‘Just Another Dead Indian’: Steven Bearcrane-Cole Case Has One More Chance

Courtesy Shane Thomas McMillan/University of Montana School of Journalism’s Native News Project / Cletus and Earline Cole hold a picture of their son Steven Bearcrane-Cole with his daughter, Precious. Cletus and Earline have been fighting for justice for their son since he was murdered in 2005.

Adrian Jawort

Lawsuit claiming FBI indifference to rez crime continues

Steven Bearcrane-Cole was supposed to have the day off from the Leachman Ranch east of Billings, Montana on the Crow Indian Reservation on February 2, 2005. Having gotten paid the day before, he just wanted to pay bills, relax with his family and spend time with his 3-year-old daughter, Precious. He told his family not to answer the phone, but when a call came from an unfamiliar number, he took it. It was from fellow ranch hand Bobby Holcomb, who asked Steven Bearcrane-Cole if he could help bring in the horses.

“He couldn’t say no, not when it came to animals,” said his father, Cletus Cole, Gros Ventre. He said that his 23-year-old son had a cowboy’s work ethic, that his employers liked his patience with breaking horses, and that his skills were in high demand.

“He loved that life—moving horses, working bulls—he loved that freedom,” his father said. “He was out there working every day, including weekends.”

Later that evening, around 6:30, ranch foreman Roger Reitman would see Holcomb, alone, returning with the truck hauling the horse trailer. Steven Bearcrane-Cole would show up later, riding bareback on a horse to the bunkhouse trailer where Holcomb was staying.

Shortly after Bearcrane-Cole entered the building, Reitman said, he heard a gunshot. Reitman went to the building to investigate and found Bearcrane-Cole dead on the floor. He’d been shot between the eyes in a death the coroner would rule a homicide.

Yellowstone County sheriff’s deputies showed up, but because the shooting happened on the Crow Indian Reservation, the FBI and eventually the Bureau of Indian Affairs police were brought in. All major crimes on the reservation fall under federal jurisdiction.

Steven Bearcrane-Cole was a tribal member and Holcomb is white. As so often happens when Native Americans deal with the violent death of a loved one on the reservation, Bearcrane-Cole’s family would learn the wheels of justice turn slowly—if it all—when it comes to FBI involvement regarding Indian reservation crime.

It would take eight months for Bearcrane-Cole’s family to hear what they considered bad news regarding his case: Holcomb wasn’t going to be charged with any crime. His self-defense story would be accepted as the official account.

Cletus and Earline Cole have said despite compelling evidence their son was murdered, his death was never investigated properly by federal agents in charge of dealing with serious crimes on the reservation.

In 2009, they filed a lawsuit against the FBI alleging that: “the FBI has a practice of knowingly providing less law enforcement services to Native Americans than non-Native Americans.” After a series of back-and-forth court cases and appeals that went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, the Coles will get one last chance for their appeal to be heard in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle, on February 8.

The FBI said Holcomb shot Bearcrane-Cole after he attacked Holcomb with a knife. However, the knife in question was not only found to be sheathed—it was found underneath an extension cord Steven Bearcrane-Cole fell on. Lawyers representing Bearcrane-Cole’s family would later refer to it as “the magic knife.”

Although the only witness was Holcomb, a major hole against his self-defense claim came from Reitman, who called authorities to report the shooting. He said there was no knife on Steven Bearcrane-Cole when he initially went to the bunkhouse, but when he returned, it was there.

Fellow ranch employee Cassandra Leachman made a sworn affidavit on Reitman’s behalf regarding his observations, which was given to the U.S. attorney and the FBI. She also said she witnessed Holcomb bragging about how he was a sniper and could kill someone and make it look like an accident at a Christmas party.

“We gave that affidavit to them and they never even bothered contacting us back,” Earline Cole said.

After the FBI finally told the family it wouldn’t be taking the case to court, the family began its own investigation. It hired a private investigator to dig up other evidence and witness statements against Holcomb, turning up, among other things, the statement he’d made about being a sniper.

