Gin and Toxic: an essay on the 1982 Black Canyon Massacre

gin andIf you are ever in Arizona and find yourself on the Interstate-17, pay attention when traveling through a town called Black Canyon City. With a population just over 2,000, and nothing to recommend it to highway travelers but a small gas station, most people will blow right by this little community without a second glance. But if you slow down and look to the West of the highway, you may see a dilapidated, crumbling building with the simple words “DOG (C)RACK” written on the side in faded, orange lettering.

You have found the Black Canyon City Dog Track, the site of one of the worst massacres in Arizona history. The property has remained derelict and neglected since the 80’s, slowly rotting away on the hilltop where it was once a thriving den of debauchery.

If you were to exit the highway and park on the corner of Maggie Mine Rd and Coldwater Canyon you could walk to the abandoned building and explore the stale, decaying ruins of a once popular greyhound track.

If you approach the side of the building with the fading orange letters you will see a silver gate standing open. If you venture through you will come to an unlocked door into the building. If, by chance, you are on the north side of the building, you will instead find a smaller doorway, this one with the door torn off the hinges. Graffiti to the left of this door reads “Why didn’t you kill yourself today?”

If you then venture inside, you will find yourself in a cavernous, crumbling lobby. You will find a booth for reservations, a wall of betting windows and even a bar. Beyond that, you can explore the kennels, the private offices of the management, and even the overgrown dog track below.

Of course, one of the first things you’ll see are the grandstands; rows and rows of red and yellow plastic seats, many of them still attached, while others have been torn up and thrown in an unceremonious pile nearby. This part of the building has an unsettling feeling as thousands of seats, all eerily expectant, face an empty field of weeds and a small mountain range beyond through large, broken panoramic windows. A large, metal sign hanging above tells you that the red seats cost 50 cents while the yellow seats cost 75.

If you continue to wander, you will find more graffiti such as “Who watches the Watchmen?” and “His name was Robert Paulsen”. You will no doubt finish your tour feeling unsettled and ill, and with good reason.

The story of this dog track is mysterious and difficult to find, having been all but erased from history. After doing over a years worth of research, I believe I have learned enough to warrant writing this article.

Our story begins with a citrus farmer named David K. Funk. In 1942, tired of his Phoenix farm, Funk opened a successful race track in Tijuana called “Caliente Race Track”, which was the first combination horse/dog track in North America.

It was enormously successful and with his new found wealth, Funk moved his wife and four young children – Albert, Charlotte, Richard and David Jr. – back to Arizona and opened several more thriving greyhound tracks.

The Funk children grew and while Albert and David Jr. followed in the family business, Charlotte and Richard showed little interest and went off on their own paths. Charlotte married a young entrepreneur named Monte Kobey and Richard became a university professor.

David Jr. and Albert moved around the country opening tracks in Florida, Oregon and Colorado. David Sr., impressed by his son’s excellent work ethic, named David Jr Vice President of the Arizona race tracks, of which there were five.

David Jr., an aggressive but inexperienced businessman, decided in 1965 to open a new greyhound track in central Arizona. He choose a sleepy, rural town called Black Canyon City, less than an hour north of Phoenix.

When his father wouldn’t approve the funds to build this track, David Jr. found funding through a Delaware company called Western Racing Inc., a well known mob-run enterprise on the east coast.

With their help, Black Canyon City Dog Track was opened in 1967, much to the chagrin of the locals, a devoutly religious group, who were horrified to find their pious town host to such a sinful sport.

David Jr. brought his sister and her husband to live in Black Canyon City and oversee the track’s management. Charlotte’s husband Monte was interested in greyhound racing and so Charlotte found herself once again enslaved to the family business. She noted in her diary that year how much she hated dog racing and how much she resented her family for forcing this life on her.

The track was an enormous success despite local protests and harassment by the town’s small police force. Gamblers from Phoenix would drive up on the weekends to get out of the heat and spend time drinking and betting at the greyhound track.

