ALBUQUERQUE – With cuts and bruises on his face, back and shoulders, Jerome Eskeets frantically told police about the violent assault he barely survived the night before.
Eskeets, in his 30s, had been sleeping in an empty lot on Albuquerque’s west side. Nearby lay his friends and relations, Allison Gorman and Kee Thompson, also members of the Navajo Nation, Diné, the People.
They didn’t make it. Police found their bludgeoned bodies soon after talking to Eskeets.
Three years have passed since the brutal murders of Gorman and Thompson, both in their 40s. Like Eskeets, Thompson didn’t have a place to stay at the time. Gorman had been given a motel voucher, but according to a family member, he gave it to someone else.
“He was that kind of guy, always helping out when he could,” his relative recalled in court years later.
Three Hispanic youths—Alex Rios, Nathaniel Carrillo and Gilbert Tafoya—were indicted for their murders. They say they did it for the “fun” of it. Tafoya said it was a way of relieving stress for him.
The judicial system is closing the case soon. Tafoya is the last to face sentencing in December. But the vicious murders, which garnered splashy headlines and led newscasts for a few fleeting days as the horrors of what happened in that west side lot came to light, betray deep obstacles for Native people in Albuquerque and around the state.
“A large part of this is the backlash of not getting services back home. There are no jobs or housing. There are not enough services, especially crisis services. [Here,] there is mistreatment, profiling and discrimination. I have seen it. I feel hopeless about it,” testified Beaver North Cloud, a tribal health advocate, at a public hearing conducted by the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission a few months after the murders.
When homelessness hits, so does violence.
In the only study that appears to exist, data collected by the city’s Heading Home project show Native Americans experiencing homelessness were more vulnerable to violence. Of 136 homeless Native people surveyed, 76 percent reported being attacked on the streets, compared to 61 percent of the surveyed group as a whole. The report came out the summer Thompson and Gorman were murdered.
Native advocates point to historic prejudicial attitudes as an underlying cause.
“We see so much racism directed at Native Americans in border towns,” said Melissa Tso (Diné) during a street rally in memory of Gorman and Thompson a year after the murders.
In the charged aftermath of their deaths in July 2014, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry set up a task force, hired a tribal liaison, re-established the Commission on Indian Affairs and supported a community health center to allay the public outcry and, ostensibly, address the deeper issues facing Native people in the city.
SFR and New Mexico In Depth observed more than 50 hours of court testimony, conducted more than 20 interviews and reviewed hundreds of pages of court and police records to measure the success of Berry’s efforts—and to shine a light on the systems in which Gorman’s and Thompson’s deaths took place.
As Berry prepares to leave office Dec. 1, Native advocates and community members say progress has been made on the list of tasks, but some ask for proof that any of it is making a difference.
“Everywhere you look, you see people on the streets, sleeping in the parks, sleeping on the door fronts. Obviously, we are not doing enough, because there are too many homeless, far too many homeless,” said Lisa Lucero, a member of the Albuquerque community, during a break hosting a drum circle at a gathering to meet the mayoral candidates this past summer.
The two men vying to replace Berry at City Hall, Democratic state Auditor Tim Keller and Republican City Councilor Dan Lewis, promise to follow through and make more changes. They suggest outreach, behavioral health services and equal representation in City Hall.
“We talk about disparities, and one of the biggest areas that are lacking is our Native American community in terms of jobs at the city and in leadership. I very much want to change that,” Keller said during a candidate forum in September at the Albuquerque Press Club.
The Native population on the street in Albuquerque is vastly overrepresented.
While Native Americans make up around 6 percent of the city population, they represent 15 to 17 percent of the homeless community, according to city stats. Last year, a city report documented that city staff reached out to more than 1,000 homeless Native American adults and their children, with another 47 children out there alone.
But Ambrose Ashley and Priscilla Jim, both Diné, said there could be more.
They mention some people don’t want to be found and others stay with relatives or friends. As Ashley drove the side streets off Central Avenue, Jim pointed out numerous places where the homeless Native community hangs out.
“I know,” said Jim. “Those are the places I hung out while I was on the streets.”
While Mayor Berry tackled some of his plan, chronic homelessness for Native Americans and violence on the streets persists, NMID and SFR found.
To document incidents of violence against Native Americans in the city, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission held a public hearing at the Albuquerque Indian Center Dec. 4, 2014, almost six months after the murders of Thompson and Gorman.
During the day-long session, dozens of tribal members testified that they had been assaulted and treated inhumanely by city residents, business owners, the police and, at times, other tribal members.
“People are dying out here in the urban communities and there is a lot of hopelessness amongst people who are homeless,” testified Roz Carroll, a Diné advocate, parent and grandmother who spoke out at gathering.
Advocates and Native people in the city said government efforts to date—and promises to push further from the two Albuquerque mayoral hopefuls—are welcome.
But history must be dealt with, too, said Dr. Lloyd Lee, one of five commissioners for the re-established Commission on Indian Affairs. Lee, Diné, is also an associate professor in UNM’s Native American Studies program. He explained that too often, when violence occurs against Indigenous people, superficial reasons like “having fun” are accepted and not questioned.
“It’s called internalized colonization,” said Edwin Gonzalez-Santin, director of the Office of American Indian Projects at Arizona State University’s School of Social Work.
“Border town culture operates according to the common sense of colonization. In a nation like the US where Indigenous peoples are not only still alive but active in politics, the US nervously continues to colonize them in order to reinforce its supremacy—indeed, its very existence—over a land that is not entirely its own,” wrote Melanie Yazzie in an Indian Country Todayeditorial.
“We don’t realize the way we see each other, treat each other, view things in life has been impacted by historical attitudes,” continues Lee. “They are in our institutions, ideologies and education systems. They surface as stereotypes, bias, racism, bigotry, whatever you want to name it.”
“I can see how they played a huge role on how these individuals [Rios, Carrillo, Tafoya] saw these men [Thompson and Gorman],” he added.