Getting Away With Murder

Originally published by Salt Lake Magazine

Recipient of Best Magazine Feature, Society for Professional Journalists

When Bernardo Alphonso Repreza’s body was lifted from the pavement in downtown Salt Lake City in the late hours of October 31, 1998, it was hardly recognizable to his friends. The 15-year-old boy’s nose was split and broken, his skull was bashed in, and his face was discolored and disfigured. When Ryan Sheppard lifted Repreza’s shirt to check the severity of his friend’s injuries, entrails spilled out of a 4½-inch-long knife wound.

Repreza had just left a Halloween party he had attended with other members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and was en route to Trolley Square with a handful of friends. Repreza ended up at the hands of a mob instead, with two liters of blood—and his life—drained away as a result.

Repreza was the victim of a fight between 30 mostly white and mostly armed Straight Edgers and his group of seven unarmed friends. And despite the racial epithets that had been hurled toward Repreza and his group, then–Salt Lake Police Chief Ruben Ortega was quick to tell the press that the incident was not racially motivated. (Incidentally, despite his ethnic background, Ortega’s own relationship with the Hispanic community in Utah has been peppered with what the Salt Lake Tribune calls “a string of professional embarrassments colored by racial overtones”). It was a gang brawl, said police, and Repreza was a “gang wannabe” who found the trouble he was out looking for that Halloween night.

The only problem with the official explanation? It was completely untrue.

“I’ve known Bernard since elementary. I grew up with that boy,” says Haydee Gomez, an energetic high school student whose parents, like Repreza’s, emigrated from El Salvador during the country’s civil war. “Bernard had goals in his life; he wanted to go into the Marine Corps, he wanted to get married in the [Mormon] Temple. He was no gangster—when you see a brown boy it’s automatically like, ‘Oh, he’s a wannabe gangster.’ He may have friends who were in gangs, but Bernard was friends with everyone.”

Repreza had been at the Gomez’s house the night he was killed. It was Halloween—and also the birthday of Haydee’s mother Maria. The party was in full swing, but it was getting too big, too fast, with kids showing up who really wanted to party. So Repreza invited the group to reconvene at Trolley Square and let Maria continue a milder fete.

He never made it. At the intersection of 100 South and State Street, Repreza and his friends were stopped at red light when a gang of Straight Edgers began taunting them. Witnesses said one of the Straight Edgers spit on Repreza’s friend, Jaynell Latay Cooper, an African-American, calling him a “nigger.” (The Straight Edgers testified that it was Cooper who had instigated the violence, calling out some 30 people.) Suddenly, Cooper was being beaten with nunchuks and a machete, and Repreza jumped out to help him—an act that would cost him his life. Sheppard, who was driving, says it was clearly a hate crime, adding that no one was ever charged for the blows and machete cuts that landed Cooper in the hospital that night.

But Prosecutor Paul Parker had a different take regarding racial motive in the incident. “About that time there was at least one judge that found [Utah hate crime laws] to be unconstitutional, and we were also concerned about a lot of the [previously failed] prosecutions on it,” he says. “The difficulty is trying to find the line between name-calling and actions in the fight. In this case, it wasn’t exactly clear which of those two sides of the line happened. It may have been a matter of proof, but I really wasn’t comfortable on who said what to begin with.”

Early conjecture about why Cooper would challenge a group of 30 was eventually quelled in the media. Who said what just could not be proven, common sense aside. What could be proven was this: According to police and court records, Repreza was chased and knocked to the ground, enduring repeated blows to the head with a metal baseball bat by Andrew Moench (who declined to be interviewed, and is currently serving a 6-to-15–year prison term in connection with the crime). Repreza’s unconscious body was then struck repeatedly with a spring-loaded billy-club by Sean Darger, who allegedly howled, “Take that, spic!” during the attack. (Darger, who claimed self-defense even though Repreza was lying helplessly on the ground, was acquitted of all charges by a jury. “I’m thrilled to death,” he told reporters at that time.) Finally, Colin Reesor cut Repreza open with a combat knife, leaving a wound deep enough to sever the boy’s aorta and scar his backbone, Parker told the Tribune. (Reesor, who also declined to be interviewed, was sentenced with a 5-to-life term.)

Sitting on a couch in his South Salt Lake home, Granite High School student Omar Leon unfolds one of a slew of flyers recently papered around his mostly Hispanic neighborhood. It’s from a local chapter of a national hate group, and has banner headlines such as “Another hate-filled Mexican kills white woman in S.L. Valley “ and “Illegal aliens storm across border, bringing drugs, crime, and disease.” It’s just another example of pervasive racism in a state where the second cousin of former Governor Norm Bangerter, Johnny Bangerter, tried to set up a whites-only “fatherland” in Zion National Park. Where an English-only initiative passed overwhelmingly this past November. Where a former chief of police tried to deputize his officers as makeshift immigration officials. But for Leon, a close friend of Repreza’s, the flyer has a more personal meaning—as do the killers’ sentences.

