She Escaped a Murderous Kidnapper Through the Desert
A couple camping in Arizona is threatened and kidnapped by a homicidal maniac in this thrilling true-crime story from our September 1991 magazine
For a Chicagoan like Tracy Andrews, camping near Arizona’s Superstition Mountains promised the adventure of a lifetime. Jutting fiercely out of the desert east of Phoenix, the Superstitions offered the 19-year-old the appeal of a wilderness she had known only through books and movies.
Tracy and her boyfriend, Rick Brough, 24, drove a Ford pickup to the Burnt Corral campground and had just pitched their tent when Larry Pritchard, another camper, stopped by. The 6-foot, 300-pound fount of friendliness had come to make sure the city slickers were settling in comfortably. Pritchard was something of an invalid, but he hobbled around with his cane and pet beagle, Molly. His presence reassured Tracy. “Larry’s the kind of guy I would like to have for a neighbor,” she said.
Everyone seemed friendly, including the stranger in the blue Chevy pickup who ambled up as Rick and Tracy sat around their campfire the second night. “Knock, knock,” he said with what sounded like a country twang. “My name’s Robert, and this is my kid, Mitchell.” Tall, lean and carrying a drink, Robert Comer was slightly tipsy. “Your friend’s up at our place partying,” he continued. “Come on over.”
Tracy and Rick declined the invitation but welcomed Comer again when he and the 8-year-old boy returned later. “Mitchell and I like to cut wood,” Comer explained as he dropped a night’s supply beside the fire. The daytime temperature was in the 60s, but the February nights were cold.
A nightmare begins
“Okay, everybody up!” Tracy and Rick sat bolt upright in their sleeping bags. The campsite was flooded by headlight beams; someone was screaming at them from outside the tent.
“Get out of there or I’ll blow your heads off! This is Arizona Drug Enforcement, and this is a bust!”
Confused, Rick and Tracy stumbled toward the bright lights. As Rick exited the tent, he was pushed face-first into the dirt. Tracy recognized the man: Robert Comer. Beside him stood a stocky woman, pointing a rifle at them.
“I’ll blow you sky-high!” Comer shouted. “I’m your worst nightmare!” Turning to the woman, he shouted, “Get me the cuffs!”
Tracy and Rick had heard stories of rural police officers who roughed up suspected drug smugglers. And the intruders had flashed a badge of some kind.
Knowing they’d done no wrong, Rick and Tracy sat passively as Comer bound their wrists and ankles with industrial-size garbage bag ties and duct tape, then wrapped more tape around their heads, partially covering their mouths. Comer shoved Rick and Tracy into the Ford, leaving the woman behind.
Down the road, Comer pulled into a dry creek bed. “It’s a long way to the Phoenix lockup,” he said. “If you’ve got to go to the bathroom, now’s the time.”
As Comer led Tracy from the truck, a new wave of panic struck her. Comer first lashed Rick to the truck’s bumper. Then he drew a footlong knife, slashed Tracy’s long underwear, and in the glare of the headlights raped her—inches from Rick.
Afterward, putting his .38-caliber pistol to Rick’s head, Comer turned to Tracy and said, “You know I have to kill him.”
“Please, don’t do that!” Tracy pleaded. “He won’t do anything.” Comer put away his gun, hogtied Rick, covered him with a blanket and kicked him into the brush. “You try to rescue her and I’ll kill her,” he promised. Then he drove off with Tracy into the starless night. It was 2:30 a.m.
Into the lion’s den
Senseless violence had been a way of life for Comer. During a late 1970s spree, he’d raped a young girl and less than 24 hours later stabbed a stranger in the back at a fast-food restaurant. His trip to the Burnt Corral campground had begun weeks before in Sacramento County, California, where authorities claim he murdered the owner of the Chevy pickup. Traveling east with his girlfriend, Juneva Willis, and her two small children, Mitchell and 10-year-old Sarah, Comer, 30, was suspected of pulling an armed robbery in Salt Lake City and breaking into cabins in Colorado to steal food and guns.
Clad only in a sweat suit and socks, Rick lay beneath the blanket, shaking with cold and thinking, Can this really be happening? Rick’s mind turned to his Catholic upbringing: the Hail Marys came quickly, followed by the Act of Contrition and the Lord’s Prayer. Our Father who art in heaven …
As he prayed for a miracle, Rick squirmed uncomfortably: Comer had left him lying on top of a rock, one with a razor-sharp edge. Rick cut his bonds and began making his way toward what he thought was the road. Unable to see in the pitch blackness, he stepped into a mass of thorns. Wait until there’s light, he thought, wrapping himself in the blanket.
As the truck bounced up the steep mountain road, Tracy also prayed silently. Comer had ditched the Ford pickup and dragged Tracy into his Chevy, where Juneva Willis was waiting. Learning that Rick had been left alive, Willis asked Comer, “Why didn’t you kill him?”
Tracy made two disturbing discoveries: Mitchell and Sarah were in the back of the truck, under a tarp. And on the floor of the cab was Molly, Larry Pritchard’s dog. Only one thing could explain Molly’s presence: Comer must have killed Pritchard.
Comer drove through the night, crossing into the rugged Mazatzal Mountains. Stopping occasionally, he warned Tracy, “Remember, city girl, if you try to get away, I’ll shoot you in the kneecaps and leave you for the coyotes.” To emphasize his point, Comer tossed a piece of moldy bologna in front of the truck, and when Molly dashed to retrieve it, he shot and killed her.
