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HOMETOWN U.S.A.: Rowe, N.M.

Val Kilmer has neighbors riled

Locals say the actor and ranch owner is keeping them from Pecos River fishing holes and that he has made ethnic insults in interviews. The ACLU is taking his side.

June 06, 2010|By Michael Haederle, Special to the Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Rowe, N.M. — Val Kilmer plays a ponytailed villain in "MacGruber," the comedy film based on a "Saturday Night Live" skit, but lately he seems to have been cast as a real-life bad guy by neighbors in this rural mountain community.

Aggrieved by a planning board's decision permitting Kilmer to rent out guesthouses on his 5,300-acre ranch, the neighbors charged that he had denied locals access to fishing holes in the nearby Pecos River and made ethnically insulting comments in magazine interviews.

The San Miguel County Commission responded by tabling Kilmer's application until he comes forward to explain his comments. It has scheduled a June 23 public meeting for that purpose, which Kilmer is expected to attend.

That, in turn, has drawn fire from the New Mexico chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has offered to represent Kilmer, saying the commission violated his 1st Amendment rights.

Calls and e-mails to Kilmer were not returned, but he recently told the Albuquerque Journal that he had tried to be a good neighbor, helping local schools and supporting wildlife preservation on his ranch.

"It's very upsetting for my friends," he told the newspaper. "I'm not worried at all about the reaction because I just see it as an opportunity to bring people together. No one would make a false statement like this statement of racism if they knew what we were doing."

Kilmer has lived in New Mexico for several decades; he bought the ranch about 25 miles east of Santa Fe in 1996. The property includes a seven-mile stretch of the Pecos River.

He has allowed a wildlife rescue organization to release injured creatures on his land and lists "wilderness" among his interests on his MySpace page.

But Abran Tapia, a 76-year-old Rowe native and civil rights activist, sees a darker side. According to Tapia, Kilmer has chased off people who walked through his property to fish in the Pecos. Tapia, who fished and swam in the river as a child, accuses Kilmer of creating a segregated lodge to keep Latinos out.

Tapia counts himself among a sizable number of local residents offended by comments Kilmer allegedly made in a 2003 Rolling Stone interview.

That story quoted Kilmer as saying he lives "in the homicide capital of the Southwest" and keeps a gun in his vehicle. According to the magazine, Kilmer added, "Eighty percent of the people in my county are drunk."

The actor says he was misquoted.

More controversy followed in 2005, when Kilmer said in an Esquire interview that as an actor he had a better emotional grasp of violence than soldiers who had fought in Vietnam.

"A guy who's lived through the horror of Vietnam has not spent his life preparing his mind for it," he told the magazine. "He's some punk. Most guys were borderline criminal or poor, and that's why they got sent to Vietnam."

Said Tapia: "The incitement that he's creating is going to get him into trouble."

Civil rights activist Larry Hill, himself a Vietnam veteran, said that last year local people unsuccessfully sought a meeting.

"He called us a bunch of borrachos [drunks]," Hill said, referring to the Rolling Stone article.

This spring, Kilmer sought a permit to convert three guesthouses on his property into overnight lodging. Tapia was the lone objector when the county planning and zoning commissioners heard Kilmer's application in March, said Alex Tafoya, the planning and zoning supervisor. The panel voted 3 to 2 to approve the permit.

Tapia appealed that decision to the county commission, which effectively suspended the process. The May 4 commission meeting in nearby Las Vegas, N.M., drew considerably more opposition; Kilmer's ranch manager, Pam Sawyer, appeared on his behalf.

"The majority of the discussion had to do with comments that Mr. Kilmer has made or not made," Tafoya recalled. The county commission voted to table Kilmer's application with the blessings of county attorney Jesus Lopez, who said the actor's "incendiary" remarks would "create a clear and present danger threatening public safety."

In an interview, Lopez defended the commission's action as an appropriate use of its police powers, calling Kilmer's remarks "grievously offensive to the Hispanic people."

Peter Simonson, executive director of the ACLU of New Mexico, offered to represent Kilmer based on what he called "a clear and obvious violation" of Kilmer's 1st Amendment rights.

Whatever issues Kilmer's neighbors might have "should be addressed through other channels," Simonson said. "He shouldn't be compelled to answer to the county commission like a chastened child."

Tapia, meanwhile, denies his problem with Kilmer has anything to do with ethnicity, saying his is a "rainbow" family that includes white in-laws.

"We didn't create this issue — it's the ACLU and him that created the issue," Tapia said. "He's not a person who's wanted here."

Haederle writes for The Times.

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