“Five years for murder is bullshit,” he mutters, anger welling beneath a calm exterior. “It’s babysitting.” Leon speaks to the biting frustration of a small constellation of Repreza friends and associates. The sense of loss among these people is almost tangible, and it’s not just because a kid they all loved and admired was senselessly murdered. It’s also a loss of faith in the legal system itself, the shocking realization that, in Utah, there may not actually be justice for all.

“It’s a joke, an absolute joke,” says a bristling Karen Whiting-Monson, one of Repreza’s teachers at Granite High School. “They literally got away with murder. Had Bernard just beaten them up and no one even died, he would have gotten five years! What’s wrong with this picture? I think that should be the title of your story: Getting away with murder. That’s what they did, and it makes my blood boil.”

Utah actually does have hate crimes, though only 68 were reported in 1998, compared to a national figure of about 7750. That’s less than 1 percent for a state that makes up nearly 2 percent of the nation’s total population. Either Utahns are twice as tolerant as everybody else, or there’s a problem in hiding.

Michael Zimmerman, Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court, suspects that it’s the latter.

“We’re always a little thin-skinned about things potentially self-critical in this state,” he says. “But we have to be careful that we don’t paper-over issues in not wanting to bring criticism down on ourselves. We should worry less about how we’re perceived elsewhere and more about how individuals are affected by our unwillingness to acknowledge our own problems.”

Zimmerman was also chair of the Utah Task Force on Racial and Ethnic Fairness Committee, whose report, released in August 2000, illustrated that “those who run the system are disproportionately Caucasian, and those who are charged, convicted, and incarcerated in the system are disproportionately minority.” Public forums held to help determine the public’s perception of the legal system repeatedly noted an “unavailability to minorities of private attorneys due to unaffordability, and the unavailability of interest and concern from public defenders.” Similarly, a 1999 study by the University of Utah Graduate School of Social Work found that Utah minority youths were 41 times more likely to be arrested than white youths, and that Hispanic youths were four times more likely to be incarcerated than whites, with African-American youths being five times more likely.

A clearly biased criminal justice system underscores a serious regional bias, making effective hate crime legislation even more important, says State Senator Pete Suazo. Nationally and locally, those opposed to new hate crime laws claim such legislation is pointless, saying that one cannot prove what an assailant was thinking during any given crime. (This fails to address the obvious fact that prosecutors often must—and do—prove motive.) Opponents have traditionally been disturbed by bills that protect homosexuals from hate crimes, claiming it is a “sexual choice” and not a genetic predisposition. Newer hate crime legislation does not mention specific groups, but rather seeks to protect individuals from being targeted for who they are, whether black or white, straight or gay.

Suazo has proposed an amended hate crime bill for the upcoming legislative session—as he has the last three years. With close ties to Utah’s Hispanic community, Suazo sees stereotyping and racial bias on the rise. He relates a recent incident when a Hispanic family’s home-in-progress was spray-painted throughout with slogans such as “Go home Mexicans” and “Spics stay away,” and another incident in which three local African-American churches were tagged with swastikas and Ku Klux Klan references. Because of the lack of effective hate crime legislation in Utah, little could be done even if the perpetrators were caught.

“These are not normal crimes,” Suazo says. “This is terrorism. And both the police and the prosecutors said that the only thing they could charge anyone with is misdemeanor vandalism.”

“And that’s the way it should be,” bluntly states Gayle Ruzicka, president of the Utah chapter of the Eagle Forum, a right-wing lobbying organization formed by anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly in 1972. “I think the punishment for a crime should be for the crime itself, not for what the person was thinking when they committed the crime or what their opinion was of the person they committed the crime against… There will always be those who carry around their differences—like those who do it for sexual-choice reasons—who deliberately bait people so they could say, ‘They did it to me because of my color, they did it to me because of my sexual practices.’ Hate crime laws are one of the worst forms of discrimination there is.”

Ruzicka’s view that a “crime is a crime” discounts research indicating that victims of hate crimes often suffer significantly higher levels of depression and stress, and that the psychological trauma lasts much longer—more than twice the length—than that of victims of random assaults, according to University of California-Davis psychologist Gregory Herek. And that’s ignoring such a crime’s possible effect on the community, which Suazo alluded to as “terrorism.” When you burn a cross on a minority’s lawn, it sends a very distinct message to other minorities about the area: stay out.

