Tuba City Police Bust Navajo Man for Throwing Rocks; He Directs Them to Dead Body

Tuba City, a small town on the Navajo Nation, has been the scene of several shocking murders in recent years.
Tuba City, a small town on the Navajo Nation, has been the scene of several shocking murders in recent years. Jpatokal at wts wikivoyage via Wikimedia Commons
The call to Tuba City police on January 8 seemed routine, but troublesome – the caller reported that someone was throwing rocks at a house.

Cops rolled out to the location, found the suspect, and booked him into the Tuba City detention center. There, 44-year-old Lathaniel Phoenix gave police unexpected information: Phoenix said that if officers went to his home, in the bathroom, under a blanket, they’d find the body of a man he killed about five days earlier.

Officers who went to the home found just that, along with bloodstains near a wood stove and a red-stained wooden shovel handle. The identity of the victim, called “DS” in federal court records, had yet to be confirmed as of last week.

Phoenix claims it was self-defense: He said the man showed up at his door on or about the night of January 3, saying he’d been hired by police and Phoenix’s brother to kill Phoenix, but instead, Phoenix beat and stabbed the man to death.

The homicide is the latest to strike Tuba City, population about 8,600, on the Navajo Nation. Like many small towns on American Indian reservations, it's been plagued over the years by poverty, substance abuse, and crime. In July, police found the naked body of a woman who had been beaten to death under the Tuba City High School football bleachers. A 20-year-old Tuba City man was charged with second-degree murder in that case.

The Navajo Department of Public Safety didn’t return a call about the case.

Phoenix, a Navajo tribal member, is being charged with second-degree murder, according to the complaint filed in Arizona U.S. District Court on January 9.

As the complaint relates, Phoenix admitted chilling details to Navajo Nation and FBI investigators about the gory scene at his home.

Phoenix said he didn’t know the victim, who knocked on Phoenix’s door just before 9 p.m., but believed he was from Tonalea, about 25 miles northeast. He began cussing at Phoenix, who asked him if he was drunk, according to Phoenix.

The man said he wasn’t drunk, but that he’d been “paid some money” by police officers and Phoenix’s brother to kill Phoenix. He took a small knife out of his pocket and unfolded it, Phoenix told investigators.

“Phoenix turned his back to DS to go into the kitchen, and DS tried to stab Phoenix’s back but missed,” the complaint states, relating Phoenix’s story to authorities. “Phoenix jumped out of the way and started to move around in the kitchen, while DS came at Phoenix and tried to stab him. Phoenix ran to the back bedroom, grabbed a shovel handle, and came back out to the living room.”

When Phoenix returned to the living room, he reported, DS was looking for something near the television and had his back to Phoenix. “Before DS could turn around, Phoenix hit DS in the back of the head with the shovel handle. DS fell down by the wood stove.”

Phoenix said he believed DS was unconscious after the first blow, but he proceeded to hit the man three or four more times with the handle while he was on the floor. Then Phoenix picked up the man’s knife.

“He stabbed DS in the arm, the shoulder, and the back while DS was lying face down,” the complaint states. “Phoenix indicated the knife was razor sharp. DS never made any noise while this was going on, and Phoenix indicated that he thought it was because DS was ‘too unconscious.’”

He figured if this guy was going to come to his house and try to harm him, he would kill the man, he told investigators.

Blood poured out of DS, and Phoenix decided it was safe to stop stabbing him. He placed the knife on the kitchen counter and went to his brother’s house for a few hours for cigarettes, he said. Then he went back to the house, moved the body, and tried to clean up the blood, “but it stained the ground.”

Phoenix agreed with investigators that he could have simply run out of his house when threatened by DS, but that “when someone was hired to kill him in his own residence he did not tolerate it and was going to defend himself.”

He said DS had some checks in his socks and a “brown crocodile wallet,” all of which would be found in a drawer at his home, Phoenix admitted. The folding knife was in Phoenix’s pocket.

Phoenix, who’s been held behind bars since his arrest, has a detention hearing set for today at 10 a.m. in Flagstaff federal court.
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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern