An investigation by the Internal Affairs Division of the Bureau of Indian Affairs found four members of Fort Peck tribal law enforcement violated the civil rights of 15 people who were rounded up in an effort to clear the streets of transients before an annual stampede in 2013.
A report of the investigation was emailed to Lee Newspapers and other media outlets late Thursday evening. The email containing the report says it was obtained by a Freedom of Information Act request to the Fort Peck tribal council.
Internal Affairs founded allegations of carelessness and negligent performance of duties against former supervisor and captain of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribes Department of Law and Justice Michael Headdress, former supervisory corrections specialist Elaine Boyd, Sgt. James Combs and Lt. Elizabeth Chase.
“The investigation revealed sufficient evidence to justify a reasonable conclusion the accused employees were careless/negligent in the performance of their assigned duties when they unlawfully arrested and detained 29 individuals without legal justification, thus depriving these individuals of various civil rights.”
The investigation was initiated on April 7, 2014, after the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Internal Affairs Division received information about claims people were rounded up and illegally detained during the July 12, 2013, Fort Peck Wild Horse Stampede. The roundup, according to claims, was to keep transients from being a nuisance during the festivities. A civil lawsuit over the roundup has also been filed.
The investigation included interviews with members of tribal police, a tribal prosecutor and criminal investigator and more than a dozen who were arrested.
Those who were arrested told investigators they were rounded up and handcuffed, put in a van and taken to the Poplar jail. They said they were not read their rights or allowed phone calls, nor did they go through any intake process at the jail. One woman said she was given a single blanket and a mat after two hours. People detained went to the bathroom by the fence in the yard until a portable restroom was brought in, and they were not offered food or water, only coffee. When it rained in the evening, the wind picked up and blew off the tarp covering the basketball court.
According to the report, Headdress said the roundup was a result of a directive from the Fort Peck Tribal Council. Headdress told investigators that tribal members were picked up and jailed to keep them from panhandling. He said he was told to not charge any tribal members with criminal violations and to release them after four hours. Headdress told investigators he did not realize there was any problem carrying out the directive.
Chase said her supervisor, Boyd, told corrections staff they would be detaining the “street people” and they would be rounded up for 24 hours. Chase said she protested, saying the roundup was a violation of civil rights.
“If I wanted to keep my job, I was to follow orders,” Chase told investigators. She said there were 12 corrections officers working the roundup, but only three were certified.
Combs said Headdress told him the community had to be “cleaned up” for the stampede, saying the “local winos/(street) people” were to be picked up under a resolution in place. Combs said he knew the roundup was wrong, according to the report, but followed the order from his supervisor.
Adrienne Weinberger, a tribal prosecutor, said she was also approached by Headdress. She said he told her that he was under orders from tribal chairman Floyd Azure to round up “the street people” and detain them during the stampede. Weinberger said she did not agree with the plan, saying she told Headdress it was a violation and he could not pick up people who hadn’t broken the law.
Weinberger said Headdress became angry with her, saying she was not his boss and that only the tribal chairman could tell him what to do.
Internal Affairs tried to interview Azure on numerous occasions, both in person and over the phone, but never reached him, according to the report.
On Friday, Azure insisted to The Billings Gazette that Internal Affairs had never reached out to him. He was not in office from 2013 to 2015, which is when the investigation took place.
But he also said Friday that he wasn’t involved in any decision-making related to the roundup.
“I don’t agree with it,” he said. “It was done without my authority. And there’s nothing I could do about it because I wasn’t here.”
Azure said that Headdress took the order to round up people from Bob Welsh, who was chair of the Law and Justice Committee at the time. But Welsh said on Friday that he gave no such directive, and would not have the authority to even if he had tried.
Headdress said in the Internal Affairs report that the directive came from Azure and the Tribal Council.
Criminal investigator Kenneth Trottier said he attended a council meeting where “what to be done with the ‘street people’ was discussed,” according to the report. He said there was no resolution made that directed Headdress to conduct the roundup.
“No one at the meeting gave Headdress a direct order,” Trottier said, according to the report.
Interviews with those arrested revealed that for each individual rounded up, at least one or more of their civil rights was violated, according to the report.
Internal Affairs reviewed minutes from the July 11, 2013, tribal Law and Justice Committee, which contained a paragraph saying a tribal board member didn’t want transients “to be the face” of the tribes during the stampede and opened a discussion about what should be done with that population. August minute meetings say tribal law enforcement officers, under a directive from the council, rounded up transients “who were treated well during their temporary stay.”
Combs said about 29 people were arrested during the stampede, but reports were not completed for all of them. Combs said Headdress told him he could pick up “the local nuisance drunk persons” and there was a resolution authorizing that.
Chase said when she came to work just before the roundup, her co-workers were hanging tarps over the recreation yard at the Fort Peck Adult Detention Center. She told investigators at the time “I knew this would come back and bite everyone in the ass.”
One person who was picked up was diabetic and a second was suspected to be diabetic. Normally, when people with medical issues are arrested, they're taken to a medical facility, but Combs said that didn’t happen during the roundup.
None of the 24 picked up was ever scheduled for or made a court appearance.
A lawsuit filed on behalf of the 31 people who were detained appears to be going nowhere.
It was first filed in July 2016. By then, five of the plaintiffs had died. The lawsuit alleged a conspiracy by local and federal officials to violate their rights and described harsh treatment while at the correctional facility.
The lawsuit relied on the findings of the Internal Affairs investigation. But, while Internal Affairs focused on BIA personnel, the lawsuit named city and tribal officials as well.
Defendants in an amended complaint included Wolf Point Mayor Chris Dschaak, Wolf Point Police Chief Jeff Harada, two unnamed Wolf Point officers, city dog catcher Scott Swain, Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure, members of the Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux Tribal Executive Board and others.
“These are police officers that made arrests without probable cause just because they were alcoholics and they didn’t want them on the street,” said Mary Cleland, a tribal court lay advocate in Wolf Point.
The lawsuit said the detainees were kept in poor conditions without medical treatment, prescription medications or working toilets. Women were given a pot to use as a bathroom; men were instructed to “urinate through the fence,” according to the complaint
A storm picked up that night, and the detainees huddled together, sharing blankets, before jail staff moved them inside, according to the lawsuit.
The amended complaint included only one plaintiff, Reba Demarrias. Then the case fell apart.
In June 2017, U.S. Magistrate Judge John Johnston filed notice that the defendants had not been served the amended complaint, filed nearly a year ago. He required Demarrias to show the court why the case should continue.
Dan Flaherty, Demarrias’ attorney, told the magistrate via court briefs that Demarrias was indigent and didn’t have a permanent address. Flaherty said he couldn’t reach her and asked for more time. Flaherty filed to withdraw from the case and did not return calls for comment.
On Sept. 19, Magistrate Johnston filed to dismiss the case. The defendants never had to answer to the allegations.
Cleland said that someone from the government should have stepped in to assist in the case because the plaintiffs were indigent and, due to their circumstances, not able to follow the court process closely.
“It’s because we’re Indians that nobody gives any care about,” she said. “You can violate civil rights and the U.S. prosecutor didn’t step in.”
She said she’s trying to take the case to the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, which handles monetary claims against the U.S. government.