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Dodge City: a fired reporter, a defendant’s guilty plea and new rumors of assaults on Hispanic inmates

Dodge City: a fired reporter, a defendant’s guilty plea and new rumors of assaults on Hispanic inmates

LatinaLista -- Last month, Latina Lista reported on the case of Sam Bonilla, a Dodge City, Kansas legal resident who claimed to be acting in self-defense when he fired shots at two men he said were playing a game called "Border Patrol" targeting him, his son and nephew.


Bonilla's case wouldn't have even been widely known had it not been for the reporter, Claire O'Brien's refusal to divulge her source for a quote she included in her story about Bonilla. Because the local District Attorney was forcing O'Brien to reveal her source, news organizations honed in on what was happening to O'Brien. In turn, the nation learned about Bonilla.

Since that time, a lot has happened to both O'Brien and Bonilla.

For starters, O'Brien's paper The Dodge City Daily Globe fired her. It began, O'Brien said, when the corporate lawyers told her they wouldn't supply her with legal representation unless she divulged her source. She refused and took it upon herself to find other counsel.

In the meantime, she did something that angered her bosses, the local judge presiding over her case and the District Attorney -- she didn't show up for a grand jury hearing and was found to be in contempt.

Whether or not it was a smart move, it was one O'Brien felt compelled to take given the lack of support she received from Gatehouse Media, the parent company of the Dodge City Daily Globe. Since that fateful decision, O'Brien's former bosses went out of their way to make her life miserable at work from changing the locks to telling her she couldn't talk to any outside press about her situation at the paper.

It finally came to an end, on March 5, 2010, when in the midst of writing a six-part series, newspaper management gave her 30 minutes notice to vacate her desk, no severance pay and cancelled her health insurance. Reportedly, they were angry at her for disobeying their directive and talking to the Associated Press about how her bosses were treating her.

Yet, thanks to O'Brien, the newspaper racked up six awards in the recent Kansas Press Association's annual newspaper contest, four were on account of O'Brien.

So, now O'Brien is looking for work as a journalist. She has a passion to find out the truth, write about it and help people. It was something she was doing when she reported on Sam Bonilla's case.

Sam was getting ready for his trial and looking forward to defending himself when his friends say he began looking at the reality of his situation in Dodge City as a Hispanic immigrant and the horrible track record Latinos have in the Dodge City justice system -- so, afraid he wouldn't get a fair trial, he pled guilty to reduced charges of voluntary manslaughter and aggravated battery.

In explaining to the press why Bonilla pled the way he did, District Attorney Terry Malone said Bonilla had pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter "based on an unreasonable but honest belief that deadly force was justified."

Somehow, the notion that a person's belief that deadly force is justified would seem to run counter to being "unreasonable."

The Mexican American Legal Defense Education Fund (MALDEF) found out about Bonilla's case as he was going to trial. They are now involved in making sure that Bonilla gets the minimum sentence. As of now, he would serve 61 months in prison for voluntary manslaughter and 13 months for the aggravated battery.

Either way, he will have to be deported once his sentence is served. All the years, he's lived in Dodge City, lived a model life and built a successful business goes to waste because he defended himself against two guys who thought they could do anything they wanted and get away with it.

MALDEF is organizing Dodge City Latinos for a protest to support Bonilla. It's the first time the town's Latinos have had an outside organization come to their defense.

Given to the latest rumors circulating on a town listserve, it's not a moment too soon.

A couple of weeks ago, I called a local Latina businesswoman who told me that Latino residents in Dodge City suffer from a lot of injustices. At the time, she said that it's not unusual for the undocumented immigrants in the community to be picked up and incarcerated for nothing more than not having a driver's license.

As we spoke, she said that many of the townspeople supported Bonilla and that I could even read it myself on the local forum web site called Dodgeboard.com.

Like any forum, it's a site made up of residents with pseudonyms expressing their opinions or retelling unsubstantiated rumors heard as they go about their daily business in Dodge City.

In preparing to write this post, I decided to visit Dodgeboard.com to see what the latest was being said about Bonilla's case. However, the first entry struck me cold, as did the subsequent comments. If it's true, then there is a much bigger problem in Dodge City that necessitates not just MALDEF's presence but a visit from the Dept. of Justice.

You be the judge:

The Commander
Possible ford county detention center execution
It looks as if the Ford County Detention Center may have executed their first prisoner. I informed about this this from a friend who works in the US government here in town. I did not know if was true and I was hoping to find out more information on this if it is true.

What I heard was an individual was arrested by the authorities for either not having a drivers license or having an expired license.

This person was supposedly taken to the new Ford County Detention Center. While there, this person was attacked by inmates. The ambulance was called in and upon arrival to the hospital the prisoner was pronounced dead.

Does anyone know anything about this? Is this true? There is nothing in the news about this and I was hoping this forum would have someone who knew much more about this situation.


Re: Possible ford county detention center execution
Commander. I believe it was a 23 year old hispanic male that was killed last week. If he does not have any family here they will cover it up for sure. Im a little short on time but you might check the obituaries for the last week and see who in that age range is listed. I can not help but wonder if he had brothers and sisters who will miss him, or was he a only child? Did he suffer for a long time before they decided to get him medical help as is often the case. If I understand correctly it was a nonviolent drivers license violation. Can not blame it on the facility, it is state off the art. I thought they had replaced the administrater and we would have less problems like this. we will see if the papers will step up.

The exchange continues with additional details added and changed to the original "rumor." Finally, it's said that two newspapers will write up an article about the incident, but I didn't find anything.

Later in the thread, a person whose family member had to drive the body to Mexico had this to say:

I heard from one of my family members that he was taken in for not having a driver's license or insurance. They told me he had liver problems and was sick in the jail, having fever and all that, and that some inmates would help out by asking for tylenol. They would tell the guards/officers that he was sick but they wouldn't do anything about it. Not sure why, but family member went on to tell me that it was the police that had beaten him, and drove him to the hospital, but just left him there, when usually they'd stay with the inmate in the room (I assume). I guess when they just left him there it was because he was already in a coma. Hospital or Police station won't give out medical records to the family since he was over the age, so not sure if they'll ever find out what went wrong. A different family member of mine was in charge of driving him to Mexico for burial.

Though the details of this situation may only be exaggerations, most rumors are fueled by a kernel of truth.

The bottom line is that Latinos are treated more harshly by local authorities and the justice system.

A reader wrote Latina Lista saying that Sam Bonilla pled the way he did because he was guilty. Yet, it seems more like Bonilla pled the way he did because he didn't want to be put away forever and never see his family again -- that is a much stronger fear than being put in jail for something that wasn't your fault.


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