News of the murders of Nicholas Whipple and Ruby Sky Montelongo, earlier this year in the remote Round Valley of Mendocino County, caught my attention because of two irreconcilable truths. The first of these, Mendocino’s role as paradise in my private California cosmos, dates to the early 1970s, when families from my childhood block in Berkeley pooled money to buy 5,600 acres near the Mendocino town of Ukiah in order to start a commune that they called Greenfield Ranch. Summers, Mom and Dad drove us to Greenfield in the VW, let my sister and me skinny-dip with hippie kids and walk moonlit forest to cabins where kerosene lanterns lit the windows and live bluegrass harmonized with the night crickets. Decades later, when my wife and I wanted our own two kids to drink from that Aquarian source, we dropped them at Camp Winnarainbow, near Greenfield, to learn tie-dye and juggling from Wavy Gravy, 1960s political clown.
This article appears in Issue 25 of Alta Journal.
The second related truth, shadowing the first, is the mass murder of Indigenous people in Mendocino during the gold rush—and, in the Round Valley itself, historical evil so night-dark that it operates like the event horizon of a black hole, from which no light escapes. I wondered, in other words, whether there might be something important for me to learn—some way to make sense of our shared present tense—in the story of how Nicholas Whipple, 20-year-old poet, father, and enrolled member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, wound up dead by the side of a road on the cold morning of March 29, beaten so savagely that only during a later autopsy did anyone figure out that he’d also been shot at close range with an assault rifle. I wondered the same about Ruby Sky Montelongo, age 16 and likewise a Round Valley tribal member, found on April 15 and killed, authorities suspect, by a girl whose name was not being released because she was herself only 15 years old.
The Tribal Council of the Round Valley Indian Tribes responded to these two murders by declaring a state of emergency—a way of requesting help from outside law enforcement—so I tried calling the reservation office. The phone rang without answer or even a voicemail recording. I called many times before a woman picked up. I said I was a writer calling about the Whipple and Montelongo murders. She transferred me to a voicemail box that did not take messages. I called back and nobody answered. I found email addresses for Randall Britton, president of the tribal council, and Alberta Azbill, executive secretary. Britton did not reply. Azbill wrote back that she was not authorized to speak on the matter.
I tried the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office, but the public information officer was on sudden, indefinite leave, and the records department denied my request for documents. Then a local news outlet reported that a California Highway Patrol officer in a different part of Mendocino County had pulled over a car and arrested the driver for possession of a firearm and transporting cannabis. Once the driver was booked into jail, they discovered that his name was Lee Anthony Joaquin and that he was the primary suspect in the killing of Nicholas Whipple.
Joaquin was to be arraigned at the Mendocino County Superior Court in Ukiah, squarely between the Greenfield commune and Camp Winnarainbow. So, early on the morning of the arraignment, I drove the same route I’d taken for decades—across the Golden Gate Bridge, north on 101 through Sonoma, into the green-forested gorge of the Russian River. Ukiah has an American-small-town vibe, with Victorian homes and shops surrounding the big concrete courthouse. Inside that courthouse, in a hallway that smelled like janitorial cleaning products, a sheriff’s deputy chatted with a man in a suit. I found the right courtroom and sat in the back with a group of women, one of whom wore a T-shirt that said “Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons.” A square-jawed man sitting with them, silver-black hair cut short and tattoos on his powerful arms, appeared to be in his 50s.
The judge, working from a standing desk at the back of the room, started the hearing. Joaquin was still in the Mendocino County Jail but appeared by Zoom on a flat-screen monitor. He had thick overgrown black hair and a puffy pale face. He looked terrified and despondent. Joaquin’s lawyer, present in the courtroom, asked to have the hearing delayed for a week. The judge agreed and that was that. Joaquin disappeared from the screen, and the judge moved on to the next case.
In the hallway, I approached the group of women from inside, told a wiry-strong older woman that I was writing about missing and murdered Indigenous persons and asked whether I might speak with her. She gave me a friendly look but followed the others through a door into the district attorney’s office. I waited outside on the courthouse steps until they walked into the sunshine. Then I approached and, speaking directly to the square-jawed man in his 50s, said that I was a reporter and that I would not blame any of them for wanting nothing to do with me.
The man deferred to yet another member of the group, a woman about his age but with wavy dark hair and soft round features and the disheveled but organized quality of a beloved college professor. She stepped in front of me and said, “Not now.”
I headed to a nearby crosswalk. The professorial woman followed. She said her name was Felisa Pina, asked whether I’d been to the tribal office in Covelo. I had not but decided to go.
Covelo did not come up on my navigation app. In fact, all of the Round Valley disappeared from the screen of my phone. I saw a man repairing gas station fuel pumps and asked for directions. He looked surprised, wondered what I could possibly want in Covelo, but told me to drive north on 101—toward Winnarainbow.
