Whiteclay deaths still a mystery
By Jim Holland, Journal Staff Writer
PINE RIDGE More than a year and a half has passed since the bodies of Wilson Edison Black Elk Jr., 40, and Ronald Owen Hard Heart, 39, were discovered in a roadside field south of Pine Ridge on June 8, 1999.
Tom Poor Bear of Pine Ridge, a relative of
two men whose deaths are still under
investigation, is shown in this file photo at
Camp Justice on July 13, 1999.
(Journal photo by Steve McEnroe)
A forensic pathologist determined that the men were beaten to death, but after 19 months, no suspects have been arrested or even identified.
The status quo in the case frustrates family members of the two men, who have maintained that federal and tribal investigators have dragged their feet on the case from the start.
Special agent Mark Vukelich of the Rapid City office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation says the probe into Hard Heart's and Black Elk's deaths has never been put on a back burner.
"This is definitely an active case," Vukelich said in December. "We're still following leads wherever and whenever we find them."
Vukelich declined to give further details of the investigation, citing its active status. He said the FBI is trying to keep families of the two men informed of any progress.
Tom Poor Bear of Pine Ridge, a half-brother of Black Elk and a cousin of Hard Heart, says he remains dedicated to keeping attention focused on the deaths.
He says the families of the two men plan to file suit against federal, state and tribal law-enforcement agencies because of what he called "an incompetent and incomplete investigation."
"We want to keep pressure on the FBI," Poor Bear said. "The families want to take a stand."
Accusations continue to circulate that sheriff's deputies from bordering Nebraska counties were at least partly involved in the slayings. The FBI says it has found no evidence suggesting any law enforcement involvement in the deaths.
Also at issue are alcohol sales by four stores in the village, and tribal claims that the village sits on land deeded to the reservation by the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty and other agreements.
An estimated $4 million in beer is sold in Whiteclay annually, mostly to residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned.
The deaths sparked summer-long protest marches in 1999 and 2000. Marchers made weekly walks on the two-mile stretch of Highway 407 from Pine Ridge to Whiteclay.
Most of the marches were peaceful, but an outbreak of violence at a march on June 28, 1999, left a Whiteclay grocery store looted and a news photographer roughed up.
A tense confrontation a week later on July 3 at a police cordon in Whiteclay resulted in the arrest of nine protesters, including Poor Bear and American Indian Movement activist Russell Means.
Charged with misdemeanor obstruction of a police officer and failure to obey a lawful order after crossing a yellow-tape boundary were Tom and Webster Poor Bear, Means, Frank LaMere, John Steele, Benjamin "Bennie" Black Elk, Gary Moore, Allen Sheppard and Vaughn Lodge.
Marches resumed last summer as the one-year anniversary of the deaths approached. A concrete monument, including a buffalo skull donated by American Indian inmates at the Nebraska State Penitentiary, was erected at the site where the bodies were found.
Poor Bear also helped establish Camp Justice, just across the border from Whiteclay, to call attention to all unsolved deaths in and around the reservation.
Camp Justice, set up next to the field where the bodies were found, consists of a small trailer, a cook shack and a tipi. Two other tipis recently blew down in a storm and are being repaired.
"We're there, and we're going to stay," Poor Bear said.
But some cracks have appeared in the solidarity of protesters.
Shortly before he was to stand trial last August in Rushville, Neb., Means pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of failure to obey a lawful order. An additional charge of obstructing a police officer was dismissed.
"We were committed to stand together. I guess Russell Means wasn't. That's too bad," Poor Bear said.
"If a warrior can't ride his horse, he shouldn't throw his blanket over him."
Lodge and Sheppard have never appeared in court on the charges. Warrants were issued for their arrest.
Tom Poor Bear says he and the remaining five defendants have been offered a plea agreement similar to that accepted by Means. A court appearance at the Sheridan County Courthouse in Rushville is set for Tuesday, Jan. 23.
"We all met and decided not to take the agreement," he said.
"They want one of us to plead guilty, then they'll drop the other charges and set up a task force to look into the land issues at Whiteclay," he said. "Which they should be doing anyway."
He said the ongoing legal wrangling is diverting the group's efforts.
"It's kind of like the '70s, when we were caught in court," he said. "It's taken away our focus."
"All I'm guilty of is trying to find justice for the deaths in Whiteclay, Sheridan County and on the banks of Rapid Creek," Poor Bear said. (The bodies of eight men were found in or along Rapid Creek in Rapid City over a 14-month period in 1998 and 1999, but no evidence has been found of wrongdoing).
"Our commitment is very strong until someone is held responsible for these deaths."
Questions or comment? Contact reporter Jim Holland at 394-8415 or at
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