BISHOP, Calif. – Shock, fear and anger rocked the Bishop Paiute reservation recently when letters left at the tribe’s education complex threatened to “kidnap, rape and dismember” young Paiute girls, aged 5 to 9.
Three original letters, typed in red ink with a cover sheet signed “KKK,” were left at the tribe’s gymnasium and on the baseball field adjacent to the tribe’s Head Start program and daycare center. Other copies were tossed on nearby roadsides, ‘according to the tribe’s chief of law enforcement services, Cal Stafford.
The letters sparked a firestorm of outrage and anxiety on the reservation and in the surrounding city of Bishop, a small rustic town in the Sierra Nevadas.
Addressed to the Paiute tribe, the letters promised retaliation for “your half-witted bucks taking another white life” and alluded to crimes involving tribal members dating back a decade. The letters were turned over to the Inyo County Sheriff’s office, which notified the FBI.
“This is a terrorist threat,” said Bishop Paiute Vice Chairman Sandra Warlie, who spearheaded efforts to inform and protect tribal members. “Whoever did this meant to put fear in our hearts by targeting our children. We are stepping up security measures and we will do everything we can to protect our people.”
The threats are believed to be retribution for the death of a white liquor store manager, Dave Pettet, 48, who was allegedly shot by tribal member Wayne Bengochia in an alcohol-related incident four days before the letters were found. Begochia, 48, was charged with homicide and is awaiting trial.
Stafford said it appeared that the author of the letter was trying to create racial tensions by exploiting Pettet’s death as a crime against white people; ironically, Pettet was once married to an American Indian woman with whom he had two children.
“This tragedy was not about race,” Stafford said, “but someone’s hoping to set off a race war by twisting things to turn people against the Paiutecommunity.”
As word of the letters spread through the reservation, parents feared for their children’s safety. Dozens of children were kept home from school, and many fathers and brothers on the reservation began arming themselves to protect their families.
The Bishop Paiute Tribal Council immediately held a safety meeting with tribal, state and federal officials in attendance to brief tribal members on the contents of the letters and to call for appropriate precautions.
Speaking to more than 600 people in a packed gymnasium, Chairman Michael Rogers said the tribe would use all its resources to protect families. He cautioned everyone to be especially vigilant in coming weeks and encouraged people not to be “held hostage to fear.”
At the meeting, Monty Bengochia, Wayne’s brother, confirmed Pettet’s death was not racially motivated. In a heartfelt condolence message to the Pettet family, he asked that the tribe not be blamed for the random act of violence committed by one individual.
“I want to plead with all of you as we endure this tragedy not to get caught up in hatred and retaliation,” he said. “We worked for many years to build relationships with the surrounding white community and we need to think about setting examples for our children.”
Dave Pettet’s children, James and A.J., told the crowd that their father was not a prejudiced person and that they held no anger or animosity against the Bengochia family.
“My father would never want anyone to use him as a reason for violence against Indian children,” said James. “He wasn’t racist-just look at us, his half-white, half-Indian children. Whoever wrote those letters didn’t know my dad. We came here today to let everyone know we don’t blame the Bengochia family. We all need to get through this together.”
After he spoke, James and his family hugged members of the Bengochia family, setting the tone for good will rather than retaliation.
Police and school officials described additional safety measures put in place, including increased patrols at schools, bus stops and on the reservation. Parents were told that children should not walk home using hidden trails, and that family members should accompany children to and from bus stops.
And while some law enforcement officials played down the possibility that Klu Klux Klan members wrote the letters, others were not so sure.
“I lost my son to the Aryan Nation,” Stafford told the crowd. “My son was beaten to death by the Aryan Nation in 2001 when he was only 18 years old …”
Stafford was the Paiute Tribe’s administrator when his son, Christopher, was beaten to death in Bakersfield, Calif. where he had gone to buy a car. The FBI had warned Stafford that he and a former tribal chairman had been put on the Aryan Nation’s hit list because they were trying to recover land that had been illegally taken years before. No one was ever prosecuted for Chris Stafford’s death, and the crime remains unsolved.
Following the community meeting, Warlie met with local officials from the city of Bishop, Inyo County and the school district in an effort to bring the community together to take a stand against hate crimes.
Prominent members of the tribe, the city of Bishop and Inyo County released the following joint statement condemning hate crimes and calling for the protection of all children in the community:
“In an effort to promote unity and cooperation, we have come together to issue a joint statement condemning hate crimes, racism or any act of violence against any member of the Inyo County community, especially our children.
“We have worked long and hard over many years to achieve a peaceful community reflecting tolerance, understanding, acceptance and respect that allows us to live and work together for the benefit of all people. Threats against any child or any acts of violence in our community will not be tolerated.
“We ask all our neighbors and friends to join us in helping to secure the quality of life we all have enjoyed.”
As the community adjusts to the heightened sense of security, many hope that this was a onetime incident perpetrated by one individual. But the incident also raised new questions about the ever-growing presence of white supremacist groups in rural areas, particularly near Indian reservations.