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Pressures applied to police Nebraska liquor violations

LINCOLN, Neb. - An advocacy group characterized as "extremist" appeared before the Nebraska State Liquor Control Commission with a plea for help to stop sale of alcohol from Nebraska liquor stores to sites across the border on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

But the plea may have fallen on deaf ears Dec.14 as Nebraska officials told them there was little the state could do to halt the activity.

Representatives of Nebraskans for Peace, one of the nation 's oldest peace and justice organizations, presented photographs and told the commission about the continual violation of the state's liquor laws on the establishments near the border in Whiteclay.

Byron Peterson testified that the organization's efforts, including a protest outside the meeting, were an effort to encourage the board that oversees liquor licenses to step up enforcement of the law. They asked the board to engage in a dialogue with other jurisdictions, including tribal governments, to halt liquor being transported across state lines onto reservation where its sale is prohibited.

Peterson said state officials have ignored problems surrounding beer sales in Whiteclay. Four stores in the town of 22 people on the Nebraska-South Dakota border sell millions of cans of beer each year to residents of the nearby reservation.

Alcohol is banned on the reservation where mortality rates are among the nation's highest, but bootleggers - already identified by tribal law enforcement officials - continue to buy, transport and sell to reservation residents, he said.

"There were no people of color present which is a positive thing in the sense it conveyed it isn't just Indians concerned about this, it is also white people who are concerned about this as well," said Tim Rinne, who heads the group.

"There is no question the tribe has done as much as it can right now to focus attention on this. The state of Nebraska has basically blown them off. Part of the reason they can blow them off is they are South Dakotans," he said.

However, the organization's involvement is making it an issue of Nebraskans seeking a fair application of enforcement for holders of liquor permits and a reduction in violations.

Peterson said an understaffed and underfunded highway patrol is doing what it can. Even with an officer in the region, few cases are brought against vendors selling to individuals crossing state lines.

Rinne said his organization, supported by private donations and which doesn't retain a full-time attorney, is serious about the issue and is willing to carry the concern to the state Legislature, suggesting if the commission fails to step up enforcement, it may be penalized.

"We're going to be back at every liquor commission meeting, whether we're invited or not. If this means we have to go to the Legislature to lobby to suspend their funding, we'll do it," Rinne said.

Meanwhile, Peterson said civic leaders in the small town should take an active role in bettering the community and at the commission meetings.

"The residents of Whiteclay would seem to have a great interest in resurrecting the community and a responsible community member should have been the first in line," he said.

"I think there is a lot of information out there, but nobody moves on it. Nebraska is making a lot of money off this."

For Peterson, who lives not far from Whiteclay and the reservation, it has become a personal campaign.

"I'm going to force the governor, highway patrol and liquor commission to explain why they haven't enforced the law on this.

"I've had wonderful cooperation from the staff at Pine Ridge. They have identified the number of bootleggers, purchase patterns and the amounts along with illegal sales," he said.

"I believe if we have laws on the books that demand certain performance of liquor dealers, it better be in effect in here.

"I want you to know that I have been pandered every time I have been there," he said while presenting the commission with photographs he took of people drinking beer on the town's streets.

"I have routinely seen three to four people passed out on the streets. I have seen fights attempted and people injured from fights," he said, suggesting the laws concerning the environment surrounding liquor establishments are not being enforced either.

Nebraskans for Peace has asked the commission to consider Whiteclay in light of a section of a liquor law provision dealing with "illegal activities." The law states there is a relationship between alcohol consumption and crimes such as drug sales, prostitution, assaults, homicides, gambling and vandalism within or near a licensed business. State law allows suspension or revocation of a liquor license if alcohol-related crimes are routinely committed on or near the premises of an establishment.

The law also says if the commission learns license holders have engaged in such crimes or allowed them to be committed, the license can be suspended or revoked.

"If the sort of stuff that is regularly going on in Whiteclay happened around a liquor store in any other city in the state, it would cost that store its liquor license," Rinne said.