The highway passed first through the marijuana-industry town of Willits, then into a wooded canyon where I found a turnoff that I’d somehow never noticed before—onto rural Route 162 eastbound. A small billboard there offered $50,000 for information about a missing Indigenous girl. I figured she had to be Ruby Sky Montelongo, so I stopped for a look and was surprised to see that it was someone else altogether, a young woman named Khadijah Britton. I’d never heard of Khadijah Britton, but it occurred to me that she had the same last name as the tribal president, Randall Britton.
Beyond that billboard, Route 162 became a winding country road over the big rocky canyon of the Middle Fork of the Eel River. After about an hour, driving slowly without cell reception, I saw the Round Valley open up below—miles wide, surrounded by sunny hills of oak and chaparral, deep grass on the flat valley floor and trees shading creeks. Route 162 curved down out of the hills and ran straight through the Round Valley past a big horse farm and hayfields with tidy bales and well-tended fences. Just after the Covelo town-limits sign—population 1,300—the Golden Oaks Motel looked modest but self-respecting; pretty little homes had fresh coats of paint and green gardens sheltered by oaks. The big Keith’s supermarket could’ve been plucked out of a suburban strip mall, but not the picturesque old barn across the highway, with its lovingly painted mural of the whole Round Valley teeming with bobcat, bear and coyote, basketball and baseball and theatrical masks, all framed by the hand-lettered words “Embrace the Strength, Defy the Weakness.”
A small concrete building, formerly the community arts center, appeared to have been gutted by fire, but even there, interior concrete walls—visible through empty window frames—held masterfully spray-painted portraits of Ruby Sky Montelongo and Khadijah Britton, and also, to my surprise, of a third young woman, whom I did not recognize but who presumably was also missing or murdered. I stopped my car for a closer look. These portraits all carried a kind of ghostly love, as if somebody wanted to make absolutely sure all three knew that some down on earth still cared. Just across the street stood the Buckhorn Bar and, next door, a consignment clothing shop with a bright and cheerful paint job and colorful shirts hanging outside.
Farther down the road, I drove past the Hidden Oaks Casino—synthetic-fabric walls and roof, stretched over a metal frame—and came to the green lawns and shade trees surrounding the small, orderly buildings of the Round Valley Indian Tribes reservation headquarters. I parked in the dirt lot and, beyond the door marked Office, found a receptionist.
She said, “You’re the guy who’s been calling. Follow me.”
The receptionist led me back outside, into another small building, and then into the office of Mona Oandasan, manager of the Round Valley Indian Tribes Real Estate Department. Window blinds kept out the sunshine, books and file folders covered the walls, and Oandasan, a calm but focused presence, gestured for me to sit.
I told her that I’d come straight from the hearing in Ukiah.
She said, “That one’s probably for Ken Whipple Jr.?”
I nodded yes because I guessed, incorrectly, that she meant Nicholas Whipple—as if Ken Whipple Jr. were just another name for the same person.
Oandasan said, “OK, yeah, that family started maybe as much as 10 years ago with their first missing person. The hunter found the body somewhere near the river.” Decomposed, apparently. His name had been Mike Pina, as in Felisa Pina, the woman at the hearing in Ukiah who had pointed me here.
I asked about Ruby Sky Montelongo. With evident sadness, Oandasan said that Ruby Sky had been her granddaughter’s best friend. “So she was like my granddaughter,” said Oandasan. She described Ruby Sky as well-liked, bubbly: “She was older than her body was. It was like she forgot to start all over when she came into this life. She started out talking in sentences. So you’ve got a gifted kid there.”
Ruby Sky had been through a lot, too: I was told later that she had been born in a women’s prison, raised in foster homes. “She had a mouth on her like a sailor,” Oandasan said. “Two years ago, at our California Indian Days, they had carnivals, and she had just finished fighting I forget how many girls. She could take care of herself.”
I asked about the cause of these killings, and Oandasan said that when she’d raised her own kids, she and other mothers had had a pact where if they saw another mother’s kids somewhere worrisome, they stopped to ask what was up, offered to drive those kids home. Over time, though, Oandasan said, the marijuana industry had brought a lot of unfamiliar faces to the area.
I asked how the community was making sense of the deaths of Ruby Sky Montelongo and Nicholas Whipple.
“Pretty much they’re all senseless,” said Oandasan. She described a group of young girls who liked to steal huge plastic bottles of hard liquor from Keith’s. “Some of those girls that basically murdered that young girl. I mean, these young girls are predators—two days before, my granddaughter was walking to her sister’s house, same girls jumped her. Some old man told them to get off. She was lucky.” Point being, Oandasan said, all it would take to stop this would be for law enforcement to do their job. But that was part of the problem—not much law enforcement. This seemed to be true—Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office stretched thin, without enough patrol officers.
I asked Oandasan whether she knew anything about the motives of the suspects in these murders.
“Just stupid kid stuff.”
“And the Whipple kid, too?”
