When attackers burst into nine-year-old Brisenia Flores’ Arizona home the night of May 30, 2009, she was asleep on the couch in her family’s living room because she wanted to be close to the family’s new dog. It was one of the last memories Flores’ mother Gina Gonzalez has of her before their lives were ripped apart. Minutes later Gonzalez’s husband Raul Flores Jr. and Brisenia were dead, both were shot at point blank range. Gonzalez had been shot multiple times. She survived only by pretending to be dead, and then later by crawling to her kitchen to retrieve her husband’s gun and firing shots when the intruders returned.
It’s a grisly tale, an already devastating crime made outrageous by the possibility that the people who stormed into the Gonzalez home were led by a border vigilante’s twisted racial animosity.
The trial for three of Brisenia and Raul Flores’ alleged killers began this week in Arivaca, Arizona. First to be tried is 42-year-old Shawna Forde, the ringleader who allegedly paid drug dealers to go attack a competitor’s home. Forde’s defense has tried to paint Raul Flores as a dealer and a user, but the Daily Beast reports authorities who searched the apartment did not find anything besides pot residue in the house.
The plan, the LA Times reported, was to raid people’s homes for cash and jewelry which would fund Forde’s border vigilante group the Minutemen.
Gonzalez testified this week and said she could hear her daughter ask why her mother and father had been shot, and then silence as suspected killer Jason Bush reloaded his gun before shooting Brisenia twice in the face.
Forde’s attorney insists there is no physical evidence that links Forde to the scene of the crime and that Forde was merely an eccentric who would boast about unrealistic plans to rob drug dealers. Gonzalez could not pick Forde out in a lineup weeks after the murders. But when Forde was arrested several days after the murders, she was found with Gonzalez’s wedding ring and other personal belongings. Forde faces two counts of first degree murder charges, one count of attempted first degree murder and five separate counts of armed robbery, burglary and aggravated assault, according to the blog Immigration Clearinghouse, which is following the trial. Her two co-defendants, Bush and Albert Gaxiola, will be tried after her.
The portrait of Forde that has emerged is one of a self-imagined border security crusader who would finance her anti-immigrant activities with violent robberies. Forde had a habit of ending her emails with the sign off, “Lock and Load” and had close ties with tea party groups. She was involved with the Minutemen American Defense—her supporters claim she was once a Minuteman National Director—a loose affiliation of anti-immigration border activists who took to policing the border on their own with guns and surveillance equipment. Forde has also had ties with the anti-immigrant Federation for American Immigration Reform. These groups have all been labeled hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center. FAIR has distanced itself from Forde, and the Minutemen have disavowed one of their most enthusiastic members.
This week’s proceedings were interrupted by the antics of Laine Lawless, one of Forde’s Minutemen cohorts and a potential witness. The Arizona Daily Star reported yesterday that Pima County Superior Court Judge John Leonardo immediately sent the jury out of the room when he became aware that Lawless had snuck into the courtroom wearing a black wig, black trench coat and sunglasses. Because she is a potential witness, Lawless is barred from entering the courtroom or having contact with Forde, but said she had the right to be in the courtroom as a “citizen reporter.” The judge disagreed, and barred her from entering the courtroom and the courthouse until or unless she’s called to the stand. It was a truly odd turn for an already surreal murder case. The trial is expected to last up to six weeks.
Attorneys said Lawless had violated other court orders not to talk about the case online or to the media. She and another person posing under Forde’s identity had been posting messages on Facebook lambasting the trial proceedings since the trial began. Lawless is the founder of several pro-Forde websites, including justiceforshawnaforde.com. Underneath a photo of Forde, the website has a string of lines: “Racially profiled, false arrested, political agenda prisoner.”
Others draw different conclusions. “This was a horrible, tragic, and absolutely race-based coldblooded murder,” Phoenix radio talk show host Carlos Galindo told the Daily Beast, “and we allowed the far right to muddy it up and say her dad was a drug dealer and Brisenia was collateral damage. When we don’t counter that, we allow continued violence against all Arizonans.”
Immigration and Latino community advocates consider Brisenia and Raul Flores’ murders part of a documented uptick of violent attacks, murders and hate crimes fueled by anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment that has been fomented by right-wing groups and politicians.