A Killing at Donkey CreekJimmy Smith-Kramer, a basketball legend on the Quinault Nation reservation, was 20 when he was mowed down by a white man in a pickup truck. The decision not to charge a hate crime, and recent talk of a plea deal, has re-opened ancient wounds.
By Rahima Nasa
propublica.org The submissions from Native Americans have come into ProPublica’s Documenting Hate database with regularity: In Reno, Nevada, a truck was driven into a group of Native people protesting Columbus Day, injuring one; a Navajo woman in Flagstaff, Arizona, reported being told, “Go back to where you came from” by a driver who pulled up to her at a bus stop. A Sioux woman in Winterset, Iowa, reported that she was called a “prairie nigger” on Facebook. An entry from late last May, though, was of another order: a news account of a killing in Grays Harbor County in Washington. Jimmy Smith-Kramer, 20, and a member of the Quinault Indian Nation, had been crushed under the wheels of a pickup truck at a local campground. Another member of the tribe had been gravely injured as well. And a white man, James Walker, had been arrested and charged with having intentionally run over the two men after Walker admitted to flooring his gas pedal. The authorities claimed Walker backed over the men, then drove forward, grinding them into the ground a second time. The leaders of the Quinault Nation had quickly issued a statement alleging that Walker and or others in his truck had used anti-Native slurs during the fatal incident. A handful of local news organizations published early accounts reflecting the concern that the killing amounted to a hate crime. But in the year since then, the case has faded from public view, locally and nationally. It caused barely a ripple when prosecutors chose not to charge Walker with a hate crime, saying there were conflicting accounts of his possible motivations, and about who had said what, if anything, during the incident. Walker, who pleaded innocent at his May 2017 arraignment, has maintained he could not have committed a hate crime against Natives because he is part Cherokee himself. ProPublica spent a week in Washington revisiting the case, reviewing more than 1,000 pages of police records and interviewing the lead detective, his supervisor, the local prosecutors and several witnesses to the killing. Our reporting suggests there is at least some evidence that racial bias played a role in the crime. Two witnesses confirmed the claim that the slur “river niggers” was used by Walker’s group. Nevertheless, the authorities remain confident they made the right decision in opting not to pursue hate crime charges. The evidence, they said, was in some instances not much more than hearsay. “There just wasn’t enough there,” said Katie Svoboda, who has been the Grays Harbor County prosecutor since 2014.
Hate crimes or abusive behavior against Native Americans, while rarely gaining much public attention, appear to be quite common. According to a joint 2017 study by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Harvard University, 39 percent of Native Americans surveyed reported they had experienced offensive comments about their race or ethnicity. Meanwhile, 34 percent said they or a family member had experienced violence for being Native. Barbara Perry, who conducted one of the first national studies on hate crimes against Native Americans, said few of these kinds of incidents ever get formally reported to the authorities. Perry said victims have grown weary of being ignored or seeing their cases bungled. “They’ve come to the point where they don’t see the value in reporting,” said Perry, who has written a book on hate crimes against Native Americans and is a chairperson for the International Network for Hate Studies. Skepticism about investigations of hate incidents against Native people permeates the Quinault Indian Nation. Beyond the specifics of the Smith-Kramer case, older members of the community say local police are not well trained in how to pursue such cases. As well, they place the killing in the larger context of generations of hostility between the local population and the hundreds of Quinault who live on the reservation that borders Grays Harbor. Over the years, the Quinault have been shot at in disputes over local fishing rights and have filed multiple legal claims accusing the local school authorities of failing to address rampant discrimination against Native children. For many in the Quinault Nation, then, the decision not to charge a hate crime in the killing of Smith-Kramer — a onetime high school basketball legend and the father of twin toddlers — felt like one more indignity. “I knew that justice for Jimmy wouldn’t happen, especially in the Harbor,” said Freida Waugh, 46, referring to the lack of a hate crime charge.
