The trail to condemned prisoner Robert C. Comer’s capture began with a barefoot print in the sand spotted from a helicopter hovering low over the wilderness.
Chief Larry Black of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office — back then a sergeant — saw the track, figuring it belonged to Comer’s rape victim, who had escaped from him near Four Peaks.
“It was just out of chance because you’re not going to find a barefoot track up there anywhere,” Black said Friday.
It has been more than 20 years since Black spotted that footprint, and in that time courts have refused to allow Comer’s death sentence, which is to be carried out Tuesday. Death penalty foes have also fought to keep him alive, even though he chose years ago to drop all his appeals.
“How the hell can this appeal keep on going and going and going when I’ve never appealed anything and never asked for a lawyer nor even saw any lawyers?” Comer wrote in a letter in March to Judge Ron Reinstein, who sentenced him to death.
He is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 10 a.m. at the Arizona State Prison complex in Florence, and he will have a meal of fried okra, four heavily salted and buttered buns and two pieces of banana bread in his belly.
Some would say that is too good for him.
“This is one exceedingly cruel, vicious individual,” said retired deputy county attorney K.C. Scull, who prosecuted Comer. “He sort of breaks the mold.”
Comer, his girlfriend, Juneva Willis, and her two young children, had driven through three other states on limited funds when they pulled into Burnt Corral campground at Apache Lake on Feb. 3, 1987.
The truck they were in belonged to a man in California who disappeared around the time they began their journey, and he has never been found.
They made acquaintance with Larry Pritchard, who was camping at a site near theirs.
Comer became agitated with Pritchard for some reason and told Willis he was “going to blow him away,” according to court documents. Then he fired a single shot into Pritchard’s head and later stabbed him in the neck because he was still making noises.
Comer forced Willis to look at Pritchard to show her what a “cold and callous killer” he was.
Comer and Willis ransacked Pritchard’s campsite and later went to a campsite belonging to a couple.
Comer handcuffed the man to the bumper of the couple’s truck and forced the woman to perform oral sex on him, a foot away from the man’s face and in front of Willis and her children, Scull said.
Comer and Willis then kidnapped the woman.
Black said the only information deputies had was that they had headed north.
And as they searched for the kidnapped woman, deputies found Pritchard’s body.
According to court documents, Comer drove up a trail in the Four Peaks area and eventually stalled the truck.
The woman got away barefoot as Comer camouflaged the truck, and she walked for 23 hours before reaching the Beeline Highway and flagging down a motorist.
The sheriff’s office had no helicopter or tracking dogs in 1987, so a Phoenix television news chopper helped with the search for Comer, and a Payson judge lent his dog to the effort.
Black got in the chopper to search the area where they believed the woman had escaped, spotted the footprint, landed and followed the tracks.
Black said he walked right by the camouflaged truck and later learned from Willis that Comer took aim at the chopper but decided against firing because he didn’t want to reveal where he was.
Black called for a SWAT team when he found the truck, and the judge, a former lawman, brought the hunting dog.
They found Comer, and a short standoff ensued as he refused to drop his weapon.
The SWAT unit was about to open fire when he dropped his gun, Black said.
Willis made a deal with prosecutors and agreed to testify against Comer. She pleaded guilty to kidnapping and was sentenced to 9½ years in prison.
Comer refused to attend his trial and was convicted on 13 counts of first-degree murder, kidnapping, armed robbery, and rape.
Reinstein ordered his appearance for his sentencing, and it took detention officers in protective gear and armed with a high-pressure water hose to subdue him.
Scull said Comer jammed his mattress into the railings of his cell door so it wouldn’t open electronically.
He swiped at officers through the bars with a shank — a prison-made knife.
“He was a tough guy to the end,” Scull said.
They strapped him nude into a wheelchair, covering his midsection with a blanket, and took him to court.
He sat silent with his head down and shoulders slumped in the wheelchair in court and didn’t respond when spoken to except when Reinstein told him he was glad he could make it.
“Comer said under his breath, ‘Yeah, with a little help from my friends,’” Scull said.
Twenty-two men have been executed in Arizona since 1992, when the state began performing them again after 30 years.
But no one has been executed since Nov. 8, 2000, as the state worked to resolve a number of landmark death penalty cases.
It was in June, 2000 that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to allow Comer’s execution, ruling that his claims of sanity were not enough to drop his appeals of his conviction.
The court said Comer may be insane and trying to get the court and the state to help him end his life.
The same court ruled in March that he was competent.
Comer’s attorneys had also raised questions about whether his desire to abandon his appeals was due to harsh prison conditions.
But the court said he told a federal judge in Phoenix that prison conditions were not the major factor in his decision to halt further appeals “nor are they so harsh as to force him to abandon his natural desire to live.”
Scull said he believes Comer is smarter than most death-row inmates and may see his execution as inevitable, so moving it along is a “logical and sane thing to do.”