Amidst the chaos of the Bush Fire evacuations, deputy Cody Thomason got a 911 dispatch — shots fired at the ranch of Destry and Terri Haught.
The fragmentary details filtered in as Thomason, with the Gila County Sheriff’s Office, raced to the ranch at Bar X Road and Highway 188.
The smoke from the approaching Bush Fire hung over Tonto Basin as ranchers scrambled to evacuate and secure their livestock. Ultimately, 1,700 people would flee the flames — which had already consumed most of the Haughts’ rangeland.
Thomason pulled up to the Haught house to find a scene that in the end would shatter a deep-rooted family. It would also pose a dilemma for a legal system as bewildered by mental illness as Destry was that day as his whole life burned to ash.
In the front yard, two men sat on Destry, a rancher, hunting guide, rodeo organizer and lifelong Tonto Basin resident, beloved by a wide circle of friends, neighbors and family. The Haught family once guided for author Zane Grey and built Tonto Basin from scrub and cactus.
Now, his fellow ranchers had hogtied his feet together. Destry squirmed in the dirt, howling, “praise the Lord, praise the Lord,” according to reports the Roundup requested from the GCSO more than a year ago. So complicated is this case, it took that long for the county to turn over the police reports.
In one hand, Destry clutched a kitten, in what Thomason’s report described as a “death grip.”
As Thomason approached, Destry focused on him.
“Shoot me,” cried Destry. “Shoot me. Shoot me.”
“Calm down,” said Thomason. “Just calm down.”
“Shoot me,” said Destry.
“Why don’t you let go of the kitten,” said the deputy.
Destry ignored him, continuing to mumble and cry out.
Thomason knelt down alongside the distraught rancher. He massaged pressure points in Destry’s hand, a technique called “soft hand control,” until Destry finally released his grip on the kitten — which he’d been carrying to everyone’s dismay.
Thomason helped Destry up and led him to the patrol car.
“Do you have any weapons?” asked the deputy.
“Just the Bible,” said Destry, calmer now. “I can use it on you if you need it.”
Then he untied Destry’s feet and locked him into the back of the squad car.
Later, the deputy removed Destry from his car to search the rancher before driving him to the station and found two knives.
And so ended one tragedy — and launched another. Destry’s reported actions, that chaotic, deadly June 22, 2020 day, ended Terri’s life and shattered his own. The second tragedy would take much longer to play out — the agonizing, slow-motion effort of the legal system.
Ultimately, authorities patched together a tale of a man’s life unraveling. First the pandemic destroyed his guide business — and the rodeos he loved to organize. Then the Bush Fire devastated his struggling, sparse ranch. The alleged killing of his wife brought that tragedy to its grim end. The final tragedy of the legal system continues to grind on nearly two years later — with no end in sight.
Destry’s last hearing was Sept. 8. His next hearing isn’t until early October.
Since Destry’s arrest last summer, he has sat in jail as the county attorney and Destry’s defense wrestle over whether he qualifies to claim insanity, which would likely send him to a mental hospital instead of a prison.
For a time, prosecutors suspected this was a tragedy of drug abuse. The four days of sleepless fury and confusion that led up to Destry’s wife’s death seemed to fit — as did his hallucinations and bizarre confusions. But then the toxicology report came back negative. Destry wasn’t on drugs. He simply unraveled.
Destry comes from one of the first ranching families to settle Rim Country. Destry could have been a character from a Zane Grey novel. Grizzled, lean, hard, with a black eye patch, Destry looked every inch the part.
In fact, to supplement ranch income, Destry and Terri continued the family traditions of ranching and running a hunting guide service, adding rodeo stock to supplement their income. Lifelong residents of Rim Country praised Destry’s hunting talent. He was known for finding bears and mountain lions.
In 2013, local online newspaper the All Around, wrote Destry provided the stock for two roping events at the 2013 Ted Meredith Memorial Roping and Marsha Marcanti All Girl Round Robin. The roping events added to the event lineup at Young’s Pleasant Valley Days that year.
But the pandemic closed Destry’s rodeo venues.
During the start of the pandemic, hunters didn’t book lucrative trips.
Then the Bush Fire torched thousands of acres of the family’s grazing allotment.
How the day unraveled
For four days before June 22, Destry simply stopped sleeping, according to police reports. Throughout the reports, Destry, his friends and family commented on Destry’s lack of sleep. Everyone watched in anxiety as Destry slid into alarming behavior, which grew more and more extreme and senseless. That morning, just hours before the shooting, Destry killed a calf for no reason anyone could discern. He then threw a rope around it, saddled his horse and drug the carcass to his neighbor’s house, leaving it in the driveway.
Sgt. Jaimie Garrett recorded an interview with Destry’s two ranching friends (whose names were redacted in the report), who were present in the hours leading up to the shooting.