He added he finds it curious that Whiteclay stores sell only off-sale beer, meaning it cannot be consumed on the premises.

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"Twenty-two people don't need four liquor establishments to keep beer in their refrigerators," Rinne said. "We're baffled."

Nine American Indians, including activist Russell Means, were arrested in July 1999 as hundreds of tribal members marched from the reservation to Whiteclay to protest the beer sales. Although the protests continued for several months, state officials, including Gov. Mike Johanns, said they could do nothing to stop a licensed establishment from selling beer.

Commission Chairman Dick Coyne said any complaints of merit would be forwarded to the State Patrol and made no further comment before continuing the meeting with other hearings.

Chris Peterson, a spokesman for Johanns, said Nebraskans for Peace is "an extreme organization."

"But if they bring cases forward, then the governor believes those charges need to be seriously reviewed. The governor has every expectation to believe the liquor commission would do that, making sure the laws of Nebraska are being obeyed," he said.

The patrol set up a temporary office in Whiteclay in 1999 after the protest marches and asked the public to bring forward any complaints about possible crimes.

"No one showed up," Peterson said.

Commission records show the present holders of liquor licenses for the four Whiteclay stores have had five liquor law violations since 1992.

The most recent was in November 1999, when H&M Mini Store was cited for selling beer to a man with a blood-alcohol level of .292, nearly three times the legal limit.

Peterson said there are more than 63 bootlegging operations on the Pine Ridge, each routinely buying large amounts of beer in Nebraska for resale on the reservation. Peterson said that amounts to as much as 4 million containers being sold per year.

"What makes this practice particularly troubling for our state is that while the information seemingly needed to stop this illegal activity is readily available, citations are not being given."

The failure to police liquor violations is taking its toll in terms of alcohol-related crimes and the loss of human life, he said.

Reservation health officials told Peterson nine people died in alcohol-related vehicle accidents in the past two years and 413 others suffered injuries that required hospitalization.

On June 8, 1999, Pine Ridge residents Wilson Black Elk Jr. and Ronald Hard Heart were found murdered, just north of Whiteclay in South Dakota. Their unsolved deaths sparked marches to the town and renewed calls by tribal members to close the beer stores.

Peterson asked the commission to call a special meeting of state agencies, law enforcement and tribal leaders to address the situation. He also asked the commission for an unspecified amount of money to pay for the tribe's participation.

Commission Chairman Dick Coyne of Omaha thanked Peterson and ordered the information to be given to the Nebraska State Patrol. He didn't address the request for a meeting or funds.

At least one owner of a Whiteclay establishment denies claims it is knowingly selling to bootleggers or violating other sections of the law.

"There isn't anybody who has come into my bar and bought 50 cases," Don Schwarting, owner of the Arrowhead Inn, told a reporter.

Nebraska State Patrol spokeswoman Terri Teuber said bootlegging cases are difficult, time-consuming to prove and to investigators who must prove they knew they were selling to someone who intended to resell the alcohol.

Schwarting said both the patrol and the Sheridan County sheriff's office make routine visits to Whiteclay. He guessed per capita, Whiteclay has a higher law enforcement presence than any other city in Nebraska.

Recently his business was cited for selling to an intoxicated person and for allowing an open container inside the off-sale establishment. Schwarting paid about $3,000 in fines.

He said he is tired of outsiders and the news media portraying Whiteclay in a negative light and characterizing his customers as helpless alcoholics. He called it nothing more than unwanted meddling by outsiders who don't understand Whiteclay.

Peterson said the regular visits by patrol amount to a spin through town and if the patrolman doesn't see any potential violators, he leaves to deal with other law enforcement issues.

Rinne said only one patrolman is assigned specifically to police liquor violations in the Nebraska panhandle which stretches for miles.

The group plans to form to bring tribal leaders to the table and begin looking at other border towns near the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation including Crookston and Kilgore, Peterson said.