“That was just stupid. From rumors, because I don’t know for sure, Dino…”
I had no idea who Dino was.
“…the one who shot Ken…”
So now I was genuinely confused.
“…was quoted as saying he was going to go out tonight and kill him a Mexican. But he didn’t shoot a Mexican. And even the memorial’s not in the right place. You passed the burned-down building that has Khadijah inside. Then there’s this field. In that field, there’s a memorial for Ken Sr. and Ken Jr. because Ken Jr. was shot and Ken Sr. was battling cancer and died just after his son.”
I had failed to notice anything at the burned-out building other than the portraits of the young women. I asked Oandasan what she knew about Lee Anthony Joaquin.
“It’s not Joaquin’s first time for violence,” she said. “He grew up in violence. There was also Chris Bettega. And I think there was one before him, too.”
“OK, but, on the state of emergency and Nicholas Whipple…is that his name? The young man? Or…Kenneth? Who was killed before Ruby?”
“For a while there, we had funeral after funeral.” She blamed it on meth, fentanyl, and especially alcohol. “It’s a generational thing. Great-great-great-grandma or -grandpa was an alcoholic. Well, so you follow it through.”
Before I left Oandasan, I asked her about the name of the local Indigenous nation: Round Valley Indian Tribes. She mentioned the Nome Cult Walk of 1863.
This is when white people gathered at a Sacramento Valley ranch and decided that the federal government ought to remove every Indigenous person in the area within a month and that anyone left should be killed. The U.S. Cavalry then marched 461 Konkow Maidu west through mountains toward the Round Valley—90 miles, hot and dry. Almost 200 collapsed from exhaustion and got set upon by wild pigs, eaten dead and alive. Other armed white men did the same with other tribes: Nomlaki, Pomo, Little Lake, Wailaki, Cahto, Pit River, until the Round Valley became a kind of penal colony for internally displaced Indigenous Californians—on Yuki land.
“The Yukis were never asked about turning this into a reservation,” said Oandasan. “So the puzzle boils down to the crab syndrome. Bunch of crabs in a bucket, and you’re climbing out and you get pulled back in. All these tribes fighting over so-called power.”
She suggested that I speak with the president of the tribal council. I said that I’d already emailed Randall Britton, but she told me that Britton was no longer president. Now it was a man named Bill Whipple—as in, yes, Nicholas and Ken and Ken Jr.
Oandasan thought that I might be able to find Bill Whipple at the office of the tribal housing authority and gave me directions. Back on 162, near the burned-out arts center, I turned down a series of farm roads with 10-foot fences covered in black tarps to block views of pot farms. I was just passing a parked minivan when somebody inside yelled at me to stop. It was the wiry-strong older woman from the courthouse, the one who’d looked at me kindly but declined to speak. Next to her, in the driver’s seat of the van, sat Felisa Pina, the professorial woman who’d said “Not now.”
Pina asked what I was doing, and I said that Oandasan, over at the reservation office, had told me I might find Bill Whipple at the housing authority. The older woman said, “That’s my son. I’ll call him for you.” A few minutes later, Pina said to follow them; they’d lead me to Whipple’s home. So I did, back to 162, past the casino and the reservation office, and then right onto a different country road, right again onto a dirt road. Pina stopped and, when I pulled alongside, told me to keep going.
The dirt road ran out between a blue modular home and a so-called hoop house, a kind of open-walled greenhouse common on marijuana farms. A caged dog barked. I knocked on the front door of the modular home, and Whipple, a gentle-seeming guy with sad eyes, welcomed me inside. The cool interior was clean and comfortable—perfect country home. Whipple looked about 50 years old. He offered me a cold bottle of Crystal Geyser water and, at a spotless kitchen counter, big fresh strawberries and cherries. As we ate strawberries together, Whipple said that Felisa Pina was his sister and that Mike Pina, whose decomposed body had been found by hunters, had been their uncle, their mother’s younger brother.
“Then about three years ago,” he said, “my sister”—not Felisa, a different sister—“was killed in a car accident in town. Unfortunately, she took another person with her. Two years ago, my nephew Kenny Whipple was murdered. You’ll see there’s a monument that says Ken on it. There’s two that says Ken on it.
“He was shot and killed by Dino Blackbear. Then a few months ago, my nephew Nick, he was murdered. So, no, it’s not new to us. Right when you’re starting to heal from the first one, another happens. But we endure it. We’re still here.
“The whole thing is, Ruby Sky, she was like a niece to me. My sister”—Felisa, this time—“raised Ruby Sky from a little girl until high school, as her adoptive mother. The young girl that’s in jail for Ruby Sky’s murder is also my niece”—by blood—“and she’s another one my sister was raising. She”—the suspected killer—is “the daughter to my brother”—Ken Sr. “My brother”—the father of Ruby Sky’s suspected killer and of Ken Jr.—“died of cancer the day after his son was murdered.”
