Cinders from a campfire pop and explode like fireworks somewhere in the desert outside Yuma. They trace arcs toward an infinite number of stars in the ink-black sky above, each its own possible world, an infinite number of futures spinning out of reach in dizzy orbit. The sparks turn to ash, then fall to the ground.
Beers empty, and bottles of vodka and wine make their way around the fire through the crowd blowing off steam between tours of duty. One has already left, not long after 10 p.m. Things don’t go well when Marines and booze mix, he says.
Colton Whiteside slips into the driver seat of a white 2012 Chevy Silverado pickup because he needs to drive out into the desert because his damn phone doesn’t have any damn signal and he just wants to get some girls to come out to this damn sausage party.
He’s drunk. I’m OK, I’m not that drunk. Don’t fuck anything up, alright? I won’t.
Think about what you’re doing.
Kurt Allan Schenker climbs in the passenger seat next to him.
Do you trust me?
Kurt doesn’t know Colton well, but they’re Marines. They’re brothers.
The white Chevy Silverado roostertails in the dirt and swirls up a cloud of dust before it dissolves into the dark, far away from the glow of the birthday bonfire as Colton follows along the Gila Gravity Canal. Water rushes high. A foot and a half of moving water can pick up a truck and never let go. A release has swollen the canal to nearly three fast-moving feet.
A final swipe across the dirt pushes one tire over the brink, and it trips, and it slides, and it begins to sink. As the water rushes up to the windows, an empty beer plays a wobbly round of spin-the-bottle on the floor of Kurt’s side of the truck. It slows to a rest, and makes its choice.
* * *
At 10:06 p.m., when he cannot hold his breath anymore, Colton slips out of the truck’s open window and fights his way to the surface. The truck’s headlights shine up and out of the water.
By 10:08 p.m. his fellow Marines appear out of the dark, one by one, strip and dive into the water as Colton shouts from the banks of the canal. He’s still in there! One pulls Kurt out of the driver side window, up to the side of the road. Another calls 911.
At 10:22 p.m. Colton kneels beside Kurt and cradles his head as a police officer presses the man’s chest. Oh God please save him. Please save him. Let him be OK.
At 10:38 p.m., Kurt’s ambulance speeds toward Yuma Regional Medical Center. Colton’s ambulance screams after it. His numb haze recedes behind awful clarity. He knows what has happened, and what will happen next.
* * *
Trainer and Pinky, Florence, Arizona.
By seven in the morning the sun has shot over the Superstition Mountains. Hard-edged rays frame Pinal Peak, and mirror those drawn on the Arizona state flag. They put Top-Of-The-World, a hamlet at the top of the ridge, on slow boil.
Florence sits at the base of the ridge, split north-south into two by Pinal Parkway. To the west traffic buzzes with the usual morning rush hour, give or take thirty degrees. Men and women gas their cars in uniform, wave good morning in uniform, fix their coffee in uniform. To the east the uniforms change color, from browns and greens to high-visibility orange.
Florence is a prison town, one of the most heavily guarded places in America. Nine different incarceration facilities sprawl east of Pinal Parkway, over thousands of acres. The first was built by inmates in 1908; the grounds were laid out, a pretty Spanish-style building rose within, and then the inmates built the wall around themselves.
Florence housed prisoners of war during WWII. It houses the state’s death row inmates and its death chamber, though it last executed an inmate in 2014. Today, the Arizona Department of Corrections incarcerates nearly 4,000 inmates inside its chain-link fences, behind high walls and coils of razor wire so long they disappear at the horizon.
The prisoners form the largest labor force in town. Arizona Correctional Industries operates bakeries, a welding and metal-fabrication shop, and a wood shop. As a part of the prison-industrial complex, Arizona inmates can learn to make things and do things, all to prepare for the world outside.
They can even learn how to break wild mustangs, and train them for a new life back in the free world. The horses come from Bureau of Land Management property, gathered from the scrublands of Wyoming, California, and Nevada. The BLM trucks them to ranches like the one in Palomino Valley, Nevada, where they’re housed, cared for, and adopted out. A lucky few go to prison—to Florence—to earn a new version of freedom.
Unlike the wild horses at Palomino Valley, the Florence mustangs have names. There’s a Pinky, an Alex, a Bourbon.
Unlike Palomino Valley, in Florence, the men don’t save the horses. The horses save the men.
