Arizona Killing Fields: Monks from the East Meet Death in the West

Eric Kaplan investigates the recent murders at a Thai templeEric Kaplan

ON SATURDAY MORNING, August 10, 1991, Chawee Borders and her sister Somjit went to the monastery to cook food for monks, the most basic Thai devotional practice. She was late. Approximately 2,500 years ago the Buddha ruled in the Vinaya that monks cannot eat after 11 a.m. As she rushed to the kitchen and began to cook, Chawee noticed the orange-clothed figures lying in a circle on the floor. They were sleeping late, she thought, as she began to cook. Perhaps they were new monks who had arrived late the night before. Then she considered that something else was amiss. She left her sister cooking in the kitchen in order to take a closer look, and she saw that one monk was lying with his body touching the body of a nun, a serious offense according to the Vinaya. Somjit came out and saw the blood. The six monks, a nun, a novice, and a layman were not sleeping but dead—a few hours earlier they had been herded from their beds by grapeshot fired at them, forced to kneel down, and executed by assailants wearing latex gloves. Chawee pulled Somjit, who was screaming, by the arm out of the wat to a neighbor to call the police.

Although Carol Alteneder had lived next to the temple for three years, it took the tragedy to throw Chawee and Somjit into contact with her. In the past she had called the police when she saw the monks working on temple property, mistaking their orange robes for the dress of prisoners from the Arizona penitentiary. Over the next week, Thais would be forced to deal with the world of mainstream Americans who had jostled them and then passed on down the road, with the car radio tuned to a different station.

America had always been strange to them. In America people passed each other on the street and didn't smile, while in Thailand even people who never met addressed each other by family names—sister, brother, mother, or uncle. They made money and put on weight and also built a temple. They sent to Thailand for monks to live in it. Amid the feast of America, they wanted a Buddhist skeleton present to remind them that deep down all is impermanent, marked by suffering, and empty. Now dazed and terrified, they were too polite to evade the reporters who descended on them and who thought that monks wore gold jewelry or that the gilt concrete statue of the Buddha in the temple was solid gold.

For six days the Thais made the 15-mile journey from downtown Phoenix to the temple in the middle of a cotton field, and for six days they were turned back while the sheriff's men searched inside for clues. The bodies were taken to the morgue, and it eventually cost the Thai community $30,000 to reclaim them. "In my village when a monk died we put poison herbs in the body's mouth, and the spirit returned and told the monk who killed him. Here they won't let us touch the bodies," said Patrida Hempimarman, a waitress at the Spicy Thai Restaurant.

SIPA Press/Photo by Michael Meister

"I don't know. I don't understand. I don't believe," said Rattyaporn Phrapatpana, a Thai woman studying for a business degree in Phoenix, in response to the slayings. It was incomprehensible to the Thais that anyone would think to make monks, who are prohibited from holding money by the Vinaya, a target of robbery. On September 13, 1991, the Maricopa County sheriff's office arrested five men for the crimes. They said the five men, three of whom were later indicted by the grand jury, came from a high-crime neighborhood in Tucson, drove to Phoenix where they bought marijuana and crack, and then ransacked the temple looking for a cache of money. Then, according to the police, they executed the nine people one by one, perhaps to find what they believed were the temple's treasures or perhaps in anger at not finding any. Before they left, they stole two CD players, a camera, and two rings, and they carved the word blood, the name of the gang, on a piece of temple wall. Some speculated that they had been to the temple before and knew about the $5,900 in temple funds—$900 from community contributions and $5,000 left over from an account to host fifty Thai monks visiting the United States.

The police story was full of holes. The Arizona American Civil Liberties Union accused the sheriff's office of intimidating confessions out of the men by keeping them in isolation without food, water, or sleep. "It's the kind of thing that almost becomes a classic of everything you shouldn't do during an investigation," remarked Louis Shodes, executive director of the ACLU in Arizona. No physical evidence linking the accused to the murders, only a tip from a resident of a mental hospital who was known as Crazy Mike, whose friends regarded him as a habitual liar and who later denied the statement anyway. The other tip came from two boys who had been stealing watermelons in a nearby field. Supposedly they had kept quiet for thirteen days, because they were afraid of getting in trouble.

In November the Tucson men were released and two others were arrested. Jonathan Doody, 17, and Alex Garcia, 16, were linked to the crime by the physical evidence of rifles. Doody, who was half Thai and whose brother had spent time in Wat Promkhunaram, confessed to planning a robbery and killing the monks and others so there would be "no witnesses." Their lawyers and family members now say their confessions were coerced as well.

The sudden release deepened the sense of bafflement in the Thai community. "I can't think of it as a robbery," said Dr. Sunthorn Plamintr, a well educated monk who flew in from the Buddhidharma Meditation Center in Illinois for the funeral. "As long as we don't know the motive, the Thais will feel vulnerable." Whether the actual motive was hatred, self-hatred, or simple greed, the Thais of Arizona felt exposed against the white background of their state. Arizona is white enough that racist groups compare it to Forsythe, the all-white county in Georgia.

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