Botched New Mexico murder case draws eye of U. S. Civil Rights Commission


FARMINGTON, N.M. ? Prompted by a murder mystery and a campaign by distraught relatives of the apparent victim, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is planning to hold a return set of hearings here in San Juan County, a sometimes racially torn land bordering the Navajo Nation where the commission has held hearings before.

An important factor in the return hearings is the charge that police mishandled the missing-person case of a Navajo-Hopi resident of the county. Relatives of the missing young man say that their long and frustrating attempt to have the case treated as a homicide mirrors the experience of many minority families in the region.

The 1998 disappearance of Pernell Tewangoitewa, a Navajo and Hopi resident of Bloomfield, N.M., last seen in a Farmington bar, has led members of the commission's New Mexico Advisory Committee to question the relationship between law enforcement agencies in San Juan County and the mostly Navajo residents of the county and nearby reservations.

Pernell's sister, 29-year-old Ramona Tewangoitewa, outlined her brother's case at the advisory committee's November planning meeting in Albuquerque, N.M. She said that Farmington police officers refused repeated attempts by family members to file a missing-person report on her brother and that one officer made statements that stereotyped Pernell as a drunk or wandering Indian who wasn't really missing.

Eventually police accepted the case. It remains unsolved, although investigators have looked at a possible connection to an alleged serial killer in the area. Although Pernell is classified as a missing person, police say they are treating the case as a homicide.

Pernell, then 21, was a student at a local cosmetology school and lived with his sister Brook Milligan at her house in Bloomfield about 10 miles southeast of Farmington. On the night of his disappearance in May 1998, he spent the evening with Brook and friends at Gator's Bar & Grill, a popular Farmington club, before leaving in separate cars. He drove Brook's 1988 Subaru station wagon while Brook rode with friends. She thought he was following her home but he never arrived, she said.

On June 18, almost three weeks later, an oil field worker checking on a well about five miles northwest of Farmington found the badly burned Subaru in a dry river wash. He reported it to the San Juan County Sheriff's Department, which patrols the unincorporated areas of the county. The deputy who responded to the scene called Milligan and told her she needed to tow the car out, Milligan said.

The Tewangoitewas didn't tow the car. After visiting the scene alone on June 19, they thought the police were overlooking a crime scene, Ramona said.

"In desperation I contacted the FBI and told them about the vehicle that was found burned and the driver is still missing and why is there no investigation?" Ramona said in a prepared statement for the committee. "They contacted the Farmington police department to take a report. You see, there was not going to be an investigation, until I notified the FBI about my missing brother and the burned vehicle," she said.

Farmington police processed the scene on June 20 and filed a missing-person report. According to the police report, there were "no clues" at the scene. Police also said they could find no clues in the car either. The cause of the car fire was later determined to be arson.

The car was impounded at the Farmington Police Department's evidence yard. Late last year, while trying to arrange to have forensic work done on the car by an outside agency, Ramona learned that police had disposed of it at a local salvage yard sometime between June and November 2000.

Ramona said she worries other families may have had similar experiences and are suffering in silence. She has begun to collect information from families of homicide victims or missing persons.

On Nov. 28, she notified the city of Farmington and San Juan County she may sue them for negligence, slander and civil rights violations stemming from the handling of the case.

The Farmington Police Department denies it discriminated against the Tewangoitewas. While acknowledging that his department has jurisdiction over the case and should have filed a report, Lt. Doug Kennedy, who oversees internal investigations for the department, said officers at the time were confused over whether a report had been filed at one of the other local police agencies the Tewangoitewas visited in the days and weeks after Pernell's disappearance.

Kennedy added that it is not racism or a lack of care that hinders investigations but a lack of resources to dedicate to the cases that pile up on detectives' desks. As detective sergeant, a position he held at the time of Pernell's disappearance, Kennedy said he once calculated that detectives had only seven hours for each of the serious crimes they were assigned, counting only those cases with pursuable leads.

In spite of tight resources, the department had a solid record, he said. Of the five homicides in the city's jurisdiction between 1998 and 2000, all were solved, Kennedy said, a clearance rate well above the national average for cities its size.

The San Juan County Sheriff's Department had said the lack of a missing-person report may have tripped up the deputy who responded to the scene of the car.

The Tewangoitewa case is among the open homicide and missing-person cases in San Juan County now being investigated for a possible connection to Robert "Bobby" Fry, a 28-year-old Farmington native and son of a local probation supervisor. Fry was arrested in 2000 for the murder of a Navajo woman and has since been charged with three other homicides committed in 1996 and 1998. Leslie Engh, his alleged accomplice in two of the murders, turned state's evidence in order to avoid a death penalty trial. Both are being held without bond in the county detention center in Aztec, the county seat.

Police now are alleging they consider Fry an opportunistic serial killer who preyed on vulnerable people. Among his alleged victims were two young people he knew personally as well as two Navajo strangers who were stranded in Farmington and in need of rides. The victims ranged in age from 18 to 40, were male and female, Navajo, Hispanic and white. One was a mother of five children.

The San Juan County District Attorney's office has available to it $380,000 in state assistance so far to help cover the costs of prosecuting the three death penalty cases against Fry, according to Sam Thompson, spokeswoman for N.M. Attorney General Patricia Madrid. A task force of Farmington and sheriff's detectives assigned to assist in investigating the cases has breathed new life into the Tewangoitewa investigation and others that remain unsolved.

From time to time San Juan County has found itself entrenched in racial controversy, most famously in the 1970s when the grisly murder of three Navajo men by three white Farmington High School students shed a national spotlight on a local pastime called Indian Rolling, in which vulnerable Indians, sometimes drunk, homeless or hitchhiking, were picked off the streets by area youths and beaten. The slayings sparked a civil rights movement, attracting Indian activist groups from throughout the nation and drew condemnations from then Navajo Chairman Peter MacDonald. The outcries culminated in three days of hearings before the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in August 1974, which sought to address community attitudes towards Navajos.

The hearings helped lead to redistricting of San Juan County and the election of Navajos to the county commission and the magistrate courts. A Justice Department suit against the hospital in San Juan forced it to cease turning Navajos away from its emergency room. A suit filed against Farmington by the U.S. Equal Opportunity Commission for employment discrimination also followed.

John F. Dulles, Rocky Mountain regional director of the Civil Rights Commission, who attended the November meeting, said the advisory committee found Ramona's presentation "compelling and troubling."

No promises were made at the November meeting but Dulles said he hoped to "design a project that might lead to the return of the committee and possibly the conduct of some formal hearings. Our committee does believe that we need to follow up on some of our earlier work in Farmington," he said.

In January, Dulles said he was committed to bringing the committee to San Juan County. Next year likely would be the earliest date hearings could be held, he said.