Frank LaMere, an activist from the Winnebago Tribe, speaks inside the Siouxland Center for Active Generations in Sioux City, Iowa, as part of the Memorial March to Honor Our Lost Children on November 22, 2017. Photo by Kevin Abourezk

Activists seek action on unsolved deaths in Pine Ridge Reservation border town

Deaths and murders in Whiteclay remain unsolved in Nebraska

'Voice was given to those who have been silenced and to those who care'
By Kevin Abourezk

Activists in Nebraska are continuing the fight for justice in Whiteclay, calling on law enforcement to investigate several unsolved deaths and murders in the reservation border town and speaking out against a bill they say would make it more difficult to shut down troublesome liquor license holders.

Last week, a group including Winnebago activist Frank LaMere, filmmaker John Maisch and former Oglala Sioux Tribe president Bryan Brewer met with John Bolduc, superintendent of the Nebraska State Patrol, to discuss the unsolved cases, which date back to 1997. One of the most recent occurred in 2016.

“There are many unsolved murders at Whiteclay and Sheridan County, and the discussion of that sad fact started yesterday,” LaMere said a day after the meeting, which took place in Lincoln. “Voice was given to those who have been silenced and to those who care. It was good.”

Whiteclay sits on the border of the Pine Ridge Reservation, where alcohol is banned and alcohol-related problems are rampant. Four stores in the town once sold as many as 4 million cans of beer a year.

In April 2017, the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission shut down the stores, citing the lack of adequate law enforcement in the tiny village. In September, the Nebraska Supreme Court rejected an appeal of the commission’s ruling filed by the beer store owners, effectively closing the beer stores, barring a second appeal.

A 2013 protest against liquor sales in Whiteclay, Nebraska. Photo: Confrontational Media

Since 1997, as many as five people have died under mysterious circumstances in and around Whiteclay. They include:

· John Means, who died in 1997 in the town and whose family believes was murdered despite authorities saying he died of exposure.

· Wilson Black Elk and Ronald Hard Heart, whose bodies were found brutally murdered in June 1999 just north of Whiteclay on the reservation.

· Sanford Wounded Foot, whose body was found in December 2012 in Whiteclay and whose family believes was beaten to death. Authorities have said they don’t believe he died as a result of foul play.

· And Sherry Wounded Foot, who was found beaten on August 5, 2016, and who died 12 days later at the Pine Ridge Hospital. Her death has been deemed a homicide. She was Sanford Wounded Foot's sister.

From left: The deaths and murders of Wilson Black Elk, Ronald Hard Heart, Sanford Wounded Foot and Sherry Wounded Foot in and around Whiteclay, Nebraska, remain unsolved.

In all of those deaths, no one was ever officially named a suspect, and activists have long said Nebraska investigators simply haven’t done enough to find the perpetrators.

LaMere said he and the other men who met with Bolduc last week called for the establishment of a cold case unit to investigate the unsolved murders. He said Bolduc seemed receptive to the idea.

“I was encouraged by the meeting,” said Brewer, who sought to close Whiteclay’s beer stores while he served as president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe from 2013 to 2016. “Col. Bolduc seemed genuinely interested in learning more about the unsolved murders.”

The Nebraska State Patrol is already taking action in one of the unsolved cases, a spokesperson for the law enforcement agency said.

"Col. Bolduc appreciated the opportunity to meet with Mr. LaMere and others about Whiteclay," said spokesperson Cody Thomas, said. "All sides are in agreement that the goal is to have those cases solved. NSP is already taking steps, utilizing our current resources, to further investigate at least one of those cases."

In addition to seeking resolution of unsolved murders in Whiteclay, LaMere said he is working to fight a bill introduced during the current session of the Nebraska Legislature that would impede the ability of state liquor regulators to shut down problematic liquor license holders, such as those in Whiteclay.

The bill, LB1120, introduced by state Sen. Tyson Larson, would block the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission from rejecting renewals of liquor licenses. Had that provision been in effect last year, it would have prevented the commission from rejecting the liquor licenses for the four beer stores in Whiteclay.

The bill does allow local governing bodies to request hearings on liquor licenses that are up for renewal should there be a “change in circumstances” for the licenses under consideration.

A hearing on the bill was held Monday in Lincoln, Nebraska, but LaMere said he was unable to attend because a snowstorm made the roads around his home in South Sioux City too dangerous. He said he submitted his written testimony to the General Affairs Committee, which is considering LB1120, but was told by a committee staff member that he had missed the deadline to submit testimony by one working day.

He said he believed his testimony was rejected primarily because it expressed opposition to Larson’s bill. Larson chairs the General Affairs Committee.

“I think they did not like the testimony,” LaMere said. “I think Larson directed that it be left out.”

Larson could not be reached for comment.

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LaMere said he hopes to submit the testimony at a later point in the legislative process. He said the closing of the beer stores has prevented more than 3 million cans of beer from being sold in Whiteclay and perhaps hundreds of alcohol-related injuries from happening there.

“I do not feel for those who lost their licenses at Whiteclay and any other licensee that does not abide by liquor laws while snubbing their noses at those in the public trust who simply try to regulate according to Nebraska law,” he said in his written testimony to the General Affairs Committee.

“The committee work before you should include a tightening of licensing procedures for all liquor establishments across Nebraska who operate like those at Whiteclay and a serious look should be taken at all Sheridan County licensees as there is a hint that they knowingly continue to sell to known bootleggers.”

Nebraska Supreme Court Decision:
Kozal v. Nebraska Liquor Control Commission (September 27, 2017)

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