White people like myself have many bad habits in our storytelling about Indigenous Californians. I have already indulged three of the worst: imagining California to have been virgin land before the arrival of white people; either ignoring genocide or fixating on it as if Indigenous Californians hadn’t survived and thrived and weren’t now leading perfectly complicated contemporary lives; and, finally, getting interested in Indian country mostly just when horrible things occur there.
I thought of all these narrative sins that afternoon because it happened to be graduation day at Round Valley High School. Everyone in town seemed to have turned out. Big new pickup trucks packed the parking lot, and the gym teemed with American high school kids—skaters, heavy metal rockers, nerds. Hip-hop pounded on the PA, and the bleacher seating was filled with earnest adults who looked like math and English teachers, basketball coaches, and college counselors. In the center of the gym, parents and other relatives of graduating seniors sat in rows of folding chairs. Bill Whipple and his mother sat up front to cheer for another young member of the family, Antonia Rosebud Whipple.
Through a door in the back, the class of 2023 filed in wearing the usual polyester cap and gown—bright white for girls, shiny blue for boys, 26 kids total and most wearing sunglasses for the goofy fun of looking cool. The principal, Kelda Britton—as in, yes, Khadijah Britton—gave a fine speech, as did the class valedictorian, Carmen Davila, an all-league basketball and volleyball player bound for UC Davis. Then came a ritual I’d never seen before: The graduates, each suddenly holding an armful of red roses, walked—at the principal’s direction—throughout the gym as the PA pumped power ballads and everyone breathed country air coming in through open doors in a mood of oxygenated community love. They waded through the cheerful crowd, seeking out anyone and everyone who’d ever helped them along life’s way and giving them hugs and roses and thanks. I found it moving, and also disorienting: yes, over the prior few hours, I’d heard about a lot of homicide; and yet, all this hopeful ambition and joy was equally real, and involved an awful lot more people.
Then, with perhaps 200 people in that gym holding roses given to them by one or another beautiful kid, it was time for diplomas: Sandra Acosta, bound for Mendocino College to become a mechanic; football player Jacy Curtis; Rachel Swiftbear Redhawk, who listed her personal song as “Free Leonard Peltier,” which honors the leader of the American Indian Movement who was convicted for the 1975 murder of two FBI agents.
Afterward, I drove a couple of blocks to a black, bunker-like building on Route 162 for dinner. Out front, I saw three middle-aged women talking happily, so I asked about the food. They said it was terrific and that I was kind to have come and that they’d enjoyed my speech at graduation. I said I was a reporter. One of the women said, “Oh! You’re here to write about the astronaut!”
I didn’t know what she was talking about, so they set me straight: Nicole Aunapu Mann, enrolled member of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, Stanford grad, and U.S. Navy test pilot, had flown dozens of combat missions in Afghanistan and Iraq, was the first U.S. Indigenous woman to go into space, and had just commanded a crew aboard a SpaceX rocket bound for the International Space Station. Mann had grown up in Petaluma, not Covelo, but still—she was Round Valley, just like Ruby Sky and Khadijah and every kid I’d seen in that gym. The three women said that many kids from Covelo went on to great things—one of them said that her daughter had just become a doctor.
After dinner, I parked outside the Buckhorn Bar to get a drink but thought better of it and drove to the Golden Oaks Motel. I slept with an open window facing a big hayfield where an owl hooted all night.
Early the next morning, needing coffee, I drove to the tribal convenience store by the casino. From the outside, I could see paper flyers taped to the insides of the store windows. One had the word “Murdered” over a picture of Mike Pina. Another had a picture of Khadijah Britton and a picture of a deeply unhappy-looking man over the words “Kidnapping, Domestic Violence, Felon in Possession of a Firearm.” Yet another flyer had the words “Justice for Will” and a photo of a smiling young man with two children and the words “Beloved Dad Husband Son Brother Nephew Cousin and Friend.”
Inside the store, I found an excellent croissant breakfast sandwich and good coffee. At the register, a friendly young woman with neck tattoos and a clear voice asked whether I’d seen the murals in the burned-out building.
Of course: Ruby Sky Montelongo, Khadijah Britton…
“And Belle,” she said.
“Yeah, so who’s that?”
“Rosalena Belle Rodriguez.”
“What happened to Rosalena Belle?”
“She was murdered, and they found her out on Hopper Lane.”
I have since looked into this: Belle grew up without much help from family but got straight As in high school and was valedictorian. Before her graduation, community members bought her a new pair of shoes, a yearbook, and a class ring. News reports from the time suggest that her life later fell apart: unemployment, alcohol. One night in May 2014, when Belle was 21 years old, she went out with friends and disappeared. Early the next morning, someone in a car noticed her body in the road—face down, multiple gunshot wounds. A 21-year-old man named Jeremy Jason Freeman-Britton was convicted of killing her and sentenced to 19 years to life in prison.
