Untimely death of Navajo man leads to arrest of Catholic bishop

Mark Shaffer
6/30/03

TUBA CITY, Ariz. - To the friends and family of Jim Lee Reed, his final testament was being a big-hearted man who reveled in making people laugh with his jokes in the Navajo language.

But, to the rest of Arizona, Reed's tragic death was the final straw that brought down Thomas J. O'Brien, the Catholic bishop of the Phoenix diocese.

O'Brien, 67, was formally charged June 17 in Phoenix with felony fleeing the scene of a hit-and-run accident. The prelate allegedly struck and killed Reed with his Buick Park Avenue while the 43-year-old Navajo carpenter was jaywalking on a busy north-central Phoenix street shortly after dark on June 14. O'Brien, who could be imprisoned for up to four years, was released on $45,000 bail and forced to resign as bishop.

O'Brien had avoided prosecution only two weeks earlier for obstructing justice in connection with the sexual abuse of children by priests within the diocese.

But all of those things were a mere footnote for the more than 300 people who gathered for funeral services for Reed at the Tuba City Assembly of God church on June 19. They even respectfully welcomed two monsignors and the chancellor of the Phoenix diocese, who were escorted to the service by Navajo police.

There were even a few moments of levity in the somber service, which was closed to the media, said Rosanda Suetopka Thayer, a spokeswoman for the Tuba City Unified School District.

Family friend Warren Fuller, who delivered the eulogy, lamented that so many locals like Reed and Spc. Lori Piestewa, the first Native American woman soldier to die in combat in a foreign land, had died before their time in recent months.

"But at least the bumpy road into town shakes the devil out of them beforehand," Thayer quoted Fuller as saying.

Reed had been raised in the isolated Navajo Mountain area of the three-state reservation before showing ability as a builder and moving to Phoenix nearly 20 years ago. He then joined a carpenters' union and specialized in constructing high-rise buildings in the downtown corridor.

Verna Begay of Phoenix, who was raised on the Navajo Nation and said she had known Reed for years, said friends called him "heavy highway" in reference to a traditional Navajo song. Begay said her brother worked with Reed on numerous construction projects.

"You never heard a bad word coming out of Jim's mouth. He used to take us out to restaurants, and it seemed like he knew everyone inside. He was so nice and personable. If he saw a sad person sitting somewhere, he had the ability to make them smile," Begay said.

Begay and other Navajo Catholics at the funeral refused to comment on their feelings about a Catholic bishop being arrested for Reed's death.

Roy Delhan, a childhood friend of Reed who still lives at the foot of Navajo Mountain, said that Reed was from the Salt and Red Water clans and often expressed regret about having to move to the big city to find a decent job.

Delhan said that he and Reed had a number of jobs building fences in the rugged canyons near the Arizona-Utah border. Delhan remembered one particularly humorous incident one day when they were stringing barbed wire in Paiute Canyon.

"He's one of the funniest guys I've ever met when he spoke Navajo," Delhan said. "One time we were eating lunch, and this donkey walked up. Jim started talking to him just like he was a human, 'How are you, buddy?' and 'Where are you going?' and 'Would you like a bite to eat?' He really made me laugh."

Meanwhile, in Phoenix, police and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office continued to build a case against O'Brien. According to County Superior Court records, O'Brien did not contact police after the incident but did attempt to have his vehicle's damaged window repaired before police questioned him. A witness to the hit and run followed O'Brien's vehicle and took down the license-plate number, according to Phoenix police.

According to court records, O'Brien told police that he thought he hit a dog or cat or someone had thrown a rock at the windshield.

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