Under the New Mexico Sky

It’s a hot June night in Farmington, New Mexico, just after last call at the Turnaround Bar. A 36-year-old Navajo woman named Betty Lee hangs up the pay phone at the 7-Eleven convenience store across the street. Frustrated and angry because her girlfriends have left her stranded, she has called just about everyone she can think of to beg for a ride back to her home in Shiprock.

A young man named Bobby Fry approaches her. “I hate to see a woman cry,” he says as she wipes the tears from her face. He offers her a ride. He seems nice enough. Blue eyes, scraggly brown hair, he’s a big lumbering guy who seems anxious to make friends. He motions to the turquoise blue Ford Aspire parked behind him. “I can take you as far as Kirtland,” he says. She thinks for a moment and turns back toward the phone. There is no one left to call. She has to get home to her kids. Her sister grudgingly agreed to watch them as long as Betty promised not to be too late. “Just tonight,” she had begged her sister before she left. “I’ve been so busy with school, I need to get out.” Betty looks at her watch; it’s almost 2:15 a.m. She has no other choice. “Okay,” she shrugs, and smoothes back her hair. “Thanks,” she adds quickly.

A young man with a shock of blonde of hair spilling across his face walks out of the 7-Eleven and makes his way over to them, smacking a pack of cigarettes against his palm. He opens the pack and hands one to Bobby before offering one to her. “This is Leslie,” Bobby says as the three of them walk toward his car. “I’m Bobby.” She gives him a brief smile. “My name’s Betty.” She climbs in after Leslie and watches as Bobby folds his large body into the tiny car. He lights a cigarette and starts the engine. She sighs and stares out at the mobile home dealership, the diner, and tractor yard that mark the western edge of town. The night is empty and hot. She rolls down her window to feel the breeze on her face.

As they approach Kirtland just outside of Farmington, Bobby slows down. She figures he’s avoiding the speed traps. She leans out her window and looks up at the big empty sky. The glaring lights of a Chevron station at the side of the road hurt her eyes. The sky looks pink. Betty closes her eyes against the breeze and lets herself be caressed by the fingers of a warm New Mexico night. Bobby turns onto a dirt road.

All of a sudden, Betty opens her eyes and sits up. They’ve been driving slowly into the darkness for a good five minutes. She turns and looks behind them. She can barely make out the lights of the Chevron. She meets Leslie’s eyes in the back seat for a split second. She reads a flicker of fear and excitement. She starts to feel uneasy. Finally Bobby eases the car to a stop; he turns to tell her that he has to take a piss. His eyes are steely and sinister—his face shows nothing of the nice guy anxious to lend a hand she met outside the 7-Eleven.

She draws her breath in with one sharp gulp, fear shoots through her gut. She knows then that she has made a bad decision. She kicks her door open and throws herself out. The car is surrounded on either side by miles of flat red mud. She runs back toward the highway, her lungs burning from too many cigarettes. She hears Bobby screaming after her to come back. She hears tires crunching and feels the lights of the Aspire hot on her back. He is next to her.

“Where are you going? I told you I’d give you a ride didn’t I? Come on and get back in the car.”

She looks out at the dim lights of the highway. They seem miles away. She realizes then that she is trapped. She stops, her chest heaving, and walks over to the passenger side. Bobby looks at her with an amused smile on his face as she climbs back into her seat. The car inches forward slowly; she prays silently that this isn’t really happening, that she will get home to her kids and remember all of this in the morning as if it’s a dream. Then Bobby jams on the brakes and opens the car door. She tries to get out before he makes it around to her side, but despite his flabby form, Bobby is fast when he wants to be. Faster than Betty by a long shot. He grabs her long, black hair and pulls her out of the car in one swift motion. She yelps in pain. “Why are you doing this to me?” she screams. He grabs at her clothes. She thrashes wildly but can do nothing to stop him as he pulls her loose white blouse up over her chest. Then she sees the flash of silver and hears the click of his switchblade. She feels the knife plunge into her chest. She fights and finally pushes him off. She grabs the knife, pulls and heaves it into the empty field. She falls into the mud. She hears Bobby yelling at Leslie, “Grab her legs, dammit.” Another pair of hands wrap around her ankles. Bobby pulls at her pants. Betty is screaming, kicking, spitting. Suddenly, she’s free.

