Last month, a Farmington High School senior donned body armor and leveled his assault rifle on a quiet residential street, unloading a hoard of ammunition on anyone who caught his eye. He killed three women and wounded six others.

It was the town’s third fatal shooting in less than six weeks, and the next day the school’s graduation went on as scheduled. A few blocks away, a small memorial — flowers, a sympathy card, a sliver of paper with the victims’ names taped to a stop sign — stood as a reminder of the brutal scene.

This latest shooting was far from the first time that Farmington, a town of nearly 47,000 bordering the Navajo Nation, found itself thrust into the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons. Farmington’s crime rate in recent years has been among the highest in the state, ranking behind Albuquerque and Gallup, but increasing at a faster clip, according to a 2022 Legislative Finance Committee report.

Graphic by Christian Marquez

A small town that prides itself on its tight-knit, churchgoing communities and sweeping Southwestern vistas, Farmington has also faced deep-seated struggles with gun violence, poverty and racial inequities. Like many towns across New Mexico, it’s also grappling with a crisis of untreated mental illness.

“It didn’t take us two years to get into that mess, and it isn’t going to take that to get out of it,” said Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe. His own department has suffered the consequences of the crime spike: In the last 18 months, two of his officers were shot, one by an escaped Colorado inmate in 2022, and another by the 18-year-old mass shooter in May. Before that, a Farmington police officer hadn’t been shot for the better part of three decades, he said. 

Before coming to Farmington in 2014 to lead the department of 135 officers, Hebbe served as deputy police chief in Anchorage, Alaska, a not dissimilar place, in his telling. Like Farmington, Anchorage is dependent on the oil and gas industry. Like Farmington and the surrounding Four Corners area, its economy relies on tourists, travelers and shoppers from nearby tribal lands. And like Farmington, it has a significant Indigenous population and a troubled history not uncommon in border towns, marked by substance abuse, racism and violence toward Native peoples. 

Even today, those ills persist just below Farmington’s surface, according to longtime residents, observers and academics. They point to Main Street, dominated by liquor stores and high-interest loan outfits, and a commercial landscape in which, conspicuously, two Walmarts rose up on opposite sides of town. The one on the west side is primarily frequented by Navajo shoppers; the other, on the east side, is predominantly frequented by white customers, they say.

Farmington Police Chief Steve Hebbe. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Farmington’s defenders, ranging from elected officials and municipal employees to longtime residents and business owners, maintain that the town has moved on from the prejudice of decades past. Today’s Farmington, they say, is a gateway to the outdoors, an affordable, low-key community made up of honest, hardworking people who show up each morning to decent jobs and go home each evening to homes with traditional family values. They point to the town’s scenic river, beloved baseball field and festivals in local parks.

As for gun violence, reducing it is beyond the scope of local public servants, they say. Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett calls it a national and global problem, exacerbated by social media. “As much as you think this small town would be immune to it,” he says, “we’re not.”

There have been more mass shootings nationally since Jan. 1 than there have been days in the year, according to the national research nonprofit Gun Violence Archive. Complicating the problem, there is no widely accepted definition for what constitutes a mass shooting. Many groups, like the GVA, categorize them as shootings that kill or injure at least four people.

But even as shootings have become an everyday occurrence in this country — more than 100 people are killed in shootings each day, on average — it’s unusual for a small town to repeatedly grab national headlines in such a short amount of time. 

In the month before the mass shooting, on April 5, Farmington police went to the wrong address when responding to a late-night domestic violence call. When the homeowner, 52-year-old Robert Dotson, answered his door armed with a gun, police shot him dead. A recent visit by Searchlight New Mexico revealed 11 bullet holes across the front of the house.

Also on the night of April 5, two employees of Highway 64 Truck & Auto Salvage were found dead at the Farmington scrapyard. Deputies with the San Juan County Sheriff’s Office reported finding one man lying face down over a tire on the ground, a gunshot wound to his upper back, and another man on the ground fatally wounded. (Robert Dotson, coincidentally, was also a scrapyard employee, police said.)

