A home health care nurse first noticed letters etched into Vernon Traversie's stomach. His minister, raised in the South, thought it looked like the work of the Ku Klux Klan.
Now, the 69-year-old legally blind member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has filed a civil suit against Rapid City Regional Hospital, claiming negligence and violation of his civil rights.
"My rights were violated," Traversie said last week from his Eagle Butte apartment complex. "Some terrible wrong had been done to me, and I had every right to pursue it."
Traversie's lawsuit has attracted international attention. More than 76,000 saw his scars on You Tube. Hundreds of Native Americans, led by American Indian Movement activist Dennis Banks, marched on Rapid City Regional Hospital in late May. A law firm from Washington state has taken on the case.
It all started Sept. 9, 2011, the day after Traversie returned home to recover from heart surgery at Rapid City Regional Hospital. The nurse took off his shirt while at his small apartment in Eagle Butte to examine him and change surgical dressings.
“Then, all the sudden, she was real quiet," Traversie said. "She started to gasp, and she said: ‘Vern, I don't know what they did to you. They did something to you,’” he said.
Along with the long, straight incision along Traversie’s breastbone — typical of heart surgery — about a dozen scabs showed spots where Traversie’s abdomen looked like it had been scratched.
Traversie recalled his nurse’s next words.
“’You have all these marks on you, and there's three letters on your abdomen,’ she said. She said, ‘The two biggest ones are ‘K’s, and I can't tell if the smallest one is a ‘G’ or a ‘K.’ … The two biggest ones are as clear as can be,’ she said.”
He said the nurse called the Cheyenne River police station and took Traversie to the hospital in Eagle Butte. There, Traversie called his good friend Karen Townsend and his pastor, Ben Farrar.
Farrar, 33, had just spent his first summer working as a pastor at First Baptist Church in Eagle Butte. He had arrived after seminary training at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
When Farrar looked at Traversie’s abdomen, he said he immediately recognized a pattern.
“This isn't two K's – this is three K's,” he said to Traversie and Townsend. Farrar, who grew up in North Carolina, said he instantly thought of the KKK.
Traversie’s reaction was “shock, shock,” he said. “You would never expect anything like that to happen to anybody.”
Traversie stands just over 6 feet tall and weighs about 250 pounds. Clean-cut, with short, black hair, thick glasses and a cane, he pays $230 each month to rent an apartment in Eagle Butte, a three-hour drive from Rapid City and the home of the tribal headquarters of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. He lives down the hall from Townsend, whom he calls his girlfriend.
Traversie graduated in 1997 with an associate’s degree in social services from Northern State University in Aberdeen. He spent several years trying to find work as a social worker’s aide, he said, before he gave up. He said he now lives on a $799 monthly Social Security check.
Traversie is legally blind and can only occasionally see shades of darkness and light. His eyesight has worsened steadily since 1972, a side effect of diabetes. Another side effect of the disease is diabetic neuropathy — nerve damage from high blood sugar that makes him unable to feel with his fingers or toes.
Since Traversie cannot see or feel the scars on his abdomen, he had to trust Farrar, Townsend and others when they described his scabs and markings last fall. Nearly a year later, some of those scabs are still present as scars.
“So many people told me they see these that I believe them,” he said. “I trust them.”
Farrar, who speaks with a southern accent, sat next to Traversie at a round folding table in Traversie's apartment lobby as he explained how his thoughts jumped to the KKK.
“When I saw the third K, I thought OK, three K's, that's the only abbreviation I know for that," he said.
He asked Traversie and Townsend, the other people in the room at the time, if the KKK was active in South Dakota. Traversie and Townsend said yes.
You have free articles remaining.
"If they had somebody in Rapid City Regional Hospital, then obviously, they would have a motive to do something like this because they don't like non-white people. So that seemed like the most logical explanation of the facts,” Farrar said.
Traversie said he believes there is a KKK ring based in Rapid City and working in Rapid City Regional Hospital, so he is reluctant to visit the city since his surgery.
“As far as Rapid City goes, I sort of like the place,” he said. “But I'm sort of afraid of the Ku Klux Klan.”
There is no evidence to support claims of any KKK activity in Rapid City Regional Hospital or elsewhere in Rapid City, said Tarah Heupel, spokeswoman for the Rapid City Police Department.
The KKK, meanwhile, does not suggest that members tattoo or mark themselves with K’s and would not approve of a member using tattoos or scalpels to mark the letters on anyone else, said Travis Pierce, an information officer for the Arkansas-based Ku Klux Klan LLC.
“If I knew of an associate of this organization who even dreamed like that, he'd be out on his ear,” Pierce said. “We’re not a gang, and we don't use tattoos.”
Minnesota is the only border state with an active Klan group, and no groups are based in South Dakota, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups throughout the U.S.
The only known recent KKK activity in South Dakota was last fall, when five people stuffed Klan literature into merchandise at three Rapid City stores, said David Schneider, an investigative researcher with the Anti-Defamation League.
“Aside from the one incident, historically (South Dakota) hasn't been a real hub of Klan activity in the country just because of the sparse population,” he said.
Rapid City Regional Hospital chief executive officer Tim Sughrue said in an email that Traversie's allegations are untrue and his claims have no support. Sughrue did not mention Traversie's specific claim of an active KKK ring.
As soon as Farrar described the scars as three K markings and decided to connect the markings with the Ku Klux Klan, Traversie decided he should sue the hospital.
“I was determined,” he said. “I was going to stand up against that huge hospital.”
Traversie is reluctant to share theories about who might have carved letters into his abdomen. However, Townsend believes it was not the surgeon but more likely a technician or employee who did it while Traversie was traveling to or being treated in the Intensive Care Unit after surgery.
"I wouldn't be pointing my finger at the doctor," Townsend said. "I had a really good feeling about him. He did a beautiful job."
One of Traversie's friends first found him a lawyer in Rapid City to take his case. After six months, that attorney had not accomplished enough, so Traversie began to look for a different lawyer.
To find a replacement attorney, friends of Traversie created a video showing Traversie’s scars and posted it on YouTube in late April. That video, which shows Traversie describing his hospital stay and his scars, has now been viewed more than 76,000 times. An estimated 300 Native American demonstrators congregated in Rapid City in late May to protest what they called evidence of discrimination.
One of Traversie’s current attorneys, Gabriel Galanda, is an Indian Law attorney in Washington state. He saw Traversie’s video and flew to Eagle Butte to visit with Traversie before taking on the case. Galanda and Chase Iron Eyes, the other attorney on Traversie's case, declined to comment for this story, citing South Dakota legal law.
“I have a lot of anger over what I believe was done to me intentionally,” Traversie said. “I'm trying to accept what happened to me, but I want to be compensated for what they did.”
S.D. Attorney General Marty Jackley's office concluded an investigation into Traversie's claims in early August. Jackley said in a news release that investigators determined the marks on Traversie's skin were caused by a skin reaction to the medical tape used to secure surgical tubes.
Other officials, including an FBI team, are still investigating Traversie's claims.
In the next few weeks, Traversie’s lawyer will meet with the defendants named in the lawsuit to outline the amount of money Traversie is requesting and other details of the suit. After that meeting, the case could proceed to the jury trial that Traversie has requested.
“It's not over with,” Traversie said. “It's up to the judge and the jury to decide.”