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Trial in Arivaca killings starts this week

Defendant Forde has extensive online support

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Shawna Forde

Google her name and you'll get nearly 23,000 hits. She has a Facebook page. Her fans have set up four websites. A local author is writing a book about her.

But Shawna Forde isn't a pop star, and she isn't running for public office.

She is charged with first-degree murder in the May 2009 deaths of 9-year-old Brisenia Flores and the girl's father, Raul "Junior" Flores, 29.

Her supporters describe Forde as a loving mother of two who has taken in foster children and helped the homeless, victims of domestic violence and people infected with HIV. They insist she is being framed by federal and local agencies that feel threatened by her work with the Minutemen American Defense organization.

But prosecutors contend Forde, whose trial starts Wednesday with jury selection, was so zealous in her quest to control the border she came up with a plan to fund her organization - stealing from people she thought were connected with drug cartels.

Flores was her first target, they say.

Backers call Forde a political prisoner whose only offense is being a "blonde on the border."

One, Laine Lawless, has filed complaints with the State Bar of Arizona, the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Department of Justice complaining about Forde's attorneys and her treatment in the Pima County jail.

It's ridiculous to think a 43-year-old former hairdresser could mastermind the plot alleged by prosecutors, Lawless says.

Prosecutors and sheriff's officials have declined to discuss the Internet furor over Forde's case.

One of Forde's attorneys, Eric Larsen, has said most of the content on the websites has not been authorized by Forde and will not play a part in his defense strategy.

On May 30, 2009, Gina Gonzalez was dozing alongside Flores in their Arivaca home when he woke her up shortly before 1 a.m. to tell her the police were at the door. She got dressed and joined their daughter on the couch.

Flores opened the door when the woman on the other side identified herself as a cop looking for fugitives.

The woman, a short, heavy-set Anglo woman dressed in camouflage and with brownish-blond hair and a drill sergeant's demeanor, was followed inside by a tall Anglo man.

When Flores expressed doubts about their identity, the man opened fire.

Flores was hit six times, in the head, chest and arm.

Gonzalez was shot in the arm, leg and chest.

As she lay there, pretending to be dead, the man put the gun to Brisenia's left cheek and pulled the trigger. Another shot entered near her nose and exited the back of her head.

Gonzalez says the man stood near their bodies as the woman and at least two others ransacked her house.

They then left.

She was on the phone with 911 when she looked up and saw the woman standing on the threshold, smiling.

"She saw me standing there, and her face dropped and she said 'Oh, (expletive),' " Gonzalez said at a recent hearing.

The woman went outside and told someone to finish her off, Gonzalez said.

When the tall man came in and opened fire, Gonzalez fired back, grazing his leg.

On June 11, Jason Bush, 36, was arrested in Meadview on suspicion of first-degree murder.

According to authorities, he confessed to being the gunman and implicated Forde, an Everett, Wash., resident, and Arivaca resident Albert Gaxiola, 43.

Forde and Gaxiola were arrested the next day, she near Sierra Vista, he in Tucson.

More than 60 witnesses are expected to take the stand during the trial.

Among those testifying for the state:

• Gonzalez - She will testify that although she was unable to identify Forde as the woman home invader in the days after the slayings, she now believes Forde looks "exactly like her."

• Oin Oakstar - The ex-con will testify he and Gaxiola wanted to get rid of Flores, a competitor in the drug trade. Oakstar claims the plan was for Bush to shoot Flores outside his home, and nothing was said about a home invasion or harming Flores' family. Oakstar said he got too drunk to go the night of the slayings. He will also testify he had damaging conversations with the suspects after the shooting.

• Robert "Anglo" Copley and Ronald "Raven" Wedow - The two Colorado men say Forde recruited them to take part in a home invasion in which a second team would gather up drugs, money and weapons, which would be sold to help the Minutemen American Defense.

Not all of the state's case rests on live witnesses.

According to court documents, prosecutors have damning texts sent between cell phones registered to Forde and Gaxiola, texts that were sent the morning of the slayings.

In addition, detectives found jewelry belonging to Gonzalez in Forde's purse and women's camouflage clothing in Gaxiola's house.

Larsen and co-counsel Jill Thorpe are expected to attack Gonzalez's identification of Forde with the testimony of Geoffrey Loftus, a psychologist who has done studies on memory and perceptions and how time can distort them.

They are also expected to attack the credibility of Oakstar, a convicted felon who almost had his probation revoked last month because he missed drug tests and ignored his pre-approved schedule. They also plan to point out that Oakstar's wife, Sandy Somers-Stroup, matches the description of the female home invader. Forde, they have pointed out, was a platinum blonde at the time.

Larsen and Thorpe will argue there is no direct evidence placing Forde at the scene of the crime, there are no reliable eyewitnesses, no DNA and no fingerprints.

The defense attorneys don't believe Wedow and Copley are credible.

There's no proof it was Forde who was texting Gaxiola the morning of the slayings, the attorneys say in court documents.

If Forde is convicted, prosecutors Rick Unklesbay and Kellie Johnson will try to convince jurors Forde deserves the death penalty.

They argue the crimes were committed for monetary gain, there was a victim under 15 years old, and the crimes were carried out in a cold, calculated manner.

Larsen and Thorpe will try to save Forde's life by presenting evidence she suffers from neuropsychological issues, was sexually abused and abandoned as a child and struggled with substance abuse. They will call Forde's sister, son and daughter and others to testify about their love and support of Forde, the public service and volunteer work she's done, her lack of a criminal history and her steady employment history.

What remains to be seen is how much evidence Pima County Superior Court Judge John Leonardo will allow prosecutors to present to rebut the defense's mitigation.

Forde filed police reports in Washington in December 2008 and January 2009 saying she had been raped and shot, possibly by people involved in the drug trade who were upset about her border activities.

Unklesbay told Leonardo there is no evidence supporting Forde's claims, and police closed the rape and shooting cases, saying there was insufficient evidence.

He also pointed out Forde reported the attacks shortly after police in Washington began investigating her in the shooting of her estranged husband.

In addition, Unklesbay told the judge Forde is also a suspect in two crimes that took place in California after the Floreses were slain.

One of the alleged victims was Forde's brother, Merrill Metzger, who, along with their mother, Rena Caudle, have been among her biggest detractors on the Internet.

On StarNet: Follow the news and events at Pima County's courthouses in Kim Smith's blog, At the Courthouse, at go.azstarnet.com/courthouse

Contact reporter Kim Smith at 573-4241 or kimsmith@azstarnet.com


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