A Death in Navajo Country
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Outside magazine, May 1994
A Death in Navajo Country
Leroy Jackson loved this land and fought to protect it. Last fall his body was found on a lonely New Mexico road. Was he murdered? Or had he somehow lost his way?
At a scenic overlook on one of New Mexico’s loneliest roads, state police officer Ted Ulibarri eased his patrol car alongside the abandoned van, a white 1990 Dodge with Arizona plates. Someone from the Civil Air Patrol had phoned the police earlier in the day to report that a van had been left at the Brazos Bluff rest area, about 80 miles west of Taos, for “quite a while.”
It was around five o’clock on the warm evening of October 9, and the San Juan Mountains along U.S. 64 were quiet except for the wind rustling through a nearby stand of aspens and the distant gunshots of deer hunters.
Ulibarri found that the van’s windows were covered with blankets, its doors locked. He figured someone was sleeping inside, until he detected the odor. “I knew the instant I smelled it,” he says, “it had to do with death.”
Inside, he found a cache of Indian rugs, jewelry, and a 100-pound bag of churro wool. Lying across the backseat, covered in an Indian blanket, was a man’s body. His shoes were off; his head rested on a pillow. His face was disfigured from decay, and a trail of blood had surged from his mouth and soaked into the pillow. The man’s wallet contained $406 in cash and identified him
Ulibarri saw no sign of foul play. Still, as he told newspaper reporters at the time, he thought something about the scene looked “unusual.”
The body was transported to Albuquerque, where it was autopsied the next day by the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator. Pathologist Patricia McFeeley characterized the subject as a “well developed, well nourished, adult Native American male” in his late forties. “On the left lateral upper arm,” she noted, was a small tattoo of “a Native American female.” Discerning
But McFeeley could make one determination with reasonable certainty: The body’s decomposition suggested a time of death around October 1, the day that Leroy Jackson–itinerant trader, small-time sheep farmer, and the most controversial environmentalist in the Navajo Nation–was last seen alive.
Five days after his body was discovered, 75 friends, family members, and journalists gathered at the foot of Tsaile Butte in Arizona’s Chuska Mountains to bury Jackson near his wife’s ancestral retreat. Pink ribbons marked the trail to his gravesite, following a rutted dirt road strewn with stumps, slash, and other signs of the commercial logging that had marred this range, a
Clustered around Jackson’s grave were angry young Navajos in mirrored sunglasses and weather-worn elders in baseball caps. Environmental activist John Redhouse rose to say a few words about his colleague. “Leroy sacrificed his life and his future protecting and defending this land,” he said, comparing Jackson to Manuelito, the revered Navajo warrior who had fought Kit
Amid the grieving throng, one of Jackson’s friends cupped his face in his hands and blurted what was on the minds of many: “My God, he was murdered!”
There can be little doubt that Leroy Jackson had enemies. As a leader of Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (“Diné” being Navajo for “the people”), Jackson had succeeded in reducing the size of the reservation’s timber harvests by more than half, forcing the tribal-run lumber concern to lay off about 200 of its contract loggers and millworkers.
The loggers were not the only ones angry with Jackson. On a reservation where the unemployment rate is nearly 40 percent and per-capita income one-third the U.S. average, the tribal leadership has long sought to maximize resource extraction for the sake of jobs. But as part of his effort to preserve the Chuskas, Jackson had tried to circumvent the tribal bureaucrats by
To his family and friends, the timing of Jackson’s death seemed suspicious. A few days after his disappearance, he was scheduled to fly to Washington to meet with officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to discuss Navajo logging practices. There were also doubts about the circumstances in which his body was found, doubts raised with
Other questions arose: Why was there so little gas in the van’s tank? With his gauge reading near empty, Jackson wouldn’t have been able to cross the mountains to Shiprock, where he was heading on the early evening of October 1 from Taos. (One possible explanation raised by those close to the case was that an opportunistic passerby had siphoned the gas sometime during the
And why was Jackson stretched out on the backseat? His wife, Adella Begaye, said that when Jackson got tired while driving, he always slept in the reclining front seat of the van. He was not in the habit of covering his face when he slept, she contended–and why, if it was cold enough to pull a blanket over his head, would Jackson have taken off his boots?
