Was the March shooting in Buckeye over land, or perhaps something bigger?
On a warm March night south of Buckeye, on a narrow dirt road running just north of a swampy stretch of the Gila River, two men – one white, one black – met in an angry exchange of threats, name-calling and accusations that finally ended with three shots from an AK-47.
It was not the first time the two adversaries, Scottsdale developer Richard Mladick, 51, and Buckeye laborer Javan Berry, 48, ran afoul of each other on dusty Sunrise Drive. For the past four years, Mladick had been aggressively buying up land on the remote patch of desert while developing his own small recreational lake, and Berry, whose late grandparents had purchased a 10,500-square-foot plot of land on the road back in 1958, had been the lone holdout unwilling to sell. Family members on both sides report a history of heated confrontations.
But their meeting on the night of March 11 would ultimately be their last. Court paperwork states both men had gotten out of their vehicles to argue when Mladick, according to Berry, yelled threats and racial slurs then turned to head back to his Ford F-150 truck. Berry told Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office deputies he believed Mladick was going to fetch a gun from the vehicle when Berry got his own rifle out of his Chevy truck and fired three shots, aiming one at the F-150’s tires and two at Mladick’s legs – intending, he told police later, to merely wound him. Instead, at least one bullet fatally pierced the father of four through the back. Berry – who had placed the original call to Buckeye Police stating that he had shot a trespasser – maintains he never intended to kill Mladick.
Medics with the Buckeye Fire Department attempted to revive Mladick at the scene, but he was unresponsive. Berry was quickly jailed in Phoenix on one count of second-degree murder, with bail set at $500,000. At press time, Berry remains held at the Fourth Avenue jail.
News coverage of the shooting was surprisingly scant, with most reports chalking it up to a “property dispute” gone bad out in the boonies. On Facebook, those who did weigh in mostly focused on the men’s races, with some suggesting, none too subtly, that the story might have gotten more play from mainstream media if the races of the shooter and the victim had been reversed. “So where’s all the outrage and protests?” asked one white poster with a timeline checkered with memes lampooning Black Lives Matter marchers.
Black social media voices, on the other hand, tended to rally around Berry, who some felt was charged too hastily. On AfriSynergy News, a militant-leaning YouTube channel with 66,000 subscribers, host T. West acknowledges the gravity of the event, saying, “Yes, it was a tragedy that Mr. Mladick lost his life. We don’t like that.” But he also faintly commends the shooter for flipping the script on the stand-your-ground defense, which FBI data has shown is argued successfully in trespasser shootings more often against blacks (in which 17 percent of cases find just cause) than whites (1 percent).
“Javan Berry was standing his ground on his property – with emphasis on his property,” West says. “This particular black man did not go down. He did not fall down.”
It’s still unclear precisely where the confrontation happened, but it doesn’t appear to be on the Berry property. County assessor’s maps show the vacant residential land belonging to Berry’s grandparents, Lawrence and Cashie Lee – full cash value: $1,500 – located on Sunrise Drive about 600 yards east of Miller Road, the only access street, but news helicopter shots show the scene of the crime at the intersection of those roads. In his statement to deputies, Berry said Mladick was blocking the roadway with his truck.
But the standoff represented more than a simple property dispute, West believes. Over the course of a rambling three-part, four-and-a-half-hour series of YouTube clips, West, who now lives in Texas but grew up in the area where the shooting occurred, leads viewers through a personal history of Arizona’s long-forgotten all-black town, Allenville, which was built on the same land Berry and Mladick fought over.
“There were at least two, three churches. Here’s where I saw [gospel group] Mighty Clouds of Joy sing,” West says, dragging a cursor over a Google Earth map of what’s now largely vacant land leading up to Mladick’s property, a private 120-acre mini-version of Lake Pleasant – suitable for weddings and events – that Mladick and his partners named Hidden Lake. Mladick’s property line begins about 700 yards east of Berry’s, which sits across the street from a roofless brick frame foundation – the only evidence of Allenville left standing. “That’s where Earl Allen’s tavern was. And I remember Miss Sugar’s! We would go get ice cream and candy there.”