I asked the woman at the cash register about Khadijah Britton, whether anyone knew what had happened to her. She said, “Well, they think they know. But he’s out walking around, still in Covelo. They just never, ever found the body.”
I looked into this later, too: according to the FBI, Khadijah Britton was last seen “being forced into a car at gunpoint by her ex-boyfriend.”
The woman at the register said, of Khadijah Britton, “That’s my cousin. I’m Robin Britton. She’s, like, my second cousin. And Belle is also my second cousin. And Ruby is also, like, my third cousin. Her mom was a Britton. And then Nick, that we lost”—back to Nicholas Whipple now, the very first murder victim I’d heard about, allegedly killed by Lee Anthony Joaquin—“is my cousin too.”
I said it must be hard to wake up one day and find that a cousin was gone. Harder still to find a loved one dead in a field.
“I don’t know who found Belle,” said Robin Britton, “but they found her early in the morning. And then, with Ruby, they found her in the field by the trailer park. We were all here at work.”
I asked her, too, about motives—why so many killings?
“I guess everybody’s got too big of egos around here.”
Robin Britton gave me directions to the memorial for Rosalena Belle Rodriguez—down 162, left on Hopper. I tried to drive there but missed a turn and wound up among distant farms. I saw a man getting out of a shiny new pickup truck and asked about Hopper Lane, but he made it clear that either he did not speak English, he did not wish to comment, or both. A car drove by slowly, and I waved at the driver, asked the same question, and got the same response. So I drove back to the convenience store.
Robin Britton greeted me warmly—I liked her intuitively—and asked a woman in the register line to show me the way. This other woman, clearly off to work somewhere but happy to help, got into a big white pickup and, from 162, turned onto an unmarked country lane of well-tended homes and green lawns with big leafy shade trees. It struck me as a beautiful, peaceful place to live—a kind of rural idyll. The woman in the white pickup stopped where a road called Whipple Lane branched off to the left. I pulled alongside. She said she had to turn around but that I should keep going straight on Hopper and I’d see the memorial up ahead.
A hundred yards farther, up against a fence with green pasture beyond, there it was: an old red T-shirt with a photo of Rosalena Belle Rodriguez printed on it, plastic flowers, bandanna. I got out of my car as a black convertible Mustang sped past and braked, then reversed up to me. The driver, a broad-shouldered woman with straight black hair, asked what I was doing.
When I told her, she said, “You could do my son’s. He was murdered. Why don’t you come to my place and talk to me?” She told me to follow in my car, so I did—around a few turns and past little houses and weed farms. She pulled off the road into a lot full of broken-down cars, stopped, and got out of the convertible. Her name was Laurie Hayes, and she had the fierce, bull-like quality of someone who has been charging against resistance all her life. Hayes wore a black T-shirt, cutoff jeans, and flip-flops. She led me quickly past a woodworking shop that looked remarkably serious, full of expensive tools and fine hardwoods. Over one shoulder, she said that her son’s name had been William Bettega.
“I feel like the justice system sucks because they ultimately gave the murderer 12 years for manslaughter,” she said. “It wasn’t. He got murdered out here, and they transferred his body, and investigators refused to believe it. When you get hit by a vehicle, there’s blood. And especially with the head injury. And he was hit. They found a truck with his teeth and hair on the grille.”
September 4, 2021, now, in the wee hours of the morning: Someone called 911 to report that Hayes’s son, Will Bettega, and a cousin of his named Chris Bettega had both been kidnapped. Tribal police and sheriff’s deputies went looking, found Will Bettega dead by the side of a road. They also found a truck abandoned in a creek drainage. Forensic evidence suggested that Chris Bettega had been the driver and that the truck had recently collided with a pedestrian. The kidnapping story fell apart, and Chris Bettega was arrested and convicted.
Hayes led me through a lush and colorful garden where flowers and little trees made the country air even sweeter, then up to a small wooden home gorgeously made, as if by a master carpenter. Inside, a hand-carved wooden staircase spiraled up through an opening in the ceiling. She called up to someone named John that a reporter was here. Then she stepped over to the stove and brewed cowboy coffee—grounds in a pot, no filter—while an elderly hippie in jeans came downstairs to say hello.
Hayes told him I was writing about the murders, and he said, in a wry but gentle way, “Trouble on the res.”
As in, Tale many times told. He’d moved up here, he said, as a back-to-the-lander, in the early 1970s; he taught woodshop at the high school and considered Laurie’s mother and father among his dearest friends.
At the kitchen table, Hayes spread out photographs of her boy.
“This is a picture of him holding his first baby in the baby cradle. He was, like, 25. That’s my favorite picture. He looks so happy.”
I could feel that grief was driving Hayes mad. She wanted it known that her son had been a good person and that she had known Ruby Sky Montelongo.
