Letter criticizes FBI’s handling of Terlingua attack

Posted on 22 Jul 2010 at 7:00pm

Crime victim’s advocate says agents ‘re-victimized’ victim of anti-gay kidnapping, rape in South Texas

Daniel Phillip Martinez

John Wright  |  Online Editor wright@dallasvoice.com

TERLINGUA, Brewster County — During one of the FBI’s first investigations under a new federal hate crimes law that protects LGBT people, agents are accused of “re-victimizing” the victim by insinuating that he was to blame for his own kidnapping and rape.

The 18-year-old male victim, whom sources describe as bisexual, was kidnapped in December by two men at a bar in Terlingua Ghost Town, a tourist destination near Big Bend National Park and the Texas-Mexico border.

The attackers took the victim to a remote location, set fire to his vehicle and repeatedly sexually assaulted him before he managed to escape, crossing 3 miles of harsh desert terrain on foot to get help.

Kristapher Dale Buchanan, 27, and Daniel Phillip Martinez, 46, were arrested and charged with aggravated sexual assault, aggravated robbery, aggravated kidnapping and arson. They remain in jail awaiting trial.

A week after the Dec. 6 incident, an FBI agent in Midland confirmed to Dallas Voice that his office was investigating it as a possible hate crime under the federal Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, passed in October.

Then, in February, a local crime victim’s advocate sent a letter to the FBI’s Midland office, complaining about agents’ conduct during interviews with the victim.

The crime victim’s advocate, an employee of a nonprofit social services agency, has worked closely with the victim throughout the ordeal. He spoke about the case and provided a copy of the letter to Dallas Voice on the condition of anonymity.

“My client indicated that your agent suggested that the victim must have misled people, resulting in a violent sexual assault,” the victim’s advocate wrote to the FBI, adding that “the wearing of short pants, any sort of suggestive looks, or having some drinks” aren’t excuses for sexual assault.

“There is no excuse for sexual assault,” the victim’s advocate wrote to the FBI in the letter dated Feb. 18. “Agents must not re-victimize an already traumatized victim of a sexual assault, by allowing any sort of prejudices to influence the investigation. … A poorly handled investigation can ruin years of community trust that your agency works extremely hard to instill in the public, and that makes your job and mine that much harder the next time someone cries out for help.”

Matt Espenshade, senior supervisory resident agent in the FBI’s Midland office, said in response to the letter, he initiated an internal investigation, interviewing the agents involved and forwarding his findings to superiors. Espenshade said he would check on the status of the internal investigation and provide more information, but he hadn’t done so by press time.

Espenshade said he doesn’t believe the agents said or did anything inappropriate during two separate interviews with the victim. He declined to discuss the scope of the interviews or findings of the hate crime investigation in detail.

“I feel that we conducted ourselves in a very appropriate manner,” Espenshade said. “I’m empathetic to the victim. If that’s the way he walked out of there feeling, then I’m sorry. But I still stand by [my position that] the conduct of the agents during the course of the investigation was professional and necessary for the pursuit of the truth.”

The victim, who reportedly is now staying in Midland, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

The FBI has concluded its hate crime investigation and turned over its findings to the Department of Justice, which will decide whether to pursue federal charges, Espenshade said.

A spokeswoman for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division said, “The Department of Justice is monitoring the local investigation and prosecution, and I have no further comment.”

The victim’s advocate, along with two gay clergy members who recently visited the area, all said they believe the victim was targeted because of his actual or perceived sexual orientation.

The Rev. Stephen Sprinkle, a Dallas resident and faculty member at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, traveled to Terlingua earlier this month with the Rev. Harry Knox, director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Religion and Faith Program.

“I’m convinced it’s a hate crime,” said Sprinkle, who’s also spoken by phone with victim on more than one occasion. “He said they were shouting anti-gay epithets while they were torturing him. I think he was targeted because he was perceived as weak and vulnerable.”

Sprinkle described the victim’s sexual orientation as “ambiguous,” but Knox noted that under the law, it doesn’t matter.

“What matters was that the perception was there that he was different, and because of the difference, he was made a victim, so it’s certainly a hate crime,” Knox said.

Sprinkle and Knox, who spent three days in the area, said they’re satisfied that local authorities have investigated the case thoroughly and intend to prosecute it vigorously.

Brewster County District Attorney Jesse Gonzales Jr. couldn’t be reached for comment. It’s unlikely that the case will be prosecuted as a hate crime under state law because there is no penalty enhancement available if the offense is already a first-degree felony.

Knox and Sprinkle also said they were impressed with the level of support for the victim among residents of Brewster County, regardless of his sexual orientation.

Knox described the crime victim’s advocate who’s been helping the young man as a “hero.” And he said the advocate’s complaint against the FBI calls attention to the need for training.

“HRC is a part of a process whereby people are being trained around the country to the new law, which gives us yet another opportunity to sensitize people to issues of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Knox said. “This case presents an opportunity for us to make the case to the federal government for why that training really has to be robust.”

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition July 23, 2010.

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