Family, neighbors convinced murders were racially motivated
July 5, 2001
RIFLE, Colo. (AP) One man was chatting on a pay phone outside a grocery store. His brother sipped beer with a co-worker in a nearby RV park.
The calm of the hot summer night was shattered when a gunman shot and killed the man at the pay phone, wounded a woman in the parking lot and then killed the other brother and his co-worker, Juan Hernandez, in the RV park, police said.
Three more men were shot and wounded in the RV park before police arrested Mike Stagner, 42, of Grand Junction, on charges of murder and attempted murder late Tuesday.
Prosecutor Mac Myers said police were investigating whether the shootings were racially motivated. Stagner is white and all the victims are believed to be Hispanic.
”There are a lot of circumstances about this case that suggest there could be an element of hate crime here, and that is particularly troubling to me,” Myers said Thursday.
Angelica Toscano, 19, was hospitalized in critical condition and Rudolfo Beltran, 29, was in serious condition. Efred Marinmotes-Ortega, 17, and Medel Ortega, 24, were treated and released.
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Juan Hernandez was the only slaying victim who had been identified, but the Mexican consulate in Denver said all three were Mexican nationals.
Police said the shootings did not signify racial friction in Rifle, a town of 5,600 people 200 miles west of Denver. Rifle is a bedroom community for workers in the expensive resort of Aspen, about 60 miles east, and many of its residents are immigrants from Latin American countries.
”This event is an isolated case and does not reflect a communitywide underlying racial tension,” Police Chief Daryl Meisner said in a news release. ”This is one crime committed by one individual.”
”It’s racism, pure and simple,” said Juan Lopez, who knew some of the victims. ”A crazy person wouldn’t aim for the head. They would fire at people and be satisfied with what they hit. And he wouldn’t fire only at Mexicans. He would fire at whomever he came across.”
Juan Hernandez was shot twice in the head, said his brother, Guadalupe Hernandez, who also lives in Rifle.
Hernandez believes the shooting was racially motivated but said it did not reflect the attitudes of Rifle. ”I’ve never had any problems,” he said.
Stagner is being held without bond. Myers has not decided whether to seek the death penalty, but Stagner faces at least life in prison if convicted. His lawyer, Greg Greer, refused comment.
According to police documents, Stagner’s long record includes arrests on charges of burglary, assault, drug possession and driving under the influence.
People who saw him in the Sports Corner bar hours before the shootings said he was dressed in clean white shorts and a polo shirt but ranted about God and said he wanted to kill people and take his own life.
Bartender Ted Diaz Jr. said he didn’t take the threats seriously because Stagner spoke so nonchalantly and had made similar threats before.
”It was like me telling you, ‘I’m going to McDonald’s to get a burger,”’ Diaz said.