Witnesses ignored, say families of shooting victims

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Jan. 29, 2009

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S amson Cowboy went to the Shiprock Chapter House last week expecting to be grilled by chapter members about the Jan. 12 death of Arnold Dan Jr., 25, of Shiprock, at the hands of a Navajo Nation policeman.

"But it never came up during the meeting," said Cowboy, who has been director of the tribe's Division of Public Safety for the past six years.

If it had come up, Cowboy said, there wasn't a lot he could have said because the matter is under investigation by the FBI. The investigation may take several months, but only when it's over can he talk more about it, he said.

While chapter members didn't bring up the shooting, the third fatal shooting of a Navajo by a law officer in the past year, family members of Dan have been talking to the media.

They say the official version of Dan's shooting does not coincide with what witnesses at the scene saw and heard.

The Dan shooting was the second time in four months that a Navajo tribal police officer was involved in a shooting. The first occurred Sept. 20, 2008, when Leroy Henderson, 44, was fatally shot by a police officer near Sanostee, N.M.

A month before that, on Aug. 22, a Navajo died at the hands of New Mexico State Police officer James Rempe.

Rempe shot into a car in which 25-year-old Cordell Dobey was a passenger, killing him. The shooting followed a high-speed chase in which the officer followed a suspected DWI driver onto tribal land near Upper Fruitland, N.M.

Cowboy has declined to release the names of the Navajo officers who fired the fatal shots at Dan and Henderson.

In both those deaths, family members of the victim contend that none of the witnesses to the shooting were interviewed by the FBI as part of the investigation.

Phone calls seeking comment from the FBI were not returned by press time Wednesday.

In Dan's case, the police said he was shot as he was driving his car at one of the officers on the scene.

State Rep. Ray Begaye, D-Shiprock, said witnesses to the shooting claim that the police officer ran up next to Dan's vehicle and began shooting without cause.

Both shootings came after a police pursuit that began in the Farmington area. In the Dan shooting, police said the victim was involved in stealing liquor from a gas station.

In the Henderson shooting, police were told that an intoxicated man tried to buy liquor at a Giant station in Kirtland, N.M., and then drove off. After a chase, Henderson allegedly drove his vehicle at an approaching officer and struck him, although police said the officer was not injured.

Henderson's family has since filed a lawsuit against the tribal police claiming that the shooting was unjustified.

Misty Etcitty, Henderson's fiancé, said Wednesday that the local papers only printed the FBI and tribal police versions of the shooting.

Police reports released to the press do not include contact information for people named in the reports, making it difficult or impossible to reach them unless they or their families contact media outlets and agree to talk.

She said the shooting occurred near a spot where Henderson's uncle was having a ceremony and several family members witnessed it. Although it's been more than four months since the shooting, none of them have been interviewed by either the FBI or tribal police, Etcitty said.

This makes family members concerned about whether the FBI wanted to do a fair and impartial investigation of the shooting, she added.

Witnesses saw tribal police shooting at Henderson's car from behind and then ramming it. None saw anything that would justify police shooting at the car, she said.

"A lot of people are upset at the fact that the officers involved in the shooting are now back at work," Etcitty added.

She said the witnesses are meeting with the family's attorney in the next few days to give their versions of what happened.

"This will be the first time they have been asked by anyone to give their accounts of the shooting," Etcitty said.

She said she is also upset that the media never made any attempt to learn anything about the victim in this case.

If they had, she said, they would have learned that Henderson was a good man who tried to live a traditional life and help other Navajos get connected to their traditions and culture.

"He always said he felt safest when he was on the Navajo Reservation within the four sacred mountains," she said.

Cowboy said the one thing he would like tribal members to do in these two cases is not to make a judgment until all the facts are in and the FBI has a chance to determine whether the shootings were justified or not.

He and others at central headquarters said Tuesday that it's difficult to second-guess police officers in these kinds of situations because the events happen so quickly that an officer has to act on instinct or risk being injured or killed.

"That's why they undergo so much training," Cowboy said.

Another factor is the fact, as tribal police officers have been saying for the past couple of years, it has become a lot more dangerous for police officers who patrol Navajo land.

It's no longer uncommon for those being arrested to attack the arresting officer.

One reason for this, Cowboy has said, is because there are no tribal laws addressing assault on a police officer. It's treated as a simple assault and in many cases, the offender is let off with a warning or a small fine.

In most other jurisdictions, assaulting an officer can result in several charges, all with serious penalties.

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