Multiple Drownings Stymie South Dakota Police
When the first few bodies turned up in the gurgling trout stream that runs through a park in this city on the edge of the Black Hills, the deaths drew little attention. Police investigated, but all the evidence indicated that the homeless men had spent their days and nights drinking along Rapid Creek and simply passed out and drowned.
As more men died, however, law officers became suspicious. The deaths now total eight in 16 months, three this year. In typical years, only about one homeless person turns up drowned here.
“There’s just too many of them to say it’s coincidence. But it could be,” Police Chief Tom Hennies says.
Authorities have no witnesses. There are no bullet holes, stab wounds or evidence of other injuries. Police don’t know where most of the men entered the stream.
What investigators know is that six of the eight were Indians, and all but one had been drinking heavily just before they died. Most had blood alcohol levels of at least 0.25%, or more than 2 1/2 times the 0.1% level at which drivers are presumed to be drunk.
The homeless people who live under bridges along the creek believe someone is pushing helpless drinkers into the water.
Clement Standing Elk says he and other street people no longer risk hanging out alone. “We go around in packs.”
Standing Elk is among those who blame racist skinheads, and says the creek people have banded together to chase some of them away.
The homeless and others complain that the police and Pennington County Sheriff’s Department are doing little to investigate the deaths because most of the victims are Indians, men whose names included Benjamin P. Long Wolf, Randelle E. Two Crow and Loren J. Two Bulls.
The latest to die was Timothy Bull Bear Sr., 49, from the town of Allen on the Pine Ridge Reservation. His body was pulled from the creek July 8.
“We don’t know what else to do. We’ve done everything we can do,” Hennies says.
The two men who lead the task force investigating the deaths say they have even asked themselves whether they would do anything differently if the dead men had been affluent whites.
Chief Sheriff’s Deputy De Glassgow says he believes the investigation is being conducted in the same way it would be if all the victims had been white. And police Capt. Craig Tieszen says he is not embarrassed about how the cases have been handled.
Officers have interviewed scores of people. The FBI, the state Division of Criminal Investigation and other experts have been consulted. Information is being entered into a computer to search for any links among the cases, and a $4,000 reward has been offered.
Rapid Creek leaves a Black Hills canyon and runs west to east through Rapid City, South Dakota’s second largest city, with a population of 57,000. After a flash flood killed 238 people in June 1972, the city bought up the creek’s flood plain and turned it into parkland.
People now stroll or ride bicycles on paved paths among flower beds, lawns and towering cottonwood trees. Anglers cast for trout.
And dozens of people live in the brush along the creek and under the bridges, mostly unnoticed.
The street people are not scared, says Dean Two Sticks, who lives under a bridge with Standing Elk. “Why should we be scared to walk around on our river, on our grass, on our land?”
He believes the deaths have stopped because of publicity but will resume once the attention dies down. And he rejects the idea that the homeless people have been killed by one of their own.
“It’s not us doing it,” he says. “It’s not the street people because we’re family.”
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A Roster of Victims
The men who have died over the last 16 months along Rapid Creek in Rapid City, S.D.:
* Benjamin P. Long Wolf, 36, sometimes worked as construction laborer. Blood alcohol content was 0.374%. Found May 21, 1998.
* George E. Hatten Jr., 56, artist. Blood alcohol content was 0.364%. Found May 31, 1998.
* Alan Hough, 42, no occupation. Only small amount of alcohol in blood. Found July 4, 1998.
* Randelle E. Two Crow, 48, no occupation. Blood alcohol content was 0.515%. Found Dec. 8, 1998.
* Loren J. Two Bulls, 33, artist. Blood alcohol content was 0.531%. Found Dec. 9, 1998.
* Dirk R. Bartling, 44, sometimes worked as carpenter. Blood alcohol content was 0.288%. Found May 29.
* Arthur J. Chamberlain, 45, no occupation. Elevated blood alcohol content. Found June 7.
* Timothy Bull Bear Sr., 49, educator. Blood alcohol content was 0.26%. Found July 8.