Why, others wondered, hadn’t the van been discovered earlier? Several of Jackson’s friends had driven by the Brazos Bluff rest area as part of an organized search party three days before the van was found. “Dead men,” one of them later observed to a journalist, “don’t drive vans.” Yet another witness told police that he had spotted a van fitting the description at the rest stop
There were enough unanswered questions that New Mexico Congressman Bill Richardson called for an FBI investigation, noting the “strong possibility that a major crime was committed.” ABC World News Tonight, A Current Affair, and newspapers from Los Angeles to Washington leapt on the story, more than one making the inevitable comparison to a Tony
Four weeks after the body was found, the medical investigator’s office announced the toxicology results: Leroy Jackson had died of methadone intoxication, an overdose of the orally ingested synthetic drug used to wean heroin addicts. Traces of marijuana and “therapeutic” amounts of Valium were also in the body. The methadone level in Jackson’s blood was quite low, however,
Those who knew Jackson were dumbfounded. By every account, he had been an apostle of clean living. His physician, David Lang, said Jackson had been in nearly perfect physical condition for his age, though he did suffer from migraine headaches. Sometimes when he felt one coming on, Jackson would set off on long mountain runs to clear his head. If that didn’t work, he would take
In the weeks after the lab report, theories bloomed. Some suspected that someone had slipped the drug into his drink and then, several days later, driven the body in the van to the Brazos Bluff rest area to cover his tracks. “Leroy posed such a threat to the powers that be,” says Pat Wolff, director of a Santa Fe-based environmental group called New West Research. “I think it
Adella Begaye has consulted crystals and Navajo medicine men to learn what happened. “Our medicine people, the real ones, are excellent,” says Begaye, a registered nurse. “They told me he didn’t die of an overdose, and I trust them more than the pathologist or the police.”
The man who has beat the conspiracy drums the loudest is another Santa Fe environmentalist named Sam Hitt, director of Forest Guardians, a militant watchdog group with which Jackson worked closely. Hitt believes the New Mexico police botched the investigation–perhaps deliberately. Early on, he claimed to have spoken with someone who had seen the inside of the van shortly after
But those who are inclined to portray Jackson as an environmental martyr have thus far been thwarted by the ambiguities of the case. Jackson’s life, and now his death, was never simple. Even to close friends, he remained something of an enigma. There was a wariness in his brown eyes, they say, that suggested he’d experienced things he’d rather not talk about.
Few of his friends knew, for example, that as a young man Jackson had suffered a pernicious drinking problem that drove off his first wife and their children and left him on the streets. Or that his mother and half-brother had also fought terrible bouts with alcoholism, or that a daughter by his first marriage had died of a drug overdose. Jackson had impressively reconstructed
Jackson, a barrel-chested, taciturn man whom one non-Indian acquaintance described as “a short, dark Johnny Cash,” had a touch of the vagabond. As a trader, he passed like a shadow through the different worlds of the Southwest and befriended a wide circle of people, Indian and white, some of whom his relatives would later describe as “shady.” Could he have led another life on
There were hints near the end that the stress of his environmental work had taken its toll. Had the pressures become too great? Was Leroy Jackson murdered for his beliefs, as some proclaim? Did he make a single, tragic mistake? Or had he truly lost his way?
