Damacio Diaz of McFarland cross country fame admits to police corruption and drug charges, faces federal prison

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Damacio Diaz, right, shakes hands with Tomas Valles as the team readies for the start of the Southern section championships in the 1987 season.

Damacio Diaz, one of the three “running Diaz” brothers who helped build the McFarland High School cross country dynasty of the 1980s and 1990s and whose adventures were a key story line in the inspirational Disney film “McFarland USA,” has admitted to an array of charges stemming from a federal police corruption investigation and will almost certainly spend time in federal prison, according to published media reports.

Diaz, who went on to become a detective with the Bakersfield Police Department and was employed for 17 years, was arrested in November, 2015 and charged with 16 counts in a federal indictment. He resigned three months ago, on February 24. According to a Bakersfield Californian article published today and written by Steven Mayer and Christine Bedell, “Diaz admitted to a litany of crimes while he was working as a cop, including taking bribes, large-scale distribution of methamphetamine, working in partnership with a known drug dealer, stealing evidence and providing police intelligence to criminal partners.”

Federal prosecutors are recommending lenient sentencing for Diaz in exchange for his testimony and cooperation in their continuing investigation of the case. However, the amount of time Diaz might have to serve in prison has not been disclosed, and it will be up to the federal judge who handles the case to accept or reject the deal. Some of the charges against Diaz carry lifetime prison terms. The willingness of federal prosecutors to offer leniency for such serious crimes seems to indicate that the corruption scandal, in their view, might extend well beyond just Diaz and his former partner, who, according to The Californian, is expected to also be charged.

The Diaz arrest and admission is yet another devastating blow to the community of McFarland. The success of the cross country program has been a source of pride for the small agricultural community located 20 miles north of Bakersfield, which in the 1980s  endured unspeakable heartache and tragedy. Those included a cross country practice accident that took the lives of two members of the girls team, the death by heart attack of the school’s football coach, a Valentine’s Day car crash that claimed the lives of six teenagers from McFarland and neighboring Delano, the accidental deaths by drowning and a car accident that claimed two other teens, and a mysterious and unsolved cancer cluster that afflicted and claimed the lives of several children living in a several-square block section of McFarland.

The story line involving the Diaz brothers in the film “McFarland USA” highlighted the cultural differences between McFarland’s residents and the community’s burgeoning population of Mexican immigrants and their children. In the film, and presumably in their real lives, coach Jim White wants the Diaz brothers to run on the cross country team, but meets stiff resistance from the Diaz brothers’ father, who insists that they must work alongside him in the fields before and after school. The Diaz family also provided one of the film’s funniest scenes, when coach White, played by Kevin Costner, joins the family for dinner and is fed almost to the brink of unconsciousness by Mrs. Diaz. The film, while not accurate in many respects, still reflected positively on McFarland and has been well received by its residents. Many of the athletes who competed for coach White have had successful careers as adults. The other Diaz brothers, Danny and David, work as educational administrators.

The charges against Diaz – and the speculation that the scandal might run deep inside the Bakersfield Police Department, according to statements made by Diaz’s attorney – come at a time when law enforcement in Kern County is facing tremendous national and international scrutiny. Earlier this year, the British newspaper The Guardian, one of the world’s best investigative journalism outlets, published a series in which it declared police in Kern County to be the deadliest in America. Several of the cases highlighted were Bakersfield police cases.

The Bakersfield Californian articles report this story in depth. Click here to read yesterday’s story by Steven Mayer and click here to read today’s by Mayer and Christine Bedell.

The Guardian series declaring Kern County police the country’s deadliest

Twinkies, Hawaii and messages in the sand: The story of Sylvia and Herlinda

The real “McFarland USA” beach scene, from the album of Silvia Diaz

Photos from the Bakersfield sneak peek of “McFarland USA”

A look at the real “McFarland USA” kids and coach Jim White

Update: Show the world what has happened to my son

McFarland’s never-ending heartache

Prom night, a crash and six teens lost

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Damacio Diaz signs autographs at the Bakersfield sneak peak of the Disney film “McFarland USA” in February, 2015.

