50 Years Ago

Man says he killed elderly man to put him 'out of his misery'

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

June 19, 2014

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It was a case first reported by the Navajo Times 50 years ago but it actually began back in June 1943, when a member of the Navajo Tribe was arrested for killing one of his in-laws.

Doga Yazzie, 43, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Phoenix on June 11, 1943 after he was arrested on the Navajo Reservation for pushing his wife's 80-year-old uncle, Grey Hat, off of a cliff in what Yazzie's attorney described as a mercy killing.



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Yazzie didn't try to hide the fact that he clubbed his uncle-in-law and then pushed him off of a cliff.

"I did it to put him out of his misery," Yazzie later told federal law enforcement officials.

He said he took Gray Hat and his son hunting with him in October 1940 and during the hunt, he deliberately killed him, beating him with a club and then, after he was dead, throwing him off a cliff.

When asked why he did it, he told police he killed him because he "was crippled and blind."

But it got worst at his grand jury hearing.

Elsie Anson Yazzie, Doga's ex-wife, testified to the grand jury that Doga took the elderly Navajo two miles from their hogan and killed him but not until he filled him up with bugs and insects in his first unsuccessful attempt to kill him.

She added that she first kept silent about the first attempt because her ex-husband threatened to kill her if she told anyone about it.

Finally, however, she said she couldn't stand it any longer and told a friend about what her ex-husband had done and that friend contacted law enforcement officers on the reservation. Tribal law called in the FBI since it was obvious that a murder had been committed.

It would be more than two years before Grey Hat's body was discovered at the bottom of that cliff.


FBI agents said that when they were led to the cliff by Elsie Yazzie, they could only find remnants of the clothes the victim wore that day, a couple of rings and a human jawbone.

It was enough, with the testimony of his ex-wife, for FBI agents to arrest Doga Yazzie and try him for murder.

Media across the country picked up the story and a debate began as to whether Yazzie was just following the traditions of tribes who would leave their aged behind because they began a burden on the tribe.

After all, this had been shown in countless western movies - the tribe abandoning the elderly to make life easier for the rest of the members to survive. It may seem cruel, but life on the frontier was harsh at times and only the strongest survived.

The prosecution argued, however, that the Navajo people revered their elderly, and praised them for their wisdom and knowledge of Navajo culture. It would be unthinkable, the prosecution claimed, for a Navajo to deliberately take the live of one of their elders.

If someone would do this, they argued, the person responsible for the killing would be marked for life.

It didn't take long for justice to be done in those days.

Just 10 days after his indictment, Yazzie pled guilty to the murder charges and was sentenced to life in prison by U.S. District Court Judge Dave W. Ling.

The news stories of the sentencing said that he had fed the victim a meal of scorpions, red ants and other dangerous bugs in an attempt to end his life. This wasn't mentioned in the first reports of the killing but this came out in the summer of 1943 at a time when Yazzie was facing the death penalty and prosecutors wanted to make sure Yazzie knew what was in store for him.

There was no official report of how long Yazzie actually served in prison but in those days, as it does today, life does not mean having to serve the rest of your life in prison.

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