The Chuskas were the land that Leroy Jackson loved, the place where he spent cool summers meditating and jogging, living a simple life in a tar-paper cabin. It is a spectacular landscape of ponderosa pines and Gambel oaks and immense sandstone mesas that look like the hulls of ocean liners run aground. In the summers Jackson and his family drove their sheep and cattle here to
From the Chuskas, Leroy Jackson could look down on Shiprock, New Mexico, the reservation town where he was born in 1946. Shiprock is named for a jagged natural cathedral that rises abruptly from the desert. In Navajo mythology, Shiprock and other formations, such as the famous pillars of Monument Valley, are the sacred bodies of prehistoric creatures. The conflict between the
Early in life, he lost two siblings to malnutrition and disease. His parents broke up soon thereafter, and his mother, Jane Popovich, had to move in with relatives. “There was nothing to survive on,” Popovich recalls. “There was so much suffering, sickness everywhere, and drinking so bad that people were just crushed next to the wall.” When Leroy was five, the family moved to
They didn’t. Towns like Flagstaff, on the reservation’s border, were–and to some extent still are–where the Indian and the white worlds mix, like brackish tidewater, often bringing out the worst in both. They tend to function as catch basins for deracinated Indians and unscrupulous whites eagerly offering Navajos their first off-reservation alcohol and taking their valuables
As a boy, Jane recalls, Leroy was reserved and stoical, the kind of kid who never complained unless he was in absolute agony. In high school he moved to California to live with an uncle for a while, and then, according to his mother, he began drinking. “I thought it was a temporary thing,” she says, “but it went on and on.” Demonstrating a flair for applied science, Leroy
“Leroy was a very depressed young man then,” recalls his mother. “He would sit and cry and hold his babies.” He hung out with a crowd of other hard-drinking urban Indians, got into barroom fistfights, and spent some nights in jail. Jane and Roxanne would follow him through the streets and into taverns, begging him to come home, but Roxanne eventually gave up and fled to
Homeless, living on the streets of Farmington and Phoenix, Jackson had become a cliché, the drunken Indian passed out on the hood of a car or reeling in a stupor down the skid row of a border town.
But then something changed. After more than a year with no word from her son, Jane received an astounding letter. Leroy was in Salt Lake City, sober, and counseling other recovering alcoholics. She recalls his letter: “He said, ‘One day I woke up in jail. I didn’t have my shoes. I finally came to my senses. I said to myself, Leroy, you’re sick. Look at you.'”
In 1975 he enrolled at the University of Utah to take courses in mechanical engineering. It was then that he met Adella Begaye, a pious Navajo woman who was studying biology. On their first date he took her to a powwow in Logan. Nine months later they were married in a traditional ceremony presided over by a medicine man.
Della Begaye is an attractive woman of 41 years with a shy but steady voice. She is sitting in the den of her ranch-style house in Tsaile, where she works at the Indian Health Service clinic. A weariness in her voice is the only obvious sign of her grief. It’s unclear to what extent her two younger children–Robyn, 6, and Eli, 5–understand that their father is gone. It is a
Knowing how bitterly Leroy regretted his past, Adella is angered by the implication that he might have had a dark side that included hard drugs. “He lost his first family to alcohol,” she says. “With this family he was an honorable man. He didn’t want to fail again.” She says she never saw him touch a drop of booze or do drugs of any kind. “He
Part of Jackson’s rebirth involved a fresh connection with his roots. When she met Leroy, Adella recalls, he was like a man lost in the desert, thirsty to learn about his culture. He pushed Adella to learn the secrets of her mother, an herbalist. He wanted to know the prayers of thanks one offers before cutting yucca, sumac, or spruce for a healing ceremony. Before too long, it
Jackson left the university before finishing his degree to take a job at the Four Corners Power Plant in Farmington. By now it was 1978, and the production of power from coal strip-mined on Navajo land was stirring the reservation’s first environmental protest–with good reason. To pull the reservation up from Third World status, the tribal government had adopted a policy of
At Four Corners, Jackson told Adella of seeing fellow engineers disarming the smokestack scrubbers at night, when the dark clouds couldn’t be detected. Eventually, he found the contradictions troubling and quit his job. But he was only a proto-environmentalist; he hadn’t yet found his issue.
To support his family in the early eighties, Jackson began trading Navajo weavings, baskets, jewelry, and other wares. He would purchase rugs made by Adella’s sisters and sell them to shops and at powwows, traveling widely around the Southwest and as far north as Oregon. To Adella he joked that he enjoyed getting the best of greedy belagonnas, or
“He was slow to smile,” remembers another trader and friend, Dick Spas of Taos. “But when he did, it started down in his toes and just grew and grew.”