In West’s view, Berry was not only standing his ground on his own tiny plot that night. He was standing ground for Maricopa County’s first and last all-black township – not exactly Black Wall Street, but a BIPOC version of a frontier Main Street. As West sees it, Berry was not simply antagonizing Mladick by continuing to throw spirited family reunions on land the developer sought to fill with upscale hotels and restaurants surrounding his private boating and fishing club. He was fending off the village’s erasure. “Richard Mladick didn’t know the history of Allenville – didn’t want to know it,” says West, who claims he had his own “very threatening” run-in with the developer on a visit a few years back. “In the end, that may have been the problem.”
Jarvis Berry remembers spending time in Allenville with his grandmother.
“I was really young,” says the second oldest of four brothers, behind Javan, all given names beginning with “Ja,” a tradition begun by their father and carried on with the Berry grandchildren. “But I remember spending a lot of time there with my grandmother before the flood came in. They had everything that you could possibly think of in that little one square mile. Stores, a restaurant. It was like a little town in itself.”
Allenville was formed in 1944 as a place for black workers, who were coming to Arizona from all over the country to work in the cotton industry, but who were still barred from living in certain areas before the enactment of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Located about 40 miles southwest of Phoenix in the middle of a floodplain, it was clearly not the most desirable stretch of real estate. The area lacked adequate drinking water, requiring residents to truck it in from the fields in “peach tins, old tomato containers and shortening jars,” according to a 1969 The Arizona Republic article.
Nevertheless, about 800 people lived there at its peak in the late ’60s, before a waist-deep flood on March 9, 1978, finally forced all remaining residents to move – most to temporary trailers and later to nearby Hopeville, a 75-acre community of small homes and trailers formed in 1981 and named by the residents. Still, the community, by now largely the extended families of the founders, remained close. While many of the Berrys, Lees, Shoemakers, Williamses and other clans now live in Buckeye, they’d often visit what remained of Allenville to shoot game (“It’s a Buckeye thing,” Jarvis says) or fish in the lake, an accidental body of water left over from a sand and gravel operation and fed by the groundwater created by the nearby Gila River.
Mladick, a visionary real estate developer originally from Virginia Beach, had already tried unsuccessfully to build a surf-quality wavepool and rafting course called Waveyard in Mesa. Around 2015, he began scouting out the land around the Allenville water body, with plans to build his recreational facility. That’s when the Berry brothers began seeing him on their fishing days.
“When we first met him, he seemed like a cool guy,” says Javar Berry, at 40, the second youngest of the brothers. “He was very easygoing, had no problem with us using the lake, just a very decent guy.” A short while after purchasing the land encompassing the water in 2016, Mladick erected gates around the property, but gave the Berrys a key. “He said, ‘Oh, sorry about that. That’s just to keep all the trash out.’ And we were like, ‘It’s cool. As long as we can still go down there to do our rabbit hunt, dove hunt, catch fish, you know.’ It had always been a little lake that was free to the public.”
Javar says Mladick’s disposition began to inexplicably change a couple years later, around the time Hidden Lake opened commercially. By then, Mladick and his partners had already invested more than $1 million cleaning and stocking the lake with largemouth bass and other fish to turn it into a catch-and-release trophy fishing destination.
“Me, my wife and my kids and their friends went down there just to hang out one day. Richard sees me, and he started going crazy on me. ‘Get the f*** off my property! What the f*** are you doing here? I’ll call the cops!’ And I’m like, ‘Dude, slow down!’” Later, Javar says Mladick began attempting to chase them off of their own small property, too. “I was diagnosed with cancer [in 2018], and my family decided to throw a fund-raiser for me. We had a horseshoe tournament down on the family’s property to raise money, and he called the cops on us, and they showed up in force. There were like 10 cops walking around there with assault rifles.
“Something changed, and I really don’t understand it,” Javar says. “Everything took a turn for the worse.”
On March 12, the day after the shooting, a distraught Jennifer Mladick went on Facebook to share news of the tragedy with friends.