* * *
Randy Helm and Alex, and Colton Whiteside and Bourbon, Florence, Arizona.
Inside Florence’s razor wire, barking guard dogs rattle the windows of a white prison school bus. Unflinching heat licks the ground through pads of fresh manure. Flies circle and land on anything with a vaguely fecund smell. Country music erupts from inside the shed, first Merle, then Dolly.
In the yard, inmates in orange scrubs work with a dozen horses of all kinds: An earth-toned spectrum of mares and geldings with Appaloosa speckles, some with slender Arabian legs, some with the broad hooves of a draft horse, some with a little of everything.
“When I was when I was growing up on the ranch we had we had all thoroughbreds because we raced at the tracks,” says Randy Helm, from under his white cowboy hat. He has the white hair to match, the blue denim uniform that means work, and a soft pastoral voice of authority. “We probably would've made money off the farm and ranch if we hadn't had the race horses weren't racing at the tracks.”
Helm runs this herd, and other flocks. He is an evangelist, both a minister for a cowboy church and one for his program. He is in charge of conversion. He pairs inmates with horses, and like he does most mornings, Helm saddles up and heads to the yards where trainers work with inmates and horses in quiet, assured flicks of the reins.
He selects the inmates who work with the mustangs on Florence’s horse yards. The site of an old dairy, with access to water and feed, the prison’s horse pens can sustain about 300 horses in various stages of training. Randy’s crew tries to estimate their ages, but mustangs live hard lives. Their teeth wear from eating bark and cheatgrass. Their hides go rough.
Freeze-branding gives horses their own unique identification code—their own VIN
Horses gathered by the BLM get their own VIN numbers. They’re freeze-branded with a code that tells where they were gathered, in which year they were born. Their loss of freedom burned into their hides, the horses get logged into a database that tells when they were gelded, vaccinated, and adopted. They come with titles, too: After a year owners can get a free-and-clear pink slip, a cautionary measure that keeps owners from selling the horses for food.
Helm’s crew trains the mustangs on average for three months before they’re put up for adoption. Once a horse is deemed ready, inmates load it into a trailer, off to a less secure area with a show arena where visitors can watch the trainers ride the horses and run them through obstacle courses. Adoptions happen on Fridays, and can take three days. Each horse costs $125, plus a $700 handling and training fee.
Helm leads about 25 to 30 trainers at any given time, and three saddle up to follow him out on their daily yard work, clad in high-visibility oranges and helmets. Clean records and stable behavior give them a chance to become a mustang breaker. Working with horses gives them another possible future once they leave Florence. The horses are their tether to the outside world; their lead on freedom.
“Everyone that's in here has a second chance,” Helm says as he trots off to the obstacle course. “The horse is the teacher, and they’re the student.”
* * *
Colton Whiteside and Bourbon, Florence, Arizona.
Colton rides up on Bourbon and joins in on the work field, and keeps a few paces behind.
Bourbon does as he’s told, quietly. He heeds a pull that keeps him on a teeter-totter, which teaches him to trust his handler. He pokes his head through black plastic curtains, as if he’s being led through dry brush. He picks up his pace into a lope, then a trot, in semi-endless loops of the yard. Colton commands, and Bourbon obeys.
“You can tell which ones are going to be trouble from from the get-go,” Colton says. “They're going to be snorting at you. When you get close enough, they’re going to turn around and want to kick you.”
Colton came to Florence to train horses after a stint as a fireman. He trained alongside other firefighters—“The only difference is, we come back on the yard and we change back into our oranges”—and took the same courses. He fought the Sawmill fire, a 47,000-acre blaze started by a Border Patrol agent that shot explosive targets into tinder-dry hillsides. He thought firefighting would consume his seven-year sentence, but tempers flared.
Now he spends half his days outdoors with horses. Sometimes, he gets to show them for adoption, outside the walls.
An older brother barrel-raced horses back home, but until he applied and got a spot in Florence’s training program, Colton had never been near a mustang. On his first wild horse ride, he mounted a mustang that had only been ridden three times. The nervous, scared horse felt Colton’s helmet touch its side, and it kicked. Instead of kicking the helmet, it kicked Colton, then bolted across the field.
It can take months for horses to overcome their fear. For most horses, the Florence training can be the first time they’re exposed to humans. Careful techniques help them calm down: Trainers apply pressure to the horse and release it, until the horse understands and does what the trainer wants.
Sometimes, the trainers have to give up.
