The organizer of a shelter that the Rapid City police chief said was partly to blame for a homeless woman's death defended her actions in a statement released Thursday night.
Cathie Harris, who runs the local aid group RV Ministry, opened a pop-up shelter Feb. 2 to take in homeless people from the freezing cold. A woman who stayed at the shelter that night — 54-year-old Connie Red Nest — was found dead Sunday by an Interstate 190 bridge. Her partner, 58-year-old Ernie Evans, was also found dead nearby.
Authorities suspect the couple died from hypothermia.
Rapid City Police Chief Karl Jegeris told the Journal earlier this week that the shelter, located in a church basement, housed people who were drunk, brought alcohol inside and created disturbances that prevented people from resting.
“That actually exposed that group to greater harm this weekend, and we had tragic results with a death that, as I would say, had a very direct correlation to the sheltering,” he said.
Jegeris said the shelters, which operated at inconsistent times and locations, didn't ban alcohol and served people with substance abuse problems.
In the statement, Harris defended her decision to open the pop-up shelters, also called warming centers. "The police chief speaks of inconsistency in the warming centers, the weather in our community is inconsistent," she wrote. "We are trying to alleviate suffering, not cause it. We are trying to bring a little bit of heaven to this earth and the earth is rejecting it!
"While the warming centers are as inconsistent as the weather, so is the population of people we are working with. While the loss of my friends is tragic maybe the time has finally come to sit down and work on a solution."
Jegeris initially raised his concerns about the temporary shelters on Monday in an email to Mayor Steve Allender and the Rapid City Council, which was released to the media. Jegeris wrote that he had spoken to Harris and asked her to stop the service if the shelters couldn't be regulated.
The idea to open the shelters spawned from a meeting last month hosted by grassroots community organization One Rapid City. Harris said in her statement that several churches offered to house homeless people on bitterly cold nights.
Since the Jan. 4 meeting, Harris said she and other volunteers have hosted six overnight warming centers, serving more than 100 people.
"Yes, we have encountered a few intoxicated disorderly people and the police were called and they were removed from the center for the safety of themselves, other guests, the property and the volunteers staffing the center," she wrote.
"There has been NO encouraged drinking, fighting, drug use or inappropriate behavior among the male and female guests."
Harris said she has been working with Rapid City's homeless population on a daily basis for the last three and a half years. She added that she and other shelter volunteers were "anxious and willing" to work with police and other local officials on a long-term solution to keep homeless people safe during extremely cold weather.
In an interview Friday, Jegeris said Harris' comments about wanting to work together are "in conflict with her past behavior."
Jegeris said he last spoke to Harris on Monday night and asked her to stop hosting the pop-up shelters until she had the appropriate resources, a safe space and could do it on a regular basis at a consistent location.
In a text message Friday, Harris said she and the volunteers intend to reopen the pop-up shelters.
Jegeris said the pop-up shelters aren't legal or safe, but the police department can't force them to close. He said he doesn't regret making public the email to the mayor and city council, and anticipated that it would be controversial.
"I'm going to do everything I can to prevent another death from occurring, even if it requires me to have a very difficult conversation with Cathie and the other volunteers that have been engaging in this unsafe matter," Jegeris said.
With Jegeris and Harris at odds over short-term solutions to keeping homeless people safe, one thing remained constant Friday night: the brutal cold. According to the National Weather Service, temperatures were expected to dip all the way down to minus 10 before sunrise this morning.
Wind chills in some parts of the city were expected to reach down to minus 25. At those temperatures, even minimal exposure is dangerous, and frostbite can occur in just 30 minutes.
In a part of Rapid City already bustling with construction activity comes a planned apartment complex designed, its developers say, to take upscale living to another level.
The City of Rapid City’s Building Services Division issued on Tuesday a $22 million permit for construction of Meadows Apartments, an eight-building complex offering 160 one-, two- and three-bedroom living spaces on Moon Meadows Drive.
The project joins a slew of new construction already completed or underway in the Mount Rushmore Road corridor, including Buffalo Crossing, a retail, professional and residential neighborhood, Regional Health’s Advanced Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Hospital, and Horizon Point — Black Hills Corporation's freshly completed headquarters.
Kent Hagg of project developer Hagg Brothers, LCC, said the Meadows Apartments luxury complex will feature a clubhouse, pool, spa, 24-hour fitness center and entertainment room.
