In a case reminiscent of the mysterious death of Navajo activist Leroy Jackson, violence is suspected in the disappearance of an outspoken environmental activist on Arizona's Gila River Indian Reservation.


Fred Walking Badger, who had rallied opposition to pesticide use on the Gila River Reservation, set out to run a brief errand May 21 near Sacaton, Ariz., and never came back. The car he was last seen in was found burned in the desert on June 10.


"He left without saying good-bye or leaving a note," says Walking Badger's wife, Marilynn. "I know it's foul play or something (bad) happened."


Walking Badger, 42, a plumber and junior college student, had mounted a campaign against what he said was reckless crop-dusting on the reservation - low-elevation desert between Phoenix and Tucson that turns bright green where it is watered and farmed.


Most Gila River Reservation farmland is leased to non-Indian cotton growers; a tribal business also grows cotton on the 4,500 acres it controls. Tribal members say spraying of pesticides and defoliants is so widespread and frequent that the downwind drift is inescapable.


"Sometimes when the winds are blowing toward homes, plants and garden vegetables are killed," says Marilynn Walking Badger. "And the people living here are afraid now to eat the wildlife - quail, rabbit, duck."


Fred Walking Badger, of Pima and Zuni heritage, conducted a petition drive last winter that forced the Gila River tribal government to hold hearings involving landowners, farmers and pesticide applicators. Worried that the spraying was also contaminating drinking water, he had contacted environmental groups to try to have water quality tested.


"It seemed like just after he disappeared, the hearings went on without him, and then the spraying went on (unchanged)," says Marilynn Walking Badger. "I feel, and a lot of other people around here do too, that it had something to do with his disappearance."


Also missing is Aaron Leland Rivers, a 26-year-old Pima who accompanied Fred Walking Badger on the errand. Marilynn Walking Badger says the men were friends and if either were targeted with violence, it was not Rivers. "I feel he (Rivers) was in the wrong place at the wrong time," she says.


She suspects that the two men were killed and buried in the desert, a suspicion shared by some tribal medicine men who conducted a ceremony after they disappeared.


Murder is likewise considered a possibility by federal authorities, who, in the course of their investigation, searched a desert area where murder victims from surrounding cities are often dumped. "Usually when someone disappears we find them within a reasonable amount of time," says Robert Pease, a Bureau of Indian Affairs criminal investigator. "This was why I'm so bewildered with this thing."


Adrian Hendricks, a tribal pesticide control officer, agrees that Fred Walking Badger raised environmental awareness on the reservation. "He knew what he was doing," Hendricks said. "His influence started spreading. In the past, many people didn't know who to complain to or that they were even allowed to speak out."


As complaints to tribal government about pesticides surged last spring, an ordinance was proposed that would ban spraying during the night and around school buses and other sensitive areas (the tribal council is expected to pass some form of the ordinance). The tribe also allocated money to crack down on illegal disposal of left-over pesticides and pesticide cans. Even the tribal farm has been cited. Hendricks says, "Things are changing because of all the outcry."


Partly because there is so little evidence to go on, the case has received far less publicity than the death of Leroy Jackson, a Navajo who opposed logging on his tribe's reservation. Last October, Jackson was found dead in his parked van beside a rural New Mexico highway, a few days before he was to present his concerns to federal officials in Washington, D.C. There were suspicious circumstances (HCN, 11/1/93), but the cause of death was ruled to be accidental meth-adone overdose, a finding Jackson's kin and supporters do not accept.


The Walking Badgers have four children and Marilynn is expecting a fifth. She says her husband had some problems with alcohol in the past that do not figure in his disappearance.


Rivers left behind two children and a fiancée he was to marry in December.


Tribal members have formed the Walking Badger/Rivers Search Committee and are collecting donations to hire a private investigator. Donations can be sent to P.O. Box 1069, Sacaton, AZ 85247. Anyone with information relating to the case should contact Bureau of Indian Affairs criminal investigations at 602/562-3660 or 602/732-9727.


* Karin Schill


The author writes from Flagstaff, Ariz.