How a Murder in the Grand Canyon Changed Three Lives
In this excerpt from Annette McGivney's new book, 'Pure Land,' the author investigates the brutal killing of a Japanese tourist—and things get complicated
“Is this a crisis?”
The woman at the reception desk of the Guidance Center in Flagstaff, Arizona, needed to know.
“Yes!” my friend Mary responded for me as she pushed paperwork my way. I could not read because my vision was blurry with tears and my hands were trembling so violently I struggled to hold a pen.
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The Guidance Center was the only place in northern Arizona, besides the hospital emergency room, where a person could see a psychiatrist without an appointment made weeks in advance. But treatment was available only to those experiencing a full-blown mental breakdown that required immediate attention.
“Yes, yes, yes,” I whimpered, just to confirm the urgent nature of my visit. I was terrified. If I did not get help right there, right then, I believed I would lose my mind.
I was, I thought up until that day in July 2010, a pillar of unshakable mental health. At age 49, I was the rock that everyone else leaned on. I was the determined journalist, the family breadwinner, an attentive mother and caregiver for my parents with Alzheimer’s. I could pull late nights working to meet a story deadline and get up the next morning to make the perfect school lunch for my son. I could push myself, and then push harder.
But now something was very wrong with me. I had not slept even for one hour in the last 10 days and had collapsed in a sobbing heap in my doctor’s office that morning. The doctor, a general practitioner, said she could not help me.
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“You’ve got to see a psychiatrist right away,” she advised, handing me an address for the Guidance Center and asked her nurse to call someone to drive me there.
In the weeks prior to my sleeplessness, I had been shaken by nightmares. In these dreams someone was looming over me, killing me. There was no escape. Then I was a spirit floating over my body, bumping up against the windows and ceiling of a dark room. I would awake startled and gasping for air, part of me still stranded in the black fog of death.
For the first time in my life, my willpower was failing me. I had been working non-stop the past year and pouring much of myself into a story about a woman who was murdered in Grand Canyon. I reasoned that knowledge about her violent death, combined with all my other life stresses, must have pushed me to the breaking point and be the reason for the insomnia, the nightmares, the trembling and unchecked adrenaline surges. As Mary and I were ushered into a waiting room, I rehearsed in my head what I was going to tell the psychiatrist about why I was a mess.
We sat on a sinking plaid couch beneath blinding white fluorescent lights. The musty smell of the couch and old magazines filled my nostrils as I struggled to breathe between sobs. After 20 minutes, the psychiatrist knocked. He stepped into the room and stood there sizing me up as I sat holding Mary’s hand. I opened my mouth to utter my plausible excuses. But before I had a chance to speak, the psychiatrist asked me a question.
The crisis, what seemed like a nervous breakdown that I had been experiencing over the past few weeks, was just a warm-up to this moment. And in the darkness of my subconscious, I had been creeping toward this terrifying place for years, even decades, until finally being ushered to the brink by two strangers: Tomomi Hanamure and Randy Wescogame. Now it was time.
The question swung at me like a giant wrecking ball. Six words. Boom. My world was reduced to rubble.
The path to Havasu Falls begins at the edge of the Earth. Here, at the dead end of Indian Road 18, which is 80 miles from the closest gas station, the modern world is swallowed in one big gulp by the Grand Canyon. The trail cuts steeply down a series of switchbacks descending some 3,000 feet through colorful layers of geologic time. Then it rambles over a wide, dry wash and squeezes in between the narrowing walls of Havasu Canyon where the blue-green waters of Havasu Creek first bubble up from the red earth.
After eight miles, the trail reaches the Native American village of Supai on the Havasupai Reservation and follows the main road through town, past horse corrals, plywood shacks, a tribal community building, store, school and two-story tourist lodge. Located deep in the Grand Canyon, Supai is notoriously remote for a world-famous tourist destination; it has no paved roads, no cell phone service and can only be reached by foot, horseback or helicopter.
