Nothing announces death like utter silence. And here on Mesquite Street in Arivaca, on a day of demure breezes and flawless skies, silence has become the common tongue between myself and events beyond my grasp.
Consider the yard, with its stilled trampoline and teeter-totter. Or the hushed patio and the dusty, rusting barbecue. Or the frizzy mop leaning against the back stoop. Then, of course, there's the house itself, hushed in slumber, shades pulled taut and doors locked tight.
But this silence is also thick with clues. They fill several fat files in the mahogany offices of court-appointed defense attorneys, and several more residing with the county prosecutor.
We have other mementos, too, from the night that armed intruders entered the modest home of Raul and Gina Flores. Foremost among them is the 911 recording of Gina, as she bled on the floor. By then, her daughter and husband were already dead. In her panic, Gina suspects this, but she does not know. On the tape, we hear gunfire as the attacker returns to finish her off. She now has her husband's pistol, though, and the gunman is wounded.
Gina Flores survives. Here is how she describes events to Pima County Sheriff's Department investigators: Sometime in the early morning hours of May 30, 2009, uniformed strangers appeared at the modular house she shared with her husband, Raul "Junior" Flores, and two daughters. Those at the door claimed to be officers looking for fugitives. They demanded to come inside.
The door was opened. One stranger toted a gun with a taped grip. Another, a woman, was talking on a handset. Without warning, the gunman opened fire. Junior Flores was first hit. The man interrogated 9-year-old Brisenia before shooting her as well. Gina herself was shot three times.
The intruders then went looking for the second daughter. There were to be no witnesses. When the gunman returned, Gina had a pistol. A gunfight exploded, and she shot him in the leg.
Deputies found two bodies. Junior Flores had been shot several times. Brisenia was dead, with a gunshot through the cheek. Deputies also searched the property for the other Flores daughter before learning she was staying with grandparents.
Gina Flores had told an emergency operator that she heard her daughter crying and asking about her before a bullet was pumped into the little girl's head. Brisenia Flores had just finished third-grade at the Sopori Elementary School in Amado.
Immediately after the killings, the police were free with their opinions of Junior Flores. Anthony Coulson heads the Tucson office of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. "Raul Flores was a drug-trafficker," he told the Arizona Daily Star in June.
Today, the DEA declines to comment on Mr. Flores.
Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik explained to the Star that these invaders were after drugs and money. "There was an anticipation that there would be a considerable amount of cash at this location," he said, adding that Flores had previously been involved in narcotics trafficking.
Seven months later, however, the sheriff's department is also without comment. "I've been told by the homicide unit that no one is to talk about that case," says Deputy Dawn Barkman. This embargo includes the beefy crime report, a copy of which was given to the Green Valley News and Sun in June. "We released it at a certain point," spokeswoman Barkman says. "And (homicide) told me they're not releasing it anymore."
According to authorities, no drugs were found in the Flores home. This detail adds to the feeling among locals that the cops got a bit too mouthy a bit too soon. "They kept saying Junior was a well-known drug dealer," one Arivaca resident tells me. "Well, if he was so big-time, why didn't they ever arrest him?"
Tom Shook pours coffee beans into a humming roaster in a sunny side room of the Gadsden Coffee Company. His coffeehouse is a prime hangout for those Arivacans who aren't hunkered inside La Gitana Cantina, the town's only bar.
To Shook, government is the real culprit behind the Flores killings. "I think if you ask most people around Arivaca their opinion of the DEA, I think they'll tell you it sucks dick," he says. "It's overenthusiastic about enforcing laws here, and it's fucking immoral. That's where the drug problem comes from—from the illegality. Look at the people dying of lung cancer from smoking tobacco. Look at the alcoholics running into each other on the highway. And you tell me that because I smoke a little weed, I'm a danger to society? Well, fuck you."
Jason Eugene Bush, "Gunny" to his friends, was apprehended on June 11 at a Kingman hospital, where he was being treated for a gunshot wound. He lived not far away, in Meadview. Police now believe him to be a serial killer.
