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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.

Neal had been living in Supai for about a month before the murder, sleeping in bushes along the creek or crashing at the homes of young tribal members who liked to party. He would strike up a conversation with anyone in town, talking about how he worshipped goddesses and how Native Americans must fight to get their land back. And he had been seen in the café on May 8 talking to Hanamure. Villagers say Neal invited himself to a sweat lodge ceremony the next night and wore out his welcome after making sexual advances on a Havasupai woman. So some men at the sweat decided to kick and beat Neal in the head. Following a tip, Kaulaity found Neal naked by the creek, howling at the moon with blood dripping from his bushy red hair. Suffering from severe head injuries, Neal was evacuated by helicopter on May 10.

Locals wanted to believe that the murderer was a white man from Up There. Maybe he was someone Hanamure had befriended in town or the crazy Irish guy. But Lintner was finding evidence that pointed in another direction.

After word of the murder hit newspapers, Lintner started getting calls from women who’d been assaulted in Supai but hadn’t reported the attacks. "These all happened within a few months before or after the murder," said Lintner. "They wanted me to know, because they thought it might help us find the killer." Most cases involved young male tribal members making sexually threatening comments to women on the trail or in the campground. In two cases, a woman hiking alone had been grabbed from behind by a man who tried to pull her off the trail, but she had fought him off.

"If I was down there and I’d see a woman hiking alone, I kept thinking I should tell her to turn around," said Lintner. "Women shouldn’t hike alone in Supai. It’s too dangerous."

Ultimately, investigators pursued more than 100 leads. But what began as a broad search became a focused investigation. The initial lead about a tall Asian man was "explained," Lintner says, declining clarification. The Irish guy, Neal, who was an early person of interest, was interviewed and dismissed. As the months wore on, the evidence pointed to one suspect. It was not someone from Up There.

ON DECEMBER 5, nearly seven months after Tomomi Hanamure died, a Havasupai named Randy Redtail Wescogame was charged with her murder. Wearing an orange jumpsuit, arms in handcuffs, he stood expressionless before U.S. District Judge Mark Aspey in Flagstaff as the fivecount indictment was read. It also charged Wescogame with kidnapping and robbery, alleging he stole Hanamure’s "cash, credit cards, camera, cell phone and other things of value."

Several days later, at a detention hearing, the prosecution presented information about the 18-year-old’s troubled past. Although he had grown up in Supai and was living there when the murder occurred, he’d spent most of the past six years in juvenile—detention and drug—rehab programs. He had a history of assaults on staff and residents of these facilities. The prosecution also reported he was addicted to "alcohol, marijuana, methamphetamine and other inhalants."

Wescogame had been in federal custody since late May, when he was arrested for an assault on a local in Supai. Prosecutors said the apparent motive in the murder was robbery. So this kid stabbed Hanamure 29 times to steal her phone? Reporters had questions. "There is never is a rational justification, whatever the motive," said U.S. Attorney Paul Charlton at a press briefing after the indictment was announced. Charlton thanked the tribe for cooperating during the investigation, noting that this murder was the first recorded homicide of a non—tribal member in Supai. "This is a safe place and a good place to travel," he said, calling the murder "an aberration."

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