Just beyond the village, the path is lined with willow and cottonwood trees, following the meandering creek as it picks up velocity on its way to the Colorado River. Rushing waters crash through green thickets of willow and, suddenly, the trail emerges at Havasu Falls. The pulsing creek cascades 100 feet over travertine ledges into turquoise pools that are surrounded by fern-decked grottos. It is the most beautiful place in the Grand Canyon, if not the entire United States. The spot is often described as a Shangri-La in travel articles that feature spectacular photos of the falls and gushing descriptions of natural beauty. Some 25,000 tourists a year venture here, lured by the promise of a real life paradise.
On May 8, 2006, Tomomi Hanamure hiked the path to Havasu Falls. She went alone. She had traveled halfway around the world from her home in Japan for this trek. It was her 34th birthday and seeing the falls was going to be a birthday gift to herself. But she never made it. After a lodge cleaning woman found Tomomi’s bed untouched on May 9, a search crew discovered her body four days later along the creek in an eddy above the falls. It was submerged in the blue-green waters and riddled with 29 stab wounds.
My journey began where Tomomi’s ended. On Jan. 9, 2007, I found the hand-painted sign “Supai, 8 miles” at the corner of the dirt parking lot that marked the way down. On assignment for Backpacker magazine where I work as Southwest editor, I intended to investigate the story behind Tomomi’s death and rumors of violent crime at a popular hiking destination. A month earlier, the FBI had announced that an 18-year-old Havasupai tribal member named Randy Redtail Wescogame was charged with murder in relation to the case. It was the culmination of a six-month- long investigation that was conducted mostly in secret despite hungry reporters from around the world trying to sniff out the details of the killing in Grand Canyon, an unlikely location for violent crime.
Over the last decade, I had hiked numerous times in the Grand Canyon, always in the national park, and always for positive stories about outdoor adventure and the unspoiled wilderness of a natural wonder. During these explorations into the depths of the 17 million year old chasm I had witnessed the unleashing of rockslides, the fury of flash floods, a mountain lion darting across a ledge and sunsets so spectacular they made me cry. Grand Canyon had become a beloved touchstone for me that I kept returning to again and again as a way to recharge my spirit with its limitless beauty and wildness. But this was my first trip to Supai; the Havasupai reservation was new territory for me, as was the subject of murder. Yet, as I made my way down the switchbacks on the trail to Supai, I felt the space of the Grand Canyon wrap around me like a favorite warm blanket. The familiar rainbow of rock unfurled before me: white Kaibab limestone, green Toroweap Formation and red Hermit shale. Then I noticed something red on the white rocks beneath my feet. At first I wondered if it was a mineral deposit, but as I kept hiking and the spots got bigger and more numerous, I knew it was something else. Blood.
Because the murder case was expected to go to trial, authorities had shared few details with the media about Tomomi or her accused killer. The only picture of Tomomi to appear in hundreds of stories about the murder was her passport photo, in which she stared blankly at the camera. It was used by Coconino County Sheriff’s detectives on “wanted” fliers during their hunt for her killer.
But journalists, including myself, had obtained the coroner’s report on Tomomi’s autopsy. What reporters did know and publicized widely was that this murder was shocking for its brutality. Performed by Coconino County Coroner Lawrence Czarneki, the report listed in gruesome detail all of the injuries to Tomomi’s body. Of the 29 stab wounds, 22 were to the head and neck, a number of which, all by themselves, were severe enough to result in death. With a single blade that was approximately four inches long and one inch wide, Tomomi was stabbed repeatedly. The carotid artery on the left side of her neck was sliced; her lung was punctured; her skull was chipped from blunt force. The cuts were deep, penetrating the skin, organs and bone. Many of the stab wounds were described by the coroner as “gaping.” Cuts on her arms and hands showed she fought back.
“Clearly the murderer was in a frenzy,” surmised Tom Myers, a Flagstaff physician whom I had asked to evaluate the report several weeks before my Supai hike. Myers is co-author of Over the Edge: Death in Grand Canyon, which chronicles all known deaths in the natural wonder. “The killer must have been so psychotic or incoherent, he couldn’t appreciate what he’d already done. He was still stabbing her even though she was unresponsive, basically dead.
“This is the most brutal killing in the Grand Canyon in modern times,” he added. “There is no other incident that is so horrific.”