In 1973 David Jr left Arizona to open a new property in Las Vegas, leaving Monte and Charlotte behind to run the Black Canyon track. Charlotte strongly objected to being “abandoned in the middle of nowhere” but Monte was excited about the chance to run the business alone.

David Jr. didn’t return to Black Canyon City until early in 1982, when Charlotte called him to complain about the increased tensions between locals and track management. In the years he had been gone, the protests had turned to vandalism, death threats and finally violence after a flaming bag weighted with a brick was thrown through his pregnant sister’s window.

Monte and Charlotte argued to shut the track down, citing violence and poor profit margins. David Jr. would not agree to it. He was by this time deeply in debt to Western Racing and they were no longer asking nicely for their money. The threats had grown so violent that David Jr. showed up in Arizona with his humerus broken in three places.

When her brother refused to release the Kobey’s from their obligations, Charlotte begged David Jr. permission to leave, telling him about a local man who was harassing her named Brad Davidson. She said she didn’t know him and had no idea why, but that he followed her when she was alone and came to the track everyday to try and speak with her. He was an alcoholic and a gambler, she said. In April, a man accosted David Jr. in the street claiming to be Brad Davidson, and pleaded with him for help, claiming he was the real father of Charlotte’s baby.

In May of 1982, Monte and David Jr. got into a violent fist fight in the management offices when the latter went through the track’s accounting. David Jr. accused Monte of running the track into the ground due to gross financial mismanagement. David Jr. was so angry that he told Monte about his conversation with Brad Davidson. Monte broke the cast off his brother-in-law’s arm.

David Jr. was taken to the hospital to have his arm reset but the local ER staff refused to help him because he was the man who had “brought the very devil himself” to their town. Police were called and they escorted David Jr. off hospital property, roughing him up a bit. They told him that crime in their community had gone up ten fold since he had “invited all the sinners” down upon them.

The following month, David Jr. received another convincing threat from Western Racing to ruin him and decided on one last ditch effort to revive the track. Attendance had dwindled to almost nothing due to patrons being harassed and assaulted by locals as they came and left the dog track.

David Jr. bought adspace in Phoenix and Tucson and advertised the “comeback of the century” for the failing business. On July 10th of that year, all patrons of the track would not only receive $10 in betting credit but also drink for free between 11am and 1pm. Much to Charlotte and Monte’s disappointment, the response was overwhelming.

When the day arrived, David Jr. and Monte had to open the track early. Though the races weren’t scheduled to begin until 10am, hundreds of people showed up at the track just after 8 in the morning. Phoenix locals had organized their own buses to transport them in mass.

At 9am Monte and the general manager shared an opening-day drink down on the track, which David Jr. declined.

The morning of July 10th, 1982 was a scorcher and the decision to allow people to drink for free quickly became an expensive one. Monte opened the bar early, at 10am and by 10:30 the line for the bar wrapped twice around the lobby.

David Jr., Charlotte and another barman opened two more makeshift bars – one next to the outside grandstands and one on the other side of the lobby – to deal with the demand.

Every seat in the inside grandstand was taken and people fought for the outside seats as well. Around 150 people stood mingling around the lobby, watching the races from above and sticking close to the bar. They won money, they lost it, they laughed and cried and drank. By noon, the party was in full swing and everyone was in a boisterous and rollicking good mood.

The first sign something was wrong was around 11:45am when the lines for the bathrooms grew as long as the lines for the bar.

At around 12:20pm people in the lobby started to get sick. Only a handful at first. but within an hour people were vomiting where they stood – this quickly spread to the grandstands.

The general manager of the track, who was stuck behind the reservations desk, informed concerned patrons that it was simply a bad batch of liquor and that it would pass. When several people in the lobby began to seizure, David Jr. closed the betting counter to stop people from asking for their money back.

By 1:30pm, the first person was dead.

He was followed in quick succession by others – death spread like wildfire. Some were found to have dropped dead in the bathrooms, others simply never raised themselves out of their seats and died where they sat and yet others keeled over in the lobby, screaming in pain.

