DID THIS SKINHEAD THUG ACTUALLY CARE ABOUT HIS VICTIM? DID HE REALLY RETURN TO THE SCENE OF THE CRIME TO GET HELP?
By Steve Silkin
A career criminal skinhead thug almost killed my friend Mike Wendt by running him over during a carjacking. Mike suffered a fractured skull and debilitating brain injuries as a result.
This happened in Phoenix, in late 2014. I’m writing this now because Robert Dale Guenther was sentenced to 20 years in prison last week after pleading guilty to two layers of aggravated assault and another layer of aggravated robbery.
Mike barely survived. He spent about six weeks in a coma. But even with more than a year of recovery, he continues to suffer sleeplessness and other consequences of traumatic brain injury. He remembers nothing about what happened that night.
It was originally believed that Guenther snuck up on Mike from behind; an officer who knew Mike chatted about the case with him later, and said something like: I don’t think you would’ve let him walk off with your truck without a fight. Wouldn’t have happened, Mike assured him.
As I began putting the story together, that certainly seemed the case. But what if this story leads to somewhere unexpected? I’ve learned that there is more to the story of Robert Dale Guenther and Mike Wendt than is readily apparent.
A few words about the Mike I know apart from his identity as crime victim, which he wants to leave behind as soon as possible: We met online about 10 years ago when a bunch of us like-minded folks happened upon each other on a literary site and began posting our stories and sharing critiques. I quickly realized that Mike was a charming, witty raconteur, an exceptional writer, a world-class authority on science fiction, a Libertarian intellectual and an otherwise all-around great guy with a loving family and a kind soul. One night he wrote of going out with his wife Cheryl and having to turn around and come home in sadness because his car had struck and killed a dog. He was haunted by the terrorizing thought: “What if it had been a kid? The dog was bad enough.”
As for Guenther, the spokesman for the prosecutors said he had no information of his gang affiliation, if any. Suffice it to say his head is shaven for best display of the large cigar-smoking, toothy face on the top of his scalp, a black widow and its spiderweb on his right temple and an eagle on his left. His neck is entirely covered with monochrome dark ink images including some Gothic text. He was 5’10”, 170 pounds and was about 35 years old—a full-grown able-bodied man—on the night he almost killed my friend. Guenther’s grandparents attended court the day he entered his guilty plea. They apologized to Cheryl. But “sorry don’t get it done,” as John Wayne said in Rio Bravo. Mike wrote his own version of that line nicely, too. “Too bad an apology doesn’t prevent a broken skull before the fact.”
As of now, Mike doesn’t plan to write anything about this, understandably wanting to disassociate himself from the criminal and the crime. But I wanted to know more and I know that some of our other friends do, too. So I called the Maricopa County District Attorney’s Office, which provided me with the key document summarizing in the case.
For context it’s important to note: Guenther pleaded guilty to aggravated assault. A 2014 chart on the Phoenix Police Department’s website lists 4,677 such crimes. That was the plea, but I imagine Guenther could’ve been charged with attempted murder if he had gone to trial—an ordeal that Mike was spared.
(He has said many times that since he has no memory of the crime, or the five-plus following weeks before he emerged from his coma, his testimony could not assist anyone and he did not look forward to any time spent in court with his assailant. I know from my own teenage bike crash that the loss of memory is an effect of retrograde amnesia: a severe blow to the head erases the last piece of tape that the brain recorded. The worse the blow, the worse the erasure.)
I did not see any numbers for attempted murder in Phoenix. There were 116 cases of homicide in Phoenix that year, 113 murders and manslaughters and three by negligence. So I suppose every murder attempt ended successfully—for the murderers. I’ve tried to confirm that supposition with the spokespeople for the Police Department and the District Attorney’s Office, but alas, they seem too busy to do so. I can imagine why, with 4,677 cases like this each year.
