Border Death Backstory

Border Death Backstory

The trial for the murder of undocumented immigrant Francisco Javier Domínguez stripped him of his humanity. The retrial must not make the same mistake.


When 22-year-old Francisco Javier Domín- guez was shot to death last year by a US border patrol agent, his funeral made the papers all over Mexico, and so did the days-long ritual where his family and neighbors in that country recited the rosary.

Thousands of miles north, others grieved under the radar of the press. They were connected with Bear Naked, one of the biggest granola companies in the United States. It was launched six years ago in Darien, Connecticut, by 23-year-old Kelly Flatley and a friend from high school, Brendan Synnott, a talent manager at Saturday Night Live. The two pooled a few thousand dollars and an idea for remaking granola’s image: from aging hippie grub to sporty, youthful nibble. They were spectacularly successful. Late last year they sold their business to a Kellogg’s subsidiary in a reportedly lucrative deal.

Until he died Domínguez was employed at Bear Naked’s kitchen, in Stamford. His co-workers, who loved him, were also Latino immigrants. Company co-owner Flatley spent a lot of time in the kitchen, too. She knew Domínguez well and mourned alongside the workers.

Domínguez died while heading back to Bear Naked from a visit to his family. He was crossing the border on foot into Arizona in January 2007 when he was killed by agent Nicholas Corbett.

Corbett claimed he fired in self-defense after Domínguez brandished a rock. But three witnesses–Domínguez’s two brothers and the girlfriend of one of them–said the agent fired without provocation. In Tucson, Corbett was put on trial for various charges, including second-degree murder. Amid bitter national debate about immigration policy, the case was a political lightning rod. It still is. In early March the jury deadlocked after three days of deliberations, and a mistrial was declared.

The trial that just ended centered on questions about Domínguez’s death, such as whether he was kneeling when shot. Almost nothing was said about his life. Union Local 2544, the Tucson chapter of the National Border Patrol Council, referred to Domínguez on its website as “the deceased illegal alien” with “the gang tattoo.” Media reports often misstated what city and state in Mexico he was from.

Domínguez’s father, Renato Domínguez, is a brick mason. The family lived in a one-room wooden shack that started collapsing when Francisco Javier was a teenager. His mother, Maria Rivera, said he told her, “Don’t cry, Mom. I’m going to make you a house.” He left for the United States, by himself, to finance the construction. He was 17. He was hired by Bear Naked in about 2004.

I was in Mexico when I read the news about Domínguez’s killing last year, and I went to visit his parents. They mentioned that their son had worked in a cereal company somewhere. A year later I read an article in an Arizona newspaper that noted he’d lived in Stamford. Searching on the Internet I found Bear Naked. I caught a commuter train from New York City, following a hunch. Then I just followed my nose. Though Bear Naked’s building is unmarked, it emits an overpowering bakery smell. At the factory door I was greeted by Coronado, Domínguez’s former roommate. When Domínguez was alive, Coronado said, employees at Bear Naked “were all like family. Sometimes Kelly would invite us to her house in Darien. Once we went there for a Halloween party. Francisco Javier came.”

Domínguez’s job was calculating the correct amount of nuts, fruits and grains for the granola recipes. Berta, another kitchen worker, got to know Domínguez while she was in the middle of a divorce; the two planned on openly becoming boyfriend and girlfriend when she was single again. “He was very intelligent and peaceful,” Berta recalled. “Practically all he did was work to raise money to build the family house. A couple of days a week he left in the late afternoon to study English; otherwise he usually came from 4 am to 6:30 pm. All he talked about was his house. He would say things like, ‘Berta, the bathroom I’m making is really pretty!'”

Domínguez pored over home-improvement catalogs and chose pink tiles and a pink tub with whirlpool nozzles for his mother. (Where did he get the idea for luxury-style bathing? Berta speculates it could have come from Kelly Flatley’s place in Darien. “We saw her jacuzzi.”) The outside of Domínguez’s new house is gleaming white stucco, with filigreed grillwork on doors and windows. When he went back to Mexico in late 2006, he’d been away five years and had never seen his dream home. He stayed for two months, and the day he left, he called Berta. “He said he was really happy to be coming back so he could get more money to finish up. ‘I’m going to make the kitchen!’ he said.”

Two days later, Berta got another call from Mexico, about Domínguez’s death. “I called Kelly and she kept saying, ‘No! No! Why did he have to die?'”

Bear Naked’s production workers followed the trial on Spanish-language television. They were especially upset at intimations that Domínguez was a gang member. “That’s absurd!” said Berta and several other employees.

In the days just after his death, Berta fell apart. “I spent two weeks unable to work or eat. Kelly came to my house and fed me by hand.” When I called Bear Naked’s public relations company and asked to interview Kelly Flatley, she did not respond.

Prosecutor Woods could have put her or Berta on the stand as character witnesses, but his detectives never went to Stamford. Nor did anyone from Bear Naked contact Woods. Since learning from me about Domínguez’s life in America, Woods has been telling the media he’ll present the details at a retrial, slated for this summer. Meanwhile, Domínguez has come off the way most undocumented immigrants do nowadays–as unsavory or, at best, a cipher.

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