NEAR PORTAL - The hour-glass-shaped San Bernardino and San Simon valleys where rancher Robert Krentz was killed a week ago are nestled between the snow-capped Chiricahua Mountains to the west and the Peloncillo Mountains to the east.
It's a sparsely populated area on the eastern edge of Arizona along a 70-mile stretch from the U.S.-Mexico border to Interstate 10. There are a mix of longtime ranching families like the Krentzes, newer "40-acre ranchers," retirees and others who came for open space and solitude.
The smuggling of people and drugs across their backyards is something residents here have dealt with for decades. But, they say the killing of Krentz cements a disturbing evolution that began a few years ago - illegal border activity has gone from irritating to deadly dangerous.
"I've never felt more unsafe in my whole life," said Bill McDonald, a fifth-generation rancher who's property shares a fence with the 35,000-acre Krentz ranch. "I wonder if I want my kids and grandkids to live here. I've never had that feeling."
Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever has called the killing a senseless act by a sick person. Investigators believe the killer fled into Mexico. However, investigators don't have a motive and don't know anything about the suspect, including whether the killer is Mexican or a U.S. citizen.
Sheriff's investigators attribute the spike in burglaries there over the past two years to illegal immigrants and smugglers.
The Krentz family said in a statement this week that Robert Krentz, 58, was killed by a suspected illegal immigrant. Most residents here say they believe the killer was a Mexican drug smuggler.
"We are being invaded now by some nasty people who are perfectly willing to kill," said Chuck Osgood, 66. "These are not people coming for a better life."
Not all residents feel they are being invaded. But most agree they will be more cautious when they encounter smugglers and illegal border crossers. Craig McEwan, who moved to the area from Missouri six years ago, said he'll keep taking his frequent jogs and hikes through the Chiricahuas but says he feels more vulnerable.
Many blame the U.S. government for ignoring their warnings about the increased criminal activity and for failing to protect them. The Krentz family says it holds no malice toward Mexican people. They say political forces in U.S and Mexico are accountable for the death.
"Their disregard of our repeated pleas and warnings of impending violence towards our community fell on deaf ears shrouded in political correctness," the family statement says. "As a result, we have paid the ultimate price for their negligence."
Burglaries and break-ins
Like many families in the valleys, the Osgoods' home has been broken into. Sherri Osgood takes her gun with her even when she's putting laundry on a clothesline outside.
"We are afraid for our lives," Sherri Osgood said. "You don't know who's coming over the mountain."
In 2009, Cochise County deputies went to the area 53 times on calls about burglaries, property damage and suspicious activity. So far this year, they've gone 21 times, figures provided by department spokeswoman Carol Capas show. Some arrests have been made, but many crimes are unsolved. The sheriff's department didn't track such incidents by specific area before 2009, but Capas said there has clearly been an increase.
Some of the crimes in the area have been violent. On Jan. 20, suspects forced their way into the home and bound the older couple who lives there with duct tape. The intruders stole a bank card and the couple's 2004 Chevy Avalanche. Two men were arrested shortly after in Lordsburg, N.M. Capas said both were illegal immigrants.
Most residents believe the robberies are being committed by drug smugglers heading back to Mexico. Unlike northbound groups of illegal border crossers who sometimes take food, water and clothes, smugglers covet valuables they can use or sell including guns, vehicles, binoculars and telescopes, residents say.
The extension of border fencing and vehicle barriers east of Douglas toward the New Mexico line by the Department of Homeland Security in the last three years has pushed smugglers farther east and through the valley, McDonald said. His family's 103-year-old ranch is located there, about 30 miles east of Douglas and five miles north of the border on Geronimo Trail. Trekking through the Pelocillo or Chiricahua Mountains doesn't deter drug runners, he said.
"These are extremely determined people with a strong profit incentive," said McDonald, who is executive director of the Malpai Borderlands Group, an organization of conservation-minded ranchers.
The spotty cell-phone service adds to the feeling of insecurity. Residents say it can take a long time for sheriff's deputies or Border Patrol agents to arrive.
The Cochise County Sheriff's Office has recently assigned all of its deputies working overtime hours under the Department of Homeland Security's Operation Stonegarden grant program to the area. And the Border Patrol opened a base in the area staffed around the clock.
Friends and neighbors of Krentz can't fathom why anybody would want to kill a kind and compassionate man. "He's not a person who would instigate a violent confrontation," McDonald said.
Some wonder if a call made to the Border Patrol the day before by Phil Krentz, the victim's brother, about marijuana found on the property led to a retaliation killing. The Border Patrol says it recovered 290 pounds of marijuana on the ranch and arrested eight people nearby. But, they weren't able to prosecute them for lack of evidence.
Other residents, including a longtime friend, Nick Forsythe of Douglas, think Krentz was in the wrong place at the wrong time and came upon a person who simply wasn't going to let himself be apprehended. He doesn't buy the retaliation theory.
"Three-hundred pounds to these guys is nothing," Forsythe said of the seized pot load. "It's like you losing a pitching wedge at the golf course. It's not worth killing a rancher, because they know the huge repercussions."
Billy Darnell, a fourth-generation rancher and former Hidalgo County sheriff in New Mexico, said its important for investigators to keep an open mind about what have happened to Krentz. While it appears the shooter was likely a Mexican drug runner, that's not set in stone, said Darnell, who grew up near Apache.
"You don't want to put all your eggs in one basket," said Darnell, 66. "It'll get you in trouble."
To read more about the facts of the investigation, go to Brady McCombs' blog, Border Boletín, at: azstarnet.com/news/blogs/border-boletin
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or email@example.com