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Seeking Justice: Unable to Get Son's Murder Case Reopened, Native Family Sues FBI

On February 2, 2005, after the two men had spent a long day working on the range together, Bob Holcomb shot Steven Bearcrane-Cole between the eyes, killing him. They were both ranch hands on the Leachman Cattle Co., near the Crow Reservation in Montana, and Holcomb says he shot a drunk and enraged Bearcrane-Cole after being threatened with a knife. Holcomb was never arrested, and the FBI listed the shooting as self-defense. There were no witnesses, but the physical evidence has some intriguing questions and mysteries. For example, why was the knife found under Bearcrane-Cole’s body still in its sheath?

Since that horrific day, Steven’s parents, Earline and Cletus Cole, and Crow Tribe members have been fighting to prove that their son was murdered, and that the FBI failed to conduct a proper investigation. Their struggle is chronicled in “Taking Their Own Path” by Charles Pulliam, originally posted on the University of Montana’s journalism school website in 2009.

Since then, new evidence has emerged. In an affidavit submitted last winter, Kassandra Leachman, who worked at the ranch at the time of the shooting, claims that at a Christmas party just a month or so before Steven Bearcrane-Cole was shot, “Holcomb was bragging about how he was a sniper and how he could kill a person and make it look like he had done so in self-defense.” She also states that Bearcrane-Cole did not seem impaired on the day of the attack and that the ranch foreman, Rodger Reitman, told her he noticed the knife had been planted underneath Bearcrane’s body after it was discovered.

Despite this new evidence, the Coles were unable to get the FBI or the U.S. Attorney’s Office to reopen their son’s case. “We were told to gather more information and we did,” says Jean Bearcrane, Earline’s sister and attorney. “They still did nothing. How many non-Indian families have to do their own investigations and plead with the FBI to do its job?”

Finally, on August 4, 2011, the Coles appeared in Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to press their complaints against investigators who they allege discriminated against their son because of his American Indian heritage and, therefore, conducted a poor investigation. “We just want the government officials to do their jobs,” says Earline. “Even if they don’t like minorities, they should still offer them the same services in a non-discriminatory manner.” Numerous Crow Tribe members came to the Seattle courthouse that day to show their support for the Cole family, “The judge seemed very pleased to see so much concern coming from the community,” says Patricia Bangert, the Coles’ other attorney. She says that although the Coles are very hopeful that they will finally get an “impartial, third party to look at the case,” it could take up to six months for the Ninth Circuit to hand down an opinion.

For now, the Coles still stand strong. “Getting justice is not just important for us,” Earline says. “There are Indian families on reservations all over the nation that were treated the same way, if not worse, by the FBI but they just accepted it and gave up. We won’t give up. We won’t stop.”
Small homes interrupt the matte brown horizon at the northwest edge of the Crow Reservation, speckled dots and dashes amid the crisp spring snow. The vast expanse of rolling hills defines this raw, wide-open country, where family becomes more than just blood relations; they’re best friends, confidants, people you can count on.

A Crow family whose home is nestled in those hills was ripped apart on February 2, 2005, when Steven Bearcrane-Cole was shot and killed by a co-worker. As Earline and Cletus Cole tried to cope with the shock and grief of their son’s death, they assured their four remaining children that the law would find justice for Steven. But in the seven years since 23-year-old Bearcrane-Cole died, the Coles say they’ve learned that they couldn’t count on the FBI or federal attorneys. Instead, they are pursuing the justice they insist was denied their son.

Recently the Coles and another Crow Indian family filed a lawsuit in federal district court in Billings, Montana, claiming that the FBI has a pattern of failing to adequately investigate crimes against Indians. To fund the fight, the Coles and their extended family have been selling off their cattle, one head at a time. “We’d sell a cow here, one there,” Earline Cole says. She says the family sells a heifer each time a bill comes from their Denver-based attorneys or each time their legal team needs to fly to Billings for hearings. “We’re wealthy in a sense of family,” explains her husband, Cletus Cole. “Grandpa’s herd is down from selling though,” he adds, referring to his father-in-law, Earl Bearcrane.

