02.09.11

Shawna Forde: Beautician, Vigilante, Killer?

Shawna Forde faces the death penalty as closing arguments begin in one of the strangest trials in Arizona history. Terry Greene Sterling on the accused’s surprising endgame.

For Shawna Forde, a 43-year-old beautician-turned-border vigilante, the moment of truth is at hand. For months, Forde, a Minuteman charged with masterminding a 2009 home invasion in which 9-year-old Brisenia Flores and her dad, Raul, were slaughtered on the Arizona border, has maintained her innocence and pushed her lawyers to let her testify on her own behalf. But now, as one of the most bizarre and controversial murder trials in Arizona history draws to a close at Pima County Superior Court in Tucson, Forde has decided not to take the witness stand. It is the ultimate legal gamble. If Forde, who has pleaded not guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, one count of attempted first-degree murder, and several home-invasion-related crimes, is convicted, she could get the death penalty.

Forde’s attorney, Eric Larsen, is expected during closing arguments beginning Thursday to portray Forde as braggart whose grandiose rants about stealing drugs and money from dealers in order to finance her tiny group, Minuteman American Defense, were nothing more than a needy woman’s cry for attention.

Larsen will contend that Forde wasn’t even at the crime scene—a small mobile home in tiny Arivaca, a community that sits on a drug- and human-smuggling corridor about 11 miles north of the Mexican border. What’s more, Larsen will suggest that Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik’s deputies arrested the wrong suspect.

But prosecutors, who’ve thrown a kitchen’s sink worth of evidence and testimony at the jury, will counter that testimony from Brisenia’s mom, Gina Gonzalez (who survived the killing spree by playing dead), along with testimony from Minutemen-turned-FBI snitches, a local drug dealer, cops, neighbors and even Forde’s own sister all prove the accused masterminded and participated in the home invasion.

“Beyond a reasonable doubt, Shawna Forde is guilty of these crimes,” prosecutor Kellie Johnson said at the trial.

“Whatever goes down I’m in deep know I love you make me proud and do something good with your life,” Forde texted her daughter.

The Forde defense team will be sowing the seeds of doubt.  They’ll play up the fact that Gonzalez couldn’t say for sure that Forde was the “mean” stout Anglo woman in camouflage, who, along with a tall Anglo gunman in blackface, barged into her trailer early on the morning of May 30, 2009, under the pretense of being law-enforcement officers in search of fugitives. Gonzalez, the prosecution’s chief witness, couldn’t pick Forde out of a photo lineup shortly after the murders. Now, she says Forde looks like the woman who barked orders to the killer and two others who futilely searched the trailer and surrounding property for drugs and money. Some jurors wiped tears from their eyes as Gonzalez recounted eight minutes of terror that changed her life forever. Raul was shot, she said, after he questioned whether the intruders were real law-enforcement officers. Next, the assailant shot Gonzalez, who played dead on the floor.  Gonzalez heard her husband’s death rattles after he was shot five more times. She heard the gunman calmly reload and shoot Brisenia twice in the head as the child pleaded for her life. After the gunman and woman left the trailer, Gonzalez called 911 and begged for help for her dying daughter. But the woman came back in the trailer, saw Gonzalez alive, and exited quickly. Knowing she would be murdered, Gonzalez crawled into the kitchen and shot at her male assailant with her husband’s gun. He ran away. That gunman, prosecutors argue, was Jason Bush.

He’s a suspected serial killer from the Pacific Northwest with white-nationalist ties, a prison record, and a fake military ID. Forde’s other alleged accomplice, Arivaca resident Albert Gaxiola, reportedly wanted Raul Flores killed because he was “competition” in the drug trade. Both Gaxiola and Bush have pleaded not guilty and face separate trials this year. Although no DNA or other physical evidence linked Forde to the actual crime, prosecutors say a partial DNA sample of hers was found on a ring that, along with other jewelry belonging to Gonzalez, was discovered in Forde’s orange Honda when she was arrested near Sierra Vista, Arizona, about two weeks after the murders. (Forde later contacted her son and asked him to say he had given her the jewelry, or recognized it, a Pima County detective testified.)

Some colorful characters added to the strange environment surrounding the trial. Two Colorado Minutemen appeared at different times at court dressed in what appeared to be a uniform— wraparound dark glasses, white Western shirts, Wrangler jeans, tooled leather belts, and cowboy boots. Self-described “bail bondsman and fugitive recovery agent” Robert Copley, Sr. and his friend Ron Wedow both testified they met with Forde at a Flying J truck stop in Byers, Colorado, about two weeks before the murders.

Wedow already knew Forde, and had attended a 2007 “operation” in search of migrants she supervised near Sasabe, Arizona. He suspected she was a secret government agent trying to set him up, he testified, because she once took his picture against his wishes and refused to return it. He found her braggadocio about rocket-propelled grenades offputting. He wouldn’t let her ride on his ATV.

Two years later, at the truck stop, Forde attempted to recruit Wedow and Copley for an “operation” that involved “interrupting cartels” near Arivaca the following September, Copley testified, adding that Forde did not speak about killing anyone during the truck-stop huddle. The Minutemen figured Forde might set them up if they participated in the scheme, so when Forde pushed up the “op” date and invited them to come to Arivaca in late May, they declined. After the murders, they informed the FBI of the strange meeting.

Forde, dressed in conservative business-casual pants ensembles purchased by her defense team at Goodwill and Savers, sat quietly throughout the trial.  No family members showed up at the trial, except for her sister, who testified against her, saying she had bragged about stealing drugs and money to fund her Minuteman group just weeks before the murder occurred.

An ardent Forde supporter, a “citizen reporter” named Laine Lawless, was barred from the courtroom because she was a potential witness. Once during the trial, Lawless sneaked into the courtroom costumed in a wig and dark glasses. Still raw from the Tucson shootings that killed six and injured 13 others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, deputies were in no mood for bizarre behavior. They surrounded Lawless as she argued loudly with Judge John Leonardo, who ordered her not to set foot in the courthouse until the trial ended.

Forde, who is divorced, has two adult children, a daughter and a son. On the day of the murders, prosecutors say, Forde texted her daughter, Jaszmin Eddy: “Whatever goes down I’m in deep know I love you make me proud and do something good with your life I’ll call in a week God bless you Jasz.”

The events of the next few days will determine how much of Jaszmin’s life Shawna Forde will be around to enjoy.

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.