Days Of Fear – Gun Violence Ripping Through Pine Ridge

Six deaths related to gun violence and connected to drugs on the Pine Ridge Reservation since July have a community seeking answers.

On Tuesday of the last week of 2016, a year in which five Pine Ridge Indian Reservation youth were victims in separate incidents of gun violence, three shots fired by a tribal police officer on the evening of December 27 ended the life of a sixth youth.

While on patrol in Kyle, South Dakota, an OST Public Safety Officer received a call to investigate a disturbance, and encountered a local man named Julian Bald Eagle. In a press release, South Dakota U.S. Attorney Randolph J. Seiler stated “The officer had a brief conversation with [a] man when, at some point during the encounter, the man drew a firearm on the officer. In turn, the officer drew his own firearm and fired at least three rounds, hitting the individual and resulting in his death. Other officers arrived on scene to find the first officer rendering aid to the male individual.”

According to authorities, Bald Eagle was “in possession of two 9-millimeter caliber firearms, a quantity of methamphetamine, and 200 to 300 rounds of ammunition.” An FBI investigation has been opened and an autopsy of the victim scheduled. Meanwhile, pending results of the investigation, the officer involved is on “paid administrative leave.”

OST Tribal Councilman Stanley Little White Man, whose Medicine Root District is where the shooting occurred, said his information dovetails with the U.S. Attorney’s statement. The councilman, a former police officer, said police work among his people has changed radically since he served as an officer. “Drugs have changed everything. It’s a lot more dangerous.” Little White Man also said his community’s members will await the investigation’s results, but he voiced frustration over how little information the authorities are willing to release.

Briefed on the shooting, Oglala Lakota Tribal Chairman Scott Weston said the incident further revealed there is a “meth epidemic” on the reservation. “I have met with U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler and his office and we plan on working with him to do whatever we can to address this problem, because it damages everybody.” The newly-elected tribal chairman identified improved law enforcement as a top initiative for his administration, including the hiring of more sorely needed officers to help patrol the tribe’s vast reservation.

Bald Eagle’s death is the sixth drug-related shooting fatality on the reservation in as many months. Two weeks earlier, Pine Ridge’s Thomas Joseph Brewer, 26, was arrested in Rapid City on December 16 on a second-degree murder charge for the November 30 shooting death of Shawn Stevens on the Pine Ridge Reservation. For a week before his arrest, Brewer was on the FBI’s most wanted list.

Stevens was the fifth shooting fatality reported on the Pine Ridge reservation since July. The previous four victims, in the order of their deaths, are Te’Ca Clifford, 13; Todd Little Bull, 25; Annie Colhoff, 34; and Vincent Brewer III, 29.

Last week, a source from within federal law enforcement said, “You would be amazed, and incredibly depressed, if you knew just how bad the methamphetamine problem is on Pine Ridge. The gang-related deaths of Vincent Brewer, distant cousin to Thomas, and Annie Colhoff are the tip of the iceberg. It’s everywhere – and it’s growing. The tribe needs a game changer, and they need it real soon.”

Vincent Brewer’s death came on the afternoon of October 16 in the parking lot of the SuAnne Big Crow Boys and Girls Club, a youth center on the reservation. Vincent’s death is not believed to be related to the Stevens shooting. For weeks after the drug-related shooting in the crowded lot east of the town of Pine Ridge, rumors of hit squads rippled across the Oglala Lakota homeland. A tribal council committee that was hearing requests for aid from terrified family members was disbanded when they heard rumors that the alleged killers were on their way to the meeting area.

Federal authorities have charged at least three people in connection with two of the fatal shootings, which are believed to be related. Orlando Guadalupe Jose Ephron Villanueva de Macias, 36, of Colorado was arrested in Denver on November 21. Macias was charged with second-degree murder in the September 29 death of Annie Colhoff. He will be transferred to South Dakota for prosecution. Tyler S. Brewer, distant cousin, 26, of Pine Ridge, also faces a misprision - the deliberate concealment of one’s knowledge of a felony - charge in relation to Colhoff’s murder. He was arrested in Denver in October and pleaded not guilty in a federal court hearing in Rapid City later that month. His arrest came a month after U.S. Attorney Randy Seiler said federal authorities were investigating probable links between the deaths of Colhoff and another Pine Ridge resident.

Last month, a woman was arrested in Denver for allegedly concealing Vincent Brewer III’s shooting from authorities and helping his "assailants" flee the crime scene, a South Dakota court’s records show. Tiffanee Garnier, 30, also identified as "Love" and as Tiffanee Alford, was charged in South Dakota District Court with “misprision of a felony, or failing to report knowledge of a felony to authorities.” Garnier was arrested for having knowledge of … “the fatal shooting of Vincent Brewer III,” according to a grand jury indictment filed November 16 in Denver U.S. District Court and first reported by The Denver Post.

The shooting of Brewer was witnessed by several community members who have stated that there were multiple assassins who carried out the crime.

In early August, mere hours after Todd Little Bull predicted he would be killed on what appeared to be his Social Media page, the young Oglala Lakota was gunned down near his home north of Sharps Corner on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation between 2 and 3 a.m. on August 2. It was Little Bull’s 25th birthday. On a Facebook page, since shut down, Indigenous Life Movement shared screenshots of messages that Little Bull originally posted on his social media site at around 2:07 a.m. that mentioned threats against his life. Soon after his posts, Little Bull was dead. The alleged threats seemed to arise from fear of potential allegations of fraud to be made by Little Bull involving the conducting of tribal religious ceremonies.

Five months later, Oglala Sioux Tribal police have released no information on Little Bull’s death or given any details about the ongoing investigation. Early on, the Federal Bureau of Investigation became lead investigator in the case, assisted by OST Public Safety. No information has been forthcoming since.

Meanwhile, on November 22, James Robert Dowty, 27, of Pine Ridge, was charged in federal court with second-degree murder in the death of 13-year-old Te’Ca Lynn Clifford. Clifford was walking with a friend down Main Street in Pine Ridge around 2 a.m., July 20, 2016. The suspect fled the scene but was taken into custody later that day, said federal authorities. Second-degree murder is punishable by up to life in prison. Dowty is being held in Rapid City’s Pennington County Jail without bail.

At an “emergency” tribal press conference in mid-October about the rising violence, then acting OST Police Chief Mark Mesteth cited critical shortages of officers in the OST Tribal Police Department. At the time, the tribe employed 27 patrol officers and two investigators, with 11 vacancies. Mesteth said “it can take anywhere between six to nine months to fill a single position, [whereas] several years ago, off our population and our crime rate, the BIA said we should have 150 to 170 police officers. We’re not funded for those levels. Being the second-largest tribe in the United States, we need more officers, we need more funding.”