By NICK R. MARTIN
Angela Pinkerton disappeared on a mild winter day in 2003. A mother-turned-drug-runner, her job that Feb. 26 was to deliver 3 pounds of high-quality speed to a Chandler apartment and pick up $125,000 cash from the tenants.
This story originally ran Sept. 10, 2008 in the East Valley Tribune in Arizona.
She never returned from it.
For months, the case baffled authorities. Had she been killed? Did she run off with the money? If so, where did she go? The trail had grown cold.
Today, federal agents know almost precisely where Pinkerton is, down to an area of about a few hundred feet.
She is buried, they believe, inside a large black tool chest some 60 feet below the surface of a massive landfill in the tiny burg of Mobile, just south of the Valley.
She is destined to remain there, too, after a series of Washington, D.C., power plays barred investigators in Arizona from digging her up.
In fact, the case became a point of heated contention among some of the most powerful members of law enforcement in the nation and was reportedly one of the reasons the Bush administration fired Arizona's top federal prosecutor at the time, Paul Charlton.
The Pinkerton murder is among the most tangled and bizarre cases in recent East Valley history.
To unravel it, investigators had to dig deep into a tightly knit and paranoid ring of methamphetamine users and dealers who knew their own lives were at stake because of the killing.
Just last week, the five-year ordeal moved closer to its conclusion when prosecutors extracted a guilty plea from the last man of the 10-person ring believed to be involved with killing Pinkerton and disposing of her body.
Jose Rios Rico, the feared leader of the group, pleaded guilty Sept. 2 in U.S. District Court in Phoenix to first-degree murder, as well as weapons and drug charges.
In doing so, Rios Rico spared himself a trip to death row.
Pinkerton's family, however, still has no body to put to rest.
AN EASY ERRAND
A 37-year-old mother of three, Pinkerton was lured to the drug trade by the promise of easy money. The job she had on Feb. 26, 2003, was supposed to be about the easiest there is.
"This was going to be the big one," said her mother, Dena Couch, in 2003 after her daughter disappeared.
Pinkerton's instructions from a local meth supplier were to go to a specific unit in the San Ventura Luxury Apartments in Chandler, deliver a shipment of meth to a dealer there and pick up a large amount of cash in return.
She was told to pocket $19,000 for herself and go alone.
It was a simple trafficking job. With a single errand, which would probably take less than an hour, she would earn about half of what the average American family earned in a year.
But Rios Rico, the man receiving the delivery, had other plans that day.
In federal court documents released last week, Rios Rico admitted telling an associate nine days before the delivery that he planned to kill Pinkerton and take her stash.
He told the man "he was going to kill Angela Pinkerton because she was a snitch," the documents say. After the hit, the 25-year-old dealer wanted the other man to drive Pinkerton's car to a remote part of Apache Junction "and walk away from it."
They would get the drugs and not have to pay a cent. But the man turned him down.
In the following week or so, Rios Rico told his girlfriend, Sabrina Creeger, about the plan. He also told another associate named Dennis Spor, known to his friends simply as "Lane."
Rios Rico invited both of them to the apartment to help with the murder, and both agreed.
On the day of the delivery, Pinkerton's boyfriend, Mark Bender, helped her pack 3 pounds of the powdery drug into an empty 12-pack cardboard soda pop case.
He drove her to the large apartment complex, just west of Loop 101 on Ray Road, and parked around the corner while she made the delivery.
Pinkerton found her way to the second-floor apartment and knocked on the door.
The people inside took their places. Lane went to hide in a children's bedroom closet. Rios Rico went to another room. Creeger was sent to answer the door.
Creeger welcomed Pinkerton at the outset and ushered her back to a black leather love seat in the living room. She asked Pinkerton to wait.
Rios Rico walked into the living room and told his girlfriend to go to another room. Her job was done.
Moments later, Rios Rico raised a .22-caliber pistol equipped with a silencer to Pinkerton's head. He pulled the trigger three times.
She slumped over. She bled onto the leather. She was dead.
DUMPING THE BODY
In the parking lot outside, Pinkerton's boyfriend waited in the car for her to return.
Inside the apartment, three people were already working to get rid of her body and clean up the blood.
The two men retrieved a large black tool chest - a trunk, really - from a closet. Each put on a pair of latex gloves and lifted Pinkerton's body into the box.
The three took the soda pop case filled with meth, slipped out of the apartment and drove away, leaving the body and a bloody scene.
Bender was the first to call Chandler police when Pinkerton didn't return to the car after two hours. But a federal search warrant shows he didn't tell officers what Pinkerton had been doing.
It wasn't until days later, after Pinkerton's family also called police about her disappearance, that Bender admitted that a drug deal was involved.
By the time Chandler police searched the apartment on March 4, the trunk was gone. The walls had been repainted and the carpet replaced.
Rios Rico had paid associates with free methamphetamine to gut the apartment and get rid of the bloody evidence.