“Last night my husband was shot and killed,” she wrote above a beatifically smiling family portrait. “This was a senseless, selfish act by a horrible man and family who has terrorized us for years. We built an amazing business we worked so hard to build, near a small sliver of land that his family owned and he felt he had the right. The right to shoot our signs, throw them in the canals, trash our roads. The right to sit on his property and drink, throw parties, burn shit, turn my guests away, dig up access roads to try to get to my lake and so much more.”
Mladick was contacted to answer a few questions by email but replied with only the following statement: “Richard was a lifelong entrepreneur, visionary and dreamer. Born a passionate outdoorsman, whether it was fishing, hunting or surfing, Richard was always up for a new adventure. He was a devoted dad to his four children and one of the hardest working men most people would ever meet. His welcoming smile and outgoing personality will be greatly missed by all that knew him. This is the greatest tragedy my family could ever imagine and has left a void in my family’s hearts that is unfathomable and inexcusable.”
Jarvis Berry denies that he or his brothers shot up the Hidden Lake signs and says the only sizable party they threw was the fundraiser for Javar. As for Sunset Drive, the only access road to both the Berrys’ and the Mladicks’ properties, Jarvis says the battle over that began when Mladick erected a gate at the entrance off Miller Road.
“We tried calling him to open the gate, and he never would,” he says. “Finally we had to call the sheriff’s department to have the gate removed, because it was blocking access to our properties. They came down and talked to him and made Mladick move it back to where his property line is. After that, it was constant harassment.”
Jarvis shows a cellphone video of him inspecting a 4-foot-deep trench he says Mladick’s crew dug alongside Sunset, to keep his family from driving onto their own plot. “We filled the trench in front of my family’s property. We come back out a week later, the thing is dug up again. Twice, this happened.”
He shows another video of a truck he identifies as Mladick’s coming upon his in the night, and shining a bright searchlight in his window. The video shows the truck turning around and then beaming the light again. A third video shows an ATV, driven by a man Jarvis identifies as a Hidden Lake business partner, spinning out in front of his truck and clipping its front end.
Jarvis then produces photos of three garbage bags full of days-old carp left on their land in time for what was going to be another family horseshoe tournament, canceled this year on account of the coronavirus. Jarvis believes the rotting carp were left there by Mladick as a Godfather-esque horse’s head to intimidate them.
“After all that, the sheriffs just told us, ‘You guys leave them alone, and we’ll tell them to leave you alone. There should be no issue.’” Jarvis says that was working until that fateful night, when Javan, leaving the property with his uncle, George, after doing some cleanup there, came upon Mladick’s truck blocking his path out to Miller Road.
Attempts to reach Mladick’s business partners for comment were unsuccessful, but a woman who went to high school with some of the Berry family spoke to PHOENIX on the condition of anonymity. She questions the Berrys’ contention that the shooting was self-defense, based on information that’s been made available to the public. (MCSO homicide detectives declined to release any information, stating only that the investigation is ongoing.)
“Richard didn’t have the gun on him from what we have seen reported,” she says. “Javan just thought he was going back to his truck to get one. But how does he really know that? There are videos Jarvis has posted of interactions with Richard, and Richard just got back into his truck and took off. For Javan to go and pull out an AK-47, not a pistol or a regular .22 rifle, but an unreasonable weapon to just have sitting in your truck, and then to shoot at an unarmed person? That is murder.” (Berry’s defense attorney, Quacy Smith – who also doubles as a church bishop and gospel singer – failed to return multiple requests for comment.)
Jarvis, a youth sports league organizer who previously ran for a seat on the Buckeye City Council, says Jennifer Mladick recently took out a restraining order preventing him from getting within range of her property, which also prevents him from getting to his family’s. He says he’s also been contacted by Buckeye Mayor Jackie Meck, who further urged the Berrys to stay away from the Mladicks, and has shared online threatening posts from the regular fishing community at Hidden Lake. “His family should get out of town now,” one reads. “There are a lot of anglers who are pretty pissed and would love to visit the lake and clean up those trashy roads.”
Javar recalls earlier days with Mladick, when relationships between the families were harmonious. “At first, he was interested in learning about Allenville,” he says. “He’d say, ‘Can you give me some history about it? Maybe I can rename some stuff out here and re-create some things like they used to be and dedicate it to the people.’
“That would have been great,” he says. “But everything changed.”