Earline spends most of her days and restless nights doing legwork for the case to help minimize legal fees. She receives packets of information needed for the case and, once she gathers it, reports back her findings. She has become fluent in legal terms and knows every detail of her son’s case. Earline and Cletus Cole still suffer daily from their loss. Their voices occasionally quiver when they speak of their son and they struggle to hold back tears.

Earline has high cheekbones, long dark hair and brown eyes that soften and sharpen as she talks about her s­econd-oldest son. In fitted jeans, a pink top with floral embroidery and a green fleece vest, she fits comfortably in both the sweeping landscape of their valley and the angular streets of Billings, some 20 miles west. Cletus is the quintessential Indian cowboy. A belt with a beaded buckle secures dark denim jeans around his thin waist. Tucked into his jeans is a plaid shirt with pearl buttons that snap shut. A black cowboy hat shades his eyes, which often look tired. Sitting around the big table in the dining room at her parents’ house, Earline looks toward her husband from behind a stack of legal documents. “We aren’t the kind of people to talk bad about others,” she says, “but we just want justice for Steven.”

Steven Bearcrane–Cole was shot by Bobby Gene Holcomb at the Leachman Cattle Co. ranch, where both men worked as ranch hands. The shooting happened on one of Bearcrane-Cole’s days off. His girlfriend, Melissa Costas, had dropped him off at the ranch after Holcomb called to ask him to help out for a few hours. After working in a field several miles from the barn and stock pens, the two men, who had been drinking, reportedly got into a dispute over a horse. Holcomb drove back to the barn in a truck pulling a horse trailer, leaving Bearcrane-Cole in the field. Ranch foreman Rodger Reitman reported that B­earcrane-Cole rode up bareback on a horse about a half-hour later and headed for the dingy white and yellow trailer that served as a bunkhouse. Holcomb later told authorities that Bearcrane-Cole kicked in the door to the trailer and attacked him with a knife. Holcomb said he grabbed his .22 caliber pistol and, fearing for his life, shot Bearcrane-Cole between the eyes.

But Patricia Bangert, an attorney for the Coles, says evidence contradicts Holcomb’s claim. Crime scene photos show Bearcrane-Cole lying on his back, she says, and the knife Holcomb claims Bearcrane-Cole attacked him with was not only sheathed, but beneath his body and under an electrical cord lying on the floor. “That’s the magic knife that went from Steven’s hand, into a sheath, underneath a cord and underneath his body,” Bangert says. “It doesn’t make sense.”

A civil rights attorney, Bangert has taught as a visiting professor at several Colorado law schools and was director of legal policy for the Colorado

 From his kitchen window, Cletus can see his son’s grave.

From his kitchen window, Cletus can see his son’s grave.

attorney general. She says she took on the case, despite the fact that she knew it would be controversial because it names several FBI agents and U.S. attorneys as defendants. [In 2010, a district court judge threw out the cases against all defendants except FBI special agent Matthew Oravec. The family appealed, and the Ninth Circuit heard the case in August 2011; no ruling had been issued as of press date.] Bangert says FBI agents “refused to do anything but the most cursory investigation” into the circumstances of Bearcrane-Cole’s death.

The FBI agents’ findings were referred to the South Dakota U.S. attorney’s office, which declined to file charges. The Montana U.S. attorney’s office had a conflict of interest in the case because a relative of the Cole family was employed there. The lawsuit also states that the South Dakota U.S. attorney’s office “has a pattern and practice of refusing prosecutions in cases in which the victims of those crimes are Native Americans.”

