Transcript of call from witness R.L.
Dispatcher: 911, what’s your emergency?
Caller R.L.: I need to report an accident. Somebody- a car just went over the barrier on the I-17. Northbound.
Dispatcher: Sir, do you see a mile marker?
Caller R.L.: Yeah, we’re, ah, we’re outside of Camp Verde in Copper Canyon. I’m walking towards the mile marker. There’s- it looks like 282.
Dispatcher: How many vehicles are involved?
Caller R.L. I think it’s- oh fuck, did you hear that? Whatever ran off the cliff just exploded. There’s smoke coming up over the side of the mountain.
Dispatcher: We’ve got someone on the way.
Transcript of call from witness D.W.
Dispatcher: Yavapai County 911, what’s the emergency?
Caller D.W.: Yeah, an SUV just went over the cliff. The car is on fire and there are people screaming. It’s…it’s fucking chaos out here.
Dispatcher: Is this Northbound 17 just south of…Camp Verde?
Caller D.W.: Yes. People are trying to get down the cliff.
Dispatcher: Can you see any injuries, ma’am?
Caller D.W.: Yes, there’s people, there’s [inaudible] in the ravine outside the car. There’s, oh my god, there’s kids. There’s kids and an adult. A woman, I think.
Dispatcher: Is anyone injured?
Caller D.W.: No, they’re all dead.
I leaned back against my truck and took a few deep drags of my cigarette before snubbing it out on the tire and flicking it under the car next to me. Stella should be pulling up with the kids any minute and she’d flip her shit if she saw me smoking.
As I watched for headlights coming around the corner of the hotel parking lot I popped a breath mint and took a swig of water. Phoenix was hot in July – oppressively hot. And even though the sun was almost down I couldn’t last out here much longer.
While it was a nice escape from my frigid hometown of Flagstaff in the winter, Phoenix left much to be desired in the summertime. I tried to come down as infrequently as possible during the during the summer months but sometimes work made that impossible. I always hated leaving the mountains. Even though the valley was only two and a half hours away from Flag, it may as well have been a thousand miles. My small, mountain town and the sprawling, desert city might as well be different countries all together.
I saw the headlights of Stella’s silver Mazda peek around the corner of the building and I pushed myself off the truck.
She pulled into a nearby space and I smiled as I went to greet her. I could tell by the look on her face when she got out that she was worn down.
“How was the drive?” I asked her as I opened the back door to let Aiden and Wyatt out.
“Long. You know I hate that drive, I don’t know how you do it so often.”
I laughed. “Well that’s what I get paid for. A necessary evil to keep my family living in luxury.”
“Dad, do I have to go tonight?” Aiden yelled from the trunk of the car where he was trying, in vain, to pull his overnight bag out of the jostled mess of luggage.
“What you don’t like dressing up?”
He made a face at me. “I hate it. Plus there’s not gonna be other kids there.”
“That’s not true; Dani and Paul’s kids will be there.”
“They’re girls, they don’t count.”
“You’ll have your brother.”
“Daaaaad, he’s only three.”
“Aiden!” Stella yelled as she propped the door into the hotel open. “Quit complaining and get your brother inside. What’s the room number, Matt?”
“323. Door’s open.”
Aiden took his brother’s hand and walked him inside and down the hall. When Stella and I were alone, I eyed the trunk with confusion.
“Why so many bags? You know we’re only here for tonight, right?”
“Yes, Matt, I know that.” Stella rubbed her temples.
“You feeling okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just tired.”
“This heat probably isn’t helping either. Do you want to go inside? I’ll get the bags.”
“No, I’ll help. Have you seen Dani and Paul yet this week?”
“Not yet. They’ve been busy.”
Dani and Paul were very close friends of my wife and I. The only reason Stella and kids were even in Phoenix was to attend their tenth anniversary dinner this evening. I’d been here all week working on campus.
As much as I loved our friends I couldn’t wait to depart in the morning for higher elevations and cooler temperatures – even with Dani and Paul’s three daughters in tow. Stella had graciously offered to watch their kids while they spent the next week in Mexico.