According to authorities, Bush's circle of friends includes members of the white-supremacist Aryan Nations. It is said that he lied about being a Vietnam vet so he could drink cheap booze at the Meadview VFW hall. Bush is suspected in the stabbing death of a sleeping homeless man in July 1997. Two months later, he allegedly shot to death an 18-year-old acquaintance.
On June 12, police arrested Arivaca native Albert Gaxiola on Tucson's southside. In the 1990s, Gaxiola pulled an eight-year prison stretch for conspiring to sell marijuana. Many Arivaca residents believe he stumbled into the Flores murders. Armed with a search warrant, detectives seized a homemade grenade from his home, and a shotgun hidden in his truck.
On June 12, authorities also arrested Shawna Forde, executive director of a border-vigilante outfit called Minuteman American Defense. Prosecutors say Forde was carrying jewelry belonging to Gina Flores at the time of her arrest.
When he was taken into custody, Bush confessed to the murders and implicated both Forde and Gaxiola. Forde was subsequently intercepted as she was leaving the property of Glenn Spencer, founder of another organization called American Border Patrol. With its headquarters on the Mexican line south of Sierra Vista, Spencer's ABP specializes in patrolling the backcountry with high-tech cameras, and then streaming those images on the Internet.
According to authorities, Forde had intended to steal drugs from traffickers to fund her Minuteman group. But even before her arrest, she'd been a hugely controversial character within the border-vigilante movement. For one thing, Gunny Bush was her director of operations. Then there is Forde's involvement in a series of bizarre incidents in Washington state, culminating in claims of being raped by members of the vicious Salvadoran street gang Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13.
The already fractious anti-immigrant movement was further splitting among those who supported her work, and others who thought she was disturbed. William Gheen, founder of the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, began rebutting Forde's claims on his Web site. Among other things, Gheen questioned the photos that Forde took of herself after the alleged attack. "Why would MS-13 switch from brutal murder and decapitations," he wrote, "to bruises and light scratches that look like they were made with a paper clip?
"If this story is a hoax and some sort of attention grab, then it could prove highly embarrassing to our movement and cause."
Other movement leaders also rushed to distance themselves from the radical activist. But it was too late, says Leonard Zeskind, author of Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement From the Margins to the Mainstream.
According to Zeskind, the Arivaca murders only highlight what many have always feared: The anti-immigrant movement, with its seething rhetoric and paramilitary posturing, would eventually attract people on the violent fringe. As a result, he says, guilt is collectively shared by leaders ranging from Jim Gilchrist of the California-based Minuteman Project, and Arizona's Glenn Spencer, to Chris Simcox, who founded the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps in Tombstone in 2002 and is now running a long-shot campaign to unseat Sen. John McCain.
"They're all up to their alligator ears with Forde," Zeskind says. "And they can't disown what they created. It's everything that everybody thought sending people to the border with guns would wind up doing, which is promoting solutions to social problems through violence. That's really what you see in this Minutemen attack."
For the record, although Jason Bush spoke to the Arizona Daily Star in August, he's no longer granting interviews. That word comes from his attorney, Chris Kimminau.
Eric Larsen, the attorney for Forde, didn't return phone calls seeking an interview with his client.
Shawna Forde did not enjoy what would be called an ideal childhood.
As an infant, she was placed up for adoption. By age 20, she had a history of prostitution, felonies and theft. Her name came up again in Everett, Wash., between December 2008 and January 2009, when she was at the center of the violent spree that she blamed on Mexican drug cartels. That rampage included the shooting of her husband and the alleged attack against her by members of MS-13. Later, she showed up in an alley with gunshot wounds. But Everett police quickly cast doubt on her rape claims. And those who knew her smelled a setup, aimed at gaining attention. Among them was her half-brother, Merrill Metzger.
