The killing of a Southern Arizona rancher that sparked an outcry to secure the border was not random, and investigators are focusing on a suspect in the United States, the Arizona Daily Star has learned.
High-ranking government officials with credible information spoke to the Star, citing a desire to quell the fury over illegal immigration and drug smuggling set off by the shooting death of longtime rancher Robert Krentz on March 27.
They said Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever is investigating a person in the United States, not in Mexico, in connection with the shooting.
The Star's policy is not to use unnamed sources except in instances in which the information is of high public interest.
Reached Sunday by telephone, Dever would not comment.
Krentz was found gunned down on his ranch northeast of Douglas a day after his brother reported drug-smuggling activity to the Border Patrol that led to the seizure of 290 pounds of marijuana and the arrest of eight people on the ranch.
The night of the killing, officers followed a single set of footprints to the U.S.-Mexico border, Dever said.
That sparked widespread speculation that Krentz was killed by an illegal immigrant or a drug smuggler from Mexico. In the ensuing weeks, the killing became symbolic of Arizona's porous and violent border, setting off a flurry of demands from residents, politicians and law enforcement leaders for more troops and resources to the border.
"Rob has become a martyr for this cause, a symbol," U.S. Senate candidate J.D. Hayworth said at a community meeting held on March 31 in the unincorporated community of Apache, near where the Krentz family has worked its 35,000-acre ranch for 100 years.
Many, including Dever, believe the killing propelled into law an immigration-enforcement bill passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Jan Brewer that has thrust Arizona into the international spotlight.
"The fact that it got passed has a lot to do with the reflection and response to the Rob Krentz murder," Dever said from Washington, D.C., on April 20 after testifying before the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
During testimony that day, Dever said Krentz "was senselessly gunned down on his own property" and that "his murderer was tracked to the Mexican border, and has since evaded capture," according to a copy of the testimony.
"We cannot sit by while our citizens are terrorized, robbed and murdered by ruthless and desperate people who enter our country illegally," Dever said.
Forty-eight hours after the killing, Dever told reporters that investigators believed the shooting was carried out by one person, but that they didn't know if it was a man or a woman, or the person's nationality. But Dever said they had reports that Krentz made reference to an "illegal alien" over a two-way radio he used to communicate with his brother while working that day on the southern part of their ranch.
"Given the location, (I) guarantee it was not somebody on their way to Walmart to go shopping," Dever said on March 29.
The Southeastern Arizona valley where Krentz was killed is a heavily trafficked people- and drug-smuggling corridor that has seen an increase in burglaries in recent years. Sheriff's investigators and most residents believe the crimes are being committed by drug smugglers heading back to Mexico.
Ranchers and residents in the valley said the Krentz killing had cemented the transformation of illegal border activity from irritating to deadly.
Politicians from both parties across the country have weighed in on the killing and proposed plans for how to protect border residents.
Dever himself has appeared in political ads for candidates advocating for more border enforcement, including a new radio spot for Sen. John McCain.
In it, Dever says, "The drug wars in Mexico spilled over into our state - burglaries, home invasions, even murder."
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org