Police implicated in Lake Andes racial incident Hearing 'N' word is like a thermostat when it bl

LAKE ANDES, S.D. - June 20 started out as any other day for Ricky Powells and his then-fiancee, Yankton Sioux tribal member Peggy Tronvold.

Powells was sitting outside the house on Main Street in this quiet community of fewer than 900 people, smoking a cigarette. More than 50 percent Native American, Lake Andes is in many ways a typical South Dakota small town where Indian and non-Indian children live side by side, grow up together, and many form lifetime friendships.

Powells, an African American former preschool teacher, is unable to work because of a head injury. He tends the children and the home he and Peggy share. He has a quite a reputation as a cook and enjoys helping others.

This particular day, he noticed the same police cruiser kept going by. After several trips, it started to bug him, especially when he saw the officer staring at him. He began noting each time the officer drove by on a handy envelope - 15 times between 8:40 a.m. and 1:30.

By 1:35, Powells says he was wondering what was going on. He stood up and walked to the street and flagged down the car. Officer Jerry Nelson pulled over.

The former guard at the Springfield (S.D.) State Prison was relatively new to the force at that time.

Powells said he asked, "Man, why are you going by here so much? Why are you harassing me?" He said the officer told him, "You niggers shouldn't be here any way."

"Did you call me a nigger?" Powells asked. He said the officer denied it.

Powells said when he started back to his chair, the officer stopped the car, got out and started walking toward Powells who went in the house and locked the door. The officer returned to his vehicle and left.

The following morning Powells and Peggy filed a written complaint with Robin Smith, the city finance officer. They heard nothing. More than two weeks later they called Chief of Police R. G. Svatos who told them he knew nothing about it.

"This is an extremely serious charge. A charge of racism. Either the help is extremely incompetent or it was reported and nothing was done about it, so it's a cover-up," said Peggy's boss, Charon Asetoyer, executive director of the Native American Women's Health Education Resource Center.

Ricky and Peggy celebrated their two-day marriage July 2 by lighting firecrackers in their yard with the children. They went to bed about midnight.

Powells awakened early July 3 and went outside about 5 a.m. to have a cigarette. He was shocked when he saw, in large black letters, the words, "Go home nigger."

"I almost cried. I was really, really mad," Powells said. He said he stared for a minute and then ran inside to awaken Peggy.

"I just started crying. It seemed so unreal. This isn't something that happens these days," Peggy said.

She called the police station only to be told the only officer on duty was the one involved in the June 20 incident; she'd have to wait until the 7 a.m. shift change before someone else would be available.

Peggy called Asetoyer who came over and took photographs.

After 7, Officer Mike Atwood responded and filled out a report. "The officer didn't even talk to Ricky," Peggy said, so she did most of the talking.

She explained that neighbors across the street were up when the Powells went to bed and might have seen something. Peggy said they got an impression the officer was not particularly interested in their complaint.

Atwood told them he didn't have a camera in his car so he couldn't take pictures. She signed the statement and the officer left.

In a written statement, neighbor Chris Weddell said that at about 2:30 a.m. he noticed a police cruiser parked in the alley behind the Powells house, lights off. Weddell identified Officer Jerry Nelson as the driver.

Neighbors said they were never contacted and questioned about what they might have seen that night.

"A hate crime as serious as this needs to be fully investigated so that every member of this community can live in safety and dignity. We are not in the Deep South in the 1960s," said Julie Weddell, in-house attorney for the Yankton Sioux Tribe.

Jennifer Ring, executive director of the ACLU of the Dakotas agreed. "The failure to investigate here is the kind of thing one would have expected to see in the southern United States in the 1960s, not the Midwest in the year 2000.

"This once again shows the need for the state to act and act affirmatively to convince Native Americans in South Dakota that they are protected by the law. This just convinces people that racism is alive and well."

City Attorney Tim Whalan said, "We are still looking into the matter. A number of different people have been interviewed and the investigation will continue." Regardless of who painted the words, he said, "I think it's offensive, improper, and abhorrent in every respect ... and has no place in our society."

"I've never in my life been harassed like this. I'm from Chicago, the suburbs, people don't treat people like that where I'm from," Powells said.

Ricky and Peggy are afraid as well. His family is urging him to leave South Dakota, fearing for his safety.

"Right now I've got a lot of fear," Powells said. "This is a threat towards my whole family. My 13-year-old son saw it and it shook him up."

"The kids feel the tension, too, they're half black. How do you think it made them feel?" Peggy asked.

"And it's still happening. Last Wednesday, July 6, we were sitting here celebrating our wedding with our new family. We were outside and this city cop kept riding by. It made everybody nervous. It was a nice family celebration until then. They left because they felt uncomfortable," Powells said.

On July 10, 2000, when Peggy and Ricky got a copy of the police report, it was not the one they had signed and the information was inaccurate. The complaint report said, "She did not know who might have done the vandalism, but suspects neighbors."

Peggy and Ricky Powells attended Lake Andes City Council meeting that day. Since their legal counsel had an emergency, they decided to postpone discussion until she could be present. She did tell the council, "There were things in that statement that were put into my mouth that I did not say and we will address that at our next meeting." The City Council agreed to discuss the matter at their next meeting, August 7.

The police cruisers are still a presence in the neighborhood.

Asetoyer said, "I was at the Powells' last night (July 11) and observed Nelson driving by continually. I pulled out a piece of paper and made it obvious that I was writing it down and looking at my watch. I think what we have here is a situation of harassment."

"I question his continuous over-zealousness in patrolling the Powells' residence and feel that it is more than a conscientious officer attempting to protect and serve. It's more along the lines of police harassment."

"It feels like a thermostat when it blows, hearing the 'N' word," Powells said.

The FBI sent agents to interview the Powells.

Asked about fear of possible retaliation by law enforcement or others in the community, U.S. Attorney for South Dakota Ted McBride said, "If there is an attempt to prevent anyone from bringing information to the federal government, that in and of itself is a federal offense."

But for Powells: "I don't go anywhere except to get the mail, to visit Peggy at work, to the gas station and to Peggy's family's house. I don't cause any trouble. I'm not out cruising, bothering people. ... It feels bad when a man can't water his lawn and listen to some blues in peace."