 

“McFarland USA” coach Jim White recovering from heart attack

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Jim White at the Bakersfield premiere of “McFarland USA” earlier this year.

Jim White, the legendary cross country coach who was the inspiration for this year’s Disney film “McFarland USA,” sustained a minor heart attack and is recovering, according to several posts on the Facebook account of his wife, Cheryl. Here is one of the posts from today.Screen Shot 2015-11-17 at 4.29.29 PM

White was portrayed by Kevin Costner in the film, a fact-based account of how he brought a string of cross country state high school championships to the small California farming community of McFarland. There are several other posts by Cheryl White confirming White’s medical status, thanking supporters for prayers and encouraging others to please be aware of their own family medical histories.

A look at the real “McFarland USA” kids and coach Jim White

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Thomas Valles, of the McFarland Cougars 1987 team, hoists the California Southern Area championship trophy. Victor Puentes is just to his left. David Diaz is behind Victor wearing a white t-shirt and McFarland hat. Jim White is to Thomas’ right and Gary Adams is to White’s right.
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Coach Jim White and his wife, Cheryl, with team member Thomas Valles at the 1987 California Southern Area cross country meet at Hart Park in Bakersfield. Eliu Garza, also a McFarland High runner, is at right with the camera.
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Victor Puentes (left), Thomas Valles (center) and Damacio Diaz (right) just before the start of the California Southern Area meet in 1987. Luis Partida is behind Victor and Jose Cardenas is directly behind Thomas Valles.

I received a nice surprise today when my pal, longtime Bakersfield Californian photographer Felix Adamo, found these photos I shot of the 1987 McFarland boys cross country team. They were requested by People Magazine. This is the team featured in the movie “McFarland USA,” which opens to general release on February 20. There is much excitement and anticipation in McFarland about the film, which stars Kevin Costner as coach Jim White, and as I mentioned in my previous posts that dealt with the enormous heartache this town endured in the 1980s – “Show the world what has happened to my son,” “Prom night, a crash and six teens lost” and “McFarland’s never-ending heartache  – this close-knit town deserves some good will and national love. Because Thomas Valles, McFarland’s top runner in 1987, is the focal point of all these photos, this was most likely a profile I was assigned to shoot of him in advance of the state championship meet. These photos, by the way, are from the California Southern Area meet held at Hart Park in Bakersfield, probably November 1987, and if I remember correctly, it is the meet before the California Interscholastic Federation section championship and the California state championship, which the team went on to win, and is a focus of the film.

The real Thomas Valles in 1987.
The real Thomas Valles in 1987.
This photo by Henry Barrios is from the Kern Invitational in October 1987. Thomas Valles runs in the center and Johnny Samaniego to his right. Danny Diaz is behind them.
This photo by Henry Barrios is from the Kern Invitational in October 1987. Thomas Valles runs in the center and Johnny Samaniego to his right. Damacio Diaz is behind them.
I also shot this photo of the 1988 team. McFarland's cross country team was a bright light for a town enduring unspeakable tragedy at the time, including the infamous child cancer cluster, the accident that killed two members of the girls team and an emerging culture of gang activity and violence.
I also shot this photo of the 1988 team. This might be both varsity and junior varsity runners, some of the kids look pretty young. McFarland’s cross country team was a bright light for a town enduring unspeakable tragedy at the time, including the infamous child cancer cluster, the accident that killed two members of the girls team and an emerging culture of gang activity and violence.

Update, February 19, 2015: I found these additional photos from my coverage of the 1986 South Area championship at Hart Park. This race occurred two and one-half weeks after two teammates on the girls team, Silvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez, were struck by a car and killed while practicing. It’s not part of the movie, but the team was, obviously, grieving and impacted deeply.

Still grieving following the deaths of Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez from the girls team, a parent arranged to have the boys arrive at the section championships in a limo. From left: Thomas Valles, Victor Puentes, Johnny Samaniego, Damaci Diaz, David Diaz, Amador Ayon and Luis Partida.
Still grieving following the deaths of Silvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez from the girls team, a parent arranged to have the boys arrive at the area championships in a limo. From left: Thomas Valles, Victor Puentes, Johnny Samaniego, Damaci0 Diaz, David Diaz, Amador Ayon and Luis Partida.
Aaron Mears and Kevin Larson, two runners from the Bakersfield High Drillers, wish the McFarland runners well before the start of the Southern Section championships. The gesture is in contrast to the film, which portrays McFarland's opponents as snobby rich kids who look down on the runners. McFarland runners in this picture are (from left) David Diaz, Victor Puentes, Thomas Valles and Luis Partida.
Aaron Meares (far right) and Kevin Larson, two runners from the Bakersfield High Drillers, wish the McFarland runners well before the start of the South Area championships. The gesture is in contrast to the film, which portrays McFarland’s opponents as snobby rich kids who look down on the runners. McFarland runners in this picture are (from left) David Diaz, Victor Puentes, Thomas Valles and Luis Partida.
The McFarland runners take off at the start of the Southern Section championships at Hart Park in Bakersfield, California on November 13, 1986.
The McFarland runners take off at the start of the South Area championships at Hart Park in Bakersfield, California on November 13, 1986.
Thomas Valles runs in the 1986 CIF Southern Section championships at Hart Park in Bakersfield.
Thomas Valles runs in the 1986 CIF South Area championships at Hart Park in Bakersfield.
Thomas Valles runs in the 1986 CIF Southern Section championships at Hart Park in Bakersfield.
Thomas Valles runs in the 1986 CIF South Area championships at Hart Park in Bakersfield.
The real 1987 California state championship McFarland Cougars. Photo provided by Dolores Plata Rodriguez. From left: Thomas Valles, Victor Puentes, Damacio Diaz, Johnny Samaniego, Jose Cardenas, Danny Diaz and Coach Jim White. Luis Partida is not pictured.
The real 1987 California state champion McFarland Cougars. Photo provided by Dolores Plata Rodriguez. From left: Thomas Valles, Victor Puentes, Damacio Diaz, Johnny Samaniego, Jose Cardenas, Danny Diaz and Coach Jim White. Luis Partida is not pictured.
Here's another image of the 1987 California state champion McFarland Cougars, this one provided by Jim and Susy Beltran. Bottom, from left: Thomas Valles, Danny Diaz, Victor Puentes, Jose cardenas. Top, from left: Johnny Samaniego, Luis Partida, Damacio Diaz and Coach Jim White.
Here’s another image of the 1987 California state champion McFarland Cougars, this one provided by Jim and Susy Beltran. Bottom, from left: Thomas Valles, Danny Diaz, Victor Puentes, Jose Cardenas. Top, from left: Johnny Samaniego, Luis Partida, Damacio Diaz and Coach Jim White.

Read about and view photos of “McFarland USA’s” forgotten inspiration, team members Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez, who died in a practice accident in 1986. Without these two beautiful young ladies, there would be no “McFarland USA.” Click here.

To see additional photos of the McFarland boys and girls teams competing in the 1986 Kern Invitational five days after the tragic accident that took the lives of their teammates, please visit the post “McFarland’s never-ending heartache.”

Also check out the incredibly moving real photos from the beach scene depicted in “McFarland USA” from the personal album of Silvia Diaz.

Update: Show the world what has happened to my son

Mario Bravoweb Shortly after posting this story from the wake of Mario Bravo a few weeks ago, I began hearing from people involved in or connected with the McFarland child cancer cluster of the 1980s and the other McFarland tragedies. One of those was Mario’s younger sister, Yadira, who was 10 when her brother died. She asked if I could find the original images from the shoot. I was able to find the images yesterday, and when I looked at them, for the first time since shooting them back in 1987, my breath shortened for a beat, as the bleakness and despair of the McFarland cancer cluster struck me full force. Time, it seems, has a way of doing that, taking the detached and impartial observer and recorder of fact and suddenly making him the recipient rather than the creator. I was no longer a photographer on deadline, picking pictures, fighting for the one I though should be published, then turning them in and moving on to the next job. The impact of these pictures struck me. Yadira and her mom. The massive showing of McFarland townspeople, almost all migrant families, packed inside the funeral parlor, testament not only to Mario’s popularity (which I have been learning about from his friends), but also to the terror of the unseen force they could not control, the answers cruelly evading them.

