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Woman’s grisly death haunts family, homeless community

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Audra Willis, 39 (Courtesy of Evangelyn Ray)

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

It’s been almost a month since the body of Audra Willis was found decapitated in a sandy arroyo near the Four Hills neighborhood – enough time for the brutality of her death to hit home for those who shared the streets with her, as well as for service providers and advocates for Native Americans around the city.

They say the death of the 39-year-old woman from To’hajiilee reminds them of the beating deaths of two homeless Native American men in 2014 and underscores the violence that the community often faces.

No arrests have been made in Willis’ death, and what led up to the gruesome scene remains a mystery. But her life over the past several years can be loosely traced through run-ins with police, memories from family and friends, and the time she spent with those who call the streets home.

The snapshots also illustrate the dangers faced by those who live on the street, who are often vulnerable to attacks – by predators and other homeless people they share the streets with – and are wary of reporting crimes to the police due to fears of somehow winding up in trouble themselves or not getting justice.

A study by Albuquerque’s Heading Home found that 76 percent of the 136 Native Americans who were surveyed reported they had been attacked since becoming homeless. This is compared to the general homeless population, where 61 percent reported being the victim of violence. And it’s not just the homeless population; a crime victimization survey done by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2016 found 37 Native Americans out of 1,000 had reported being a victim of violence – everything from rape to assault – that year. That’s more than any other race surveyed.

Natalie Nicotine, a social worker and member of the Native American Voters Alliance, said some of this violence occurs within the Native community, while at other times Native American homeless people are victims of racism or are targeted by the broader population. She said many Native Americans come to the city to look for jobs, go to school or try to find opportunities they wouldn’t have on reservation land.

“They are met with some really harsh realities of our current state of not having a good behavioral health system and not having trust in APD,” Nicotine said, referencing the Albuquerque Police Department. “It’s a lot to deal with.”

Seeking opportunities, finding something else

Like many others from native land, Willis came to Albuquerque to be with her family and to seek out other opportunities.

In 2013, she registered for summer classes at Central New Mexico Community College but she didn’t complete the semester, according to a college spokesman.

Police reports dating back almost a decade show Willis had dozens of encounters with the law, sometimes as a suspect, but just as often as a witness or a victim of a crime – and almost always involving alcohol and violence.

She gave several different addresses as her home over the years – including a Southeast Albuquerque trailer adorned with dozens of wind chimes and dream catchers, and a box-style complex in the International District with rusted window grates where loud dogs push on buckling fences.

But she also listed the Albuquerque Indian Center, the Good Shepherd Center and First Nations Community HealthSource, all of which serve urban Native populations and homeless people.

Last August, police were called when Willis was severely beaten near the Castle Megastore on Central just west of San Mateo.

That’s when Hishin Moussa, who was working security for Valley Protection Services, happened upon her. He said he heard screaming outside the store and turned to see a man punch Willis as three women watched.

“I yelled. I told him, ‘Do not hit a woman,’ ” Moussa said.

He said the man ran away, but the women jumped Willis, continually punching her after she was down.

When the group left, Willis, bleeding from the head, didn’t get back up.

Moussa said he called 911 and tried to help, although he said Willis initially thought he was one of the attackers.

“I said, ‘No ma’am, I am a security guard. I am helping you out,’ ” he said.

Moussa said she opened her eyes and said, “Thank you very much.”

In early December, police found Willis sleeping on landscaping rocks near Walmart on Central. Officers woke her up and found she had three misdemeanor warrants, so they arrested her.

According to jail records, she was released on her own recognizance from the Metropolitan Detention Center on Dec. 21.

Two days later she was found dead.

Willis’ mother, Evangelyn Ray, said she worried about her all the time and would let her know she had a home to return to whenever she wanted. She said Willis often stayed with her in her Southeast Albuquerque home for weeks at a time.

“Being hurt out on the streets, drinking maybe with her friends, getting in trouble, getting hurt,” Ray said, listing her fears. “I talked to her about it, but she was a grown woman.”

Ray said the family, including Willis’ six children, ages 8 to 17, has been left struggling with anger over her death.

“I don’t have answers, I have a lot of questions,” she said. “That’s where we’re at, nothing is happening. I have no words, I’m angry, I’m disappointed.”

All too familiar

Willis’ death is not the first case of shocking violence against Native American homeless people in Albuquerque.

In 2014, three teenagers beat to death two homeless men, Allison Gorman, 44, and Kee Thompson, 45, who were both Navajo, as they slept on a mattress off West Central. The youths – Gilbert Tafoya, Nathaniel Carillo and Alex Rios – have all been convicted in the case.

Nicotine said Willis’ death brought up many of the same reactions in the community that Gorman’s and Thompson’s deaths did, as well as a renewed recognition of the violence the population faces.

“For a lot of us that are familiar with the community, it really wasn’t quite a surprise, it was just that sadness,” Nicotine said. “I can’t believe this is happening again.”

She said she’s found that violence against Native Americans often is underreported, as the victims themselves are often fearful of police and of getting in trouble.

“It does make them a little more vulnerable,” Nicotine said. “Just from the simple fact that they don’t have anyone to turn to to tell these things.”

After Thompson and Gorman were murdered, then-Mayor Richard Berry began a Native American Homelessness Task Force to provide recommendations to the city.

Alicia Manzano, a spokeswoman for Mayor Tim Keller, said the process has been dormant for some time, but Keller is “committed to activating the task force.” She did not say whether steps are in place to make that happen or when it would be reactivated.

‘We need to stick together’

On a Tuesday afternoon, 2½ weeks after Willis’ death, a group of Native Americans huddled at a bus stop on Eubank, speaking fondly of Willis and the toll her brutal killing has taken on those who roam the Central corridor.

“It hurt us,” said a woman who identifies herself as W. “Especially people who were close with her.”

She said she met Willis on the streets in September, and although they initially fought, they quickly became friends.

“We got to know each other,” W said. “She was real nice.”

She said Willis could often be found near the Walmart at San Mateo and Central, where crowds of homeless often gather at all times of the day.

Not far from there, after Willis’ death, those who knew her lit candles at a makeshift memorial. That memorial is no longer there.

W said there is a kinship within the Native American homeless community, partially springing from the violence and racism they perceive directed at them from the outside world.

She said Willis’ fate only further validated their concerns.

“We need to stick together, need to watch out for each other,” she said. “Because of this.”

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