Problems in Paradise

A murder near the famed waterfalls of Havasu Canyon reveals the social ills of a tribe that needs help

  • Havasu Falls on the Havasupai Reservation, where Japanese Tourist Tomomi Hanamure was murdered last summer

    Photo illustration. John Dougherty Photos
  • Havasu Falls on the Havasupai Reservation

    Joe Carter/ISTOCK
  • A poster distributed by the Coconino Sheriff's Department just before Tomomi Hanamure's body was found

    Coconino County Sheriff's Office
  • The falls where the body was discovered

    John Dougherty
  • Havasupai Lodge, where Tomomi Hanamure checked in but never slept.

    John Dougherty
  • The tribal headquarters building, like many houses and businesses in Supai, has boarded-up windows

    John Dougherty
  • Gangs have tagged signs and structures throughout the village

    John Dougherty
  • Havasupai Map

    Diane Sylvain
 

SUPAI, ARIZONA

From her home in Yokohama, Japan, Tomomi Hanamure traveled halfway around the world to celebrate her 34th birthday amid the spectacular turquoise waterfalls along Havasu Creek, a spring-fed stream that tumbles magnificently into the southwest corner of the Grand Canyon. An experienced world traveler who had hiked the canyon before, Hanamure strapped on a pack and began her 8-mile hike down into the heart of the Havasupai Indian Reservation.

As she walked toward the trailhead, Hanamure passed Havasupai cowboys strapping camping gear onto mules for tourists clustered at Hilltop, a dusty parking area perched above the canyon. Like most of the tourists, Hanamure knew the trail before her — a three-hour trek that traverses 2,000 vertical feet — leads to a series of magnificent travertine-lined waterfalls and swimming holes of unparalleled beauty. Unlike most of the other tourists, the 5-foot-1, 139-pound office worker planned to hike alone.

Hanamure spent the morning of May 8, 2006, hiking down the trail and exploring an offshoot of the Grand Canyon. That afternoon, she checked into the Supai Lodge, paying $145 for a room. She left the lodge alone late in the afternoon and followed a cottonwood-lined dirt path toward Navajo Falls, the first of three waterfalls beyond Supai. It appears she never made it there.

A federal grand jury indictment handed up in December alleges that an 18-year-old Havasupai man, Randy Redtail Wescogame, brutally murdered Hanamure during a robbery. According to a subsequent autopsy, Hanamure was beaten and stabbed 29 times in the head, neck and back. Days later, her clothed body was discovered submerged in Havasu Creek, about a mile from the village. Authorities say there was no indication of sexual assault.

Hanamure’s murder generated sensational headlines across Japan, but in the U.S., the homicide was a minor story. In the year since her death, the Havasupai Tribe has taken aggressive steps to stem negative publicity about the murder, banning reporters from the canyon for extended periods. By this spring, the murder was becoming a distant memory the tribe wanted to forget entirely. Responding to inquiries for this story, Havasupai enterprise director Roland Manakaja said the tribe “has given enough interviews.”

“We want to let this issue die,” he said.

But tribal court records, other documents, lengthy discussions with current and former officials of the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and interviews with reservation residents, including Wescogame’s father, show the 650-member Havasupai Tribe to be troubled in ways that go beyond the murder of a single tourist.

Those sources say law enforcement is all but nonexistent in Supai, where — because of persistent underfunding by the federal government — just three BIA police officers try to keep order. In fact, at the time of the murder, the regional BIA jail was closed because of a lack of personnel to manage it. With no place to house prisoners, BIA police were turning most offenders loose.

By many accounts, meanwhile, Havasupai youth have become immersed in a hip-hop culture that is fueled by methamphetamine and punctuated by violence. Drug and alcohol smuggling are prevalent, a former BIA official with long experience of the reservation says; tribe members report teens running amok, terrorizing older residents and chasing off schoolteachers.

In the months leading up to Hanamure’s death, at least two tourists had been assaulted near the falls, but violence isn’t just a problem facing visitors. The Havasupai Reservation has become dangerous enough that tribal elders want to build a fenced apartment complex to protect them from the tribe’s own, rampaging youth. And Randy Wescogame has been on a rampage for much of his life.

 

As early as 1300 A.D., the Havasupai Tribe roamed millions of acres of high desert plateaus south of the Grand Canyon, hunting and gathering in the highlands during fall and winter and gardening in the Grand Canyon and its side gorges during spring and summer. The arrival of cattlemen after the Mexican War forced most Havasupai into Havasu Canyon, and in 1880, President Rutherford B. Hayes established, by executive order, a Havasupai Reservation centered on Havasu Creek. Two years later, the reservation was reduced to 518 acres. The tribe numbered 200 in 1882, but epidemics reduced the population to 106 in the early 1900s.

