The heat of the Mohave Desert is both a curse and a tourist attraction. The summer months of June and July often see daytime temperatures hovering around 120 degrees forcing residents into a pool or air conditioned buildings. The blazing sun distorts distances and creates illusions called mirages. The nights are only slightly cooler, but the air is clear making one believe the moon and the stars are within an arm’s reach.
One summer night on June 29, 1981 three friends relaxed is the backyard of a small stucco home at 35-040 Bob Hope Drive in a desert town appropriately named Rancho Mirage. The three friends sat is a semi-circle, the two men in wooden chairs and the woman on a single bed that served as a lounge chair. They were sharing drinks and stories. The big man was a 32-year-old Indian, a member of the Cabazon tribe whose 1700 acre reservation adjoined the nearby town of Indio, California. His friend was a slightly built white man ten years his senior. The woman had been an acquaintance of both two men and was intently following their conversation.
Suddenly the peaceful scene was shattered. Three shots rang out. Three friends lay dead.
The bodies baked in the hot sun until they were discovered by William Callaway and Joe R. Benitez in the early morning hours of July 1, 1981. The autopsy surgeon F. Rene Modglin, M.D. succinctly documented the cause of death in each case in a report from Bio-Laboratories Medical Group, Inc. dated October 26, 1981.
Alfred M. Alvarez:
1. The autopsy findings are interpreted as a death resulting from injuries to the brain and associated with hemorrhages due to gunshot basal skull fractures.
2. The gunshot resulting in death entered the right preauricular region (slightly above and just in front of the ear) and did not pass into the skull but passed apparently close enough to cause basilar skull fractures and then passed over into the left side to fracture the mandible and knock out three of the lower teeth and came to rest in the same area.
3. The fatal bullet passed from right to left, from above downward and from posterior to slightly anterior. Again, it did not enter the cranial cavity.
Ralph Arthur Boger:
1. The autopsy findings are interpreted as a death resulting from injuries to the brain caused by a bullet passing into it.
2. The fatal and only bullet entered the right side of the head with the entrance wound suggesting perhaps a slight anterior path because of the irregular chipping of the inner plate and then exiting by way of the hole in the cribriform plate of the ethmoid bone. This required ricochet in order to line up a bullet with that location and the entrance.
Patricia R. Castro:
1. The autopsy findings are interpreted as a death resulting from injuries to the brain caused by bullet passing through the brain substance. The fatal bullet entered through the right eye, passed through the right supraorbital plate entering the cranial cavity then passed through its substance impacting the left parietal bone causing that expressed fracture and then coming to rest in the substance of the left parietal lobe.
In each instance the single bullet causing death was found in the victim’s body, but only in the case of Ms. Castro was the bullet identified by caliber. The report of Riverside County Sheriff Investigator Robert L. Drake dated September 14, 1981 stated that “It was learned that each of the victims had been shot once in the head, each from a different direction, with what appeared to be a .38 caliber weapon or weapons, since all three projectiles were recovered.” The report concludes:
At the time of this writing no suspects have been apprehended. It is felt by the undersigned that this crime was committed by more than one person, since none of the victims had a chance to run from the area in which they sat. The investigation is continuing.
On August 30, 1981 Sgt. James Kennedy of the Riverside County Sheriff’s office told a reporter for the Sacramento Bee that an investigation of the slayings has not turned up any substantial evidence. “We are following leads,” he said. By October 1981 the investigation into the triple execution would be suspended by the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
On the first anniversary of the murders Detective Sergeant Gayle Janes, the spokesman for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, told Daily News reporter Phillip Sanfield :
There has been some progress in the case. But when and if this thing will be solved, it’s just not a thing that can be answered.
Fred Alvarez’ mother Phyllis told the reporter that her son was a former “insider” who was turning more and more against tribal leaders and managers. She said, “I FEARED for him, I wanted him to come home.”
A truthful solution to the 1981 Alvarez executions had the potential of damaging very powerful politicians from local city councilmen to county district attorneys, right up to the attorney general and the governor of the State of California. But the damage would not stop at the state level, because it also involved those who covered-up these brutal murders in the various federal agencies leading right on up to those occupying the ultimate seat of power in the White House.
The primary target of the executioners was 6 foot tall, 250 lb Fred Alvarez. (Click. The 1981 Fred Alvarez Triple Executions Back In The Headlines) Both of his caring friends were in the wrong place at the wrong time and they were collateral damage to the well planed out termination of the Cabazon Indian activist. Alvarez’ reputation immediately came under attack in the media where he was often described as a down-and-out biker with a desire to grow marijuana on tribal land.
Tribal members and tribal managers on the Cabazon Reservation, local city officials, Riverside County Sheriffs and District Attorneys and court officials were warned that Fred Alvarez’s life had been repeatedly threatened. California state officials and Federal employees had been repeatedly informed that something was terribly wrong at the Cabazon nation near Indio, California and they ignored the warnings.
The Sacramento Bee published the following facts about Fred Alvarez:
He “had been collecting documents purportedly showing mismanagement of tribal funds.”
He had refused to be alone at any time for more than a month because, he had told friends, his mailbox had been shot to pieces, his motorcycle had been sabotaged, his home vandalized and he had repeatedly been threatened with death. He said that these incidents resulted from his attempts to expose the takeover of the tribe.
