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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.

**Editor’s Note: If you would like to read the full “Freefall” article before reading the update added October 2007, click here.**

Supai Update, October 2007 In “Freefall” (June), Southwest Editor Annette McGivney reported on the murder of Japanese tourist Tomomi Hanamure near Havasu Falls, AZ. On September 18, Havasupai tribal member Randy Wescogame, 19, plead guilty in U.S. District Court, Phoenix, AZ, to one count of second degree murder. The plea agreement stipulates that Wescogame spend the rest of his life in prison without possibility of release, and that he waives all rights for a trial or appeal. According to an account read in court, Wescogame said he encountered Hanamure on May 8, 2006, hiking alone on a trail to Havasu Falls in the Grand Canyon. Wescogame lured Hanamure off the trail with the intent of robbing her and then fatally stabbed her. Wescogame will be formally sentenced January 17, 2008.

Our investigation begins with the disturbing disappearance of a solo female backpacker, and culminates with shocking evidence of a larger, darker crisis—a tribal culture teetering on the brink of collapse.

The trail begins at the edge of the Earth, where the sagebrush flats of the Coconino Plateau meet a 3,000-foot-deep expanse of rock and space. Just past the last hairpin turn on Indian Road 18, the Grand Canyon explodes into view. This is where the path to the community of Supai begins. This is where Tomomi Hanamure began her 34th birthday.

The 8-mile path dives through colorful layers of geologic time: ivory Kaibab Limestone, green Toroweap Formation, white Coconino Sandstone, the blood-red scree of Hermit Shale. Then the trail reaches the sandy, cobblestoned bottom of Havasu Canyon. Just above the village, an aquamarine creek emerges, for which the Havasupai tribe ("people of the bluegreen water") is named. The stream gurgles through town, then picks up velocity. In 4 miles, the waters cascade over four huge waterfalls, plunging into fern-decked, turquoise pools. Nearly every travel and outdoor magazine, including this one, has waxerhapsodic about this Shangri-La. More than a few have called Havasu Falls the best swimming hole in the world. And more than 20,000 vacationers a year follow the path to Supai to visit this famed backcountry paradise.

An independent, adventurous woman who lived near Tokyo in Kanagawa Prefecture, Hanamure enjoyed traveling alone to outdoor destinations worldwide. She had special feelings for the Grand Canyon, having spent several recent birthdays hiking to Phantom Ranch, a lodge on the canyon floor. No doubt, Supai seemed an enticing alternative. Like Phantom, the village is surrounded by a lush riparian area and dramatic buttes, and no roads lead there. And like the famous ranch 70 miles upriver, Supai has the creature comforts of a lodge, restaurant, and store, as well as a community at trail’s end. All of which could provide a sense of security to a woman traveling solo.

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