Cowboy Down: Rob Krentz's family talks about the life and death of the murdered Arizona rancher
Sue Krentz answered the phone about 6 p.m.
It was March 27, a Saturday, and she was in Phoenix, tending to her aged parents as a sister attended a conference.
Sue usually doesn't stray from her family's venerable cattle ranch in Cochise County for too long at a stretch. But she was planning on staying through the weekend, as another sister was coming into town for a visit.
She and Rob, her husband of 32 years, hadn't been on a vacation in years, what with endless tasks on the ranch, about 35 miles northeast of Douglas, Arizona, near the borders of New Mexico and Mexico.
The call was from her 27-year-old son Frank, who also works on Krentz Ranch.
"We can't find Daddy," he told his mother.
Sue last had spoken to Rob early that morning. He had told her he planned to check on some water lines on the sprawling property, an everyday responsibility to preserve the ranch's lifeblood.
Sue packed her bags, jumped into her car, gassed up, and headed for home, trying not to panic.
"We'd been shouting for years about the Mexican drug smugglers coming through our land," she tells New Times, the first time she has spoken publicly about that day.
"Things are dangerous for ranchers and other residents. But I tried to convince myself that no one would ever hurt Rob, who was the kindest person you'd ever hope to meet."
Sue got home just before midnight.
Home is at Krentz Ranch headquarters, five bumpy miles up a dirt road off State Route 80, the major north-south route east of Douglas.
She and Rob raised their three children in their modest adobe-and-plaster home, built around the turn of the 20th century and where Rob himself was raised.
Sue stepped outside into the chilly night to gather herself. The moon was nearly full, and the sky was flush with stars.
A helicopter soon came into view, maybe 10 miles away on the south side of Route 80. It circled around briefly before descending.
Dread overwhelmed Sue.
Within minutes, family members and friends sped up the road in their all-terrain vehicles with grim news.
"Rob was dead, and someone had shot our dog Blue, too," Sue says. "Blue was alive, but they had to put him down. He was a real good dog. How can I say this? There was evil out there that day."
Word of Rob Krentz's murder — the first of an Arizona border rancher in anyone's memory — flew around Cochise County within hours.
Within a day or two, the entire nation knew about it.
Krentz became an unlikely martyr, his violent death symbolizing to many everything that's wrong at the border. To them, he surely was the victim of an illegal, drug-smuggling alien.
He became the face of then-pending Senate Bill 1070, the madly controversial legislation whose point is to identify, arrest, and deport illegal aliens from Arizona.
To the crusty, close community of southern Arizona's border ranchers, Krentz was just "good old Rob," the co-patriarch, with younger brother Phil, of his family's more-than-a-century-old cattle spread.
By every account — except for unsubstantiated, anonymous comments on the Internet — Rob Krentz was an old-school cowboy with no known enemies and a big heart.
The Krentz brothers seemed to come from another time and place, strapping men who performed their cattle-ranching chores without complaint, battling droughts, economic malaise, endless government regulations, and, since the mid-1990s, an onslaught of Mexican drug smugglers on their land.
It was incomprehensible to those who knew Rob Krentz that someone would murder the 58-year-old grandfather as he sat in his Polaris four-wheeler in a remote pasture.
"All we wanted was to be able to live in safety on our own land," his widow says. "We don't want anyone on our property who isn't invited — drug smugglers, Minutemen, anyone. I guess that was too much to ask."
Some details of what transpired on March 27 have emerged over time. But critical facts, including the most important one — the identity of Rob's murderer — have not.
Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever held a press conference in Bisbee on the Monday after Krentz's body was found.
The somber sheriff, who liked and respected Krentz, provided details of the case, with New Times adding others from additional sources:
Rob and Phil Krentz were working on different parts of the expansive ranch that Saturday morning.
Rob called Phil on a handheld radio (cell-phone service is spotty there) between 10 and 10:30.
Sheriff Dever tells New Times that Rob told Phil he had just seen an undocumented alien near a water well on the property. The alien appeared to be "in need of help," the sheriff recounts, and Rob asked his brother to contact Border Patrol.
Later, sheriff's investigators spoke with two ranchers who share a radio frequency with the Krentzes and other neighbors.
One of the ranchers, Fred Edington, said he was listening to the ranch radio when Rob called Phil about being out there "with one illegal or several illegals. He could not remember [how many] but remembers hearing [Rob] say an illegal was hurt and to contact Douglas Border Patrol."
Edington heard Phil respond that he couldn't hear Rob too well.
The second rancher listening in was Wendy Glenn, a lifelong Cochise County resident who lives on Malpai Ranch with her husband, Warner.