I found only one news report online about the case. It was a short article written immediately after the attack, and was illustrated with a picture of Mike in intensive care—neck brace, tubes up his nose, the works. (If any of you reading this can ever prevent a picture showing me in that condition from being published, please do so.) So the sole source of the information I’ve gathered and commented upon below is the state’s sentencing memorandum.
The end of Mike’s life as he had known it occurred on Oct. 8, 2014, just before midnight. He had driven his white Suzuki Sidekick to do his job as a manager of flood irrigation systems and stopped at the intersection of Marlette Avenue and Third Street.
At that point, the police investigation showed—with confirmation by Guenther’s guilty plea, which corrected an earlier denial of involvement—that Guenther and an accomplice named Rick attempted to steal Mike’s car and almost killed him in the process. “Michael Wendt suffered a crushed skull on both sides of his head and continues to suffer long-term issues related to the trauma to his brain,” the memo states. (No further information about Rick’s role in this crime was mentioned or was available to me.)
Mike’s near lifeless body was still there five hours later, sprawled in front of a driveway, when paramedics arrived. The car and his cell phone were gone. Five days later, on Oct. 13 (my birthday, which is irrelevant for anyone except me, typing this story of how one of my favorite writing collaborators was almost killed, and seeing my birthday in the sentencing memo), the Suzuki was found at the Day Break Apartments and then processed for DNA and any other forensic evidence.
Meanwhile, police found that Mike’s cell phone was used to call a number after the crime. The number belonged to a fellow named Justin Branum.
Let us interrupt our fact-based narrative for a short moment to allow for some speculation on Justin Branum, who knew Guenther from days they had done time together. When we learn much of what follows, it’s clear that Branum knew of the crime, remained silent and likely would have continued to do so if the police had not duly noted his number and the time of the phone call. Perhaps they explained to him that he was about to be connected to Mike’s injuries and would likely do more time as an accomplice unless he told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth immediately. Regardless of my speculation, Branum explained the events in words something like these:
Guenther had told him he had severely injured Mike while stealing the Suzuki. The memo nicely understates the level of law enforcement’s interest in this information:
“Soon after, a follow-up interview with Justin Branum was conducted.”
Yeah. I’ll bet it was. Here’s the rest of the paragraph.
“Branum explained in detail that Robert Guenther had called him in a panic the night of the incident asking for help. … Guenther told him everything that happened. Branum stated that Guenther told him that he thought he even ran the victim over as he fled in the stolen vehicle.”
No one had known about the tire treads left on Mike’s leg; the police hadn’t disclosed that information so it hadn’t been known to anyone. That was evidence, if not proof, that Branum’s description of Guenther’s story was consistent with the facts.
Two months after the crime, Detective Esteban Armenta went to Lewis Prison in Buckeye to have a chat with Guenther, who was serving time after convictions for a later crime—burglary and vehicle theft. (His fifth conviction since 1997, including one for armed robbery.) The detective confirmed most of Branum’s story: Guenther said he was homeless but crashing at Branum’s place because he had nowhere else to go. Guenther also acknowledged that Branum had been his driver on the morning after the carjacking. However, he denied he had done the crime.
In May 2015, seven months after the crime, the crime lab came back with results of the swabs of the stolen vehicle. To no one’s surprise, they matched Guenther’s.
Please brace yourself at this point. When I read the following paragraph, which is the conclusion of the sentencing memo regarding Guenther and what he did to my friend, I was so sad that I couldn’t concentrate on anything else for the rest of the day. Here is the reason the state wants Robert Dale Guenther to spend the next two decades behind bars:
“The defendant nearly killed a man who is now left with potentially permanent brain injuries. He is no longer the father, the husband or the man that he used to be. This change was caused by the defendant’s actions that night. The defendant has demonstrated by his conduct in this case as well as through his violent criminal history that this community needs to be protected from the defendant.”