Local emergency services, who had finally been called after the first death, were slow to respond and by 4:30pm 618 people were dead and a thousand more were hospitalized. Tents were set up in the dirt parking lot and medical staff were called in from every town within a 200 mile radius. Of those that were hospitalized, another 381 people died just outside the dog track. The 999 deaths were ruled as poisonings.

David Jr., Charlotte and Monte all survived.

David Jr., the first to cast an accusation, wrote a letter to his father the following day which included a timeline of events on the day of the murders and a paragraph detailing why he couldn’t help but be suspicious of his sister. Charlotte had appeared unfazed as so many people died violent deaths next to her bar, and had also gone to considerable lengths to ensure that the man called Brad Davidson was served several free drinks.

Charlotte, in turn, openly accused her husband of the murders, after every bottle of liquor in the building tested positive for Arsenic. She stated that on that day she had twice raised a glass of bourbon to her lips, only to have Monte slap it away. Peculiar, she mused, that he had suddenly become so concerned for her pregnancy when he never had before. Monte disagreed that this ever occurred.

David Jr., a seasoned drinker, was also suspected of the murders due to his refusal of an opening day drink with his manager, a tradition that David Jr. had always taken part in. In fact, no one had ever seen David Jr. turn down a drink in his life.

Monte, for his part, quietly accused Western Racing Inc., as he had started to receive threats from the east coast company the week before.

David Sr. wrote in correspondence to a business partner later that year that he believed the towns religious zealots had organized the poisonings since they were the only ones to gain from it.

The governor of Arizona at the time ordered a hasty investigation and a purging of all mentions of the tragedy from the local media, thereby ensuring it wouldn’t get picked up nationally.

Most of the families of the victims (those gamblers who even had families) were purportedly bought off and the FBI closed the investigation on July 16th. The governor was in the throes of his own scandal at the time (accusations of handing out Indian casino licenses in return for campaign donations) and didn’t want more bad press for his state.

In the end, no charges were filed. The track was closed that day and abandoned until the mid-80’s when Albert Funk tried to revive the property as a swap meet venue. He abandoned this venture two years later after it failed to draw vendors.

David Jr. and his brother-in-law Monte gave up race tracks and opened a successful string of portrait studios throughout the southwest. David Jr died in 2005 and Monte in 2007. Charlotte and Richard are the only Funk children still alive today. No one has ever admitted to the murders.

Perhaps one of the more confusing aspects of this case is the fact that Black Canyon City’s well water was also found to be contaminated with high levels of arsenic in 1985. Today, residents of the town and local businesses are served by a private water company due to the toxicity of their ground water.

Sadly, the culprit in this case may never be known due both to the local authorities refusal to investigate the massacre and the federal government’s disinterest in it. And even if someone did decide to reopen the 30 year old cold case, most of the evidence has probably decayed and been destroyed by time.

Of course, as you know, Black Canyon City Dog Track still stands today and you can even visit the bar where almost 1,000 people met their deaths. If you do decide to visit, take your time walking the grounds. You may even stumble on betting tickets with the date “July 10th, 1982” printed on them, as I did the last time I was there.

Even the bar still stands, though it is hidden beneath a pile of detritus. If you do manage to dig it out you may even find an unopened bottle of gin. But I won’t tell you not to drink it. I’ve always found 999 to be an unsatisfactory number.

View from the road

View from the Road

gate

Gate

reservations

Reservations

who watches the watchmen

Graffiti 1

view of the track

View of the Track

racetrack 2

Racetrack 2

racetrack 1

Racetrack 1

his name was robert paulsen

Graffiti 2

kennels

The Dog Kennels

loading area

Loading Area

behind the car

The Bar

no admittance

No Admittance

offices

Offices

outdoor grandstands

Outside Grandstands

grandstand

Grandstands

first floor lobby

First Floor Lobby

betting counter

Betting Windows

bathrooms

Bathrooms

why didnt you kill yourself today

Why Didn’t you Kill yourself Today?

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