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Problems in Paradise

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

 

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.

Both the tribe and then-U.S. Attorney Paul K. Charlton issued statements suggesting that the murder was an anomaly and Supai was safe. “This is an aberration. Our records reflect no homicides in the tribe in five years,” Charlton said.

Actually, though, violence by Wescogame wasn’t a rarity. He had been ward of the Havasupai Tribal Court for most of the preceding five years after committing numerous assaults as a juvenile. In fact, he spent more than three years in the Arizona juvenile justice system, being released from state custody on his 18th birthday in February 2006. Shortly thereafter, he returned to Supai, where, in the months before Hanamure’s murder, he committed yet another assault, this one against a tribe member. Had BIA police promptly arrested and the tribe prosecuted Wescogame, Tomomi Hanamure might well be alive today.

But justice doesn’t move very quickly on the Havasupai Reservation, if it moves at all.

 

In June 1992, Randy Wescogame’s father, Billy Wescogame Sr., was given notice that he would be terminated as a BIA police officer in Supai. The firing came after three female jail inmates and a female BIA employee made sexual harassment complaints against him, federal court records show.

A week before he was to leave the job, while he was on duty, Billy Wescogame sexually assaulted a 21-year-old female inmate inside the Supai jail. In a plea bargain he signed with federal prosecutors in December 1993, he admitted to having sex with the inmate without her consent and was sentenced to 30 months in federal prison. Billy Wescogame entered prison in February 1994 and was released in May 1996.

He and Randy’s mother, Carla Crook, divorced, and soon after Billy Wescogame returned from prison, a bitter child support and custody struggle erupted. It dragged on for years, tribal court records show.

Randy had been in trouble with Havasupai tribal authorities since he was a young boy, according to federal and tribal court records, elementary school files provided by his father and interviews. His violent behavior was first documented at Havasupai Elementary School in October 1996, when he was 8 years old, five months after his father returned from prison.

By early 1998, 10-year-old Randy Wescogame was having serious behavior problems in school. In a span of seven weeks, he was cited for verbal sexual abuse, physical assault on another student, physical assault on a staff member, and repeatedly hitting a younger female student in the chin, records show.

In September 1999, his father withdrew Randy from school after the boy had an altercation with the principal. Randy remained in Supai, re-enrolling at the elementary school in December 1999. In the spring of 2000, though, Billy Wescogame petitioned the tribal court to sever his parental responsibilities and give custody of Randy and his brother and sister to their mother. “They totally have no regard for anyone or anything! They have lied, stolen and vandalized property, not only their own, but other people’s,” Billy Wescogame wrote the court. “They are constantly in trouble in and out of school.”

By the time Randy was 13, Billy Wescogame said, his son was heavily involved with methamphetamine. “It was bad, really bad, bad, bad,” he said.

Randy’s mother also expressed serious concern about his behavior. In an April 2001 letter to the tribal court, Carla Crook wrote, “I would like Randy to get the professional help he deserves. I want him to change and be part of us. I will miss him but as I had mentioned he needs HELP.”

About this time, Randy became a ward of the Havasupai Tribal Court, according to court records. By late 2001, Randy was in jail. He was subsequently sent to a juvenile treatment center in Flagstaff and then to several others in the Phoenix area. Billy Wescogame said Randy continued to have serious problems at the treatment centers. During the more than three years he was in the juvenile justice system, Randy was treated with a variety of drugs to address his mental health issues, his father said.

 

Officials with the Havasupai Tribe did not respond to a series of written questions about the murder of Hanamure and general social conditions in Supai. But tribal leaders and BIA law enforcement officials have known for years that readily available alcohol and an influx of methamphetamine have created dangerous conditions in Supai.

In March 2003, Bob McNichols, the BIA agency superintendent for the tribe, sent an e-mail to his superiors describing a law enforcement crisis. The e-mail was written in the aftermath of shootings at a reservation high school in Red Lake, Minn., that left 10 dead.

“Crystal meth is prevalent throughout the community. It is available, cheap, and is being distributed by Havasupai youth. … Police officers in Supai were directed NOT to put anyone in jail because they don’t have the staff to man the jail. … Police officers in Supai are constantly threatened, cussed and told to get out of the village. … (A tribal attorney) relayed an incident of a child taking a 8" knife to school and threatening the other students and teachers.”