Grays Harbor County sits within the Olympic Peninsula on Washington’s Pacific coast. The county’s cluster of timber towns has seen better days, as reforestation efforts and mechanized logging eliminated many industry jobs. The county abuts the Quinault Nation. When Lewis and Clark came into contact with the Quinault 200 years ago, the explorers estimated that the population didn’t exceed 800 people. Today, there are roughly 2,700 registered members of the nation and about half live on the reservation. The Quinault Indian Reservation was established in 1855 — just over 200,000 acres of land along 23 miles of the Pacific coastline. In the decades since, there has been plenty of friction — disputes over whether Quinault land was being improperly used for logging and over whose rights trumped whose in matters of local fishing. Larry Ralston, 58 and a former chief of the Quinault tribal police force, recalled being shot at when fishing the Chehalis River with his older brother in 1976. A bullet struck the nearby water, and the shooter continued to aim at their boat from a hillside, Ralston said. The next day Ralston and his brother came back to their boat with their hunting rifles. “We’re quite familiar with hunting but we’ve never had to use our rifle like that before,” Ralston said. Fawn Sharp, 48, a lawyer and the nation’s current president, said the sense of grievance among the Quinault over fishing rights was deeply felt by almost all. “I knew that there were people in and around Grays Harbor who were trying to take our family’s livelihood away,” Sharp said. Over time, the flare-ups of suspicion and anger came to center on the schools, both those on the reservation and in Grays Harbor County.
In 2013, the Quinault Nation sued several local school districts, accusing them of discriminating against tribal students by dissolving the local athletics league and barring tribal teams from competing in local athletic contests. The exclusion was not only a racist snub, the tribe alleged, it damaged the chances of tribal athletes in the Taholah School District of being seen by college scouts looking to sign up scholarship athletes. The banning of tribal teams came after years of the athletes enduring taunts and slurs. The suit alleged that dissolving the athletics league violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, as well as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits agencies that receive federal money from discriminating on the basis of gender, race, color or national origin. “The racial harassment and disparate treatment to which Taholah student-athletes have been subjected is severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive,” the suit claimed. According to the suit, tribal children had been called “dirty Indians,” “wagon burners” and “sand niggers” at games hosted by Mary M. Knight High School, a defendant school where the student body was 93.9 percent white. The four school districts denied the allegations made in the lawsuit. The parties settled out of court and agreed to form a new athletic league and provide training to address racist language at games. Such complaints are not unique to Washington state. The same year the Quinault filed its anti-discrimination lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint with the Department of Education’s office of civil rights to call on the agency to investigate a racially hostile environment for Native students in Humboldt County, California, where school officials allegedly abused Native students verbally and physically. In 2017, the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes in the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana filed a complaint with both the Department of Justice and the Department of Education against the Wolf Point School District for discriminating against Native students. The complaint detailed a long history of bullying, racial slurs and intolerance of tribal practices. Initially, the Quinault Tribal Council had been hesitant to pursue the lawsuit out of fear that it wouldn’t produce any change. But Sharp, the current president, convinced councilmembers that a line needed to be drawn. “We don’t want another generation to have to face what we all faced,” said Sharp. “Hate is multi-generational.”