The Coles are joined in the lawsuit by another Crow family that feels the FBI has failed them. Veronica Springfield’s husband, Robert “Bugsy” Springfield, 48, disappeared on September 19, 2004, on a bow-hunting trip with his 13-year-old son, Colton, in the Bighorn Mountains, an area he grew up exploring. Searchers used a grid system to comb the area for any sign of Springfield, while a volunteer helicopter pilot used an infrared sensor but also came up with no results. At one point more than 200 volunteers and about two-dozen trained dogs scoured a five-square-mile area. They came back during the spring and still found nothing. Springfield’s remains were found by hunters in October 2005, in an area the family says was 50 yards from where they had camped during the search. They insist searchers had looked at the exact spot where the body was found.

This mural by Greg Harlin shows the Mississippian town of Toqua.

The Coles are raising Precious, now 10.

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The family wonders if Springfield, an ex-Marine and Special Forces member, had been murdered and his body disposed of later. “If he was actually up there in that area, to put it bluntly, we would have smelled something,” Veronica Springfield says. “The animals would have been there. The birds would have been there.”

But what happened next is almost as upsetting as knowing he was dead.

The FBI sent the remains to Quantico, Virginia, for DNA testing and identification. It took two years for the FBI to return the body to the family so that they could bury the remains. And over those two years the family alleges that the FBI never made contact with the family. “We went to hell,” Springfield’s sister Myra Gros Ventre says of their ordeal. They hope that in defending the lawsuit the federal government will at least have to answer for their actions. “At this point in time, it’s not going to bring Bugsy back, but hopefully something good comes out of our suit,” she says.

Springfield’s death certificate was released to the family on November 16, 2007. The cause of death was listed as undetermined. Several items in his wallet, including his ID and Social Security card, were returned to the family with no obvious signs of weathering or water damage, which the family believes means they weren’t exposed to the elements for any lengthy period.

Bangert says the two cases reflect a pattern in federal law enforcement of treating American Indian victims as unimportant. The lawsuit states that both FBI agents Oravec and Ernest Weyand “consistently closed cases involving Indian victims without adequate investigation.” “We live in a society where we expect the government, and we have the right to expect the government, to do something when we are the victims of crime,” Bangert says. “Even though it just concerns three plaintiffs, I think it’s a major, major case.”

Eric Barnhart, the current Billings senior supervising resident FBI agent, wasn’t serving in Montana at the time of the initial investigations. But he is

named in the suit because he now heads the Billings field office. Barnhart says his office isn’t keeping any secrets from the families. He says many of the details the FBI does withhold involve information necessary for a complete and fair investigation, as well as information that cannot be revealed for privacy reasons. “We’re not not giving out information because we have something to hide,” Barnhart says. “I understand there is frustration on the part of the victims, but that doesn’t mean we can tell them anything they want.”

Barnhart says the FBI dedicates all available resources to investigating homicides. And former Montana U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer says the federal government has come a long way in its investigations and prosecutions of felonies in Indian country. “We have a lot of good people on the ground,” Mercer says.

The Coles feel they’ve been treated with contempt almost from the moment they learned their son had been shot. Earline and her other sons were running errands in Billings when they saw the first responders head out Highway 87. On the way home she found out her son was at the Leachman ranch. When they arrived at the scene at about 6:30 p.m., Earline was met by the foreman, Reitman. “?‘Bob shot Steve,’?” Earline says Reitman told her. “The second he said that, what I thought, since nobody was rushing around was, Maybe he got nicked, maybe on the leg, nothing serious.”

She walked toward three Yellowstone County sheriff’s deputies standing near the trailer. “I said, ‘I’m Steve’s mother,’ and they didn’t even answer me. They ignored me,” she says. “I asked a second time, and they still ignored me. So the third time, I kind of yelled and said, ‘I’m Steve’s mother, is he all right?’ And the one sheriff turned around and just kind of looked at me and said, ‘No he’s not all right. He died.’?”

