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Why Was Tyrone Childs Killed?

This April Fools' Day, Diana Wiley watched Tyrone Childs fall on his knees and collapse in a dusty, littered backyard in Ajo, Arizona. She remembers thinking the pistol that Pima County sheriff's deputy Mark Penner fired at her lover must have had fake bullets. Why else would the .45- caliber gun make such a silly, toylike noise as it pumped seven rounds into Tyrone's slumping body?

But as Diana ran forward with her seven-month-old baby Veronica in her arms, she saw blood leaking from Tyrone's mouth and nose. The twenty-year-old father of her two children was dead. This was no April Fools' joke.

Last Friday, deputy Mark Penner pleaded innocent to second-degree murder charges in Pima County Superior Court. Meanwhile, his superiors at the sheriff's department, which investigated the case with the Pima County attorney, had started termination proceedings.

Officials at the sheriff's department refused to comment on the specifics of Penner's case.

On the advice of his lawyer, the 23-year-old deputy refused to talk to either the press or a sheriff's review board about the shooting. Penner's attorney was not available for comment. But after the tragedy, newspapers reported Penner told a co-worker that Tyrone Childs threatened him and made a "furtive movement" as the deputy tried to arrest him on burglary and assault charges.

Childs, a Native American, was unarmed when he was shot. And although he had traces of cocaine and more than twice the legal limit of alcohol in his body when he died, two eyewitnesses to the tragedy tell New Times that Childs did not threaten Penner or make any attempt to hit the officer.

FOR TYRONE'S 71-year-old great-aunt, his death brings back horrible memories of a July night in 1972. That's when Martha Childs Celaya was called to the hospital to claim the body of her nineteen-year-old son Phillip, who had been gunned down by a Pima County sheriff's deputy outside an Ajo bar. It's odd. Two cousins in the Childs family killed in Ajo by Pima County sheriff's deputies in less than twenty years. Several members of the Childs clan told New Times they feel both shootings were racially motivated. The sheriff's department denied it then; it denies the allegation now.

Martha Celaya wonders if the investigation of Tyrone's death will leave his parents feeling as betrayed and bewildered as she still does about the loss of her son. Although Phillip's death was ruled a justifiable homicide, to this day there are lingering questions about what happened that night. Martha still suspects evidence was destroyed to cover up a cold-blooded killing. She still wonders why an eyewitness was ignored. She wonders if the same things will happen in Tyrone's death.

THE WEEK BEFORE Penner entered his innocent plea, nearly a hundred of Tyrone Childs' relatives gathered in Ajo for an all-night wake. The Childses are members of the Hia-Ced O'odham, or Sand Papago, clan of the Tohono O'odham nation. Tyrone's open casket lay in the front yard of his parents' house. An ivory-white curtain, garlanded with white and blue carnations, was tacked up behind the coffin. A picture of Jesus with a bleeding heart hung in the middle of the curtain.

Men stood silently in groups beneath the rickety branches of a huge ironwood tree and women sat in folding chairs facing the casket. They said the rosary and listened to the bittersweet strumming of guitars. All night long they stayed, praying and talking softly and watching the night breeze toy with the curtain and carnations and picture of Jesus.

The next day they loaded the casket onto a blue-and-white pickup and marched on foot behind the truck to the local Catholic church, where an Anglo priest in brightly colored Native American vestments said a funeral mass. And then they buried Tyrone on the family ranch at Ten-Mile Wash, so named because it sits ten miles north of Ajo near a desert arroyo exploding with yellow-blossomed paloverde trees.

THE CHILDS FAMILY is sad and bitter about the treatment its members have gotten in Ajo since the 1951 death of their patriarch, a legendary Anglo pioneer named Tom Childs. They figure that because Tom Childs married a Native American woman, the people in Ajo have resented them.

"They have always hated us because we are Indian," says the family historian Fillman Childs Bell, daughter of Tom Childs. "In the old days, Ajo was a segregated town. There was an Indian village and Mexican village and Anglo village. Even the swimming pool was segregated--first the Anglos swam and then the Mexicans swam and at the end of the week, right before they changed the dirty water, they let the Indians swim."

Ajo, a town of about 4,000, stretches around a Phelps Dodge copper mine near the Mexican border in southwestern Arizona. Phelps Dodge closed the mine in 1984, but Ajo still looks like a drab company town. Because it's an unincorporated community, Ajo doesn't have its own police force. Instead, it's always been policed by Pima County deputies. Pima County sheriff officials, however, deny they have singled out the Childs family for any sort of persecution.

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Terry Greene