A crowd of nearly 500 packed the auditorium in early January for the Taholah Chitwins high school basketball season opener against the Oakville Acorns. But there was a somber bit of business to take care of first: The Chitwins — the Quinault word for bears — were retiring jersey number 5. It had been Jimmy Smith-Kramer’s. “That night, they played their hearts out,” recalled Cory Smith. Smith had raised Jimmy after the boy’s mother had killed herself when he was four. He’d then coached Jimmy in basketball at Taholah High School. Smith-Kramer eventually became a star. Local kids idolized him, often swarming around him in excitement on the reservation. Despite the loss of his mother, Smith-Kramer had soldiered on. He loved being outdoors, especially hunting elk in the woods. Smith remembered how generous Smith-Kramer was with those in the Quinault community — often helping families in the area by providing them with the meat from his hunting. “The things that he’s gone through are pretty traumatic to anybody,” said Richie Underwood, 51, Smith-Kramer’s great uncle. “Yet he was really attentive to other people’s needs more so than his own, which was one attribute I think that sticks out the most with Jim.” It was Smith-Kramer’s dream to attend Haskell Indian Nations University, an all-Native college in Kansas. But his hopes were dimmed by the dispute with the local schools and the dissolution of the league. Smith-Kramer effectively lost a season and a half, including his junior year when college prospects are typically most intensely scouted. “Jimmy was frustrated,” said Smith. In the end, Smith-Kramer did not go to college. He graduated and found work as a crabber on a commercial fishing boat called the Quallay Squallum, which is the Quinault phrase for “good heart.” The Quinault in recent years have prioritized becoming economically independent, free of any unnecessary entanglements with the federal government. The Quinault Casino and Resort is one of the largest employers in Grays Harbor, and commercial fishing is among the Quinault’s largest enterprises. Tribal fishermen maintain a dock at Westport, the largest fishing marina in the county. Smith-Kramer, then, had embarked on a classic Quinault life — blue-collar work, loyalty to the reservation, eagerness to raise a family. He and his girlfriend had twins in 2015. “He was still growing as a man, as a dad,” said Miranda James, who helped in raising Smith-Kramer.
The Donkey Creek campground is about 40 miles from the Quinault reservation, at the outskirts of the Olympic National Forest. It’s a kind of hidden treasure, a perfect summertime swimming hole for locals eager to escape the routines of daily life in a largely depressed community. Locals know to take the left when they pass the third bridge on Donkey Creek Road. “There are a good amount of citizens here who don’t have a lot and it’s something they can do free of charge,” said Steve Shumate, chief deputy of investigations at the Grays Harbor County Sheriff’s office. Smith-Kramer and about 10 of his friends gathered at the Donkey Creek campsite on May 26, the night before his 20th birthday. The site gets crowded quickly, so they arrived early to reserve their spot. The group spent the evening drinking beer and doing shots. As it got closer to midnight, they dove into the river. At around 1:30 a.m., a white Chevrolet pickup approached the group’s camp site. The driver, James Walker, was accompanied by his wife and two friends. Walker, 32, grew up in Hoquiam, one of Grays Harbor’s timber towns, and never really left. After high school, he worked at Hoquiam Plywood for three years, after which he began working a series of odd jobs — restaurant and construction work. Records show he’d been arrested seven times since 2005, mostly for minor infractions. In 2008, he was convicted of theft in the second degree and sentenced to 45 days in jail. Several witnesses from Smith-Kramer’s group said Walker had been doing “donuts” (spinning the truck in circles) near the campsite, and they feared that he was being reckless. Someone inside the truck had also thrown a can of beer at them. Words were exchanged, and suddenly Smith-Kramer and a friend, Harvey Anderson, were under the wheels of the truck. The truck then reversed, striking the men once more. Anderson suffered significant injuries, but Smith-Kramer got the worst of it. Part of his skull was crushed, and his friends found him bleeding from his mouth, according to those there that night. Aaron Shumate, who had been camping in the area and rushed to help, got Smith-Kramer into his truck and drove toward the main road to call for an ambulance because there was no cell service at the campsite. Smith-Kramer was taken to Tacoma General Hospital, more than an hour from the campgrounds, but did not survive. “My fingers were inside his skull as I tried to get him into my car,” Shumate said. “His chest felt like mush when I tried to resuscitate him.” Walker fled the scene without checking on the victims, according to the authorities, and later that day he attempted to hide and repair his truck, which had been damaged from the incident. The authorities say Walker tore up the tires and threw the remains into the Hoquiam River and repaired his truck with parts he stole from a local auto shop. Walker, the police say, also tried to change his appearance, cutting his hair and shaving off his goatee. He was eventually arrested, deemed a flight risk, and has been in jail since, his bail set at $750,000.
