Concluding a three-week trial that exposed the most unsavory side of Arizona’s militant border vigilante movement, a jury on Monday found Shawna Forde guilty of two counts of first-degree murder for the May 2009 killings of Raul Flores, 29, and his 9-year-old daughter in the border town of Arivaca, Ariz.
The jury deliberated for seven hours over two days before reaching a guilty verdict Monday. On Tuesday morning, after hearing arguments from both sides, they unanimously pronounced Forde eligible for the death penalty. They cited the facts that Forde was motivated by money, participated actively in the robbery, and intended the murders to take place as factors that warrant the ultimate punishment.
It is now up to Pima County Superior Court Judge John Leonardo, who presided over Forde’s trial, to review all the arguments and evidence and determine whether Forde should be executed or sentenced to life in prison.
Prosecutors said Forde, head of the border vigilante group Minuteman American Defense (MAD), and two accomplices – MAD Operations Director Jason Eugene “Gunny” Bush, 34, and Albert Robert Gaxiola, 42, a local MAD member – planned the May 30 home invasion because they thought they would find drugs and cash to fund their group’s operation. According to prosecutors, the three broke into the victims’ trailer, where Bush shot Flores, his wife, Gina Gonzalez, and their daughter Brisenia. Gonzalez, who survived, managed to return fire with her own gun. “Oh my God,” she can be heard shouting on a 911 tape. “I can’t believe they killed my family.” Bush and Gaxiola will each be tried separately this spring.
Witnesses for the prosecution painted an ugly picture of Forde. Her sister testified that Shawna used to fantasize about robbing drug cartels. (In 2009, Forde’s half-brother Merrill Metzger told a reporter that during a visit with Forde, “She sat right here on my couch and told me that she was going to start an underground militia. This militia was going to start robbing drug cartels, rob them and steal their money or drugs.”) Oin Glenn Oakstar, an Arivaca native and drug dealer who claims to have helped plan the invasion, told the jury that Forde’s trio had broken the “Arivaca Rule” that the families of rival drug dealers are off-limits in “business” killings.
Forde’s DNA was not found at the crime scene, but it was detected on a piece of jewelry stolen during the invasion. Forde’s attorney, Eric Larsen, made note of the lack of physical evidence linking his client to the scene of the double murders. He described his client as a harmless blowhard – “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” he said, quoting MacBeth.
The Tucson trial’s solemnity was marred when Forde supporter Laine Lawless, who was barred from entering court before appearing as a witness for the defense, snuck into the courtroom wearing a wig, sunglasses and dark coat. She protested to Leonardo, the judge, that she was a “citizen journalist” entitled to cover the story – before he ejected her.
Days after the trio was arrested in connection with the Arivaca murders, Bush was additionally charged with the 1997 stabbing murder of a Latino man in Wenatchee, Wash., behind a convenience store. Police said that Bush had “longstanding ties” to the neo-Nazi Aryan Nations, and Forde’s half-brother told a reporter that she was trying to recruit its members to join her in robbing alleged Latino drug-runners.
Forde is a relative newcomer to the vigilante movement. She burst onto the scene in 2006, joining the Washington state chapter of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. As an organizer for the group, she gained a reputation as a manipulative, self-aggrandizing teller of tales about her own bravery. She was voted out in 2007 after attempting to grab power from state leadership.
She started MAD soon afterwards and quickly reestablished herself as a mover and shaker. That summer, she shared a podium at the Everett Elks Lodge with Minuteman Project co-founder Jim Gilchrist. By 2008, she was the Project’s border patrol coordinator, and the two worked together closely until her arrest in 2009.
Forde mingled with other border control heavies. Arizona’s Glenn Spencer, head of American Border Patrol and frequent host of nativist galas, let Forde stay on his property several times, though he contends that he barely interacted with her.
Yet Forde was not universally beloved within nativist circles. In late 2008, she made a dubious claim that members of the murderous Latino gang MS-13 had raped and stabbed her in her home. While some rushed to express their outrage at the attack, ALIPAC’s William Gheen, already leery of Forde and concerned about the damage an out-of-control border vigilante could do to the nativist movement’s credibility, put a “hold” on publicly expressing outrage while waiting for police to say more about the alleged incident. (Investigators eventually dropped the case, citing lack of evidence.) During the next six months, he and his National Illegal Immigration Boycott Coalition issued “advisories” warning their allies to stay away from Forde.
Not everyone toed the line. On Jan. 18, Rob Sanchez, a writer for Californians for Population Stabilization, posted an essay on his blog describing Forde as a “political prisoner.” He wrote that Forde could never get a fair trial in Tucson because the city’s “deranged open border advocates” want Forde to “burn at the stake regardless of innocence or guilt.”
Within days, CAPS, which in 2009 joined Gheen in warning nativists to stay away from Forde, pulled the post and replaced it with a retraction, saying that Sanchez’s piece had been “insufficiently scrutinized prior to posting” and that “CAPS in no way was taking a position of advocacy for Shawna Forde.”