PHOENIX (AP) —Cattle rancher Rob Krentz often helped illegal immigrants he found stranded on his sprawling Arizona ranch.
Then two weeks ago, he and his dog were gunned down shortly after he reported spotting someone who appeared to be in trouble. Foot tracks were followed from the shooting scene about 20 miles south, to the Mexico border, and authorities suspect an illegal immigrant.
The killing of the third-generation rancher has become a flashpoint in the immigration debate as politicians cite the episode as further proof that the U.S. must do more to secure the violent U.S.-Mexico border.
The governors of New Mexico and Arizona took a public tour of the border this week in support of more security. The subject has ignited endless discussion on blogs, and has been politicized in the U.S. Senate Republican brawl between J.D. Hayworth and incumbent John McCain.
Hayworth has accused McCain of not doing enough to protect U.S. citizens from growing border violence. McCain, for his part, has called for increased security in response to the killing.
"The federal government must do all it can within its power to curb this violence and protect its citizens from criminals coming across the border from Mexico," McCain wrote in a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor.
Krentz will be remembered at a funeral Saturday in Douglas, about 35 miles southwest of his 35,000-acre ranch and the home where he raised three children with his wife of 33 years, Sue.
Investigators have not definitively tied the killing to the drug trade, but the slaying comes at a time when well-armed cartel factions have battled each other and federal authorities in several Mexican border cities, resulting in thousands of brutal killings.
The violence has been concentrated in Mexico's Ciudad Juarez on the Texas border and Tijuana, just south of San Diego, and hasn't yet spilled o ver into Arizona's remote border region.
Krentz's death sparked fears that was changing.
The Krentz family was no stranger to the problems of illegal immigration. Their home was robbed, and Krentz once found the carcass of one of his calves that had been killed for food, presumably by starving immigrants.
But the soft-spoken rancher bore no ill will toward illegal immigrants, according to friends and family.
They say Krentz sympathized with their desire for a piece of the American pie. He gave them food and water if they were in distress, and sometimes he'd call the U.S. Border Patrol, which meant deportation but also guarantees of medical assistance and escape from possible death.
"If they come and ask for water, I'll still give them water," Krentz once told PBS' Religion & Ethics Newsweekly in 1999. "You know, that's just my nature."
Wendy Glenn, who has a ranch south of the Krentz property and is a good family friend, said she believ es she heard some of Krentz's last words when he used a radio to talk to his brother the day he was killed.
"He says, 'I see an immigrant out here, and he appears to need help. Call the Border Patrol,'" Glenn, 69, said she heard Krentz say at about 10:30 a.m. on March 27. "He was not frantic. He was not calling for help."
After Krentz went missing for hours and hadn't communicated with anyone, Glenn said she and others assumed he'd been robbed and stranded somewhere on his property. But his body was found just before midnight in a remote area of his land.
After he was shot, the 58-year-old Krentz managed to drive away in his all-terrain vehicle before losing consciousness and dying from his wounds. Nothing had been stolen from him, and his gun was still in its holster. His dog was killed, too.
Glenn and those who knew Krentz say he never would have confronted anyone he thought was dangerous. Most likely, he was just trying to help, they say.
"The re are a lot of people out here who are unarmed that need help, and I'm sure Rob didn't realize he was armed," Glenn said. "I think he approached to see if he could help him and the guy thought maybe he was going to get arrested, that maybe Rob was the law ... I don't know what the guy thought, but he never gave Rob a chance."
She said Krentz was modest, honest and an unwavering friend, and that everyone who knew him is "absolutely devastated."
"I keep expecting to see Rob walk in the door," she said. "The reality now is very hard to face. That man is gone forever."
Krentz's family members declined requests for comment, but released a statement saying he was a humanitarian "who bore no ill will toward anyone" and instilled in his children the importance of honesty and fair dealing.
The family said they hold no malice toward the Mexican people and blame the U.S. and Mexican governments for the killing.
"Their disregard of our repeated pleas and wa rnings of impending violence toward our community fell on deaf ears shrouded in political correctness," according to the statement. "As a result, we have paid the ultimate price for their negligence in credibly securing our borderlands."
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.