Yadira has also shared some information with me. Yadira moved to Texas about 16 years ago. She is married, her name is now Yadira Bravo Ramirez and she has a daughter named Aimee and just gave birth to a new daughter, Brielle Elise. Tina Bravo, her mom, remained an active member of the McFarland community fighting and pressing state health officials for the answers that would never come. Tina and Mario had another son, Edwardo, after Mario died. She moved to Texas eight years ago and lives just a couple of blocks away from Yadira. Yadira’s other brother, Jorge, who was 2-years-old when his older brother died, also lives in Texas near his mother and sister. Things did not go well for Ernesto and Tina in the aftermath of Mario’s death. They are now divorced.

The fresh look at the pictures I shot 27 years ago has not changed my mind. The picture of Ernesto Ramirez and his son Mario should have been

Mario and Yadira. Photos courtesy of Yadira Bravo Ramirez.
Mario and Yadira. Photos courtesy of Yadira Bravo Ramirez.

published. We Americans don’t want to see images that disrupt the imaginary cocoon that we so desperately try to project as our reality. We want life to be presented to us the way it looks in slick Madison Avenue-produced commercials, or television sitcoms set in beautiful, idyllic neighborhoods. We so want to play “pretend” with that reality, and have successfully bullied and intimidated media organizations that would dare share the starkness, despair and cruelty of the true world, that they are as terrified to publish a photo as the McFarland parents were that the unseen, stealthy killer would come for one of their children. And there’s something wrong with that.

The original post follows these new images from the funeral of Mario Bravo, the sixth child to die in the unsolved McFarland child cancer cluster.

Tina and Yadira Bravo at Mario's wake.
Tina and Yadira Bravo at Mario’s wake.
Ernesto, Tina and Yadira Bravo at Mario's wake.
Ernesto, Tina and Yadira Bravo at Mario’s wake.
A massive crowd of mostly migrant families packed the Parkview Mortuary in Delano, Calif. for the wake of Mario Bravo.
A massive crowd of mostly migrant families packed the Parkview Mortuary in Delano, Calif. for the wake of Mario Bravo.
Mourners file past Mario Bravo's casket on December 1, 1987.
Mourners file past Mario Bravo’s casket on December 1, 1987.
On May 23, 1988, six months after Mario Bravo died, I shot this photo of the bravo family as they prepared for a visit by presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. This is Tina and Ernesto with Yadira and Jorge. Tina and Ernesto are no longer married. Yadira, Tina and Jorge now live in Texas.
On May 23, 1988, six months after Mario Bravo died, I shot this photo of the Bravo family as they prepared for a visit by presidential candidate Jesse Jackson. This is Tina and Ernesto with Yadira and Jorge. Tina and Ernesto are no longer married. Yadira, Tina and Jorge now live in Texas.

Here is the text from the original “Show the world what has happened to my son” post:

Mario Bravo died on Thanksgiving Day, 1987, the sixth child to succumb to the childhood cancer cluster of McFarland, California. At 14, he died of liver cancer, a childhood cancer so rare it afflicts 1.5 per 1 million children. In all, 13 children contracted cancer in McFarland, a small farming town 20 miles north of Bakersfield. Most of the victims lived in a small, concentrated area comprising several blocks. I was assigned to cover Mario’s wake. The McFarland cancer cluster was one of two childhood cancer clusters in Kern County at the time, and was receiving considerable national media attention. (The other was in Rosamond in southeastern Kern County, and received much less attention.) Despite that, I was the only media person at the wake when I shot this photo Some local media would show later. Just after I shot this picture of Ernesto Bravo at Mario’s casket, he saw me and walked over. I thought he was going to ask me to leave. Instead, he said, “Please, show the world what has happened to my son.” Then he returned to his son’s casket. The world would not see my photo of Ernesto and Mario Bravo. Nor would anyone in Bakersfield or California. You are seeing this photo for the first time.

