Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 12: Confessions | Part 1)
THE HOUSE AT 2505 SOUTH Garfield Road, in Spokane, Washington, was often mistaken for elegant, though anyone who had been inside knew it was cheerless and tacked-together, having had too many owners who had tried to renovate and given up. It was three stories, white, with vaulted arches over the entry and a sunroom lit with Christmas lights. There were two sets of double doors that opened from a sunroom into the main house, so that when a city detective, Brian Cestnik, arrived at 7:46 on the evening of December 15, 2013, he could see, from the street, a television on in the living room and a fluorescent glow emanating from the kitchen. He saw no one inside the house. The paramedics were gone, Doug Carlile pronounced dead. An upper floor where the wife had hidden in a closet was dark. Officers lingered in the street as Cestnik spoke with them. The first had visited a neighbor, a woman, who saw a white van pass her house three times in the hour before she heard the gun. A second officer had been the first to enter the house. A third had followed a canine into the backyard and noted some curious signs: footprints; water marks splashed across a wooden fence; and a welding glove, dry, which the officer found strange, since the ground on which it lay was damp.
Cestnik took notes and then delivered a warrant to the home of a judge, who signed it before midnight. By the time he returned to Garfield Road, a forensic team was waiting. They videotaped the residence, first from the street, leafy and meandering, and then up the driveway past a white Mercedes SUV and a blue Ford truck. The night was still, and the video would appear even more silent and granular. Beyond the driveway, in the darkness of the yard, the frame blackened and brightened again to reveal the fence, the metal gate, and the welding glove, palm-up on the ground. Then through a door came a bleach of light: A man laid out on the kitchen floor.
Carlile wore only boxers and shoes, his clothes tossed off by the paramedics, and in the hours that passed, death had flattened his raw, puffed nakedness to the hardwood. When the detective bent to inspect the body, he noted blood marbling the pale of Carlile’s back and caked around his mouth, crusted in the folds of his neck and the hair around his scalp. There were four entrance wounds on his torso and an exit above his belly button, while a fifth bullet had entered by a nostril and lodged inside his head.
Cestnik would say that except for a tooth flung across the room, Carlile’s body was relatively intact. It was the house that disturbed him—the promise of its exterior, the shabbiness once inside—and stranger, still, its adornments: colored lights blinking on a plastic tree, Bible verses scribbled on sticky notes throughout the rooms. Christmas was the detective’s favorite holiday. “Here we are at the happiest time of year, and this guy brutally murdered,” he would say. The radio was tuned to carols and soft rock. No one had bothered to turn it off. At times, Cestnik caught himself humming, and then the music would stop, the horror pushing above the innocence.
THE LEAD DETECTIVE assigned the case was a tall, gray-haired man in his early fifties, Mark Burbridge, whose manners once inspired a colleague to liken him to a pit bull. In the fifteen years he had worked in the homicide unit, and in his years before that as a cop, Burbridge had become famous among Spokane prosecutors for his bluntness and disregard for politics. One would describe a courtroom incident in which he “was practically in fisticuffs with an attorney.” What made him “a very good detective,” the prosecutor noted, was that he seemed utterly lacking in self-consciousness. Cestnik was comparatively shorter and more polite. He had been in the homicide unit only a year, but the two detectives had become close. They went on family vacations together.
Burbridge believed that the relatives of murder victims fit into two categories: those who could not contain their grief, who had “this deep, soul-wrenching, guttural cry,” and those who remained silent out of shock. But when he arrived at his office the night of the murder and found Doug’s wife, Elberta, waiting, he noted she fit neither category. “She was detached,” as the detective put it. She insisted he take her to her husband so that she could pray over his body.
Burbridge added Elberta to his suspect list, which would include a dozen names by morning. At the top were the Carliles’ four sons, each involved to varying degrees in their father’s business, as well as Doug’s partners and investors. Doug was a contractor and, in 2013, he had taken an interest in the oil fields. He founded two companies: the trucking service, Bridgewater, with James Henrikson, whom Doug knew from a prior job; and Kingdom Dynamics Enterprises, with James and two other partners in Spokane. That July, KDE bid on an oil lease on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. The lease was 640 acres, located in Mandaree. Another company had leased the land in 2008 and decided not to drill, since the surrounding land was already leased, and the cost of bringing a rig to a remote location would have reduced their profits. But Doug had not been deterred. He solicited partners, among them James and others whom he promised a full return on their investments within ninety days. Even Burbridge, who knew little about the oil fields, sensed Doug’s promise had been unrealistic, and indeed, as Elberta now explained, Doug had struggled to lure investors. James had grown frustrated. One day, during an argument, he held Doug by his shirt collar as if to strangle him.
After Elberta left Burbridge’s office, the detective phoned Doug’s partners in Spokane, both of whom were out of town—“Homicide detectives hate coincidences,” he said. Then he called Tex Hall, whom Elberta had mentioned. Tex struck Burbridge as eager to talk. He told the detective that he had never met Carlile but knew of him, and that James had stolen $500,000 from his company with the help of another “crook” named Robert Delao.
At eleven o’clock that night, Burbridge dialed James. Their conversation began cordially. James confirmed he had an oil lease with Carlile but denied having any trouble on the reservation. His tone shifted when the detective asked if James had assaulted Doug. James replied that Doug was a liar who owed him almost $2 million. He insisted he had nothing to do with the murder. Burbridge added James to the suspect list.