She runs with everything she has. She runs, wearing only her sandals slapping in the mud. Tears gush down her face; she feels her warm blood dripping. She puts her hand on her chest to stop the blood. She hears the sound of heavy feet coming steadily behind her. Terror sends tremors through her body.

Bobby easily catches up to her and trips her from behind. He has a sledgehammer in his hand. She hears a cracking noise that turns into a searing pain. She struggles to breathe as her eyes and mouth fill with mud. He keeps swinging. The cracking comes again and again, until, merciful god, feeling is gone. Death comes in one last gasp. Bobby bends down and turns her over to watch as her soul leaves through her eyes.

Many of details recounted here of what happened that night between Betty Lee, Bobby Fry, and Leslie Engh are from public documents and interviews. The rest I have imagined as I tried to piece together those last moments of Betty Lee’s life.

I was a reporter and editor at the Farmington Daily Times on June 9, 2000 when Betty Lee’s body was found. A PNM utility company worker was checking electrical lines in the Kirtland area when he found the body of a young Navajo woman, naked and badly beaten. I remember sitting in the corner of the newsroom that afternoon to read the affidavit from the crime scene. The seven-page document was rich in detail yet devoid of emotion.

Five days later, Leslie Engh, 24, Farmington born and raised, told police how he and his friend Bobby Fry, 26, also from Farmington, had offered Betty Lee a ride home. He described how, instead, they had taken her out into the mesa and killed her. He also told police about the October day two years before when he and Bobby gave Donald Tsosie, a 41-year-old Navajo father of five, a lift. Their assault began in the car. Leslie, sitting in the back seat, began to strangle Donald Tsosie from behind. They then drove out to the mesa, beat him with a shovel, gouged his eyes and mutilated his genitals with a broomstick, and threw his body off a cliff.

For the Navajo it felt like the resurgence of an all too familiar pattern. Less than 30 years before, three Farmington teenagers were charged with three separate killings of Navajo men, after offering them rides, luring them out to the mesa, torturing and killing them. According to Rodney Barker’s book The Broken Circle, written about the 1974 killings, the teens set out that night to “roll some Indians,” the term coined for a night-time youth activity that consists of luring drunk Navajo men and women into their cars, driving them to the mesa, and doing whatever comes to mind. This pastime continues today.

An ugly place surrounded by endless miles of untouched, natural beauty, Farmington is hours from the nearest freeway, traffic jam, or Starbucks. With three rivers flowing through it, Farmington could be a peaceful desert oasis for those looking to escape the trappings of urban life. Instead, the town of 40,000 has grown into an oil and gas crossroads of dusty storefronts, fast food joints, mobile home dealerships, and cowboy bars—a place designed to conquer the land rather than coexist with it.

The people of Farmington feed their souls by worshipping at the altars of religion, country, and baseball. From every corner gleaming churches beckon: “Short on Faith? Come in for a Fill Up.” First settled by Mormons who christened it “Junction City,” Farmington has become the region’s epicentre for Protestant evangelical religions and strong conservative Republican ties.

Thirty miles west of the Farmington city limits begins the sprawling desert of the Navajo Nation. Created in 1868, bordered by the Navajo’s sacred mountains, the Navajo Nation is the largest American Indian reservation in the United States. Marking the border of the reservation is a massive rock formation, known as Shiprock, which looks as if it had been dropped off the face of the moon.

For the first few miles beyond Shiprock, along Route 666, the main byway of the northern portion of the Navajo Nation, shabby mobile homes and groups of mud huts, known as “hogans,” predominate. From there, road kill and broken-down pickup trucks dot the landscape. Beyond that, empty space and deep red earth stretch to the horizon.

Life on the Navajo Nation is a completely different set of realities. Running water and electricity are luxuries unknown to half of the population; one grocery store serves people spread across hundreds of miles. A few fast food restaurants and trading posts—the Navajo version of the convenience store—represent the extent of economic development. Many Navajo children must ride 100 miles a day to school over dirt roads that are rendered impassable in the rare rainstorm. The average response time for a Navajo Nation tribal police officer ranges from one hour to one day. Jobs are found only in the “Anglo” (as non-Navajos are referred to) border towns. Close to half the population is unemployed.