In the aftermath of the public reaction to the Hart Park drowning photo, Californian editor Bob Bentley issued a “no dead bodies in the paper” order. It was a “hard” order, meaning there would be no exceptions, regardless of the story or the circumstances. Hard directives and their rigid inflexibility in a newsroom are an awful thing. They can hide reality, obscure context, intimidate and limit the decision making capabilities of reporters, photographers and editors, and deprive the public of seeing unpleasant but critical aspects of important stories. Politicians and even celebrities who took up the cause of McFarland’s predominantly farm worker citizens were convinced that the cause of the childhood cancers was from excessive pesticide use in the farms that surrounded the town. The families believed that, too, and were desperate for answers. But the scientists, epidemiologists and medical experts who exhaustively searched for a cause were not able to find one. The cause of the McFarland childhood cancer cluster remains an unsolved mystery. Reporters covering the story were being so badly harassed by the McFarland Police Department that Henry Barrios, the photographer assigned to it, began carrying a tape recorder to his shoots. You should have heard the audio recording Henry Barrios made one day of the McFarland police chief threatening him and ordering him to leave the town. It was almost an identical replica of Jackie Gleason’s Sheriff Buford T. Justice character in “Smokey and the Bandit,” except it wasn’t at all funny. This was, I believe, the only work I did on the McFarland cluster. I was assigned the Rosamond cluster. Henry was likely on vacation or maybe on a sick day, and I filled in for him.

McFarland’s never-ending heartache

Thomas Valles prays before the start of the Kern Invitational on November 1, 1986, five days after two teammates from the girls team were killed during a practice session.
Thomas Valles prays before the start of the Kern Invitational on November 1, 1986, five days after two teammates from the girls team were killed during a practice session.

Update, February 18, 2015: I have located my original images from the 1986 Kern County Invitational, the first race the McFarland girls and boys ran following the tragic accident that killed their teammates Herlinda Gonzalez and Silvia Diaz. I also found the images from the California Interscholastic Federation central Section South Area race two and one-half weeks later. I remember shooting both of these races as they were extremely emotional. They are presented here.

I don’t know if any city as small as McFarland, California, population around 6,500 back then, has endured as much heartbreak and despair involving their children as this town did in the mid and late 1980s. My coverage of two of those are detailed on this site (Show the World What Has Happened to My Son and Prom Night, a Crash and Six Teens Lost). On October 27, 1986, as parents were desperately searching for answers and help finding the cause of a cancer outbreak that was claiming the lives of the farming community’s children, and just a few months before the horrific Valentine’s Day car crash that claimed the lives of six teens from McFarland and neighboring Delano, two members of McFarland High’s cross country team were killed. Silvia Diaz, 16, and Herlinda Gonzalez, 14, were struck by a car during a practice run along one of McFarland’s roads.

The McFarland girls cross country team in 1986. Sylvia Diaz, 16, is second from left, seated on the bench. Herlinda Gonzalez, 14, is seated on the bench second from the right, the girl with the big smile. This photo was provided by their teammate, Norma Takahashi, middle of the standing row.
The McFarland girls cross country team in 1986. Silvia Diaz, 16, is second from left, seated on the bench. Herlinda Gonzalez, 14, is seated on the bench second from the right, the girl with the big smile. This photo was provided by their teammate, Norma Lopez, middle of the standing row.
Clip courtesy of Norma Takahashi, Slivia and Herlinda's teammate.
Clip courtesy of Norma Takahashi, Silvia and Herlinda’s teammate.

McFarland would continue to endure unspeakable heartache, though I didn’t work any of the other stories. They were the death of football coach Gerry Pitts, who suffered a heart attack and the Kern River drowning of 16-year-old James Lopez that summer, the death of McFarland High junior Stacey Morris in a traffic accident earlier in the year and the stabbing death of Daniel Gonzalez, 16, at a party in 1985. In the late 1980s, Eduardo Martinez, a popular student and football player at McFarland High, lost his life in a post-graduation car accident on the way to Avila Beach in a crash that also seriously injured several other teens. Fate apparently wasn’t cruel enough to McFarland in the 1980s. During the football season of 1991, Freddy Mendoza, 17, a captain on the varsity football team, collapsed during a game and died of a brain hemorrhage.

