QUESTIONS WITHOUT ANSWERS
"Should we assume there are violent criminals on the loose?" asked the woman reporter from Channel 12.
This is what you might call a "sound bite" question. It is not designed to obtain information but merely to elicit an answer that will sound important on television.
They are comparable to those immortal lines in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles that still bring shivers down the spine of the reader:
"Mr. Holmes, they are the footprints of an enormous hound!" Maricopa County Sheriff Tom Agnos wasn't playing the game for astonishment, however.
"Well," Agnos said, "I think that's pretty obvious." Agnos, who is scheduled to undergo open-heart surgery later this month, was heading the 20-man investigation of the so-called "Asian hate crime," in which nine murders were committed in a matter of minutes.
They all occurred over last weekend in a white farmhouse west of Glendale that had been converted into a Buddhist temple named Wat Promkunaram.
The sheriff was dead serious. The reporter, however, was still determined to create something that would sound dramatic for the living room.
The reporter's voice boomed back again like a voice of doom for another sound-bite question: "Must the community be concerned that this will happen again somewhere else?" This time Agnos showed signs that his patience was reaching a breaking point.
"Well," he said, "I would certainly hope that something like this would not occur again." Agnos hesitated.
"This is really a very unusual crime for any part of the world. It's really a tragedy, a one-of-a-kind situation. No, I would hope that it would not occur again." Agnos then delivered a short lecture.
"Look, I appreciate the newsworthiness of this event," he said. "But I'd like you to appreciate the fact that we have an investigation going on. I'm not going to comment on certain areas. I mean I'm not going to talk about evidence we found in there or any leads we may have up to this point.
"And remember, when I tell you `No comment,' it's not because I don't like you." There were probably two dozen media people formed around the sheriff in a half circle in an area 30 feet away from the murder scene.
"Do you have any leads?" "No comment," Agnos said.
"Are there any suspects?" "No comment." "Was this an execution-style killing?" Agnos shook his head.
"`Execution-style killing' probably only has meaning in a movie or in a state prison," he said. "I would say this: The killings were very methodical." "What do you think your chances are of apprehending the people who did this?" another reporter asked.
Agnos' expression became even more determined than it had been. It was as though he had pumped himself up for this moment.
"I think this crime is so horrendous," he said, "that the community is not going to tolerate something like this. I believe we are going to get phone calls, get some information. This is really a terrible, terrible tragedy." It's early Sunday morning and the cars are lined up along the narrow dirt road for a quarter of a mile. There are more than 21 cars amd trucks here and you can't see another parked car in the area for miles.
Six television crews have set up their cameras in the driveway. There are reporters from the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Sacramento Bee. For Sam Stanton, now with the Sacramento newspaper, and Randy Collier of the Arizona Republic, it is a reunion.
Stanton, remembered for his outstanding coverage of then-Governor Evan Mecham, was in Tucson doing a story on the University of Arizona's dispute over a telescope site near Safford. He was ordered to the scene of the monks' murders as soon as the Associated Press bulletin hit his city desk back in Sacramento.
Network television reporters were on hand, too, as well as CNN. But the crowd is not as large as it would have been before the tremendous cutbacks that have hit newspapers and television news departments in the past year. Travel budgets have been slashed.
I walk toward the house in which the nine Buddhists were shot to death early Saturday morning. The sheriff's deputies have stretched a yellow tape across the driveway to keep reporters and visitors away from the crime scene.
This is the most difficult part of any crime to write about. It's Sunday. The story broke on Saturday. It was both gruesome and shocking. But the readers have already been told the most shocking part. It is always a question as to how much more they want to know.
What is left to tell now is actually more important--who did the shootings and why?
The police apparently are reluctant to tell about any clues they have for fear that might bungle the case. You can't blame them. Quite often a piece of information withheld from the media turns out to be the very bit of evidence that enables them to break the case.
Two, and maybe more, cold-blooded killers entered the Buddhist temple off Cotton Lane in the hours just before dawn and dispatched nine lives by firing bullets at point-blank range into the backs of the victims' heads.
Six were Buddhist monks from Thailand. Two were acolytes and one was a nun.
They were killed by intruders who first raked them across the chests with shotgun pellets. They were then ordered to lie on the floor with their faces down. After this, they were all systematically shot in the back of the head.
There was no sign that any resistance was offered. How could this be?
Buddhist monks have a history of passivity.
A former American ambassador who served many years in Thailand when it was still known as Siam reported upon returning to this country: "During my stay in Bangkok I do not remember a single instance of seeing two men come to blows and seldom even to quarrel." The entire history of Buddhism is filled with incidents in which monks have perished passively.
There is a tale told about sixth century monks who burned Buddhist rosaries onto their chests, and some who burned the fingers off their left hands. It was reported that some monks even ate fatty foods for two years in advance so that their bodies would burn better when they set themselves on fire in protest.