Although the sale of alcohol has been banned for many years on the Navajo Nation, hundreds of Navajos hitch rides to border towns such as Farmington to spend their days squatting bleary-eyed in the alleys and sidewalks. Many leave families and lives behind. Educated, uneducated, male, female, old, or young—alcohol does not discriminate. Those who can’t find a ride to the bars or liquor stores in the Anglo world drink something called “ocean” to get their fix. Ocean is produced by piercing a bottle of Aqua Net and mixing the liquid contents with a jug of cherry Kool-Aid. In the desert just behind the trading posts, hundreds of discarded Aqua Net bottles lie in the red dirt.

Some Farmington Anglos talk about Navajos with a disdainful sigh and a shake of the head. They lament the fact that it’s hard to go to a grocery store, fast food restaurant, or convenience store in Farmington without being bombarded by stinking, red-eyed Navajos, shaking handfuls of change, their faces pressed up against the car window.

Meanwhile, Farmington’s economy is almost completely built around the exploitation of the Navajo. Not only are Navajos the best customers at Farmington’s burgeoning strip of bars and liquor stores, but the Wal-Mart, Kmart Superstore, and the bustling two-acre Animas Valley Mall have all blossomed on Farmington’s outskirts to provide food, clothing, and other necessities to the thousands of Navajos who have nowhere else to buy these things. Farmington’s expansive parks, baseball stadium, soccer complex, and state of the art aquatic centre all stand homage to the millions generated by Navajos in sales tax each year. And the town’s largest employers—ChevronTexaco, ConocoPhillips and other oil, natural gas, and coal extractors—continue to exploit access to the mineral rights of the Navajo’s sacred land.

As a reporter at a newspaper once known as the “white racist bible” of Farmington, I was acutely aware of the racial tensions that existed in Farmington’s society. It was in this context that I began investigating the killings of Donald Tsosie and Betty Lee. In addition to attending the court proceedings and reviewing official records, I interviewed anyone I could find who knew Bobby Fry and Leslie Engh and began writing letters to them in jail. Leslie wrote me back and we began a correspondence that continued on and off for years, and I eventually met Leslie for a jailhouse interview. My motivation throughout this investigation, which continued even after I left the newspaper and Farmington, was the need to find the reason for these horrific killings. For much of that time I believed that Bobby and Leslie killed because they hated Navajos—a hatred that was nurtured by a community seeped in racism. Even when, months after his arrest for Betty Lee’s murder, Bobby earned the title of serial killer after being charged with the 1996 killings of Joseph Fleming and Matthew Trecker who were not Navajo, I couldn’t believe that Bobby was not driven by racial hatred. (Leslie was not involved in these deaths. Harold Pollack, another young Farmington native, accompanied Bobby.)

For years, Bobby bragged to anyone who would listen about his penchant for violence—he even tattooed barbed wire around his ankle and claimed to add a prong for each new victim. Before the murders, he had already come into contact with the law more than a few times. He had numerous rape, assault, and DUI charges that never stuck. Bobby’s mother, Gloria Fry, who was head of adult probation programs in Farmington’s San Juan County, a magistrate judge, and the founding pioneer behind the battered women’s shelter movement in the region, tirelessly pleaded her son’s cases with authorities. Many times, she managed to intervene and have him released to her custody. To this day, she still testifies on his behalf, describing him as a wonderful, loving man.

Bobby never tried to hide his murderous intentions until the day he was looking at a death sentence. Then, he cried on the witness stand and pleaded for his life. Today, he sits on death row awaiting his execution date. His most recent mug shot bears scant resemblance to the thug he aspired to be, those years ago. Back then, his hair curled down his neck, his goatee was unkempt, and he had a stare to match his menacing swagger. These days, he claims to have found Jesus behind bars. He has the clean shave of prison regulations. He wears glasses and stares openly at the camera, almost smiling. Despite his supposed newfound religious faith, Bobby is said to be terrified by the imminence of his own death. Although New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson recently signed legislation making capital punishment illegal in the state, the death sentences for Bobby and the state’s other death row resident, Timothy Allen of Bloomfield, a town that abuts Farmington, still stand.

