Apr 1 2011

Worthy and Unworthy Border Murders

To media, some Arizona killings are more interesting than others

Brisenia Flores

Brisenia Flores

In March 2010, prominent European-American rancher Robert Krentz was murdered in a remote area of his sprawling property near Douglas, Arizona. Details of the crime remain murky. Early media reports cited authorities claiming to have tracked footprints from the murder scene 20 miles south to the Mexican border (New York Times, 4/4/10).

A month after the killing, the Arizona Daily Star (5/3/10) cited “high-ranking government officials with credible information” in saying that “investigators are focusing on a suspect in the United States.” According to the Star, the officials, who wouldn’t be named, “expressed a desire to quell the fury over illegal immigration and drug smuggling set off by the shooting death.”

Authorities later suggested (Arizona Republic, 6/16/10) that Krentz may have been killed while attempting to aid an immigrant. The officials did not indicate whether the person he may have been helping was a suspect in the crime. At the same time, officials clarified that they had lost the trail of the footprints from the murder scene a mile north of the Mexican border.

Nine-year-old Brisenia Flores and her father Raul were murdered in their home in Arivaca, Arizona, in a May 2009 assault that seriously wounded Brisenia’s mother, Gina Gonzalez. On February 14, 2011, anti-immigrant activist Shawna Forde was convicted on two counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted murder, and sentenced to death on February 22. Two more suspects in the crime have yet to stand trial.

Forde had been a spokesperson for the xenophobic Minuteman Project, sharing stages with and receiving praise from co-founder Jim Gilchrist before starting a splinter group, Minutemen American Defense (MAD), whose ultimate goal was reportedly revolution against the U.S. government (Phoenix New Times, 7/16/09).

One of Forde’s alleged accomplices, MAD “operations director” Jason Bush, was reportedly associated with the white supremacist Aryan Nations group in the 1990s. Following his arrest in the Flores murders, where he has reportedly admitted to being the shooter, Bush was charged with the 1997 stabbing of a homeless Latino man, Hector Lopez Partida, in Washington state (Scripps Howard, 12/17/09). Washington authorities also charged Bush with the 1997 shooting death of 18-year-old Jonathan Bumstead. According to police, Bush told one eyewitness Partida was killed because he was a “Mexican” and told another that Bumstead, a white teenager, was killed because he was “a traitor to the race and a Jew” (Wenatchee World, 7/31/09).

Prosecutors say that Forde, Bush and a third suspect, Albert Robert Gaxiola, disguised themselves as law enforcement officers in order to rob the Flores’ household to raise money for MAD (AP, 2/23/11).

Of the two stories, the Flores murders would seem to have more newsworthy angles and sensational hooks: A double murder, a child victim and a bizarre plot involving anti-immigrant culprits—possibly including a serial killer—in a state undergoing the most high-tension immigration debate in the country. Other opportunities to explore the story emerged with the Tucson massacre and the ensuing debate about vitriolic language and violence: The shooting deaths of six victims—including the widely covered death of 9-year-old Christina Taylor-Green—occurred during the Forde trial.

In fact, despite more seeming news value and much more actual information to report, the Flores murders received just a fraction of the attention national media devoted to the Krentz killing (Washington Post, 2/6/11).

Network news mentioned Robert Krentz by name in five segments through February 2011, according to a search of the Nexis database; none mentioned Raul or Brisenia Flores. NBC’s Today, the only network show to acknowledge the Flores murders at all, did so in a 59-word “rip and read” about the Forde conviction (2/15/11), which failed to even name the victims. In a media culture that has been known to obsess over crimes against (white) children like JonBen t Ramsey (2,273 network news mentions) and Caylee Anthony (348 network news mentions), it’s striking that Brisenia Flores’ name has never been mentioned on a network news show.

The same networks highlighted the urgency and significance of Krentz’s killing, in reports like that on CBS Evening News (4/30/11) in which correspondent Bill Whitaker stated: “Recent polls show more than 60 percent of Arizonans support the state’s tough new immigration law. If outsiders wonder why, Arizonans point to Rob Krentz.” A person-on-the-street clip follows that up: “When something like the murder of Rob Krentz happens, it should be game on.”