Darrin Wallace served as one of the lead detectives in the death of Jimmy Smith-Kramer. Wallace, 52, had been a police sergeant in the Grays Harbor Sheriff’s Office for 12 years. He’d never, he said, handled a potential hate crime. Wallace’s initial round of interviews with witnesses, he said, didn’t yield anything much about slurs or other evidence of Smith-Kramer’s group having been targeted for their race. While one woman from the group said she heard “war whoops” from one or more people in Walker’s truck, others said they heard no such thing. Some accounts suggested there had been a significant back-and-forth between Walker’s group and the campers before the men were struck by the truck. Then a news release issued by the Quinault Nation started to get traction in the local and national media. The release was titled, “What Really Happened at Donkey Creek,” and cited witnesses who had spoken to tribal leaders. “The driver was screaming racial slurs and war whoops when he ran over the two tribal members,” the release alleged. “If it is, in fact, determined that this was a hate crime it will add even more distress and sadness to our loss of this outstanding young man and the injury of the other,” the release added. Wallace said he made sure all witnesses were re-interviewed. “We started investigating the racial aspect of the case after seeing it in the media reports,” he acknowledged. In Washington, a person is guilty of malicious harassment if they intentionally commit or threaten to commit physical injury or damage based on a person’s race, religion, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or ability. Such crimes don’t have to be premeditated; they only have to involve the fact that the victim was targeted based on their identity. Walker was charged with first-degree manslaughter, which carries a possible sentence of up to life in state prison. A hate crime charge would have served chiefly to add to the length of any sentence short of life. According to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs’ 2016 crime report, there were 20 bias-motivated incidents marked as anti-American Indian/Alaska Native, who make up about 2 percent of the state’s population. They were the fourth-largest group of bias victims, accounting for seven percent of the total race-based hate incidents reported that year. But Native advocates say the numbers are a gross undercount, in part because indigenous communities often don’t report incidents. Approximately 70 percent of tribal nations are under the authority of neighboring police departments. “Native people don’t always go to the police because it doesn’t amount to anything. Where is the justice ever?” said Stephanie Fryberg, professor of American Indian studies and psychology at the University of Washington. The Quinault have their own police force, and its members undergo training alongside officers from neighboring departments at the Basic Law Enforcement Academy, the only police academy in the state. Ralston, the former chief of the Quinault police force, said the training everyone got in hate crimes was quite limited. Indeed, officials who oversee police training in Washington told ProPublica that new recruits spend around 30 minutes learning about hate crimes in the academy.
“Even for people who go through training, there are things that they will never see,” said Sharp, the Nation’s president. “They can be completely clueless about anything that I’m seeing or feeling.” Spurred by the news coverage of the killing as a possible hate crime, Wallace said he and other detectives worked hard to get at the true details. When detectives interviewed the witness who said she’d heard war whoops, the young woman, Marquel Waugh, said she thought the sounds seemed meant to demean the tribal members present at the campsite. Pressed by detectives — they asked, oddly, if the whoops sounded “like a sasquatch” — Waugh ultimately conceded it could have just been drunken hollering, according to a transcript of her interview. But five days after the killing, two high school students from nearby Aberdeen High School contacted police. The two Hispanic students had been camping nearby and had been approached by Walker earlier. Walker, they said, asked them for alcohol and cigarettes, which they didn’t have. The students claimed that Walker then drove off to Smith-Kramer’s camping area, where things got heated. Two of the campers told officers they overheard someone utter a slur and while one heard someone say, “We took your land, so remember that.” “I could hear someone from the white truck say ‘river nigger’ to the partygoers,” one of the students told ProPublica. Both said they stood by the statements they made to police.
