Racism a possible issue in reservation bordertown murders

FARMINGTON, N.M. - Often a hotbed of Native American unrest and difficulty, Farmington is once again in the news with the spotlight on two murders under investigation as possible hate crimes against Navajo citizens.

Leslie Engh, 24, Kirtland, and Robert "Bobbie" Fry, 27, Farmington, were arrested June 11 and charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping, attempted criminal sexual penetration and tampering with evidence in the June 9 death of Betty Lee, 36, of Shiprock, the mother of five.

Preliminary hearings are pending. Both men are being held in the San Juan County Detention Center, without bond, in solitary confinement.

On further investigation, the men also were charged with first-degree murder, kidnapping, attempted armed robbery and tampering with evidence in the April 1998 death of Donald Tsosie, 40, Ganado, Ariz.

Deputy District Attorney June Stein said the murders of Lee and Tsosie are not known to be linked to other disappearances or deaths in the Farmington and San Juan County area.

"Do we have, at this point, any firm evidence of their connection to other crimes, no. Are other crimes being looked at, yes."

The possibility remains the instances of violence have been racially motivated. "I certainly think that that is a possibility," San Juan Sheriff's Detective Bob Melton said. "We are certainly not excluding that as a possibility in our investigation. I don't think we could. ... Any time you have that kind of anger and that kind of rage - and the random nature - you have the possibility [of pattern killings].

"The unfortunate thing is, when you have physical evidence collected at these other scenes and time has passed, our best opportunity to link him to other crimes and homicides is that people will come forward."

Court documents show Engh told officers he left a convenience store at the intersection of Route 64 and Apache Street and found Fry speaking to Lee who was crying, having been stranded. He said Fry told her, "He hated to see a woman cry," and offered to take her as far as Kirtland. En route, he said Fry turned off on a road south of the area known as "Twin Peaks" and ended up in a dry wash.

Engh said Fry stopped the car; Lee tried to escape and was stopped. She got back in the car when Fry again told her he'd take her to Kirtland, he said. Then Fry got out and pulled Lee from the passenger seat by the hair "and stabbed her in the chest with a knife," the document continued. "The female then struggled free and managed to pull the knife from her chest, throwing it in the direction of the ravine."

Reports indicated most of the victim's clothes were removed in the struggles. They were found strewn around the scene.

Engh told officers Lee again managed to free herself and attempted to run to the highway.

"Fry went to the rear of the car, extracted a sledge hammer and chased after [her]," Engh said. He told officers Fry ordered him to search for the knife. Engh reported he heard Lee screaming and saw Fry swinging the sledge hammer "downward in the direction where the female was lying."

In police interviews, Fry denied ever meeting Lee. He indicated he was in the area of the crime only to "relieve himself" after giving Engh a ride home to Kirtland.

Documents show Fry's vehicle got stuck in the wash and he contacted his mother, Gloria Fry, head of the Adult Misdemeanor Probation Department for San Juan County. She picked him up in the early morning hours. Later when they attempted to free Fry's car, Gloria Fry's vehicle got stuck. They returned with Fry's father James' vehicle, which got stuck. A tow truck called bogged down in the sandy wash and a second tow truck was needed to free all four vehicles.

During all of this activity, Lee's naked, bloody and beaten form lay hidden in the wash.

A Public Service employee, checking power lines in the Twin Peaks area discovered the body about 7:30 a.m. June 9. Officers found a cellular telephone dropped by the first tow-truck operator.

Combined efforts of the San Juan County Sheriff's Department and the Navajo Nation, where Lee had two brothers working as officers and a sister who is the chief criminal investigator for the Navajo Nation Police, brought a quick resolution to the investigation. Engh was in jail on an unrelated charge and Fry was arrested at his Farmington home June 11.

Hours after Engh was officially charged in the Lee case, he volunteered information concerning the death of Tsosie. He told officers he and Fry "spotted an Indian" walking near a tavern on Main Street and offered him a ride. He claimed Fry, who was driving, struck the victim in the face and ordered Engh, in the back seat, to choke Tsosie with his belt.

The affidavit filed in District Court shows Tsosie fought back. Fry stopped the car and dragged the victim out of the vehicle and onto the ground and "was beating him with a stick," Engh said. When Tsosie got the upper hand, Engh said Fry ordered him to strike the man in the back with a shovel, which Engh did. He said Fry struck Tsosie on the head, legs and back with the shovel before stabbing him with the stick in the eyes and in the crotch.

The affidavit shows the men searched Tsosie for money, but found nothing. They pushed his body off a 30-foot cliff in Head Canyon where it was discovered April 29, 1998.

Melton said Fry and Engh could fit the profile of serial killers.

"I think there's certainly a possibility," he said, "We are certainly not ruling out that they could have been involved in other homicides.

Employment records on the two men are sketchy. Engh appears to be unemployed, while Fry recently went to work for a local construction company. Both graduated from Farmington High School and were raised in the area.

Melton appealed "to anyone with information about these cases or anything possibly related to them to do the right thing and come forward."

The number for the San Juan Sheriff's Department is (505) 334-6107.