The investigation into Saturday night’s alleged harassment of a Native American school group at a Rapid City hockey game is focused on a man from Philip, according to a source who was near the incident when it occurred.

Meanwhile, that same person says the incident was ignited when some members of the school group reportedly did not stand for the National Anthem prior to the start of the Rapid City Rush game.

That claim, however, was flatly denied by several of the adults who were with the school group and say the children from the Pine Ridge school did stand during the anthem. A separate witness who has nothing to do with either party told the Journal earlier that the children from the school were well-behaved and polite.

Justin Poor Bear, who was present, said he knew of nothing that might have provoked anyone inside the suite, and that it was immaterial even if the children had not stood.

“Even for the Lakota flag song, there won’t be people standing up sometimes,” Poor Bear said. “That’s not the point. That’s not an excuse to throw beer down at kids.”

Another witness, Andy Hollander, of Sturgis, said if there were any members of the group sitting during the anthem, he did not notice it. He called the students some of the best-behaved he’s seen in eight years of attending Rush games at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.

The source from the suite, who spoke on condition of anonymity, is a client of Eagle Sales of the Black Hills, a beer distributor in Rapid City. He was given access to the suite by Eagle Sales and said he brought a group of 16 people to the Rush game at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, including himself and a salesperson from the company, last Saturday night.

Eagle Sales acknowledged one of its employees was in the suite but said the employee was not involved in the alleged harassment.

The source said he sat at the bar inside the suite and did not witness the confrontation between one or more members of his group in the suite’s lower seats and members of the school group just below the suite. Claims have been made that the students were verbally harassed and had beer thrown or sprayed on them, forcing the group to leave the game early.

The source from the suite said he heard Saturday evening that there was a “scuff” of some kind, but he did not learn further details of the incident until he received a call about it Monday morning from Eagle Sales. The company’s owner, Tom Helland, while saying his company and employees were not involved in any inappropriate behavior, has apologized numerous times to the school group for the harassment the group allegedly suffered. He also has said his company is changing its policies regarding the use of its suite to prevent similar incidents in the future.

On Thursday, Helland said someone angry about the incident sent him a death threat via email. He forwarded the threat to police.

The Rapid City Police Department is investigating Saturday night’s incident following the filing of a complaint by the board of the American Horse School in Allen, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The client of Eagle Sales who spoke to the Journal said he’s been contacted by investigators who told him they are focusing on a man from Philip.

The source supplied the man’s name to the Journal, and the newspaper tried unsuccessfully to contact the man. Police declined to verify the man’s identity or say whether he is the focus of the investigation. Without independent verification, the Journal is withholding the man's name from this report.

American Horse School Superintendent Gloria Coats-Kitsopoulos said Wednesday that federal authorities were also being contacted.

“The incident which involved racial slurs, pouring of beer on the students, harassment and bullying the students and their AHS school staff chaperones and a parent with a 4-year-old child fits the descriptors of a federal Hate Crime,” Coats-Kitsopoulos said in a written statement. She did not respond to an interview request following the issuance of the statement.

The students, ages 9 to 13, were on a trip with the school’s 2lst Century program as an award for academic success. Reports of the number of students in the group have varied; Craig Baltzer, the civic center executive director, said the group had 65 tickets and consisted mostly of children.

The group left the game early, during the third and final period of regulation time, following the alleged harassment. School officials told the Journal this week that some adults tried in vain to locate a member of the event staff to lodge a complaint prior to leaving. They did file a complaint when they encountered event staff as they were exiting the building.

Baltzer said staff members filed reports about the complaints, which include allegations of racial slurs directed at the students, which Baltzer called “disturbing.” He said complaints were taken from several people, and he considers the complaints credible.

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The Eagle Sales client who spoke to the Journal said he was told that tension between members of the two groups began during the national anthem. The source said a member of his group — the one he identified as the focus of the investigation — “hollered down there” when some members of the school group did not stand for the anthem, and a member of the school group “hollered back.” Tension apparently continued to build throughout the game, the source said.

Perhaps the only detailed, publicly available account of the incident is from Poor Bear, who said he was among the adults who attended the game with the students. He posted a narrative on his Facebook page and later confirmed his authorship of the post when contacted by the Journal.

Poor Bear said some people in the suite, mostly men, “were getting drunk” and sometime around the third period began “talking crap to our kids” and “throwing down beer on some of them, including our staff and students” and “telling our students to go back to the rez.”

Poor Bear said he was seated at the other end of the row and grew angry at the alleged perpetrators when another chaperone, Consuelo Means, came to his end of the row and said the group needed to leave to protect the children’s safety.

At that point, Poor Bear said, he walked over to the men in the suite and demanded to know who had thrown beer on the children; he acknowledges cursing during the questioning. He said one of the men invited him into the suite to settle the dispute with a fight, but Poor Bear opted to leave with the group.

Poor Bear’s account contained nothing about the national anthem. When asked by the Journal about it, he said “we all stood up.” Two other school officials who were at the game also said the group stood for the anthem.

Hollander was not with either group but was seated within sight of the third-period confrontation. Though he could not hear what was said, he recalled two men in the suite who “seemed to be taking real pleasure in continuing the confrontation” with an adult member of the school group. After the school group left, Hollander said, the men in the suite “seemed to gloat over what they had accomplished in chasing the student group from the game” and handed out a number of beers to other fans in what Hollander said appeared to be a “celebration.” He said several other people in the suite “seemed extremely uncomfortable with what was going on.”

On Friday, the Minneapolis-based National Coalition Against Racism in Sports and Media issued a statement condemning the alleged harassment and calling it “racist and criminal behavior” that “should be considered a hate crime.” The coalition called on state and local officials to file charges against the perpetrators.

Numerous emails, meanwhile, have been received at the Journal from people across the country who are appalled at what reportedly took place after the story went viral on social media websites. No arrests have been made in the case, and the investigation is continuing.

Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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Enterprise Reporter

Enterprise reporter for the Rapid City Journal.