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SATURDAY JOURNAL

A Quiet Creek in S.D. Becomes River of Death

Where alcoholism and racism have taken a toll, a mystery is building with body count of Indians.

May 20, 2000|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

RAPID CITY, S.D. — 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."

"Yeah."

"Somebody's killing our Indian people."

"Yeah."

"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.

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