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Crime brings community together

MCLAUGHLIN, S.D. -- Nestled on the sprawling Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, the tiny town of McLaughlin has a big city problem -- violent crime and drugs -- perpetrated by a group of people who have terrorized the town for some time.

To deal with their own terrorist activities, the townspeople, most of whom are members of the Standing Rock tribe gathered for the first at what is hoped to be a series of meetings that will result in reason and reconciliation.

Murders, break-ins, assaults, rapes, drug dealing, excessive alcohol and harassment left people in what is looked at by the rest of the country as a peaceful small town with frustration and few answers.

Compounding the problem is jurisdiction. The BIA police have jurisdiction over the American Indian community, but not the non-Indian community and vice versa. Perpetrators can be held by any office, but local residents said officers seldom pursue or stop a person not under their jurisdiction.

The meetings were organized by the FBI with the cooperation of law enforcement from the town and the BIA police on the reservation.

FBI special agent David Heller from Sioux Falls told the crowd there was little his agency could do because of jurisdiction. "You can't look at law enforcement and ask us to fix the problem, it is a community problem."

There can be FBI pressure, however with the heightened alert status in the country because of terrorist activities there are no extra agents to spare. Heller acknowledged he was not aware of drugs in the community.

People in McLaughlin told law enforcement officials they are sleeping with knives, guns and other weapons to protect themselves and their families.

Many residents admitted McLaughlin is a town with a history of racism, but they readily added it was time to come together and solve present problems.

"I was born and raised in this community and I'm a product of the racism and prejudice. I forgive all non-Indian people who tried to oppress me," Virgil Taken Alive said.

"This is where we played together. This is where we swam together, this is where we played basketball and football together -- until we got a new coach that wouldn't play the Indian kids.

"We have done it already and it needs involvement from each of us and the leaders must be trusted," Taken Alive said.

He spoke of a group that formed a neighborhood watch in the 1980s and kept a lookout for each other. He said people know the kids and others who are not of age to drive or who are out after curfew. It's not that a watch group has to strong-arm anyone, but keep a watch out for each other, he said.

Larger cities have neighborhood crime watch programs. People are encouraged to know something about their neighbors. It's the same in McLaughlin. Taken Alive asked the non-Indian residents at the meeting to try to understand the culture and the people, to better form a safe community.

"How much do you know about us. I've only been to one non-Indian home in this town. Have you non-Indian folks taken the time to learn?" Taken Alive asked.

To hear townspeople, the situation in McLaughlin appears to be at a crisis level. One woman said her home was broken into four times, items were stolen and she and her son were harassed by the perpetrator.

"I know who he is. I've given his name to the police and filed reports and to the courts. Nothing has been done."

She added there needs to be consequences, that the parents have to take responsibility for their children.

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Therein lies a problem quickly identified. Parents must get involved in the children's activities and take responsibility for their actions. Taken Alive said that most parents won't admit their children did anything wrong.

But, assessing the mood at the first meeting, the blame was put squarely on the shoulders of law enforcement and the judicial system. People complained that police officers let relatives go, that judges wouldn't prosecute perpetrators if they were friends or relatives.

Associate Judge Lola Agard said it wasn't true that she let criminals go free. She said she was one of the first judges to start holding youths in jail for their own safety.

"Quit sending a passive message and let the FBI do it. Get our own lock-down in the community and prosecute in this community. I've been told I'm picking on kids. It doesn't make me happy to sentence kids.

"When I was in school the officers would come into the school and arrest a kid. It deterred other kids from fighting and doing other crimes," she said.

BIA and county and city police agreed the answer was not cross-deputization of law enforcement but to add more police officers.

Tanya White Mountain said her neighbor, a non-Indian, chased young men away from her house when she was gone. "This elderly neighbor chased them out of my house, and tried to catch them.

"She had no problem looking after my house, and me, her house. I will continue to watch out for her. It's a community watch, it worked before.

"Get off your rear ends and stop pointing fingers. Stop the youth from wasting their lives," she said.

McLaughlin mayor and school counselor, John Domdei said the problems with jurisdiction and lack of officers are real, but he added the officers are doing the best they can.

"It bothers me that we can't have a meeting like this where the racial issue doesn't come up. I feel bad about that. It's not addressing this issue. We need the cooperation of the parents in school. I am hopeful we can work together and work things out.

"Our elected officials need to work together and get away from prejudice."

Officials from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Council were present and more town meetings are planned.

Heller said the FBI organized a similar town meeting program on the Yankton Sioux Reservation with great success. He said they meet on a monthly basis and are making progress.

Nobody from Wagner or the Yankton Sioux Tribe was available for comment.

The auditorium in McLaughlin was not completely full, but for a small town, the bleachers were crowded. People said it showed the willingness of everyone to solve their crime problem.

The small town has seen more than its share of murder, rape and assaults. Signs on a wall read "In loving memory" for victims of violent crime. The most recent was Ivy Archambault, age 33, victim of a burglary whose body was found some 200 miles to the west of McLaughlin.

Other names included Lakota Rose Madison, Gloria Reeds, Candy Bullhead, Norman Little Dog Jr., Robert "Boo" Many Horses and Lincoln Hairy Chin Sr. All were victims of murder and some perpetrators were either let go by the court system or the crimes were not solved.

The people of McLaughlin said they have now begun to end the crime spree and violence that plagued the town for so many years. Coming together as a community is the hoped for result conveyed to others by so many at the first meeting, Oct. 27.