"There was no urgency in Rob's voice when he spoke with Phil," she tells New Times. "He said he had seen an illegal that looked like he might need help and that Phil should call Border Patrol. That kind of thing happens quite often here. That's right when he went missing."
The brothers were supposed to meet somewhere on the ranch about noon, but Rob didn't show and wasn't responding to Phil's repeated calls.
Phil Krentz notified other family members and friends, who cast out on their ATVs around Krentz Ranch, which covers about 65 square miles, an area about the size of Glendale, Arizona.
Time slipped away.
Dever tells New Times that he learned Rob was missing after a rancher called him at 6:15 p.m.
That is approximately when Frank Krentz called his mother in Phoenix.
The sheriff says he immediately contacted his agency's search-and-rescue team, which was training in the Cochise Stronghold area, about 90 minutes away.
Cochise County deployed six police cars and two ATVs to Krentz Ranch. The Border Patrol and other federal law enforcement agencies also responded.
It was dark by then.
Five long hours would pass before a pilot in an Arizona Department of Public Safety helicopter spotted Rob Krentz's ATV south of Highway 80, still running and with its lights on.
Rob was the victim of a gunshot wound to his left side that, according to sheriff's officials, proved fatal within minutes.
His rifle and a pistol were tethered in a scabbard and holster on the ATV, unused.
Blue, his loyal 8-year-old heeler, was lying in the rear of the small vehicle, also shot. The dog was alive but mortally wounded.
The killer had about a 14-hour head start on the cops, plenty of time to get over the Mexican border, about eight miles south.
Following tire tracks, county investigators traced the ATV back about 300 yards to where Rob and the dog apparently had been shot.
There, they found three expended bullet shells — Sheriff Dever wouldn't reveal the caliber to the media. An agent from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement identified the dusty footprints of one individual at the scene.
Trackers from several agencies followed the footprints south, toward the Mexico line, where the trail ended.
"There is absolutely no reason this had to happen," Dever concluded at his press conference, "other than the bad intentions of one sick, sorry individual whom we hope to be able to catch up to very quickly."
Dever's comments raised many still-unanswered questions:
Why would anyone connected to the drug trade risk the wrath and intense scrutiny (from both sides of the border) that killing a popular rancher in cold blood would bring?
Why did the killer also shoot Blue? Had the dog come upon an advance scout for the Mexican drug cartels who smuggle in untold amounts of dope through Cochise County every year?
Why did it take so long for authorities to find Rob Krentz's body after his family had called in a missing-persons report?
As for the latter, Dever tells New Times that "Rob was found kind of down in a little arroyo. You wouldn't see him from any of the nearby roads."
U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano claimed her agency had "responded immediately to the murder. Immediately following the shooting, Customs and Border Protection [the Border Patrol] deployed additional helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to the area of the shooting. Border Patrol trackers located the footprint sign of the suspect and tracked him back into Mexico."
Not quite, says Cochise County Sheriff Dever. He says his agency requested, without success, Border Patrol "air assets" hours earlier.
Dever speculates that long-standing radio communications problems between Border Patrol stations in Lordsburg, New Mexico, and Douglas may have caused the delay.
The Border Patrol did respond by air, Dever says, but not until after the state Department of Public Safety had dispatched a Ranger helicopter from Tucson and soon found Rob's body using heat-seeking sensors and other technology.
And the biggest question, especially to politicians and the general public: Was the murderer an illegal alien?
Sheriff Dever told New Times after the shooting that "it makes sense that Rob ran into a guy who was involved in drug trafficking. The tracks tell us that the guy was heading south to Mexico, which suggests what it suggests. Whether he's an illegal or not remains to be seen. But it wouldn't surprise me."
Dever mentioned retaliation as a possible motive, saying that Phil Krentz called the Border Patrol one day before the shooting after spotting a group of what looked like undocumented immigrants on the ranch.
The agents soon arrested eight migrants and found almost 300 pounds of marijuana in the vicinity.
But federal prosecutors never did file drug-smuggling charges in the case, supposedly because they couldn't establish a direct link between the men and the pot.
The sheriff said Rob Krentz, like all border-area ranchers, had been deeply frustrated by the influx of drug smugglers onto his land.
But he noted that Rob, conversant in Spanish, was known to have helped ordinary migrants over the years by providing them with water and food.
Public interest in the Rob Krentz murder case skyrocketed.
Part of it stemmed from the remarkable timing: Senate Bill 1070 — the Arizona Legislature's thumbing its nose at the feds over illegal immigration — was nearing a final vote.
