Letter criticizes FBI’s handling of Terlingua attack

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.

—  Kevin Thomas

Suspects in possible hate crime indicted

From NewsWest 9
From NewsWest 9

Unfortunately I didn’t catch this before we went to press yesterday, so I wasn’t able to include it in this story, but it looks as though the two suspects in a possible recent anti-gay hate crime in far west Texas have been indicted. NewsWest 9 reports that Daniel Martinez, 46, and Kristopher Buchanan, 27, were indicted by a grand jury Wednesday on charges of aggravated sexual assault, aggravated kidnapping, aggravated robbery and arson. Three of these four charges are first-degree felonies, meaning there is no penalty enhancement available under Texas’ hate crimes statute, so it’s unlikely that the district attorney would prosecute the case as a hate crime. However, as I reported here, the FBI plans to investigate the case and could file its own federal hate crimes charges under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. As you may have guessed, the Brewster County sheriff still hasn’t returned any of my phone calls about this case, and I have a Freedom of Information request pending with his office. I also plan to file a request with the local courts. Stay tuned.

—  John Wright

FBI monitoring possible Big Bend hate crime

Towleroad is reporting that a Marfa man is organizing a rally tonight in support of the 18-year-old victim of the possible recent anti-gay hate crime in Texas’ Big Bend area. The rally will be at 6 p.m. in front of the Marfa courthouse, according to an e-mail the Marfa man sent to Towleroad. Marfa is in the county immediately west of Brewster County, where the crime occurred. The man who’s organizing the rally, James, notes that one of the suspects is being held on only $35,000 bond, meaning he’ll be released if he can post $3,500.

Meanwhile, despite four days worth of phone messages, I still haven’t heard back from Brewster County Sheriff Ronnie Dodson, whose office is investigating the case. I filed a request Friday under the Texas Open Records Act seeking documents related to the case. Dodson has 10 days to respond to my request. Also Friday, I left messages with the FBI to find out whether they’re aware of the crime, and it turns out they are. Remember, the hate crimes law passed in October allows the federal government to intervene in cases of anti-gay hate crimes. I received a return message this morning from Matthew Espenshade, supervising agent in the FBI’s Midland office. Here’s what Espenshade said:

“What I can say about it right now is that we are working with the Brewster County’s Sheriff’s Office, monitoring the situation, and determining whether there was any hate crime involved in the incident, if it would it would rise to that level. We’re now going to be making that determination along with the Department of Justice at some point here. We are aware of the situation and monitoring it and we’ll assist in any investigative measures that are appropriate.”

—  John Wright

Brewster County sheriff acknowledges that teen's kidnapping, rape is possible hate crime

I’ve left another message for Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson this morning, and his secretary assures me that this time he’ll call me back. In the meantime, take a peak at this story from CBS 7 in Odessa, in which the sheriff for the first time acknowledges publicly that the brutal kidnapping and rape of an 18-year-old man in Terlingua over the weekend may have been an anti-gay hate crime:

“He was allegedly knocked out, thrown into his own car, driven out to the desert where he was sexually assaulted and his car was lit on fire,” said Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson.

The victim was then taken to a house in Terlingua Ranch, where investigators say he was sexually assaulted again.

“He was able to find a break and escape and ran out in the desert with nothing but a pair of flip-flops on,” said Dodson.

An organization called Equality Texas says this has all the makings of a hate crime.

“Right now we haven’t determined the hate crime part of it — it is a possibility but until we’ve conducted full interviews with everybody, we’re holding off on all that,” Dodson continued.

—  John Wright

Sheriff fails to return phone calls about possible hate crime in Big Bend area

Daniel Martinez
Daniel Martinez

There isn’t much new information today in the kidnapping and sexual assault of a teenager in the Big Bend area of Texas on Sunday. Based on information obtained by Dallas Voice over the last few days, the newspaper is classifying the incident as a possible anti-gay hate crime. My report from yesterday has been picked up by Queerty and Towleroad, two national LGBT blogs. On a side note, Queerty didn’t even credit Dallas Voice, as if they just stumbled on the monthly Big Bend Gazette by accident.

Anyhow, Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson has failed to return multiple phone messages left by Dallas Voice since the newspaper learned about the crime Wednesday morning. A woman who answered the phone on Thursday afternoon said the sheriff was out of the office and to try back Friday morning. The woman said there’s no other way of getting in touch with the sheriff, and that he’s the only one who can release information about the case.

I’m willing to give the sheriff a little time and the benefit of the doubt here, but let’s just hope he isn’t ignoring my phone calls because he’s trying to cover up a brutal hate crime for PR reasons. If you’d like to call the Brewster County Sheriff’s Department and express your concern about this case, the main number is 432-837-3488.

Both The Alpine Avalanche newspaper and Midland’s NewsWest 9 are reporting today that the victim is 18, not 19 as previously reported, and that he is a student. NewsWest 9 has also posted a photo of one of the suspects, Daniel Martinez (shown above). Martinez, who has a lengthy arrest record, is  charged with sexual assault. The other suspect, 27-year-old Kristopher Buchanan, is being held on an outstanding warrant but is also expected to face charges in Sunday’s attack.

I’ve been unable to confirm rumors that the sexual assault involved the victim being sodomized with a tire iron. According to media reports, the victim met the two suspects at the Boathouse bar in Terlingua Ghost Town, near the Texas-Mexico border and the Big Bend National Forest. The suspects reportedly hit the teen over the back of the head and kidnapped him. The suspects drove the victim in his own car to a remote location in south Brewster County, before sexually assaulting him and burning the car. They then took him to a private residence, where they again sexually assaulted him before he managed to escape.

The victim crossed 3 miles of harsh desert terrain on foot to a highway, where he was eventually found by a sheriff’s deputy at about 1 a.m. Monday. NewsWest 9 reports that the victim was bleeding and bruised, and that he was taken to Big Bend Regional Medical Center in Alpine, where it was confirmed that he’d been sexually assaulted. He was treated and released.

Again, there are more questions than answers about this case at this point, but I think the public has a right to know what’s going on, so I would urge the Brewster County Sheriff’s Office to come forward and provide more information as soon as possible. As Randall Terrell from Equality Texas noted yesterday, this all sounds eerily similar to the Matthew Shepard case. It also brings back memories of Brandon Teena, the transgender man whose murder was the subject of the film, “Boy’s Don’t Cry.”

Brewster County reportedly is the largest county in the U.S. in terms of land area, but it’s very sparsely populated. The area where the victim is kidnapped is primarily a tourist destination. John Waters, publisher of The Big Bend Gazette, told me yesterday that residences in the southern part of the county are typically miles apart and don’t even have addresses.

“It’s absolutely shocking,” Waters said of the crime. “I have never encountered a case as violent as this. In the seven years that I’ve been here and doing this, we have had one murder and prior to that one murder, no one could really remember when the last murder was.”

Waters said there are LGBT people in Brewster County, some out and some closeted. But he said he doesn’t think Big Bend is a hostile place for them.

“If you can survive in the desert and figure out how to make a living and figure out how to deal with 115 degree temperatures, nobody cares about the rest,” Waters said.

—  John Wright