July 03, 2000 12:00 PM

It’s not every day that a Hollywood star drops in to sleepy Prescott Valley, Ariz. So when Patrick Swayze emergency-landed his twin-engine Cessna 414A on a nearby country road on June 1, the townsfolk were all aflutter. “Some of the girls said they were going to get a bottle of tequila,” recalls Mary Collins, a clerk at the local Roberts Market Place, “and hang out in the desert so he’d come and find them.”

Less than a month later, Swayze, 47, might be hard-pressed to find even a friendly smile in Prescott Valley (pop. 20,000). The change of heart began on June 6, when three construction workers—contradicting their original stories—told police that minutes after landing Swayze had pulled a 30-pack of Miller Lite, including eight empties, from the plane’s wing compartment and an open bottle of Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon from the cockpit and asked them to hide them. “His eyes were bloodshot and his speech slurred,” one of the workers, Brian Nelson, 27, told police. “But I was not close enough to smell alcohol on him.”

The men said they went ahead and hid the booze in two toolboxes, then lied to authorities to cover for the star. As a result, Nelson and his buddies Joshua Angel, 23, and Adam Martin, 21, have been charged with giving false information to the police, for which they face penalties of up to six months in jail. But no charges have been filed against Swayze, whose publicist says the workers are lying. And that has locals miffed. “Not only did he have those guys lie for him, but when they got caught he said they were lying about him,” fumes Prescott’s mayor, Sam Steiger. “That’s unacceptable behavior.”

But if Swayze’s mind seemed foggy that day (he thought he had landed near his ranch in New Mexico), the facts of the matter are blurrier still. Without a blood-alcohol reading, police have no way of concluding whether or not the actor was flying drunk. What’s more, Bob Crispin, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board, says the slurred speech and bloodshot eyes the workers witnessed could have been caused by the combination of a drop in cabin pressure and carbon monoxide produced by Swayze’s cigarette smoke (he puffs three packs a day).

“I have circumstantial evidence of the possibility of hypoxia [a lack of oxygen to the brain] and carbon-monoxide poisoning,” says Crispin, who found a mechanical flaw in the plane’s pressurization system. “I don’t have any physical evidence of impairment from alcohol.”

Apart from thanking his fans for their support, the Dirty Dancing star, who has talked openly in the past about how he overcame a drinking problem in the early 1990s, is keeping quiet. Not so his mother, Patsy Swayze, 73. (In fact, the whole saga has become somewhat of a family affair: The beer—which was inaccessible during the flight—belonged to his brother Don, 41, Swayze told investigators, and the wine to his wife, dancer Lisa Niemi, 44.) “I just can’t believe,” she says, “that my son would be dumb enough to get in a plane if he had been drinking.”

Still, a question remains: If Swayze indeed asked the workers to lie for him, wasn’t he too misleading police? Local prosecutor Bob Todd’s response? “No comment. I don’t want to treat him better or worse than anybody else.” But police haven’t ruled out charging the star. “Just because a case is closed,” says police spokesman Sgt. P. J. Janik, “doesn’t mean it can’t be reopened.”

To Swayze’s advantage is the fact that he called the Federal Aviation Administration promptly from his cell phone to report the landing, in which neither he nor his travelling companions—his poodle and Rhodesian ridgeback—were hurt. But some 10 hours passed before he met in person with local police. According to their report, Swayze spent the afternoon being chauffeured around town by a fourth construction worker, Gary Bruso, 32, whose account suggests Swayze may have been trying to avoid the cops (at one point he had Bruso head back toward the plane only to have him drive away when he saw a crowd). He checked into a motel, where he was joined by Niemi, who flew in from Los Angeles with her flight instructor. It was 8 p.m. before Swayze returned an investigator’s earlier call and arranged to meet in a parking lot.

Meanwhile, the three construction workers initially told police that they hadn’t been around to see the plane land but did notice a man getting into a white truck on the highway 200 yards away. In the end, though, they couldn’t keep the real story to themselves. The workers boasted to their buddies about Swayze’s beer and drank the evidence—all but the wine—among themselves, and it was only days before cops got wind of their story. Now it’s they who are fending off reporters and camera crews, not the movie star who crash-landed into their lives. The irony isn’t lost on Nelson. “He’s not in any trouble,” the carpenter says bitterly. “We’re the ones that are.”

Anne-Marie O’Neill

John Hannah and Jerry Kammer in Prescott and Paula Yoo in Los Angeles

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