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01.20.11

Arizona's Other Shooting Horror

Still mourning the shooting spree that claimed a 9-year-old girl’s life, Arizona is bracing for the trial of another accused child-killer: a female Minuteman. Terry Greene Sterling reports.

Early on the morning of May 30, 2009, Raul Flores heard a knock at the door of his Arivaca, Arizona, home. When he opened it, he found a man and a woman claiming to be law-enforcement officers in search of fugitives. Minutes later, the man shot Flores to death. Then, authorities say, he pumped three bullets into Flores’ wife, Gina Gonzalez, who survived but played dead. “Why did you shoot my mom?” Gonzalez’s 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia Flores, asked the gunman, according to prosecutors. Those were her last words. The man put a gun to her head, fired off two rounds, and killed her.   

The chilling murders devastated residents of tiny Arivaca. Now, the community is bracing for those wounds to be reopened. On Friday, opening arguments are scheduled to begin in the trial of the accused ringleader of the bloody home invasion: Shawna Forde, a notorious nativist with a checkered past who moved to Arizona in recent years to join up with the Minuteman movement. Adding another layer of heartache to the proceedings, the trial is taking place in Tucson, a city still grieving over the recent massacre that left six dead and 13 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.

During a hearing last week, Forde’s lawyer noted similarities in the two tragedies: the slaughter of two 9-year-old girls (Christina-Taylor Green, in the Tucson rampage), accusations that the alleged killers had ties to right-wing extremists, and the involvement of the outspoken Pima County sheriff, Clarence Dupnik. Forde’s trial in Pima County Superior Court, in fact, was briefly postponed as a result of the Tucson killings.

Sheriff Dupnik described Forde as “at best, a psychopath” and called the murder of Brisenia “one of the most despicable acts that I have heard of.”

Dupnik, who gained worldwide fame after the Tucson shootings for condemning strident right-wing “rhetoric,” didn’t mince words in the wake of the Flores murders either. He described Forde as “at best, a psychopath” and called the murder of Brisenia “one of the most despicable acts that I have heard of.” (Lately, however, Dupnik has remained silent about the Flores slayings, and calls and emails to his spokesman seeking comment were not returned.)

Forde faces first-degree murder charges, along with two alleged accomplices: Jason Bush, a white supremacist who authorities suspect is a serial killer and who was recently implicated in the murder of a Mexican man in Washington state, and Albert Gaxiola, an Arivaca resident who has served time in prison for drug dealing. Bush has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled for trial in March; Gaxiola has pleaded not guilty and is headed to trial in June. Though the Pima County Attorney’s Office didn’t return calls for comment, prosecutors are expected to argue that Forde planned the home invasion with the intention of stealing drugs and money from Raul Flores to fund her border-policing activities. Forde, who faces the death penalty if convicted, says she’s innocent and claims she wasn’t even at the murder scene. (Her lead attorney, Eric Larson, declined to comment.)  

Forde has led a troubled life. Growing up in Washington state, she bounced from one bleak foster home to another and had numerous scrapes with the law, including for burglary and prostitution. She became estranged from her biological family, cycled through several broken marriages, and suffered a child’s death. She’s held plenty of jobs over the years, from Boeing factory worker to beautician.  

Along the way, she became a hard-core nativist determined to draw attention to border and immigration issues. In 2006, she appeared on an immigration-themed PBS show as a representative of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, which calls for stricter border enforcement, was labeled a hate group in 2007 by the Southern Poverty Law Center. (FAIR vigorously denies that designation, along with any connection to Forde.) In 2009, Forde claimed she was raped and attacked by members of a Mexican drug cartel; authorities declined to prosecute, citing a lack of evidence.  

Given that Arizona has become the epicenter of the illegal-immigration battle, it’s little surprise that Forde settled there in recent years. She roamed around the state, hanging out in Arizona’s gun capital, Tombstone, and meeting with border vigilantes like Glenn Spencer, the leader of a group called the American Border Patrol.  Branded a “vitriolic Mexican-basher” by the SPLC, he specializes in high-tech border surveillance, seeks the deportation of every unauthorized immigrant in the country, and advocates a crackdown on Spanish-language TV stations.  

At some point, Forde founded her own outfit, the Minuteman American Defense. Among other strictures, members were forbidden from eating Mexican food. Though MAD’s website has been dismantled, Forde still has a band of online fans. Some maintain a Facebook page for her (among her preferred musical genres is opera, and a favorite flick is Running With Scissors). Another backer is Laine Lawless, who runs a website that claims Forde is innocent and who’s working on a book about her. Forde is being “persecuted” because she was collecting information on “dirty government agents,” says Lawless, who can be seen in a YouTube video shooting an AK-47 for “therapy.”    

Forde’s family, however, isn’t nearly as supportive. Her biological mother, Rena Caudle, has blamed her for other home invasions. And her half-brother, Merrill Metzger, told the Tucson Weekly that his sister deserves the death penalty.

When Forde landed in Arivaca, she kept a low profile. The 1,000-person town—an eclectic mix of ranchers, retirees, grizzled hippies, artists, and free spirits—sits on a historic smuggling trail about 11 miles north of the Mexican border. It’s a place where people go to escape notice. The Flores killings convulsed the community and brought a wave of unwanted publicity. “We all felt a tragic loss, and a huge amount of grief and sadness that something so horrible could happen in such a good community,” says Ellen Dursema, the recreation coordinator of the Arivaca Community Center. After the murders, she helped organize a “Healing Our Hearts” fundraiser for Gonzalez, who used to work at the center (the event yielded about $6,000).  

Yet Gonzalez is nowhere near healing. She’s expected to be a key prosecution witness (though she couldn’t identify Forde in the immediate aftermath of the slayings, she later fingered the woman as one of the home invaders). That testimony will force her to relive the tragedy. And the memory of Brisenia remains vivid. An artistic kid with long, curly brown hair who often visited the community center to see her mother, she made Gonzalez several pairs of earrings, which she hung on a stand made of glue and popsicle sticks, only days before she was killed. Despite the horror of her loss, Gonzalez can be thankful for one thing: Her other daughter was visiting her grandmother at the time of the shootings, and was spared. Yet Gonzalez, says Dursema, “never smiles anymore.”

Terry Greene Sterling is an award-winning Arizona-based journalist and author of ILLEGAL, Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone. Visit her on Facebook, or her website.