Today, the former painting contractor lives on disability with a bad back in Redding, Calif. At first, he's leery when I call. He and his mother have been getting phone calls from Shawna's lawyer. "They sent my mom a questionnaire the other day," Metzger says, "and her and I sat down and looked at it, and there were questions in there that I told her to flat not answer, questions about me and her other half-brothers and sisters, about my father and my parents that had nothing to do with Shawna. I told my mother it was none of their damn business. If they want to ask me, subpoena me, and then put me under oath in court. Until then, I'm not going to answer their damn questions.
"They're trying to see if she had a bad childhood," he says, "so they could use that in court. And you know, nobody's childhood is exactly perfect."
In the meantime, Metzger has a few questions of his own, such as: Why did his sister and Bush apparently break into his home just before she was arrested in June, stealing his safe filled with legal documents? "They took anything and everything in the safe that didn't have my name on it," he says. That included the title to his beloved 15th anniversary 1984 Trans Am muscle car.
Things weren't always like this. "I never even knew anything about her," he says. The siblings didn't meet until 1987 or 1988. "I was living with my brother and his wife in Wyoming at the time. And she came and just made our lives a terror. It was so bad that it caused a ruckus between my brother and me. She was trying to get me out of the house so she had a place to stay. And it worked. That was the first time I met Shawna.
"She's always had this trip for power," he says. "She's always had this trip to control."
But ultimately he and Shawna became tight. When she started the Minuteman American Defense in 2007, he says, she had her feet solidly on the ground. "Then something in her changed. We're not sure. We think it might be drugs. We were told that she was doing cocaine. She was more aggressive."
Still, he joined Shawna's outfit and stayed in for about six months. "Then one time on her way down to the border, she stopped by here, and she told me about an oath that I had to take. Part of that oath was that I couldn't eat Mexican food. It so happens that I happen to like Mexican food."
The Arivaca murders have since sealed the deal. "That's a hard one, you know, because no matter what somebody does, they're still your family," Metzger says. "It's really hard to say you don't love your family anymore, especially when you were really close to them.
"But taking a child's life, I think, is probably about one of the lowest, scum-baggiest things anybody could ever do. And even though she's my sister and my family member, she deserves everything she gets. Including the death penalty. That's where I stand."
In late May, Chuck Stonex left his home in Alamogordo, N.M., to attend a big barbecue at Glenn Spencer's Arizona ranch. He arrived the night before and holed up in a $30 Tombstone hotel room. But he arose the next morning to find that his plans had taken a little twist.
"At about 8 o'clock that morning, I get a call from Shawna Forde," Stonex says. "She told me they had been jumped by border bandits. ... I wasn't at all surprised about that, considering the news reports. There was a report that went out a week or so before that, where the (drug) cartel had told their smugglers to use force if they had to, to get their products delivered."
Then Jason Bush got on the phone. "I had just known him as Gunny," Stonex recalls. "He said, 'Oh, it's just a flesh wound. I got the bleeding stopped. It's just a graze.'"
He asked Stonex to gather medical supplies and come to Arivaca. "So I ran around Sierra Vista for a while," Stonex says, "went to Walmart, and a farm-and-ranch store where usually you can buy sutures."
This was the deal: First, he'd visit Spencer's picnic, and then he'd go patch up Bush.
When he eventually left the party, he was accompanied by Laine Lawless, a Phoenix anti-immigrant activist best known for frequently burning the Mexican flag.
It was a natural connection; for a time, Stonex had been second in command of Forde's group. That made him a draw at Spencer's party. "I don't want to say I was a celebrity, but a lot of people were interested to meet me," he says. "Laine Lawless was one of them. And (Lawless) had been dickering with Shawna for a while about writing a book or some crap."
Stonex was glad to have the company. "Arivaca's got enough questionable history that I was not going there alone," he says. "And the fact was that, besides me, Laine Lawless was the only one carrying a (concealed-weapon) card and a firearm. So it just kind of made her the best choice."
They eventually reached the tiny town and met Forde outside the Arivaca Mercantile. She led them to a house that he now believes belonged to Albert Gaxiola. But nothing seemed suspicious, Stonex says. "It was very casual, very friendly, very sociable, jokes and comments and giggles."