When he wasn’t on the road, Jackson liked to retreat to Adella’s family place in the Chuskas, a small sheep camp in a mountain meadow with two traditional hogan dwellings and weathered stock pens of twisted wood. But in the late 1980s, Navajo loggers had begun to encroach on the forest just beyond the Begayes’ meadow. They cut saplings down to pointy stumps, which ripped open
Traditional Navajos had grumbled about logging for years, but they knew little of events in Window Rock, the tribal capital where decisions are made. Crunching documents from the Navajo Department of Forestry, Jackson soon concluded that the tribe was drastically overcutting its 537,000-acre timber preserve in and around the Chuskas, one of the Southwest’s largest privately
As one of the founders of Diné CARE, Jackson quickly became a leading voice of Navajo environmentalism. Though the group drew much of its support from older, traditional Indians, the core of its membership proved to be a younger generation of “back to the land” Navajos–people like Jackson’s friend Ervin Redhouse, a stern, slow-talking sheep rancher who describes the
With one foot in tribal culture and the other in the white world, Jackson was able to draw on his engineer’s head for data, his trader’s gift for gentle persuasion, even his survival skills from the streets, all of which proved useful in navigating the whitewater of tribal politics. “He went across the huge divide that separates cultures in the Southwest with greater facility
Jackson, however, didn’t easily fit the usual activist mold. He was inspired less by the abstractions that concern white environmentalists–sustainability, biodiversity–than by the need to protect ceremonial groves and sites where medicine men gather plants. He was worried that logging was threatening the Blessing Way ceremony, which invokes positive spirits and according to
The economics of reservation logging, as Jackson learned, is not so simple. The tribe, which owns the forest, sells trees to Navajo Forest Products Industries, a logging company also owned by the tribe. NFPI cuts the trees, mills the lumber, and sells it–mostly as industrial-grade wood for door and window frames– on the open market. But even with the bumper harvests of the
The politics of reservation forestry is no less curious. Tribal foresters decide how much timber to sell to NFPI, and then the tribal resources committee votes on the sales, which are almost invariably approved. Before a contract is signed, however, the sale must be accepted by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is supposed to act as federal watchdog over the process but which
Aside from recommending a drastic reduction in the annual harvests, Jackson and Diné CARE demanded an independent audit of NFPI and a full-scale environmental impact statement, which the BIA had never required for a reservation timber sale anywhere in the country.
Not surprisingly, the lumber company responded by reducing the issue to “trees versus jobs.” In the summer of 1992, when Diné CARE delayed a timber sale in the Whiskey Creek region, NFPI announced that it might be forced to fire more than 80 of its employees. Soon angry loggers were staging rallies outside the mill, holding up signs that read, LEROY JACKSON KEEP YOUR
Although some in Diné CARE wanted to halt the cutting entirely, Jackson was more moderate, expressing concern for the men whose jobs were at stake. When speaking to loggers at an October 1992 meeting in Shiprock, Jackson explained his dilemma this way: “I have no problem with all you sincere people who want to keep your jobs. But when you’re interfering with the future
Jackson suggested that laid-off loggers could be retrained to work in “value-added” industries, such as cabinetry or furniture construction, so that the Navajos could extract the maximum dollar value from every tree cut on the reservation. In the sparsely forested Southwest, he maintained, it was a mistake to think of large-scale commercial logging as a viable long-term
His arguments did little to lessen the tension. In July 1992, after Diné CARE secured a court order to temporarily halt all cutting, loggers staged a volatile rally in the reservation town of Crystal. Stringing up a noose from one of their trucks, they hanged an effigy emblazoned with Jackson’s name. While Navajo Nation president Peterson Zah spoke inside the crowded
The logging shutdown was lifted after then-Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs Eddie Brown intervened. But the battle lines had been starkly drawn. “The environmentalists weren’t going to stop until all logging was permanently shut down on the Navajo reservation,” says NFPI general manager Ed Richards. “Over 100 of our workers had already been laid off. Where
At times the fight between Jackson and the loggers took on odd dimensions. Richards claims that Jackson once threatened to put a Navajo “hex” on him. “He said he was going to ‘witch’ me. I told him, ‘You’d better not talk that way, because those things can turn around and come back at you.'”
