'Branded and scarred'

Hate-crime victim's healing only beginning as tormentors head to prison

By Diane J. Schmidt
Special to the Times

ALBUQUERQUE, Aug. 25, 2011

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TOP: Two men pleaded guilty to a hate-crime that involved shaving a swastika on the head of victim Vincent Kee. (Courtesy photo - Associated Press)

BOTTOM: Vincent Kee appeared on all of Albuquerque's TV channels after the guilty pleas were announced. (Special to the Times - Diane Schmidt)




On Aug. 18 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, 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 town was the announcement that two of the three defendants charged in the 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.

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 from of the cameras, tears began to stream down his face.

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. Last month they settled the state charges against them with an Alford plea, under which they did not admit guilt but conceded there's enough evidence to convict them.

During his federal sentencing, Paul Beebe did not express any regret about his actions, emphatically responding "absolutely" to all questions asked of him, including that he was guilty of all charges.

When the court declared 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 was sentenced to eight and a half years and co-defendant Jesse Sanford got five years. The men, both Anglos, faced life in prison for the federal charges and more than 35 years in state prison had the cases against them gone to trial.

William Hatch, who pleaded guilty earlier to state and federal charges, will be sentenced in September. Hatch, Navajo/Lakota, is expected to be sentenced to 18 months for his role as a conspirator.

Beebe and Sanford pleaded guilty with a stipulation, that they could pursue their challenge to the constitutionality of the hate crime law. On Aug. 4, U.S. District Judge Bruce D. Black threw out the claim, but the plea agreement allows them to appeal his decision.

In the judge's lengthy opinion he included historic incidents of racially motivated branding of slaves, and noted a record of prejudice in New Mexico against the Navajo people.

This is the first case in New Mexico to reach sentencing 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 plea deal 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 failed. The appeal would be heard in the 10th Circuit 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 become confused while hitchhiking home from Gallup, where he'd gotten lost while accompanying his grandmother. He ended up in Farmington, and was offered a place to stay for the night by Beebe. They were later joined by two other McDonald's 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, the three men 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 close-cropped hair after he fell asleep.

Finally, after he woke up, 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."

Prosecutors believe Kee was targeted because of his race, although the hate crimes law also covers persons with disabilities.

"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," said U.S. Attorney for New Mexico Kenneth J. Gonzales after the sentencing. "Today's guilty pleas demonstrate the law enforcement community's resolve that anyone who victimizes a person because of the 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 in process 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 was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Roberto D. Ortega for New Mexico and federal prosecutors from Washington, special litigation counsel Gerard Hogan and attorney Fara Gold of the Civil Rights Division.

In a private meeting after the hearing, Kee gave Gold a necklace he had been wearing, which she wore during the press conference.

Worse than 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 Sen. Ted Kennedy, and which President Obama finally was able to sign into law in 2009, over the objections of Republican opponents.

The reason why hate crimes carry significant additional penalties, is that they 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."

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.

Diné perspective

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 4-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 said.

Generally, the response to the guilty plea 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."

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 owners who hired his persecutors.

Morgan said 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," he said. "All the defendants in the case had extensive criminal records."

Morgan said 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? McDonald's USA requires its franchises to do those things which harmonize with corporate policy."

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