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Robert Farley
By Robert Farley September 8, 2010

Gov. Jan Brewer talks of beheadings in the Arizona desert

Defending her state's controversial immigration law she signed on April 23, 2010, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer said border violence has gotten so bad there have been beheadings out in the Arizona desert.

That's right, beheadings.

It's a shocking image, but critics say it's also completely made up and an example of fear-mongering of the worst kind used by Brewer to manipulate an already emotional national debate on immigration.

"We cannot afford all this illegal immigration and everything that comes with it, everything from the crime and to the drugs and the kidnappings and the extortion and the beheadings and the fact that people can't feel safe in their community. It's wrong! It's wrong!" Brewer said in a June 16, 2010, interview with Fox News.

The Republican governor stood by her beheading claim when questioned about it during an interview on Phoenix NBC-affiliate KPNX 12 News on June 25, 2010.

"Oh, our law enforcement agencies have found bodies in the desert, either buried or just lying out there, that have been beheaded," she said.

That came as surprising news to Dr. Eric Peters, deputy chief medical examiner for Pima County, which has the largest border with Mexico of any county in Arizona.

"We probably have handled the most deaths from border crossings," Peters told PolitiFact. "We have had approximately 1,700 deaths in the last 10 years. We haven't had a single death due to a beheading or having a beheading associated with it."

The vast majority of deaths -- more than 95 percent, he said -- were due to exposure to the elements, either extreme heat in the summer or extreme cold in the winter.

The remainder of deaths, less than 5 percent, were "generally related to the process of human smuggling," Peters said. For example, he said, passengers who are killed when a smuggler tries to put too many people in a van and the van rolls or is involved in an accident.

"It's exceedingly rare for the deaths to have anything to do with any type of violence at all, and certainly no beheadings," Peters said.

"It's not terribly uncommon that we'd find just a skull," Peters said. He then added a grisly (if clinical) explanation: "As a body decomposes, local animals will use the deceased as a food source and sometimes the head can become dis-articulated from the spine."

But none from violent beheadings. It would be clear from the bones, Peters said, if there were a "traumatic removal from the remainder of the body."

Other medical examiners and law enforcement officials along the border echoed Peters' sentiments.

"We have received no headless bodies from the desert at all," said Pinal County spokesman Joe Pyritz.

Reporters from the Arizona Guardian and television station ABC15 talked to several other medical examiners in counties along or near the Mexican border, and all said the same thing: no beheadings there.

We also spoke to Vincent Picard, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Phoenix, who told us there have been no cases involving beheadings in any of their investigations.

In a Sept. 1 debate, Brewer's Democratic opponent Terry Goddard called Brewer's beheading comments "fear-mongering" that painted an untrue picture of Arizona and hurt the state's economy.

"Jan, I call upon you today to say there are no beheadings,'' Goddard demanded.

She skirted the issue during the debate, but two days later, on Sept. 3, 2010, Brewer walked back her comment in an interview with the Associated Press.

"That was an error, if I said that," Brewer said. "I misspoke, but you know, let me be clear, I am concerned about the border region because it continues to be reported in Mexico that there's a lot of violence going on and we don't want that going into Arizona."

Escalating cartel-related violence -- including beheadings -- have been widely reported in northern Mexico. And some of those cartels are involved in cross-border smuggling.

But Brewer twice described the beheadings as happening on the U.S. side of the border. And for weeks, she refused to back away from the comment. When Brewer finally acknowledged she had erred, she couched her admission with the qualifier "if I said said that." She did.

Featured Fact-check

This claim, like several others by opponents of illegal immigration, is ridiculously false -- emphasizing a non-existent danger. So we rate her comment Pants On Fire.

Our Sources

NBC 12 News, Interview with Gov. Jan Brewer, June 25, 2010

YouTube, Fox News interview with Jan. Brewer, June 16, 2010

Arizona Guardian, "County coroners can't back Brewer beheadings claim," by Dennis Welch, June 30, 2010

ABC 15, "Have there been beheadings in Arizona desert?" Sept. 2, 2010

Huliq, "Gov. Jan Brewer Stalks Off After Debate Over Beheading Claim," by Paula Duffy, Sept. 2, 2010

Washington Post, "Headless bodies and other immigration tall tales in Arizona," by Dana Milbank, July 11, 2010

Talking Points Memo, "Brewer Falsely Claimed Immigrants Beheaded People In Arizona," by Rachel Slajda. July 1, 2010

Christian Science Monitor, "Jan Brewer corrects the record on headless bodies in the desert,"  by Brad Knickerbocker, Sept. 4, 2010

AP, "Ariz. governor says she was wrong about beheadings," Paul Davenport and Amanda Lee Myers, Sept. 4, 2010

New York Times, "The Ungreat Debate," by Gail Collins, Sept. 3, 2010

The Guardian, "Mexico drug war: the new killing fields,"by Rory Carroll, Sept. 3, 2010

Interview with Vincent Picard, a spokesman for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Phoenix, Sept. 7, 2010

Interview with Dr. Eric Peters, Deputy Chief Medical Examiner for Pima County, Arizona, Sept. 7, 2010

Interview with Pinal County, Arizona spokesman Joe Pyritz, Sept. 7, 2010

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Gov. Jan Brewer talks of beheadings in the Arizona desert

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