Audrea Lim

On the morning of Sunday, February 26, a group of activists who have been fighting the construction of the Trans-Pecos pipeline in far west Texas gathered for their latest protest. It was meant to be a peaceful action, but that day, the local sheriff’s office arrested Pete Hefflin, a fixture at the anti-pipeline direct action camp known as Two Rivers and a founder of the Texas-based Society of Native Nations.

What came out after his arrest shocked those who have been working with him to stop the pipeline. It turned out that the man many affectionately called Uncle Pete was actually named Pedro Rabago Gutierrez, and he had been hiding an extensive criminal past.

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CBS7 reported his arrest this past Sunday stemmed from a tip the Presidio County sheriff’s office received earlier this year that Gutierrez was wanted in California for parole violations. He was subsequently found to be using a fake Social Security card, and when the sheriff’s office ran his fingerprints after his arrest, his true identity came to light.

According to the Houston Chronicle, while living in California, Gutierrez had been convicted for numerous crimes over the years, including forcible rape, forcible oral sex, possession of a controlled substance with an intent to sell, and sex with a minor under the age of 18. He went in and out of prison before being released on parole in 2002. Sometime after that, he and his wife Jacalyn Hagans left California, eventually making their way to Texas. Hagans declined to comment for this story.

The news shocked me as well. I had met Gutierrez myself in early January, when I had gone to the Big Bend region of the state to report on the campaign against the pipeline. At Two Rivers camp, located on a dusty patch of land in the Chihuahuan desert, I often found him sitting around the sacred fire, a bandanna wrapped around his long silvery hair and a cigarette in hand, where he shared with me what I now realize was a heavily redacted version of his life.

Telling someone else’s story often requires a blind belief that people are, for the most part, who they say they are; suspicion is suspended unless there is ample reason to question the truth of their narrative. I trusted him, in part because it was clear to me that everyone at the encampment trusted Gutierrez as well, and looked up to him as a Native American elder who had been involved for decades in environmental justice movements. He had thrown himself into the quixotic fight against the Trans-Pecos pipeline, and he and his wife regularly made the long drive from the small town outside of Houston where they lived to the remote western corner of the state—all for the sake of an ideal. Gutierrez’s dedication was never in doubt.

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All of which makes his deception all the more baffling and painful to those who knew him. “I had no idea,” Frankie Orona told me when I caught up with him this week over the phone. Orona is the executive director of the Society of Native Nations, and he had co-founded the organization with Gutierrez, Hagans, and others in 2016. Hagans and Gutierrez have both since resigned from the board. “We thought we knew him very well. Obviously, he’s fooled this whole community.”

I asked Orona how he’s grappling with this. “Some people will say this shows how much he cared about the movement, because he was willing to risk everything and get caught,” he said. On the other hand, “it’s also being selfish, because no matter how much love and passion you have, this could have ruined us, ruined the camp, our organization, everything.” Orona admitted these revelations were personally painful. “We’ve had barbecues, we’ve done ceremony together. For him to lie to his community, it hurts. I didn’t expect him to be a saint, but I didn’t expect for him to be hiding all of this.”

Lori Glover, the co-founder of the Big Bend Defense Coalition as well as of Two Rivers camp, was equally stunned to hear the news, describing it as “disheartening” and “confusing.”

“It was a shock, because the Pete that I know is a very respectful, kind, fair, generous man, who has spent a great deal of time learning the Native American lifeways and traditions and ceremonies. And he cares about people,” Glover said.

How does one resolve the seemingly contradictory tension between the horrifying acts Pedro Rabago Gutierrez was convicted of and the man these Two River camp activists knew? Perhaps the answer is that they do not contradict each other at all. One does not negate the other. “There were some bad things in his past that he did, and that really bothers me,” Glover said. She told me that if and when released, Gutierrez won’t be allowed to return to the encampment. “But I also see he suffered for that, he did his time, he paid his penalty, and then he turned his life around, and that is powerful.”

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Both Orona and Glover stressed that their work to stop the construction of the pipeline, which is nearing completion, will continue.

“One person isn’t going to define what we do, or what this movement is and what this camp is trying to accomplish,” Orona said. “We’re not going to let that happen.”

Esther Wang is a freelance writer based in New York City. You can find her at @estherxlwang and www.estherwang.com.