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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.

Looking up at the buttes where the sun was sinking, Manakaja spoke with a soft, steady cadence like a lullaby. His train of thought was serpentine and frequently digressed into tribal lore. When he talked about the destruction of the Grand Canyon or how bad he feels about Hanamure’s murder or how much he loves smoking marijuana, he started to cry. "I wish the murder never happened," he said, breaking into sobs. "For this to happen on our land, to someone who came to our home to enjoy this beautiful place, and it turned out another way. We are all still so shocked. But I try to look at the positive, at the lesson we can learn from this."

Manakaja said the murder was a "wake-up call" that showed how far the tribe has strayed from its cultural traditions and family-support systems. "The kids involved in this violence and drugs, they don’t have family love, they are from divorced families, and they are having a cultural identity crisis. They are scared and angry."

By Supai standards, Randy Wescogame had a normal childhood. His parents divorced when he was five, then spent years in tribal court fighting over custody of Randy and his two siblings. When Randy was six, his father, who was the village policeman at the time, was imprisoned for 2 1/2 years for sexual assault. Randy started acting up in school; by 3rd grade, he was being sent home for attacking teachers and students. Billy would sometimes discipline Randy, beating him or washing his mouth out with soap. Randy’s mother had a restraining order placed on Billy to prevent him from seeing his son, because she believed he was abusive. By 6th grade, Randy was drinking whiskey and smoking pot and getting sent to tribal court for stealing. From age 13 until he was charged with murder last December, he was in and out of juvenile detention for assault, robbery, and substance abuse.

"Randy was a known thief, no doubt about it. He would always steal from the tourists, from anybody and everybody, to get money to buy drugs and booze," Billy Wescogame said one afternoon on his front stoop. "But he is not a murderer, he is not a bad kid. He just got involved in that meth."

"Randy and me, we get along good, like father and son," Wescogame added. "When he was down here last, before the murder, we had a good talk. I told him, ‘You need to get out of here or something bad is going to happen to you. It is guaranteed. Go back to school, go be anywhere but here. Get away from these bad influences, from these bad people.’"

Wescogame’s voice cracked as he looked away. "He didn’t listen to me. I kept telling him: ‘Randy, don’t be this way, don’t do this.’ I am very hurt that he didn’t listen to me."

WERE RANDY WESCOGAME’S actions an aberration, as the U.S. attorney had said last December? Or was this child of Supai a typical product of an unraveling society? I’d met his family and visited his home, but there was really only one way to answer this question: by meeting Randy face-to-face. Plus, I had promised Billy that I’d check up on his son, with whom he’d had no contact since that talk before the murder.

I’d been told Wescogame was sequestered at some undisclosed prison facility in Arizona. No lawyers or other officials would offer more than that. So I started cold-calling federal facilities in Arizona, and eventually learned he was being held at the Central Arizona Detention Center in Florence, halfway across the state from Supai. Another week of calling the front desk yielded Wescogame’s designated visiting hours.

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