At the top of a peak, after five hours of driving, the truck ran out of gas. Comer cut Tracy’s bonds, forced her into the woods and raped her again.
As the sun rose, Rick walked back to the camp, where he met two trappers who drove him seven miles to a phone. At the campsite, officers discovered Larry Pritchard’s body beneath a pile of firewood. He had been shot through the head, and his throat was cut. My God, Rick thought, Tracy is with a homicidal maniac.
Assisted by military helicopters, authorities began scouring the area. Their overriding fear: Tracy would not be found alive.
Tracy wanted to make breakfast for the children. Looking at them broke her heart: dirty faces, matted hair, the girl with a large burn across her leg. But Comer ordered they were to have no breakfast.
Though terrified of Comer, the children quickly warmed to Tracy. Now, they told her, she could live with them too. “Mother will make you moccasins like she will for us.” Tracy looked down to see the children’s toes sticking out of their ill-fitting shoes.
Even Willis had moments of seeming friendliness. Occasionally, she would touch Tracy’s arm and whisper, “It’s going to be okay.”
Apparently believing he had intimidated Tracy into submission, Comer turned to chopping fire wood. “If you’re going to go,” Willis confided to Tracy, “you better go now. This is the busiest he’ll ever get, and he’ll never let you go.”
“I can’t take you with me,” Tracy said softly to the children. “But if he comes, don’t tell him what direction I went in.”
Tracy glanced at the clock in the truck. It was 7:59 a.m. Then she ran, with no idea where she was going, with no shoes, only socks, crashing through snow and rocks, cactuses and thorns. She gave herself a stern order: You will not feel the pain. You will not give up.
Only minutes later, Comer returned and noticed Tracy had vanished. “Which way did she go?” he shouted. Willis pointed in the direction she had told Tracy to flee. Grabbing his rifle, Comer fired several shots into the brush.
A daring escape
The Four Peaks area of the Mazatzal Mountains is characterized by steep, soaring slopes and narrow valleys. Its desert plants are covered with thorns and spines. Tracy, praying the snow would numb her feet, was propelled by the fear that Comer was right behind her. “I’m a bloodhound,” he had told her. “You can’t get away from me.”
As she ran, Tracy discovered strengths. For 13 years she had been a figure skater, and she was in excellent physical shape. Cutting through the savage brush, she tried to calm herself by recalling the music that had accompanied her as she glided across the ice: Ravel, Mozart, Tchaikovsky.
She also developed an alter ego modeled after her demanding Catholic schoolteachers. Whenever she slowed, this new, strong voice chided her: Get going, you wimp.
She reminded herself, as well, of her “three miracles.” The first was being adopted by loving parents. The second was meeting Rick. The third was in the making: I will survive this.
As Tracy ran through the snow and cactuses, she thought, I have been visited by angels before. They will not abandon me now.
Before long, Tracy’s feet were totally numb. Long spines from a barrel cactus drove deep into her thighs.
At midday she came upon a waterfall that blocked her escape. Could she double back? No—she might run into Comer. Edging her way out onto the slick rocks, Tracy lost her footing and dropped through the torrent, smashing her head on a rock and knocking herself unconscious.
Mercifully, the shock of the freezing water quickly revived her, and she struggled to the bank. Night brought another miracle: a sky full of stars. God is with me, she thought. He is lighting my way.
However, the fear of Comer would not leave her, even as exhaustion demanded she stop and rest. Has he been trailing me, she wondered, waiting until I’m almost free before finally finishing me off?
Comer wasn’t the only wild animal that concerned her. Two coyotes ventured within yards, showing an unnerving interest in her feet. In a nearby tree, she saw a mountain lion watching her.
As the sun burst across the desert, the new day brought a brilliant sunrise and welcome sounds: an orchestra of birds and later, in the distance, the most beautiful music of all—the sound of passing cars. Tracy staggered down the road, rejoicing, still running from Comer, 24 hours after her escape.
“I’ve been raped and kidnapped!” she told Bob McCollum, the first driver who stopped. “And I can’t feel my feet.” Severely blistered, they were swollen to over twice their normal size.
Word raced through the small town of Payson, Arizona, that a young woman had escaped shoeless through the mountains and was in the Lewis R. Pyle Memorial Hospital. Soon Tracy had a waiting room full of well-wishers, bearing gifts of food and clothes.
Eight hours after Tracy’s rescue, police discovered Comer’s abandoned pickup truck. An hour later, they found Comer behind a bush. He had buried his pistol, but he brandished his rifle at the approaching officers. He finally surrendered and was airlifted out of the mountains under heavy guard.
Comer was sentenced to 353 years for armed robbery, kidnapping and sexual assault, among other charges. He was sentenced to death for the murder of Larry Pritchard. Says Maricopa County prosecutor K. C. Scull, “Robert Comer is one of the two or three cruelest people I have ever encountered in my 28 years of law enforcement. He is truly a monster.” Juneva Willis received 9 1/2 years for kidnapping; her children are being raised by relatives.
Tracy and Rick were married after their ordeal, on July 14, 1990. Doctors had feared Tracy’s feet might have to be amputated, but surprisingly, they healed. She still has a lump on her head from her plunge down the waterfall.
The nightmare failed to drive Tracy and Rick from the desert. Indeed, their favorite pastime remains camping in the mountains, including the Mazatzals. They now live in Apache Junction, Arizona—30 miles from the penitentiary where Robert Comer sits on death row.
Editor’s note: Comer was executed in May 2007 in Arizona, a little more than 20 years after the events of this story.