Now that the trials in the Navajo tribal officers' murders are over, U.S. Attorney Brent D. Ward hopes residents of the Navajo reservation will begin a healing process.
If this doesn't happen, he warned, more violence is possible.Monday evening a jury acquitted Ben Atene Jr., the last of four men charged in the murders of Tribal Officers Andy Begay and Roy Lee Stanley.
The officers were shot and then burned to death the night of Dec. 4-5, 1987, after Stanley came upon an illegal beer party near Monument Valley on the Utah side of the huge Navajo Reservation.
Vinton Bedoni and Thomas Cly were convicted in August, and U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Greene sentenced them to life plus five years in prison. Marques Atene was dropped from the case in July when government lawyers admitted they lacked the evidence to convict him.
Ward told the Deseret News the case was the most difficult of his career.
Although he is disappointed with the Ben Atene acquittal "since we worked so hard to present the case to the jury," he said it's a relief because the jury resolved the case.
"In particular, I hope the factions that have joined up on the reservation around this particular case will bury their grievances and make amends, so life on the reservation can return to peace," he said.
Ward said the Navajo Reservation has seen constant friction over the murders. There has been a "process of polarization," he said.
"If the wounds continue to fester, there is always the possibility for further violence down there, which would be tragic.
"We're committed to maintaining law and order on the reservation," Ward said.
He said federal officers and prosecutors are ready to "react swiftly and forcefully" if needed.
"It's time to move on, and we'll be doing our best to help that (peace) come about," he said.
Ward called the trials' results successful and just. "I have every confidence the reservation will return to normal now."
He has kept in close contact with the families of Stanley and Begay, Ward said. "I have a good feeling about the way the families are reconciling themselves to the situation."
He added that he made good friends on the reservation. The feeling of trust in federal court system has grown, and "that's been a major gain."
If the not-guilty verdict could be considered somehow as a price to be paid in order to restore the reservation to peace and contentment, "then I feel good about it."
The government did everything possible in the matter, Ward said. Navajos who previously did not trust what they called "white man's justice" now know there are FBI agents and federal prosecutors to whom they can turn when needed.
Ward said he may visit the reservation soon to honor the tribal officers who were so important in bringing Cly and Bedoni to justice. He would also like to show support for the tribal leadership and its law agencies.