By this point, Jackson’s activism had begun to consume him, to the serious detriment of his trading business. In 1992 he cleared just $3,500, according to Adella, who paid the family’s bills from her nursing job. In Santa Fe, Sam Hitt of Forest Guardians sympathized with Jackson’s straits. To help, Hitt and his group organized a fundraiser featuring Earth First! cofounder Dave
In his last months, Hitt says, the psychological pressures of Jackson’s work began to show. He took up smoking again and suffered more frequently from migraines. In Diné CARE board meetings, he would often cease talking to massage his temples. Over the summer he hosted a tense “spiritual gathering” in the Chuskas to bring loggers and environmentalists together. “He took
“He would go through these reflective periods,” Jackson’s old friend Dick Spas recalls. “Sometimes he questioned whether the whole thing was worth it. But then he would go and sit in the mountains and search his heart, and he’d come back charged full of energy.”
In his last campaign, Jackson was trying to reduce the size of a timber sale on the eastern flank of the Chuskas in a district named Toh-Ni-Tsa, or Big Water. Toh-Ni-Tsa is home to the endangered Mexican spotted owl, an elusive cousin of the Pacific Northwest’s beleaguered northern spotted owl. BIA officials argued that tribes like the Navajo should not be subject to the
This interpretation infuriated Jackson and others within Diné CARE. Last September they fired off a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in which they argued that the BIA was using the sovereignty issue “to pursue a path of wildlife destruction.” To say that owls are lowly and reviled, they contended, was a “self-serving and enraging distortion of our
As before, tensions escalated. When Jackson invoked the specter of a lawsuit on behalf of the owl, the tribe reduced the proposed harvest in Toh-Ni-Tsa from about 40 million board feet to less than 18 million. NFPI then announced that as of November it would be forced to scale down from two shifts to one, laying off 100 millworkers and another 100 contract loggers in the
At a meeting in Window Rock on September 28, several days before Jackson disappeared, an idled logging contractor named Henry Nez issued another ominous warning. About a dozen people, including Jackson, were gathered in the wood-paneled private conference room of Navajo Nation president Peterson Zah for a biweekly meeting to resolve logging disputes. Nez warned that if the
Jackson shrugged off such talk. He once told Earl Tulley, Diné CARE’s president, that the only way his enemies could waylay him was by having someone slip something into his drink. “And,” he quipped, “she’s going to be pretty.”
When he left Window Rock, Jackson was headed to Taos to gather goods for an upcoming arts and crafts show in Chicago. On Wednesday, September 29, he left a message on his home answering machine reminding Adella that he’d run out of Tylenol 3, one of the two drugs he took for migraines, and asking her to make a doctor’s appointment so he could renew the prescription.
The next day, Jackson set up a vendor’s table at Taos Pueblo for the San Geronimo feast day celebration. He planned to leave Taos that evening, but business forced him to stay another night. On the phone to Adella, he sounded irritated at the delay. He had wanted to participate in an all-night Yei-Be-Chai healing ceremony at a fair in Shiprock. He now told Adella that he’d meet
Around ten o’clock on the morning of Friday, October 1, Jackson collected $1,200 for an 1880s-vintage Navajo weaving from Dick Spas, who owns a small downtown shop called Southwestern Arts. “We talked about his environmental work, about owls,” remembers Spas. “He was excited about his trip to Washington. He had his facts all lined up.”
Then Jackson visited another local trader and friend to repay a business debt of $800, made a couple of telephone calls to friends in Utah, and apparently hit the road.
Adella couldn’t find him in Shiprock the next morning, nor was he in Tsaile when she returned home, where his airline tickets and the two new suits he’d bought for his trip were waiting. Worried, she imagined that Jackson might have suffered a stroke while running to relieve a migraine. She filed a missing persons report with the New Mexico state police and asked friends to
Leroy Jackson was last seen alive on October 1, 30 miles west of Taos and 47 miles east of Brazos Bluff in the tiny crossroads town of Tres Piedras, where he stopped at a Chevron station to buy a Pepsi and a package of cookies. “I looked him square in the eyes,” recalls Barbara Cozart, owner of the station. “He was outgoing and friendly. I said, ‘Come back and see us!’ And he
Four weeks later, when the medical examiner announced the results of the toxicology report, the official police version finally solidified: While in Taos on his sales trip, Jackson had obtained methadone, possibly from someone in his wide circle of trading contacts. As he drove west out of Taos he took the drug, perhaps as a way to dull the pain of a migraine, since he was out
Whatever its problems, the police scenario was simple, clean, and fit all the available evidence. It was also consistent with the medical profile on methadone overdose. “It kills very slowly,” explains Dr. Andrew Luk, an investigator at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, who has studied methadone-related deaths. “The person takes it and starts to feel
Hunting for the source of the methadone, the police began questioning Mark Marcus, a sometime silversmith who lives in a ramshackle building 20 miles south of Taos, with whom Jackson was believed to have stayed the last two nights of his life. They learned that Marcus had a girlfriend, Francesca Lorimar, who had recently been convicted in Missouri on charges of drug possession.
