A Quiet Creek in S.D. Becomes River of Death
Benjamin Long Wolf slept through his own drowning.
He was drunk, terribly drunk, the autopsy would show, and the hollow beneath the 6th Street Bridge was home. So the 36-year-old just leaned back to sleep it off, police said, and never noticed the water rising in quiet Rapid Creek.
When they found him, he was sitting half-upright. It looked like Ben Long Wolf was napping, only he was under water.
It was May 1998, and this was the first death in the creek. No one took much notice. Then they found George Hatten 10 days later and Allen Hough five days after that. Then Randelle Two Crow, Loren Two Bulls, Dirk Bartling, Arthur Chamberlain, Timothy Bull Bear.
During a period of less than 14 months, until last July, the bodies of eight men--six Native Americans and two whites--were untangled from the drooping branches of the creek-side cottonwoods or pulled from the shallows and driven to the morgue.
Nearly two years after Bull Bear died, and nearly a year after FBI behaviorists were quietly summoned to see whether a serial killer was at work, police still are trying to figure out what happened to the men.
Most were homeless, sometimes at least, and slept beneath the bridges, drank wine in the rushes, laid low down by Rapid Creek. Most were alcoholics and severely intoxicated when they died. Some had blood-alcohol levels that few but the most practiced drinkers achieve: as high as 0.53%. Alcohol poisoning was the official cause in two of the deaths; the other men died of asphyxiation--they drowned.
None of the bodies showed signs of trauma. Indeed, investigators have not one shred of physical evidence pointing to a crime. Taken alone, each death can be explained as a bad end to a hard life.
Taken together, they become suspicious.
“It appears,” says Police Capt. Christopher Grant, “to go beyond mere coincidence.”
Many Native Americans concur but are not at all mystified. They know what is happening to the men, they say: Somebody is killing them. Somebody, perhaps an Indian-hater who mistook two white men in the darkness, is waiting until they drink themselves to sleep, then dragging or rolling or carrying them into the cold creek.
Investigators have heard some version of the story a thousand times, always third- or fourth- or fifth-hand. They can’t say it’s true and they can’t say it’s not. What they can say is this is a very strange case and a nervous time.
The unexplained deaths, as well as several other violent incidents across the state, have so heightened many Indians’ long-standing suspicion of the justice system that in March a federal commission implored South Dakota law enforcement officials to improve relations with local tribes.
More than anything else, though, the case has been made all the more difficult by the kind of alcoholism that wipes entire weeks from the memories of possible witnesses and a cultural divide older than the nearby Pine Ridge Reservation, where many of the creek’s inhabitants--the living and the dead--began to drink like this, some while they were still in the womb.
Down by the River, the Facts are Unclear
“Someone’s doing this.”
“Somebody’s killing our Indian people.”
“A gang, like skinheads or something.”
“Yeah, a gang or something.”
It is midafternoon on a recent day and the sun is burning the chill out of this town on the eastern flank of the Black Hills. But Melvin Quiver, 50, and his friend Wesley Iron Nest, 70, are hunkered down in the cold, damp semidarkness beneath one of the many bridges spanning the stream. Quiver is explaining the deaths to a visitor. Iron Nest is agreeing with him.
There are some young guys, white guys, Quiver is saying. They come along and they buy the creek people wine, vodka. When they’re drunk, they roll them in.
“More than 200 people, dead,” he says.
Two hundred? No, eight. Eight people.
“There’s a statue for them.”
Quiver and Iron Nest make their way to the statue, across the city’s main park--only it isn’t a statue, it’s a large green electrical box with a padlock on it.
Quiver looks the box over, searching for the names. “This isn’t it,” he says after a minute.
“Over there, maybe,” says Iron Nest, pointing back across the road, across the pond. “Over there, I think.”
The two eventually find the tall, bronze memorial. There’s a placard on it and lots of names.
“Dedicated to the 238 people who lost their lives in the June 9 flood. . . .” The flood occurred in 1972.
“Skinheads,” Quiver says before inquiring about a jug of wine.
No, no, these people died in the g flood.
“Yeah, my cousin died in that flood,” he says. “Nellie Two Bears. That’s my cousin.”
Chief Deputy De Glassgow, the No. 2 man at the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, knew most of those who perished mysteriously in the creek. They ranged in age from 33 to 56. He knew them and many of their friends primarily because he used to run the county’s 57-bed detoxification center.
Glassgow, who has been a peacemaker in these parts so long that he is friends with some of the same American Indian Movement agitators he used to arrest, was especially close to Loren Two Bulls. A self-taught artist, Two Bulls would adorn the detox facility with sweeping murals during his frequent stays, once painting a full-wall prairie scene in a single, intoxicated night.
“One of the reasons this is such a difficult case,” Glassgow says, “is that everybody who could have been with [the victims] should have been with them, would have been with them--they were intoxicated at the time too. The people who saw them in the last hours of their lives have serious memory problems.
“Loren was very sick,” he adds quietly. “So were many of the others. So are many of the people we’ve interviewed.”
A half-sleepy, half-wild town of 58,000, Rapid City lies two hours northwest of the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the legendary tribe of Crazy Horse and the 1973 standoff between AIM members and federal agents at Wounded Knee. Pine Ridge is also home to a desperation and squalor known in few other parts of the United States.
