The number of killings on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation took a nosedive last year, underscoring to federal authorities that 2016 was an abnormally murderous year on the reservation.
Three Pine Ridge deaths in 2017 were ruled as homicides, an 80 percent decrease from the previous year’s 14, according to the FBI.
The high incidence of killings in 2016 appeared to be an anomaly fueled by the rise in meth, said FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Robert Perry. He cited a bureau analysis of a decade’s worth of homicides on Pine Ridge, which showed five was the yearly average and that there was an unusual spike in 2016.
“We wanted to understand, Is there something we’re missing?” said Perry, who supervises the FBI offices in North Dakota and South Dakota, which investigates killings on Native American reservations in these states together with tribal police and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“Is there a trend here that we haven’t identified that we could affect? The answer really is we didn’t find anything other than the drug use,” he said.
After years of cocaine prevalence, the FBI saw meth hit Pine Ridge hard and fast in 2015 — a year that registered nine homicides. The killings through the following year were apparently a byproduct of new meth users’ bodies adjusting to a drug known to elicit extremely violent behavior, as well as meth dealers’ battling for the new marketplace.
“You had a new drug, basically, come in,” Perry said, “and with that there were growing pains, just like a new business — turfs, who are the connections, who gets the drugs from whom.”
Another factor that stood out to authorities was that five of the murders in 2016 involved firearms, compared with zero in 2015 and two last year. Perry said the violent deaths tapered off in 2017 once the Pine Ridge meth trade dynamics got sorted out.
The 2016 Pine Ridge homicide figures have been revised to 14, down from the 17 the Journal previously reported. Further investigation revealed the other deaths resulted from an accident and medical emergencies, the FBI said.
The bureau, Perry said, didn’t make any changes to its enforcement efforts on the reservation last year since its agents were already working at full capacity.
Tribal police efforts
Pine Ridge police, meanwhile, had stepped up their anti-drug and anti-violence activities.
Last year, the Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Public Safety created a drug team made up of three officers and acquired four K-9s, said interim police chief Mark Mesteth.
Its drug team cooperated with federal agencies, such as the FBI and BIA, in tracking drugs going on and off the reservation, Mesteth said. Authorities have found that most of the drugs that entered the reservation originated in Colorado.
The tribal police agency also streamlined the process in which its officers can call for backup to contain an explosive situation. And it assigned officers to be more visible around the reservation, especially in communities with the largest calls for service.
“For them to see us with a badge and a gun displayed, that’s a deterrent in itself,” Mesteth said. Drug-dealing activities last year, he said, weren’t as blatant as in previous years.
These efforts were taking place while the Pine Ridge police force was short about a dozen officers. The public safety department has funding for 44 officers, but only around 30 positions have been filled in the nearly one year Mesteth has been acting chief. (Eight recruits are expected to join the force between spring and summer once they finish training.)
“We’ve had to shuffle some people around … We just did more with less,” said Mesteth, who has been with the department for 22 years.
He agrees with Perry that the homicides are intertwined with illegal drugs, and that meth is currently the “drug of choice” on Pine Ridge.
Some 90 to 95 percent of assault cases on the reservation, such as beatings and stabbings, are related to drugs or alcohol, Mesteth said.
Murder cases in court
Three men have been charged in the shooting death of 42-year-old Christopher Janis near Sharps Corner, a town on the western side of Pine Ridge, last year.
Clarence Yellow Hawk and Jamie Shoulders are facing murder and firearm charges in federal court. Their co-defendant, Scott Edison, has pleaded guilty to helping the pair evade authorities.
The victim was “arranging a purchase” with Edison inside a vehicle when Shoulders and Yellow Hawk took turns shooting him, according to court records. It’s unclear what was being purchased. Yellow Hawk’s and Shoulders’ cases are still being heard.
Another homicide case from 2017 involves a juvenile suspect, so federal authorities said they cannot release details. The other death stemmed from injuries in an assault and is still being investigated, the FBI said.