Ruzicka is certainly not alone in her views. State Senator John Valentine has told the media that “there is no such thing as a hate crime.” But Suazo says that while Ruzicka lobbies legally, she wields disproportionate power in Utah , and has been a factor in his previous hate crime bills’ failures to get through the Republican-dominated Utah House of Representatives. As mentioned, there have been hate crime laws on the Utah books since 1992, but they are widely regarded as “unworkable,” and prosecutors are hence wont to employ them. The author of those laws, former House Minority Leader and current Jones Waldo attorney Frank Pignanelli, says Republicans passed the bill only after it was significantly watered down, and that they had an unusual companion in the dilution process—the American Civil Liberties Union.

“The ACLU kept on raising the First Amendment flag against my bill, when those statutes that had been struck down constitutionally were speech-based and my bill was activity-based,” Pignanelli says. “So what happened? The ACLU gave a lot of Republicans cover. And not too long after that they were spending their time in St. George because that city had banned teenage cruising. I said, ‘Wait a minute. We have Hispanics and Jewish people and gays getting the hell kicked out of them, and you’re more concerned about whether teenagers in St. George can cruise Main Street ?’ I was livid. I still am.”

Despite the opposition, Suazo’s upcoming hate crime bill may have some powerful local allies, even on the conservative side. U.S. Attorney for Utah Paul Warner, an Orrin Hatch–appointed Republican, has said that the state needs much better legislation on the issue. And Hatch himself made sweeping remarks in July 1999, asking Congress to allocate more money for the prosecution of hate crimes (in contrast to derogatory remarks he made about gays and lesbians at a Republican state convention just two weeks earlier).

Would enhanced hate crime statutes in Utah make for enhanced sentences for people like Reesor and Moench in the future? Parker isn’t so sure, and claims the drafting of an effective law is extremely difficult—either you draft a law that includes so much conduct as to be inherently vague and unenforceable, or you draft a law that’s so conduct-specific that you omit a lot of hate-based activity. But Michael Martinez, Salt Lake attorney and former chief deputy officer at the County Coroner’s Office, says it’s simply a matter of how you prosecute once the laws are drafted.

“The problem with hate crime laws is that people end up focusing on the hate aspect of it,” he says. “I’ve always been of the opinion that what you should do is first of all prove the underlying crime behind it. If somebody assaulted you, tried to kill you, burned a cross on your lawn, you should charge and convict them on that—and then go after them for the racial motivation. That way you haven’t lost anything, and you don’t delay the other trial. You don’t throw any kind of racial animus into it that makes it hard for the prosecutor to prosecute and the juries to convict—or the media to have a heyday.”

As far as James Yapias, chairman of the Utah Hispanic Advisory Council, is concerned, a workable hate crime statute might have made all the difference in sentencing the Repreza attackers. He believes a hate crime enhancement would not have been difficult to attain given the visceral nature of the evidence.

“This kid was being beaten to death and they were calling him names,” Yapias says incredulously. “What more do you need?”

The Gomez house is your typical American family scene—kids running around, TV blaring, big backyard. They’ve got all the worries of your typical American family too—how to keep the bills under control, how to keep the remote control under control, how to keep teenagers from dressing too crazy. As if that’s not enough, they’ve got some other pressing concerns. After growing up in war-time El Salvador and living in Los Angeles neighborhoods near the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS 13) gang, Artilio Gomez is rightfully wary of anyone poking around asking questions about Bernardo Repreza.

“Can I see your ID?” he asks me. “You’re not a Straight Edger, are you? I don’t want my kids to have any problem.” He hands back the ID and tries to explain. “I mean, I knew that boy when he was a little one, Bernard. His father and I used to go to the same church…” He falls silent, and wife Maria takes over. She, like her daughter Haydee, was deeply offended by the police portrayal of Repreza as a gang wannabe, and she wants the world to know that in her eyes he was simply a sweet, charming kid who liked to draw, write poetry, and play basketball. He had a temper, she says, but no kid is perfect.

Maria notes that it wasn’t only the police characterization of Repreza that struck a chord with her family—it was also the authorities’ treatment of the defendants that underscored the lack of value the legal system seemed to put on Repreza’s life. According to Salt Lake Tribune andDeseret News reports, Third District Judge William Barrett allowed Reesor, Darger, and Moench out on bail, in the care of their own families, to await sentencing. The release took place despite that just weeks before the Repreza killing, Moench made remarks on the TV news program20/20—statements that clearly illustrated a propensity for violence. Defending the actions of a few Straight Edgers who brawled with University of Utah fraternity members (allegedly because one of the frat members asked a Straight Edger for a cigarette), Moench said, “I would have helped [the Edgers] if I was there. I would have done all I could to put everyone in the hospital.” Taken from the program’s transcripts, he also told 20/20, “You disrespect someone about being Straight Edge, about being whatever… I mean, if someone disrespects someone about their religion, that’s being disrespectful. You fight them. They die, that’s what they deserve.”