Unemployment runs to 84%. The annual per capita income of $3,121 makes the county, Shannon, the poorest in the nation. The life expectancy for a man is 48, for a woman, 52.
Upward of 80% of adults are alcoholics, but the community of 24,000 has no rehabilitation center.
The Pine Ridge Reservation is dry, no alcohol sales allowed, and some of the most serious drinkers make their way to Rapid City and eventually to the gurgling stream that cuts west to east through its middle.
Just 9% of the city’s residents are Native American, but Indians occupy about 60% of the detox beds--and detox is almost always full.
The case is trying, however, for more reasons than the near-omnipresence of alcohol.
Some Indians insist the investigation has languished because most of the dead were Indian. Indians, they say, get a whole different kind of justice in South Dakota.
It’s a sentiment that predates even the establishment of Pine Ridge in 1878, of course, but one that has spread like a fire here in the last year--to the point where the U.S. Civil Rights Commission made its first visit to the state since 1973.
What it found was “a widespread perception that there is a dual system of justice: one for whites and another for Indians,” said Marc Feinstein, chairman of the advisory panel.
In March 1999, an allegedly drunken driver struck and killed a young Indian man. A grand jury indicted the driver on a charge of vehicular manslaughter, but prosecutors reduced that to driving while intoxicated. In June, the body of another young Indian man was found stuffed head-first into a garbage can. Charges against four white teens were dropped when the autopsy revealed the man had died of alcohol poisoning. Later in the summer, two Indian men were found beaten to death in a culvert. No one has been arrested in that case.
And all along, men were dying in Rapid Creek.
“Rapid City is so racist and prejudiced against Lakota people . . . that initially the Rapid City Police Department made it an open-and-shut case,” writing off the deaths as accidental, says Antoinette Red Woman, one of the organizers of a volunteer group that sometimes patrols the creek at night. “At first they thought it would just go away.”
Police are all over it now, Red Woman agrees. Certainly, though, the investigation began later than anyone would have liked.
Five men had died in a span of seven months in the creek, which usually takes about one life a year, by the time the police and sheriff’s departments formed a task force early last year to see whether the deaths were linked.
Two of the men, Allen Hough and Dirk Bartling, were white. Hough was not intoxicated at the time of his drowning. He was, however, undergoing psychiatric care, according to police, and had recently expressed a desire to kill himself.
The monthlong inquiry uncovered dozens of stories of skinheads, or racists in trench coats, or white boys with bats, but police could find no organized group of racists in Rapid City.
They found the guy they think spray-painted a racist slogan on the side of the 6th Street Bridge but quickly cleared him and waved a happy goodbye when he moved to Denver.
Then, on May 29, a fisherman was casting for trout when the body of Dirk Bartling, 44, came floating by. Nine days later, Arthur Chamberlain was found, and Timothy Bull Bear three weeks after that.
Investigators took to the creek again. They waded up 10 miles of the waterway, interviewing more than 100 people, exploring campsites and garbage dumps and piles of rotting sleeping bags. They brought in the FBI, the state Department of Criminal Investigations, the Mid-States Organized Crime Information Center out of Springfield, Mo.
The information center created elaborate purple-and-blue charts detailing the relationships between the men--who knew whom and how. They look like astronomical maps, only at the center of each social constellation is the name of a dead man.
“I’ve about burned the skin off my eyeballs staring at them,” Glassgow says. “I can’t figure it out.”
But if the charts have not, to this point, marked the path of a killer, the inquiry is finally bringing into relief the subtler details--hints and shades that prompt cautious investigators to question the notion of one coincidental drowning after another.
After the number--eight is simply way too many--there is the timing. The first three men died in a span of two weeks. Six months passed without another body. Then, in two days in early December 1998, two more bodies were found. Five months passed quietly after that. Then three more died in just over a month.
Nearly a year has passed since officers descended on the creek en masse and everyone in town learned about the mystery. Not a soul has died there since.
There is something else, something that makes Glassgow frown and shake his head: Every single corpse was found in the water. Not alongside it, not in the soppy prairie grasses on the banks, in the cold runoff of Rapid Creek.
People who live along a creek could be expected to die along it as well. “But they died in it,” Glassgow says.
Police Keeping Close Watch Along Creek
It’s dark, and for a Monday night, the police radio in Lt. Dave Walton’s patrol car is going good. A very inebriated man is down by the railroad tracks, the dispatcher says, near the creek. He looks like he could use some help.
Then a woman is hit by a car as she is crossing in the middle of a busy street. She is conscious and appears to be intoxicated. Walton knows her.
“Her name’s Wanda,” he says, rising from beside the woman as the paramedics slip a cervical collar around her neck. “She hangs out down by the river. I don’t know if she’s living there or at the motel these days.”
And on and on, throughout the night, the radio then the cell phone, with messages of trouble, many relating in some way to the homeless men, the dead men, the stream.
Walton drives his cruiser over a curb and onto a bike path that parallels Rapid Creek. He stops the car, flicks on his spotlight and aims the bright white beam into the dark underbrush.
“We just don’t know,” he says. “These people keep saying these things: people pushing them in, somebody’s killing them. . . . That’s the word going around. We just don’t know.”