turning him from an accused triple murderer eligible for the death penalty into a free man.
But after Armstrong took those first few steps outside, he almost wanted back in. The intense heat melted away the initial feelings of elation.
"It was hotter than hell," he said.
It was an old bus ticket that began the unraveling of the case against Armstrong. It backed up his alibi that he was in Oregon the day of the April 1998 shootings and earned him his release papers. He was told he could use those release papers to get a city bus.
Dressed in the same shorts and T-shirt he had on when he was booked in June 2003, he walked to the downtown bus station. He wanted to get to Glendale, where a friend lived, a friend who hopefully would let him crash there.
He got off the bus at 19th Avenue and Camelback Road but didn't get a transfer. Another driver wouldn't let him board a westbound bus. So he walked to Glendale in the humid 100-degree weather, finally knocking on his shocked friend's door eight hours later. He slept until 10 a.m. the next day.
"It's hard to say how I felt," Armstrong said about his inglorious release, his legs still glowing bright red from the sunburn he got on his first day free.
Armstrong is 51 years old. He has the tan of a workingman, a mustache of salt-and-pepper whiskers and a right eye that has lazily rolled to the side since birth. His smile has gaps up top where some rotting teeth used to be. In jail they pull them out rather than fix them.
Armstrong is now living in a halfway house. His boss gave him his old job back. He's trying to get his life back together. He's trying not to be bitter.
"It's enough to be out right now," he said. "But I want someone to pay. Because people lied and ruined my life."
Armstrong's arrest was trumpeted with a news conference. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio stood with the victims' family members and called for the death penalty.
The murders of Ronald "Eddie" Hutchison, 26, Dewey Peters, 26, and Crystal "Chrissy" Allison, 21, had gone unsolved since a dirt biker discovered their bodies in a truck parked at the sandy bottom of the Agua Fria River on Easter weekend in 1998.
Witnesses said the three had camped out next to a bonfire the previous night. Authorities figured the motive was robbery but had no leads. Silent Witness offered $1,000 for information leading to a conviction. A victim's family offered $10,000 more.
A man called Silent Witness claiming to have overheard a guy named "Red" talking about the murder at a bar. Sheriff's detectives found Peggy Sue Brown, the ex-girlfriend of "Red." She was in jail and told them she was present during the shootings. She also told them Armstrong fired the bulk of the shots.
Brown, who has a history of drug and theft convictions, is now charged with supplying false information to police.
Armstrong was at work, supervising the line at a pill manufacturing plant in Glendale, when detectives first asked to speak to him at the Durango station. He figured there was no harm in talking to them since he had nothing to hide.
They showed him pictures of "Red" and Brown and asked him if he recognized them. He did. "Red" was a former co-worker several years ago, and Brown was his girlfriend. Sometimes they would drink at the same bar.
Then detectives told him about the shootings and that his name came up in the investigation. Armstrong was taken aback. After several minutes of thinking backward, he realized he had an alibi.
"That couldn't have been me," he told them, "because I was in Oregon that day having Easter dinner with my mother." It was the last time he saw his mother before she died in 2001. The detectives told him if that was the case, it could be verified easily.
One detective put a clip on his shirt and hooked him up to a machine they said was a "sensitivity test." Then he asked about his alibi. He was told the test said he was lying.
He was questioned for six hours before detectives drove him back home.
Two days later, detectives came back to talk to Armstrong. It was noon. He willingly went again.
This time, the questioning got tougher. Detectives brought Brown into the interrogation room and she repeated her version of the shooting. Armstrong told her she was lying. Detectives escorted her out.
Armstrong knew sheriff's detectives had a witness. They then started telling him they found his fingerprints at the scene and had other witnesses. Neither statement was true.
Even during cigarette breaks, detectives kept pressing. They told him he should show courage and honor his family by admitting what he did.
"They kept on saying, 'We've got proof that you did it,' " Armstrong said.
He was told witnesses saw him with "Red" and Brown, drinking at the river bottom all afternoon. Maybe he blacked out the memory. After all, Armstrong was a heavy drinker. By the 10th hour of questioning, that theory started to make some sense.
The detectives painted detailed, lurid scenarios for him, describing the order of the killings. "I just said yes to what they told me I did," Armstrong said. He wasn't even aware he was confessing. He just wanted out of the room.
The detective asked him if he was sorry. "I said, 'Of course, I'm sorry about this. Wouldn't anybody be sorry about this if they killed three people?' "
He was arrested and booked on three counts of first-degree murder. Detention officers put Armstrong in his own holding cell. Across the way, other inmates taunted him with chants of "killer, killer."
Armstrong was assigned a public defender from the county-funded Legal Advocate's Office. In every meeting, he said he was in Oregon at the time of the shooting. But he had no way of proving it. He paid cash for the trip and didn't visit anyone but his now-deceased mother.
As the months passed, "I kept my faith in God up," Armstrong said. "I didn't know how long it would take, but I had to keep my faith up that the truth would come out."
An investigator with the Legal Advocate's Office named Marianne Brown got Greyhound to dig through records until the bus company found the ticket with Armstrong's name on it.
Confronted with that information, Brown admitted to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office that she made up the story. That office, which pressed for the death penalty almost a year ago, decided to drop the charges.
Armstrong is angry with Brown, but he also blames the detectives who interrogated him.
"They lied just as much as Peggy Sue did," he said.
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office would not comment on its interrogation techniques.
Armstrong isn't thinking about suing the Sheriff's Office or the county attorney. He said he just wants to head to Oregon soon and see his ex-wife and children. He wants to put all this behind him.
Armstrong's co-workers passed a hat to collect some money and gave him some boxes of food. Other than that, Armstrong has hardly any possessions. His former roommates, seeing that he was up on three counts of murder, sold his van, clothes and collection of classic-rock CDs.
Now, Armstrong is living in a Maryvale home for recovering alcoholics. Armstrong dried out in jail and is on a program to stay away from alcohol. A small banner hanging in the wood-paneled halfway house displays, in gold letters, the prayer that asks God for the wisdom to distinguish between what can be changed and what can't. Armstrong said alcohol would have blurred that ability.
"I knew I could not get out and start drinking again," he said. "I didn't want to get in an ornery mood and start blaming the world for it.
"There's nothing to be gained from that."
Reach Ruelas at (602) 444-8473
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