The release of Darger, Reesor, and Moench to await sentencing at home, to finish high school and even take college courses, did not sit well with the minority community in Utah. Moench even got married to another Straight Edger while awaiting sentencing, despite court orders to stay away from other members of the group.

Martinez was nonplused by the situation, saying he’d never seen anything like it. After all, judges normally send those accused of first-degree murder to jail while awaiting their sentences, but there were apparently mitigating circumstances here.

“Judges have no affinity with people who are unlike themselves and their families,” says Martinez. “And so it’s hard for them to be sympathetic to a Bernardo Repreza—and it’s hard for them not to be sympathetic with someone who appears before them and looks like their own kids.”

By the same token, Martinez says, police, prosecutors, and judges (who in Utah are overwhelmingly Caucasian) simply have a hard time overcoming certain minority stereotypes. He cites recent gang statistics from the Ogden City Police Gang Unit that state for every white gang member in Ogden, there are four Hispanic gang members. He also cites his own history as one of Utah’s first Hispanic attorneys: In court, Martinez has been mistaken for a janitor, a translator, a file clerk—and once even identified by a witness as the assailant in a robbery. These kinds of stereotypes, he says, make it very difficult for minorities in the Utah criminal justice system. And it doubtless had an effect in the Repreza case, says Martinez.

“The problem in this particular crime is that it was very hard for white prosecutors to believe that people who look like them and talk like the, who worship at the same churches they worship, could have those kinds of strong feelings against somebody else simply because of the way they look. So yes, they look for ways to say it doesn’t happen and they prosecute the underlying crime—which is great. But they ignore the very reason that instigates a lot of these problems.”

Suazo hopes the passage of a hate crime bill will help reduce such incidents, and Martinez, echoing the Racial and Ethnic Fairness Report’s recommendations, says there simply needs to be more minority representation across the board on the other side of the justice system, from cops to judges.

But for Bernardo Repreza Senior, the slain boy’s father, the future is of little consolation. Through a translator, he stated that he’s been in therapy since the incident, that he’s still very confused about the sentences, and that it’s all very difficult to talk about. But he will say one thing, and his words ring with a bitter truth.

“The Constitution doesn’t say anything about race, color, or creed. The law is written. But two things change its meaning: money and race,” he says, his voice cracking with anger. “If the situation were reversed, the Hispanics would go to prison and it might be a capital homicide. The prosecutors wouldn’t have to think too long about that either. Again, there’s no article in the Constitution that says if you’re white or brown or any specific race that you should have special rights; it’s equal. The whole thing is about money and color. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t have either for our cause.”

It’s a chilly November morning at Granite High School. A thousand or so kids, some former comrades of Repreza, some too new to have known him, file out of the school and cross the lawn toward a lone, little pine tree. It was planted for Bernardo Repreza not long ago, and the kids adorn the tree with colorful ribbons—not just for his memory, but for the hope that something good might grow from all this. As the students are ushered back to class, a group of four or five Hispanic boys with shaved heads and plaid Pendletons linger a bit longer.

“Andale! Andale!” yells a white security guard, smirking a bit. The boys just look at him.

Sidebar: Straight Edge  – A Definition

Straight Edge is a lifestyle philosophy that sprung from the hardcore punk rock scene of the early 1980s. Straight Edgers preach “clean” living, generally trading alcohol, drugs, and premarital sex for the thrill of the mosh pit. While Straight Edge is an international phenomenon, only in Utah is it considered a gang.

Theresa Martinez, an associate professor at the University of Utah Sociology Department, has studied the Straight Edge phenomenon (she also moderated an October 2000 hate crime panel discussion at the university).

“Utah Straight Edge is very different from Straight Edge across the country,” she says. “Straight Edgers are non-violent nationally. They’re not organized; it’s a very free-flowing thing. They know each other, they hang out together, but it’s not like a branch of the KKK or the Crips or Bloods…

“Straight Edge is to a certain extent about rebellion. But it’s really about structure,” she continues. “The Utah kids who seem to be drawn to it are young, like most Straight Edgers, and they are mainly white. This state is majority white and a lot of these kids are from the dominant LDS faith. And strangely, you get a fascinating mix of mainly white kids from LDS faith who find a kind of rebellion in the Straight Edge movement turned violent. I’ve been told by Straight Edge kids around the country, ‘I’ve never heard of anything like this.’”

Although Straight Edge does not espouse racism, it is worth noting that one of Straight Edge’s predominant websites, www.straight-edge.com, closed down its message board just after the Repreza incident, and had not re-opened as of press time. In an explanatory note to readers, the site administrator posted this: “The truth of the matter is, I am a little tired of seeing morons waste my bandwidth and disk space with racist and inflammatory drivel.”

The board’s final posting, dated November 5, 1998, was titled “Salt Lake City Stabbing Death.”

—John Pecorelli

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