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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.

Charlton and law enforcement officials shut down further questions by declining to elaborate on details that tied Wescogame to the crime, saying it would interfere with the accused’s right to a fair trial. Since that indictment, the judge has sealed Wescogame’s criminal history and all information about the murder investigation considered pertinent to the case.

The only public response from the Havasupai came in a written statement from Tribal Chairman Thomas Siyuja, Sr. He wrote that Hanamure’s death remained "a great shock to members of the Havasupai tribe." The tribe "continues to pray for her family and friends," he added. After the indictment was announced, the council declared a period of mourning through December 17.

Just like that, the arc of this tragic story appeared to end. A killer had been caught. The tribe quietly imposed a media blackout until the period of mourning ended. Attorneys and investigators stopped talking. The Japanese reporters went away. What else was there to say?

A lot more, I suspected. The cut-and-dried press announcement about Wescogame after a long investigation into a horrific murder left more questions than answers. I had good reason to suspect deeper problems in Supai than federal and tribal officials were letting on. I wanted to know more about Hanamure, Wescogame, and the Havasupai people. And so I went Down There, looking for answers.

I slogged into Supai on January 9 with my 10-year-old son, Austin. Thus began a 3-month quest in which I made four trips to the remote village. On the first journey, I stashed a notebook in my pocket, but otherwise traveled like a tourist. We hiked the 8-mile trail to Supai and stayed at the lodge, just like Hanamure had done. (This trip occurred before anyone had warned me not to hike alone on the reservation.)

Although it had been 15 years since I’d been in Supai, the image I still had in mind was the Shangri-La famously painted in the 1960s by Edward Abbey in Desert Solitaire. "The Havasupai are a charming, cheerful, completely relaxed and easygoing bunch, all one hundred or so of them," he wrote. I knew things had changed, but I wasn’t prepared to enter a blown-out rural ghetto. Graffiti tags were everywhere, and almost every window was broken or boarded up. Debris was strewn on fences, in front yards, and along the path: iPod headphones, empty Pampers cartons, U.S. Mail crates, old saddles, horse tack, abandoned furniture, and lots of plastic Gatorade bottles. Ravens as big as turkeys picked through garbage. The pungent smell of sewage came from an open ditch. As we neared the center of town, villagers passed us without eye contact or saying hello. I knew this was normal; it’s just a cultural difference. What wasn’t normal were the decidedly unfriendly glares from young men, some of whom came out of their homes or backyards to check us out.

It was a Tuesday afternoon, a time when school was in session in Arizona; the leering teenagers were most likely high-school dropouts. Because Supai has no high school, kids are sent to government-funded boarding schools in places like Oregon and California.

According to BIA police in Supai, most drop out by them 11th grade and return to the village, bringing the drug and gang culture they picked up with them. Sometimes they help with their families’ packing business, transporting cargo up and down the canyon, but I was told these dropouts mainly just hang around town, drinking whiskey and smoking marijuana and meth.

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