Five killed in south Ga. invasions

Published: Saturday, October 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, September 30, 2005 at 11:46 p.m.
TIFTON, Ga. - Efrain Navarro woke at 1:30 a.m. to the sound of groans loud enough to alarm him. Then, listening through his bedroom door in the dark, he heard men inside the mobile home speaking English - another sign that something was wrong.
Navarro sprinted through the darkness for the front door, barely seeing the outline of one of his two roommates sprawled on the floor. He bolted out of the trailer, past the chicken coops outside to a neighbor's trailer about 100 yards away.
"I was knocking on their door when I heard the shots - two shots," said Navarro, 25, a Mexican immigrant who came to southern Georgia a month ago to find work.
Navarro hid in his truck until daylight Friday, when he and Mexican immigrants in three other mobile home parks discovered killings of shocking similarity. Five people, including one of Navarro's roommates, had been brutally slain in their homes. Six more were wounded.
All the dead were Hispanic immigrants. All lived in trailer parks in Tift County and neighboring Colquitt County, rural areas where many migrant workers toil in the fields of cotton and peanut farms.
Investigators suspect the killers targeted immigrants for a string of overnight robberies. Victims were attacked with handguns and an aluminum baseball bat found at one of the crime scenes, said Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
"We believe the same two suspects committed all four home invasions," Keenan said Friday.
All the dead were immigrants from Mexico, and all but one belonged to the same family, said Francisco Dominguez, who says his uncle and a cousin were killed in their trailer on the outskirts of Tifton, 180 miles south of Atlanta.
"He came here to work and here is where he died," Dominguez said of his uncle, who immigrated from Mexico a year ago. "He should have gone out to build chicken houses this morning."
Three of the attacks were in Tift County - two within Tifton's city limits - and one in neighboring Colquitt County.
"We think they're tied together," said Colquitt County Sheriff's Capt. Hal Suber.
Among the injured, two were in critical condition and three others were serious, Keenan said.
Navarro, speaking in Spanish through an interpreter, said he never saw the men who broke into his home.
"I didn't turn on the light," he said. "I just put some shorts on. I was going to open the door, but I didn't. I heard them speaking in English, so I couldn't understand anything. I opened the door and looked both ways and didn't see anything, so I ran out as fast as I could."
After daylight Friday, Navarro sent neighbor Pedro Vargas, 29, to check his mobile home. Vargas found one of Navarro's roommates dead in his bedroom. The other lay on the floor near the front door, alive but with his head swollen as if beaten. Vargas called police, who later told him the dead man had been shot behind his ear.
In the Colquitt County attack, a man was shot in the head and beaten with a baseball bat, and his wife was hit in the mouth, Suber said. The man was in stable condition at a hospital in Thomasville. The woman has been released, Colquitt County Sheriff Al Whittington said.
Whittington stressed the attacks didn't appear to be hate crimes. Instead, he believes they may be linked to other robberies of immigrants in the past two weeks, including some in neighboring Cook County to the east.
Immigrants "carry large sums of cash and that makes them an easy prey," Whittington said. "I don't think it has anything to do with race or hate."
Hispanics in the area fear otherwise, said the Rev. Alfonso Gutierrez of Our Divine Saviour Church, the only Catholic church in Tifton.
"There is a lot of fear because people wonder up to what point it could be a race question," Gutierrez said. "It's a vulnerable community."
Many immigrants are undocumented and therefore can't open bank accounts, which means they tend to carry a lot of cash or keep it in their homes. They are also afraid to call the police when threatened - even in these killings, those who found the bodies hesitated to call 911, Gutierrez said.
Tift and Colquitt counties are home to at least 14,000 immigrants from Mexico and Central America, said Luz Marti, a volunteer with Gutierrez' church. Census data indicates that Hispanics make up at least 11 percent of Colquitt County's population and at least 8 percent of Tift County's residents.
"They're panicking," Marti said, adding that a lack of Spanish-language media beyond a small, bi-weekly two-page supplement to the Tifton Gazette newspaper makes the community especially jittery.
At Town & Country Mobile Homes in Tifton, two bodies were found by a 14-year-old boy - one behind a trash can and the other out in the open. The boy, who lives in a trailer next door, first saw the bodies from his living room window then ventured outside to get a closer look.
Neighbors said they didn't hear any gunshots or notice a struggle during the night.
"All I heard last night was the dog barking too much," said Margarito Castillo of his dog. "We're used to having the dog bark because there is always strangers walking up and down the street. So we didn't pay much attention to that."
One woman who lives in the mobile park was so terrified that she refused to give her name. Sitting in a plastic chair holding her six-month-old son, the woman said mobile homes in the community aren't very secure. Her own home had a missing front doorknob.
She just hopes that the suspects are found before anyone else is harmed.
"We're afraid to sleep at night because they might return," she said. "We want justice done. ... We don't want them to think nothing will happen so they return and commit more crimes."

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