Family settles 2007 lawsuit over Crow Reservation death

Cletus Cole, mother, Earline Bearcrane Cole, father, and Precious Bearcrane, daughter, to Steven Bearcrane Cole, who was shot to death in 2005, stand on the steps of the Paul G. Hatfield Federal Courthouse after a hearing in the 10-year-old civil lawsuit questioning the FBI investigation into Bearcrane's death on Tuesday, July 2, 2019. The family settled its lawsuit in exchange for an opportunity to meet with high-ranking officials from the Department of Justice and the FBI to voice their concerns about equal treatment of Native Americans on reservations and to push for a third party to investigate Bearcrane's killing. (Thom Bridge/Independent Record via AP, File)

The Associated Press

'We have gone down a long path seeking justice for Steve in court'

Amy Beth Hanson
Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. — A Montana family has settled its more than decade-old lawsuit that alleged racial discrimination tainted an FBI investigation into the 2005 shooting death of a Crow and Gros Ventre man by a white man on the Crow Indian Reservation, attorney Patricia Bangert said.

Under the settlement, the family of Steven Bearcrane and their supporters will meet with high-ranking officials from the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI to voice their concerns about unequal treatment of Native Americans on reservations and to push for a third party to reinvestigate the killing.

"We have gone down a long path seeking justice for Steve in court," Bearcrane's father, Cletus Cole, said in a statement. "We've accomplished a lot in bringing his death and the discrimination by the FBI to public attention. Now we travel a different path — one that helps the wider Indian community."

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

There was no monetary settlement, neither side admits any wrongdoing and both sides are responsible for their own court costs, Bangert said Wednesday. FBI spokesperson Sandra Yi Barker did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.

FBI agents who investigated the February 2005 shooting death determined Bobby Gene Holcomb, then 53, shot Bearcrane, 23, between the eyes in self-defense, Bangert said. However, she argued the FBI began the investigation under that self-defense theory and ignored any evidence to the contrary. 

Both men worked as ranch hands on a ranch east of Billings. The Yellowstone County sheriff's office said an alcohol-fueled dispute over the treatment of a horse preceded the shooting, The Billings Gazette reported at the time.

The family filed a lawsuit against the FBI and individual agents in 2007. The scope of the case had been narrowed to a single issue that applies just to the Bearcrane family, so they chose to settle so they can lobby for change and talk with officials about the investigation, Bangert said.

The family wants a fair investigation of the shooting death, and they are willing to accept the results, she said. 

Bearcrane's family also plans to start an organization that will allow people to tell their stories about discrimination and insufficient law enforcement response to reservation crimes and to pass that information on to attorneys or the media, Bangert said.

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