Cable news fell hard for the Krentz story, with CNN and Fox News each running dozens of segments citing the case, with 17 and 16 segments, respectively, mentioning Krentz by name. MSNBC, something of an exception, cited the killing in five segments.

The sensational nature of the Flores murders would seem to be a perfect fit for cable news, but Nexis revealed just four stories mentioning the case on CNN, none on MSNBC and just one oblique mention on Fox News (O’Reilly Factor, 2/15/11).*

The Washington Post, which featured nine stories on Krentz, published three stories mentioning the Flores victims. The New York Times ran three articles mentioning Krentz and four mentioning the Flores family—but two of the four were 100-word briefs reporting, respectively, on the conviction and sentencing of Shawna Forde.

It seems clear that media find the Krentz story so compelling in good part because it advances a narrative they embrace: that unauthorized immigration poses a grave threat to the nation. The U.S. media culture allows for unauthorized immigration to be spoken of in battlefield terms, with undocumented immigrants “an army of invaders” (FAIR Action Alert, 2/25/00). It’s a media culture where, as right-watcher David Niewart (Crooks and Liars, 6/16/09) explains, the various Minuteman groups, which are riddled with nativist and even white supremacist members, are equated with community safety groups. As Bill O’Reilly declared on Fox News (4/7/05): “Talking Points applauds the Minutemen. They are in the great tradition of neighborhood watch groups.”

Pushing the “immigrant threat” narrative required a leap in the Krentz case. One had to assert, despite the lack of supporting evidence, that Krentz’s unknown killer was an undocumented immigrant, and then that such a killing is indicative of a growing trend.

Never mind that, as the Christian Science Monitor reported early on (3/31/10), “Authorities have not announced any motive for the killing, nor have they officially suggested that the killer was an illegal immigrant.” And as the High Country News reported (6/21/10), “No local murder had been blamed on illegal immigrants in the past 10 years.”

Still, anti-immigrant politicians bannered Krentz as a martyr for their cause. (As CBS noted, the murder is credited with aiding passage of the anti-immigrant SB1070.) And national media, which had already largely pegged Arizona as a blood-soaked symbol of the federal immigration failures (in fact, crime is down in Arizona border towns—Extra!, 7/10), pitched in to advance the connection between Krentz’ killing and unauthorized immigration.

There were the usual Fox suspects: Glenn Beck (4/27/10) said Krentz had “encountered an illegal alien” who “shot him”; Bill O’Reilly (3/31/10) said the rancher had been “murdered by an illegal alien”; and a news story on FoxNews.com (4/5/10) reported that Krentz had been killed “allegedly by an illegal immigrant.”

But more centrist media also advanced the storyline. CBS reporter Ben Tracy (CBS Evening News, 5/26/10) reported Krentz had been “shot and killed by a suspected illegal immigrant.” A front page Washington Post story (1/17/11) reported that “an illegal immigrant allegedly shot and killed” Krentz. Even the Weekly Reader (9/10/10) weighed in, reporting to U.S. students, “In March, a suspected illegal immigrant killed Arizona rancher Robert Krentz.”

Thus the Krentz story went national based on an unsubstantiated connection to a trumped-up threat of undocumented immigrant violence, while the murders of Brisenia and Raul Flores, with an all-too-real connection to the hate bred by nativism, languished. The disparity did not go unnoted by immigrant rights groups, who point out that due to Shawna Forde’s comments and actions, the Flores killings “deserve to be treated as a crime with strong political overtones” (Washington Post, 2/6/11).

“There are a few places writing about this, but it is not getting the attention it deserves,” Eric Rodriguez of the National Council of La Raza told the Post. “It should be shocking to more people.”

*Bill O’Reilly declared that the “Minutemen” culprits had broken into “an illegal alien house.” In fact, all three members of the Flores-Gonzalez family were born and raised in Arizona.