The killing of Fred Alvarez that hot June night in 1981 ended any rebellion against the John Philip Nichols’ family management of the Cabazon Nation. Over the next two years a great many projects thrived that had been threatened by the information Fred Alvarez was gathering and exposing. The political reluctance at all levels to solve the murders encouraged the perpetrators and those who arranged and paid for the executions to feel invincible. The Cabazon managers employed mob members, sought national and international weapons deals, created casinos, bingo halls, and off track betting, misused grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), used Cabazon monies to fund favorite politicians across the United States, formed joint ventures with the huge Wackenhut Security Corporation of Florida and entered into business and personal arrangements with drug dealers and intelligence operatives.
Tragically the immunity given the paid killers and their employers led to two more murders.
In 1982 the San Francisco murder of Paul Morasca and the Fresno murder two days later of Mary Quick have been connected in many media accounts to the 1981 Alvarez executions.
Then on January 16, 1985 “Dr.” John Philip Nichols, administrator of the Cabazons and the head of the Nichols family business called Pro Plan, was arrested for five counts of murder-for-hire and jailed in lieu of $500,000 bond. His son, John Paul Nichols took over as acting administrator of the Cabazons. These charges were unrelated to the Alvarez murders.
However, the Press-Enterprise reported that California State Department of Justice Officials confirmed in January 1985 that they were investigating his possible involvement in the Alvarez homicides. He was never charged.
Then on March 25, 1985 a Riverside County Grand Jury was conducted. It was reported at the time that the grand jury was the result of a joint investigation by the California Department of Justice and the District Attorney’s office in Riverside County. However, in May 1985, The Washington Monthly reported in that “the California Department of Justice investigative team, however, was ready to close the case after a cursory review”.
In August of 1991 free lance writer Jos. “Danny” Casolaro was killed in the Sheraton Inn in Martinsburg, West Virginia. Casolaro had been exchanging information with this reporter specifically about the murders connected to the 1981 Alvarez executions and the subsequent stories and killings that followed that tragic event. Casolaro’s murder resurrected the trials and turmoil that had taken place during the past ten years since three lives were taken in the sticky night air of the Mohave Desert.
The April 1992 issue of Spy Magazine featured an excellent story written by John Connolly and Eric Reguly. The authors appropriately named their feature “Badlands”. The article quoted Cabazon Chairman John James in the following paragraph:
A decade has passed since the killings, but their lesson remains clear. When John James, the current tribal chairman, explained the concept of tribal sovereignty to me, he chose an interesting example: “The police are jealous of us. We can do whatever we want here. We can shoot or kill somebody here, and they can’t do anything about it.”
The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department did not have a central homicide unit when Chief James made that arrogant statement. All homicides were handled by the individual stations and the homicides went to one or two Detectives that handled “person’s crimes” at that station. Than, in 2001 a Central Homicide Unit with an initial team of 20 Detectives was created. These men received extensive training and only handled homicides. As a result the rates for “solved and closed” homicide cases increased dramatically.
In 2006 the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department decided to create a Cold Case Homicide Unit to take a look at the many unsolved cases from years past. One Homicide Detective with a passion for solving cases others found impossible to solve volunteered to start this unit. He collected over 2,000 murder cases dating back to 1928. Each case was reviewed and a report written about each one. For the first time all the unsolved homicide cases were gathered together. A warehouse was located and dozens of shelves were built to hold the filing system being created to track and locate each case. Eventually each document in every case was scanned into a PDF file and the files were stored in a computer data bank, with a backup copy on CD. This technology turned an entire warehouse of paper files into a single filing cabinet of CD’s.
In October 2007 the Cold Case Unit expanded to three more detectives, a secretary and a Sergeant. The Unit’s primary job was to review 2,016 cases and write a report for each one, to either close it or assign it a priority, based on the probability of solving the case. The dedication of this Unit at the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office will enable future detectives to have a firm foundation for solving the cases that will come before the office. This hard work by the sheriff’s department should prevent future killings like the Alvarez case from sitting on the shelf unattended for decades.
The experienced Detective who founded this unit has worked diligently on the Alvarez executions since he received this Cold Case Unit assignment. His name will not be used in this article because it is this reporter’s belief that that would place his life in danger. What can be said is that he assigned a very high priority to solving the Alvarez executions. He believes that he has completed his task and has turned the results of his two year investigation over to Riverside District Attorney Rod Pacheco.
x This will be the third time this case has been in the hands of the Riverside District Attorney since that hot desert night when the blood of three friends was spread over a home’s backyard. The Alvarez executions have been taken off the shelf, looked at, put back on the shelf and forgotten many, many times by the very public agencies whose mission it is to bring justice to the victim’s families and to the constituency these agencies serve. Each and every time it is the agencies who engage in the cover-up of this politically inspired triple killing. The Riverside County Sheriff’s office has contributed its piece of the puzzle and it is now the responsibility of others to supply the missing pieces.
The question now is whether or not the other public agencies will do their job or will they continue to cover up this horrible crime. District Attorney Rod Pacheco has declared a conflict of interest and passed the buck to California Attorney General Jerry Brown and the case has now ended up in the hands of San Diego based Deputy Attorney General Michael Thomas Murphy. An unidentified source has said that Deputy AG Murphy is so busy he will not be able to even review the investigative report in his possession for several months.
28 long years have now passed and it is up to California’s State Attorney General Jerry Brown to prove Cabazon Chief John James was wrong when he said, “We can do what we want here. We can shoot or kill somebody here and they can’t do anything about it.”
Virginia McCullough © 7/2/09