Charged in four murders and suspected in many others, Bobby is known as a “disorganized” serial killer. His only pattern is the marked brutality of his crimes, and the fact that for his four murders, he insisted on having someone there with him. He told one friend that killing is his “calling.” He told another friend that his favourite part of the kill is the end, when he could watch “their soul leave their eyes.” While Bobby does hate the Navajo, he has called them “guts” and “trogs” and bragged about his “Indian rolling” adventures, Bobby’s real motivation for the murders seems to be the pleasure he took in killing.

Despite Bobby’s violent track record and serial killer status, Leslie may be the more sinister of the two. Bobby has never seemed smart enough to really hide who he is. Leslie, on the other hand, has many personas that he seems able to pick and choose at will. Throughout the years of our correspondence, he never deviated from his claim that he was another one of Bobby Fry’s victims who ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time—twice. Leslie’s story goes something like this: In 1998 and again in 2000, he was hitching a ride home when Bobby forced him, under threat of death, to watch as he brutally killed Betty Lee and Donald Tsosie.

I remember the day I first interviewed Leslie in the San Juan County Detention Center a few months after he confessed. Although I had seen him before in court appearances, we had never met face to face. I sat waiting in an interview room that was completely filled by a large metal table and chairs. When the guards brought him in, unlocked his handcuffs and left him there, I was amazed at the fear I didn’t feel. He offered his hand for a limp handshake. He barely met my eyes. He sat, his shoulders slumped, as if he was trying to take up as little room as possible.

His hair was blonde, cut short, and he wore wire-rimmed glasses that gave him a bookish look. His jumpsuit was short-sleeved for summer and as he sat down I noticed the tattoos across his biceps. The demon tattooed across one arm gave my stomach its first nervous jump. His face showed little reaction to my presence, although his voice, nervous and hesitant, betrayed him as eager to please. He punctuated nearly every sentence with a high-pitched laugh. We talked about first meeting, icebreaker type things: his favourite books, what he did to pass the time in jail, his life before all this.

I was surprised to learn that not only was he an avid reader of Nietzsche, but he also was a card-carrying member of Amnesty International and a passionate advocate for independence in Tibet. He told me how he spent much of his time helping his cell mates, leading Bible study sessions, helping the illiterate learn to read, and teaching them about their rights. He became known for firing off letters to the American Civil Liberties Union when the prison guards got out of hand, something that has made him a favourite target of the authorities.

When he was not helping others, Leslie was busy writing short stories and poetry, oftentimes using mediation or yoga in his jail cell to get his creative juices flowing. We spent much of my first visit discussing philosophical questions: What exactly is art? How could one succeed within society’s definition of success, while staying true to their art?

“Mainly I’m a poet. My poetry is really a piece of my soul,” he told me. “I write a lot of abstract and freelance poetry—once you get the structure you sacrifice the art.

“For me, I don’t want the success if I have to go that way. I do things for the art. I’m real free spirited about a lot of things which of course jail doesn’t help a lot with.”

Born and raised in Farmington, Leslie never fit in with the clean-cut Farmington crowd. In high school, he wore a trench coat, read philosophy books in math class, and quickly got kicked out of Farmington High School for “behavioural problems.” He was moved to the local alternative school and managed to earn his high school diploma without really trying. After high school, Leslie moved in with friends, got a job checking natural gas lines and made a career out of drugs and partying. Now that he’s looking at the next 40 years of his life behind bars, he says he looks back on the first 24 years of his life with regret.

When Leslie and I eventually spoke about Betty Lee and Donald Tsosie, he was clear about what he perceived to be his responsibility. “I don’t like being in jail or anything, no one does, but I realize where I was wrong and that’s the price that people pay.” He also felt a certain pride in putting Bobby behind bars. While he’s able to explain his involvement in Betty Lee’s death on a rational level, Leslie seems obviously shaken when he talks about that night.

