Branding victim’s healing only beginning as tormentors head to prison
This article was first published by the Navajo Times, August 25, 2011, Page One. View at www.navajotimes.com “Branded and Scarred” Special to the Times by Diane J. Schmidt. An extended version was printed The New Mexico Jewish Link, October, 2011, Vol. 41, No. 9, page one, “NM First to Sentence Under New Federal Hate Crime Law” with additional interview with Navajo medicine man Johnson Dennison. On May 19, 2012 ‘Branded and Scarred’ won Arizona Press Club Public Safety Reporting Award – Second Place for Diane Schmidt, Correspondent, The Navajo Times. And, on June 24, 2012 it was awarded 1st Place, News, Associate member, Native American Journalist Association 2012 Press Awards.
ALBUQUERQUE – On Aug. 18, 2011 the public finally got to hear hate-crime victim Vincent Kee, who was branded with a swastika in an April 29, 2010 incident in Farmington, New Mexico, and his words pierced the heart. “Why, why would they, why would they hurt me?” he said to television reporters outside the federal courthouse in Albuquerque.
What brought Kee to Albuquerque this last week was the announcement that two of the three defendants crime were to be sentenced after pleading guilty to violating the federal law against crimes based on prejudice.
Kee, who is mentally disabled as a result of fetal alcohol syndrome, waited outside the courtroom as his adoptive mother, relatives and victim advocate attended the hearing on the ninth floor of the federal courthouse at Lomas and 3rd. As the press flooded out of the courtroom, he held the door open with a laughing gesture as if he were host of ceremonies, clearly enjoying the attention. But later outside the building, as he stood with his family and answered a few questions put to him in front of television cameras, tears began to stream down his face. When asked what he felt about the defendants at the hearing, he said he wished they had said more about what they did to him.
Kee is not likely to get apologies from his torturers. During his federal sentencing, Paul Beebe did not express any regrets about his actions, making an emphatic response of “absolutely” to all questions asked of him, including that he was guilty of all charges. When the court read that he could not profit from any media or book deals regarding the case, a smirk widened across his face.
In the plea deal, Beebe and Jesse Sanford entered a plea of guilty to all charges in the federal courtroom in Albuquerque. Beebe was sentenced to 8½ years and Sanford 5 years. If the case had gone to trial, and a charge of conspiracy to kidnap had been proven, the sentence might have been as much as 30 years to life. William Hatch, who was already earlier tried in state court and found guilty, will be sentenced in September. Hatch is expected to serve an 18-month sentence for conspiracy, and also faces federal charges.
Beebe and Sanford pleaded guilty with a stipulation, that they could appeal the constitutionality of the hate crime law itself. This motion has already been denied by U.S. District Judge Bruce D. Black on August 4, 2011 in Santa Fe. In the judge’s lengthy opinion he included historic incidents of racially-motivated branding of slaves, and noted an historic record of prejudice in New Mexico against the Navajo people.
This was the first case to have been indicted, and now to have reached sentencing with a plea agreement, since the federal law against hate crimes, first passed in 1969, was updated and expanded by Congress with passage of the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
Said Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights, who came in from Washington D.C. for the hearing and spoke at a press conference afterwards, “The facts of this case shock the conscience – the defendants took advantage of a young man’s mental disability and assaulted him because he is Native American. They defaced his body and branded him with some of the most obvious symbols of hate.
“They exploited his disability to try to cover-up their actions, and then lied to law enforcement officials investigating the case,” Perez said, referring to the defendants’ claim that Kee agreed to be branded.
Asked about the terms of the plea agreement allowing the hate crime law itself to be challenged in court, Perez was dismissive of their likelihood of success, citing attempts in other states that have already failed. The appeal would be heard in the 10thCircuit Court of Appeals in Denver.
White power night
Kee, a 22-year-old resident of Navajo, N.M., was lured from a popular McDonald’s near the mall in Farmington by Paul Beebe, a McDonald’s employee, to Beebe’s apartment.
Kee had reportedly become confused while hitchhiking home from Gallup, where he’d gotten lost while accompanying his grandmother, as reported in an article last year in the Navajo Times. Court documents show that he ended up in Farmington at the McDonald’s, and there was offered a place to stay for the night by Beebe. They were later joined by two other McDonalds’ employees, Jesse Sanford and William Hatch, after their shift.
There, in the course of a nightmarish evening that the defense would attempt to characterize as pranks gone awry, they drew the words ‘white power’ on the back of Kee’s neck with a marker, an obscene picture on his back, and shaved a swastika into his hair.
Finally, he was assaulted–Beebe put a towel in his mouth to stifle his screams and branded a swastika on his arm with a wire hanger heated on the stove. The defendants recorded their actions on a cell phone as “proof” that Kee consented to their acts.
As recorded in the indictment, Beebe espoused white supremacist views and displayed Nazi memorabilia in his apartment, including a large swastika flag and a baseball bat with a swastika painted on it. The FBI, which has been part of the investigation, was asked if connections to any white supremacist groups were being investigated and would only say, “The FBI doesn’t answer questions. If we were investigating we wouldn’t say.”
U.S. Attorney for theDistrict of New Mexico Kenneth J. Gonzales, standing together at the press conference following the hearing with Rick Tedrow, District Attorney for the 11thJudicial Court, has helped to coordinate efforts at the local, state, and federal level. Gonzales said, “No one anywhere, but especially in a state like New Mexico that prides itself on its ethic, racial and cultural diversity, should be victimized because of what he or she happens to be.” He added, “The young victim in this case was assaulted, branded and scarred because he happens to be a Native American – that simply is inexcusable and criminal. Today’s guilty pleas demonstrate the law enforcement community’s resolve that anyone who victimizes a person because ofthe color of their skin or ethnic heritage is brought to justice.”
