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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Federal investigators in Arizona have a mystery on their hands. Since 2009, there have been 18 shooting deaths in the desert outside of Phoenix. But so far no witnesses and no arrests. Peter O'Dowd from member station KJZZ reports on the unsolved crimes.

PETER O'DOWD, BYLINE: Let's get something straight here: we're talking about donkeys. Wild burros - the federally protected asses of the Old West. In late January, two more from the Lake Pleasant herd were found dead among the desert scrub and beavertail cactus.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR STARTING)

STEVE BIRD: We consider that a murder scene.

O'DOWD: The Bureau of Land Management's Steve Bird drove me there. About 35 miles northwest of Phoenix, the dirt road stops at a gate. We get out, and stand on the spot where someone took aim.

BIRD: It was a skilled hunter, or a skilled shooter. One bullet hole per animal. Right set in the lungs. It was a good shot.

O'DOWD: These burros descend from pack animals that gold miners abandoned more than a century ago. Today, the feral herd drinks from a desert lake each morning and then scrambles back into these hills to spend the afternoon. In 2012, five burros were killed in one day. Eleven were shot in a single barrage back in 2009. Bill Clinton was president the last time anyone got caught.

BIRD: That's just not right.

O'DOWD: 'Cause nobody eats a burro, right? And in no cases did anybody look like they were harvesting the meat?

BIRD: No. Not at all.

O'DOWD: The BLM believes the motive is nothing more than target shooting.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNSHOT)

O'DOWD: What was that?

BIRD: We just heard a gunshot off to the east.

O'DOWD: Probably a hunter, probably not shooting burros.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Come on, get. Get.

O'DOWD: It's about time you actually met a wild burro. So, let's take a trip north to Oatman, Arizona, where the burros stick their noses into the outstretched hands of tourists. Town guides have learned how to nudge the stubbornly tame beasts from the road.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If you have water, just kind of splash it in their face and they'll leave.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Oh, good idea.

O'DOWD: And that's why a burro is vulnerable.

JIM QUINN: It doesn't even move. It just stands there and looks at you. And then it's just like a stationary target.

O'DOWD: To Oatman resident Jim Quinn it's no surprise that people are shooting the animals near Phoenix. He says they do it up here, too.

QUINN: Once you're out there, there are no witnesses. You get people taking potshots. Sad to say, but it's one of the realities here in the Wild West.

O'DOWD: There is a federal law that's supposed to protect the burros because they're seen as a symbol of the American West. Quinn points to the mountains around town and shows me the remnants of so many gold mines.

QUINN: The burros was like the middle-class blue-collar of labor of America. Without the burros a lot of things couldn't have gotten done.

O'DOWD: Whoever shot the burros near Phoenix faces a year in prison. For now, federal authorities don't have much to go on. For NPR News, I'm Peter O'Dowd.

SIMON: This is NPR News.

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