It wasn't a hard sell. According to records, the day after the killing, a friend of Lane's named Reese Hartnett dragged the heavy trunk out of the apartment and tossed it into an alleyway trash bin. He was paid with 8 ounces of the stolen methamphetamine.
Neighbors reported seeing new carpet being installed on March 1.
COLD CASE TURNS WARM
A pair of Chandler investigators was assigned to look into Pinkerton's disappearance, but they didn't have much to go on.
There was no body and no real evidence of a violent crime. In fact, one of the theories was that Pinkerton may have just left town with the money.
When the investigators were able to catch up with Rios Rico and his girlfriend, the couple admitted to a drug deal with Pinkerton, but they said she left the apartment with the cash and had not been heard from since.
They even said that Pinkerton was supposed to deliver 11 more pounds of meth, but never showed up.
Four months after the disappearance, Detective Mark Gluzinski wasn't even ready to call it a homicide.
"I've gone over it a thousand times in my head," he said in an interview at the time. The evidence just wasn't there.
Eventually, Chandler asked the federal government for help.
Tristan Moreland, an agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, was asked to look at the case with fresh eyes.
He reviewed dozens of documents, photographs and taped interviews. At the end of it all, Moreland was sure Pinkerton was dead.
Proving it was a different matter.
Investigators would probably have to get witnesses to talk if they wanted to make the case.
But bureau spokesman Tom Mangan said Rios Rico had a reputation in the East Valley of being a well-connected man in a Mexican drug cartel. "Everybody believed that this guy could be a very imposing figure," Mangan said.
Investigators were able to put together enough evidence to hang a single federal weapons charge on Rios Rico so they could keep him in jail while they worked the case.
Then the first big break came in October when one of Rios Rico's associates, whose name has not been released, finally cracked under questioning.
He pointed Moreland to a spot in the desert where they had dumped the bloody carpet and love seat.
When investigators arrived at the spot, it was all still there - just slightly damaged from the summer heat.
Over the next two years, investigators were able to use interrogations to turn all 10 people against one another.
What resulted was a massive case brought by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona in March 2005, more than two years after Pinkerton's death.
By the start of 2006, prosecutors had charged all 10 people with a variety of crimes from first-degree murder to methamphetamine possession to helping cover up a murder.
TROUBLE AT THE TOP
Over the years, investigators come across mounds of evidence, such as eyewitness accounts, that pointed them to the landfill in Mobile as the location of Pinkerton's body.
They even knew where in the massive pile of garbage her body was; the company that operates the landfill measured its growth over the years using satellites.
Those measurements narrowed down Pinkerton's location to just a few hundred feet.
"For the cost of between a half million and a million dollars you could find this woman and bring her back to her family," said former U.S. Attorney for Arizona Paul Charlton in a recent interview.
"That evidence that you want ... could literally be reached."
However, officials in Washington refused to spend the cash to dig Pinkerton up.
The decision irked Pinkerton's family. "I just want closure for her kids, my parents, all of us," said her sister, Annette Grzybowski, in 2005.
On top of that, it would make it a lot tougher for prosecutors to ask for the death penalty.
They thought they could prove first-degree murder to a jury, but Charlton, an appointee of President Bush, feared without hard physical evidence, seeking the death penalty was too risky.
In 2006, prosecutors from Arizona traveled to Washington to tell a special panel at the Justice Department that Rios Rico should be out of contention for the death penalty.
"In my thinking," said Charlton, "there is a higher burden of proof required before you can in good conscience seek to take another person's life."
A short time later, Charlton got a letter directly from then-Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the head of the Justice Department.
"You are authorized to seek the death penalty against Jose Rios Rico," Gonzales wrote in the letter dated May 31, 2006.
To Charlton, the message was clear: You will go for the death penalty whether you believe it's appropriate or not.
Looking back now, Charlton, who is in private practice, said it was one of several decisions he believes were made at the Justice Department based on politics, not on what was right.
In this case, he said, he believes the administration wanted to raise its tough-on-crime profile without spending the money to do it.
He even asked for a meeting with Gonzales to appeal the decision, but was rebuffed.
"When you know that the evidence that you want is available and you're being denied the opportunity to retrieve it," Charlton said, "then it becomes unconscionable."
Later that year, after butting heads with Washington over the case, Charlton was fired along with eight other federal prosecutors nationwide who were seen as not being loyal enough to the administration.
Last year, in a review of Justice Department practices, Charlton was asked to share his experience in the Rios Rico case to members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.
"Where the evidence is largely testimonial and forensic evidence is lacking," he told the committee, "the risk that we are wrong, that we might convict and execute the wrong man, however slight, is too high."
A congressional inquiry into the firings of the U.S. attorneys is ongoing.
In the end, his disagreement with Washington didn't change anything for Rios Rico, whose attorney declined to discuss the specifics of the case.
Last week, long after Charlton's removal, Rios Rico pleaded guilty to all of the charges against him. He is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 23.
It made him the last of the 10 people, including Pinkerton's boyfriend, her supplier, Rios Rico's girlfriend and several of their associates, to plead guilty in the federal case.
None is facing the death penalty.