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Vincent Brewer III, 29, was shot to death the afternoon of Oct. 16 in the parking lot of a youth center on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Journal file

The inexplicable shooting death of 13-year-old Te’Ca Clifford as she walked home with some friends in July was just one of an elevated number of homicides on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 2016.

Last year, 17 deaths on the reservation were ruled as homicides, compared to nine in 2015, a nearly 90 percent increase, according to data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Also a major worry for law enforcement officers is that five of the homicides in 2016 involved firearms, while there were no firearm-related killings in 2015.

The spike in killings, including the rise in fatal shootings, is linked to increased use of illegal drugs, particularly the highly addictive drug methamphetamine, said FBI Assistant Special Agent in Charge Robert Perry. The FBI investigates all homicides on Pine Ridge together with the Oglala Sioux Tribe Department of Public Safety and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Perry’s concerns about meth use echoes those expressed by other law enforcement agencies across the region, including the Rapid City Police Department. After a spike in violence in Rapid City over the past couple of months, Police Chief Karl Jegeris pointed to meth as one thing fueling the rise in violent crimes.

Perry, who supervises the FBI offices in South Dakota and North Dakota, said the drugs on Pine Ridge are not produced locally but come from outside places such as Denver.

“When you’re in that drug trade, when there’s money involved, you feel the need to protect your product, to protect yourself, and that’s why I believe there’s more guns involved,” he said.

Among Pine Ridge’s drug-related homicides last year were the fatal shootings of Annie Colhoff, 34, in September and Vinnie Brewer III, 29, who was killed in broad daylight outside a community center in October. A Colorado man has been charged in U.S. District Court with Colhoff’s murder and a Pine Ridge woman is charged in connection with Brewer’s killing. Authorities are investigating possible links between the cases.

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Some of the homicides remain unsolved, including the shooting death of Todd Little Bull, 25, in August. He was in a car on the road with three other people when someone from another car fired at him, according to the FBI.

Perry said there hasn’t been a spike in homicides in the eight other reservations in South Dakota and those in North Dakota.

“They all still continue to have homicides, and there may be little fluctuations, but not as pronounced as what we’ve seen in Pine Ridge,” he said, noting that Pine Ridge is closer to urban areas like Rapid City and cities that are sources of meth.

Meanwhile, a Pine Ridge man has been charged with second-degree murder in the death of 13-year-old Te’Ca. Authorities said she was walking home with friends in the town of Pine Ridge when she was shot.

Feb. 12, 2017, Update: Clarifying that besides Pine Ridge, there are eight other reservations in South Dakota.

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Cops and Courts Reporter

Cops and courts reporter for the Rapid City Journal