Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 10: The Search | Part 2)
THE SUMMER OF 2013 settled on the prairie, turning everything a languid green. Lissa and Jill were speaking again—Jill had written an apology, Lissa gave her a call—although they spoke less often and less intimately than before. Jill called Lissa whenever she had news or heard from Steve Gutknecht, the Bureau of Criminal Investigations agent in Williston. Investigators had completed an analysis of James’s and KC’s phone data, finding that on the morning KC disappeared, his phone had been active until it entered the vicinity of James’s phone, at which point KC received messages and calls but no longer answered or made them. That same afternoon, the phones moved in tandem toward Watford City, where they remained until that night, when both traveled to Williston. There, KC’s phone had been deactivated.
The analysis made investigators more certain of James’s culpability but did little to build their case. It was not a crime for a phone to follow another. To indict James for murder, they needed much more than the analysis—a body or, at the very least, a witness.
Lissa was beginning to think their only hope was finding KC, but as the summer wore on, this was seeming even more difficult. She wanted to organize a search of the reservation with support from the tribal council. One councilwoman, Judy Brugh, replied to her inquiry, suggesting that Jill draft a letter requesting assistance from tribal police and a speaking slot at a council meeting. Jill drafted two letters—one to the council and another to Tex asking permission to search his property. Neither the council nor Tex responded.
Lissa urged Jill to come on a search anyway, but Jill considered the trip a waste of time. She had asked Gutknecht for a copy of the phone data, hoping it would suggest a specific location, but he would not give it to her. “I just can’t break the law and get myself in trouble,” he wrote. “Rest assured if there…was a good place to search and not just blind searching it would have been done long ago. Sorry I can’t be of more help with a place to search but if I had that I’d be searching it.”
Lissa disagreed with his suggestion that searching was futile. She knew the chances of stumbling upon KC were low—“Finding a body in the badlands is harder than finding a needle in a haystack,” she often said—but this was beside the point. If they had one good reason to go on searching, Lissa thought, it was to show James that the case had not languished. There was still the possibility that a witness would come forward—that by a tip or a fluke, KC would be found.
Lissa arranged for a professional search team to meet Jill in North Dakota in late June. Jill said she could not come. She believed they should be more “realistic” about their prospects of finding KC, she said, and she was tired, still fighting the defamation suit. Sarah had updated the complaint:
- I believe the defendant also started to post “Beware” of my husband and I all around town and on the internet. My bank received this poster and Tex Hall received this poster as well. It states that we are con-artists and thieves. These allegations on the poster are untrue. Tex Hall gave me the envelope address to him with this flyer….
- People in town are constantly asking us if we are involved with Mr. Clarke’s disappearance. Many businesses have stated that they don’t want to do business with us because of these rumors. We are the center of the town’s gossip and live under a constant cloud.
- As a result of these posters and false allegations, our contract between Maheshu Energy was terminated on March 16, 2013, which was also around the same time the flyer was sent to Tex Hall….We were forced to dissolve the LLC.
Lissa argued with Jill: “It breaks my heart to know that I have invested nearly a year of my time, effort, resources, etc. to make this happen FOR YOU and you are not willing to do what is necessary to find KC. Pushing it off is only giving the person or persons involved with KC’s disappearance more time to tamper with whatever scraps of evidence have been left.” They compromised, and in July, Jill drove to North Dakota.
The search did not go well. They met in New Town—Rick, Lissa, Jill, and Jill’s husband—as they had before, but this time Jill appeared to have little interest in searching. Lissa was impatient; Jill, withdrawn. They rode in separate cars to Mandaree and north along the lake edge, where the shoreline meandered along bays and coves and peninsulas jutting into the water. The day was hot; a haze descended; the prairie crawled with wood ticks. Jill did not want to leave the car. She wandered a short distance through the grass, through coneflower and thistle, and retreated again to the pavement.
When they went by the Maheshu shop that afternoon, Tex was not there. Jill and her husband began to bicker in the parking lot. Lissa lost her patience. “Everyone shut the fuck up,” she said. There was something strange about the lot, she thought. Then she saw what it was: A white man, parked in a red sedan, was watching them. Lissa took a photograph of the man. He looked away. “Let’s get out of here,” she said.
