I want you to picture the landscape of American Southwest in your mind’s eye.
Now, undoubtedly you pictured some majestic vista. Monument Valley. The Grand Canyon. Zion. The Petrified Forest. Or maybe just a flat expanse of desert, empty save for a handful of tumbling tumbleweeds.
I bet you, somewhere in your mental picture, you had a saguaro cactus. You know the type: great tall trunk, mighty arms branching out of it and reaching up to the sky. And why not? It’s an enduring symbol of the American west.
But it probably doesn’t belong in your mental picture. Saguaros have a very limited distribution, and grow only in the northern part of the Sonoran Desert, which means that in the United States they never occur naturally outside of southwestern Arizona.
Despite their limited range, the saguaro is not endangered or threatened. That’s thanks to the forward-thinking people of Arizona, who realized that the desert was an important part of the character of their state, and enacted a series of laws protecting desert plans and their environment.
These days the biggest threat to the saguaro comes from landscapers. When some doofus transplant builds a McMansion in Arizona and realizes they can’t have a great big green lawn, they decide the next best thing to do is to go all in on the desert look. Which means having a big ol’ saguaro or two in the front yard as a status symbol. Of course, it’s illegal to take saguaro from the desert and there’s a very constrained supply of legal saguaro. So cactus rustlers go out in to the desert and uproot plants by the thousands to sell for inflated prices on the black market.
Arizona has combated this through vigorous enforcement, including a tagging and permitting system, backed up by steep fines and prison time for offenders. There are people who hate these laws, but Richard A. Countryman, who was Arizona’s top “cactus cop” throughout the ’70s and ’80s, made a passionate defense of its necessity:
It takes nearly a hundred years to grow these big saguaros. But we get a lot of people moving here, and they don’t see the beauty or the fragility of the land. Every year you have to go farther and farther out from the city to find the desert.
While he was on the job, Countryman received death threats, had rocks thrown through the windows of his house, had the brake lines of his car cut, and was even shot at. And still he went to work every day to protect the environment.
Countryman could at least understand the motives of the black marketeers. But what utterly mystified him were garden-variety vandals, idiots who’d go out in the desert andtry to uproot ancient saguaro with their trucks for fun. Or people who went “plugging,” using the mighty cacti for target practice.
And that brings us to the the subject of our story: David Grundman.
Grundman was born in 1957 in Johnson City, NY. After graduating from high school, he worked as a cook… and as a small-time drug dealer.
In January 1979, Grundman and his friends John Corey and Stephen Barrows made an agreement to sell three pounds of marijuana to 16-year-old Robert Rabert. During the deal, Grundman whipped out a shotgun and told the others to hand over all their money. An angry Rabert tried to wrestle the gun away from Grundman only to be beaten down by Corey and Barrows, revealing them to be Grundman’s accomplices in the robbery .
Grundman, Corey and Barrows apparently thought that there was no way Rabert would report the crime. After all, what would he say to the police? “I tried to buy some drugs from some guys and they robbed me instead?”
It turns out, that’s exactly what Rabert said to the police. All four were in custody in no time. Grundman pled guilty to second-degree robbery and was sentenced to up 4 1/2 years in prison.
In 1981 Grundman was released from prison. He packed up and moved to Phoenix, Arizona (why his parole officers allowed that, I have no idea). He took a job working for the Country Kitchen, and tried to stay out of trouble. Though that didn’t stop him from getting drunk, getting high, and doing dumb stuff.
On February 4, 1982 Grundman decided to go cactus plugging. That afternoon he and his roommate, James Suchochi, threw two rifles and a shotgun in the back of their car and drove into the desert two miles north of Arizona State Route 74, just west of Lake Pleasant. (If you’re wondering why he was allowed to own guns, keep in mind that the Brady Bill was still a decade away.)
The two vandals took aim at a young saguaro, only 10′ tall. They put so many holes in it that it broke in half and toppled to the ground. Grundman turned to Suchochi, smiled, and said, “that was easy.” So he cast about for a bigger target, and settled on a huge saguaro not too far away, 27′ tall and almost a hundred years old.
Grundman walked up to the saguaro and at point blank range he let loose with two rifled slugs from his 16-gauge shotgun. The violence of the blasts caused the upper portion of the cactus to break off and fall… right on top of David Grundman. He barely had time to yell out a panicked “Jim!” to his friend before the falling chunks of cactus crushed him like a bug.
Suchochi panicked. He was alone in the middle of the desert, and his friend was trapped under a two ton cactus. He went for help, but by the time emergency responders arrived it was too late. Grundman was dead. Maricopa County medical examiner Dr. Thomas B. Jarvis later determined that Grundman had died almost instantly. Dr. Jarvis also added:
“I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve been at this job for 25 years and I thought I’d seen it all, but I never heard of somebody being crushed by a cactus.”
David Grundman was buried back in Elmhurst, NY on February 9.
But his story doesn’t end there.
The Myth, The Legend
The Arizona papers treated Grundman’s death as a piece of entertaining local news, a mild tragedy with an unusual and ironic “plant bites man” angle. It even got some play in the national media, though they tended to strip out all but the most essential details. It was even featured in the Sunday, October 23, 1983 installment of Ripley’s “Believe It… Or Not!”
Minus the grounding details, the story of Grundman’s death left the world of fact and started to enter the world of urban legend. As people re-told the half-remembered news item they filled in their own details, creating new versions of the stories where Grundman was alone in the desert, where Grundman was a mentally disturbed college student, where the cactus was twice as big and his death more grisly and gruesome.
And it makes sense. The true story of David Grundman bears structural similarities to the genre of urban legend known as the “animal’s revenge.” You’ve probably heard a prototypical tale — say, some sadistic cretins tie some dynamite to a dog just for fun, only to be hoist on their own petard when it runs into their house or under their vehicle. Grundman’s death seems like the next logical evolution of that story, the “plant’s revenge.”
But Grundman’s death was not an urban legend. It was very, very real and well documented. It wasn’t tragic, or ironic. It was just dumb.
In 1994 Grundman received the highest honor of all, when the second-ever Darwin Awards retroactively awarded him the Darwin Award for 1982. It would have been the greatest achievement of his life.
Except, of course, that Darwin Awards are generally awarded posthumously.
Photo by Jim Parks. (Cropped from the original.)
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