“Do you have an Excedrin, hon?”
“Inside. Is your head hurting again?” I asked.
“Just a bit.”
“You’ve been tired and nauseous a lot in the past few days, Stel. Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Yeah. I’ve just been getting a lot of headaches lately.”
Eyewitness account of K.B.
I don’t know why I noticed it, maybe just because it was sitting there for so long. It was a blue suburban – 2009 or 2010 model maybe? – and it was parked on the side of the highway outside of New River just idling. I had to take multiple trips in and out of New River that morning for work and that truck probably sat there for 25 minutes. It barely fit on the shoulder even though it was parked right up next to the guard rail. It was definitely a road hazard. I was planning to check on the car the next time I went out but by the time I got back it was gone.
Eyewitness account of L.L.
I was in the far right lane getting off of Northbound 17 at Exit 144 in Black Canyon City. This blue suburban suddenly merges over two lanes and cuts me off. It was so sudden that I was surprised it didn’t roll. I got pretty angry and laid on my horn. I was going to pull up next to the truck at the stop sign but I saw little kids in the car so I just kept driving. The woman in the driver’s seat didn’t even look at me. She looked so dazed – I’m not even sure she heard my horn.
“You look amazing, Stel.”
My wife, after 8 years of marriage, was still one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen. Not that she believed it, of course; in fact I was pretty sure she never had.
Stella was a few years older me and I knew that had always bothered her. When I first met my wife she was a quiet, nervous girl who still lived at home with her parents. We met at an engagement party for a mutual friend and I used the next few months to slowly nudge her out of her shell. It didn’t take me long to realize that Stella was already in love with me by the time I’d formally met her. I married my wife a year later and got her pregnant immediately. Stella was over the moon, all she’d ever wanted was to be a mother. She told me the day of Aiden’s birth was the happiest day of her life.
Maybe that’s what she needs, I mused as I watched my wife lather her arms with hotel supplied vanilla scented lotion. Maybe another baby would make her happy again.
Stella had fallen into a sort of depression in the last year and refused to go to the doctor. I did the best I could to make the good times great and the bad times more tolerable for her.
“Did you hear me, babe? You look stunning.”
“I’m glad you still think that,” she said without looking at me.
“You know I’ve always thought that.”
Stella finally looked away from the mirror and gave me an impish smirk. “Would be nice if you showed me….physically, more often.” She winked.
I sighed and walked over to wrap my arms around her lotion-slick shoulders. God knows, we hadn’t been intimate in months. And I knew that a sensitive girl like Stella must be going crazy, thinking I was falling out of love with her or some other nonsense.
“Well, if we didn’t have five kids in the house over the weekend…” I trailed off and gave her my most seductive smile in the mirror.
She frowned. “You just always seem to have an excuse, Matt. If you’re not working late on campus, you’re down in Phoenix. I just don’t understand why you get pulled down to that campus so much when you teach at the Flagstaff campus.”
I dropped my arms from her shoulders and ran a hand through my messy hair. “Stel, I’ve told you, I’m helping out the chemistry department down there. I have to continue to do that if I want tenure.”
Stella walked away from me with a dismissive wave.
“Boys!” She yelled, knocking on the door to our adjoining room with the kids. “Aiden! Is Wyatt dressed? Bring him in here; we’re leaving for dinner in a few.”
Eyewitness account of Officer J. Pendlo (Badge #2881)
I had a driver pulled over in Black Canyon City on Squaw Valley Road in the shoulder of the Westbound lane. As I was running his driver’s license I noticed a dark blue 2009 Chevy Suburban stopped on the dirt road off Maggie Mine Road leading to the abandoned dog track. Plate number 22D4N12. The back bumper was heavily dented and the passenger side of the vehicle was sideswiped.
A woman had the back door open and was leaning against the vehicle’s frame talking to someone in the backseat. I heard yelling coming from inside the vehicle. The woman stumbled back a bit and then climbed into the backseat of the suburban. She appeared to be distressed. I intended to go investigate the vehicle when I finished writing the traffic violation. The vehicle was gone by the time I pulled out some minutes later. I searched the area but I believe the vehicle was back on the highway by then.
