Special Report: Violent crime increasing on Arizona reservations

Mark Shaffer
5/30/03

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - Call it just another depressing day on the job here at the local U.S. Attorney's Office, where Joe Lodge sorts through the paperwork of yet another grisly death.

A Navajo Nation man, Jacob Miera of Kayenta, has just been taken into custody after his two-week-old daughter was pronounced dead in the emergency room because of 12 rib fractures, a broken collarbone, a fractured forearm and multiple abrasions on her face. Miera claims he tripped and fell on the child.

Lodge, an assistant U.S. attorney responsible for northern Arizona, reads more, then shakes his head. Since the office opened two years ago it has been awash in documents from a tidal wave of violent crime that has engulfed Indian country in this part of the Southwest. And, 99 percent of it is attributable to alcohol, Lodge says.

Forty percent of all violent crime which occurs on the nation's reservations happens in the northern half of Arizona, Lodge said. The violent-crime rate on the Navajo Nation is six times the national average, and in some towns, like Tuba City, Kayenta and Chinle, the per capita violent-crime rate is much higher than that.

There were 25 violent crimes per 1,000 U.S. residents in 2001, according to Department of Justice statistics, the latest figures available.

In a two-year period ending last Sept. 30, the Flagstaff U.S. Attorney's Office handled 65 prosecutions in death cases, 38 of which were first- or second-degree murder cases and the other 27 involving the lesser charge of manslaughter.

"It used to be that two intoxicated guys would get in a fight where the most serious weapon was a knife and they knew or were related to one another," Lodge said. "Now, there are guns involved and it has become increasingly random. The violent-crime rate is just astronomical on the Navajo Nation, and the overwhelming majority of the cases involve abuse of alcohol."

And, the acceleration in the number of alcohol-related crimes isn't just limited to Navajo.

Hopi Tribal Judge Delfred Leslie says he's seen a large surge on his dockets of alcohol-related crime.

"In fact, that's about the only thing I deal with anymore," Leslie said. "There's been a huge increase in these types of crime. I'd say it's about double of what it was 10 years ago."

The results of it have been shocking, to say the least.

Lezmond Mitchell of Round Rock, Ariz., has become the first American Indian on death row in a federal prison since the federal death penalty was reinstated nine years ago. A federal jury decided he should be sentenced to death for a carjacking resulting in death.

Mitchell, who was intoxicated at the time, was convicted in the October 2001 carjacking and murder of a 63-year-old grandmother, Alyce Slim, and her 9-year-old granddaughter, Tiffany Lee, in the Chuska Mountains north of the tribal capitol of Window Rock. Both of the victims were beheaded and Slim was stabbed 35 times.

Slim and Lee had been en route to see a traditional medicine practitioner in New Mexico in Slim's pickup when they were abducted. They picked up Mitchell and a juvenile accomplice, Johnnie Orsinger, while they were hitchhiking. Orsinger also is facing murder charges.

Then, there was the case of a Navajo woman, Charlotte Brown, who also was hitchhiking in May 2002 on one of the main thoroughfares which crosses the three-state reservation.

Brown was kidnapped and raped by a heavily intoxicated group and then the killers pummeled her head with rocks before dumping her body in the nearby hills. Three men and a juvenile are awaiting trial in Phoenix for that slaying.

Another Navajo woman, Elvira Charley, is awaiting sentencing for the New Year's Day 2002 first-degree murder of three of her children. Friends and family said Charley had been drinking heavily in the days before the tragedy and she had been arrested for extreme DUI less than a week before the crimes.

Charley killed her daughters, ages 9 and 11, and son, 10, by putting a .22-caliber rifle against their heads and firing as they slept.

In another incident last October, Larry Wilson, a Navajo who had a blood-alcohol level nearly five times the legal limit, crossed the center line of U.S. 180 in the Four Corners area while traveling 95 mph. Wilson collided head on with a California couple, killing both instantly. He is awaiting trial after being indicted on two counts of second-degree murder.

The federal government has conducted two major undercover investigations of bootlegging operations on the Navajo and Hopi reservations during the past 20 months, resulting in 44 convictions.

But bootlegging is a misdemeanor resulting in probation on a first conviction. Since then, 21 of the 44 people have been arrested and sent to jail for a year for other bootlegging convictions.

Lodge said that "we will continue to be aggressive in trying to get rid of liquor in both on-reservation and off-reservation law enforcement operations."

But the social woes leading to violence are much deeper than alcohol, said Louis Denetsosie, the Navajos' acting attorney general.

"There's nearly 50 percent unemployment on the reservation," he said, "and I've talked to a lot of social workers who always point to the breakdown in the traditional family. We are a society in transition, and the number of non-native speakers now outnumbers the number of Native speakers."

In addition, Denetsosie said, there's limited deterrent effect on the reservation because there are only about 300 Navajo police officers on the nation's largest reservation and that it has fewer than 100 jail cells.

"We can only send people to jail for one year maximum, and with the lack of jail space it tends to be a lot less than that in most cases," Denetsosie said.

Dana Russell, a member of the Navajo Tribe who is CEO of the Flagstaff-based Native Americans for Community Action, also said the breakdown of the traditional family structure is the main reason behind the drinking and violent crime crisis.

"When you combine all the economic problems along with so many single parents, the lack of education and the alcohol and drug abuse woes, it would surprise me if there wasn't a wave of violent crime. The proliferation of satellite TV brings all that sex and violence into the most isolated areas now," Russell said.

Russell said he has an elderly mother and aunt living alone in the Navajo countryside and "I'm really concerned about them. You'd be crazy not to be concerned given what's happening."

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