Monday, August 15, 2011

Brisenia Flores is at eternal rest while two of her three killers face an uncertain future

Raul & Brisenia
Undocumented persons who enter the United States illegally have raised concerns among certain elements of the population in recent times. Ironically, it was the brutal murder of a 9-year-old Hispanic American born and raised in the rural southern Arizona community of Arivaca by persons affiliated with an anti-immigration splinter group that momentarily struck a raw nerve in our society.

Home invasion

During an early morning invasion of the home Raul “Junior” Flores and Gina Gonzalez, staged by Shawna Forde, founder of Minuteman American Defense, Jason Bush, a white supremacist and reputed local drug dealer Albert Gaxiola, the lives of Junior and his daughter, Brisenia, were snuffed out when they were brutally shot and killed and Gina was severely wound by two gunshots

If not for the desire to attend a birthday party in Arivaca for another young Hispanic American on May 30, 2009, Brisenia might still be with us. Otherwise, Brisenia might have stayed the night of May 29-30 with her maternal grandparents in the Santo Tomas area of the town of Sahuarita and avoided a brutal murder, as did her older sister Alexandra, who had also been invited to the same birthday party, but decided not to attend.

Gina Gonzalez
Brisenia and her parents, Junior and Gina, had traveled the 40-plus miles from Arivaca to Tucson the afternoon of May 29, 2009, to shop and to pay bills. Gina testified during the three trials for Forde, Bush and Gaxiola, that Brisenia was going to attend summer school in the Sahuarita Unified School District, thus she needed new shoes. They had also hoped to stop by a bank in order to procure a money order to pay charges recently placed on a credit card for a vacation trip the family had taken. Brisenia got her new shoes, but the banks were closed by the time they arrived in Tucson, so the bill went unpaid.

On the way home to Arivaca, the Flores family stopped at the home of Gina’s mother and father in Santo Tomas. Alexandra and Gina’s younger sister, Diana, were expected to return to Arivaca that night, but Alexandra persuaded her parents to allow her to stay another night at her grandparents and Diana was not feeling well and decided not to make the trip. Those decisions possibly saved their lives, as the death toll could have been five instead of two.

What brought together an Hispanic family of born-and-bread American citizens and a the leader of a splinter border-watch group from the state of Washington, a white supremacist from Oregon and a reputed drug dealer from Arivaca? It’s simple, greed and financial gain.

Cast of characters

Shawna Forde had come to the Arizona/Mexico border to participate in efforts to stem illegal immigration from Mexico after failed careers as a teenage prostitute, a manufacturing job at Boeing Aircraft and an unsuccessful election attempt to become a member of the Everett, Wash., city council.

Jason Bush had come to southern Arizona after being “recruited” by Forde. Forde thought she had found Bush, but there are indications that he sought her out hoping to gain sought favorable capital with federal law enforcement agencies looking into Forde’s activities on the border. Bush is a self-proclaimed white supremacist who masqueraded as a former army ranger and black ops secret agent with the self-proclaimed nickname of “Gunny” a shorthand referral to the rank of gunnery sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps.

Albert Gaxiola as not born or raised in Arivaca, but had lived on-and-off in that southern Arizona community since his late teens drawn by the easy money of drug smuggling introduced to him by his mother and grandfather. Gaxiola and Forde reportedly met one night in the local watering hole, La Gitana Cantina where trial testimony indicated that Forde had picked a cigarette from Gaxiola’s lips and crushed it on the floor demonstrating to him that she was a person with a plan that would benefit him and her.

Albert Gaxiola
(pool photo by Benjie
Sanders/Arizona Daily Star)

After Forde was kicked out of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps she founded Minuteman American Defense (MAD). It’s one thing to found an organization and it’s another thing to generate the funding to pay for that organization’s activities. That’s where her encounter with Gaxiola at the bar provided her with a plan that she hoped would provide the funds for her organization.