“I grabbed her legs when I was told to and I looked for his knife,” Leslie told me as he looked down and carefully inspected his hands, his voice barely above a mumble.

“I didn’t look real hard for it because I just heard screaming, something that I won’t wish on anyone to hear. It was real agonizing.

“Even worse was the stop to the screaming. Because by then, especially after he stabbed her, she was running, he went to catch up with her, the screaming was just horrid. I wake up in cold sweats to this day. But even worse was the sudden stop to the screaming because there was no doubt what had happened.”

He stopped then and looked up for a second but didn’t meet my eyes.

When it came to Donald Tsosie, whose death was arguably equally brutal, Leslie showed little emotional reaction. “That one wasn’t as hard to deal with because I didn’t know he was dead until the cops asked me about it,” he said.

“I knew Bob had beaten him up. I guess I should have figured in some ways. But in other ways I just figured he got beat up and walked away.”

As far as his role in it, Leslie said he only strangled Tsosie to keep them from getting in a car accident. He was, he says, restraining him so that he and Bobby wouldn’t fight while Bobby was driving the car.

Leslie says that he thinks about Betty Lee and Donald Tsosie every day. He has considered writing letters to their families to apologize but decided that any contact from him might do more harm than good. “I often wonder if Fry thinks about his deeds,” he wrote in a letter to me. “I myself try not to but can’t escape my guilt, sometimes I think how much easier life would be if I was a sociopath—just kidding.”

San Juan County Sheriff Bob Melton was the lead investigator on Bobby and Leslie’s case. He never believed Leslie’s innocent act. “I don’t buy that he was terrified of Bobby and feared for himself if he didn’t do what he was told. I think he was into it,” Melton told me. Sheriff Melton stood out in San Juan County. He became a police officer because he wanted to help people. After years in law enforcement, he developed an intuitive sense about people that helped him cut through the stories and get to the truth. Sheriff Melton and I worked together often during my time at the Daily Times, and I came to respect his intelligence and compassion.

“I can see a person being in the wrong place at the wrong time once, but not twice and maybe more,” Melton said about Leslie. “When he initially strangles Donald [Tsosie] he is sitting directly behind him and has the belt ready. Sounds pretty planned to me.”

Melton told me about his search of Leslie Engh’s bedroom. The walls were plastered with pictures of blood and gore. The room looked like it was inhabited by someone who revelled in, cherished, and revered violence. Even for Melton, a seasoned law enforcement official, the sight sent chills down his spine. I try to picture this room in my mind. I try to picture Leslie, the Nietzsche reading, Amnesty International member, fellow-prisoner-teaching Leslie, selecting these images and carefully placing them on the walls of his inner sanctum, the place where he is who he is and no one ever has to know. Who is the real Leslie? I came to believe that Leslie is no better than Bobby. In fact, with his ability to conjure up compassion, to imagine his way to sensitivity, he just may be a whole lot worse.

It’s February 21, 2005, and the top news of the day in the Farmington Daily Times is that the bodies of a young Navajo man and woman have been found behind a Farmington convenience store just before the Bisti Highway.

“This is definitely not exposure,” a Farmington police officer told the paper. “This is a homicide.”

When I read this, I think about Betty Lee’s five children and how they must feel when they learn that the killing continues. Bobby and Leslie are behind bars, yet nothing has happened to the hatred.

I have never been able to connect the dots and definitively declare that Farmington’s attitude toward the Navajo led two Farmington boys to become killers. There were too many other variables. Based on what I learned, there is no evidence that Leslie singled out Navajos. And Bobby didn’t limit his victims to Navajos.

Bobby and Leslie no doubt were influenced by the history and current realities of the tension between Anglos and Navajos, but the fact of the matter is, they killed because they wanted to and because they could. This doesn’t diminish or inflate the racism that exists there. Nor does it make their actions better or worse. All it means is that two men are behind bars, and four people, maybe more, are dead.

Emilie Karrick Surrusco has worked as a newspaper reporter, editor, communications strategist, and freelance writer in California, New Mexico and Washington, DC. Her work has appeared in Ms. magazine,, the Washington Post and Smithsonian magazine.