KC WAS NOT the only one for whom Lissa searched that summer. In the months before and after he disappeared, at least three other men had gone missing from the oil fields. Mike Marchus, the Bureau of Criminal Investigations agent in Minot, sent Lissa a list of names, which included Ron Johnson—“74 year old male, 5’11”, 220 lbs, gray/blonde hair, beard and mustache, wears glasses and has diabetes”—who had last been seen on the morning of October 16, 2011, at the 4 Bears Casino & Lodge. There was also Eric Haider, thirty years old, who had a “full beard” and “multiple tattoos.” He disappeared about three months after KC, on a construction site south of the reservation. Lissa took particular interest in his case, since the circumstances of his disappearance were similar to KC’s, but she found no overlap among the people each man had known. She spoke to Haider’s mother, whom she helped by posting on social media and distributing missing posters on her drives around the oil fields. That was how Johnson’s family heard of Lissa and asked for her help. Lissa created a Facebook page to which she invited many of the same people who followed Jill’s page and, in June, with assistance from law enforcement, planned a search for Johnson. She did not believe he had been murdered. Johnson had intended to stay with his sister in a town east of the reservation the night he disappeared but never arrived at her house. His family said he had a history of depression. Lissa thought it was more likely that he had driven off the road. She planned to walk the edges of the lake and various sloughs and invited Sarah Creveling to join her.
The search was on a Saturday, the prairie blanketed with a still, heavy heat. Lissa met two deputies and some volunteers at the gas station in Parshall. When Sarah arrived, Lissa laughed at how the deputies looked at her, fumbling with recognition. Sarah was more composed than her photographs on the flyer had let on. She was taller than Lissa by several inches, and slender, her hair pulled in a ponytail and eyes darkened with mascara. Her thin lips opened into a confident smile. She wore diamond earrings, a baseball cap, and a blue zippered shirt.
Lissa and Micah rode in Sarah’s truck to the lake, the volunteers and deputies following behind. “She had a really nice truck,” Micah later recalled, “like a Ford F-150, with the big-ass thousand-dollar-apiece tires. Everything she owned was so nice.” Micah was smitten with Sarah and made no secret of it, proposing that if she dumped her husband he would be available. This made Sarah and Lissa laugh. They joked about what James would think. The lake appeared to the west and was lost again behind the bluffs, behind fields of corn and purple flax that formed a loose seam with the horizon. They passed the old Congregational church, the sky showing through the steeple, and a cemetery where Arikara soldiers were buried, its thin white stones stuck like cigarettes in the earth. They turned east toward White Shield, toward the border of the reservation, and south, again, toward the lake’s edge, where roads dropped right into the water. They followed faint tracks, skirting washouts until they came to a ravine. Sarah paused and stared down into it. It was steep on both sides—they could easily get stuck—but Lissa assured her she would make it. All Sarah had to do was give the truck a little gas. Sarah did not seem sure, and for a moment, Lissa wondered if she would go a different way, but then Sarah shifted into a lower gear and, as Lissa instructed, gathered speed. The truck rocked as it plunged, and when they came up the other side, Sarah was smiling, pleased with herself.
“Awesome spending time with you crazy girl! It was a blast!” Lissa wrote her the next day.
“Yesterday was a lot of fun!” Sarah replied. “I had 3 more ticks when I got home OMG I about died ha ha. I threw them on the ground and James was looking for them!”
They would try to meet again that summer but miss each other. Their messages grew friendlier still. One day, Sarah sent a video of her and James cuddling a puppy. She rarely mentioned the flyers anymore, chatting instead about work and weekend plans. She had enrolled in an exercise class called Insanity, which relieved her stress, she said.
“That would be FATALITY for me,” Lissa wrote to Sarah. She had little use for deliberate exercise. It was August, and she was preparing to go to sun dance: “No food or water. Just dance ceremony and prayer.”
“No food or water?!” Sarah asked. “Can you last that long without?”
“Yeah,” Lissa replied. “Once a year.”
Lissa had begun to share more about herself. Though she did not name her kids aside from Micah, they were ever present in her messages, which contained the relentless detail of a family in flux. Obie and Lissa were fighting more and more. One day, he had tried to run away. As soon as he disappeared, Lissa went to the computer in Obie’s bedroom and looked at his Facebook messages, where she learned he had gone to meet up with his father, OJ, who had been out of prison ten years. Lissa called the police, who located and returned her son.
Even as a child, Obie had held OJ against her. The first time he said, “You kept me from my dad,” he had been six years old. “I didn’t keep you from your dad,” Lissa had replied. “Your dad kept himself from you.” They had been living in Minot before Lissa went to prison. Eventually, she had gotten sick of hearing it, loaded Obie and Micah into a car, and driven through the night to Little Earth, the housing complex in Minneapolis, where she pounded on OJ’s sister’s door. “Fuck, Nadia’s here,” she had heard his relatives yell, and when she pushed her way into the apartment, they had begged her not to kill OJ. She found him facedown on the carpet, nudged his face with her foot. “Hey, Dad, get yourself up and talk to these boys,” she had said, and when OJ lifted his head, she saw that his cheeks were bruised, his eyes swollen, his lips broken and bloody. He had been in a fight. “That ain’t my dad,” Obie said. “The hell it ain’t,” Lissa replied. “Damn, Nad,” OJ had said. “Why you got to be so mean?”