The police didn’t get anywhere with Marcus, nor did he cooperate with Jackson’s family. (He also refused to be interviewed for this story.) Contacting him twice by phone, Adella was given contradictory information about the dates that Leroy had spent at Marcus’s home. In both phone calls, she says, he was “incoherent.”
Adella has never met Marcus and rarely heard her husband talk about him; she thought that perhaps Jackson had befriended him to learn more about his silversmithing technique, but she didn’t know why her husband would have chosen to stay at his home. “Bottom line,” says Major Frank Taylor of the New Mexico state police, “we’d like to know if Mr. Marcus gave the methadone to
“I still believe he was murdered,” says Sam Hitt in a voice that’s world-weary and noirish, as if nothing could surprise him anymore. “I don’t have all the pieces to make a factual presentation. It’s just intuitively what I believe.” As he discusses the Jackson case, a man from the phone company putters about the adobe-style office, sweeping the phone lines for bugs. Several
Now, a full five months after Jackson’s death, the private investigator hired by the Forest Guardians has turned up nothing to confirm Hitt’s suspicions of a police cover-up or a dark cabal. But in January the case took another bizarre twist. In a final search of Jackson’s van before returning it to the family, a police officer found a pill bottle in a cubbyhole attached to the
The new evidence doesn’t faze Hitt, who says that its belated discovery is further proof of police incompetence. He says he will continue to pay the bill on the private investigator “until I run out of money.”
“This story will go on and on,” he adds, “like the Kennedy assassination.”
The widespread publicity over Jack-son’s death has brought renewed attention to the Chuska forest issue and has helped Diné CARE make progress on nearly every issue for which he fought: The Navajo tribal council has resolved to order a financial audit of NFPI and has also agreed to commission a first-ever environmental impact statement on its logging operations;
Given such success, Jackson’s critics question the motives of Hitt and others who continue to speculate about conspiracies in the face of such scant evidence. “I think Leroy Jackson’s death has been exploited by Diné CARE and Forest Guardians,” says James Carter, Navajo-area forester for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “Everyone likes to have a martyr. I guess to find him
Norman Birtcher, plant operations manager of NFPI, says it’s “ludicrous” to believe that Jackson was killed by agents of logging interests. “It’d be very difficult to get the tribe and the BIA and the mill to agree on anything, much less a murder conspiracy. We’re getting a little tired of the innuendo.”
NFPI general manager Ed Richards goes so far as to claim that mounting pressures from within the environmental camp ultimately led to Jackson’s death. “The Anglo environmentalists and their lawyers kept pushing him with this issue,” Richards says. “He had almost become like their puppet. The whole thing got bigger and bigger, and he couldn’t get out of it.”
The fact is, Jackson’s family and friends on the reservation have done little to fuel the conspiracy theories. They aren’t much concerned with pirouetting abstractions or the competing arguments of rationalist debunkers. But they do cling to one bedrock conviction–that Jackson didn’t die accidentally. When Earl Tulley is asked whether it’s hard to believe, logically, that
“Leroy was defending a holy mountain,” Tulley says, “and when you defend what is good, that which is bad will oppose you.”
Elizabeth Redhouse, a friend of Jackson’s, has a seasonal camp in the Chuskas not far from his grave. But lately she has been reluctant to visit; she says she feels Jackson’s presence too powerfully. “I talk to the trees,” she says, fighting back tears. “In the Navajo Way, the trees are just like human beings–they have eyes and everything. I ask them, ‘Why’d he leave?’ Those