In past years, the area also experienced a deadly school shooting: On Dec. 7, 2017, a 21-year-old armed with a handgun entered a high school in Aztec, just outside of Farmington, where he shot and killed two students before killing himself.

Aztec Mayor Michael Padilla Sr. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

The fatal rampage 

Then came May 15. On that day, an 18-year-old former member of the high school wrestling team — a senior who was on track to graduate the next day — shot and killed Gwendolyn Schofield, 97; her daughter, Melody Ivie, 73; and Shirley Voita, 79. He also injured two police officers: Sgt. Rachel Discenza with the Farmington police and Officer Andreas Stamatiadis with the New Mexico State Police. Farmington police indicated that untreated mental illness may have been a factor in the incident. Police shot and killed the 18-year-old at the scene.

The Farmington tri-city area includes Aztec and Bloomfield, and their elected leaders speak in a unified front, defending civic strides while lamenting the national plague of gun violence.

Aztec’s mayor, Michael Padilla Sr., described it as a distinctly American problem — attributable to an erosion of family values in the home and in schools. The only solution to gun violence, he said, lies with “the guy upstairs.”

But Padilla also recalled the fraught and infamous days of 1974, when three white Farmington High School students tortured and killed three Navajo men in a canyon near town. The teenagers bashed in their faces, set off firecrackers in their noses and on their genitals, and beat them to death. The murders, which drew national attention, came to be known as the Chokecherry Massacre.

Children lead a Navajo protest through Farmington in the wake of the horrific Chokecherry Massacre of 1974. Courtesy of The Bob Fitch Photography Archive at Stanford University Libraries

The atrocity triggered protests by thousands of Navajo and other Indigenous peoples, who marched on Main Street, demanding change. Padilla, who then worked as a salesman for a Farmington car dealership, recalled that his boss instituted a new policy amid the backlash: Do not leave a Navajo customer and a white employee alone together.

Duane “Chili” Yazzie, a former Navajo Nation Shiprock chapter president, was instrumental in organizing the protests. He once dubbed Farmington “the Selma, Alabama, of the Southwest.” Yazzie himself experienced one of the hate crimes of the time — in the late 1970s, he lost his right arm after being shot by a white hitchhiker.

“Racial discrimination has always been prevalent between the Farmington folks and our people,” said Yazzie. Proof of this was vividly laid out in “The Farmington Report,” a nearly 200-page investigation into the Chokecherry Massacre by the New Mexico Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

“Farmington really made deliberate efforts to try to educate the city folks” after 1974, said Yazzie, who was a key player in a 2005 civil rights follow-up report. “But there’s always going to be that bad apple.”

Others say the city’s past is still all too present. Jennifer Nez Denetdale, the chair of American Studies at the University of New Mexico, said she generally dislikes going to Farmington because of what she calls a climate of “structural violence.” In “Red Nation Rising: From Bordertown Violence to Native Liberation,” the 2021 book she co-authored, Denetdale characterized Farmington as one of many “white-dominated towns and cities” that border tribal lands.

Duane “Chili” Yazzie, a longtime Navajo activist, crouches in an alfalfa field on his property north of Shiprock. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Today, according to Yazzie, life in Farmington has significantly improved — in part due to the dwindling number of itinerant oil and gas workers, who are associated, nationally, with violence. 

In 2021, a century after the first commercial natural gas well was struck in the San Juan Basin, oil and gas experts said they faced the “worst downturn in the San Juan Basin’s history.” Other energy jobs in the region have also been shed: In 2020, the Escalante Generating Station in McKinley County abruptly shut down, years ahead of its planned decommission. And in 2022, the San Juan Generating Station went offline, part of New Mexico’s Energy Transition Act. The state has set aside $12 million to help the community’s displaced workers. 

Here, and on the Navajo Nation, people have felt the squeeze, as jobs that once anchored the economy packed up and left town, leaving workers across the remote Four Corners region without incomes or a livelihood.

