A jury has awarded Linda Wagenknecht of Payson $1.403 million in damages for the 1994 death of her husband, Danny Wagenknecht, who was killed when he fell 50 feet down an abandoned mine shaft.
According to reports from the Gila County Sheriff's Deparment, Wagenknecht was four-wheeling down a dirt road west of Ox Bow Estates in September 1994, when the rear tire of his truck got stuck in the dirt. Investigators think the 43-year-old got out of his vehicle to find out why he was stuck, and he fell down a mine shaft to his death.
During an interview after the accident Sgt. Terry Hudgens of the Gila County Sheriff's Department said he was notified about the mine shaft before Wagenknecht's death. Hudgens said he flagged the shaft with caution tape and notified the U.S. Forest Service because the mine shaft was right next to a Forest Service road.
"They told me they knew it was there, but couldn't find out who it belonged to," Hudgens said in 1994. "They turned it over to the mine inspector."
After Wagenknecht died, Hudgens said he called the Arizona Mine Inspector's Office.
"They told me there are 90,000 of those holes in the state," Hudgens said, "and they don't have the funds to fill those things in. It falls back on the property owner, and in many cases with these abandoned mines, there is no property owner."
One year after her husband's death, Linda Wagenknecht filed a wrongful death suit against the State of Arizona's Department of Mines, and the absentee owner, Marvin Harrison of California.
"They dragged us through four years of litigation on this," Wagenknecht's lead council, Eric MacDonald, said.
In the end, however, the jury found the state mine inspector's office 67.5 percent responsible and Harrison, 14.5 percent responsible for Wagenknecht's death. The jury also found the Ox Bow man 18 percent responsible for his own death because he was four-wheeling at night.
"I think it's a vindication against the little guy who's trying to fight the state," MacDonald said. "And, I think it will definitely lead to changes in the state mine inspector's office on how they deal with public complaints."
The state mine inspector, Doug Martin, was unavailable for comment.