Sheriff Clarence W.
Forde learned from Gaxiola that he was one of the local drug smugglers who had perceived competition in the person of Junior Flores. Early in the investigation of the fatal home invasion, Pima County Sheriff Clarence W. Dupnik told media representatives that Flores was “a large dealer” who likely had connections to large Mexican drug cartels and that Flores “has a history of being involved in narcotics.” Dupnik provided no tangible evidence other than his comments to back up those claims and a search of local court records yielded no indication of previous arrests, prosecutions or convictions on drug-related charges for Flores. When asked during the Forde trial Gina denied that her husband was a drug dealer. Detectives, however, found plastic wrapping materials commonly used for packaging marijuana in a barn on the Flores family property. Arivaca residents who testified during all three trials said it was common knowledge that Junior was a drug dealer. It would appear that while Junior was not convicted in a court of law, he had been judged to be guilty in the court of public opinion in the community of Arivaca.

Oin Oakstar
(pool photo by Benjie
Sanders/Arizona Daily

Gaxiola and his drug-smuggling partner, Oin Oakstar, looked upon Junior Flores as their competition, pure and simple. Oakstar testified at all three trials that both he and Gaxiola schemed for several months about ways to eliminate, a polite word of kill, Flores thus removing him as their competition in the marijuana smuggling business. However, Oakstar testified that the killing of Flores and his daughter during the May 30, 2009, home invasion were a breach of the so-called “Arivaca Rules.” Those rules, according to Oakstar, were that the killing of a rival drug dealer was a cost of doing business. At the same time, according to Oakstar the “Arivaca Rules” specify that the rival drug dealer’s wife and children are off-limits.

Forde tried to recruit help in her get rich scheme from some fellow “minutemen” in Colorado. They turned out to be informants for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who testified at her trial. These informants met with Forde and she told them that she had a “scout” in Arivaca looking at potential targets where money and drugs could be easily taken. Forde also told the FBI informants that she wanted to start her own organization on a model similar to the private military-style security firm known as Blackwater and that the funding would come from taking down drug smugglers in southern Arizona. They told her they would consider her proposal, privately chuckling about it later. These informants contacted their handlers in Denver who contacted the FBI Office in Phoenix. They even supplied the FBI with a map of potential targets in Arivaca. That map disappeared from the FBI evidence locker in Phoenix and at last report had been destroyed.

Plans set in motion

Fast-forward to the afternoon of May 29, 2009. Gina and Brisenia are in the front yard of their home looking for a missing set of keys. A teal-colored Astro van drives by very slowly with Bush behind the wheel and Forde in the front passenger seat. What Gina did not know until later was that the van belonged to Gaxiola and Oakstar was crouched down behind Forde and Bush guiding them as they scoped out the Flores home.

Later that night, Gaxiola returned to Arivaca from Tucson and stopped by the home where Oakstar was staying with his girlfriend. Oakstar convinced Gaxiola that he was too drunk and full of drugs to go along on the operation to take out Junior Flores. Oakstar testified that he and Gaxiola had discussed killing Junior by sniper. Given the activities earlier in the day, Oakstar suspected there would be a different approach to killing Junior. Sometime between 12:30 and 1 a.m., Forde and Bush banged on the front door of the Flores home demanding entrance in the guise of law enforcement officers searching for escapees.


Once inside the Flores home, Junior, Gina and Brisenia were confronted in the living room. Junior was the first to be killed as Bush shot him six times with a .45 caliber handgun that has never been found. Gina was shot twice, first in the right leg breaking the femur and then in the right chest as she is falling to the ground. That bullet exited under her right breast. Gina had a titanium rod inserted in her femur from the hip to the knee.

