Scott Stanford: Remembering Esequiel Hernandez Jr.

From the Editor

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I am glad there is someone in custody in connection with the horrible murder of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey. Suspect John Mark Karr has made some odd statements that raise questions about his guilt, but I hope police officers have their man so that JonBenet's family might finally find peace.

I wasn't in Colorado when the Ramsey story broke in 1996 and continued well into 1997. But I remember being struck by the way my profession was attracted to that story above all others.

FBI statistics show that more than 1,000 children are murdered each year. Now, stop for a minute and try to name one child other than JonBenet who has been murdered in the decade since her death. It's not easy to do, is it?

For me, there is just one name that comes to mind - Esequiel Hernandez Jr.

Technically, Esequiel wasn't a child murder victim. He had just turned 18 when he died in 1997. And the courts ultimately ruled that no crime was committed in his death.

Still, when I think of JonBenet, I can't help but think of Esequiel. In my mind, he was a kid, and what happened to him was criminal.

Esequiel Hernandez lived in the tiny West Texas border town of Redford. He rode a bus about 100 miles roundtrip to school in Presidio, where he was a sophomore. When he got home from school, it was his job to take a small herd of goats across the street to graze in an open field near the Rio Grande River. He often took his single-shot, .22-caliber rifle with him to scare away coyotes or other predators that might threaten the goats.

Unbeknownst to Esequiel as he watched the goats on a May afternoon in 1997, there were four Marines hiding near the Rio Grande. They were armed and wearing full camouflage, including mesh netting that let them disappear into the brush.

The Marines were assigned to Joint Task Force 6 based in El Paso. Someone came up with the idea of using military personnel to assist the Border Patrol. The military could help stem the flow of drugs and illegal immigrants and get valuable training in the process. Seemed to make sense.

But on that afternoon, while Esequiel did his job and the Marines did theirs, everything went wrong. At some point, Esequiel fired in the direction of the brush where the Marines were hiding. The Marines - all of them in their 20s, really just kids themselves - responded by quietly moving closer and trailing Esequiel. Esequiel raised his rifle again, but before he could pull the trigger, one of the Marines shot him. The teen fell. It took an ambulance 45 minutes to arrive on scene. By that time, Esequiel Hernandez was dead.

No one knows whether Esequiel ever saw the Marines. The Marines never said a word. And why would they? They're not trained to warn the enemy, and for all they knew, Esequiel was the enemy.

A judge ruled that charges should not be filed against the Marine who pulled the trigger. A lawsuit was filed against the government. It was tossed.

Esequiel's death did end the practice of using the military in such border exercises.

A couple months after Esequiel died, I was at a roadside park near Fort Davis, Texas, with hundreds of other newspaper and TV reporters. We were there because of an armed standoff between the Texas Department of Public Safety and a group calling itself the Republic of Texas. The Republic, led by Richard McLaren, was one of those groups that had decided it did not have to abide by the laws of the state of Texas because someone had not properly signed a document 150 years ago or some other nonsense.

It was one of those stories, like the JonBenet Ramsey story, that the media swarms on. Everybody - including my newspaper at the time - thought McLaren and the Republic of Texas had the potential to become David Koresh and Waco, so they all trained their notepads, cameras and microphones on this rest area in the middle of nowhere and waited for the daily press conferences.

I spent a lot of time that week talking to other reporters. Many of us were a little embarrassed at the media spectacle that we not only were witnessing but also helping create.

Eduardo Montes of the Associated Press' El Paso Bureau had worked on the Esequiel Hernandez story, as had I. We both were assigned to the standoff, and we both were stunned that so much media was focused on the standoff, especially when compared to Esequiel's story.

I have no idea how or why some stories mushroom into something bigger than anyone could have ever imagined.

The truth is that the Rep-ublic of Texas - the standoff was resolved peacefully after eight days - never was newsworthy enough to warrant the media attention it received. Similarly, JonBenet Ramsey's parents and family didn't deserve the media attention focused on them in the wake of their daughter's horrific death.

Finally, in the way that everyone knows what happened to JonBenet, everyone should know what happened to Esequiel. I can't help but think that a few of those reporters who made the trips to Boulder and Fort Davis should have found their way to Redford.

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