Stonex ended up leaving that house sooner rather than later. "But it had nothing to do with Shawna or Bush," he says. "It had to do with Arivaca. You had to remember, at that time, Bush was just a guy who had gotten shot. Had I known then what I know now, I would have never gone to Arivaca. If I did, I would have had 100 cops behind me."
Later, when he heard about the murders on TV, he suspected a drug cartel. "That's the way they do it," he says. "I thought (Junior Flores) had been messing with the wrong people. So I sent an e-mail to Shawna, and I said, 'Hey, let's send this family some flowers. You know, to let them know as Minutemen that we stand behind them, that we're here for them.'
"I never heard back from her."
Lawless didn't respond to e-mails from the Weekly seeking comment.
Prior to the Arivaca killings, Forde had decamped three times over several months to a guest motor home on Glenn Spencer's 100-acre ranch. To Spencer, it seemed like a good deal. "What she told me is that she had all these contacts with the media," Spencer says, "and that we weren't getting any coverage at all, and she was going to bring the media down here to explain what the American Border Patrol was doing.
"That's what she promised me, and I thought, 'Well that's a pretty good trade-off: I'll let her stay here; she's going to help us get some exposure.'"
He ended up getting more exposure than he bargained for.
Spencer eventually booted Forde, after she requested that her daughter stay behind to work at the ranch. He smelled trouble. "Even when she was here with her daughter, I admonished the people I was working with," he says. "I told them, 'I don't want any fraternization here. I don't want any sexual issues.'
"As far as I was concerned," Spencer says, "that was that."
On the morning of his barbecue, he got a call "from someone I didn't really know, (saying) that someone had been shot, and did I have sutures? I didn't know who it was, but I was so busy at the time. I don't have sutures, but if somebody has been shot, you should notify the police immediately."
The caller was Stonex. "Then later, he called back and said it wasn't a person that had been shot; it was an animal," Spencer says.
Fast-forward to June 12. "I was working on my computer, and someone walks up and says, 'Hi, Glenn,' and I turn around, and it was Shawna Forde," Spencer says. "She had not called for an appointment. I did not know she was going to be here. Being polite, I spoke to her."
He says she sent an e-mail and then left. "Shortly after that, Waste Management called and said they couldn't pick up our trash, because the FBI was blocking the road to our house."
Two deputies arrived with a search warrant. "Shortly thereafter, an armored vehicle comes up, and it's loaded with a SWAT team," Spencer says. "I mean, these are guys that look like World War III. They weren't smiling. I was afraid they were going to kill my dogs, so I just yelled at them, 'Don't hurt my dogs!' It's very disturbing to have this happen to you."
Enter William Gheen, of ALIPAC.
"(Shortly thereafter), along comes Mr. Gheen, with his outrageous report on his Web site that he had warned me about (Shawna) and that I was some sort of accomplice," Spencer says. "It's so outrageous."
Gheen wrote on his Web site a few weeks later: "We regret to inform everyone that the home offices of Glenn Spencer of American Patrol have been raided by a swat (sic) team with a search warrant due to his involvement with Shawna Forde. ALIPAC issued several national advisories about Shawna Forde earlier this year, when it became clear she was a risk to our movement, dishonest and potentially violent."
The battle had commenced; Spencer says he's been unfairly hounded. "I found nothing in (Forde's) behavior that told me she had a screw loose. I think it would be a leap to condemn this whole effort because of one strange person who has yet to be convicted of anything."
Gheen doesn't buy it. Contacted by phone at his North Carolina headquarters, he refers back to those alleged attacks against Forde in Washington. At the time, sympathetic accounts of her plight were flooding anti-immigration Web sites. "But we only saw two groups promoting the story," Gheen says, "Jim Gilchrist and (Spencer's) American Border Patrol, which happen to be the two closest to Shawna during her murders. She was arrested shortly after leaving Glenn Spencer's compound—and Gilchrist was calling her to let her know the cops were after her.