“Ruby Sky was like my granddaughter,” Hayes said. “They say it was over a boyfriend or something, but the one that’s in jail that did it, that was my niece. I feel there’s other people involved. It’s not a one-man deal where you take a fence, a barbed wire fence, and you wrap it around somebody’s neck.”
Hayes suspected a similar dynamic in the death of her son—multiple participants, one fall guy. I had a hard time following her argument, but I recall something about her son’s boot being found on one side of town, his body on the other.
She said, “I have a person that seen them out switching the grilles of the trucks. And then you guys want to say that it’s involuntary manslaughter, when this is a murder?”
“They broke my son’s knees with a bat,” she claimed. “Both knees were broken, and he had, like, these stab wounds in his head, and his hair and his teeth are on the grille of the truck. If that ain’t premeditated murder, what is?”
Hayes offered to take me to her son’s memorial, at the spot where he was found. I explained that I’d already agreed to meet someone from the tribal administration at the Walnut Grove Cafe, so Hayes said to go ahead; she’d find me after. Back downtown, I parked outside a low-slung, wood-paneled building that housed both the public library and the café. A window flyer there advertised the Folk Life Farm’s weekly food box. Inside Walnut Grove, I found clean white walls, café tables, and, on one of them, a handout from a recent memorial service for Ruby Sky Montelongo, with a poem inside: “Do you know how you got your name Baby? / It’s your Mother’s Birthstone ‘Ruby’ for July / Sky…is in honor of Creator for blessing me with your life.” At the counter, the menu offered locally roasted Flying Goat Coffee. An older woman with the slender and wiry good health of a great yoga teacher took my order for a smoked-salmon-and-avocado sandwich on house-baked ciabatta and
an Earth Mother Morning Tonic of black tea, oat milk, ashwagandha,
Outside, on a well-swept concrete patio surrounded by trees and shaded by a wooden awning, I found a table. I was soon joined by the person I’d agreed to meet: Michelle Downey, a member of the tribal council. Downey, who had a calm and sober air of good-humored competence, said she’d had a crazy morning because her daughter had graduated from high school the night before and had participated in the town’s sober graduation party—an all-night affair on the school grounds, with the gym converted into a movie theater, commercial outdoor lights at the swimming pool, and a field with hay bales for laser tag.
I told Downey that I’d been to graduation and that I’d been struck by how much light there was—emotional light, in contrast to the darkness of violence.
“You know,” she said, “this valley has always been very dark and heavy. If you are very sensitive and you come into this valley, you feel the heaviness.”
Like everyone else I’d spoken to, Downey seemed to know every murder victim and most of the perpetrators. Also like everyone else, she offhandedly mentioned killings about which I knew nothing: Misty Hawkins, walking down 162 one evening in 2018 when a drunk driver killed her; a young man from San Jose found on 162 outside of town, dead from a gunshot wound. “They threw his body out and left him like garbage on the side of the road,” she said. Also, Antonio “Jim Buck” Tickner, walking home from a Covelo bar in July 2019 when a young woman came out of a house and hit him over the head with a baseball bat, then handed the bat to a man who hit him some more. Ambulance drivers found Tickner gravely injured and offered help, but he walked off down 162 and seems to have been run over twice, first by someone who killed him and drove off and then, at 5:20 a.m., by several men in a truck hauling hay.
Downey cited many contributing factors: drugs and alcohol, of course; the understaffed Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office. She said, “The cartel is here. I don’t care what anybody says. Open your eyes. This valley used to be so dark and beautiful because you could see the sky and the stars. Now all you see is the bright lights of the greenhouses in our mountains.”
Downey said it was especially tough for teenagers—country boredom, bad elements in town. The tribe was planning a skate park and a bike path; there was California Indian Days in September to keep the kids occupied.
“You got girls that are out partying, and you might want to introduce them to risky behavior. Pills or dope or speed. OK, so ‘I can get you high if you come over tonight.’ They’re just a group of high school girls. Treat them good and introduce them to dope, and sometimes our men that have stood up to some of these people in here have been killed.” Downey described recent shoot-outs in town between two particular community members. “Every other weekend, right here by the restaurant, over a girl.”
Downey took a long breath and then said, “It’s generations of, like, being raised from genocide. Generations and generations of hurt. We’ve never grown out of it. Today, we’re actually fighting for that to be taught in our schools.” Her son, she said, was angry with her. “He was like, ‘Why didn’t you tell me about the history?’ And I said, ‘Because I cannot sit there and tell you without crying.’ ”
About that history: Benjamin Madley, author of An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, writes that there were perhaps 20,000 Yuki people in the Round Valley and the surrounding hills when, in the spring of 1854, six armed and mounted Missourians led by Pierce Asbill (echoes of Alberta Azbill, tribal executive secretary) stumbled across the valley by chance. According to a later account by his son, Frank Asbill, “the tall, waving, wild oats began to wiggle in a thousand different directions all at the same time.” Pierce Asbill then apparently said, “We’ve come a long way from Missouri to locate this place…an’ be damned if wigglin’ grass ’ul keep us away! Git a-hold of yer weapons—we’uns are goin’ in!”
