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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.

On February 26, I drove down to Florence. There, a cluster of windowless buildings sit amid the seething creosote flats of southern Arizona. I passed through dark corridors and vaultlike metal doors until I reached a noisy room. Against the far wall was a row of 15 windows where prisoners and their visitors sit on opposite sides of glass and talk through telephones. Wescogame stood behind one of the windows, glaring at me. About six feet tall and 200 pounds, he was a hulking presence. When guards told him he had a visitor, a white woman was not who he had expected.

I picked up the phone, and he fumbled to lift his receiver in his cuffs. We sat. I told him I was writing a story on Supai and wanted to discuss crime on the reservation and how he felt about growing up there. He blinked, sizing me up. He wasn’t sure about this. I told him I’d talked to his father.

"My dad beat me sometimes when I was bad, but I don’t hold nothing against him," he said. "I miss him. I’ve been thinking a lot about what he told me." Wescogame looked at me, perhaps contemplating whether to continue. His eyes were so dark they were almost blank. His thick, black hair stuck out in an overgrown crew cut. His cheeks were full and purple from acne scars. Compared to the mug shot in the newspaper, he had a baby face. He was just a kid.

I asked him what it was like to grow up in Supai. "It was very violent," he said. "And there was nothing to do. I didn’t want to be down there, but it was like a vacuum always sucking me back." He had been talking to his brother Ambrose, who was getting into trouble lately. "I tell him to stay in school. I don’t want him to turn out like me."

Wescogame said that when he turned 18, he wanted to live on his own, but his mother kept pushing him to live with her. "In the white world, parents kick their kids out at 18, but not in Supai. My mom doesn’t understand the way I am. She just wanted to keep me there, to protect me or something."

He told me he likes reggae and wishes he’d grown up in Phoenix, where there’s more to do. Wescogame also wanted me to know he’s not necessarily a nice guy. "I am just like my dad. I get mad." Wescogame said when he was in grade school, kids were violent toward him so he fought to protect himself and his brother. "I would go off, take care of it." He still has a temper, he said. "If I got mad enough I might just come through this glass." He stared at me with his blank, black eyes, like he wanted me to be scared.

I asked Wescogame how he felt about outsiders coming through Supai. "I don’t want to talk about the tourists," he said, "except that they go down there to this beautiful place searching for something. And they are seeing things they are not supposed to see."

I’d later talk to Jolene Watahomigie, a tribal member who taught Wescogame in grade school and has known him his entire life. She said he was harassed by other students when his dad went to prison. "Randy started acting out," she said. "He is mentally unstable. When he came back to Supai last year, he was trying to shake up people by acting tough and scaring them." Watahomigie believes someone else murdered Hanamure, and Wescogame took the blame to get attention. "I don’t think he did it," she said. These and other theories persist, despite prosecutors’ statements that they have physical evidence linking Wescogame to the crime.

It turned out that my visit with Wescogame fell on his 19th birthday. I asked him what it’s like to be in an adult prison instead of a juvenile facility. "I don’t mind it," he said. "I don’t care. The only thing I miss is not being able to speak my language." He seemed hopeless, resigned to the fact that his life would never change for the better. He looked behind me, watching a Coke machine getting restocked. It occurred to me that Wescogame might prefer the prison in Florence to the one in Supai.

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