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Murder, violence, and healing in the wilderness

A horrific 2006 murder in Grand Canyon leads the author to stumble upon the crime scene of her own childhood and form a non-profit program to support victims of family violence.

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On May 8, 2006, Tomomi Hanamure hiked alone into Grand Canyon. It was her 34th birthday and she was headed to Havasu Falls, a world-renowned natural wonder where blue green water plunges 100 feet into fern-decked pools. Seeing this waterfall deep in the heart of the Earth’s most spectacular canyon would be Hanamure’s birthday gift to herself. She had traveled half way around the world from her home in Japan as she continued a decade-long love affair with western wilderness.

Tomomi Hanamure (the hiker who was murdered in the Grand Canyon in 2006) poses with her dog Blues, a stray she rescued during a hiking trip in the Badlands of South Dakota. This photo was taken in 2002 at Muir Beach, California, during a trip to Point Reyes.Courtesy

But Hanamure never made it to Havasu Falls, which is located outside the national park on the Havasupai Indian Reservation. On May 9, after a cleaning woman at the lodge where Hanamure was staying found her bed undisturbed, a search began for what authorities presumed was a lost hiker. Hanamure’s body was discovered the next day submerged in the waters of Havasu Creek and riddled with 29 stab wounds.

A page from Tomomi Hanamure’s travel journal where she writes in broken English about visiting the Grand Canyon before her deathCourtesy

Six months later, after an extensive investigation by the FBI, an 18-year old Havasupai tribal member named Randy Redtail Wescogame was charged with Hanamure’s murder. This was a “crime of opportunity,” explained Coconino County Sherriff Bill Pribil at a press conference. Detectives said Wescogame had a long history of juvenile delinquency, substance abuse, and was addicted to meth. His motive for the murder, according to Pribil, was “to steal the victim’s cash, credit cards and cell phone.”

I wrote a story about the murder for BACKPACKER (“Freefall,” June 2007) that investigated crime at the popular hiking destination. After my article was published, the story was supposed to be over.

But I couldn’t let go of it. There was no personal information about Hanamure given by law enforcement to reporters. And I desperately wanted to know more about her. I also wanted to learn more about Wescogame. For me, the motive of robbery did not add up in explaining the most brutal murder in the history of Grand Canyon. I eventually connected with Hanamure’s family and stayed with them in Japan for three weeks. They gave me her travel journal, which I later used to retrace her path across the West. I also got to know Wescogame’s family. And after Wescogame accepted a plea deal, the FBI shared with me their investigation files that had been previously withheld from reporters.

The cover of Pure Lands, McGivney’s powerful bookCourtesy

But what I initially thought was journalistic curiosity gradually turned into something more sinister. After listening to a recording of Wescogame’s description of killing Hanamure, I started having nightmares. Soon I stopped sleeping completely. Shaken and desperate, I wound up in a psychiatrist’s office and finally admitted something I had kept secret from myself and others my entire adult life.

Triggering Terror from the Past and Finding Peace in the Present

I was violently abused by my father when I was a child—much in the same way Wescogame was beaten by his father. And I thought my out-of-control father would kill me. My mother, who was mostly bed-ridden with chronic depression, never intervened. I had dissociated these memories for decades, but details of Hanamure’s murder caused them to explode back into my conscious mind. By investigating Tomomi’s life and death, I was acting out what Sigmund Freud called the “repetition compulsion”—it was a subconscious desire to creep closer and closer to the horror that I was keeping secret from myself.

McGivney on hike in Texas at age 15Courtesy

According to a report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 3.4 million children in the United States were deemed at risk in 2015 for being victims of domestic abuse and neglect. This number has climbed steadily over the years. A common misconception about child abuse in the United States is that it mainly occurs in minority and/or impoverished homes. But the crime knows no cultural or economic boundaries. Of the 3.4 million children at risk in 201 for abuse, 43.2 percent were white, 23.6 percent were Hispanic and 21.4 percent were African American.

And there are many more abused children who go unreported because they are trapped in outwardly stable looking middle-class homes like the one I grew up in that fly under the radar of child protective services. My father was a respected doctor and church-goer. The multitudes of children who experience family violence and receive no help in processing the trauma during their youth will suffer the inevitable psychological effects in adulthood. While this has dire implications for the individual, it also results in many negative consequences for society. Statistics show that the majority of violent criminals were victims of child abuse. Addiction—including the current opioid crisis—is also often linked to childhood trauma.

How do we break this cycle of violence and despair? The answer, as far as I am concerned, is simply this: wilderness.

It was my relationship to nature that saved me both in childhood and as an adult as I wrestled with a diagnosis of delayed-onset PTSD. The woods outside my rural, childhood home was my safe place where life made sense. Extended wilderness trips and daily backcountry hikes have always been a part of my adult routine, too, but as I was flattened by the return of traumatic childhood memories, nature became my lifeline. A walk in the woods gave me a sense of peace that was far more effective than medication or talk therapy. Childhood trauma was something I had in common with Hanamure and Wescogame. But while Hanamure and I both found healing in the wild, Wescogame was estranged from it as he spent much of his childhood behind the razor wire of juvenile correctional facilities.

Havasu Falls was a sort of wilderness mecca for Tomomi Hanamure. She travelled halfway around the world, from Japan, to see it, but was killed before she dipped her toes in its turquoise waters.Flickr

“The rhythms and sensory stimulation encountered in nature help children reset a nervous system over-activated by intensely horrifying traumatic events,” explains licensed social worker Melissa Rhodes who is the clinical director at Northern Arizona University’s Family Violence Institute. “Children who share the novelty of being in a wondrous, wild landscape will discover new strengths in themselves and new capacities for connection with others.”

In order to help connect child domestic violence victims with opportunities for healing in nature I have started a non-profit called The Healing Lands Project. This partnership between myself, NAU’s Family Violence Institute and the educational outfitter Grand Canyon Youth is the first clinically supported wilderness immersion program in the country specifically designed for child domestic violence victims. The Institute provides support services to youth who have lost a parent to intimate partner homicide—the worst kind of domestic violence—and we are currently raising funds to take 12 of these children along with their social workers on the first Healing Lands river trip.

When I was a girl walking alone in the woods, I used to imagine the trees were hugging me. I could feel the love. I still do. Children who are suffering today from the effects of family violence desperately need this kind of hug. I hope you will join me in helping them.

To find out more about the Healing Lands Project and to donate, click here. Funds need to be raised by September 1 in order to secure a trip for summer 2018.