In Frank Asbill’s telling, the Missourians came upon thousands of Yuki on the banks of a creek. “A war hoop went up from the Missourians [who] just lay over the horse[s’] necks and shot.… They just rode them down.… When the shootin’ was over, thirty-two dead and dying [Yuki] lay scattered.” Asbill and his men eventually kidnapped a bunch of Yuki girls to sell as slaves to white men. That was perfectly legal at the time, and the money was good, so Asbill and his crew went back for more Yuki boys and girls—kidnapped them and trafficked them. Other white men did the same. Before long, rich white guys in distant cities, including a California Supreme Court justice named Serranus Hastings—former namesake of what is now UC Law San Francisco—were buying land in the area and grazing cattle on meadows where the Yuki people hunted small game and gathered food.
Standard gold rush story: those cattle ate all the food plants; white men wiped out all the edible animals; starving Yuki people killed a cow to eat; and white men formed death squads, knowing that the new California State Legislature would reimburse any and all expenses incurred in the murder of Indigenous people. As one member of a death squad later recalled, “there were so many of these expeditions that I cannot recollect the number.… We would kill, on an average, fifty or sixty Indians on a trip…frequently…two or three times a week.” This went on for several years, meaning that this one death squad member was involved in the murders of literally thousands of people in the Round Valley alone.
A federal official who was sent to investigate later wrote that “during the winter of 1858–’59, more than a hundred and fifty peaceable Indians, including women and children, were cruelly slaughtered by the whites who had settled there under official authority.… Armed parties went into the rancherias”—Indigenous settlements—“in open day, when no evil was apprehended, and shot the Indians down—weak, harmless, and defenseless as they were—without distinction of age or sex; shot down women with sucking babies at their breast; killed or crippled the naked children running about.”
A white hog farmer testified that after some pigs disappeared, he and an armed band shot three people and hung five more. In 1859, a single one of Hastings’s horses was found butchered, as well as a cow shot with an arrow, so a man in Hastings’s employ mustered a posse and rode through Yuki towns and camps. “I think all the squaws were killed,” he said, “because they refused to go further”—apparently meaning that they resisted enslavement. “We took one boy into the valley and the infants were put out of their misery and a girl 10 years of age was killed for stubbornness.”
A different white settler hired mercenaries and received an official commission from the state to exterminate Round Valley Indigenous people outright. The Daily Alta California later reported that in just 15 skirmishes over less than three months, those mercenaries murdered more than 400 people and captured 600.
On June 18, 1860, the San Francisco Bulletin reported that when a couple of cows went missing north of the Round Valley, white people blamed Indigenous people, so “bands of white men, armed with hatchets…fell on the [Indigenous] women and children, and deliberately slaughtered them, one and all.… One of our informants saw twenty-six bodies of women and children collected in one spot.… Some of them were infants at the breast, whose skulls had been cleft again and again. The whole number slaughtered in a single night was about two hundred and forty.”
This degree of horror was commonplace in Northern California at the time. On March 27, 1861, for example, the California Farmer newspaper described a white man in Humboldt County, north of Mendocino, as “the same person who boasted of having killed 60 infants with his own hatchet.”
“So all that trauma has never been healed,” Downey said at the Walnut Grove Cafe. “We’ve just carried on. You don’t want to tell it because of the hardship. But telling the truth and admitting it starts the healing process. And so, I believe that’s where we are today.”
Laurie Hayes appeared again, driving that black Mustang with the top down. So I got back in my car and followed her fast past the high school and down another country road to the memorial for her son—more plastic flowers, hand-painted sign saying “Willie D. Bettega Forever Loved.”
Hayes idled her car for a while, looked at the memorial as she does every day, then suggested we drop in on her son’s widow. I followed her farther down the country road into the same block of houses where I’d seen Felisa Pina and her mother in a minivan the day before. Hayes parked in front of a small white house, and at the front door she yelled, “Laureen, there’s a reporter here wants to talk to you.”
A woman in her early 20s, smoking a cigarette and looking profoundly sad, stepped outside, as did two small children—a girl and a boy. Hayes entertained the kids with a game of tetherball—whacking the roped ball around a pole in the yard—while I asked Laureen how long she’d known Hayes’s son.
“Since I was 15. We all lived in the same trailer park.”
“Where Ruby was found?”
“Uh-huh. We used to hang out a lot.” She said that Will liked to play football, write poetry, play guitar. “He never really went out. We had our kids when I was, like, 18, so we were both pretty much always with them.”
Laureen then told me the story of that night: She’d been off on the coast for a while, at a police academy where she was training to become a law enforcement officer. She’d come for a few days and was in this very house with Will.
“The girl that was involved with it, her family lives right here,” said Laureen. “So I have to see her every so often. It’s really hard to live here.”