The eight other Native American reservations in South Dakota recorded a total of five homicides in 2017.
Of the 14 homicide cases in 2016, nine have been prosecuted. Five of the accused killers have pleaded guilty: two to murder, and three to manslaughter. Two were found guilty of murder at trial, and two cases are still pending in court.
The other five homicides remain under investigation, and prosecutors cannot release additional information, said Gregg Peterman, supervisory assistant U.S. Attorney in South Dakota.
Meanwhile, Pine Ridge police are strengthening their presence on social media. They’re posting more information about their response to calls for service, as well as photos of their personnel, training and equipment.
“It’s more like a military thing,” Mesteth said, “like a psy-ops war.”
A Canadian company that is exploring for gold near Rochford has drilled and capped its first hole, despite some protests and a court challenge.
Mineral Mountain Resources allowed the Rapid City Journal into the project area Wednesday. The drilling is being conducted on privately owned land in a secluded, rugged portion of the Black Hills, just southeast of the village of Rochford in an area where the historical Standby Mine was operated.
From Rochford Road, it’s nearly 3 miles into the drilling area on a winding, snow-packed road with some treacherously steep slopes.
The drilling of the first hole began Feb. 13 and was completed Tuesday. Four men kept the drill working around the clock in rotating, 12-hour, two-man shifts. The drill cut 1,625 feet into solid rock, but because the drill cuts at an angle, it reached a depth of only 850 feet.
“You’re not vertical as much as you are out,” said Project Manager Kevin Leonard, a Canadian-born geologist with 38 years of experience in mineral exploration.
The lone drill rig is about the size of a minibus. The controls, motor and crawler tracks make up one end of the rig, and a big steel box on the other end surrounds the arm of the rig and its diamond drill bit. As the drill grinds its way through formations of slate, mudstone and iron, water is pumped through a large hose from nearby Rapid Creek and mixed with a benign form of clay known as bentonite to cool and lubricate the drill bit. Some man-made products — with names including Quick Gel, Bore Grout and E-Z Mud Gold — are also used during drilling.
Some of the drilling fluid is lost to the environment, and some of it is captured and reused. When the drilling is finished, the used water and cuttings are left in a plastic-lined pit about the size of a burial hole (water-storage tanks, which were mentioned in the company's permit application, are not currently in use). The cuttings settle to the bottom, the water is allowed to evaporate, and the cuttings are eventually covered with dirt and seeded-over as part of a mandatory reclamation process.
The drill hole is 3.75 inches in diameter. The hollow, circular drill creates cylinders of rock known as core samples, which are pulled up by a wire through metal tubes that are inserted in the hole as the drill descends. The core samples will eventually be hauled to a lab in Nevada for analysis.
After the first drill hole was completed, it was filled with a mixture of water and bentonite and capped with concrete, while an inspector from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources looked on. Wednesday, the drill crew was preparing to move its rig to the next drilling site.
Eight more holes are planned for Mineral Mountain’s first phase of drilling, which is expected to take about six weeks. After that, analysis of the core samples will be used to determine whether and where more drilling will be conducted within the permitted area. State laws require all of the drilling areas to be eventually restored to a natural-looking condition.
Mineral Mountain is operating with state permits it received in June. On Feb. 20, three Pennington County residents who are also members of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe — one of numerous Native American tribes that consider the Black Hills to be spiritually significant — filed a court appeal against the project.
The appeal alleges that when Canada-based Mineral Mountain Resources obtained its state drilling permit, the company lacked a certificate of authority from the Office of the Secretary of State that is required for foreign corporations to do business in South Dakota. State regulators allowed Mineral Mountain to transfer the permit to an affiliate company of the same name in South Dakota, but the appeal alleges that the transfer was illegal because the original permit was never valid.
Mineral Mountain has not yet filed a legal response to the appeal. Company executives interviewed by the Journal said they plan to continue their drilling project while the appeal proceeds.
