Sunday, June 28, 2009
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
GRANTS — The first attack comes in the morning on June 9. Tommy Mariano is walking along one of the routes that homeless men follow from one side of Grants to the other, and he's jumped by four or five guys and pummeled into a bloody mess that the folks at Cibola General Hospital clean up and stitch up.
The second attack comes early the next morning. Lewis Jake is curled up asleep in the yard of a vacant house just blocks from downtown about 2 a.m. when he's awakened by a voice: "Let's kill this (expletive) Navajo."
He tries to run inside, stumbles and falls face down on the concrete step, then he's defenseless against the barrage of kicks and punches that the gang of young men deliver to his back and head and legs. Doctors in Albuquerque stitch up his face, put rods in his broken nose and try to move his eye back into its socket.
Two nights later, at 9:30 p.m., Larry Delgarito is asleep in the same vacant house when the men storm in. They have rocks this time, and they go to work on Delgarito's face. By the time he gets out of the hospital in Albuquerque, his right eye is closed tight and his left eye peeks out from behind a swollen and angry patchwork of stitches.
On June 17, about 11 p.m., Delgarito is back on the street and walking with a pack of homeless men in Riverwalk Park when they're jumped by the same group of young men. Gilson Smith and Delgarito both go to the hospital with injuries, but Amos Slim gets the worst of the beating and is flown to Albuquerque, where he remains hospitalized a week-and-a-half later.
Four beatings, all severe. Five victims, all homeless American Indian men. A group of suspects, men described as Hispanic and young, in their late teens or twenties.
The Grants Police Department has put all other investigations on hold to search for a band of vicious, angry racists who have made nasty sport of hurting older men who are often drunk and always defenseless. They're calling it a hate-crime spree.
John Castañeda, a detective sergeant in the Grants Police Department, has the attacks sketched out on a dry erase board in his office as a way of keeping track of the crime wave and understanding it.
He's having trouble with that second part.
"These guys are up close and personal doing this, hitting them with rocks," he tells me. "I can see being really angry with somebody or fighting for your life, but I can't see doing this to somebody who's never bothered you."
Delgarito sits with me on a bench in downtown Grants. He's out of the hospital again; his jeans are ripped and his jacket — his medical records stuck in the sleeve for safe keeping — is covered with mud. Delgarito is 45, a member of the Navajo Tribe, who introduces himself with a soft handshake and a description of his family clans.
He doesn't talk in much more than a whisper as he responds to my question about why someone would beat him and his friends with such fury.
"They probably hate Native Americans," he says.
Gallup and Farmington are our best-known border towns with long histories of interracial tension and struggles. But Grants is a border town, too. It's got Laguna and Acoma Pueblos to its east, and Navajo lands to the north and west. Its population is less than 9,000, and about half Hispanic and 12 percent Native American.
Delgarito is part of a group of homeless men, mostly Navajo and all Native American, who spend their days moving through town along the railroad tracks, side streets and parks, scoring beer and mouthwash, napping and grabbing a free lunch at the Community Outreach Center.
Volunteer Helen Lortz wears a "Say Yes to Jesus" lanyard around her neck and serves up tacos, beans and cake at noon at the center. (She used to also make an evening meal, "but by dinner, they were all too drunk, and nobody wanted to serve them.")
She has come to know the band of roaming homeless by name, and she worries about them. After dark, she knows they're vulnerable because the town has no homeless shelter.
That's why a few of the men have been offered the use of the vacant house near downtown by Raymond, the man who owns it. He doesn't want his last name used out of fear that the gang of thugs will come after him.
He is Hispanic and says he doesn't know about the racial tension the beaten men say they feel, and wonders whether the attacks are targeting Indians or simply another obvious minority.
"Maybe it's because they're drunks, and they just want to pick on drunks," he says.
Police Chief Steve Sena and Sgt. Castañeda harbor no such comforting illusions. They believe the beatings are racially motivated hate crimes. But neither believes the American Indian beatings are a symptom of any wider racial antipathy in their community, only a rogue band of dangerous young Hispanic men who are targeting American Indians.
Thirty-five years ago, in the border town of Farmington, a rogue band of dangerous young Anglo men killed and mutilated three intoxicated Navajos. The murders and arrests uncovered a dirty little secret, a long-standing sport among Farmington teens they called "Indian rolling."
Farmington's shame back then led to protest marches by Navajos, an investigation by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and, ultimately, discussions about how to treat one another better.
Acting on a tip, police in Grants late last week picked up 22-year-old Shawn Longoria of nearby Milan and charged him with six counts of aggravated battery with great bodily harm in connection with the crime spree. Longoria copped to one of the beatings, Castañeda said, but wouldn't give a reason or give up the rest of the gang.
So, they're still out there. And somewhere in Cibola County this weekend, some wife or girlfriend is doing the laundry, working hard to get the blood out of her man's shirts and pants and keeping quiet. Some father is hearing the door click shut at 3 in the morning and not asking any questions. And some young men are defining themselves as something more by hurting someone they define as something less.
That's how Indian rolling endures.
UpFront is a daily front-page opinion column. You can reach Leslie at 823-3914 or email@example.com.