Eyewitn+ess account of E.S.
I was pulled over for running a stop sign and I was texting my wife while the officer was back running my plates. I looked up and saw a woman and a maybe 9 year old girl standing outside the car. The woman was trying to walk forward and the girl was pushing her back trying to get her to sit down. At one point the girl got back into the car and the woman slid down the car to the ground. She looked really out of it. Then all of the sudden she got a sort of second wind and sprung up and walked around the other side of the car, jerked the door open and started yelling at the girl inside. I could hear a couple kids in there crying. She had her hand in the car trying to reach someone. Then she crawled into the backseat and about a minute later the car left.
I shook Paul’s hand as I grabbed a scotch off the bar. “Congrats, old man! Ten years is quite an accomplishment in this day and age.”
“Well, you’re right behind me, there Matt.” He laughed.
“Very true,” I said, glancing over at our wives who were talking in the corner. “But loving a woman that long is so easy when she’s so beautiful.” I saw her laugh then and admired the boistrous rise and fall of her chest, the swell of her breasts emerging slightly from the low cut glittering neckline of her gown. Even though she was so torn right now I hoped she knew how much I loved her.
“Thick as thieves, those two,” Paul chuckling, watching the scene beside me. “Ever since college.”
“Worse than sisters.” I nodded as Dani picked up her youngest, Ava, and handed the squealing 1 year old to my wife. Stella laughed louder than I had heard in the past year and bounced little Ava on her hip. I smiled as I watched her. Another baby may be the solution after all.
“Uncle Matt?” My attention turned to the lovely young lady standing behind me, Paul’s oldest. Izzy was intelligent like her mother but the spitting image of her father. The two had always been close. Paul put his arm around his daughterand kissed her on the head.
“Hi Izzy,” I smiled, “are you excited to spend the weekend in Flagstaff? I think Aunt Stella is going to take you hiking tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I’m excited. Um, Wyatt keeps trying to pull people’s wine glasses off the table and he’s already spilled sprite on himself.”
“Ugh, that boy. Thanks for the heads up, Iz, I’ll go get that little outlaw.”
I found my son sitting in between Paul and Dani’s other daughter, Emma, and his big brother.
“We were just holding him here. He’s trying to drink the wine.” Emma said confidently as Aiden nodded.
“Is that so?”
“Well, he was trying to grab it. I think he was going to drink it.”
“Yeah, he was. He was, Dad, but I stopped him.”
I shook my head lightheartedly and looked around for Stella. She was now sitting at a table chatting and laughing with Paul’s sister, not a care in the world. I watched her for a moment and frowned. My wife wasn’t one to neglect the whereabouts of her children, especially our youngest. Most of her days were spent following Wyatt around the world making sure he was safe and happy. It was very unlike her.
I picked Wyatt up from the bench. “Okay boys, it’s time to start calming down. We have an early morning so I think we’ll head out in about 20 minutes.”
“I want to stay and play with Emma.” Aiden stood up and crossed his arms.
“I thought you didn’t like girls,” I teased.
“Dad, STOP!” Aiden yelled so loud that people on the other side of the room turned to look. He ran out into the hall, his face reddening with every step. Emma and I both laughed and I looked over again at Stella hoping she was laughing too. But she wasn’t.
Stella was sitting down at the suddenly empty table with her head in her hands, rubbing her temples.
Transcirpt of call from witness C.K.
DPS Operator: Highway Patrol, where can I direct your call?
Caller C.K.: Hi, yeah, sorry, I didn’t know who to call but I thought 911 probably wasn’t it. Ah, there’s a truck in-
DPS Operator: Do you have a road safety issue, ma’am?
Caller C.K.: Yeah, I’m about 5 miles north of Cordes Lakes on the I-17 and there’s a truck in the left lane going slow. Like, really slow.
DPS Operator: I’m sorry ma’am, but we don’t handle those types of calls. Would you like me to put you through to emergency services?
Caller C.K.: No, I don’t think it’s an emergency. But I passed her and she’s going about 25 miles per hour in a 65 mile per hour zone. She just has this, like, blank look on her face. She needs to get off the road, because she keeps crossing the middle line. She looks really out of it.
