Sunday, March 31, 2019

Sunday Long Read: A Volunteer Detective

Barack Obama was arguably the best President in recent history when it came to Native issues.  He actually gave a damn about a section of America that is ignored to the point of criminal neglect under Donald Trump.  The death of Olivia Kerry Lone Bear rocked the Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota, and it took an amateur sleuth named Lissa Yellowbird-Chase to find her body, when the police had completely given up.

On a blazing hot day in late July, Lissa Yellowbird-Chase drove her black SUV, license plate "SEARCH", to a muddy landing on Lake Sakakawea. It was a remote entrance to the water on the northern edge of the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota - not much more than a rickety dock at the end of an uneven gravel road.

Hitched to the back of Yellowbird-Chase's truck was a 14-foot boat with a half-broken motor and a set of fishing sonar. By her own admission, she was not a particularly skilled or experienced boater, nor an expert in sonar. But she had a plan.

Along with a couple of volunteers from her group, the Sahnish Scouts of North Dakota, they would motor along the shoreline of the bay, scanning the lakebed for anomalies, moving further and further away from the shore with each pass. They would keep going until Yellowbird-Chase satisfied the nagging feeling she'd had about this spot for months.

"I don't know what it was - I was drawn to that place," she recalled later. "I actually stood in that bay last fall."

Nine months earlier, in the autumn of 2017, a young mother of five named Olivia Kerri Lone Bear vanished from New Town, a tiny oil-boom city on the Fort Berthold Reservation. The 32-year-old was last seen on 24 October, at the wheel of a teal-coloured Chevy Silverado pick-up truck that she often borrowed from a friend. She was a caretaker for her father, and the following day, he found her wallet and mobile phone at his home.

Since then, the Lone Bear family had been searching for Olivia in vain. Yellowbird-Chase joined the effort along with the Sahnish Scouts, a group she founded in 2015 to search and recover missing people in Indian Country - though she had been doing the work on her own since about 2011.

"PLEASE SHARE," she posted on Facebook five days after Olivia disappeared, alongside a missing poster with telephone numbers for the Lone Bear family and her own personal mobile number. "You can remain anonymous."

In the weeks that followed, large groups of volunteers fanned out across the 1-million acre reservation on foot, and on all-terrain vehicles. Her family took over a tribal government building and established a search headquarters with a tipline, which they manned every day for months. Reported sightings came from as far away as California and Arizona.

But once the tundra-like North Dakota winter set in, all search efforts - aside from keeping the phone line open - had to be suspended until spring. The lake froze over, sealing itself under a thick crust of ice.

By July, when Yellowbird-Chase pushed out in her boat, summer was in its full height, and the waters were wide open.

She tried not to get excited when, a few hundred feet from the shore, her sonar picked up a rectangular object on what should have been the blank, featureless lakebed. In the early 1950s, the US Army Corps of Engineers dammed the Missouri River and created Lake Sakakawea, flooding farmland that belonged to the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes, and swallowing towns whole. The anomaly she saw on the screen could be nothing more than an old building foundation or a chimney, she thought.

till, she took a photo and texted it to Keith Cormican, a technical diver and certified underwater sonar operator in Wisconsin. While Yellowbird-Chase was a sonar novice, she considered Cormican her "mentor" - his organisation Bruce's Legacy has located and recovered 27 drowning victims since 2013.

"I knew she had a vehicle," he recalled.

He texted back that she should keep taking scans at different times of day, to catch shadows coming off the object that would give it better definition.

After days of obsessively motoring back and forth over the same spot, and struggling with their broken motor, Yellowbird-Chase texted a new image to Corey Bristol, the then-chief deputy of the Mountrail County Sheriff's Office. It was a Saturday, and Bristol was 70 miles away, spending his day off with his father. But when he looked down at his phone and saw a pixellated image featuring what looked like a tiny Tonka truck at the centre, he jumped in his car and accelerated back towards New Town.

"We definitely wanted to find out what was down there," he said.

It was indeed Olivia Kerry Lone Bear's body.  The crime has not been solved, because the system in place absolutely favors non-Native suspects, who get regular police proceedings.  But when the victim is Native, a broken and overloaded system takes over and the gathering of evidence and even determining if there's a body can take years.

And the cases die.

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