Detectives, in the end, concluded that since the campers couldn’t specify who exactly they heard doing the shouting or what was shouted, this material didn’t add any clarity to Walker’s intentions when he ran over Smith-Kramer and Anderson. “In my perspective, it didn’t seem like race was a factor,” Wallace said. Steve Shumate, 50, agreed. Shumate is the chief deputy of investigations for the Grays Harbor Sheriff's Office and has been with the office for 29 years. He grew up in Grays Harbor, and said he was sensitive to the idea that Smith-Kramer’s group might have been targeted. Detectives spoke to over a dozen witnesses in all. “We really dove into the racial component,” Shumate said. “But the information was third-hand. It didn’t pan out as a hate crime.” Sharp, the Nation’s president, has never been persuaded of that. “To say there’s no evidence — well, from our perspective, this is the sort of thing our young people just don’t make up,” Sharp said in one statement to the press. As part of the investigation, detectives conducted several interviews with Walker. Walker said he arrived at the campsite with the hope of running into someone he knew. Walker admitted to drinking before the incident but said he was not drunk. He said Smith-Kramer and his friends started to pelt his truck with rocks. He said he grew scared that the situation would escalate if he stayed so he tried to quickly exit the campsite. Without realizing it, he said, he hit Smith-Kramer and Anderson. He disputed the claims that he had hit the victims because they were Native. He claimed to be part Cherokee himself. He claimed that his great grandmother was full Cherokee but never enrolled his father into a federally recognized tribe. “Back in those days,” Walker told police of his family’s heritage, “it was something that you didn’t want to be known.”
The final call on whether to pursue a hate crime charge fell to Katie Svoboda, the Grays Harbor County prosecutor. In her tenure, she said, cases involving possible hate crimes have been extremely rare. She couldn’t remember one, in fact. But she said she took care with the Smith-Kramer killing and applauded the detective work. “It was a huge concern for the sheriff’s office,” she said. Svoboda made the argument that it might have been easier to establish hate as a motivation if Walker and his victim had known each other. ProPublica’s reporting on hate crimes, however, makes clear the vast majority of cases involve people previously unknown to each other. Svoboda wound up charging Walker with manslaughter in the first degree. She additionally charged him with two other counts of vehicular assault for hit and run — one for causing Smith-Kramer’s death and the other for injuring Anderson. “In every case we try to look at it in totality, and in this one we can’t rely on third- or fourth-hand accounts,” Svoboda said. As hearsay, she said, “their accounts would have been inadmissible in court.” With Walker’s trial set to start in May, Smith-Kramer’s family was asked this week to meet with Svoboda. On Tuesday evening, family and friends gathered at the Forestry Department building in the town of Montesano. Close to 50 people turned up in what became a tense exchange with Svoboda and Wallace, the lead investigator. Walker was willing to plead guilty to a reduced charge, manslaughter in the second degree, if his sentence would not exceed seven and a half years, Svoboda said. “There are definitely risks to going to trial and there are also benefits that come with it,” Svoboda told ProPublica Wednesday. “What I set out to do was explain the pros and cons of both. The victim’s family has to weigh in pretty heavily on the case.” While the penalty for first-degree manslaughter included a possible life sentence, Svoboda said, it would have been unlikely that Walker would be sentenced to that given his lack of a violent past. She said the more likely sentence, if he was convicted at trial, would range from 11 to 13 years. The sentiment in the room Wednesday night seemed split, said several people who were there. Some people raised questions about race. Smith-Kramer’s aunts and grandmothers cried. The prosecutor and detective appeared to choke up, too. “This was an emotional case,” Svoboda conceded. No decision on how to proceed has been reached, and Walker’s lawyer did not respond to a request for comment. Geneva Underwood, Smith-Kramer’s aunt, and Verdi McCloud, his grandmother, were at the meeting and later admitted to being torn. They both agreed that a history of hate factored in their thinking and emotions. They didn’t totally trust that a jury would deal fairly with a case involving a Native victim and a white defendant. Both said they were certain that if a Native man had killed a 20-year-old white man, he’d be looking at life. In the end, they felt mostly hurt and resigned. “It still feels like an open wound,” said Underwood. “No matter what they do to this man, it still wouldn’t be enough.” Are you a Native person who has been a victim or witness of a hate incident? Tell ProPublica your story. Rahima Nasa is a reporting fellow for ProPublica’s Documenting Hate project. This story originally appeared on ProPublica. It is published under a Creative Commons license.