Today, more than a year after three men allegedly branded that symbol on the arm of an American Indian with mental disabilities, the first of the three trials will be heard in court.
The case against William Hatch, 29, who along with Paul Beebe, 27, and Jesse Sanford, 25, faces first-degree felony kidnapping, second-degree felony conspiracy to commit kidnapping, third-degree felony aggravated battery causing great bodily harm and fourth-degree felony conspiracy to commit aggravated battery, begins in Aztec District Court today.
Hatch faces more than 30 years in state prison if convicted for charges stemming from the April 29, 2010, incident in which the three men allegedly branded Vincent Kee, 22.
The men also are accused of shaving the swastika on the back of the man's head and drawing degrading pictures and speech on his body, including a pentagram, devil horns and the words "White Power," according to court records.
"The real significance of the case, whether the defendants know it or not, is the symbol, which is significant of a past regime that killed millions of people," Prosecutor Paul Wainwright said during Sanford's preliminary hearing.
Deemed a "heinous" crime in the national media, the incident received attention across the country, in large part because of the swastika symbol and because Kee suffers
"The Farmington police and law enforcement in general are using this case to vindicate the white community with our local Native Americans, and they are doing it, in this case, on the back of a Native American," said Eric Morrow, Hatch's attorney.
Hatch, part Sioux and part Navajo, is a registered member of the Rosebud Sioux Nation, Morrow said.
The District Attorney's Office is pursuing hate crime charges against the three men, focusing primarily on Kee's mental state, as opposed to only race.
"We are simply prosecuting a violent crime directed at a disabled individual," Chief Deputy District Attorney Dustin O'Brien said in a phone interview Tuesday.
The cases don't end at the conclusion of the state's trials.
Six months following their arrests in San Juan County, a federal grand jury indicted all three men on federal hate-crime charges, using for the first known time since being signed into law the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.
"It's a young man who was victimized simply because of him happening to be Native American, and that is precisely the kind of conduct the statute sets out to address and criminalize," U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales said following the indictment.
The federal trials are expected to begin at the conclusion of the state trials.
Investigators believe Kee met the three men at the McDonald's restaurant located at 4750 E. Main St., where they coerced Kee into a vehicle and drove him to Beebe's apartment on 28th Street.
Farmington police were tipped off to the incident after Kee showed the branding to several people at the 7 to 11 convenience store on 20th Street in Farmington in the early morning hours of April 30, where he walked after leaving Beebe's apartment.
The three men, the day after the incident, went to the Farmington Police Department and showed detectives videos depicting the pictures and their claims of Kee's consent to be branded, according to police records.
"I think the facts of this case, while they suggest race, it's much more in the nature of a prank, and then it's a question of whether the prank rises to the level of a criminal hazing," Morrow said.
Hatch on Jan. 2 signed a written plea agreement with The District Attorney's Office, but rescinded three days before pleading guilty in district court because he wanted a trial, Morrow said.
His fate, determined by a jury pool of people from San Juan County, could come as early as Friday, when the trial is expected to end.
Elizabeth Piazza: firstname.lastname@example.org