Now Obie was fifteen, and his bitterness had sharpened. Once at the top of his class, he was doing poorly in school. He passed tests easily and was popular among his classmates, elected to student council, and recruited to the football team. But he rarely put in effort, and as soon as he joined something, he quit. When Lissa asked Obie what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied, “An alcoholic. You and Dad are alcoholics, so I guess that’s what I’m going to be.”
For every mistake her children made, Lissa felt a twinge of guilt, driven deeper by the fact that they, too, blamed her for their problems. She worried most of all for CJ. He was whip-smart and acted tough, but Lissa believed he was her most sensitive child. He was often depressed, which she attributed to the traumatic brain injury he suffered while in foster care. A few years earlier, CJ had tried to take his own life. They had been driving together across Fargo when Lissa lost her patience with him, stopped the car, and told him to get out. A few days later, he had called, asking if he could come over. When he arrived at her apartment, he went into the bathroom, and when he emerged, he had tripped, dropping an empty pill bottle. Later, in a hospital room, as CJ’s pulse loosened, a doctor had grabbed Lissa by the chin. If she had anything to say to her son, she should say it, the doctor had said. Lissa did not remember what it was she said. She remembered the way the doctor held her face, looked her in the eyes, and in that moment, Lissa knew the doctor was a mother, too. As machines sang out the rhythm of her son’s dying, Lissa had lost her breath. Shauna and Lindsay stood near, and when a chaplain walked in, he had looked from Lissa to her daughters. “He did this because of her,” Lissa heard them say, and the chaplain, taking her daughters’ hands, commanded them to pray.
Lissa believed her daughters. She believed them even after CJ explained that he had swallowed the pills because his girlfriend broke up with him. “It’s not your fault,” he tried to assure his mother, but the guilt she felt preceded the incident, and there wasn’t much he could say.
It was Micah who consoled her then and every other time Lissa fought with her kids. “I try my hardest,” she told him once.
“I realize that, Mom,” he replied. “Why do you think I stick by your side?”
Micah’s older brothers called him their “bigger little brother” because they thought he had grown up faster than them. Lissa just figured she had been a better mother to Micah than to her other children. Already, Micah was two years past the age at which his doctors believed his lungs would give out, damaged so severely by anhydrous ammonia when the train derailed in Minot a decade earlier. Lissa refused to believe his doctors—refused to allow Micah to believe them, too. In prison, she had come across the book The Power of Intention by Wayne Dyer; and later, at a garage sale in Fargo, she found a collection of his books on tape. After that, whenever Lissa drove Micah to appointments at the nearest Indian health clinic in White Earth, Minnesota, she had made him listen to the tapes. According to Dyer, a person had the power to change his own DNA. Do you hear that, Micah? she had said. Do you know what that means? It means that what these doctors are telling us is wrong. If you believe them that you’re going to die, you will die. I don’t want you to listen to these people. I want you to live.
Lissa thought of those tapes whenever Micah accompanied her on trips to the reservation. He was not wholly uncritical of his mother. He often teased Lissa for applying an excessive level of intensity to even the most mundane tasks. Later, they both would laugh when they told a story from one day that summer in 2013, when Lissa dropped by the tribal headquarters to find a map of her land in Mandaree. She had inherited the land from her father. She never would have known about this land had an oil company’s request for a right-of-way not appeared in her mail. She had gone first to the Bureau of Indian Affairs to find a map, since she had no idea where the allotments were located, but an administrator had claimed the information was proprietary and refused to give one to her. Lissa figured she would have better luck at the tribal land office.
She had been inside tribal headquarters a long time when she burst through the doors at a run, clutching a roll of paper. Two men she met in the land office had been reluctant to give her a map. “They wanted eighty dollars,” Lissa later complained. “I’m a landowner. How am I supposed to know where my land is if they won’t give me a map? I had to go half-ass traditional. I’m like, ‘What’s your name? Okay, we’re related.’ I start bringing up names, and this guy’s like, ‘Oh, shit. Here, you can borrow this map,’ and the other guy’s like, ‘Hey, wait a minute.’ I said, ‘No, man, he already borrowed it to me.’ He gets on the phone, starts texting his boss. Then he’s calling security, so I grabbed that map and got the hell out of there.”
