Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribal Tribune: Family seeks justice for death

Ralliers walked through downtown Clinton, Oklahoma, holding signs to raise awareness of what they feel is prejudicial treatment by law enforcement in Custer County. Photo by Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribal Tribune

Justice in Custer County?
Another Native American death leaves family seeking justice
By Shaida Tabrizi, Reporter
Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribal Tribune

“Native lives matter!”

On January 23, those words echoed through the small town of Clinton, Oklahoma, as family and friends rallied around the killing of Juan Lira Jr., claiming that his death has yet to receive the proper justice.

Lira, 44, was hit by a car on September 8, 2015 as he was walking to Fourth Street Grocery in Clinton and died at the scene. Surveillance footage shows Lira as he was hit by a Jeep Liberty just a few feet from the store parking lot.

According to the police report, the driver of the vehicle, 62-year-old Teri Haskett, was unaware of what she had struck and continued to travel north on South 4th Street, dragging Lira under the car approximately 175 feet. Damage to the vehicle was significant enough that it had to be towed from the scene.

The official Oklahoma traffic collision report states that there was nothing obscuring the driver’s vision, nor was she distracted by anything like an electronic device, for example. In fact, the only ‘unsafe/unlawful contributing factors’ were listed as follows: ‘No improper action by driver’ and ‘pedestrian action.’

Margaret Lira Nava stands with her grandsons next to the place where her brother Juan was fatally hit by a car. Photo by Cheyenne & Arapaho Tribal Tribune

Haskett was charged with a negligent homicide, a misdemeanor, and is scheduled to appear in court again on March 8.

Haskett’s charge contrasts with that of Sarah Morris, who was charged with 1st-degree manslaughter by Washita County prosecutors for hitting a bicyclist. According to Oklahoma’s, Morris admitted to police that she was distracted by her cell phone when the crash occurred.

Lira’s sister, Margaret Lira Nava, thinks the case merited a 1st-degree manslaughter charge as well, stating that she asked the Clinton Police Department if they checked Haskett’s phone records and received a negative response.

“Still to this day they will not let me know if she was on her phone and we’re still waiting on a meeting with the District Attorney. They didn’t even check, they just took her word for it that she wasn’t on her phone,” Lira Nava said. “They didn’t look at it, request the records, to them it’s just another Native gone that they don’t have to worry about.”

Friends and family members are calling for a felony charge against the driver who hit Juan Lira Jr. last year in Clinton, Oklahoma. Courtesy photo

Lira Nava organized the peaceful rally, made up of friends and family holding signs while walking through downtown Clinton to bring attention to her brother’s story as well as increase awareness of Native American treatment in the Clinton area.

“It’s happening too much in Clinton, for a small little community a lot of stuff gets swept under the rug,” Lira’s cousin Rosa Flores said.

Clinton lies in Custer County, named for the notorious ‘Indian Fighter’ George Armstrong Custer. The county, which includes cities such as Weatherford, Arapaho and Hammon, has a 7.2 percent American Indian or Alaska Native population while 84 percent is ‘white alone’ according to the 2014 U.S. Census.

The town is home to many members and employees of the Cheyenne & Arapaho tribes, who operate many aspects of government, their Housing Authority for example, and a branch of Lucky Star Casino in Clinton.

Lira was an enrolled member of the C&A tribes and was also of Mexican descent. In recent years, Custer County has been linked to the deaths of C&A tribal members, sparking public controversy over their actions. On June 28, 2012, police officers in Clinton shot and killed 34-year-old Benjamin Whiteshield. The Tribal Tribune reported on the circumstances surrounding Whiteshield’s death on Sept. 1, 2012.

Whiteshield’s family took him to the police station to get help for a delusional episode. Witnesses stated that Whiteshield’s delusions had made him run outside the station in fear when he was shot in the mouth by an officer. He was brought back inside and tasered by four different officers at the same time when he tried to walk to the ambulance he could see outside. Whiteshield was pronounced dead at the Clinton Hospital.

Another C&A tribal member, Mah-hi-vist (Red Bird) Touching Cloud Goodblanket, was shot seven times, once in the back of the head, by two Custer County sheriff deputies on Dec. 21, 2013. Deputies stated Mah-hi-vist attacked them by throwing knives, which prompted the officers to open fire. According to Native News Online, the deputies were placed on leave but have since returned to active duty.

A witness of the encounter between Mah-hi-vist and the deputies stated that he had no knives or weapons in his possession before the deputies began shooting. Mah-hi-vist’s family members have since organized rallies and started a movement called ‘Justice for Mah-hi-vist.’

The stories of Mah-hi-vist and Whiteshield spurred many of those at the rally to participate.

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“We are demonstrating that justice does need to be served in Custer County. It’s not just one, it’s the other individual who was shot by the Clinton Police Department, it’s the other individuals that were shot in their own homes. We are asking for justice for all Native Americans, not just one,” Arapaho Chief Anthony Spottedwolf said. “There are issues that Clinton is ignoring. With Juan Lira, it wasn’t a police officer, but yet there’s no justice being done. They just pretty much slapped her on the wrist and then were done.”

Lira’s mother Ula attended the rally as well, sharing stories of Lira playing with his nieces and nephews and his habit of praying for everyone.

“I know he’s with the Lord,” Ula said. “It hurts. They didn’t ask the questions that they needed to.”

The family plans to hold more rallies honoring Lira’s memory in the future, hoping to bring about whatever change they can.

“We’re not going to give up. We can’t,” Lira Nava said. “My brother deserved more than that. Our people deserve more than that. They can’t just sweep us under the rug because of our skin color or our ethnicity.”

Efforts to reach both Teri Haskett and the Clinton Police Department were unanswered by press deadline.

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