Call Thursday the day the music died for Whiteclay’s four beer store owners. For now. After the Nebraska State Liquor Commission’s stunning unanimous decision to deny renewal of licenses to the Whiteclay businesses in Lincoln last week, the legal fur has flown fast and furious.
Beginning Thursday morning, 400 miles east of Whiteclay, Lancaster County District Court Judge Andrew Jacobsen ruled the Liquor Commission acted beyond their scope when they denied renewal of the licenses on April 19. Mere hours later, Nebraska’s Attorney General’s Office challenged Jacobsen’s order citing a law that suspends lower court rulings for up to a half year pending appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court. The state's appeal supersedes the Judge's earlier decision, effectively reverting current standing to last week's bombshell decision.
With Nebraska’s state offices closed for the weekend, starting with Arbor Day today, Jumping Eagle Inn, State Line Liquor, Arrowhead Inn and D&S Pioneer Service will be forced to close at midnight on Sunday. That closure could be permanent. Their attorney, Andrew Snyder, has advised his clients not to sell alcohol after their licenses expire midnight Sunday. Snyder said he will file an appeal on Monday.
Snyder set Thursday’s legal contretemps in motion when he requested a delay to enforcement of the commission's decision that would keep the four beer stores open upon further appeal. Instead, Judge Jacobsen blew past that request by ruling the commission's action "void on its face." He quickly ordered the Liquor Commission to reinstate the licenses to keep the beer stores open.
The judge confined himself to ruling on the Liquor Commission’s lack of legal grounds for refusing to renew the licenses. The commissioners had chiefly cited a woeful lack of adequate law enforcement in Whiteclay, a requirement for a license. But the Lancaster County judge ruled that such a standard can only be applied to new licenses, not existing ones. Jacobsen pointed to a 1996 case when the Grand Island Latin Club received a favorable ruling from the Nebraska Supreme Court. The court said non-renewal of a liquor license can only occur when the license holder has been convicted of a crime.
As might be expected, the beer store owners sent up balloons, while those who just a week ago had shared hugs and kisses in the Liquor Commission hearing room in Lincoln were instantly dismayed and angry. But it was not to last for long. Upon news of the States Attorney’s appeal and its automatic six-months ramifications for the booze merchants – there was no joy in Mudville. Again, for now.
Those who have long fought against alcohol sales in Whiteclay, men like Bruce Bonfleur of Whiteclay and Bryan Brewer of Pine Ridge, are keeping their powder dry. “It’s been a bit topsy-turvy for celebrations. I am sure that this will all work out for the good, in the end,” said Bonfleur. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”
All four beer stores face further simmering legal trouble in the form of allegations by the Attorney General of selling to bootleggers operating on the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. A hearing on this and other potential charges looms ahead, the outcome of which, could spell the permanent end of alcohol sales in Whiteclay, a tiny, unincorporated town of eight residents perched right on the border of the Oglala Lakota’s current homeland.
The battle over alcohol sales, and the social pathologies apparent on Whiteclay’s streets, have caused heartache and controversy for years. After several large street protests and demonstrations and appeals to the state over the years, the Liquor Commission decided to require the four beer stores to reapply for their licenses last November. The commission’s stated justification, after several decades of automatic renewals, was concerns about law enforcement after a Sheridan County Commissioner told the Liquor Commission that Sheridan County "absolutely" lacked the ability to provide a minimum of public safety for Whiteclay.
At that same April 6 hearing in Lincoln, Tate win Means, then Attorney General for the Oglala Sioux tribe, told liquor commissioners that criminal acts precipitated by beer sales in Whiteclay occur daily on Pine Ridge Reservation, and that Sheridan County does next to nothing to help. “They take the money, we keep the problems,” said someone in attendance.
As the founder of Lakota Hope Ministry in Whiteclay, Nebraska, Bruce Bonfleur has long believed in the impossible. Call it an article of faith, he says. “About 20 years ago I received a call by God to come to the Pine Ridge Reservation to help restore God’s people, the Lakota. This turn of events is what many of us have been praying for.”
The day of the commission’s ruling, TheLincoln Journal Star reported: “Commissioner Bruce Bailey of Lincoln, his voice shaking, read a list of reasons he felt gave the commission authority to close the stores: the frequency of ambulance calls to Whiteclay and the stores themselves, ‘very moving’ stories of debauchery and violence on the streets in Whiteclay, and a unanimous resolution by the Oglala Lakota Tribe's executive committee that the beer stores should be closed.”
TheOmaha World-Herald reported that “Bruce and Marsha BonFleur and Abram Newman of Lakota Hope told commissioners that they regularly encountered street people who had been assaulted, including women who had been sexually assaulted. Newman said he doesn’t call 911 because it won’t do any good.”
Four unsolved murders in Whiteclay and testimony about sexual assaults of young girls in Whiteclay was a “driving force” behind the decision, Bailey said.
Janice Wiebusch of Kearny, the third commissioner, said that many of the crimes would not have occurred in Whiteclay with adequate law enforcement patrolling. One of the conditions in issuing a liquor license in a community or neighborhood in Nebraska is having adequate law enforcement coverage.
Whiteclay’s four liquor stores, Arrowhead Inn, Jumping Eagle Inn, D&S Pioneer Service and State Line Liquor are restricted to selling only beer and malt beverages.
Besides Snyder’s expected appeal on Monday, the liquor commission will be scheduling a hearing in June involving, “22 alleged violations of liquor statutes by the Whiteclay beer stores, including selling to bootleggers. Those could also result in the stores losing their licenses,” reports the World-Herald.
Since the commission’s ruling, the Nebraska Legislature has approved a new task force to address public health issues surrounding Whiteclay according to the Journal Star. Already, the state has razed two abandoned buildings in Whiteclay that functioned as flop houses. Further work is being done to demolish old foundations where buildings once stood. Hoping to capitalize on the momentum generated by the Liquor Commission’s decision, Bonfleur and other community members have founded Whiteclay Redevelopment Organization. Their desire is to partner with Oglala Lakota tribal members to bring needed businesses to the area.
Roughly estimated, Whiteclay sells 3.5 million cans of beer a year. Beer store owners contend their businesses are legal and that law enforcement is better than it used to be, though the nearest Nebraska law enforcement remains 22 miles away and ambulances from Pine Ridge Reservation respond to nearly 160 potential emergencies in or near Whiteclay annually.
The World-Herald reports, that the last time the commission sought to deny a Whiteclay liquor license was in 2004 and the appeal took 20 months. That denial stemmed from a denial of license for the Arrowhead Inn following evidence stating the store’s owner was unqualified to hold a license. The denial was eventually overturned by the State Supreme Court.