Faith a fortification

The region may have lost its economic mooring, but another ballast, religion, remains strong. Farmington is home to dozens of churches, soon to include New Mexico’s second temple for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 

In San Juan County, nearly 49,000 people, more than the entire population of Farmington, identify as churchgoers, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. More than 25 percent of them are members of the Latter-day Saints church, according to the most recently available numbers. That figure is rivaled only by the Catholic Church.

Deeply held faith is evident in passing conversations. When speaking of the three women killed in the May mass shooting, many locals refer to them as pillars of the community. Duckett, the mayor of Farmington, knew several of their family members, and said each of the women “were very faithful people.”

That faith is also evident in other reactions. To some, the mass shooting served as a reminder that “sin is everywhere you look,” as Lt. Christopher Rockwell of the Salvation Army Farmington Corps Community Center put it.

Lt. Christopher Rockwell of the Salvation Army Farmington Corps stands on the steps of the organization’s community center. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

To others, the shooting has put a face on New Mexico’s broader struggle with gun violence and untreated mental illness. In the days following the shooting, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham vowed to enact stricter gun laws, including a ban on assault weapons and age restrictions on gun sales.

“We can pass new gun laws, but there are a ton of guns on the street,” Hebbe, the Farmington police chief, said. Securing reliable, long-term mental health care in New Mexico is just as important, he added. “We can’t just focus on the guns. Yes, they’re a component of it, but so is mental health.”

The city, like others across the state, has invested in “alternative response” programs, partnering with a local nonprofit to assign case workers to people whom the police flag as mentally ill.

On average, one New Mexican is killed by gunfire each day, according to a 2021 report from the New Mexico Department of Health and UNM. The majority of those deaths — 64 percent — are suicides. Most of the rest (30 percent) are homicides.

Nationally, alternative programs like these are gaining traction: Experts say an armed police response to someone in the throes of a mental health crisis can escalate the situation. Unfortunately, the Farmington program is “on the verge of dissolving,” according to Hebbe, due to the local nonprofit’s recent collapse. The police department is in talks to take over the program.

“I have been sounding the alarm on mental health in San Juan County for several years now,” Hebbe said. “And I say that from just the police perspective. When we contact people who are in crisis frequently, we don’t have a lot of good options.”

In fact, residents here and across New Mexico have few options for long-term mental health care. Ten years after former Gov. Susana Martinez falsely accused more than a dozen service providers of fraud, the behavioral health system has yet to recover. Many programs pared down their services or left the state altogether. Locally, the area struggles to hold onto its few remaining resources.

And that’s a real problem for a border town that’s suffered from high rates of substance abuse. Farmington is the most populous town in San Juan County, which has the third-highest rate of alcohol-related deaths in the state, according to the Department of Health. About two-thirds of those deaths were classified as American Indians. The highest rate in the state is in McKinley County, home to Gallup, another border town. 

A small memorial of silk flowers and signs marks the scene on Dustin Avenue in Farmington, where three women were shot to death on May 15. Nadav Soroker/Searchlight New Mexico

Diné leaders, like Denetdale, who chairs the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission, point out that liquor stores proliferate in towns like Farmington or Gallup to prey on the visiting citizens of the Navajo Nation, where alcohol is prohibited.

Many residents would rather avoid these topics — and wish Farmington could escape its label as a troubled place. They are often tight-lipped, preferring to keep their worries to themselves rather than engage in public hand-wringing. This year, they’ve felt the nation’s fingers pointed at them, once again in April and once again in May, because of violence that feels beyond their control.

Judith MacDonald, 78, who moved here as a child in 1949, knows this feeling well. Most of her life, there’s been a perception that Farmington is “this hick town, and it’s no good,” she said. “We’re sort of the stepchild of this area.”

Noah Raess and Jeremiah O. Rhodes contributed to the reporting of this story.

Joshua Bowling, Searchlight's criminal justice reporter, spent nearly six years covering local government, the environment and other issues at the Arizona Republic. His accountability reporting exposed...