“We actually just sent one back because it wouldn't stop bucking. Every time someone would jump on it would throw them off,” he says. “Eventually we just sent it back so it wouldn't hurt anybody.”
* * *
Randy Helm and Alex, Florence, Arizona.
Florence mustangs learn to obey commands, even though they don’t know what lies ahead. They have to get used to a new sense of freedom, a secure life within a boundary they don’t always understand. They have to learn to trust, even as they overcome the initial shock of captivity or distant memories of abuse or close-quartered exposure to other horses that may be too wild to train.
“They have no idea what we're asking, or why we're asking them to do stuff,” Helm says.
It begins with with a cotton rope, then a halter. Trainers use the halter to teach them how to turn right, or left, how to take direction. Gradually they introduce the saddle, then more difficult exercises in trust. Trainers walk them through hanging pool noodles and screens, pull them across black tarps meant to simulate water, which they instinctively avoid, march them up to mailboxes, balance them on a teeter-totter, walk them through a path made from old tires, and guide them through narrow gaps between walls, both with and without saddlebags.
They can train too well, at times. Inmates can teach horses to fly like a chestnut blur through barrels, as swift as a thoroughbred, but often they only need to know how to trot, how to lope, and most of all, how to stand still. A horse that can sail through barrels can go unnoticed on adoption day; one that can stand on a pedestal can get applause.
“We're asking horse to really trust us with this life,” Helm says. “The horse has to figure out that we're never going to ask you to do something it can't do.”
The same holds true for Florence’s trainers, he says.
“I never ask these guys to do anything they can't do, anything that would hurt them.”
* * *
Colton Whiteside, Florence, Arizona.
“So what are you doing here with that Mustang GT?”
Like most men his age, he knows the car parked outside the fences. His horse looks just like the one on its badge.
Colton came from farm country, the youngest of four brothers from Missouri, where some of the other hog and cattle farms nearby still plowed their fields with horsepower. When he was a lanky teenager, an older brother joined the Navy. Colton wanted to do that and a little more, so when he was old enough he marched past the Navy recruiter on one side of the building downtown, toward a big Marine Corps poster at the end of the hall.
He got orders for a nine-month tour in Afghanistan. One day in Hemet Province, between mortar rounds, he saw his watch had measured the temperature at 132 degrees. He earned a promotion to corporal, and after a trip home on leave, would return to be an embassy guard.
No one knew exactly how many people would show up to the bonfire outside the USMC Air Station Yuma, so they went to Walmart and bought a case of Coors Banquet Beer, some Coronas, some hot dogs. It was a Marine’s 21st birthday and at least 20 people showed up. So did Pabst, Grey Goose, Bud Light, Smirnoff, Hennessey, and Moscato.
Kurt belonged to a squadron stationed near Colton’s, and he hadn’t known him for long.
Marines tend to drink a lot, he says, and he had been drinking for three or four hours when he took off in his white Chevy truck, trying to get a single bar on his cell phone. The truck slid on gravel, and when Colton slammed on the brakes, it didn’t stop. It rolled backwards through weeds, down the embankment, and into the water.
When the other Marines got Kurt out of his seat belt and back to the side of the road, he coughed up water. For a moment, it seemed he would be all right. But rescue units didn’t arrive for 15 minutes. Doctors pronounced the 23-year-old man dead at 11:36 p.m., a little more than 90 minutes after he climbed in the passenger seat of the white Chevy pickup.
Colton had no warrants, no prior DUIs, a valid driver’s license, and a BAC of 0.185. He wasn’t arrested, and it took nearly three months for the service to discharge him. He went back to Missouri for about a year while his sentence was processed. Then he came back to Arizona, and went into Florence.
Colton will serve at least five years for manslaughter. With time off for good behavior, he may go free on Jan. 31, 2021.
* * *
Randy Helm and trainers, Florence, Arizona.
Mustangs are pretty tough, and pretty resilient, Helm says. They make excellent trail riders, even great Border Patrol animals, once they figure out their job.
It’s Helms’ goal to make the handlers just as valuable when they are released. He leans on his training as a pilot and as a rider to teach the men who will leave Florence one day.
“There’s a term in flying. You always want to stay ahead of the airplane,” he says. Horse trainers need to anticipate, not react. They always want to stay ahead of the horse.