If odds of its controversial passage seemed great before the Krentz murder, it was a given afterward.
But authorities weren't prepared to say officially (they still aren't) that the homicide was committed by an undocumented alien, even if Sheriff Dever, the Krentzes, and many others seem convinced that it was.
The bill's sponsor, right-wing state Senator Russell Pearce of Mesa, said in an interview, "The murder of Robert Krentz — whose family had been ranching in Arizona since 1907 — by illegal alien drug dealers was the final straw for many Arizonans."
Someone suggested they should dub the bill "Krentz's Law."
For their part, the Krentz family issued a statement, saying they held "no malice toward the Mexican people for this senseless act, but do hold the political forces in this country and Mexico accountable for what has happened.
"Their disregard of our repeated pleas and warning of impending violence toward our community fell on deaf ears shrouded in political correctness. As a result, we have paid the ultimate price for their negligence in credibly securing our borderlands."
A rosary for Rob Krentz was recited at St. Luke's Catholic Church in Douglas, followed by a memorial Mass at Douglas High attended by more than 1,000 people.
Afterward, close friends and family went to the old Gadsden Hotel in downtown Douglas for a private get-together.
The Arizona Cattlemen's Association soon announced a reward of $15,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Rob Krentz's killer, and the federal Department of Homeland Security later added $25,000 to the kitty.
Predictably, Governor Jan Brewer, in a heated political fight to win the Republican primary late this summer, signed 1070 into law in late April. It is slated to go into effect July 29, though lawsuits have been filed seeking to enjoin the state from implementing it.
Rumors about the Krentz murder ran rampant on the Web and in print.
According to one missive, Rob's brother and best friend Phil was the real killer, for reasons unspecified.
Another spun an elaborate yarn about how Rob had come upon an illegal alien lying on the ground saying he was sick.
It held that Rob had contacted the Border Patrol for help, but the alien shot him anyway. Mortally wounded, he called the Cochise County Sheriff's Office, and several ranchers who overheard the call "drove to his location."
Rob was dead, but the ranchers tracked the killer back to the border, where they, according to the yarn, "cornered him in a bushy draw."
Somehow, the guy evaded the makeshift posse, Border Patrol helicopters, and a bevy of law enforcement agents before fleeing to Mexico.
On May 3, the Arizona Daily Star published a story headlined, "Focus in Krentz Killing on Suspect in U.S. — Authorities Say Slaying That Sparked Outcry Over Border Security Was Not Random."
The Tucson piece cited "high-ranking government officials with credible information" who had come forward as anonymous sources "citing a desire to quell the fury over illegal immigration and drug smuggling set off by the shooting of longtime rancher Robert Krentz.
"[The sources] said Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever is investigating a person in the United States, not in Mexico, in connection with the shooting."
New Times was at Sheriff Dever's office in Bisbee on the morning this story broke, and he angrily insisted it was flat wrong.
One day later, May 4, the Star published a correction:
"The story, as originally reported, said the suspect is believed to be in the United States. It was changed to 'American' in the editing process. While the suspect is believed to be in the U.S., the nationality is unknown."
It is mid-May in Cochise County.
The Krentzes have seen politicians come to their ranch and go. The pols have paid their respects and stood before cameras to decry how the feds have ceded control of the border to Mexican drug cartels.
Political posturing on the illegal immigration issue is at an all-time high, in Arizona and nationally.
Just a few days earlier, five Arizona legislators from the Phoenix area, all conservative Republicans, dropped by to visit Sue Krentz. They were shuttled to the ranch in what Sue describes as an armored car, protected by heavily armed state troopers.
"Hope they felt safe," Sue says, smiling wryly. "They were 'fact-finding.'"
Naturally, Sue's life has been out of whack since Rob's death, and she says she hungers to find "a new normal."
But she knows that the life she knew and loved is gone, stolen from her in a moment by a murderer's bullet.
"One bad decision killed one person and impacted a lot of people for the rest of their lives," she says. "I'm a widow now — just like that. Think about it: My mom is 87 and my dad is 89, so I'm going to live 50 years or something like that by myself."
Sue is sitting at her cluttered kitchen table, which serves as the center of a whirlwind of activity.
A good friend, Judy Keeler, who lives on a ranch just inside nearby New Mexico, has come over to visit.
Sue's daughter, 25-year-old Kyle Gutierrez of Wyoming, is staying awhile at the ranch with her two young children, Robert and Madyson.
Robert, who is 4, told Sue after Rob died, "'You don't have to worry about it, Grandma. I'm gonna kill the bad guy.'"
