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01.26.11

The Minuteman Vigilante's Arizona Murder Trial

Latinos are still wondering why the murder of 9-year-old Brisenia Flores raised none of the outcry of rancher Robert Krentz’s killing, which fueled Arizona’s tough immigration law. But the trial of a female Minuteman may finally bring the girl’s killers to justice. Terry Greene Sterling reports from the trial’s first day.

As a wounded Gina Gonzalez played dead on the floor of her mobile home in Arivaca, Arizona, in May 2009, she silently told herself to “stay real calm.” Her goal, Gonzalez told a Tucson jury on Tuesday, was to survive so she could save her 9-year-old daughter from the tall intruder in blackface who had already shot Gonzalez twice and killed her husband, Raul Flores. The killer “was all out of bullets,” Gonzalez testified, so he reloaded as her child, Brisenia Flores, pleaded for her life. Then Gonzalez heard two shots, and from the corner of her eye she saw her daughter’s body “fall back on the couch.”  

Gonzalez is a chief prosecution witness in the murder trial of Shawna Forde, a beautician and hardcore nativist from Everett, Washington. Forde is accused of masterminding the killings as part of her plan to steal drugs and money to fund her fledgling group Minuteman American Defense, which she envisioned would patrol the Arizona border in search of illegal “invaders.” She has pleaded not guilty to the murder charges, and her lawyer has tried to portray Raul Flores as a drug dealer and user, although only pot residue was found in the Flores trailer after the murders. The trial, whose opening arguments began on Tuesday, comes as Tucson tries to return to normalcy after the shootings that left six dead and 13 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.  

The murders in Arivaca, a tiny community about 11 miles north of the Mexican border, were followed nearly a year later by the still unsolved killing of southern Arizona rancher Robert Krentz, which was widely blamed on a faceless Mexican narco in the country illegally. But whereas the Flores murders received brief press attention and then were largely forgotten, Krentz’s killing set off a national cry for beefed-up border security and fueled the passage of Arizona’s notorious immigration law, which makes it a state crime for unauthorized immigrants to set foot there and requires all Arizona cops to enforce immigration law, a task normally delegated to the feds. 

“Despite the fact that an innocent child was murdered, public condemnation of this senseless act has not been forthcoming.”

Latinos are still waiting for similar outrage over the deaths of Brisenia Flores and her dad. “A prevalent impression by those in the Hispanic community concerned with the Shawna Forde case is that, despite the fact that an innocent child was murdered, public condemnation of this senseless act has not been forthcoming,” Salvador Ongaro, a Phoenix lawyer and member of Los Abogados, Arizona’s Hispanic bar association, said in an email to The Daily Beast.  

Phoenix-based radio talk-show host Carlos Galindo says he has reminded his listeners of Brisenia Flores “on a regular basis at least two or three times a week” since the murders occurred. He criticizes Latino leaders for failing to voice sufficient outrage. “This was a horrible, tragic, and absolutely race-based coldblooded murder,” he says, “and we allowed the far right to muddy it up and say her dad was a drug dealer and Brisenia was collateral damage. When we don’t counter that, we allow continued violence against all Arizonans.”  

Gina Gonzalez, a slender woman with long brown hair who still has a metal rod in her hip as the result of a bullet wound, tearfully recounted the events of the killing at the trial. She said the gunman, along with a heavyset “mean” woman dressed in camouflage, gained entry to the home by pretending to be law-enforcement authorities in search of fugitives. She testified that after the shooting, once she was sure they were out of the house, she called 911 while trying to comfort her child, who was “shaking like crazy” and “choking on her own blood.”   

But the woman in camouflage, who Gonzalez says “looked like” Shawna Forde, reentered the trailer, looked at her, and yelled to the gunman that someone was “still alive.” Gonzalez testified that she crawled into the kitchen, found her husband’s gun, and, taking cover near the washer and dryer, fired at the gunman. The gunman—who prosecutors assert was Jason Bush, a suspected serial killer and known white supremacist from Washington state—reportedly screamed, “Oh, shit,” and ran out of the trailer, leaving a trail of blood.  

Gonzalez estimated that four people were involved in the attack and testified that two spoke Spanish. But only three have been arrested; they face murder charges in separate trials. Prosecutors say Forde had two accomplices, Bush and Albert Gaxiola, who allegedly wanted Flores dead because he was a rival drug dealer. Bush and Gaxiola have pleaded not guilty and go to trial later this year.  

Forde maintains she wasn’t at the crime scene at all, and notes there is no physical evidence that ties her to the trailer. Her attorney, Eric Larsen, asked the judge to order a podium moved so his client could be seen by the 14 women and two men in the jury box. Forde, a short, stout, bespectacled woman with shoulder-length brown hair, has appeared calm during the proceedings, which are expected to last about five weeks. If she is found guilty, she could face the death penalty.   

On Tuesday, Larsen tried to discredit Gonzalez during cross-examination, noting that she had not been able to pick out Forde in a police lineup and was confused about her hair color. It was only months later, Larsen pointed out, that Gonzalez said Forde was likely one of the intruders. Gonzalez, seeming unruffled, responded that Forde could have worn a wig. Although she might not remember small details, she said, “I still have pictures in my head.”

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.