Giving refuge to a group of soldiers, a group of monks set themselves up as a barricade in the temple gates. There were 15 monks and, when the enemy set fire to the gates, they all assumed a meditation posture.
As they burned to death, the chief monk told them, "Even flames prove cool and refreshing when we succeed in nullifying our ego." Many are old enough to remember that hot June afternoon when Quang Duc, a 73-year-old monk, and a group of fellow monks appeared in the main section of Saigon.
One of the younger monks poured a five-gallon can of gasoline over Quang Duc, who then struck a match and was dissolved in flames. Quang Duc held his prayer beads aloft and managed to refrain from screaming.
While hundreds looked on, Quang Duc remained fixed in meditation almost ten minutes before his charred body fell over backward. Even in death, his face was serene in a death mask and he was still clutching his beads.
Four monks then unfurled a Buddhist flag and waved it. Speaking through a loud hailer, they told the crowd Quang Duc had died for the Buddhist flag. This was the start of a campaign that brought the South Vietnamese government down.
Who are these men who become Buddhist monks? What do they believe?
In Thailand, nearly half the men in the population are likely to become monks for at least a few years of their lives. It is a training ground consisting of meditation and a grounding in philosophy that is believed to turn young men into more caring human beings.
Monks attempt to "live without hate among the hateful and live free of hate among those who are hate-filled." They are taught that victory in material things breeds hatred and that whoever is peaceful achieves happiness by giving up the battle for victory.
They are taught to meditate and to be friendly, to demonstrate living kindness, compassion for their fellow man and gentleness.
None of this training equips the monks to handle marauding bands of gunmen.
But no one in Thailand ever remembers monks being attacked and killed by gangs of criminals. To harm a monk is considered a crime so terrible that it would bring down a punishment lasting an eternity of lifetimes.
Monks make their own orange-colored robes from 108 patches as a reminder that the robes of the original monks were from cast-off rags and scraps of cloth.
They have few possessions.
They are given a pair of sandals, an umbrella to keep out the rain and sun, a sleeping mat, a small pillow and a razor of German make that is used to shave the face each day and the head and eyebrows once each month.
They also are given a spoon, a fork and a plate, as well as a monk's bag which they use to carry money and books when they leave the Wat.
Monks take only two meals a day. They have their first meal at seven in the morning and the second just before noon. After noon, there is no partaking of solid food or even of milk or any liquid that contains sugar.
They have very little in material possessions. But they have a passionate belief that there is a power that protects saintly individuals and can protect them in a way that is almost miraculous.
It did not work, however, for the monks who set themselves up in the shadow of the White Tank Mountains amidst a society that glories in the sanctity of every man's right to own a gun.
Chintana Barker, 36, of Tucson had been making regular visits to meet the monks for three years.
She stood alongside her red Toyota Corolla in the road. She seemed stunned.
"For three years, I have been coming here to study how to meditate with the monks," she said. "They were such good people. They were very calm. All they wanted to do was help.
"They knew so much about philosophy and psychology. They helped me save my life. I was miserable. I used to drink and gamble. They taught me what was important about life." The crowd of reporters around Barker was growing now.
"Can you believe they would not retaliate if attacked?" a man asked.
"Oh, yes," she said. "I certainly do believe that. They would never retaliate. They would not resist." "Do you think this is what they call a hate crime?" "I don't know, but we lost a lot of good people. They were wonderful friends." "What did you learn from them?" someone asked.
"I learned that happiness is not everything. Money is not everything. When I heard about this I was so sad. My body was crying out inside me. I had to get in my car and drive up here even though I knew I couldn't see anyone.
"I couldn't just sit home and do nothing. I had to come and be here close to where they died." The woman who accompanied Barker was in tears. Barker was not crying.
Someone remarked that she seemed to be holding up well.
"This is what I learned from the monks," she said. "You have to let things go. If I show grief, the only person it can hurt is myself. Life must go on. If the monks were here they would be telling me that same thing." She hesitated.
"If I had not spent three years with the monks learning how to meditate, I would be screaming my head off. But now I am different. I am calm." Barker thought it was ironic that the monks had moved out here to the Goodyear area so they could live in a sparsely populated area.
"They did not want to be disturbed by other people," she said. "At the same time, they did not want to disturb others with their chanting. There have been times when people tried to make trouble for them over that. Sometimes they play music and people do not like that, either." Barker looked over to the farmhouse which had been converted into a Buddhist temple. There were statues. There was a money tree. The $20 on the tree, in dollar bills, had not been touched.
All that had been taken were some bracelets and rings worn by the monks. Their value was minimal.
"I will miss them," Chintana Barker said of the monks. "I will miss their jokes. I will miss their generosity. I will miss their love.
"Yes, I will miss them very much. It will be hard." There were tears forming in the corners of her eyes.
The entire history of Buddhism is filled with incidents in which monks have perished passively.
Monks attempt to "live without hate among the hateful and live free of hate among those who are hate-filled." "You have to let things go. If I show grief the only person it can hurt is myself. Life must go on.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.