Sue says she told the little boy, "You can't do that," explaining why revenge isn't the way to seek justice.
Sue is a sturdy woman in her mid-50s who has spent a lifetime living on ranches. It shows in her weathered hands and face, which are at the mercy of the desert sun, relentless wind, and biting winter cold.
She speaks her mind and is an unusually good listener.
Today, she's fretting about the ranch, which she alone now owns with her brother-in-law Phil and his wife, Carrie, and her sister-in-law Susan Pope and her husband, Louie.
"There is no rich uncle," she says. "This is it. It's us, making it or breaking it."
A poster of John Wayne in western garb hangs on a wall that leads to the living room.
"That's my dad," Kyle Gutierrez says, pointing to the poster. "My dad was John Wayne. He could do anything and everything. If I had a problem, he'd know what to do. A math question, he'd figure it out in his head. He was a big man, but he really was a teddy bear. Just like John Wayne."
The room quiets.
Kyle continues: "I know his last thought was, 'Oh, shit. What's gonna happen to my family?' He didn't think about himself. He thought about her."
The young woman gestures to her mother, who is crying silently at the words.
Sue steps into the living room, where she keeps her desktop computer. Nearby, a bunch of well-worn cowboy hats hang on wall pegs — some of them were Rob's, the others her two sons'.
"You know, all of my kids are trying to be brave," she says. "I guess we don't have a choice, other than I could go crazy."
"Let me tell you a little bit about me and Rob, okay?"
It was a marriage of Cochise County ranching royalty when Rob Krentz and Sue Kimble got hitched in Douglas in 1977.
The Krentzes and the Kimbles are two of southeastern Arizona's most revered cattle-ranching families. Both clans' ranches are at the south end of the San Simon Valley, between the Chiricahua and Peloncillo mountain ranges.
Rob was a few years older than Sue. He was popular as a teenager, a big rancher's kid with a quietly solid way about him. He was active in 4-H and played football for the Douglas High Bulldogs.
Sue was the third of seven siblings. As a teen, she saw herself as something of a loser, an overweight girl who never went to prom.
Rob earned his nickname of "Cap'n Crunch" as an interior lineman for the Bulldogs, an unheralded team that finished second in the state in a smaller-school division in 1968, when he was a junior.
Rob enrolled at Cochise Community College after graduation and spent two years there before transferring to the University of Arizona, where he earned a degree in animal science.
He was a fine student, and Cornell University in upstate New York offered him an Ivy League postgraduate fellowship.
But Rob just wanted to be a cowboy, and he returned to the ranch that his father, Bob, was still running.
Sue Kimble attended Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff for two years before also returning home for good.
Rob and Sue had their first date on June 23, 1976, at a Douglas country bar called the Red Barn.
"It was one of those deals," Sue says. "We could have gotten married right then and there."
They waited until July 23, 1977.
"Not many people get to come home when they grow up," Sue says. "I did. I got to be a rancher's wife, and Rob turned out to be the perfect man for me. He always kept me level."
The newlyweds honeymooned in San Diego, and then returned to Krentz Ranch to brand cattle for six days straight.
Such is the ranching life.
Being so close to the Mexican border, the Krentzes had frequent, usually friendly, contact with Mexicans (their daughter married a Mexican American).
But circumstances changed for the worse in the mid-1990s.
One of the Krentzes' neighbors, Bill McDonald of the Sycamore Canyon Ranch, described what happened in a May 28 testimony before a U.S. Senate Foreign Affairs subcommittee:
"Border crossers, going both ways, are not new to our area. As long as I can remember — and long before — ranch hands and cowboys from northern Chihuahua and Sonora crossed to work in southern Arizona and New Mexico . . . The border was casual, and the area was peaceful for years.
"The numbers of crossers did not become problematic for local residents until about 10 years ago. Large amounts of trash, cut pasture fences, floats broken off in water troughs, water lines cut and precious stored water lost, trails made by humans so deep that they start gully erosion . . . all of this has cost ranchers dearly in repairs, extra cattle work, and destruction of the landscape. Still, most ranchers just continued to try to live with it."
McDonald went on to say that, in the past few years, "the character of the crossers has taken an ominous turn."
He recalled that Rob Krentz's message to Border Patrol agents at a community meeting a few years earlier was that "if things continued as they were, it was inevitable that someone would be killed."
A few years ago, the Krentzes found the remains of a woman on their ranch. An undocumented migrant, she died of dehydration just yards from a water trough.
"Why did this happen?" Sue Krentz says. "How could our government let this happen to us and to her and thousands like her? No one cares."