In Garrett’s report, one friend said Destry dragged a calf to a man’s house and left it in the driveway. The man claimed Destry and the neighbor were good friends. The man said he knew something was off when Destry didn’t call anyone after he left the calf in the neighbor’s driveway. He also knew Destry had not slept in days, since both neighbors had shared an endless string of phone calls as the fire advanced on their ranches.
So, the man drove over to Destry’s ranch.
The first thing he observed, Destry had locked the cattle from water.
The report quotes the man saying, “As a rancher, that’s a no no. It’s 110 degrees in the middle of the day.”
Driving up to the dark house at dusk, the man noticed the only light on was in the pickup truck. Neither Destry nor Terri had answered their phones, so he stopped in the driveway and yelled their names. No one responded.
Suddenly the man saw Destry shuffling by a pen like a “zombie.” Destry stumbled, speaking in disjointed sentences that made no sense. He rambled about hunting, then in mid-sentence said he had to feed the cattle, then switched to worrying about catching all the horses.
Destry led a dog on a leash — and clutched a kitten in his hand.
The two men strolled along until Destry suddenly pulled out a revolver.
“Now, now,” said the man. “You put that away.”
Destry stuck the revolver in his waistband.
As the man later told the police, “Destry wasn’t really upset about anything he just really didn’t know, he was lost.”
As the two walked toward the house, the man gently took the gun away.
By this point, Terri had arrived. She burst into tears, thanking the man for coming. A detail the man could not forget, he noticed both Terri and Destry were covered in mud — like they had been wrestling in a puddle.
Soon, another friend showed up and the three made their way into the house.
They all three worked to calm Destry down. Finally, they prayed with him, seeking grace and calm. This finally settled Destry down. He wandered back out into the yard.
“Do you have your gun?” asked Terri.
“No,” said Destry, turning to walk back into the house to retrieve his “lever action” rifle.
Terri convinced Destry to eventually come inside, eat and go to bed.
As she made a late supper, the two friends took the rifle away from Destry placing it behind the counter.
Agitated, Destry reached for the pot of food.
“It’s too hot,” said Terri, pulling it away from him.
Abruptly, Destry whirled around and grabbed the rifle, which rested under the counter.
He spun back toward Terri, and the rifle thundered.
The bullet struck Terri in her lower back and angled upward through her chest.
Everyone froze as Terri collapsed without a word facedown.
Everyone but Destry.
He surveyed the room distractedly. “She’ll be OK, she’s a tough woman,” he said, before turning and stumbling out the door — mumbling nonsense, according to reports.
One of Destry’s friends followed him out, talking carefully.
“Give me the rifle. Just give me the rifle,” he said.
Dazed, Destry handed him the gun, which the man quickly hid under the porch.
At first, Destry didn’t seem to know he had shot Terri.
Then he realized what he had done.
Destry returned to the house, knelt down and tugged on her pant leg, as though to wake her.
“Come on, boys. Just help me get her outside and we’ll get her some help,” according to reports.
One of the men called 911. Destry went outside again, trying to get away.
Picking his moment, one of the men tackled Destry, wrestled him to the ground and tied his feet. Then he sat on Destry and waited for help.
A system unable to cope with mental health
Destry has sat in county jail since last summer while the criminal justice system wrestles with a choice.
There’s no question who did the act. The question for the court is, was Destry in his right mind when he committed the act?
Friends report the family has suffered greatly, waiting for the answer. Terri and Destry had two children together, now ages 17 and 14. Destry has an adult son who has taken responsibility for the ranch and his half-siblings while they wait.
Court records span two pages with a flurry of Rule 11 filings and requests for a psychiatric examination. The county has charged Destry with second degree murder with extreme indifference.
According to research, almost half the U.S. incarcerated population suffers from mental illness — an estimated 45% of federal prisoners and more than 60% of jail inmates. Many turn to substance abuse to cope, adding charges to their cases.
Most cases caused by mental illness take longer because of the many hoops to process.
Destry’s allegedly bizarre behavior continued after deputies took him to the police station.
He became sleepy and unresponsive. He couldn’t tell deputies why he shot and dragged the calf or why he cut off water to his cattle.
He said he was stressed about the fire and hadn’t slept for days. He appeared distant and unemotional.
When deputies went to take a blood sample, he tried to escape restraints.
As he moved toward the cell, he acted as if he were being hunted — asking deputies who was in front of him and who was in back. Before entering the cell, he tried to make a run for the parking lot through the office door.
After deputies got him to a cell, they put him in a restraining chair while Destry chanted.
Destry has no history of domestic violence. He reportedly had a history of drug use, but quit after marrying Terri. He turned to preaching and aided his wife in founding the Tonto Basin Cowboy Church.
His phone, requested by the Gila County Attorney’s Office months after Terri’s death, only showed pictures and messages of family, ranching and hunting.
The Tonto Basin community still struggles today to comprehend how one of its solid, longtime members could snap.