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Native Sun News: Plea deal reached for branding of Navajo man

The following story was written and reported by Kate Saltzstein. All content © Native Sun News.

FARMINGTON, NEW MEXICO. –– Two men accused of kidnapping and branding a swastika on a Navajo man have agreed to a plea bargain and face a maximum of eight-and-a-half years in prison.

Jesse Sanford, 25, and Paul Beebe, 27, pleaded guilty on July 19 to attempted kidnapping. Beebe also pleaded guilty to aggravated battery and Sanford to conspiracy to commit aggravated battery.

The men did this under an Alford plea whereby they do not admit guilt but agree that the state probably has enough evidence to convict them, said attorneys involved in the case. The plea agreement avoids a state trial.

But the men face a federal hate crimes trial in October along with a third man, William Hatch, 29 who was convicted in May of conspiracy to commit aggravated battery but cleared of more serious charges. Hatch faces a maximum sentence of 18 months.

The federal trial will be the first under the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act which could add time to their sentences.

Beebe, Sanford and Hatch were charged in May of 2010 with kidnapping, branding and drawing racist and sexist slogans and pictures on Vincent Kee, 23, who is considered to be mentally disabled. Kee is from Red Lake on the Navajo reservation.

Kee was eating dinner at a McDonald’s restaurant in Farmington where the three men worked. He went with them to an apartment after he finished his meal. There are questions about whether he went with the men willingly. A lawsuit against McDonald’s is pending. Deputy District Attorney Paul Wainwright, who represented the state of New Mexico in the case, and Cosme Ripol, Beebe’s attorney, expressed different views of the plea bargain. Terry Walker, the attorney for Sanford, was unavailable for comment.

Ripol said he could not disclose details of conversations with Beebe “but the facts clearly establish there was no racial animosity to this. However, the branding was over the top. All three men and Vincent Kee were having a good time. It was a fraternity prank that went over the top. Battery was committed. Because of the nature of the brand and (Kee’s) diminished capacity, an eight-and-a-half year plea was a fair compromise. Vincent Kee asked for the brand, and was not restricted. He sat there and received the branding.”

Both Ripol and Wainwright said that Kee and his family are relieved not to have to go to trial again after Hatch’s trial in May.

“It’s not easy on the family. Kee’s credibility would have been put into question. Noone wants to be attacked or have their credibility called into question,” Ripol said.

He added that the men, who had been drinking alcohol that night, made a video of the branding.

“An expert on tattooing and branding if brought as a witness (to trial) would have said that the swastika is body art that the younger generation is attracted to. No one’s trying to justify what happened and Mr. Beebe is taking responsibility where he thinks it is appropriate. However, because of the nature of the brand, there is an immediate reaction. There aren’t many taboos in American society like this one that is the specter of the Nazi regime and racism," Ripol said.

“There isn’t any rationale for this but the facts establish that this was not racially motivated. These were young guys yukking it up. One reason my client took the plea was no one would believe that this was a fraternity prank," Ripol said. "It was cruel. The three men were of Native American and Hispanic background who took advantage of a young man with limited capacity who wanted to feel accepted. “

Kee “was lonely and looking for a place to stay” when the three men invited him to come to one of the men’s apartment, Ripol continued. “All three started drawing. A swastika was drawn on Kee. He saw the swastika on my client (Beebe) and wanted one."

“On the surface what happened was a horrific crime. But at the end of the day, facts would have shown that there were other elements. Everyone’s in agreement that marking a young man of diminished capacity was inappropriate. It was taking advantage. Thus you have the Allford Plea. But nowhere is there hate crime or animus to the plea," Ripol said.

Ripol said that Kee does not always tell the truth. But Wainwright disagreed.

“Mr. Kee suffers from moderate to severe Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. He’s not always logical. He’s a disabled kid,” Wainwright said. “He did not do anything willingly. He was looking for a safe place to spend the night. If he was told he would be branded with a swastika he would not have gone willingly Noone would have wanted those words on them willingly.”

All three of the men who committed the crimes had prior felony convictions, Wainwright added.

“When you’re involved with proof beyond a reasonable doubt you see strengths and weaknesses on both sides. The plea offer was fair and reasonable,” Wainwright continued. “When you go to court you have to meet certain hurdles. Therein lies the compromise. We’re happy there will be no further (state) trial. It brings closure. The state’s case is over.”

As to Ripol’s contention that racism was not an issue in the case Wainwright said “The more pertinent issue was the disability. We can’t tell whether it was racism. The swastika is not a symbol we equate with love and harmony. But the case is done.”

If they had been tried in court and convicted, the two men could have faced 18 years in jail but with the plea agreement there are no appeals and no chance of another state trial, he added.

“The plea offer was fair and reasonable. It was in the very best interest of Vincent Kee not to testify again. A psychologist from the Indian Health Service said Kee was in a fragile mental state. This was a tragic event. It’s human nature to try to forget,” Wainwright said.

Duane Yazzie, chairman of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, disagreed with the idea that the crimes were a prank and not racially motivated.

“That’s ridiculous,” he said in a telephone interview. “It’s very obvious that these three guys knew exactly what they were intending to do. Their supposed expression of white supremacy is well demonstrated by this crime.”

He added that there seems to be a pattern across the country of leniency for racially-motivated crimes.

However, he also agreed that the plea agreement is helpful to Kee and his family. “I understand that Vincent’s family is in agreement. We have to be accepting of that and accept their conclusion,” Yazzie said.

(Kate Saltzstein can be reached at

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