When Guenther pleaded guilty at a pretrial hearing in February, Mike’s lovely wife Cheryl noticed him looking at her, apparently puzzled, perhaps wondering who she was and what she was doing there. Cheryl told her Facebook friends that she would make sure to wear the same scarf when she returned for sentencing, so that he might make a connection. I do hope that he did see a human being whose life has been damaged by his actions. And contrary to my original perception, he very well may have.
At one point in our conversation about this case, Mike had told me that the authorities led him to understand Guenther was looking forward to getting out of Lewis and going back to a harder-time pen—where he would rejoin his gang. That had hardened my view of Guenther as a vicious, subhuman Nazi predator.
But at the sentencing last week, Guenther wanted everyone to know what “really” happened. Cheryl posted this account on her Facebook page:
“He said he saw keys in the Suzuki and decided to take it. As he was turning around in a driveway, Mike jumped on the vehicle, which startled him, he hit the gas in reverse, left the neighborhood, ditched the auto, stole a bike, went back to check on Mike. Mike had crawled to a driveway. He said he asked Mike a couple of times if he was OK but Mike was only groaning. Says he saw someone driving a red truck, he stopped them and asked them to call 911.”
Right, you say, a likely story. But here’s the last sentence from Cheryl’s notes on the case:
“We were told there is a security video that does back up most of this story, the video just doesn’t show the actual attack.”
Set aside, for a moment, Guenther’s absurdly moronic question of the century: He had run over Mike earlier, and Mike was still prone on a driveway, groaning, hours later, and Guenther asked:“Are you OK?” (Unfortunately, Mike could not respond with one of Mad magazine’s “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions, ” such as, “Yes, absolutely fine, feeling much better now than the last time I was carjacked and run over.”) But consider this: The career criminal skinhead thug had returned to the scene out of some kind of concern for his victim.
Flannery O’Connor’s favorite character was The Misfit. Because as insanely brutal as he was, deep in the back of his brain was the notion that Jesus might have risen. And if the story was true, he said, then he would know he should be living a righteous life. Do a deep dive into O’Connor’s perception of grace and you’ll know why she loves The Misfit: She knows that one day he will find Jesus, and when he does, grace will come to him in a pain so searing that he will be transformed, then ready for redemption.
I don’t know why Guenther returned to get help for Mike. I don’t know if he knew that what he had done was hideous. I made repeated calls to Melissa Zabor, his attorney at the Office of Legal Advocate, but she did not return them. Neither did Detective Armenta, who had interviewed Guenther in prison and whom I also called repeatedly for his insight into the criminal and the crime. I wanted to know if he thought Guenther had taken the cell phone out of Mike’s pocket to call 911, but then decided it would be better to ask a passerby to get help, in some variation of what you and I would call logical thinking.
But I do know this: If Mike knows that he was injured fighting against a thug, if he knows that he went down swinging, he’ll be happy with that thought —because that’s who he is and that’s what he does. He’s a fighter. Bless him and his fighting spirit. It’s that same fighting spirit that can help him in his recovery. And if he believes Guenther’s story that his injury was accidental, and knows that the carjacker even came back to the scene to help him, maybe that will ease any burden of bitterness he carries.
To those who might say, “if only he had let him take the car,” I respond: You must be who you are. Mike wasn’t going to let anyone walk all over him.
While I was checking for the John Wayne quote I mentioned earlier, I found another one from The Shootist: “I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted. I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people and I require the same from them.” I think Mike lives by that creed, too. We often bantered about the Second Amendment and he was a particularly ardent defender of the right to self defense. But he wasn’t a caricature gun nut, either.
About 10 years ago when we first met, Mike came home from a party and wrote a short poem about a girl he saw there who’d been dancing with joyful abandon. The poem was so good I asked all the other writers in our group to do what he did: write a short piece, based on an image, with some commentary— and make it as beautiful as Mike’s. We all tried and put them together in a delightful little collection. I do hope Mike will one day be able to experience the joy the dancer communicated to him that night and be able to write again in a way that inspires dozens of other writers to emulate him.
My understanding at this point is that it will be a long time, if ever, before that destination appears on the horizon.