Brotherly Glove

Written by Tom Marcinko Category: Valley News Issue: October 2012
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Built in a converted church, the Phoenix gym boasts a roped boxing ring, free weights, mirrored walls, and punching bags, but no phone or electricity. A handful of under-18 students found it by word of mouth. The most promising is 6 years old: “This little kid is totally serious. He’s really talented. If he keeps it up, he’s a world champion,” Michael says.

Michael dreams of tutoring a champion. But it might not happen in this gym. Late last year, Michael’s older brother Danny donated the property to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Youth Assistance Foundation (SYAF). In the latest round of a long family dispute nearly as infernal as the gym, Michael says the property – where he trained –  is his and was never Danny’s to give away.

Michael fell in love with boxing when he was 6, sparring with his father, Manuel. With Danny as manager-trainer, the liliputian pugilist became the U.S. amateur light flyweight (108 lbs.) champion in 1988. At the Seoul Olympics that year, he brought home the silver after losing a controversial 0-5 decision. Known as Manitas de Piedra (“Little Hands of Stone”), he went pro in 1989 and became the first light flyweight to collect a $1 million purse when he defended his WBC and IBF belts against Humberto Gonzalez in 1994.

By the time he retired in 1999, Carbajal’s career winnings totaled about $7 million. Danny and his wife, Sally, handled the money and promised to take care of everything, Michael says. Danny doled out $300 a week for walk-around cash.  “The only way I knew how much money I had was because I read it in the papers like everybody else,” Michael says. “I just trusted Danny.”

Michael says his late father warned that Danny might be stealing from him. He shrugged off the suspicions for years until his girlfriend, Laura Hall, convinced him his father had been right. That was in 2006.

In his first interview since the rift with Michael, Danny denies stealing from his brother: “He wasn’t defrauded of anything. He got everything that was his. He spent it. That’s all he did was spend money all the time. I kept telling him you got to slow down. And then when [Hall] got involved, she started all this. And he just depended on her to stay drunk all the time and she convinced him and that’s it.”

Michael admits to an alcohol problem but says he has stopped drinking.

The brothers settled out of court late last year. Michael recovered eight disputed properties, including the Garfield District house where he grew up and still lives. The settlement amounts to about $300,000, says Michael’s Phoenix lawyer, David G. Derickson. Nobody can account for the missing millions. 

Someone who might have shed light on the mystery was Sally. On February 25, 2005, at an apartment-complex parking lot on west Indian School Road, Sally – estranged from Danny – and her boyfriend, cab driver Gerry Best, were shot at close range. Sally was found dead; Best died the next day. The shootings took place three days before the Carbajals’ divorce trial. The case remains unsolved. Danny concedes he’s the chief suspect.

In June, Danny finished a four-and-a-half-year sentence for fraud and theft from Sally. Danny contends it was judicial payback for the unsolved crime. “[People] think I went to prison because of Michael,” he says. “That’s not why I went to prison. That had nothing to do with it. I went to prison because my wife was murdered and she couldn’t testify.” In the same case, Danny’s daughters Josephine and Celia pleaded guilty to forging their mother’s signature on legal documents, getting two years of probation.

Danny donated the Ninth Street Gym to the SYAF after learning the organization – which has a program for young boxers – was losing its old training facility. “My grandson was training [with the SYAF],” Danny says. “And I figured, you know what? We have a building, I have a building, so [the donation] came about just like that.”

It felt like yet another brotherly gut-punch to Michael, who refuses to relinquish the gym. “Danny’s motivation is that he don’t want me to have nothing,” Michael says.

A lawsuit for ownership of the gym was filed in May by attorney and SYAF Director Thomas F. Harper, who declined an interview. Sheriff spokesman Deputy Chief Brian Sands says the SYAF is completely independent from MCSO, adding that Sheriff Arpaio is aware of the Carbajals’ struggle but not the details. SYAF gets funds from sales of Tent City-themed souvenirs, and is featured on the Sheriff’s website.

Maricopa County Superior Court should settle the issue in the next couple of months, but no outcome is likely to provide closure for the Carbajal brothers. Perhaps Michael’s attorney, Derickson, puts it most aptly: “The whole thing is a shame.”