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Hannah Hunsinger, Journal staff 

Bison in Custer State Park.

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Blaming shelter for death of homeless woman 'heartless'

Several community members who help local pop-up shelters criticized the Rapid City police chief Wednesday for blaming a shelter in the recent death of a homeless woman.

Police Chief Karl Jegeris wrote to Mayor Steve Allender and the Rapid City Council on Monday, saying the temporary shelters unintentionally encouraged drinking among people with substance abuse problems since the places didn’t prohibit drinking.

A homeless woman found dead under a bridge on Sunday, Jegeris said, had stayed two nights earlier in a pop-up shelter where alcohol and intoxicated people were found. Jegeris said he had spoken to Cathie Harris, the shelter organizer, asking her to stop the service if the shelters couldn't be regulated.

Allender, in a written statement, said he supported Jegeris’ position on the shelters.

On Wednesday, five women who help the shelters emailed the Journal a joint statement, saying they believed Harris’ work has been misrepresented.

“It is heartless and inaccurate to blame her for the deaths of her friends,” according to the statement signed by Karissa Loewen, Ramona Herrington, Heather Aunspach, Bobbi Jean Jarvinen and Delores Allen.

They helped organize a Jan. 4 community meeting, hosted by the grassroots community One Rapid City, to find a solution to the lack of a local emergency shelter. This was a response to a 69-year-old homeless man being found dead outdoors on Christmas morning. Attendees included Assistant Police Chief Don Hedrick and several members of the Rapid City Police Department.

“Cathie Harris is one person who was willing to do more than just voice ideas at a meeting,” the women's statement reads in part. “She started a warming center with the support of her own networks.”

The women decided to help with Harris’ pop-up shelters since it was an already tangible solution, Loewen said in an interview.

Some of them volunteered at the shelters, whereas others donated food and blankets and washed used blankets, Herrington said.

The women, in their statement, asked the community to work together to come up with emergency winter shelters. They proposed that the community help Harris’ shelters become better, otherwise “immediately put together a viable alternative” until long-term solutions are found.

Jegeris has said that the police, Cornerstone Rescue Mission shelter and the county detox facility can help homeless people find temporary shelter from the cold.

But despite these, the women's statement said, “people are still dying of exposure.”

Loewen said she wanted to continue the dialogue with the police department.

When asked to respond to the women's comments, city police spokesman Brendyn Medina said the law enforcement agency was going to let Jegeris' letter to city officials and Allender's statement speak for themselves.

Harris said Wednesday that she’ll be releasing a statement today.

On Wednesday night, as temperatures dipped below freezing, One Rapid City held a prayer gathering for the families of Connie Red Nest and Ernie Evans. Hers was the body found under the bridge Sunday, not far from the similarly lifeless body of her partner, Evans.

The event organizers said there would be songs, food and a chance to share stories about the couple.

Military mom surprises daughter with tearful reunion at Rush game

As if third-grader Breanna Hansen wasn’t already nervous, preparing to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in front of thousands of elementary-age schoolmates at the start of Wednesday’s Rapid City Rush Education Day hockey game.

But those nerves quickly turned into a joyous outpouring of tears when her mother, Air Force Tech. Sgt. Joni Hansen, fresh from a long deployment to the Middle East, surprised her at center ice at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center Ice Arena.

“I was happy,” said Breanna, clinging to her mom’s side after the emotional reunion.

Breanna clutched a wireless microphone and stood on a strip of carpet at center ice, accompanied by Black Hawk Elementary Principal Holly Yamada and teacher, Charlie Starkweather, during pregame ceremonies.

Joni, in hiding nearby, her Air Force fatigues camouflaged by a long white Rush T-shirt, waited for the right moment.

Just as Breanna was ready to start the pledge, arena announcer Jay Davis interrupted, saying there was someone else wishing to join them.

Breanna’s eyes went wide as Joni strode toward her. She jumped into her mother’s outstretched arms as the torrent of tears followed.

Breanna then had to gather herself, reciting the pledge in a clear, strong voice in spite of the shock of seeing her mother for the first time in months. “It was kind of tough, because I was nervous,” she said afterward.

The reunion came to be with Joni Hansen returning to Ellsworth Air Force Base following a six-month deployment with a refueling squadron in Qatar.

Originally planning a more private mother-daughter get-together, Joni was to pick up her daughter after school, but with the day coinciding with the Rush's Education Day festivities, husband and father Josh Hansen worked with school district officials to make the reunion a bit more public.

“It morphed into something else,” Joni said. “In front of 5,000 people.”

The soldout crowd attending the Rush’s first morning game was the result of a partnership with Rapid City Area Schools to promote reading.