DPS Operator: Would you like me to put you through to emergency services?
Caller C.K.: No, it’s fine. I’m way past her now, I just thought someone should know about it but yeah, I guess, I dont- I don’t need to report it at this point.
Transcript of voicemail from the cell phone of Paul Grigg (602-307-29xx)
“Daddy, I’m scared, can you come get me- me? Aunt Stella doesn’t feel [inaudible] she’s acting really weird and scary. I don’t understand what she’s saying when she talks and Wyatt won’t [pause] stop crying and we’re scared. Ava fell asleep. She won’t listen to me, Dad, I told her to call you but she wouldn’t so the last time she [inaudible] [pause] I took her phone. Please come get us or send Uncle Matt to come get us. I don’t know what to do and I’m really scared. [crying] Aunt Stella keeps hitting stuff with the car and I saw her throw up [crying] [inaudible] driving right. Please call me back, Daddy, or text the phone so she doesn’t hear you.”
“We’ll swing by around 8 tomorrow and grab the girls. What time is your flight?”
“10:30 but the earlier you get to our house the better. Dani and I wouldn’t mind some alone time.” Paul leaned back on his heels and winked at his wife.
“Alright, alright, Matt and I know how it goes,” Stella giggled and leaned her head against my shoulder. “How does 7:30 sound?”
“Earlier.” Paul growled wrapping his arms around Dani’s waist and nuzzling her ear.
I’d known my wife so well and for so long that I detected the instant she felt uncomfortable and intimidated. She laughed nervously and I could feel the envy radiating off of her. Stella had always wanted the sort of open affection, no apologies relationship that Dani and Paul shared. It had just never been that way with us. I opened my mouth to break the tension but Stella spoke first.
“You guys are like kids. Having sex all the time and in Mexico no less. Maybe you’ll babysit for us some weekend and we can go to Mexico.”
“Stel, are you drunk?” Paul teased. “You’re terrified of Mexico!”
“You know I don’t drink! And I’d risk being kidnapped in Mexico…Matt would protect me.” Stella smiled up at me with the sort of eyes I hadn’t seen in so long I’d forgotten how beautiful they were.
I wrapped my arm around her and pulled her to me.
“Girls! In the car!” Paul yelled to his daughters who were running around the empty parking lot. “I swear they’re usually not this crazy.” Paul shook his head.
“Oh don’t worry about it;” Stella laughed, “we’ve got lots of room to run on our property. They’re in safe hands.”
Eyewitness account of J.S.
I was buying cigarettes at the Chevron in Cordes Lakes when I heard somebody slam on their breaks outside and punch the horn. I looked out the window and saw a blue SUV drive by, just as calm as can be while this guy in a white pickup is yelling out his window at it.
Then I was driving over to Wagners and I saw the same blue SUV going down Stagecoach Trail. The driver pulled over to park the car on the shoulder and then suddenly changed her mind or something and flipped a u-turn instead. The tires left tracks in the road. I could see some little kids’ heads bobbing around through the back windshield. I decided to follow her because I thought maybe she was drunk. We see a lot of drunk drivers around here.
So I get in my car and follow her back down Stagecoach. She starts speeding up as she gets closer to the highway. I estimate she got up to about 75 and the limit on Stagecoach is 40. I lost her when she ran the light at Oasis. I would have called 911 to report her but I didn’t have my phone.
Transcript of call from witness M.M.
Dispatcher: 911, what’s your emergency?
Caller M.M.: Hi, I’m calling to report a truck going the wrong way down the 69.
Dispatcher: You said the vehicle is going the wrong way?
Caller M.M.: Yeah, he’s going north, or…south, sorry, in the Northbound lane. Outside of Spring Valley.
Dispatcher: He’s going south in the Northbound lane?
Caller M.M.: Yes.
Dispatcher: Can you describe the vehicle, sir?
Caller M.M..: It’s like a blue colored SUV. A Tahoe, I think.
Dispatcher: Can you tell me-“
Caller M.M.: Oh shit! It just hit the guard rail. And it’s- [laughing] it’s still going!