Micah sighed when he saw his mother dashing out of tribal headquarters: “I said, ‘Mom, how come every time I’m here with you they’ve got to call in the militia?’ It felt like that movie National Treasure, where they get the Declaration of Independence, and they’re taking off. She was breathing heavier than ever. She just put the car in reverse, and we were gone.”
That same summer, Lissa bought an aluminum dinghy with an outboard motor in which she searched for Ron Johnson and took Micah fishing on the lake. They would head out on one of the dirt roads in White Shield that dropped into the water, lower the dinghy down the bank, and motor toward the depths. Micah could fish all day if Lissa let him. Sometimes Tony, her cousin, and other relatives joined. Lissa liked to fish, as well, though she liked as much to talk and look around. The bluffs looked smaller from out on the water, the prairie almost flat, and if the boat floated into the shallows, it would have been easy to entangle a line on a cottonwood tree. There and along the shore, silver snags protruded at odd angles from the water, the last stubborn residents of the bottomlands.
ONE DAY AT the end of the summer, while driving in Mandaree, Lissa dropped by the cemetery at Saint Anthony Catholic Church. This time, she found her father’s grave.
She had met her father, Leroy, only a few times, and they had spoken infrequently on the phone. The last time he called, he had told her, “You sound just like your mother.” He had not intended it as a compliment.
Lissa had long resented her mother for not staying with Leroy. Lissa knew that her resentment was unfair—that it had not been just her mother’s choice to leave. She suspected her grandmother had pressured Irene to give Lissa up, and she knew it was because of Catholicism—a “white way” of thinking inflicted on her family—that her grandmother believed this necessary. But what, exactly, had changed her mother’s mind? This had never been clear to Lissa, who still wondered about those first seven months of her life in the custody of other relatives. Delphine and Ed had been their names. Had they loved her as much as her mother did? Had they missed her when her mother took her back? After that, they adopted another girl to take Lissa’s place, and years later, when Lissa was in college, this girl had appeared at the door of her apartment. She just wanted to see what Lissa looked like, she had said.
As Lissa grew older and had children of her own, she resented her mother less for leaving her father, but the feeling had not gone away entirely. By then, there were other reasons for her resentment: all the times her mother decided Lissa was unfit to raise her own children, and times before that, when her mother expected her to be something she was not. Clean. Well-dressed. Sober. Was this really what her mother wanted of her, Lissa had wondered, or had she just been worried what white people thought?
For years these questions had trailed Lissa, and then, one day, they simply had not mattered anymore. The change came a few springs after her release from prison, on a road trip with her brother Percy. His own mother lived in a nursing home in Idaho, and Percy had wanted to visit her; so Lissa applied for permission from her parole officer to join him. She remembered most vividly, when they arrived at the nursing home, how small and shriveled Percy’s mother looked. In that moment, Lissa thought of her own mother’s impossible strength. She could summon no more anger toward her mother and decided that day to forgive her.
Forgiveness did not erase all resentment, but Lissa found it easier to let go of her anger now. Irene was approaching seventy years of age and soon would retire and move home. Now and then, Lissa considered moving home to the reservation, as well. In August, her probation had come to an end, and for the first time in seven years, she had no one to report to. The thought of moving unsettled her. She had rarely been so stable as in her years in Fargo, and yet every time she returned home, she felt a pull stronger than before. “The rez is the rez,” she once would say. “Everybody wants to be on an adventure somewhere, but when you run out of resources, you run out of time, you run out of whatever, it’s where everybody goes. It’s the end of the road in a lot of ways. A lot of people from here don’t even live here most of their lives, but they’ll get buried here. It’s home. It’s an unconditional place. You walk in, and it’s exactly where you left off.”
On the few occasions Lissa visited White Shield that summer, she went to the cemetery in the south of the segment where her Yellow Bird relatives, among them Chucky, were buried. She missed Chucky. Once, she had sent a message to his number, and someone replied. Lissa apologized. It had not occurred to her that his number had been reassigned, but the new recipient told her not to worry: “He must have been an awesome guy because a lot of people text and call him still.”
She wondered what Chucky would have said about the boom. He probably would have sued the government over something, because that was what he liked to do. It was as if Chucky had hoped the government would make things right. Or maybe it never had anything to do with hope. Maybe it had been his way of proving that history repeats itself. That was more likely. Chucky had been a cynic. In all the riddles they had tried on each other, Lissa could recall stumping him only once. They had been in his bedroom, her uncle seated at his desk, Lissa in the folding chair. “Chucky, what’s the ultimate ruler of everything?” she had said.
“Money?” he ventured.
“No. Love—unconditional love.”