“We were told to gather more information and we did,” lawyer Jean Bearcrane, Earline Cole’s sister, told ICMN in 2011. “They still did nothing. How many non-Indian families have to do their own investigations and plead with the FBI to do its job?”

The Coles said it was difficult to obtain all the documents related to the case, especially files from the FBI. “They did not want to give those files up,” Earline Cole said.

Among things they had to ask about were FBI statements contradicting the coroner’s report regarding the difference in blood spatter, which refers to the distinct marks blood makes on objects based on approximately how far away the gunman was when the weapon was fired. Holcomb claimed Bearcrane-Cole was towering over him with a knife, but the blood spatter indicated he was shot from further away than what Holcomb, and the FBI claimed.

They also found out that despite their nine-month wait to hear whether Holcomb would be prosecuted, the FBI had already decided against prosecuting the case within a month of their son’s death. In fact, FBI investigators hadn’t even taken initial photographs of the scene.

The lawsuit, which alleges the FBI violated their Fifth Amendment due-process rights, said Matthew Oravec, the special agent in charge of investigating both reservation deaths, refused to do anything but the “most cursory investigation despite compelling facts” pointing toward foul play.

The lawsuit also claimed racial discrimination against Native Americans. According to a statement from Denver lawyer Patricia Bangert, a veteran civil rights attorney representing the Coles, Oravec allegedly said about Steven’s death, “It’s just another dead Indian.”

Besides being negligent in investigating Bearcrane-Cole’s case, the lawsuit said, the FBI “consistently closed cases involving Indian victims without adequate investigation, especially sexual and other assaults involving Indian children and women.”

A federal court ruling in 2010 removed several FBI agents and U.S. attorneys as defendants in the case, leaving Oravec as the sole defendant. In January 2012, the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals confirmed that the lawsuit could proceed against Oravec. His lawyers would claim he was “entitled to qualified immunity,” and therefore exempt from civil liability, and the FBI sought to have the case thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court. But in 2013 the court ruled against them and said the lawsuit could proceed.

In 2014, the case came back to the U.S. District Court in Billings, before Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby, who ruled mostly in favor in Oravec.

The appeal of that case, Earline Cole v. Matthew Oravec will be heard on February 8 in Seattle. Bangert said in her statement about the appeal that: “Government attorneys argue that Steven Bearcrane lost all of his rights—even to have a decent investigation of his death—when he was killed. … They argue that Steven’s family has no legal right to complain.”

In a larger sense, she said, the “case will decide whether Native Americans have a right to the same law enforcement services that non-Indians get, or whether they will continue to be forced to live in unsafe communities ignored or neglected by federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI.”

The official summary of the appeal says, “Earline and Cletus Cole and minor child, P.B., appeal the summary judgment in their action alleging that the FBI has a practice of knowingly providing less law enforcement services to Native Americans than non-Native Americans.”

“The government has all the money and lawyers they want to fight against us on behalf of the FBI—we don’t,” Cletus Cole said. On several occasions, he said, they had to sell some of their cows to pay for legal filings and travel expenses.

“They’re just trying so hard to fight it because they know they did wrong, and now they’re trying to keep it covered,” Earline Cole added. “But if they had just done their job, we wouldn’t even be in this situation.”

Although occasional glints of recollected pain seep through their eyes when speaking of their son, the Coles speak with a quiet, confident passion and humility concerning the circumstances of his death.

“It’s been a long road, it really has, and we’ve been up against a lot,” Earline Cole said. “When we started this, many people told us, ‘You can’t do it. You can’t sue the government like that!’ But you know what? Through everything that’s happened, God has been with us, and when one door has been shut, God would open another.”

People they knew, who had experienced the unimaginable pain of losing young sons and daughters, told them while they were initially heartbroken or angry, they had learned to accept that nothing would be done so they just let it go.

The Coles say they don’t want it to have to be that way.

“What we went through, and what other families have been through, we just hope what happens out of this court case is that no other families will have to suffer like that, and they would at least get the justice that they deserve,” Earline Cole said. “Everybody is entitled to it.”

The FBI was contacted for comment, but did not respond by press time.