District Attorney Rick Tedrow addresses a crowd of reporters Thursday in Albuquerque following the hearing in which Paul Beebe and Jesse Sanford pleaded
District Attorney Rick Tedrow addresses a crowd of reporters Thursday in Albuquerque following the hearing in which Paul Beebe and Jesse Sanford pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges. (Elizabeth Piazza The Daily Times)
ALBUQUERQUE — Two of the three men who branded a swastika on the arm of an American Indian with mental disabilities pleaded guilty to federal hate crime charges Thursday in federal court in Albuquerque.

Paul Beebe, 28, and Jesse Sanford, 26, wearing orange jumpsuits and shackled at the feet and hands, appeared in court to plead guilty to an April 29, 2010, incident in which they fashioned a wire coat hanger into the shape of a swastika and branded the arm of Vincent Kee, 22.

An apparently confident and sometimes smirking Beebe stood before federal magistrate judge Daniel Schneider as Schneider discussed the terms of the plea agreement.

When asked by the judge if he branded the swastika on Kee's arm, Beebe said, "Absolutely."

Beebe pleaded guilty to violating the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which carries a term up to 10 years in prison. This was the first case filed under the act, which was signed into law in 2009.

Per the plea agreement, Beebe agreed to a predetermined sentence of 8.5 years to be served in federal prison.

Minutes after Beebe left the courtroom, Sanford pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit a federal hate crime, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison. He also will serve his time in federal prison.

A third man, William Hatch, 29, also was arrested for his role in the incident. He pleaded guilty in federal court in June to conspiracy to commit a federal hate crime.

All three men were arrested in May 2010, days after the incident. Beebe brought Kee, who was seeking a place to stay for the night, to his Farmington apartment where they shoved a towel in Kee's mouth and branded him.

They claim Kee, who suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome, wanted the branding. Despite the Nazi paraphernalia that was evident throughout Beebe's apartment, the men claim the branding symbol represents the American Indian rolling waters symbol.

Drawn on Kee in permanent marker were the words "White Power" and "KKK," according to court records.

"I feel that this scar on my arm is for life," Kee told a group of reporters outside the courthouse. "They just had fun with me."

With tears streaming down his face, he told reporters that he "wished they had more to say."

All three were charged at the state level with first-degree felony kidnapping, first-degree felony conspiracy to commit kidnapping, third-degree felony aggravated battery and fourth-degree felony conspiracy to commit aggravated battery.

A jury in May found Hatch guilty of the fourth-degree felony, the least punishable offense. Beebe and Sanford both pleaded guilty in district court in July 19 under an Alford plea.

The resolution of the state and federal cases resulted from a joint effort by officials.

"For someone to take advantage of Vincent is despicable," District Attorney Rick Tedrow said after the hearing. "This is one case we weren't going to let go and the feds weren't going to let go, so we decided to work together and work together we did. By working together, we reached our end result."

Tedrow added that he hoped the outcome of the criminal cases will send a message in the community that this sort of "behavior against another individual is unacceptable."

Both the state and federal plea agreements come with the stipulation that the two men will serve federal and state time in a federal prison, as opposed to the state Department of Corrections.

The sentences are capped at 8.5 years for each man.

"Eight-and-a-half years is a significant sentence by any standard," U.S. Attorney Kenneth Gonzales said.

Both men faced life in prison for the federal charges and more than 35 years in state prison.

While the criminal cases are winding down, Kee likely faces years of treatment for the lasting effects of the trauma, said Attorney Ron Morgan.

Morgan is representing Kee in a civil lawsuit filed against McDonald's, where the three worked. It contends that McDonald's was negligent in its hiring practices - all three defendants have previous criminal records - and failed to provide a safe and family friendly environment guaranteed to its customers in the corporation's mission statement.

"It will take a significant amount of therapy, which isn't easy given where he lives, at least to get him to a place where he is more at peace," Morgan said in an interview Thursday.

Kee, who lives in the small town of Navajo, does not want to go to Farmington or into a McDonald's. He has concerns these three men will show up where he lives and he doesn't have a belief the police can make life safer, Morgan said.

Kee already has sought traditional Navajo medicine, but likely will need long-term care, "not paid for necessarily by the U.S. government or the Navajo Nation government," he said. "It's something a very capable corporation can pay for."

Kee's family was involved in the justice department's decision to plea the case, said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division.

"We thought these types of cases were in our history books," Perez said after the hearing. "It's a reminder that while we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go."

One condition of the plea agreement allows both Beebe and Sanford future opportunities to challenge the constitutionality of the hate crime act.

However, a motion to dismiss the charges based on claims the hate crime act is unconstitutional was denied by a federal district judge Aug. 4.

Beebe and Sanford face sentencing in state district court in September and the federal sentencing is expected for all three men later this fall.

Elizabeth Piazza: epiazza@daily-times.com