Perez explained the significance of the new law, which he said “makes it easier to prosecute hate crimes motivated by race, ethnicity, gender, religion and national origin. Equally important, the new law empowers us for the first time to prosecute hate crimes committed because of a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or disability.”
Saying that they have already 80 cases under the new law, Perez added, “We must acknowledge the reality that across America we are sailing into a strong headwind of intolerance that rears its ugly head in many different ways, shapes and forms.
“Hate-fueled violence is on the rise. To those who want to use violence to divide our communities…we are here today to deliver a clear and unmistakable message. We will throw the book at you,” he said.
The hate crime case has been prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto D. Ortega for the District of New Mexico and federal prosecutors from Washington D.C., Gerard Hogan and Trial Attorney Fara Gold. In a private but obviously emotional meeting after the hearing, Kee gave Gold a necklace he had been wearing, which she wore during the press conference.
A hate crime is worse than a regular crime
The new hate crime law is named for Matthew Shepard, a white Wyoming university freshman who was tortured and murdered because of his sexual orientation, and James Byrd, Jr., an African American man who was chained to a pickup truck in Texas and dragged to his death by avowed white supremacists.
Both of those crimes, which happened in 1998, gave impetus to the first version of the bill, which Perez had helped draft in 1996 as an aide to the late Senator Ted Kennedy, and which President Obama finally was able to sign into law in 2009, over the objections of Republican opponents.
The reason it is important for it to be identified that a hate crime has occurred, and the reason that hate crimes carry significant additional penalties, is that hate crimes are worse than regular crimes, as explained in detail by Michael Lieberman, general counsel for the Anti-Defamation League, in a 2010 article titled “Hate Crime Laws: Punishment to Fit the Crime.” The Anti-Defamation League is an organization that was founded in 1913 “to combat defamation of the Jewish people, and to secure justice and fair treatment to all.” Lieberman testified in support of the Shepard/Byrd hate crime law before Congress, and the ADL has been a principal advocate for these laws for decades.
A hate crime against an individual comes from generalized prejudice against a larger group. The time it takes for an individual to mentally recover from a hate crime is almost twice as long as it is for a regular crime. They feel singled out for an undefined reason. They suffer greater depression, and post traumatic stress disorder.
Compounding the damage to the individual in this case is the fragility of the victim, noted Albuquerque attorney Ron Morgan, who is representing Kee and his family in a civil suit against the perpetrators’ employer at the time.
Hate crimes also must be dealt with properly because they also have a greater ripple effect on the community at large. They can effectively terrorize a community, by sending a message to a particular group, according to experts on the law.
One traditional practitioner who has been providing services to the Navajo community for 38 years, said, “This is something that should never have happened. From the Navajo perspective, we have a lot of teachings that come from our parents, that when you see someone who might be elderly, who might be crippled, who might need help, that you don’t make fun of people, you don’t criticize people, you don’t joke about them, you help them.
“That’s always been our teachings,that if you see a person having a hard time, you help them,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified. “As for those who are developmentally disabled, it’s much harder for someone like that to process the “why?” of it, and to process the pain itself.”
She went on to explain that traditional healing can be helpful to reach them. “As an example, I had an Anglo family bring a four-year old child to me who was autistic, and this little boy would rock and bang his head. As I’m working with him, seeing the connections in the brain going this way, and began healing him, he began to realize what he was doing. Today you wouldn’t even know he had been autistic.
“What I’m saying is, with the right healers, with the right traditional practitioners who do the actual healing, they can help this young man.” She also wanted to stress that we are all God’s children, and as such we are all deserving of healing.
Generally, the response to the guilty verdict and sentencing has brought a sense of relief and some satisfaction within the Navajo community. Navajo Nation Human Rights Commissioner Chairperson Duane H. Yazzie issued a statement later, saying “Hopefully, the guilty plea of Mr. Beebe and Mr. Sanford will bring a conclusion to this very unfortunate case and will send a resounding message to perpetrators of hate crimes that they will be brought to justice.”
Rick Nez, President of the San Juan Chapter of the Navajo Nation, located between Shiprock and Farmington, was at the Indian Market 2011 over the weekend displaying his sculpture. When told about the sentencing, he was also glad to hear about it, saying that “some people think we are crying wolf” about the number of racist crimes targeting Navajo people in Farmington.
McDonald’s also must answer for its role in what happened to Vincent Kee, according to his family, which has filed a civil suit seeking damages against McDonald’s USA and the local franchise and its owners for the harm their employees caused to him and to his family. Attorney Ron Morgan, interviewed at his office in Albuquerque, said that the case boils down to the fact that the corporate mission of McDonald’s is to “provide a wholesome environment attractive to children and families,” and that the local franchise hired people with criminal records.
“Beebe has both federal and state offenses. All the defendants in the case had extensive criminal records.” Morgan said that there was no apparent attempt to do a thorough background check on these individuals before hiring them, and asked ‘Would you want your child or grandchild in a McDonald’s knowing this?’ adding, “McDonalds USA requires its franchises to do those things which harmonize with corporate policy.”
This article was published by the Navajo Times, August 25, 2011, Page One. View at www.navajotimes.com “Branded and Scarred” Special to the Times by Diane J. Schmidt. Also, in this print edition of the Navajo Times, see also page C-5 “SWAIA Santa Fe Indian Market – Where Native Art Meets the World” Photo Essay by Diane Schmidt. Reprinted Oct. 2011, New Mexico Jewish Link, page one “NM First to Sentence Under New Federal Hate Crime Law”
Updates: A related article, “Hate Crimes Impact Our Entire Community,” by Susan Seligman, Regional Director, Anti-Defamation League, Sept. 1, 2011 Albuquerque Journal, Opinion page