“It seems unbearable.”
“It is. I can’t leave. I’m financially unstable.”
I thanked Laureen, got into my car, and was just pulling out when, from the front yard of the house opposite, a woman called out, “What do you think of it around here?”
I reparked the car and walked over, letting myself through a chain-link gate. The woman appeared to be in her 30s and had a radiant, physical warmth about her. Three small children played in the dry grass. She opened an ice chest and offered me a cold Sprite. Her name was Sasha Azbill.
Sitting nearby, in the shade, was the square-jawed man from the Ukiah courthouse, the one with the tattoos. He introduced himself as Howard Whipple—younger brother of Bill and father of Nicholas, the young man who’d been murdered, allegedly by Lee Anthony Joaquin.
Howard Whipple said, “It’s fucked up what that dude did, man.”
He said he’d gone to find one of the guys who’d killed his son: “I went and called him on it, but he went and told another story. And see, he’s already lied five, six times to the cops.”
“Now they’re looking for him,” said Azbill, “because he beat up his spouse.”
“Yeah, but then they come arrest me over his hearsay. I went to court Thursday, the day before my son.”
“And beat it,” said Azbill.
I asked Howard what he knew about his son’s death. “I know who did it. That dude that’s in jail right now, a lot of people point the finger at him. But I wasn’t there. I was home, and they said there was, what, 42 people there?”
“Forty-three at the party,” said Azbill. “No one can help.”
“And somehow nobody saw anything.”
“Nobody did shit to help him.”
“That’s what pisses me off,” Howard said. “They’re all going to get it. It was just right over there, man. Through that field, and nobody could give me a call or nothing. It’s crazy. How long has he been gone? About a month and a half?”
Azbill answered: “Two months.”
“Few months. It’s a struggle. It’s hard. It’s the worst thing ever in my life. It took a part of me. That’s why I’ve been going to every one of his courts. I don’t want him dead. I want him in a box for the rest of his life for what he did to my son. My son didn’t even know the dude.”
Howard said that his son hadn’t been a wild kid—lived with his grandmother (Howard and Bill’s mother), stayed home, just happened to go out one night.
“These girls kept fucking texting him. The girls lured him over there,” he said. “My son didn’t even know this dude, and these two people took him over there, and he ended up fighting three dudes, and he whipped all three of them. The detective had pictures of one of the guys; he was beat up pretty good. I don’t want to go to jail for none of this shit, but something has to happen. I can’t let them do that to my son. They beat him with fucking sticks, shot him with a fucking AR from here to probably the wall. And my son was still walking around trying to get help, saying he needed an ambulance, and nobody was coming. They took him outside, shut the door on him.”
Azbill said something about Joaquin.
Howard said, “I think, that dude, he’s fucking retarded anyway. I know his whole family, the Joaquins. We grew up together, and I’ve never, ever had no beef with nobody.”
I asked Howard what he recalled of that night, and he said that his son had been over at Howard’s mother’s place but called late at night and asked Howard to come pick him up, because he wanted to go to a party near Howard’s house. Howard obliged, bringing Nicholas to the neighborhood, but couldn’t sleep and stayed up worrying.
“I do that all the time,” he said. “Like, I’ll go look for him all night. I’ll be looking all over, and I tell all these guys where he’ll be hanging out, ‘Don’t be giving him drugs.’ ”
Around 5 a.m., one of Howard’s nieces called and told him to go check on Nick; something had happened. Howard drove the short distance and saw tribal police officer Cole Rabano taping off part of the road. Beyond, Howard saw an ambulance with the back door open and a covered body inside.
Howard remembered saying to Rabano, “Is that my son?”
Rabano said yes.
Howard walked to the ambulance and spoke to the paramedics: “I know the lady. I asked Doreen if he was gone, and she said, ‘Yeah.’ So I stayed there a minute and looked at him, and then I left and just came home. I called my mom and told her.”
Later that morning, Howard went house to house trying to figure out who had killed his son. “They all lied to me, so they’re all guilty to me,” he said.
Howard eventually saw one of the young men from the party at the casino: “I said, ‘Let’s go outside—I want to talk to you,’ and we went outside, and I said, ‘Well, you fought with my son; now you fight me,’ and he started bawling, and he started telling me who was involved. I just don’t understand. He could’ve helped Nick, because they seen Nick laying there. Nobody helped him. I could only imagine what my son went through.”
Back in my car, westbound on 162, leaving town, I got a phone call from Mona Oandasan’s sister, Deb Hutt, a leader in the effort to get tribal history taught in local schools.
“The new buzzword in Indian country is historic trauma. But I find that, you know, you’re going to find historic trauma all over the place, of people whose people were annihilated right in front of them, and who carry that trauma within their genes to the next generations,” she said.
“Covelo, what goes on here, is just…what do you call it? A microcosm of what’s going on in life.” •