The same holds true for the men he trains. He teaches them to see the change in their personal life, and they start to get optimistic about their lives inside the prison. He teaches them to break clean with the past, just as they do with the horses. Take one back to the old herd after it’s trained, and turn it loose for a few months, and you’d lose everything you gained, he says.
“What can you learn from that?” he says. “‘I'm going to find a different herd when I get out.’”
It’s a stark difference from the day they arrive in Florence. For the first few days, the horses get spooked by the new herd, the new atmosphere.
“They're just so, so scared,” Helm says. “It's like personalities, you know. Some people are just more anxious and scared.”
* * *
Colton Whiteside, Florence, Arizona.
Now, every weekday, from seven in the morning to early afternoon, Colton trains horses in the Florence yard. Even in August, when the 120-degree heat builds all morning. It gives him a sense of purpose, and a way to avoid trouble on the yard. He cannot change his environment, just like he cannot change what happened in the Gila Gravity Canal that night.
Once the horses have been put away, he exercises, showers, cleans his cell. He reads, everything from Clive Barker to Candace Moore’s guide to meditation, Namaslay, which teaches him how to use humility to deal with pain. He meditates–it relaxes him and gives him peace, more purposeful energy. He calls home every day. Bed count comes at four in the afternoon.
He still processes what happened that night in April 2014. He has been in touch with Kurt’s family through Facebook. Kurt’s mother bought him a plane ticket and Colton flew to meet her before he went to prison.
“She wanted to talk to me, to forgive me for what I had done. Which was hard for me to accept.” His voice breaks and he hides his eyes under a sheaf of long hair. "Still kind of is."
Florence brought him to horses, but Florence is also one of the few Arizona prisons with a medical yard, where Colton could seek treatment for PTSD. When he arrived, he began therapy to find ways to deal with Kurt’s death: through meditation, drawing, letter writing, through rigorous exercise. Therapists would talk to him, at first once a month, then every three, then every six. Eventually, he told them he’d found a way to cope on his own.
He thinks, but not often, about what happens in February 2021. When he walks out of Florence, he will be 29 years old. His grandparents have their farm, where he will always have a job. A local veterinarian has promised him work. Until then, he keeps to himself to avoid the problems of being in general population. In February, a Florence inmate died in the prison yard of multiple stab wounds.
He’s thought about adopting a horse from the Florence program, but he wouldn’t have to go that far from home to find a mustang. The BLM gathers horses and when they can’t be adopted, they pay farms to put them up, farms as far east as Missouri. By then, Bourbon will have long been adopted; he’ll have to break himself from her calm endurance at some point. He admits it will be hard.
He disappears into himself for a moment when the radio in the prison shed shifts to Ronnie Milsap. Ronnie’s been made a prisoner by the highway, “imprisoned by the freedom of the road.” Flies land on his face, his arms, his hands. He swats them away.
A gust blows across the workyard. It picks up dust that swirls and shrouds men and horses alike and mutes the hard glare of the sun. Just as quickly it’s gone, except for the finely atomized mist of dirt and manure speckled with bits of green-gold horse feed that coats everything.
“I just want to get back to Missouri,” he says. “I just want to go home.”
* * *
Trainers return from exercises, Florence, Arizona.
The Florence horse trainers admire the Mustang GT one more time before they trot back behind the fence and head back into general population.
The Mustang on the other side of the fence chases the sun back to a land of second chances: a place named for rebirth, where jasmine sweetens the afternoon air, where mezcal helps fill the evening sky with laughter.
If you believe in second chances, then you believe in programs like the one in Florence that ministers to men and horses alike. You believe in redemption. You believe in January 31, 2021, when Colton Whiteside can go home to Missouri.
That day seems very far away from today. Yard time is over. It’s time to exercise, meditate, read, eat, shower, sleep, all in a semi-endless loop. Time to stay alive. Time to wait. Inside the Florence prison, days don’t pass so much as they erode, in painstaking fractions.
Even outside the razor wire, time stands still. On the other side of the road that walls off prison town from free town, Pinal County built a courthouse tower in the 1880s. It ran out of money to install the planned-for clock.
They painted clocks on each face instead, clocks with hands that don’t move. In Florence, whether you’re inside or outside the prison fence, it’s always 11:44, morning, noon, or night.
For two months, Motor Authority crisscrossed the U.S. in an automotive icon seeking stories about the Ford Mustang's place in American history. These are our stories from the road about its owners, its history, and its status as an evolving symbol of our relationship with cars in America.