Other amenities include 9-foot ceilings, attached, individualized garages with remote door openers, oversized balconies, and kitchens with granite countertops and stainless steel appliances.
Even valet service for trash disposal and laundry are part of the deal, he said.
Eight 3-story buildings, each containing 20 apartments, will be constructed to exceed industry standards in sound deadening between floors and units, he said.
“We’re trying to cater to busy individuals who want a better standard of living from where they rent,” he said.
He said monthly rents are based on comparable lease rates for upscale luxury apartments around Rapid City and are expected to range from $850 for a one-bedroom unit to $1,450 for a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment.
“One of the things it focuses on is quality of life," Hagg said. "It’s not the big anthill effect — 80 to 100 apartments in one big building with long hallways. This has no hallways."
Construction is set to begin in early March at the site — a 40-acre parcel located on the east side of Mount Rushmore Road (South U.S. Highway 16) across from the U.S. Forest Service headquarters.
Hagg said pre-leasing should begin within three months of the start of construction, with the first of the eight buildings ready for occupancy perhaps as early as October, but more likely later in the year.
Meadows Apartments will occupy nine acres in the southeast corner of the tract close to where a Best Western GLo Hotel is planned, but still in the funding stages.
An access road and cul-de-sac is to be built north of Moon Meadows Drive for the project, which has a total cost of $28.7 million.
The $22 million Meadows Apartment project pushes the city’s total building permit valuation past the $100 million mark for 2018, coming on the heels of a $97.5 million total in January, according to a release from the city.
The city is well on its way to an eighth straight year of building activity exceeding $200 million. The city’s building permit valuation topped $300 million in 2016 and 2017.
A man has admitted inducing three children into engaging in sexually explicit conduct within a five-year period so he could produce pornographic images of them.
Chance Garrett Williams, 27, of Rapid City pleaded guilty Friday to two federal charges of attempted sexual exploitation of a minor. The offenses occurred between January 2012 and January 2017, and involved three girls, according to court documents.
Each charge carries a penalty of 15 to 30 years in prison, as well as supervised release of five years to life. At his yet-to-be-scheduled sentencing, Williams wouldn't ask for less than 30 years in prison, according to his plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
A statement of facts in the case, which accompanied Williams’ plea agreement, says the police investigation started in late 2016 after one of the victims told her counselor that Williams had raped her. She would have turned 5 years old in 2012.
“I’m sorry, I have to go kill myself. I don’t want to lose my family,” Williams was quoted as saying when initially told of the allegation in September 2016.
The victim consequently revealed that the assault happened more than once, Williams had photographed her naked and showed her a sexually explicit video, according to the written statement.
A police search of Williams’ cellphone reportedly uncovered about 50 child porn images that he had produced. Many of them were photos of the girl, taken when she was between 4 and 6 years old. The images also included those of two other girls who would have turned 10 and 4 in 2012.
Investigators said he had also distributed pornographic images of one of the girls to other people.
At the Rapid City federal courthouse Friday morning, Williams’ voice broke when he answered “guilty” to his two criminal charges. He then swiped at his eyes while the victims’ representatives sat behind him in the gallery.
Williams, detained at the Pennington County Jail since January 2017, was initially charged in state court with multiple counts of first-degree rape, sexual contact with a child, as well as child porn offenses.
Pennington County prosecutors dismissed his state charges, and his case was moved to federal court because of the federal system’s higher minimum penalties, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has said.
South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, released a campaign ad Thursday featuring his sister, Jocelyn Hafner of Rapid City.
Hafner is an assistant principal at Stevens High School and a mother of two. She begins the video ad by saying of Jackley, “He’s boring in the best possible way.” She goes on to say that she and her friends call Jackley “the last Boy Scout.”
“He and I don’t always see eye to eye on a few issues,” Hafner says in the ad, “but he’s open, he listens, and he asks questions.”
Jackley praised Hafner in a news release about the ad.
“I'm a grateful brother who's watched my little sis become a wonderful mom and teacher, and I couldn't ask for a better support system during this wild ride," Jackley said.
Following is a roundup of some other campaign news from the past week.
Sutton laments legislative losses
State Sen. Billie Sutton, D-Burke, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for governor, issued a public statement Thursday lamenting the tabling of two of his legislative proposals by the Joint Committee on Appropriations. Both bills sought to move money from the Future Fund, which the governor uses to dole out workforce development and technical assistance grants, to the Building South Dakota Fund, which has a number of sub-funds devoted to a variety of purposes.