Up until that point, Brisenia had been asleep on the love seat in the living room and she started to wake up as her mother pretended to be dead on the floor. Bush questioned Brisenia as to the whereabouts of her sister Alexandra pointing to Gina asking if she was her sister. Brisenia becomes upset when she realized that her mother and father appeared to be dead. Bush reloaded his .45 caliber handgun and shoots Brisenia twice in the face. Bush claimed Gaxiola gave him the handgun he used to kill Junior and his daughter and that he did so as Forde and Gaxiola pointed their weapons at him.

While pretending to be dead, Gina heard her daughter killed, the last sounds of her husband’s life ending and the search of her home. Gina heard two additional males enter her home speaking in Spanish. Later, she recognized one of the voices as that of Gaxiola. The fourth person she heard in her home has never been identified or charged.


After searching for drugs and money, but not finding any, the Fore, Bush, Gaxiola and the unidentified male leave the Flores home. Gina manages to get up and check on the condition of Brisenia and she called 9-1-1 on her phone. Despite her leg wound, Gina made her way to the kitchen and retrieved a .40 caliber handgun kept there by Junior. The home invaders reentered the Flores home when they realized that an AK-47 rifle had been left behind. Such a rifle with DNA from Gaxiola, Forde and Bush was found on the stove in the kitchen of the Flores home. A gunfight ensued between Gina and Bush with Bush sustaining a gunshot wound to his leg. His blood was found outside of the Flores home and in the teal blue van.

Chuck Stonex
The morning of May 30, 2009, Oakstar was asked to take pain medication to Gaxiola’s home for Bush. Detectives arrested Oakstar as he walked back to where he was staying in Arivaca. Forde contacted another minuteman crony from New Mexico who was in Arizona to attend a cookout in Hereford. She asked Chuck Stonex to purchase some medical supplies and to come to Arivaca to attend to Bush’s leg wound.

Laine Lawless attempted to
enter the courtroom in
disguise despite being a
On the evening of May 30, Stonex and Laine Lawless, founder of Border Guardians, traveled to Arivaca to attend to Bush’s gunshot wound and for Lawless to meet Forde. Stonex testified that he met Lawless for the first time at the cookout in Hereford. In Arivaca, Stonex treated the Bush leg wound and Lawless agreed to take a set of keys for Forde’s car to Gaxiola in Tucson. The next day, Gaxiola drove Forde’s car to Arivaca and Forde and Bush went to Tucson where they spent the night in a motel after Stonex joined them for dinner. Within the next couple of weeks, Forde was arrested in Cochise County. Bush was arrested outside of Kingman and Gaxiola was taken into custody in Tucson.


Forde was the first defendant tried before Judge John S. Leonardo in Pima County Superior Court. She was convicted on all eight counts including the two counts of first-degree murder. The jury sentenced her to death on both murder counts and Leonardo sentenced her to an additional 65 years in prison on the other six counts. The death penalty convictions and sentences were automatically appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court.

Bush was the next defendant to be tried. He was convicted on all eight counts including the two counts of first-degree murder. The jury sentenced him to death on both murder counts and Leonardo sentenced him to an additional 78 years in prison on the other six counts. The death penalty convictions and sentences were automatically appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court.

Judge John S. Leonardo
Gaxiola was the third and final defendant to be tried. He was convicted on all eight counts including the two counts of first-degree murder. The jury sentenced him to life in prison for the murder of Junior Flores, but was unable to decide the appropriate sentence for the murder of Brisenia. The prosecution could have asked the court for a new jury to be empaneled to hear evidence regarding the appropriate penalty, however the prosecution decided to withdraw its notice to seek the death penalty allowing Leonardo to sentence Gaxiola on the two murder convictions as well as the other six counts. For the murder of Brisenia Flores, Gaxiola was sentenced to natural life in prison. For the murder of Raul Flores he was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of applying for parole after serving 25 calendars years. On the remaining six counts, Gaxiola received 54 years in prison to be served consecutively to the sentences in the two murder counts.