Rob Krentz wasn't keen about expressing himself in public. But he spoke out again in May 2005, this time telling a Tucson television station that migrants had cost his family ranch up to $8 million over the previous five years.
The losses were the type described by Bill McDonald in his stark Senate testimony a few weeks ago.
Sue was more outspoken than her husband, writing to politicians and trying to get someone in authority to listen about the plight of Arizona border ranchers.
"Maybe they listened," she says, "but I can't say that anybody did anything."
Sue Krentz drives a visitor around the north part of the ranch, near her home and about 10 miles from the murder site.
She knows every dip, every slippery turn on the old dirt roads. "You know your child, you know your ranch," she says.
Sue isn't carrying a firearm — never does. She says she isn't "going to live scared. I'm going to deal with what I'm going to deal with."
A stretch of the road runs through U.S. Forest Service land. Sue stops at a large metal sign that the feds erected a few years ago.
It says, "Travel Caution: Smuggling and Illegal Immigration May Be Encountered in This Area."
Sue parks and steps into a pasture crisscrossed with water lines.
"The water that our cattle and the wildlife drink comes from our private land — land that we pay taxes on, land that is ours," she says. "Is there anything wrong with that?"
Sue talks about her late husband's physical problems, how his body had been breaking down after years of grinding it out on the ranch.
Rob had back surgery in July 2009, and it was months before he could resume working full time. He and Sue regularly drove over to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where their son Andy is a physical therapist, for rehab.
In January, Rob had one of his hips replaced. His second hip had been scheduled for similar surgery in May.
"Rob's attitude helped him out with all this stuff," Sue says. "He just did what he could out there, even though he still couldn't move so much. He was pretty beat-up."
An ATV zips by in the other direction on the dirt road. A big fellow in the four-wheeler has a dog on either side of him.
He waves at Sue, and she waves back.
"That's my brother-in-law Phil," Sue says. "He's got so much more to do now that Rob is gone."
The cowboys now responsible for the day-to-day operation of Krentz Ranch are Phil, his son Ben, and Sue's son Frank.
It strikes Sue that she hasn't heard from Frank in a few hours.
"He's working today down near where Rob got shot," she says. "Stuff has to be done. But I get kind of crazy when he's out on the ranch and I don't hear from him for a while. I think he might be hurt, that somebody's done something to him."
Sue speaks of her continued faith in God, despite all that's happened to her and her family.
"I'm a Catholic, and I have to trust in what He has in store for all of us," she says. "But I am a little aggravated with my church right now."
She tells of attending a Sunday Mass with her sister, Dr. Lily Percell, in Phoenix a few weeks earlier.
The priest was sermonizing about Senate Bill 1070 and "how it's evil and [how] he picks up illegal aliens and takes them to safety, and how he supposes that makes him an illegal. I'm getting madder and madder, not because all aliens are evil people or even because I know that an illegal killed Rob. I'm mad because there's nothing coming out of his mouth that says anything about our rights, about what's happened to us, American citizens."
Sue says she and Lily walked out of the sermon and paced around the church parking lot.
Afterward, a lay pastor came out and tried to reason with the sisters.
"He told us that we all have our human dignity, that God looks at us all the same and all of that," Sue Krentz says. "I told him, 'What about my human dignity, hon? What about my husband's human dignity, getting shot in cold blood while he's out with his dog?"
She finishes with this: "I wonder what really happened out there with Rob that day. But, basically, I just wonder why."
Sheriff Larry Dever says there never has been a case in his 30-year police career that he's wanted solved more than Rob Krentz's murder.
His department's investigation continues, with the assistance of federal agencies that have more manpower and technology than are available to the financially strapped county.
"Let me put it like this," Dever says. "I have never seen one single event put such a huge exclamation to a movement, if you will, of people saying, 'Let's solve this illegal-immigration problem.'
"At one point, I thought it was very possible that we were going to see the killer tied to a fence somewhere on this side of the border dead with some incriminating evidence on him. But that hasn't happened.
"We obviously aren't rushing to judgment, and we are not going to arrest someone for the sake of arresting someone. We don't do that."
Sue Krentz reports that friends have gotten her a new dog, a "big Brazilian hound of some sort." She named him Bull and surely will come to love him.
But not a minute goes by, Sue says, that she doesn't picture Rob and Blue on their ATV, going out to do what they loved.
Rob and Blue were cremated.
"Rob told me at one point that if he died before me, he wanted his ashes spread down on the creek, a place he loved so much," Sue says. "I've got both Rob and Blue with me right now. But I'm just not ready to do that yet."
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