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Justice For Sonny Jim Highlights Need for Change

Four years after the murder of Native Rodeo Legend Sonny Jim and his friend his murderer is convicted and the family is calling for change.
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More than four years after Native rodeo legend Sonny Jim and his friend were murdered over disputed fenceposts, their killer has been convicted. And now, a family that laments the senseless deaths is going public with a call for change.

On Wednesday, May 14, a state district court judge in Grants, New Mexico sentenced Danny Stanfield to two life sentences for the 2009 shooting deaths of Jim and his long-time friend, Wayne Johnson. On top of the life sentences, Stanfield received 9 to 15 years for shooting non-fatally at a third victim. Stanfield was assigned to a mental health facility by the judge, George P. Eichwald, who made a provision for a jury trial should Stanfield ever be deemed mentally competent to participate.

Jim, of Modoc descent, was an enrolled Klamath tribal member and married into the Navajo Nation. Johnson and Stanfield were both white.

Sonlatsa Jim-Martin, Jim’s daughter, said the trial was difficult, even though it filled out the story of what happened to her father: “It was good to put all the pieces together, but it was emotional, to learn how your father’s last moments were spent.”

Still, their story is not over. For one thing, they’re not satisfied with Stanfield’s placement. Although they’re happy he received the maximum sentence in terms of years, “we don’t think he’s incompetent,” Jim-Martin said. “We think he’s been playing the system the whole time.” So in two years and periodically thereafter, Jim’s surviving family will be keeping an eye on Stanfield’s court-ordered competency hearings.

In the bigger picture, Jim-Martin’s family is determined to carry forward some lessons from the ordeal. “We feel like the whole incident could have been prevented in the first place,” she said, “and my father could be standing here with me right now.”

The trouble stemmed from a years-long arrangement between Johnson and Stanfield; Johnson had allowed Stanfield to park a trailer on his land in Grants, New Mexico for a modest rent. The two were friendly, until Stanfield began asserting more rights to the land than the arrangement afforded him. By the day of the murders, Stanfield had threatened violence to Johnson several times, and the two had gotten into fights.

Jim-Martin had known Johnson since she was a girl, and would visit him with her father. She and her siblings called him the “Chicken Man” before they knew his name, simply because he kept and bred chickens. By the time of the murders, Johnson was elderly, and Jim took care of him.

“Wayne had no family to call his own,” she said. “My dad would tell me that nobody was taking care of Wayne, and Wayne was getting bad. He started making appointments for Wayne and taking Wayne to the hospital. He would tell me, I’m taking Wayne out to Albuquerque to get some tests done, or whatever.”

So when Stanfield drove fenceposts into Johnson’s land against the older man’s wishes and Johnson wanted help getting them out, he called Jim. Jim knew that Stanfield was dangerous, and he wasn’t the only one. Law enforcement had been out to Johnson’s land several times following Stanfield’s threats. Jim had tried to secure legal help for the property disputes, and on the eve and the day of the murders, he tried to get a sheriff’s escort to Johnson’s land.

“This could have been prevented, had someone taken this a little more seriously,” Jim-Martin said. “We want to prevent this from happening to another family.”

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She said she’s been working with a victims’ rights organization to figure out how she can get involved in advocacy.

“If he was alive, he would be saying we’ve got to change the system,” she said. “There’s got to be some way to make this world better. That’s what he was trying to do. He was trying to use the system to get help. That was important to him.”

Meanwhile, the family is dedicating ample energy into honoring the memory of their father.

Jim was born as Clyde Shacknasty James on the Klamath Indian Reservation in Oregon on December 28, 1940. His father, Clyde “Chief” James, was inducted in 1977 into the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame for basketball. Jim was also the great grandson of Shacknasty Jim, leader of the Hot Creek Band of the Modoc Tribe. Jim-Martin explained that his father's last name had been changed on record to James, and “my father wanted to go back to Jim in recognition of his Modoc ancestry.”

Jim was raised in Taos, New Mexico and traveled with his parents to various Indian reservations throughout the years. He also toured to play the Harlem Globetrotters in exhibition games, and later to perform Native American and country western music in his band, "Sonny Jim & the Renegades.” He began his rodeo career on the Navajo Nation and competed on many reservations as well as in the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. To his last days, Jim continued to participate in rodeos.

Courtesy Sonlatsa Jim-Martin

“We feel like the whole incident could have been prevented in the first place.”

“He was very strong still, very athletic still at his age and still competing in the steer-wrestling competitions with the young men,” Jim-Martin said. “He had told me this was going to be his last year doing steer wrestling because he had a dislocated shoulder. He was going to take up team roping. I’m not sure how many people knew that. That’s a big step for a man like my father.”

Jim was survived by his wife, Ruberta James. Jim-Martin said she grew up with three sisters and met several half-siblings and adopted siblings through the years. Her father also grew up with blood sisters and adopted brothers.

“My family is already a big family as it is,” she said. “When he married my mom, he practically adopted the whole Navajo Nation.” Besides that, he participated in rodeos and adopted more relations in Oklahoma, Montana, Oregon, the Dakotas, Colorado and “all over the place in New Mexico,” she said. “Anywhere there was a rodeo, he knew people.” She said 1,000 people attended the funeral.

Jim-Martin said her family will continue to plan several annual events in Jim’s memory: a lifetime achievement tribute over the July 4 weekend, and a commemoration of the tragedy on October 23. They also intend to nominate Jim for the rodeo hall of fame, and construct a memorial facility in Gallup, New Mexico.