Published July 15, 2010
A controversy is brewing in Arizona over assertions by advocates of more stringent immigration laws that drug and human traffickers have beheaded illegal immigrants as a warning to rival cartels operating along the Arizona-Mexico border.
At least one human skull has been found in the Arizona desert in recent years, officials said. But that was in 2008, and no evidence was found that indicated it was the result of a decapitation. Rather, the coroner in the case determined, it was torn from the rest of the body after death -- most likely by a wild animal.
At the center of the current dispute is Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who, during a TV interview last month, said law enforcement agencies have found "beheaded" bodies in the broiling desert.
"Our law enforcement agencies have found bodies in the desert either buried or just lying out there that have been beheaded," Brewer said.
The governor's comments led to several reports scrutinizing her claim, including Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank's assertion that "there's not a follicle of evidence" to support the governor's statement.
An earlier report in the Arizona Guardian on June 30 noted that coroners' offices in six Arizona counties, including four that border Mexico, indicated they had never heard of beheadings within their jurisdictions.
Paul Senseman, Brewer's spokesman, said he did not know which law enforcement agency told the governor about the beheadings, citing security briefings he does not attend. Senseman said Brewer never insinuated that people were being beheaded in Arizona.
"The governor has never specifically said where she was referring to," Senseman told FoxNews.com. "Obviously, the violence is increasing on the other side of the border and, unfortunately, the same narco-terrorist organizations are operating daily in the state of Arizona. And the governor's position is that those operations need to stop."
When pressed to indicate if decapitated bodies had been found in Arizona, Senseman continued: "She's referring, in general, to the increasing violence across the border."
Meanwhile, officials at six medical examiners' offices in Arizona -- Yuma, Pima, Santa Cruz, Cochise, Pinal and Maricopa -- confirmed that they had no records of decapitated bodies.
"Our medical examiner has not seen any cases of beheadings," a Pinal County official said. Another official in Cochise County said a very small number of bodies -- usually one or two per year -- are found without skulls. But with no evidence that a cutting implement was used, that is typically the work of animals, the official said.
A cowboy on the Atascosa Ranch in Santa Cruz County found the skull of an undocumented immigrant on June 27, 2008, and the property's owner, J. David Lowell, recounted the grisly discovery in a letter to Gov. Brewer this month.
"On that day one of our ranch hands was working horseback and discovered a human head near a trail believed to be used by drug and alien smugglers," the letter read. "Although the head was missing the lower jaw, it was immediately apparent that much of the mass and flesh of the head was still present. The cowboy searched the area in hopes of finding the remainder of the body to no avail."
Lowell notified officials at the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office, who went to the ranch and took possession of the head.
Dr. Bruce Parks, who serves as the chief medical examiner for Pima and Santa Cruz counties, confirmed to FoxNews.com that the head was identified through DNA testing as that of 43-year-old Francisco Fuentes Dominguez, who was not a U.S. citizen. Parks said a cause of death was not determined, but there was no evidence of decapitation. Other "badly decomposed" parts of Dominguez's body were found nearby earlier in the year, he said.
"Typically, what happens is animals will separate the body," Parks said.
Another skull, which was never identified, was found by U.S. Border Patrol agents on Sopori Ranch in Tubac, Ariz., on June 9, 2008, said Parks, adding that no evidence was found linking that skull to decapitation.
Lowell's letter also recounted a total of "five shooting incidents" on his ranch in the past seven months, most recently on July 2.
"Of course there is the possibility that there are other similar incidents of which we are not aware," the letter continued. "To the best of our knowledge the report of the human head and two of the shooting incidents were not reported in the press, which suggests to us that the incidence of violence occurring on public land is being intentionally under reported."
Lowell wrote that smuggling activity and violence have "dramatically increased" on his ranch within the past five years.
During a tour of his ranch late last month, Lowell told FoxNews.com he suspected the head was placed alongside the trail as a warning to other drug and human traffickers operating in the area.
"He opened the bag and I looked in, and to my horror, there was a human head in the bag," Lowell said. "It was pretty nice and fresh and had been chewed on."
Lowell, whose ranch is just 5 miles from the border at its closest point, said the dismemberment was likely one of the "cute tricks" used by traffickers to mark territory.
"One of the cute tricks the cartels have in their scrimmages to Mexico is to catch one of the other (cartel members) and kill him and decapitate him," Lowell said. "Apparently, that happened."
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada confirmed that a skull was discovered on Lowell's ranch, but he said no evidence of a decapitation was found.
"It was a skull that was there for quite some time," Estrada said. "There's no indication of any decapitation there, not at all. It was just a skull that was discovered."