At the time, there were two BIA police officers in Supai. It takes a minimum of seven officers to provide full-time police coverage, McNichols and tribal council members agree. Two other detention officers are needed to operate the small jail in Supai. Three years later, when Tomomi Hanamure hiked into the canyon, there were still only two BIA officers in Supai; there were no detention officers.

In a series of interviews conducted over the last year, McNichols said the lack of jailers and jail facilities forced police to curtail arrests. Now, he says, conditions in Supai are as bad as they have ever been. “It’s the most frustrating thing I have ever seen in my life,” he said.

McNichols, who retired from the BIA in 2005 after working 28 years with the Havasupai Tribe, described a community on the verge of collapse. “Every family on the reservation is affected by drugs and alcohol, and that leads to the other abuse, sexual assault and violence,” he said.

The violence has gone unchecked at least partly because federal and tribal officials have not prosecuted minor crimes on the reservation, particularly when they involve only Native Americans, he said. “Very little crime is ever reported,” McNichols said. “Victims don’t report it because they know the perpetrator could be back in the house immediately. The cops don’t write up all the incidents, because they know most will never be prosecuted.” Cases that are prosecuted usually wind up in the Havasupai Tribal Court, which, in McNichols’ judgment, is incapable of dealing properly with criminal matters. “Tribal Court can’t handle it, particularly at a place like Supai, where everybody knows each other, and many people are related,” he said.

Meanwhile, federal agencies don’t want to address crimes on the reservation, he said; the U.S. attorney’s office only files charges for major felonies such as the Hanamure murder. “By the time you get to the rapes and murders, there has been a whole lot of stuff going on to get to that point,” McNichols said.

 

“There are no rules here,” Randy Wescagome’s father, Billy Wescogame Sr., said as the sun rose above Supai on a crisp Saturday morning late in April. “We’re not in a (boxing) ring. Out here we do anything.” As he spoke, he gestured toward a group of Havasupai youths who were just now staggering home after partying all night. No one worries too much about the law in Supai, Wescogame said, because there rarely is any enforcement. Most minor crimes go ignored, he said. And if a serious confrontation arises, watch out.

“You get near me, man, I’ll chop your hands off, you know?” he said. “You give me a good reason, I’ll put that knife down the middle of your spine, so you don’t get back up.”

Wescogame, 49, wasn’t making a threat; he was simply explaining his view of the reality of Supai life. Like many Havasupai, he’s been locked up, often for off-reservation activities. His arms are covered with tattoos. At 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds, with a couple of front teeth missing, he has a frightening appearance that is completely at odds with his forthright, friendly manner.

The elder Wescogame said he quit drinking during his last stint in prison and turned his life around with the help of the Native American Church. (The most widespread indigenous religion among Native Americans, the church blends Christianity, the ritual use of the hallucinogenic cactus peyote, and aspects of Buddhism. It frowns on the use of alcohol and recreational drugs.) Now, Billy Wescogame said, he minds his own business and is focused on raising a second family with his current wife, who serves on the Havasupai Tribal Council. But he can’t avoid the reality that one of his sons is charged with murder.

On Feb. 26, 2006, Randy Wescogame was released from juvenile probation and turned loose from the Canyon State Academy, a boarding school for troubled juveniles in Queen Creek, Ariz. Billy Wescogame said he met with his son sometime during March or April 2006, and encouraged him to get a job, get an education, and get out of Supai. “I knew if he stayed he was going to get into a lot of trouble,” Billy Wescogame said.

Billy Wescogame said he didn’t see his son again. A few weeks later, Tomomi Hanamure’s body was found in Havasu Creek. BIA police arrested Randy Wescogame on May 31, 2006, in connection with the assault of a tribe member that occurred about a month before the murder. He was held in tribal custody until the FBI arrested him last December for the Hanamure slaying.

Randy Wescogame’s trial is set for June 26 in Prescott, Ariz. With his son facing murder, kidnapping and robbery charges that could lead to multiple life prison sentences, Billy Wescogame offered an apology that he said was addressed to Hanamure’s father. “I’m sorry, man. You know, I feel very bad,” he said.

Billy Wescogame said he thinks Randy may have been present when Hanamure was killed, but the number and angles of the stabbing wounds lead him to believe more than one assailant was involved. If his son is found guilty, though, and if the punishment were left up to him, he wouldn’t settle for life in prison. “I would go straight directly after him, and I would put him away, even if I had to paralyze him for the rest of his life,” Billy Wescogame said. “I believe in an eye for an eye.”