Gaxiola sentenced natural life in prison

Albert Gaxiola
(pool photo by Mamta
Daily Star)

Pima County Superior Court Judge John S. Leonardo sentenced former Arivaca resident Albert Robert Gaxiola, Monday morning, to natural life in the Arizona Department of Corrections for the May 30, 2009, murder of 9-year-old Brisenia Flores during a home invasion in Arivaca.

In addition, Gaxiola was sentenced to life in prison with the opportunity to apply for parole after serving 25 calendar years for the murder of Raul “Junior” Flores, Brisenia’s father.

On July 1, a Pima County Superior Court jury returned guilty verdicts against Gaxiola, 44, on two counts of first-degree murder as well as six other counts. On July 15, during the penalty phase of the trial the jury sentenced Gaxiola, who was facing the death penalty, to life in prison for the first-degree murder of Raul Flores, but was unable to reach a verdict on the sentence for the murder of Brisenia Flores. The prosecution opted to withdraw the death request regarding the murder of Brisenia Flores after consulting with the surviving victim, Gina Gonzalez.

Prior to pronouncing sentence, Leonardo was asked by Deputy County Attorney Rick Unklesbay to impose natural life sentences for both murder convictions. “By case law, the court doesn’t need any aggravating factors,” he said. “The court may chose between natural life and or life with parole based on the facts that you heard at the trial.”

Defense counsel Jack L. Lansdale argued for life in prison with the possibility of parole and concurrent sentences for all of the charges. “In reality, when we’re dealing with this much time and a gentleman who was 42-years-old when he was taken into custody what we’re talking about may be academic,” he said. Lansdale calculated that the best-case scenario would allow his client to apply for parole after he had turned 77-years-old.

Sentences imposed Monday:
·       Count 1—first-degree murder—natural life in prison, no parole opportunity.
·       Count 2—first-degree murder—life in prison, with the opportunity to apply for parole after serving 25 calendar years.
·       Count 3—burglary in the first degree—10.5 years.
·       Count 4—attempted first-degree murder—10.5 years.
·       Count 5—aggravated assault, serious physical injury—7.5 years.
·       Count 6—aggravated assault with a deadly weapon—7.5 years.
·       Count 7—armed robbery—10.5 years.
·       Count 8—aggravated robbery—7.5 years.

The sentences for counts two through eight will be served consecutively to each other and to the sentence of natural life in prison received for count one. Depending upon how you choose to add it up the sentences for counts three through eight add up to an additional 54 years in prison. If you add the possibility of applying for parole after 25 years as the sentence in count two allows then Gaxiola received an additional 79 years in prison on top of the sentence to life in prison.

After the sentencing hearing Lansdale said there were plans for an appeal, but he was uncertain if he would handle it or another attorney would handle it. “I’d like to do it because we’re so familiar with the case,” he said.

Lansdale said the sentences Gaxiola received were what he had anticipated. “In the trial phase we hoped to raise a reasonable doubt, but we didn’t do that,” he said. “So, it was avoid the death penalty. What’s really the difference between 35 to life and natural life? He would get out when he’s 80-years-old.”

Gaxiola’s sister, Sonia Muniz flew in from California to attend the sentencing hearing. “I am relieved that Albert’s not on death row,” she said. “I will be with him to the end of this. I know he is innocent. He didn’t kill anyone.”

Gonzalez and members of her family had submitted letters containing sentencing recommendations to Leonardo prior to the hearing. The judge, who noted that the letters were “confidential,” denied a request for copies of those letters.

Previously, codefendant Shawna Forde received sentences of death on the two murder charges and an additional 65 years in prison for the other charges. Codefendant Jason Bush received two death sentences for the murder charges plus an additional 78 years in prison on the other charges.

At sentencing for Forde and Bush, Leonardo ordered $11,864 in restitution to Gonzalez and to her mother for funeral expenses and other costs. The amount of restitution had grown to over $13,000 as of Monday’s hearing. Leonardo gave the attorneys 30 days to work out the discrepancy.