One of the bills, SB 130, would have appropriated up to $5 million from the Future Fund to the Building South Dakota Fund to be split as follows: 25 percent to the Local Infrastructure Improvement Grant Fund; 5 percent to the Economic Development Partnership Fund; 30 percent to the Workforce Education Fund; 35 percent to the South Dakota Housing Opportunity Fund; and 5 percent to the Revolving Economic Development and Initiative (REDI) Fund.
“Economic development and growing our economy for all South Dakotans is a top priority of mine this legislative session,” Sutton said. “That is why it was disappointing today that the Appropriations Committee rejected legislation I proposed to make targeted, strategic investments to grow South Dakota’s economy and middle class.”
The other bill, SB 134, as amended from its original form, would have moved $3.5 million from the Future Fund to the Education Enhancement Trust Fund for needs-based scholarships.
Other Sutton bills to die recently include a bill to restore campaign finance reforms that were passed by voters in 2016 but were killed by the Legislature in 2017, and a bill to open up state government calendars, logs, working papers and emails to the public. A Sutton bill to require politicians and government officials to save fiscal records for at least 10 years, which he filed in response to the GEAR-UP scandal, is still alive.
Noem endorses anti-trafficking bill
U.S. Rep. Kristi Noem, R-S.D., who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, announced her support Thursday for a bill in the South Dakota Legislature, SB 67.
The bill has been passed by the House and Senate and was delivered Tuesday to the governor for his consideration. It would add new language to state law saying that a person older than 18 may petition a court to expunge a delinquency record that resulted from being a victim of human trafficking or sexual exploitation.
“By some estimates, 100,000 individuals are trafficked in the U.S. each year, most of them women and many of them children,” Noem said. “Sadly, South Dakota is not immune.”
Hubbel picks Whalen
Lora Hubbel, a former legislator who is running for the Republican nomination for governor, announced Wednesday that she has selected Bruce Whalen as her running mate.
Whalen was the Republican nominee for U.S. House in 2006 but lost that year to then-Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin, D-S.D.
Whalen is a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe on the Pine Ridge Reservation.
“I believe that Governor Hubbel will connect economic developers with participating tribal governments and deploy existing state resources, attacking unemployment and poverty on Indian reservations,” Whalen said in a written statement. “I want to help with that. It would be an incredible change of circumstances for tribal people to be rid of an 80 percent unemployment rate and make the new normal to match South Dakota’s unemployment rate.”
Tapio keeps up Muslim talk
State Sen. Neal Tapio, R-Watertown, who is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. House, kept up his steady stream of rhetoric about Muslims after the state Senate rejected a concurrent resolution he proposed.
The resolution, as he described it, sought to formally acknowledge the full implementation of Islamic law, known as sharia, as the root cause of the global war on terrorism.
“I offered this very simple resolution on behalf of the American patriots, soldiers and their families after countless hours in personal conversation with legislators who claim to understand the threat of Islamic terrorism, but who either think it is not their responsibility to confront this issue, or are afraid to talk about this issue in public,” Tapio said in a written statement.
‘The Full Dusty’
Dusty Johnson, a former public utilities commissioner and former gubernatorial chief of staff who is seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. House, posted a video to Facebook last Saturday showing himself outside of the Black Hills Stock Show & Rodeo touting his work ethic.
“That’s part of 'The Full Dusty': being tireless,” Johnson said in the video. “Where was I last Friday? Here at the Stock Show working. Where was I last Saturday? Here at the Stock Show working. Where was I yesterday, Friday? Working at the Stock Show. Where am I this morning? Here at the Stock Show. Where am I going to be this afternoon? Here at the Stock Show. If you want to go to Congress, you need to be willing to interview for the job. I will do so tirelessly, and that’s the same tireless energy I’m going to bring to Washington, D.C., with the 'The Full Dusty.'”
Bjorkman to raise money in Rapid City
Tim Bjorkman, a retired circuit court judge who is seeking the Democratic nomination for U.S. House, plans to attend a fundraising event for his campaign this month in Rapid City.
A post on Bjorkman’s Facebook page says Indivisible Rapid City and a number of individuals and couples will host the fundraiser from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 17, at 922 E. St. Patrick St.
Prospective candidates hoping to run in the June 5 primary and Nov. 6 general election are circulating petitions to earn a spot on the ballot. Following are some Black Hills-area candidates who recently turned in their petitions, according to the website of the South Dakota Secretary of State’s Office: