Aaron Ham spent part of one fall afternoon at the Wagon Wheel, a Picture Rocks convenience store and bar, where he offered a woman a ride back to her nearby home.
Ham spent that autumn evening being stabbed, sliced, struck and left dead in the woman’s yard with a knife sticking out of the back of his neck.
Specifically, the 25-year-old Picture Rocks native had been stabbed more than 16 times, sliced about the face and head, and hit with a blunt object on his upper arms, chest and abdomen, according to autopsy and sheriff records. One stab wound to his skull was so violent it dented the bone.
Ham’s body was lying near the double-wide trailer on the property in the 6500 block of North Hot Desert Trail, where the woman lived with two roommates. One of those roommates was Scott Williams, who was passed-out a mere 3 feet from Ham’s body.
When roused, reports say 57-year-old Williams admitted to killing Ham.
The verdict? There was none. Ham’s brutal Sept. 21 killing never made it to trial. It instead made it into the category of self-defense.
“I was protecting my family,” Williams is quoted as saying in early sheriff reports. “That guy was crazy. He had a knife and I had a knife and I stabbed him.”
Arizona law justifies a self-defense killing if a person is warding off a physical attack, but it does not justify a killing “in response to verbal provocation alone.” Reports say Williams had a sore rib after the killing but told deputies, “I’ve had this before.”
The two women at the trailer said they didn’t see a thing. One claimed she didn’t even notice Ham’s dead body in the yard.
It boiled down to Williams’ word against Ham’s word – and Ham is dead.
“The most I can say about the reason for dismissal is that we have the burden to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt and our issuing standard is whether there is a substantial likelihood of conviction,” said David Berkman, chief criminal deputy at the Pima County Attorney’s Office. “In this case we would need to prove that the defendant did not act in self-defense. We felt that there was insufficient evidence to charge the case.”
Ham’s family and friends say otherwise.
“(Look at) the number of stab wounds, slices and blunt force injuries,” said Aaron’s mother Donna Ham. “Seems a little overkill to me.”
Aaron’s aunt, Beth McCreary, who happens to be a retired dispatch supervisor with the Globe Police Department, agreed.
“Why did Aaron have 16 stab wounds and Williams none?” she asked. “It seems like Williams would have had cuts to the hands if he had to struggle and ‘defend’ himself against Aaron. The numbers of stab wounds to Aaron’s body are consistent with anger, not self-defense.”
Both Williams and Ham had been drinking. Williams had been passed out at the scene. Reports say he was wobbling, had to be held up to remain standing, and reeked of alcohol.
Aaron’s autopsy report shows a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) between .29 and .33. Arizona’s legal limit is .08. It also shows marijuana in his system.
“If a person weighing 132-pounds and 5-feet 9-inches tall had alcohol four times over the limit, how could he even stand, much less fight?” Donna Ham inquired about her son. “Makes me wonder how he could be a threat enough to be knifed 18 times.”
Aaron’s Last Day
Ham, a perpetual salesman and entrepreneur, sold exotic tortoises and had one with him when he stopped by the Wagon Wheel around 4 p.m. to get a soda.
“He could sell ice to an Eskimo,” his mom said.
Aaron met a woman whose boyfriend might be interested in buying the tortoise and the two hung out at the bar for a few drinks before he drove her home.
His mom called him around 6 p.m. “He told me he was at her house and it looked like he was going to make the sale. He would be home for dinner.”
Donna spoke to her son again around 7:30 p.m. “He called me, sounded drunk and said he was dancing and to save dinner for him.” Sheriff reports say Aaron was hanging out drinking with the trailer’s three residents on the back porch.
“I told him to stay safe, maybe stay there if he could because I didn’t think he should drive,” Donna said. “I asked him if he wanted me to come get him. He said he could ride his bike; it was in the back of his car. He wasn’t but just down the road. He was fine and he said, ‘I love you, bye.’”
His 8:45 p.m. call to Donna never connected.
“When I answered he wasn’t there,” she said. “He died 15 minutes later. I’ll never know what the last call was for. He probably needed help. When he really needed help with something he couldn’t get done by himself he always called me.”
By 9 p.m. sheriff deputies were called to the scene on a report of a domestic dispute and found Ham dead in the yard.
The knives had come into play when Williams showed Aaron his knife collection after the two were discussing guns, according to later reports while Williams was at the sheriff station. Williams also added more details to his story, saying Aaron not only came at him with a knife, but threatened to rape the two women and kill everyone in the house.
Williams then asked for an attorney. End of questions. Deputies took Williams home.
Ham’s fiancé Andrea Hall and his good friend Celeste Reynolds went to the Hot Desert Trail trailer the next day to get Ham’s tortoise – and more information.
“We went there thinking that we would get an explanation as to what happened to Aaron,” Hall said, “but when we got there I was stunned by how these people acted and the story we got.
“The older woman (Williams’ girlfriend) answered the door. Celeste and myself told her who we were, said that we were friends of Aaron’s and that we wanted to know what happened since we knew nothing at that time.
“To our surprise, she invited us right in and said, ‘Sure, if you want to meet the man who killed him, he’s on the back porch.’”
The visit went downhill from there, Hall said, with stories that didn’t match facts and more tales of Aaron’s supposed threats of rape and killing the household.
“Aaron was very against these things,” Hall said of rape and murder. “He would never hurt anyone. I know that in confrontation, Aaron was one to walk away and I believe that he was only trying to leave the night of this incident. Aaron was not a fighter, so even if he was fighting someone off, I do believe that he would try his hardest to get away and call the cops.”
Ham’s longtime friend Lindsay Nissan agreed. “Not a single time did I ever see Aaron get violent or aggressive towards me or anyone around us, sober or otherwise.”
Williams could not be reached for comment. Hall said she heard the three have since left town, leaving many questions – and a dead man – in their wake.
“Why wasn’t law enforcement called to remove Aaron from the Williams’ residence if he was so unruly?” Aaron’s aunt wanted to know. “Why wait until a homicide had to occur? Unreasonable to me.”
Some of McCreary’s questions may never be answered. “How could something this terrible happen to a young man who had a full life ahead of him? What are his mother and dad going to do without him?”
Ham recently moved back into his parent’s house to help his mother care for his 78-year-old father, who has Stage 2 Alzheimer’s.
Ham worked odd jobs around Picture Rocks and Marana while helping his mother with everything from grocery shopping to home repairs, cleaning and errands to looking after his father.
“He did anything and everything he could to help the two people who loved him most,” Nissan said. “Who is supposed to do all that for them now?”
His close relationship with his mom included things like a 3,100-mile camping road trip in a Jeep and daily conversation. “We talked about everything from A to Z,” Donna said, “Girlfriends, drugs, sex, music – you name it.”
“Loving, kind, intelligent” were the three words she chose to best describe her son, a Marana High School graduate who was planning to go to vocational school to get a good-paying job and start a family. “He wanted to be a dad so bad,” his mom said.
“He was a father figure to my daughter,” said fiancé Hall. “He was very proud that she called him dad.”
Aaron and Hall met 14 years ago, and Ham had equally long bonds with his other true friends, namely Reynolds and Nissan. He was more like a brother than an uncle to his nephew Ryan Ham, two years his junior, and close to Reynold’s 12-year-old son William.
“He was drawn to children and they to him,” Donna said, “as he was a teacher and mentor.”
She said he also had the “patience of a saint” and skills that included playing drums, building up computers from scratch and teaching new users how to work them, creative writing, photography and welding artwork or making it out of wire.
“Creating or building something from nothing was his passion,” Donna said.
“He was always coming up with new ideas and they were great, too,” Hall said. “He worked hard every day and had compassion for a lot of people and animals.”
Donna said her son would make breakfast sandwiches for three homeless men who lived in the wash by the Wagon Wheel. He helped people with car problems – even carried around a tow strap, gas can, water and an electric air compressor “just in case.” He did dump runs for older folks who couldn’t do it themselves and even built one man a porch.
“He ran into older people at the (Wagon Wheel). Ended up making an 88-year-old partially blind woman a steel mailbox stand and cemented it in the ground for her, as someone kept pulling hers down. Bet that one will never be taken again,” Donna said, adding he also fashioned such a mailbox for his parents.
“At his service I was told by many folks I didn’t know how he had helped them, what a wonderful young person and how they would miss him.”
Nissan said Aaron made a big impact on her life, especially by pushing her to finish school. “Because of him I am now a successful teacher with a bright future ahead of me and a career I love,” she said.
“He taught me how to play chess. He taught me how to trust again. He taught me how to really, really laugh. He taught me how to forgive, and to accept anyone and everyone no matter what their shortcomings may be because we all have them.”
Hall said he was a fantastic listener who gave equally great advice. “He loved life and cherished the little things that people take for granted,” she said.
He thrived in the great outdoors. “He was so resourceful,” Nissan said, “your all-around Boy Scout – with facial hair.”
His aunt recalled summers in Globe when they would hike, visit the lake, ride ATVs and go to the movies. “It was a joy to be with him and share his life. He was energetic and fun. I don’t remember anything he disliked.
“It is hard for me to believe that the sheriff’s office investigation was as thorough as it could have been. I think Aaron deserves more. I would have rather seen a grand jury make the decision whether or not to take this case to trial. It is almost as if a trial took place in the Pima County Attorney’s Office and they were the jury,” McCreary said.
“I cried in disbelief and wondered how in the world a man can get away with murder.”
Aaron’s mom is equally anguished. “It’s bad enough for his dad and I to lose him,” she said, “but the manner in which it took place is even harder to bear.
“We are left with unanswered questions, broken hearts that will never heal, and 11 pounds of ashes.”
Those we love don’t go away,
They walk beside us every day,
Unseen, unheard, but always near,
Still loved, still missed and very dear.
Aaron Lyle Ham
12/14/1983 – 09/21/2009
Ryn Gargulinski is a poet, artist, performer and TucsonCitizen.com Ryngmaster. Her column usually appears every Friday on Rynski’s Blogski, but Aaron Ham’s story gets center stage this week. Ryn’s art, writing and more is at RynRules.com and Rynski.Etsy.com. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Does Aaron’s death sound like self-defense?
Do you know of similar situations?
Do you have any helpful advice for Aaron’s family and friends on how to get his case to trial?