A little more than two weeks ago a Covelo man was murdered. In the days that followed, law enforcement publicly announced a suspect described as “armed and dangerous”. To bolster efforts to find the suspect, a band of Round Valley Tribe members and the family of the victim have amassed $10,000 dollars to offer a reward for anyone that provides information that leads to the capture and prosecution of Lee Anthony Joaquin, the lead suspect in the brutal murder of 20-year-old Nicholas Whipple.
In the early morning dark of Wednesday, March 29, 2023, snow fell on Mendocino County’s higher reaches. Around 4:34 that morning, a young man was found lying in the bitter cold on the asphalt bleeding and unresponsive.
Police, medic, and fire personnel converged on Round Valley, located on the northeastern edge of Mendocino County surrounded by mountain ranges on all sides. A cop navigated Highway 162, the one major road in and out, and warned others that snow was falling and the route was dangerous.
First responders found the young man in the middle of Covelo’s Tabor Lane bleeding from what looked to be a gunshot wound to the chest but he was beaten so badly they weren’t sure. Despite attempts to revive him with CPR, he was declared dead in the pre-dawn dark. The road was blocked off and for the next several hours law enforcement canvassed the scene to investigate the apparent homicide.
The dead man was 20-year-old Nicholas Whipple, a member of the Round Valley Indian Tribe, who was beaten and gunned down in the same valley he called home.
One day later, the Round Valley Tribe called an emergency press conference. Family, friends, and tribal leaders filled the Buffalo Room located at the Tribal Administration Building and demanded those who knew how Nicholas Whipple met his fate come forward and help find justice for their native son.
Four days after Whipple was found dead, Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office announced investigators were actively seeking 33-year-old Lee Anthony Joaquin, another Round Valley resident, as the suspect in the murder of Nicholas Whipple.
Just this week, the Board of Supervisors proclaimed May 5th to be Mendocino County’s Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and People. This gesture stands as an important acknowledgment of the epidemic of violence by the local government.
For the family of Nicholas Whipple, the proclamation offers little consolation. It has been over two weeks since Whipple was killed and his family fears his killer will go free. They recognize law enforcement’s efforts but know its limitations. There is hope the tide is turning and justice for the missing and murdered has finally come to Indian Country. But, that hope is tempered by a resignation sowed by generations of trauma, violence, and cases gone cold.
Concerned about the momentum of the investigation, Nicholas Whipple’s family is now offering $10,000 to anyone that provides information that leads to the location and prosecution of Lee Anthony Joaquin.
The Missing and Murdered Indigenous People movement has long characterized violence as an epidemic within tribal communities. Nicholas Whipple’s family is the epitome of this crisis, losing three of their men to violence in ten years’ time.
Hunters found the body of Nicholas Whipple’s uncle, Michael Piña, on September 25th, 2014. He had been dumped along a lonely mountain road above Covelo. Investigators determined someone beat him to death. Piña’s case has gone cold and his killer walks free.
Whipple’s first cousin Kenneth Whipple was gunned down outside Covelo’s Buckhorn Bar just before midnight on September 21st, 2021. Whipple’s suspected killer, Dino Michael Blackbear, led law enforcement on a multi-day manhunt across Mendocino County. He was finally arrested in Fort Bragg. He will face a Mendocino County jury on May 8, 2023, for Whipple’s murder.
Their most recent heartbreak is the loss of Nicholas Whipple. Whipple suffered a beating so brutal that investigators had to conduct a detailed post-mortem examination to confirm that his killer had both battered him and put a bullet through his chest.
Lewis Whipple, the Vice President of the Round Valley Indian Tribes, finds himself at an intersection of violence and tragedy endemic to Indian Country. In the last eight years, three of his family members were murdered, his uncle Mike Pina and two nephews, Kenneth Whipple, and Nicholas Whipple.
At the press conference, tribal leaders demanded Round Valley reveal what happened to the 20-year-old young man in the cold, dark hours leading to his death. Vice President Whipple said in disbelief, “Our people want to cover for these people? Come on, you guys, I grew up in this community. You raised me. We need you to stand up. Speak!”
Their words were heard. Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall told us within hours of the press conferences his detectives began to receive intel from the community. Two days later, Lee Anthony Joaquin was identified as Whipple’s suspected killer and the hunt for him began.
Lee Anthony Joaquin, the suspected murderer of Whipple, has a criminal record dating back over ten years. A search for him in the Mendocino County Superior Court case index reveals a dozen occasions Joaquin faced criminal charges.
Joaquin has been found guilty of illegally possessing firearms, buying and receiving stolen property, and transporting and possessing large amounts of cannabis. Crimes such as battery and domestic violence pepper his record suggesting aggressive tendencies that could have erupted the night Nicholas Whipple was killed.
On February 19, 2019, Joaquin along with three others armed themselves to burglarize a Covelo home on Henderson Lane. Police were dispatched to the location after reports that the group was firing guns at the residence. As Tribal Police arrived in the area, Joaquin was walking along the road with an assault rifle in hand.
Joaquin attacked a woman during a child exchange on April 23, 2022. A press release from MCSO said Joaquin “got upset and began hitting the adult female numerous times with his hands and also kicked her in the ribs causing visible injuries.” When deputies arrived to investigate, they noted Joaquin’s knuckles were busted up and arrested him for domestic violence.
Now, for the first time in his life, Joaquin is a murder suspect sought for his role in the death of Nicholas Whipple. Law enforcement considers him “armed and dangerous”.
A reward poster being circulated by Round Valley Tribal Leaders says Joaquin “may be in the Hopland area as well as Covelo.”
Whipple told us the Round Valley Tribal Council “truly does want the violence to stop.” The tribe’s police force is small and Whipple said recruitment is underway to bring more to the force.
But, the lack of a resident deputy from the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office in the valley hinders efforts to minimize crime, Whipple said. “We have drugs and alcohol problems on and off the reservation. We have young kids doing donuts at every stop sign intersection in town.”
Sheriff Kendall could not go into details regarding MCSO’s investigation into Joaquin’s whereabouts. “We’re going to keep using every investigative lead we can, but I cannot discuss them.”
He expressed gratitude for the Round Valley community’s willingness to reach out to investigators. “When people commit crimes in a community, that community comes forward to help solve the crime.”
Speaking to concerns Whipple’s case will become another cold case in Indian County, Sheriff Kendall said as a member of law enforcement, “We have to be the voice for the victim when that victim is gone. We have to carry their story.”
Lee Anthony Joaquin is 33 years old, stands 5′ 5″, and weighs 180 lbs. He has brown hair and eyes. He is known to wear a goatee and shoulder-length hair that he sometimes pulls back in a ponytail.
Any member of the public that has information about the murder of Nicholas Whipple or the location of Lee Anthony Joaquin should call the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office by calling 707-463-4086.