After about a mile of hiking and not passing a single soul, the explanation for the blood exploded past me. A young man on a horse, probably a Havasupai tribal member, was driving two mules loaded with tourist backpacks. He was charging hard up the trail kicking his horse to go faster and whipping the mules. I jumped to the side of the narrow trail in a cloud of dust. As the animals passed, I could see their ribs sticking out and the saddle straps digging into raw skin. The blood of saddle sores dripped onto the rocks.
I continued down the switchbacks and spotted just below me two more mule trains headed in opposite directions that were each being driven by Native American men. They had stopped, were blocking the narrow path, and appeared to be visiting with each other. But as I approached, I could see that these young mule drivers wearing black t-shirts, baseball caps and MP3 earbuds had pulled their horses up next to each other so they could pass a pipe back and forth. Not exactly the kind of friendly, Camelbak- sipping, Patagonia-wearing travelers I was used to encountering on Grand Canyon trails; they were sharing a hit of something. I shrank on a distant rock and waited for them to finish their business so I could resume my trek. And I questioned the wisdom of my covert reporting strategy, which was to retrace Tomomi’s footsteps, witness what she might have experienced, and piece together clues about what had happened on her birthday.
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Most of Grand Canyon is located within Grand Canyon National Park and afforded the protections and visitor accommodations that come with being a crown jewel in the richest country in the world. But the slice of Grand Canyon that encompasses Havasu Canyon and its iconic waterfalls is in a different world altogether. Like many small, economically impoverished countries still reeling from the effects of colonization, it is a third world, and it lacks the basic safety and public services taken for granted in much of the United States.
Hiking the path to Havasu Falls means entering the sovereign nation of the Havasupai, the Havsuw ‘Baaja—“people of blue-green water”—where there is great natural beauty but life can be brutal for both humans and animals. Randy Wescogame had such a life; he spent much of his childhood in Arizona’s juvenile corrections system. Law enforcement officials said that in the months before Tomomi’s murder, when Randy was living in Supai and getting into trouble, he was using drugs and had become addicted to meth.
Entering the village, I walked over a wooden bridge crossing the swift waters of Havasu Creek where graffiti of a giant marijuana leaf was spray painted on a concrete berm. Sheer orange sandstone walls rose 500 feet framing the broad canyon bottom and gray, winter-bare cottonwood trees rattled against the wind. Horses snorted and nodded along fences as I walked by, and the steel drums of reggae music pulsed from open windows.
I was visiting in the off-season, but the residential paths and yards seemed eerily empty. Windows were blown out everywhere and covered with plastic or plywood. This combined with a whirlwind of trash to create the sense that a tornado had touched down just minutes ago and I was following the path of its destruction. Lining the main dirt road and plastered against barbed wire fences were empty cartons of Pampers, U.S. mail crates, old saddles, Backpacker’s Pantry packages, Clif Bar wrappers, CDs, horse tack, abandoned furniture, and lots of plastic Gatorade bottles. Ravens as big as turkeys picked through overflowing bins of garbage. The pungent smell of sewage wafted from an open ditch.
As I walked farther into the village, the canyon became crowded with homes. A maze of dirt paths branching off from the main road led to closely- spaced small structures that appeared to be slapped together with whatever wood was available. And attached to nearly every roof was a satellite TV dish. There were also trampolines; in tiny backyards everywhere children silently bobbed up and down like fish hitting the surface of a lake.
Like Tomomi, I planned to stay at the tourist lodge, a 25-room hotel run by the tribe at the edge of the village and fortified with a 20-foot high, embassy-style concrete wall and an iron gate that was locked at night. I had booked two nights at the lodge and checked in after a group of hikers who arrived with an outfitter. The quiet in the village gave way to the excited chatter of tourists inside the compound. They were the type of travelers who appreciated the opportunity to visit an authentic Native American community and likely saw the unkempt village setting as simple, rustic charm.
“What brings you here? Are you going to the falls?” asked one of the hikers cheerily as we sat on picnic tables waiting for our rooms to be readied. He was assembling a camp stove on the table so he could brew tea for his group. Meanwhile a pack of 10 stray dogs squeezed through the gate and panhandled for bites of pastrami and Clif bars.
