Arizona Immigration Law’s Origin: Who Killed Robert Krentz?

The state’s immigration law is being challenged by the Justice Department and has put border security at the center of John McCain’s primary fight. So why is the murder that triggered it still unsolved? Terry Greene Sterling reports.

The Justice Department’s legal challenge to Arizona’s crackdown on unauthorized immigrants ensured that the state will continue to be ground zero in the immigration wars for the foreseeable future. All but overlooked, amid the furor, is the case that sparked the new law in the first place: the unsolved murder of a borderland rancher named Robert Krentz.

Krentz was gunned down on March 27 with his dog by an unknown assailant widely suspected to be a Mexican drug runner in the country illegally. Russell Pearce, the sponsor of SB 1070, the immigration law, said the murder was committed by “illegal alien drug dealers”—and rode a wave of anxiety to the bill’s successful passage in mid-April.

“Rob was checking out his ranch. The smuggler was smuggling. They came across each other’s paths with a very good man being killed with no reason whatsoever,” said the sheriff.

But now, almost four months after the murder, the identity of Krentz’s killer remains a mystery. A leading Tucson, Arizona, newspaper quoted high-level officials who claimed that the investigation was focused on a “suspect in the United States” and that the killing was not “random.” The newspaper later retracted a claim that the focus of the investigation was an American, but stuck by the rest of its story—fueling a belief in the Hispanic community that illegal immigration had nothing to do with Krentz’s death. The Cochise County sheriff’s office, which called the newspaper’s story inaccurate, has come under increasing fire for its slow progress in the investigation and for withholding records from the media. And John McCain, Arizona’s senior senator and the GOP’s 2008 presidential nominee, is enmeshed in a fierce primary fight focused on border security, a battle that ramped up after the killing.

Former State Sen. Alfredo Gutierrez says the unsolved murder probe is a case of “purposeful ignorance” and an “attempt to cover up the truth” in a prime drug- and human-smuggling corridor. Politicians talk about securing the border, he said, but they do not address the possibility that the business of Cochise County “ain’t cows, ain’t hay; it’s smuggling drugs and people.”

“Everybody knows what’s going on but nobody knows what’s going on,” said Gutierrez, one of the state's leading Hispanic leaders.

Such a suggestion is just plain wrong, said Cochise County’s embattled sheriff, Larry Dever.

“He’s suggesting I am dirty and people I know are dirty, and if anyone can establish that, I’d invite them to give it a try,” Dever said.

Born and raised in Cochise County, the 57-year-old sheriff was a friend of Krentz’s. He said he has heard the allegations that U.S. citizens living in the area are involved in criminal activities linked with the Krentz killing, but he dismissed those claims as purely political.

Instead, Dever said, he has a suspect in Mexico and is “very, very close” to solving the case, though he said he cannot put a time frame on it.

The Krentz killing was the result of “a dog protecting his master and the master protecting dog…I think the encounter was accidental,” the sheriff theorized. “Rob was checking out his ranch. The smuggler was smuggling. They came across each other’s paths with a very good man being killed with no reason whatsoever.”

In June, The Arizona Republic, a Phoenix newspaper, sought complete records on the murder investigation and received about 50 heavily redacted pages from the 251-page report. The newspaper, citing state public records law, requested a detailed explanation for the redactions in a June 22 letter to the sheriff’s office but has yet to receive a reply.

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Dever won’t budge. He says the redacted material is sensitive and, were it made public, would alert the killer that the sheriff is on his trail.

The dearth of public information about the investigation has led to wild e-mail speculation. One retired Border Patrol agent has claimed Krentz was a Good Samaritan who was gunned down when he came to the aid of a trickster migrant. Other rumors swirling around the Phoenix area pin the killing on Minutemen or narcotraficantes.

“Somebody did something horrible to him,” said Glenn Jenks, an Episcopal priest and former lawyer who lobbied against the passage of SB 1070. “I have tremendous sympathy for people who own property down there.”

After “propelling a public outcry that politicians used for voting for SB 1070,” the killing was forgotten by many, Jenks added. Now busy with educating migrants about civil rights under SB 1070 if the law takes effect later this month, Jenks said he has not followed what little news there is of the Cochise County probe.

The law, slated to take effect July 29 barring a court injunction, has already sparked dozens of boycotts of Arizona, nailed Phoenix with about $90 million in hotel room cancellations over five years, frayed diplomatic relations with Mexico, caused a reported exodus of Mexican immigrants to other states, and prompted six lawsuits that seek to stop the law on constitutional grounds, including the Department of Justice suit.

In its detailed complaint, the department accuses Arizona of getting in the way of federal immigration enforcement, meddling with government policy, causing the possible “detention and harassment of authorized visitors, immigrants and citizens,” messing with humanitarian concerns, and sticking its nose in “vital foreign policy and national security interests by disrupting the United States’ relationship with Mexico and other countries.”

Arizona is expected to launch a vigorous defense, and as the Grand Canyon State keeps attracting national and international attention with its immigration law, the murder that sparked the passage of the law remains a mystery.

Terry Greene Sterling is an Arizona journalist who blogs about immigration in Phoenix at Her book, ILLEGAL, Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone, will be published July 1st by the Globe Pequot Press.