A movie starring Kevin Costner, “McFarland USA,” about cross country coach Jim White and the remarkable cross country team, is coming this February, and hopefully it is going to be a winner, because this town has paid its dues in a big way and deserves some positive attention and a little national love. This remarkable Los Angeles Times article and photo story, published in 1997, provides a great, richly-detailed picture of what the residents of this town endured.

November 1, 1986. The Kern County Invitational:

In these four photos, McFarland girls runner Tammy Carter finishes the Kern Invitational at Hart Park in Bakersfield and lands in the arms of coach Gary Pierson. Carter ran the race just five days after the accident that killed her two teammates.

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The boys team readies for the start of the 1986 Kern Invitational. From left are Victor Puentes (7), Johnny Samaniego (2), Damacio Diaz (5), Thomas Valles (16) and David Diaz.
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Thomas Valles runs in the Kern Invitational in 1986. The team raced just five days after their teammates Silvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez were struck and killed by a car during practice.
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David Diaz runs in the 1986 Kern Invitational at Hart Park.
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Johnny Samaniego runs in the 1986 Kern Invitational on November 1, 1986.

November 13, 1986. The South Area Championships:

The McFarland girls cross country team competes in the South Area race in Hart Park in Bakersfield on November 13, 1986.

McFarland_girls_2McFarland_girls_6McFarland_girls_8McFarland_girls_web_1McFarland_girls_5In the two photos above, Norma Gonzalez and Hollie Wycoff after their race at the South Area championships, still grieving following the deaths of teammates Silvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez.

The parents of one of the girls arranged to have the team driven to the race in a limo, an effort to lift their spirits as they were still grieving after accident that killed Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez.
The parents of one of the girls arranged to have the team driven to the race in a limo, an effort to lift their spirits as they were still grieving after accident that killed Silvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez. From left are Eva Renteria, Hollie Wycoff, Delfina Herrera, Maria Herrera, Alicia Herrera, Tammy Carter, Norma Gonzalez and coach Gary Pierson.

Prom night, a crash and six teens lost

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On Valentine’s Day, 1987, six teens were killed in a crash on a country road. I was nearing the end of my shift on this Saturday night when I heard a call on the radio of a serious car accident on a country road between McFarland and Delano, two neighboring farming towns about a half hour north of Bakersfield. I drove in from the McFarland side and right up to the scene. What I had arrived upon was a horrific scene of pure tragedy. Two vehicles, one carrying a group of Delano teens and the other a group of McFarland teens, had collided head on at high speed on the road. There were no skid marks. The speculation was they were playing “chicken.” Six of the teens were dead, killed instantly, and five others were injured. According to the CHP, none of the 11 teens in the two vehicles were wearing seat belts. It was a night time crash, and the officials had brought in portable lights to illuminate the scene. This would be a major investigation by the CHP’s major accident unit. I remember looking into one of the vehicles – it was a pickup truck – and seeing something I’ve never forgotten. Several of the teens, lying on top of the other, lay dead. If not for the knowledge of what had happened and the disintegrated exteriors of the vehicles, you would have thought they were sleeping. There was no blood, no dismemberment. Just what looked to be sleeping kids. And something else – one was clutching a pair of white sunglasses in his hand. He was wearing a tuxedo. It was prom night for one of the schools. I knew, of course, that I was shooting what was now one of the top news stories in the country. I had to shoot a picture that conveyed the tragedy, try to tell as much of the story in one image. This is that image. It would be yet another heartbreak for McFarland. The town was gripped with fear and uncertainty as children were dying – six in all – as part of an unsolved cancer cluster, and a year earlier, two runners on the high school’s girls cross country team were struck and killed by a truck as they were practicing. I don’t know if the CHP ever determined whether the two drivers were playing chicken, as they initially suspected. The CHP officer in the middle of this image is Travis Mitchell, who I got to know very well through the years, as I shot dozens of accidents that he worked.

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The story would make headlines throughout the country. This is from the Lewiston, Maine Daily Sun.