“Oh, I’m just visiting,” I said, feeling somewhat paranoid because journalists were not supposed to be in Supai. The Havasupai Tribal Council had banned the media from the reservation since Tomomi’s murder. Publicity about a brutal killing was bad for business. And, so far, I had been unable to get any tribal members to talk to me for the Backpacker story.
“What will you get out of this story?” responded Roland Manakaja, the tribe’s director of cultural resources, when I had called him before my Supai visit to ask if he would agree to an interview. “And what will we get? Nothing! We don’t even have a fire truck that works down here. Buildings burn to the ground.”
A steady tourism business from the lodge, campground, café, store, entrance fees, and mule packing earned $2 million a year for the 500-member Havasupai tribe, most of whom lived in the village for at least part of the year. Yet, according to the most recent census, two thirds of Havasupai children lived below the poverty level. And there were other problems: epidemic diabetes, lack of education (the village school only went through the 8th grade), alcoholism (even though alcohol was illegal on the reservation), drug abuse, and, lately, violent crime. In addition to Tomomi’s murder, there were 10 violent assaults under investigation by law enforcement during the six months after her death, which was a 200 percent increase over previous years. Most incidents were drunken tribal members attacking each other, usually with knives and baseball bats. Reports of child abuse had also risen sharply in the last few years.
The two Bureau of Indian Affairs police officers stationed in Supai were exhausted and eager to talk to me. They blamed the spike in crime on a group of juvenile delinquents in the tribe who were committing petty thefts in the village and campground to buy booze and drugs. After these young men got wasted, they would get into fights. Because Supai had no high school, kids were sent to government-funded boarding schools in faraway places like Oregon and California. The majority dropped out by 11th grade and returned to Supai. “Sometimes they help their parents with the family packing business, transporting tourist cargo and village goods up and down the canyon,” said BIA officer Kendrick Rocha who had been working in Supai since 1992. “Mainly these dropouts just lurk around town getting liquored up and looking for tourists to rob.” He said they were responsible for the broken windows and graffiti in the village. But Randy did not hang with these bad boys.
“Randy was a special case,” Rocha added. “His whole life, he was the black sheep of the tribe. He was a loner.”
There are two streams flowing through Supai. One is the traditional world of the original inhabitants of the Grand Canyon, the ways of the Havsuw ‘Baaja. It emanates from the depths of the Earth and speaks a language that only the Havasupai understand. The other stream contains everything else; it arrives by helicopter, satellite dish, and fleeting visitors who expect Starbucks, ATM machines, exceptional customer service and being able to buy anything they need, or don’t need.
Steve Hirst, author of the book I Am the Grand Canyon: The Story of the Havasupai People, has an anthropological explanation for this paradox. “In addition to the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, west), the Havasupai have two other ways of orienting themselves: In the canyon and away from the canyon.”Hirst says in the Havasupai culture there are two realities, two worlds: in or out; down or up.
Sometimes, one of the streams overflows its banks and intermingles with the other in comical or wonderful or cataclysmic ways. But generally, each stays in its own channel, flowing side by side, and the tribe, tourists and police seem to prefer it this way.
After unpacking my things and letting some of the stray dogs nap on my bed, I walked to the café, hoping I would be able to strike up conversation with tribal members willing to talk about the murder. Sitting on a stone wall outside the restaurant, I watched the parade of Down Here and Up There flow by: hikers in bright colored fleece jackets on their way to the campground followed by dogs looking for scraps; young Havasupai women speaking to each other in their native language and carrying children on their hips; a white woman in heels asking about a cab to the falls; transgender tribal teenagers giggling behind their press-on nails; a white handyman shaking his hammer about the recently broken café windows; and old Havasupai men sitting on an aluminum bench sipping coffee and watching people step off the helicopter as it landed in the middle of town.
