Bloody Mystery Lingers in the Desert

An unsolved murder increases fears along the Mexican border

  • The vehicle barrier on the Mexican border near Douglas, Arizona, where Robert Krentz's alleged killer is thought to have crossed.

    Will Seberger
  • The San Bernardino Valley near Douglas, Arizona, where Cochise County deputies tracked a man thought to be Rob Krentz's killer to the border.

    Jay Dusard
  • Kim Perry and her mother, Kathleen Miller, sit outside their Rodeo, New Mexico, home, where they use dogs and weapons to help protect themselves against illegal immigrants and drug and human traffickers.

    Will Seberger
  • An area in the Arizona-Mexico border fence where Rob Krentz's killer was at first thought to have crossed into Mexico.

    Will Seberger
 

DOUGLAS, ARIZONA

On a Saturday morning in late March, 58-year-old Robert Krentz was out checking a waterline on his family's ranch, a slice of Sonoran Desert once considered serene. He rode his Polaris ATV, with his dog at his side, two guns within easy reach. He was moving slowly, still recovering from a hip replacement and back surgery. At 10:30 a.m., his younger brother, Phil, received a radio transmission from him. Through static, Phil thought he heard Rob say "wind" and "illegal alien." A second man overheard the transmission and thought he heard Rob say "hurt." An hour and a half passed, and Rob stayed silent. They started looking.

The countryside made the search difficult: The 35,000-acre Krentz ranch sprawls in the San Bernardino Valley between the rugged Chiricahua and Peloncillo mountain ranges; one edge abuts the Mexican border. At 6:20 p.m., the family and friends called in law enforcement. Cochise County deputies, a state police helicopter, U.S. Border Patrol agents and ranchers scoured the valley for another five hours. Just before midnight, the helicopter crew found the missing man. He was still astride the ATV, slumped in the seat, with the headlights on, engine running. He and the dog were dead from gunshot wounds. His guns were still holstered. Spin-out tracks scarred the earth, suggesting that he'd tried to get away after he was shot.

Around dawn, trackers with dogs found what they believed to be the killer's footprints. They followed the tracks to the Mexican border, near an extinct volcano called Cerro Gallardo in Mexico and Niggerhead Rock in Arizona. Like so many real and mythical desert coyotes, the killer had vanished.

It is my belief that our suspect was across the line, probably before we ever got on his track," says Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever. "The guy had almost a 20-hour head start."

The investigation into the killing remains open; no suspects are in custody. Yet many people quickly concluded that it was either the result of Mexico's notorious drug-cartel wars or an escalation of the problems associated with illegal immigration. No local murder had been blamed on illegal immigrants in the past 10 years, so it was especially hot news. Republican legislators used it to gain backing for Senate Bill 1070, which instructs Arizona law enforcement to check the citizenship papers of any person they contact who appears to be in the country illegally. State Sen. Russell Pearce, who introduced the bill, wrote, "The murder of Robert Krentz -- whose family had been ranching in Arizona since 1907 -- by illegal alien drug dealers was the final straw for many Arizonans." The Legislature passed and Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed the bill within a few weeks. Even as civil-rights advocates denounce it as racist and unconstitutional, opinion polls show that some 70 percent of Arizonans support the crackdown.

The killing also spurred a military buildup reminiscent of 1914, when President Woodrow Wilson ordered 5,000 troops to contain the Battle of Naco, a  conflict between factions in the Mexican Revolution. About 20,000 Border Patrol agents are already stationed along the entire Mexican border, but within a few days of the killing, Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords of Tucson asked the Department of Homeland Security to add National Guard troops. "This cold-blooded murder is a sober reminder that the safety of U.S. citizens on American soil is under attack," she wrote. President Obama took action in late May, ordering 1,200 troops to the border and an additional $500 million in border protection funding. Republican Sen. John McCain, campaigning for re-election, says 1,200 is not enough; he wants 6,000.

Even the nation's regular military forces have joined the crackdown. In mid-May, two F-16 Fighting Falcons were scrambled out of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base near Tucson to intercept an ultra-light plane that had flown in from Mexico, on the suspicion it contained smuggled drugs.

It remains to be seen whether the increased vigilance is a long-term investment in improving border security or merely a political strategy to quell short-term panic. Either way, the response to the killing is the clearest sign yet of how, over the past decade or so, national and international forces have changed the atmosphere of this once-quiet rural area.

High Country News Classifieds
  • EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks an Editor-In-Chief to join our senior team...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Public Lands Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting the multiple-use management of public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, seeks an experienced leader...
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • YELLOWSTONE TREASURES: THE TRAVELER'S COMPANION TO THE NATIONAL PARK
    Dreaming of a trip to Yellowstone Park? This book makes you the tour guide for your group! Janet Chapple shares plenty of history anecdotes and...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • SAGE GROUSE CCAA COORDINATOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, headquartered in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a full-time Sage Grouse CCAA Coordinator. This position is part of a collaborative effort...
  • MARKETING COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Marketing Communications Manager to join our...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST
    Executive Director, Okanogan Land Trust Position Announcement Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, family farms, challenging politics, and big conservation opportunities? Do you have...
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER- NORTHERN PLAINS RESOURCE COUNCIL
    Organize with Northern Plains Resource Council to protect Montana's water quality, family farms and ranches, & unique quality of life. Starts $35.5k. Apply now- northernplains.org/careers
  • BEAUTIFUL, AUTHENTIC LIVE YULE LOG CENTERPIECE
    - beautiful 12" yule log made from holly wood, live fragrant firs, rich green and white holly, pinecones and red berries. $78 includes shipping. Our...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL DIRECTOR OF PROGRAMS FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA
    Crazy Horse Memorial, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, is currently accepting applications and nominations for the Director of Programs for The Indian University...
  • CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL® MANAGER OF RESIDENCE LIFE FOR THE INDIAN UNIVERSITY OF NORTH AMERICA®
    Crazy Horse Memorial is currently accepting applications for the Manager of Residence Life for The Indian University of North America. This position is responsible for...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Are you an art lover who dreams of living in the mountains? Is fundraising second nature to you? Do you have experience managing creative people?...
  • LENDER OWNED FIX & FLIP
    2 houses on 37+ acres. Gated subdivision, Penrose Colorado. $400k. Possible lender financing. Bob Kunkler Brokers Welcome.
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • POLLINATOR OASIS
    Seeking an experienced, hardworking partner to help restore a desert watershed/wetland while also creating a pollinator oasis at the mouth of an upland canyon. Compensation:...
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.