Updated on June 29, 2011, with links to support pages.
Johnny and Lisa Bonta, a Native family from the Reno Sparks Indian Colony, became the latest victims of an apparent hate crime on May 24 when they were allegedly attacked at a gas station along I-80 in Fernley, Nevada, a border town between the Fallon and Pyramid Lake Indian reservations.
“I was pumping gas at Quick Stop on our way to Reno to look for another job when these skinheads in a blue car drove by real slow and checked us out. The driver jumped out with a baseball bat, and I asked them ‘why you holding a bat?” said Bonta. “He said ‘let’s do this’ and tried to pick a fight. I don’t know how to explain what happened—we didn’t do anything to them.”
Bonta, a Paiute member of the Reno Sparks Indian Colony, says he tried to avoid the confrontation by telling them he didn’t want to fight. He got back in the car, with his son-in-law Shane Murray at the wheel, and they quickly drove away with the carload of skinheads in close pursuit.
As they approached the freeway ramp, they were cut off as the blue car swerved in front of them, then slammed on the brakes, causing Murray to crash into it. Murray said he recognized one of the attackers as Jacob Cassell, a former classmate and son of retired Lyon County Sheriff officer Jim Cassell.
“They all jumped out of the car with baseball bats, knives and a crowbar, and we knew they were going to hurt us,” said Lisa Bonta, in an interview from Washoe Medical Center, where she was in treatment for seizures she suffers.
The fight broke out on the highway after 1 p.m. and while traffic was passing by, no one would stop to help them. Lisa and her daughter, Alyssa, were terrified watching the brutal and bloody fight as her unarmed husband and son-in-law tried to fight off the three young men in their 20s.
“I saw one of them hit my husband in the head with a bat, and the other one was trying to cut off his braid with a knife. Johnny was covered in blood and they just kept hitting him with a crow bar. They even tried to slit his throat,” she added.
“Jacob Cassell had my son-in-law on the ground in a chokehold and Shane was turning blue. My daughter was sobbing ‘they’re killing him’ and somehow she found the strength to hit Jacob in self-defense so he would release Shane.”
It was then, Lisa said, that Cassell turned his anger on her and her daughter, jumping on the hood of their car while swinging a baseball bat and cursing at them.
“I’m a 46 year-old woman with serious health problems, and I tried to defend myself, but he hit me across the lower back with his bat, calling us ‘niggers and river monsters,” said Lisa, who is Anglo. “He pointed at Alyssa and said he would rape her the next time he saw her in Fernley, where she lives.”
Meanwhile, Johnny Bonta was knocked unconscious with a bat, his nose and sinus cavities broken and bleeding, with stab wounds on his neck.
Lisa said Jacob Cassell taunted the family as the sirens approached, telling them, “You hear those cops coming? They’re not going to help you. My daddy is a cop in this town, and nothing is going to happen to me. You fucking niggers are going to jail.”
When Lyon County Sheriff’s officers arrived, they took statements and began filling out police reports with Cassell and his friends, but they did not take statements from any of the victims. When Lisa asked why they were not being questioned for a statement, no one responded. “They ignored us,” she said, before she suffered a seizure and required medical attention.
Three ambulances responded to the scene and took Lisa, Alyssa and Murray away for treatment; Murray’s injuries included a crushed elbow and broken hand.
Johnny Bonta, bleeding and barely standing after being hit in the knees with a bat, was arrested on the scene and taken to jail. He said he was not allowed medical treatment for six days while he was in the county jail, all the while uncertain about what charges had been filed against him.
Assuming he was on his way to the hospital, Lisa Bonta had no idea her husband had been arrested. She finally located her husband in jail after calling other facilities repeatedly, and was very upset that he was not given medical treatment for his extensive injuries.
“I asked them to tell me what charges he was being held on and no one would say. They said they gave him the information, but he can’t read or write, so I needed to find out. At first they said there was a bench warrant for an unpaid $367 fine, and when we made arrangements to pay that, they charged him with battery with a deadly weapon, even though it was those boys who had the weapons. The booking papers say we owe $30,367.00. ”
Lisa Bonta is outraged that their attackers were all released at the scene of the crime and were not charged despite the fact they bragged about it on Facebook on May 24, the day of the attack.
Two hours after attacking the Bontas, Josh Janiszewski of Fernley wrote, "Just laid the fists and boots to some 6' 5'' tongan dude. what you got on little guys?" at 3:13 p.m. When asked if they gave them hell, Josh responded. "Oh we did. That's for sure!" at 3:48 p.m. "Amen," said Jacob Cassell at 4:07 p.m.
Jacob's mother Dee Cassell also commented, "So...who has blood? You guys need to come home to mom?" at 4:48 p.m. She later added that she gave them First Aid. "Better have ur asses at home after I did 1st aid. Don't piss off women - they r worse than men!" she wrote at 8:00 p.m.
When asked if they got "some good licks" in, Josh said, "sent em to the hospital, they got fucked up man, thats for sure."
Meanwhile, Johnny Bonta stayed behind bars while Lisa and her family called the jail each day, asking if Johnny had been treated for his injuries. No one would tell her his condition. One morning, she says a surly guard told her “he’ll have to get his Indian doctor if he wants treatment,” then hung up on her.
Lisa appealed to the Spark Indian Colony and said she was able to get two Indian Health Service doctors to agree to visit Johnny in jail, but was told by jail officials that could not be allowed. It was not until tribal police pursued Johnny’s release that he was finally released after six days and was able to see a doctor.
The family also lost their car following the attack. The Bontas could not locate their car after the Lyon County Sheriff’s office had it towed from the scene. When Lisa called to ask about their car, she was told the police had no information. She found the car two weeks later in a small towing yard, tires flattened and in need of repair. Since Johnny has not been able to work, they cannot afford to pay the impoundment fees or have it repaired. They are now walking to all of their medical appointments in Reno. The situation has created great hardship for them and their children.
“We lost everything as a result of this attack, and now we’re homeless since we can’t go back to Fernley,” said Lisa. “The FBI took our statement last week and we know they got a copy of the video from the gas station parking lot. We are asking for a full investigation into this hate crime.”
The Bontas said since this happened, at least four other Native families have told them they too were harassed and attacked by skinheads in nearby border towns. But people told her they don’t report the incidents because they don’t believe police will help them. These follow an April 2010 attack on Vincent Kee, Navajo, in Farmington, New Mexico, where three men took Kee from a McDonald’s and shaved a swastika symbol on the back of his head and branded him with the symbol using a coat hanger.
“Someone could have died that day,” said Lisa, “and the only reason this happened is because my husband and son-in-law have brown skin. We have a 10-year-old daughter, and I have to speak out about what happened for her sake. I just don’t understand why these young boys think they have the right to randomly beat others. We have to put a stop to this kind of behavior.”
Lisa also said they are hiring an attorney. “I want the police to know they can’t deny people medical treatment just because they feel like it. Johnny could have died from a head injury, and they violated his civil rights. They should be held accountable.”
Since the story broke supporters have started a petition at change.org for the Governor of Nevada to address the situation along with other hate crimes in Nevada. A Facebook page was also created in support of the Bonta family.
Indian Country Today Media Network will continue to follow this story and is looking into any fundraising information there may be for our readers. The case is currently under investigation by the FBI. Calls to the Reno office of the FBI were not returned.