Rush players made classroom visits to read to students and promote reading-related contests in the weeks leading up to the game, attended by 3,450 Rapid City area students among 4,000 students from the region.

Students enjoyed free admission, thanks to seats donated by Rush season ticket holders and additional sponsorship from Vast Broadband and Black Hills Energy.

The Rush didn’t disappoint, defeating the Utah Grizzlies 6-3. The students kept up their end with cacophonous cheering from the opening puck-drop.

Joni Hansen said she had seen one other hockey game, but this was the first she, Josh and Breanna had attended as a family, on a day they won’t soon forget.

“We wanted to make it a lasting memory with Breanna,” she said.

And with that special moment, another mission accomplished.

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House panel wants ban enforced against texting while driving

PIERRE | Law enforcement officers should be able to stop drivers seen texting while on South Dakota’s streets and roads, a panel of the Legislature decided Wednesday.

Rep. Spencer Hawley wants the state’s texting ban changed to a primary offense so police, deputies, sheriffs and patrol officers can better enforce it.

Texting while driving currently is a secondary offense. That means a law enforcement officer has to pull over a motorist for some other reason.

“I think it’s time we take that step up,” Hawley, the House Democratic leader from Brookings, said. He runs an insurance agency.

The House Judiciary Committee voted 11-2 to endorse HB 1230. The House of Representatives will debate it either Thursday afternoon or Monday.

If the change wins approval from the House, next stop would be the Senate.

A violation now is a petty offense with a $100 penalty. It would become a class-two misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

The committee voted 8-5 to reject Hawley’s other proposal, HB 1229. It sought to make a primary offense of a violation of the state’s seat belt law for people in the front seat.

South Dakota is one of four states where the texting ban isn’t primary enforcement, Hawley told the panel. Seven others testified as supporters. No one went to the microphone as an opponent.

Rep. Dan Kaiser, R-Aberdeen, explained he would vote against the change. He said increasing the punishment wouldn’t stop behaviors some witnesses described.

“I just can’t support the bill,” said Kaiser, an Aberdeen police officer.

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Man admits being accessory in Pine Ridge fatal shooting

A man charged in a fatal shooting on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in May has admitted helping the accused killers evade authorities.

Scott Edison Benson, 30, pleaded guilty Jan. 19 to being an accessory after the murder of Christopher Janis, 42, which happened near Sharps Corner. Benson faces up to 15 years in federal prison and three years of supervised release at his sentencing in May.

Benson said he saw the shooting, which authorities are pinning on his two companions at that time, Clarence Yellow Hawk and Jamie Shoulders.

A signed statement by Benson — which publicly lays out, for the first time, details surrounding Janis’ death — says the killing occurred while Benson was “arranging a purchase” with Janis inside the victim’s minivan. It’s not clear what was being purchased.

Benson was reportedly in the back seat of the minivan and Janis in the driver’s seat, when Shoulders appeared at the driver-door window.

“Benson witnessed Shoulders shoot Chris Janis through the window using a handgun, which broke the glass, and then fire another shot at Chris,” according to the written statement that accompanied Benson’s plea agreement with the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

“As (Benson) was exiting the minivan, he looked back and saw Yellow Hawk appear at the window next to Shoulders, take the handgun from Shoulders, and shoot Chris Janis several additional times.”

Janis, of Vermillion, died from multiple gunshot wounds. It was the mid-afternoon of May 27, about 2 miles north of Sharps Corner.

Janis’ death was the first fatal shooting on Pine Ridge in 2017, a year that saw a total of five homicides on the reservation, according to FBI spokesman Craig Lisher.

After the shooting, Benson ran back into his vehicle together with Yellow Hawk and Shoulders, according to the statement. Benson drove to another person’s house, where the men split up.

The gun used in the shooting belonged to Benson, but he didn’t know Shoulders and Yellow Hawk had it with them on the ride to meet Janis, the document states.

Benson’s other original charges — possession of a stolen firearm and possession of a firearm with an obliterated serial number — will be dismissed under the terms of his plea agreement.

The cases against his two co-defendants are still ongoing.

Yellow Hawk, 28, is facing federal charges of first-degree murder, discharge of a firearm during a crime of violence, as well as possession of a firearm with an obliterated serial number. The firearm was identified as a Sig Sauer P226 semiautomatic pistol.

Shoulders, 25, is charged with the same firearm offenses and second-degree murder.

Shoulders and Yellow Hawk, who also goes by the names Robert Pullian and Clarence Yellow Elk, could be sentenced to as much as life in prison if found guilty of murder.

All three men are detained at the Pennington County Jail.