Transcript of call from witness F.D.
Caller F.D.: Hi, I need to report a speeding truck on the I-17 .
Dispatcher: You said it’s speeding?
Caller FD: Yeah, it’s speeding. It’s going at least 100 miles an hour.
Dispatcher: Where are you on the interstate?
Caller FD: I just passed the exit for the 169. He’s about a half mile ahead of me.
Dispatcher: Is the vehicle in the Southbound or Northbound lane, sir?
Caller FD: Northbound. It’s headed into Copper Canyon.
“Stella. Stella, wake up, we have to get the boys ready.”
She didn’t move a muscle.
“Baby, are you okay?”
“Yeah,” she moaned, “Just another migraine.”
“Stel, we gotta get you to the doctor. These chronic headaches worry me.” “No, I’m fine, really, I’m fine. I already saw my doctor about it and he said it’s likely the start of menopause.”
I tried not to show the surprise on my face. I must have failed.
“Yes, Matthew, I’m going through menopause because I’m older than you.” She snapped. “You knew that when you married me.”
“It’s not that, I just-”
“Save it.” Stella rolled away from me and buried her face in the pillows. “Just go.”
“Yeah, just start heading home. I’ll be right behind you. I just need to sleep for another half an hour.”
“I can’t. We told Paul and Dani we would pick the girls up early.”
“Fuck them. And fuck you for caring so much about their sex life.”
I got up from the bed and awkwardly straightened my tie in the mirror just to give myself something to do. It seemed I had been right about Stella’s feelings of inadequacy last night.
I’d made a move on her as soon as we’d gotten the kids to bed the night before. I’d pulled her into me and slid my hands down her hips, then slowly pulled her shirt up over her head. I’d let my hand slip down into her lacy bra. I’d kissed her neck…
She’d jerked away from me then, complaining that she suddenly felt nauseous. I believed her too. Her face had grown pale and her hands were shaking slightly as she unzipped her pants and threw them in the corner.
Then she’d gone straight to sleep.
“I really don’t give a shit about their sex life, Stella, I care about being where we said we’d be when we said we’d be there.”
“I’m sorry,” she whimpered from the bed after a moment. “It just hurts so much.”
“Why don’t I take the boys and go get the girls and then I’ll come back here. It’ll give you some time to sleep.”
“No, it’s, it’s fine. I’ll take an Excedrin and I’ll go get the girls. You go ahead and head north, somebody needs to let the dogs out this morning.”
“Okay, sweetie. Want me to take the boys?”
“No, let them sleep in. Just take my car and leave me the suburban.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure. I’ll take the kids.”
Transcript from the interview of Danielle E. Grigg
“Stella showed up just after 8 o’clock. She seemed [pause] normal. She came to the door, she was smiling, and she picked up Ava and tickled her. I mean she was just normal, old Stella. I didn’t know, I couldn’t tell that anything was wrong, [pause] um, [pause] excuse I’m, I’m sorry. [pause] [crying] I couldn’t tell that anything was wrong with her. Paul came to the door with all the kids’ bags and gave her a hug. She hugged him back.
He walked all the luggage out to Matt’s car and I kissed and hugged my girls goodbye. [pause] I’m sorry. Um, I kissed my girls goodbye and I held Ava for a minute. And then Paul kissed the kids goodbye. He talked to Izzy for awhile because she was crying and didn’t want to leave. Those two , they were like best friends.
Then we put the kids in the car and Paul and I said hi to the boys. Izzy, Ava and Wyatt were in the middle row and Emma and Aiden were in the back. Then she – Stella, sorry – hugged us both and told us to have a safe flight. She seemed happy, she told the kids they were going to have a Disney sing-along. [crying] Then she backed out of the driveway with my children and I never saw them again.”
Transcript of call from witness I.N.
Dispatcher: Yavapai County 911.
Caller I.N.: Um, oh god. Fuck. Oh Christ, there’s, this, ah, there’s a car that was in front of me and it just went over the guard rail into the canyon. Just, oh god, he just [inaudible] and went over. He didn’t even slow down at all. I’m still going, should I turn around?
Dispatcher: Where are you, sir?
Caller I.N.: On the 17. In the canyon.
Eyewitness account of T.N.
As soon as I saw the car go over, I stopped on the West shoulder of the road. I’d noticed that truck earlier because it’d been weaving in and out of traffic as it approached me. Something was definitely happening with the driver. She was really calm and steady, like real oddly serene, almost oblivious to what was going on outside of the car. She cut in front of me but I was prepared for it so I slowed down without a problem. She didn’t. She just kept going in that trajectory right over the side of the mountain.
Other people started puling over too and we tried to get down the cliff but it’s a pretty sheer drop right there. Then about, well, when I guess we were about halfway down, the truck caught on fire. There were bodies all over the place. Little kids, mostly. I’ve never seen anything like it. I saw photos of the accident on the news but they were taken after the police had been there and cleaned up a bit. When we first got down into the canyon, it was like looking into hell. All the bodies were still burning. Everyone was dead.
SATURDAY AND THE END
I made my first call to Stella’s cell phone at 11:04. It rang for awhile and then went to voicemail. This didn’t worry me as my wife usually turned her cell phone on silent when she was driving through the mountains; that road had always made her nervous.
At 11:30 I called again, and this time someone sent it to voicemail. I still didn’t worry too much. I’d talked to Dani before her flight left that morning and she’d told me Stella hadn’t come by to pick up the girls until 8:15 and that she’d planned to get the kids some breakfast before she got on the road. A 2 hours drive would put her in close to 11 but my wife was a slow and careful driver.
At noon I started to pace around my office trying Stella’s cell phone off and on.
By 1 p.m. I was a wreck.
At 1:14 I got a frantic call from Paul about a voicemail he’d received from Izzy. I immediately called the police and reported my wife missing and the phone call from inside the car. A woman called me back after the longest 40 minutes of my life. She told me there had been an accident and that they were sending someone to my house.
Everything that made me human had suddenly been stripped away from me. I lost everything that day.
Paul and Dani flew back from Cancun that night and got the news right when they landed. Paul had to be sedated at the airport. Dani was just numb.
Someone brought me what was left of our personal effects from the crash: Emma’s suitcase and Stella’s overnight bag. All the others had been destroyed in the accident.
Stella’s body was too badly burned to do any conclusive toxicology on her. No one had any idea what had happened to my wife, why she’d been behaving so strangely or how she lost control of the car. The investigation went on until December of 2012 when the case was closed by DPS. No one knew what happened to Stella but the general consensus, all evidence accounting, was that some sort of medical event had occurred on the day of the crash: possibly a stroke or a series of strokes.
I fought hard to clear Stella’s name in the press; they painted her as a drunk and a pill popper. The media also compared her case to something that had happened in New York a few years earlier, the Schuler case. But Stella didn’t drink – ever – or take pills recreationally and she loved her children more than the air she breathed. I hired a private investigator and a lawyer to help me get her body exhumed and retested. Afterward I was told the results were similar to the first tests but that this time the ME had ruled her secondary cause of death “Vehicle Crash due to an Unknown Medical Event”.
The press finally back off.
Paul killed himself just before Christmas the same year of the accident. Dani told me he locked himself in his office everyday and listened to Izzy’s voicemail over and over until one day he hung himself from a cross beam in his daughter’s room.
Dani and I bonded deeply in our grief. We had both lost so much, almost everything. We talked and cried and suffered together for years. And all along Stella’s suitcase sat in my closet. I could never bring myself to unpack it – to unpack her – from my life. But then Dani moved in with me and my soul began to mend. And for the first time since the accident, I could see ahead of the agonizing pain to a more tolerable existence. I was finally ready to let it all go, to let her go. To emerge from under the crippling darkness into a dull, muted light that I knew would grow brighter with time.
And so one day, I opened the suitcase. And found out what really happened to Stella that day.
On top of my wife’s neatly folded clothes was a note she had written to me in black marker. It was only six words, six short words that cast me back into hell, never to return. I know about you and Dani.
It was written on a liquor store receipt.