In 1974, President Gerald Ford signed a bill that returned 185,000 acres to the tribe — the largest Indian land-repatriation measure ever enacted. But agriculture, the tribe’s economic mainstay 100 years ago, had declined on the reservation, and tourism is now the major source of income.

The tourists come to see a set of three classic waterfalls on a 1.5-mile stretch of Havasu Creek, which eventually joins the Colorado River at the bottom of the canyon. The closest cataract to the village of Supai is Navajo, a cluster of 75-foot high falls that tumble into an alluring swimming hole surrounded by close, dense vegetation. The next on the trail, Havasu, is among the most photographed falls in the world. Here, 30-foot wide Havasu Creek launches off a cliff and arches over a blue-green pool before curving sharply downward 100 feet into translucent water. At the third and lowest falls, Mooney, a narrow ribbon of water plunges 200 feet with a thunderous roar into a pool nestled within a horseshoe-shaped rock formation.

High levels of calcium carbonate give the water of Havasu Creek a blue-green color that changes in intensity throughout the day as the sun arcs across the steep canyon. Beneath Havasu Falls, the mineral precipitates onto rocks, creating smooth soaking pools that soothe the sore leg muscles of hikers. As many as 30,000 tourists visit the falls every year, bringing the tribe approximately $2.5 million in income generated from a $35 reservation entrance fee, camping and motel revenue, sales in the Supai café and store, and pack-animal rental. Even so, Supai, population 500 or so, is an impoverished community where most of the housing is prefabricated and in need of repair. Many homes have broken windows that are boarded up, as does the Havasupai tribal office. Gang graffiti suffices for public art. There are no paved roads in the town, and horses remain a primary means of transportation. Recently, some tribe members have begun driving all-terrain vehicles on the village’s dirt paths, triggering complaints to the tribal council from traditionalists.

Many yards also serve as corrals that hold an array of horses and mules tied to posts. The village square features a wood-frame café that offers burgers, Mexican dishes and fry bread. Across the plaza is a post office where the mail comes and goes by mule. Next door is a pricey grocery, where a box of Ritz crackers goes for $7 because of the high cost of transportation into the canyon.

One of the main Supai pastimes is watching the reservation helicopter land and take off from the dirt helipad next to the plaza. The helicopter flies dozens of times a day, four days a week, shattering the canyon’s silence as it ferries mostly Havasupai in and out. Tourists can use the helicopter for $85, each way; backpacks fly one-way for $20.

Many visitors stay at the 24-room Havasupai Lodge, where Tomomi Hanamure registered but did not return on the night of May 8, 2006. A maid discovered her belongings the next morning, and BIA police and the Coconino County sheriff’s office began a search. More than 40 officers and volunteers from six police agencies and an Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter scanned the canyon and combed the underbrush along Havasu Creek for days, to no effect.

On May 13, a Havasupai tribe member notified Coconino County detectives about a body submerged in a pool in Havasu Creek, about a mile north of the village. Members of an FBI dive team recovered personal items belonging to Hanamure, and two days later, the body was confirmed as Hanamure’s. But the extraordinarily vicious nature of the crime was not generally revealed until July, when an autopsy report was made public.

According to the report, Hanamure had been stabbed nine times on the right side of her neck and eight times on the left. She was stabbed one time through the top of her skull, once in the back of the neck, three times in her left flank, and twice in her back. Her right ear was nicked, and her scalp sliced. She had defensive wounds on her hands. Some of the stab wounds were as much as 3 inches deep; several would have been fatal by themselves.

Immediately after Hanamure’s body was found, the Havasupai Tribal Council banned news media from the canyon. Japanese television film crews were denied landing rights at the reservation’s helipad in Supai. As a publicity-control measure, the tribe’s news blackout strategy largely worked, particularly in the U.S. The murder briefly generated headlines when the FBI posted a $5,000 reward for information related to the killing on July 11. But by late July, the slaying was steadily receding into the media background, attention having shifted to Nicolas Cage and Jessica Biel, who were in Supai filming scenes for the movie Next.

The case didn’t garner more press attention until December, after the reservation’s prime tourist season, when a federal grand jury returned a five-count indictment charging Randy Wescogame with murder, kidnapping and robbery. Once again, the Havasupai Tribal Council declared the reservation off-limits to the media, this time for a 10-day mourning period. “If media representatives violate the mourning period policy, they will be immediately detained by BIA Police, escorted off the Reservation, and film, recordings and notes will be subject to confiscation,” the tribe announced on its Web site.