"They were very hand-in-hand with their girl Shawna, long after it became apparent to the rest of us who had never met her in the flesh that she was messed up."
Jim Gilchrist runs his Minuteman Project from Orange County, Calif. He says the murder arrests shocked him. But he also thinks that Gheen—who he calls "a professional fundraiser"—jumped the gun in going after Forde.
"She claimed that she had been raped and bludgeoned in December of 2008, and then had been shot in January of 2009," Gilchrist says. "She obviously had been shot, although there is some dispute as to who shot her. Also, there is some dispute about who bludgeoned her and sodomized her with a broomstick. But Gheen immediately launched an attack. He got together with his small band of hate-mongers and just trashed her.
"Why? Because she boasted about me and the Minuteman Project, and they couldn't stand that."
At the time, Gilchrist staunchly defended Forde. In online postings, he called her a "stoic struggler" and wrote that his Minuteman Project was "proud to be a supporter."
"I never had a closeness with her, other than she would send us e-mails, and we would post some of them," he now says. "But I remember that some of them toward the end were bizarre. By bizarre, I mean she was speaking in fragmented thoughts, rather than clearly. She was using lingo that I didn't know what it meant. Like 'po-po.' I had no idea what that meant. Apparently, that means 'police.'"
Gilchrist says the strange e-mails roughly coincided with the murders. Still, she didn't seem abnormally disturbed. "I have met so many people in this movement who are either delusional or are just not playing with a full deck. They're out there. They're the ones who are attacking me because I refuse to goosestep with them, and I refuse to work with them, because they're nutcases."
Even now, however, he's not convinced of Forde's guilt. "Being a victim of propaganda, I know what it's like to be relentlessly barraged with lies and propaganda. Being innocently hung, I am very skeptical about claiming that anybody is guilty of anything until we get through the legal system."
On Dec. 21, Pima County Superior Court John Leonardo ruled that the three Arivaca murder defendants are eligible for the death penalty. Forde and Gaxiola are slated to go on trial in January 2011. Bush will have a separate trial in October.
In the meantime, Arivaca residents are left to sort through complicated feelings. There's widespread disbelief that Gaxiola, a hometown boy, got in the middle of these heinous crimes. I'm told that maybe it began when he linked up with Forde after a night of drinking in La Gitana Cantina. I'm told that it didn't happen that way. There's talk that he once buried some drugs on the Flores property, enraging Raul Flores. There is talk that no such thing took place.
Then there's Gina Flores. She worked at the Arivaca Mercantile, the town's only grocer, so everyone knew her. But when there was an August fundraiser to pay for burying Junior and Brisenia, some said that would be akin to approving of his alleged livelihood. Others suggest that a drug dealer must have plenty of money stashed away. Still others point out that Junior Flores was convicted of nothing, except through cop talk.
In the end, the fundraiser was a huge, important success. Mary Scott, a retired Manhattan attorney, operates the town's artists co-op. "In August, Arivaca recovered its heart and reached out to heal the community," she says, choosing her words carefully. "There was a silent auction. The outpouring was incredible. It did a great deal to help us focus on what makes Arivaca special. There's respect. Arivaca is unlike any small town you've been to. It's incredibly diverse."
I walk across the street to La Gitana, but nobody there wants to talk about how the murders have hit this community. "That's a sore subject around here," says a blonde who's dabbling absent-mindedly at a video game.
Afternoon breezes have now stalled around the Flores home. The house itself has become just a skeleton, the shell of a world that vanished late in May. There is nothing more to be learned here.
As I leave the lifeless yard, a utility truck crunches to a stop on the road. It contains two men who eye me fiercely.
"What are you doing here?" the driver asks. I explain that I am trying to understand what happened in this house, and why people do what they do.
His manner softens. "He was my brother," he says.
"Raul Flores was your brother?"
"Can I talk to you about it?"
The truck rumbles on down the road, as dust sifts across the yard and through the cracks of that silent house.