The U.S. attorney’s office in Phoenix declined to comment about conditions in Supai and anything related to the upcoming Wescogame trial. But the federal prosecutor’s office appears to be taking a somewhat more aggressive stance nowadays in regard to Supai crime.

The office filed felony assault charges on Feb. 28 against Steven Craig Chavez, a Havasupai, alleging Chavez beat a man with a baseball bat last Dec.17. Chavez was also involved in a second beating, this one involving a communications contractor in early 2007, alleged George Linnartz, president of Kruger Communications, an Illinois Internet company.

Linnartz claims that Chavez attacked one of his employees, who was installing a broadband delivery system in Supai. No federal charges, however, had been filed against Chavez in that assault as of early May. The U.S attorney’s office declined to comment about either alleged assault.

Linnartz said he spent one evening on the cliffs above the village. “It was like nothing I ever imagined. I sat up on a mountain, and you could hear how the village goes ballistic down there,” he said. “It’s pretty scary stuff. The technicians told me they won’t go back down there, and they are pretty seasoned guys.”

Havasupai tribal leaders have complained to the BIA for years about the lack of law enforcement in Supai. “We have been asking for more police for five or six years,” said tribal council Vice Chairman Edmond Tilousi. “They promise more police, but it never happens.”

BIA law enforcement officials in Arizona did not return repeated calls seeking comment about police protection for Supai. But BIA law enforcement officials in Washington, D.C., placed the blame for insufficient police on lack of funding.

Chris Chaney, deputy director of BIA Office of Justice Services, said Congress only provides enough money for 31 percent of the officers needed on the 42 reservations for which the BIA provides police protection. The Bush administration is proposing a $16 million increase in BIA law enforcement spending for the 2008 budget. If adopted, Chaney said, the increased funding would put 51 new officers and 91 additional detention officers in the field and provide special training to address the methamphetamine epidemic that is sweeping Indian Country.

Even with the additional funding, Supai would be unlikely to receive more than one or two officers, Chaney said. As an alternative to BIA police understaffing, the tribe could operate its own police department, seeking funding from federal and state grants, Chaney said. The tribe — which mismanaged elementary school funding several years ago, leading the BIA to take control of its operations — has not formally requested permission to assume control of the police department.

Without adequate law enforcement, Supai’s problems with drugs and alcohol — which are smuggled from Hilltop by horseback, mules, hikers and helicopter — seem likely to continue. “Bootlegging is still the biggest industry in Supai,” McNichols said.

In the mid-1990s, the tribe instituted a consent-to-search ordinance at Hilltop, similar to laws that allow warrantless searches of anyone entering a federal building or getting on an airplane. The policy greatly reduced alcohol smuggling onto the reservation, McNichols said. But it was rescinded after packers complained that tribal members were being unfairly targeted. A tribal attorney had also contended that the ordinance was unconstitutional. Now, McNichols said, conditions have further deteriorated in Supai, and tribal elders and parents of young families are asking the council to finance construction of a gated community. “Elders and young families have repeatedly stated, ‘Give us a safe place where we can live. Give us a fence so we can sleep at night,’ ” McNichols said.

“The kids are way out of control down here. They rule the parents,” said Elgene Hanna, a Havasupai member who lives in Supai. “There are 10, 12, 15-year-old kids who are drinking. At school, the kids are vicious and commit assaults, throw rocks, spit and are rude.”

Tribal Vice Chairman Tilousi blames social influences from beyond the reservation — including television and the Internet — for many of the tribe’s problems. “I think it is not enough discipline and the wrong kind of influences from the outside,” he said. But he acknowledges that parents “are partly to blame.” For former Coconino County Sheriff Joe Richards, who served 32 years before retiring in 2004, a lack of supervised youth activities and the absence of “effective, proactive and aggressive law enforcement” have created a “tragic situation in a beautiful spot.”

Coconino County’s policing on the reservation is limited to matters involving non-Indians, usually search and rescue efforts in regard to lost and injured tourists. And given the low level of federal law enforcement funding, Richards said, the tribe’s only hope is to “try to work together in harmony to restore the culture of the people. The only chance they have is to do it themselves.”

John Dougherty is a Tempe, Arizona-based writer and three-time Arizona Journalist of the Year.