Emerging from a whirlwind of noise and dust were tribal members who used the helicopter to go on grocery runs and loaded cases of eggs and bottles of Mountain Dew into a wheelbarrow to push home. A BIA cop appeared with a stack of Pizza Hut boxes to take to the elementary school DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) meeting. There was also a black Rasta guy wearing sunglasses, and a red, green and yellow knit hat over elbow-length dreadlocks who was quickly ushered away by tribal members waiting to greet him. And a group of white attorneys wearing business suits and carrying briefcases stumbled through the sand into the nearby tribal office building.
“Where’s your husband?”
The question jarred me from my trance. It came from a middle-aged Havasupai man standing in front of me dressed in a camo jacket with an American Indian Movement patch and red, yellow and green Rasta stripes on the sleeve. His hair was in one long braid down his back and he carried a stack of Hirst’s book I Am the Grand Canyon, which he was selling to tourists. He introduced himself as Damon Watahomigie and took a seat next to me on the rock wall. He said he was a medicine man and also the official sergeant at arms for the Havasupai Tribal Council.
“Oh, my husband is working,” I said. “He couldn’t come with me.” This was a lie. My husband, Mike, and I had just split up. Several months before my visit to Supai, Mike had told me that he had quit his job although I suspected he had been fired. He had started going on drinking binges again. It was the latest in a long line of jobs lost while I held down multiple jobs to support the two of us along with our 10-year-old son Austin. On top of that, I had been trying to care for my ill parents, both of whom had become increasingly incapacitated as they slipped into the clutches of Alzheimer’s disease. The only thing that felt right about my life at that moment was being a journalist, finding reasons to hike in Grand Canyon, and an unexplainable if not unreasonable determination to uncover the whole story behind what had happened to Tomomi. So, despite the gag order from the Havasupai Tribal Council, I decided to tell Damon that I was writing a magazine article about the murder. I offered to buy him a cup of coffee and we went inside the café.
When I asked Damon about the vandalism around the village, he said it was caused by the youth in the tribe who had lost their traditional ways. “The kids go to boarding school and bring back negative influences.” Damon talked so softly, his voice was barely audible as he looked beyond me at some tourists walking to their seats with baskets of fries. “TV has become our culture, not the elders,” he whispered. “The dominant culture tells our kids: buy, obey, consume. Their parents are under the bad influences too, getting drunk and addicted to meth. I am trying to educate our people about ways to fight the dominant culture, about how to politicize their ideas like Leonard Peltier did with the American Indian Movement.”
The Havasupai had endured a long history of betrayals by the dominant culture. One of the latest, and the reason for the attorneys’ visit, involved genetic researchers from Arizona State University who obtained blood samples from tribal members in the 1990s under the auspices of trying to help the tribe stem a diabetes epidemic. Instead of using the blood samples for the research that the donors thought they had agreed to, the professors conducted studies and published papers on genetic inbreeding and schizophrenia within the tribe. Tribal members believed misuse of their blood, especially that taken from those who had since died, was not only deceitful but put the tribe spiritually out of balance. The tribe filed a lawsuit against the state of Arizona’s university system in 2003 demanding financial damages as well as the return of the blood samples. When I was there in January 2007, the attorneys visiting Supai reported that the case was still making its way through the judicial system (having been appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court), and the vials of Havasupai blood were still in the genetic researcher’s freezers on university campuses in Phoenix and Tucson.
Damon said he did not think Randy murdered Tomomi. “He is not capable of that.” He believed the murder was part of a covert campaign by the U.S. government to destroy the Havasupai tribe in order to claim the world-famous waterfalls. Damon whispered that he suspected the murderer was an Irish guy named Neil who was living as a transient in Supai the previous summer and that Neil had been planted there by the feds. He was a drug addict who hung out with the tribe’s meth dealers, and his body was covered in satanic tattoos.
“I have been praying that someone would come down here and put the puzzle pieces together about what is happening,” Damon said, looking me straight in the eye. “And now you are here.”
The journalist in me was pleased with this news. It looked like I might be able to pull off the story after all. Yet another part of me felt trepidation about what I might be falling into—the other stream with an unfamiliar current that could sweep me to a place I should not go. But I quickly pushed these fears aside, dismissing them as silly superstitions, and pressed on with my reporting.
Damon told me to come back in a few weeks. There were other tribal members who he thought would be ready to talk.