A Philip man was charged Wednesday with disorderly conduct, almost a month after Native American parents complained that their children were subjected to racial slurs and spilled beer at a Rapid City Rush hockey game.
The charge, a Class 2 misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine upon conviction, was greeted with anger and disappointment on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
The Rapid City attorney’s office filed a complaint charging that Trace O’Connell, 41, did “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly utter any words or perform any acts which physically abused or threatened any person or persons.”
The complaint against O’Connell specified that “(H)e caused beer to be spilled upon another person or persons, uttered racially charged and confrontational words within the hearing of minor(s) and adult(s) at the ice arena.”
The original incident occurred at a Rush game on Saturday, Jan. 24, in the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center. The students, ages 9 to 13, were from the American Horse School’s 21st Century program. They were taken to the game as a reward 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, which came from a suite above where the students were seated.
“After an extensive investigation by the Rapid City Police Department, a thorough review of the case by my office as well as the Pennington County State’s Attorney Office, the facts support bringing this charge,” City Attorney Joel Landeen said in a news release Wednesday afternoon.
O’Connell’s attorney, Patrick Duffy, of Rapid City, said he apologized "to the children of the Lakota Nation" on behalf of O'Connell for what took place at the game. His client, Duffy said, was given orders not to speak about the incident, “and is absolutely heartbroken over everything that has taken place.”
Duffy, a long-time advocate for Native American rights, said O’Connell is not a racist and “did not throw beer on children.
“He threatened no one, and now he and his family are the target of death threats,” Duffy said.
The entire situation has race relations in South Dakota strung tighter than he can ever remember, Duffy said.
Simultaneous to the filing of the complaint against O'Connell, Police Chief Karl Jegeris, Landeen and Pennington County Chief Deputy State’s Attorney Lara Roetzel were at the American Horse School in Allen attempting to meet with parents to personally explain the charge before the issuing of any public statements.
The meeting ended prematurely when a question-and-answer period grew chaotic and emotionally charged, according to a Rapid City Police Department news release. As the tension increased, Jegeris made the decision to leave for everyone’s safety and because they were at a school.
“I regret that the meeting at American Horse School did not go well, and I understand how parents can become so angry when the discussion involves their children,” Jegeris said in an email to the Journal late Wednesday afternoon.
According to an earlier press release on Wednesday, police conducted more than 170 interviews and spent more than 550 hours on the investigation.
After an exhaustive investigation, Pennington County State’s Attorney Mark Vargo said the elements for felony child abuse or malicious intimidation could not be established.
“We are bound by the evidence as it emerges in the investigation, not as it is reported in the press,” Vargo said in a prepared statement.
According to an affidavit attached to the complaint, Trace O’Connell was interviewed by Detective Elliot Harding, who also conducted an extensive interview with Consuelo Means, an employee at American Horse School who accompanied students to the game. Transcripts of interviews with Means and another parent and school board member, Justin Poor Bear, are included with the complaint. The interviews are available on the Journal’s website.
In his affidavit, Harding said that O’Connell admitted attending the hockey game in the suite above the students, drinking beer and spilling some beer that night. He also reported having a conversation with Poor Bear about beer being spilled on children.
“Mr. O’Connell admitted to me that during the aforementioned conversation, he said to the adult male (Poor Bear): ‘If you want to talk about it, come on up here.’”
During her interview with Harding, Means said that early in the hockey game, someone in the suite started talking to a student, asking questions about where Allen was located.
“And, I thought it was inappropriate for him to even be talking to our students,” Means said, telling Harding that at other games, the students were respected by fans and no one talked to them. Means added that she was concerned because the men in the suite had beer and it “was like sittin’ right there, on the stand there … .”
Later in the interview, Means explained what happened when she and others seated around her had liquid, which they assumed was beer, sprayed on them during the game.
“And, I think it was like the third, third goal or (something), but that was when they made the goal because it just happened real fast,” Means said in the transcript of her interview. “And, like I said, it was around the time after that. Like the goal and just right after that goal was made, everything just happened (snaps her fingers) like that.”
Harding clarified that she meant there was “the spray” and “the big droplets” of liquid, to which Means responded, “Yup.”
It was Means who told Harding that she heard one of the people in the suite say words to the effect of, “Go back to the rez.”
In his statements to another investigator, Poor Bear said he had only Means’ word that beer was spilled. He also said he did not hear any racially derogatory comments from the suite, although a student mentioned hearing it as they boarded the bus to leave.
Means said her only exchange with the men in the suite was to shout up a question about who poured beer on the kids.
When asked Wednesday if she was satisfied with the charge against O’Connell, American Horse School Superintendent Gloria Coats-Kitsopoulos said, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“They poured beer on children. They yelled racial slurs. I don’t know how that is not a hate crime,” she said.
She and the children’s parents are “very disappointed” that more severe charges were not filed, she said. She planned to speak with the school’s attorney and confer with the school board about potentially pursuing more serious federal charges.
Trace O’Connell did not respond to a phone message Wednesday from the Journal.
There are two casualties in this case, Duffy, O'Connell's attorney, said: the truth and the students who attended the hockey game. The truth, he said, has been tarnished by hearsay that exploded on social media.
“The real casualty has been these children. They only know what they have been told has happened,” Duffy said. “Obviously, all of us in South Dakota need a good dose of truth before this case can possibly be laid to rest.”