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Mother describes border vigilante killings in Arizona

Gina Gonzalez says her 9-year-old daughter, Brisenia Flores, pleaded for her life. Opening arguments begin in the trial of Shawna Forde of the Minutemen movement, who is accused in the killing of the girl and her father.

January 25, 2011|By Nicholas Riccardi, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Tucson — As her mother tells it, 9-year-old Brisenia Flores had begged the border vigilantes who had just broken into her house, "Please don't shoot me."

But they did — in the face at point-blank range, prosecutors allege, as Brisenia's father sat dead on the couch and her mother lay on the floor, pretending that she too had been killed in the gunfire.


FOR THE RECORD:
Border vigilante: A story in Wednesday's Section A on the trial of a border vigilante in Arizona accused of killing a 9-year-old girl and her father misidentified a defense attorney in the case. It is Eric Larsen, not Kevin Larson. —

Even as this city continues to mourn the victims in the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, another tragedy took center stage Tuesday, as opening arguments began in the trial of a member of a Minutemen group accused of killing Brisenia and her father, Raul Flores Jr.

Prosecutors allege that in May 2009, Shawna Forde decided to strike an odd alliance with drug dealers in southern Arizona: Forde would help the traffickers ransack their rivals' houses for stashes of drugs and cash, which could then fund her fledgling group, Minutemen American Defense.

She and another border vigilante, dressed in uniforms, identified themselves as law enforcement officers before bursting into the Flores home, prosecutors allege. If convicted, Forde could face the death penalty.

That second member of Forde's group is scheduled to go on trial next month, as is the alleged drug dealer with whom prosecutors say the Minutemen collaborated. But on Tuesday it was the turn of the woman who prosecutors contend masterminded the attack.

"Shawna Forde organized and planned this event," prosecutor Kellie L. Johnson told a Pima County Superior Court jury.

Forde's trial was almost delayed by the Giffords shooting. Her attorneys questioned whether an accused murderer allegedly driven by right-wing passions could get a fair trial here. The man charged in the Giffords rampage left behind a trail of writings with no coherent ideology, but Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik set off a national firestorm by insisting that Arizona's conservative politics played a role in that attack.

Forde's lawyer, Kevin Larson, told jurors that there is no evidence she was in the Flores house during the attack.

"The state will present to you absolutely no witnesses that will put her in that home on May 30," Larson said. He said his client was simply guilty of being "an exaggerator extraordinaire" for boasting of her plans to rob drug smugglers.

Forde spent several years as a bit player in the national Minutemen movement, a loose-knit affiliation of groups that believe that if the federal government cannot secure the border, armed citizens should do the job.

Prosecutors say that in April 2009, Forde told two members of the movement in Denver that she had linked up with drug dealers in the tiny town of Arivaca, Ariz., just north of the Mexican border and about 50 miles southwest of Tucson. She proposed helping the dealers raid a rival's house, which would be full of drug profits she could steal, prosecutors allege.

The plan so alarmed the members, prosecutors say, that they contacted the FBI. But Larson said it was such an obviously outlandish idea that the FBI did nothing with it.

On Tuesday, Johnson and Brisenia's mother, Gina Gonzalez, outlined the chilling sequence of events in the attack.

Shortly before 1 a.m. on May 30, 2009, Gonzalez was woken by her husband, who told her that police seemed to be at the door. The two went to the front room, where their daughter Brisenia was sleeping on the couch so she could be close to her new dog.

There were two people in camouflage outside — a short, heavyset woman who did all the talking and a tall man carrying a rifle and pistol, his face blackened by greasepaint, Gonzalez said. The woman told them they were accused of harboring fugitives and needed to open the door.

Once the pair were inside, the man —identified by authorities as Jason Bush — told Flores, "Don't take this personal, but this bullet has your name on it," Gonzalez testified Tuesday.

According to testimony, Bush shot Flores, then Gonzalez. Gonzalez was hit in the shoulder and leg and slumped to the floor. She testified that she played dead as she heard Bush pump more bullets into her husband as Brisenia woke up.

"Why did you shoot my dad?" the girl asked, sobbing, according to Gonzalez's testimony. "Why did you shoot my mom?"

Gonzalez said she heard Bush slowly reload his gun and that he then ignored Brisenia's pleas and fired.

More men entered the house and ransacked the place. After they left, Gonzalez called 911. On a tape of the recording, played for the jury Tuesday, she suddenly realized that the attackers were returning, and crawled to the kitchen to grab her husband's gun.

Prosecutors say Bush came back in and fired on Gonzalez, who returned fire and apparently hit him, forcing him to retreat.

Gonzalez testified that the woman in the house looked like Forde, but she said she couldn't definitively say it was her "because I don't know her personally." She failed to identify Forde in a police lineup after the shooting.

Forde had Gonzalez's wedding ring and jewelry with her when she was arrested days after the shooting, authorities say. Shortly after her arrest, members of the Minutemen movement disavowed her, saying they did not trust her and that she had stayed on its fringes.

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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