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June 2007

Freefall: Tragedy in the Grand Canyon

Arizona's Havasu Canyon is a hiker's paradise famed for its jaw-dropping waterfalls. But now there's trouble in paradise—serious trouble.

"Drug use related to violent crime is an issue all over, but the effects of narcotics in a small community like Supai are magnified," says BIA assistant special agent Jason Thompson, who oversees law enforcement in the agency’s Arizona district. "Three kids on meth is an outbreak down there." The village delinquents have a reputation for preying on tourists to fund their next hit. "We have four to five people in the tribe right now who are opportunists looking to steal," BIA officer Kendrick Rocha told me on that January visit.

Larry Richard wishes he’d been warned about these bandits before he hiked into Supai last October for a three-night camping trip. The Springfield, Virginia native had seen images on the Travel Channel and been inspired to visit. His first night in the campground, Richard says, two young Native American men shined a flashlight in his face through the tent door. They turned the flashlight on and off as Richard lay there motionless. "I was really afraid. My heart was just racing," he recalls. "I’ve been working in thebowels of DC for 20 years and been exposed to all types of bad guys, but I’ve never felt fear like I did down there. I felt completely trapped." Then the men ripped through Richard’s belongings in camp. They grabbed his food bag and sat on a picnic table 10 yards from his tent and ate their fill. Richard watched them move on to other campsites and do the same thing. He hiked out the next day in disgust—too afraid to stay, and fearful of reporting the incident to tribal police.

Unlike law enforcement rangers in a national park, who patrol campgrounds and protect visitors, Supai police must prioritize keeping order in the village. "The tourists need to understand that this is private place where the tribe allows people to come in," said officer Kaulaity. "We are not here for the tourists but for the locals." Protecting the locals from one another has become tougher lately, due to a surge in assaults and cutbacks in BIA funding. When Hanamure was murdered last May, the Supai police force was down to three cops. Kaulaity says there were supposed to be six. At times, he or Rocha would work 30 hours without a break. According to FBI officials, Supai is experiencing a spike in violent crime. Between May 2006 and January 2007, the agency opened 10 new assault investigations. That represents more cases than in the previous four years combined.

On my first trip, staying at the Supai Lodge with Austin, I heard distant screaming throughout the night. The shrieks were mixed with rounds of barking dogs and what I thought were fireworks. The next night, Austin was playing on the lodge lawn with a boy named Righteous and a 10-year-old girl—both grandchildren of lodge employees. The kids’ teenage aunts were nearby, in a shack the size of an outhouse, hunched over a fire. A popping sound echoed off the canyon walls. "Sounds like fireworks," I said to the girl.

"Oh no, it’s guns," she said. "You shouldn’t have heard that."

While FBI and BIA officials are concerned about the rising incidence of assault and drug use in Supai, the reservation isn’t unique for its high rate of violent crime. Department of Justice statistics indicate that violent crime among American Indians is twice the U.S. average. Lintner has seen the impact on Navajo and Apache reservations, noting that meth is usually involved in homicides on Navajo land. He says crime spikes on other reservations are typically attributed to an increase of men between the ages of 15 and 25, and to a surge in meth use.

But Havasupai differs from other poor, crime-ridden reservations, because there’s a secondary population of potential victims strolling through daily: tourists. And even as Lintner locks up the latest batch of delinquents, a new crop is coming of age. U.S. Census data shows 36 percent of the Havasupai population is between the ages of 15 and 25.

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