Additional criticism of the project has come from a group called Defend the Sacred Black Hills, which conducted a protest walk last weekend along some roads and trails in the project area. Leonard, the drilling project manager, said it was the first time he had experienced a protest against an exploration project.
“They have every right to protest,” Leonard said. “It’s a free country.”
Besides the current drilling on private land, Mineral Mountain has filed an operating plan with the Black Hills National Forest to conduct additional exploratory drilling on public land in the Rochford area. A Forest Service review of that plan is pending.
A winter storm is expected to descend on western South Dakota today, bringing heavy winds, icy roads and up to a foot of snow.
Spearfish, Lead and Deadwood are forecast to receive the heaviest snowfall in the Black Hills, between 8 to 12 inches between tonight and Monday night, according to the National Weather Service. Wall and the town of Pine Ridge could see around 4 inches; Rapid City, Custer and Hot Springs, 2 to 3 inches.
The storm will also bring fog and freezing drizzle today, and strong wind gusts of over 60 mph tonight through Tuesday, the weather agency said in an advisory Friday afternoon. Blizzard conditions could be possible.
Travel will become hazardous because of reduced visibility due to blowing and drifting snow, as well as icy and snow-covered roads. Buffalo, Union Center and Lemmon could get the most ice accumulation of 0.06 and 0.08 inches. Rapid City might get 0.01 inches.
Temperatures in the Black Hills region would fall between 15 and 20 overnight tonight, with wind chills of zero to 5 below, said meteorologist Shane Eagan.
The mercury will further dip to 10 to 15 overnight Monday, accompanied by wind chills of minus 5 to minus 10.
The Black Hills area’s most recent winter storm, which hit Feb. 18, saw 14 inches of snow near Lead and about 10 inches in the Rapid City area.
Executives of a Canadian company say that if they find sufficient amounts of gold near Rochford, a mine would take perhaps a decade to open and would not be an open cut like the former Homestake Mine near Lead.
Sixteen miles south of the Homestake site, Mineral Mountain Resources is drilling deep into solid rock near Rochford in the north-central Black Hills. The company hopes to find iron-hosted gold formations like those that yielded 40 million ounces of gold at Homestake from 1876 to 2001.
Executive Chairman T. Barry Coughlan and President and CEO Nelson Baker spoke Monday with the Rapid City Journal by phone about their plans for the Rochford area.
“Our drilling program this year will not be able to establish whether we’ve got a deposit or not,” Baker said. “It will only be an indication of whether we should continue exploring.”
Baker said Mineral Mountain believes the Rochford area is under-explored despite being mined in the past. For example, he said, Mineral Mountain is the first exploration company to conduct a helicopter survey of the area with magnetic equipment to gauge the presence of heavy minerals.
“We’ve identified an opportunity, and we’re going to systematically explore it using modern technology,” Baker said. “It’s a crapshoot. We don’t know whether there’s an economic deposit there or not.”
If exploration does indicate the presence of a sufficient amount of recoverable gold, it would likely take eight to 12 years to open a mine, Baker said. A mine could be opened by Mineral Mountain, or the company could sell its exploration data to another company.
The nature of the potential gold deposit near Rochford would not lend itself to open-pit mining, Baker said. He predicted that if a mine is ever opened near Rochford, it will consist of a headframe and underground workings such as tunnels and shafts.
“It’s not an open-pit type of deposit,” Baker said. “It’s certainly an underground model.”
Company documents have expressed a hope of finding “another Homestake,” but Baker said that phrase could be misconstrued.
“When we say we’re looking for a Homestake-style deposit, we don’t mean Homestake-size,” Baker said. “We mean a type of deposit that has the same identical geology and mineralization.”
Coughlan said the company is committed to environmentally responsible practices and hopes to contribute to the Black Hills economy. Publicly available company documents say Mineral Mountain had spent $3.14 million through December on the Rochford project for property-related payments, claim-staking and exploration.
“We’re very, very happy where we are,” Coughlan said. “We have the potential to find something that is very elusive here in a wonderful corner of the world.”