Once the FBI took over the investigation, because it occurred on an Indian reservation where the federal government has jurisdiction over major crimes, the Coles say things only got worse. The family also says the FBI failed to inform the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) about the shooting as policy requires. BIA officers arrived on scene, but were reduced to watching the road and not allowed to pursue an investigation, according to the family. The Coles claim Oravec, the lead FBI investigator named in the lawsuit, was short-tempered, rude and seemed indifferent to the outcome of the case. They say Weyand, his supervisor at the time, didn’t push Oravec to fulfill his duties.

Shortly after their son’s death, the Coles met for a case update with agents Weyand and Oravec. In that meeting, the family says Oravec kept checking his watch and a wall clock, looking down as they talked. It frustrated them that Oravec acted as if he had somewhere else to be. Midway through the roughly 45-minute meeting, the Coles say, Oravec looked up and asked, “Who is Steven?”

“I think that stunned everybody,” Cletus says. “I’m looking at this guy and wondering, Man, how can this guy not even know what we’re talking about?” He says even Weyand seemed to be caught off guard by Oravec’s remark.

Cletus Cole says that after the meeting, Oravec pulled him aside. “?‘Cletus, come here. I wanna talk to you for a minute,’?” Cletus says Oravec told him. “[Oravec] gets up and walks back toward the corner and he looks at me and pulls his coat open, and he goes, ‘Do you got a problem with me?’?”

Cletus says that Oravec purposefully pulled him out of video surveillance and flashed his gun when he pulled his coat open, an action Cletus says he knew was meant to intimidate him. Oravec would not comment on either the case or Cletus Cole’s allegation, saying FBI policy forbids it. He now works in Quantico. The FBI closed its investigation into Bearcrane-Cole’s death within weeks of its occurrence and turned the agents’ report over to the South Dakota federal attorneys. By midsummer, the Coles say they learned later, former U.S. Attorney Steven K. Mullins and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Maura Kohn declined to prosecute the case, on the grounds of self-defense. But the Coles say they weren’t notified of the decision until February 2006, a year after their son’s death.

In April 2008, Bangert and the Coles traveled to South Dakota and met with then-U.S. Attorney Marty Jackley, who had taken over for Mullins, and Kohn, to express their concerns. The Coles say the two attorneys gave them a commitment to review the case and get back to them with their findings. However, the lawsuit states that despite the Coles’ pleas and presentation of substantial evidence, “Jackley and Kohn have not gotten back to the Coles with the results of any review, and have not initiated any prosecution.”

Bangert says Jackley met with them only because it was his job. “I know when someone is meeting because they have to and just kind of usher you out their door,” she says.
Photographs of Steven Bearcrane-Cole decorate the walls and cram the shelves of the Coles’ home. His 10-year-old daughter, Precious, took one of the pictures around Christmas 2004 when she was just 3 years old. It has become a family favorite since his trademark smile was captured for an instant. Earline says Precious remembers taking the picture and even carried it to school for months.

That the dispute that led to their son’s death revolved around a horse is ironic to the Coles. His Crow name Akiichiilaakinneesh or “Horse Rider” was handed down from an ancestor who was a scout for General Custer and the 7th Cavalry. It was fitting too, his grandfather says, because Bearcrane-Cole loved horses and was always riding. Horses were his future. Cletus smiles as he recalls his son’s plans to start a business, leading trail rides in the surrounding hills. Earline and Cletus point across the highway to where their son hoped to build a home. It’s not far from where his gravesite is.

The family is still trying to come to terms with their loss. Bearcrane-Cole’s absence at family gatherings, his truck sitting off the edge of their driveway, his pictures in every corner, his horses in the field and his daughter Precious are all bittersweet reminders. Every day Earline toils to complete another step in piecing her son’s story together. She says she long ago gave up assuming the law would take care of finding justice in the case. “You naturally expect justice,” Earline says. “We couldn’t rely on the justice system, so now we got to do it and get down that path ourselves.”