Over the following days, twenty detectives in the Spokane Police Department were assigned to investigate the case. Burbridge appointed one detective to work solely on identifying the van spotted by the neighbor, which was also caught on a security camera installed on the grounds of a neighboring school, and another to sort through a mounting pile of tips. The Spokesman-Review had published a police tip line, and although most of the tips investigators received were unhelpful, some had promise. One caller knew Carlile from a previous business deal. In the weeks prior to the murder, the caller said, Carlile had asked him to encourage a common acquaintance to invest in the oil lease on Fort Berthold. The acquaintance had not been interested, but Doug lied to his business partners claiming that the acquaintance was. James had suspected Doug was lying and had his wife contact the caller, who told Sarah the truth.
Burbridge was wary to name James a primary suspect just yet. Elberta’s behavior still bothered him, and there was the coincidence with the business partners, though both men had good alibis. There was also the man Tex had named—Robert Delao—whom Burbridge had heard of before. Among Spokane investigators, Delao was known as “a hardcore gangster” who could talk his way out of trouble. In 2010, he had cooperated with federal prosecutors to put seventeen gang members in prison.
Burbridge did not have to call Delao, because to the detective’s surprise, three days after Carlile’s murder, the suspect appeared at the homicide unit and requested an interview.
Delao was short and stocky, in his midthirties, confident and “personable,” Burbridge noted. He explained he had seen the tip line in the paper a day earlier and driven all night to Washington. Despite his journey, Delao looked perky, in a bright blue shirt and matching baseball cap.
They spoke in a small, yellow room, where Burbridge recorded the encounter on videotape. “Robert, I want to talk to you about Doug Carlile,” Burbridge began.
“Correct,” Delao said.
“And everything that’s been goin’ on back there in North Dakota. You need to be honest with me today.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” Delao said.
Delao explained that he had known Doug and had been shocked to hear of his death. He worried that given his criminal history in Spokane, investigators might suspect he was involved, and he hoped to preempt a misunderstanding. Delao had met Doug in 2013 while working for Tex. That summer, Tex received a contract to haul gravel, and Delao went looking for drivers. “First person to call me back was James,” Delao told Burbridge. “He says, ‘Hey, I’ve got some friends, and I’m helping them build their company up.’ ” Delao met James and Carlile for breakfast in Spokane. Carlile wanted “to do business with Tex,” and Delao promised to arrange it. The job fell through—Carlile did not get his license to operate on the reservation in time—but Delao hired him later to haul water for Maheshu. The job paid $38,000. Afterward, Tex told Delao he did not want to hire Carlile anymore. Many Indian-owned companies hired subcontractors like Carlile, but some owners considered this cheating. Tex told Delao to hire truck drivers directly instead.
“Do you still work for [Tex]?” Burbridge interjected.
“I don’t work for him now, no,” Delao replied.
“How come you don’t work for him?”
Delao laughed, blinked, moved a hand up and down on his thigh. “Well,” he said, “when I first met him and his wife Tiffiany, he showed me he had pictures of President Obama, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton. I was actually like, Wow, this guy’s doing something right. I felt honored. I was happy. I felt like I was in the right place in my life. Once I got to know him, I—my opinion changed. There’s a fine line between ambition and greed, and greed—he radiates it. I didn’t want anything to do with it. I was tired of people calling with lawsuits. I was tired of people calling me, threatening my life because they weren’t getting paid, and I was tired of his wife interfering with everything, including telling me what to tell law enforcement if I deal with them. It was just too much drama. James and Sarah and Tex and Tiff, they’re like the Hatfields and McCoys. When you talk to them, they’ll tell you each other is the worst piece of crap on the planet. What they will fail to tell you is they had an excellent relationship until—God, I didn’t want to be fucking recorded—but James and the daughter had an affair, one that continues to this day. There’s a child involved, too.”
“How good of friends are you with James?” Burbridge asked.
Delao sighed. “You know, he’s a pathological liar, so I’m simply someone he can use as his plan to make money. That’s the honest-to-God truth right there.”
“How did you end up in North Dakota?”
It was “James’s recommendation,” Delao said. The manager of Maheshu Energy “could not run the company,” so James suggested to Tex that Delao take his place. Delao felt comfortable on the reservation, since his daughter’s mother was a member of the Spokane Tribe of Indians. “I’ve dealt with tribal councils, and, you know, [James] thought that I might fit in, be able to speak the lingo. And it worked. I did well, real well. I could relate to the Natives out there. I could go to the powwows, and at the same time, I’m not intimidated, so it was easy for me to organize the truckers.”
“I talked with Tex. He’s telling me there’s over half a million dollars in fraud that went on, and [Tex is] talking with Homeland Security and the IRS.”
“I understand. And you know what, if it goes to court, I will be happy to testify in my defense. I did not take anything from that man.”
“What do you know about James and his criminal activity?”
“Well, his record’s insane.”
“I don’t care about his record. I care about him right now.”
“He’s a pathological liar. He got involved in that disappearance with KC.”
“Did you have anything to do with that?”
“No, hell no. Fuck no.”
Burbridge sat up in his chair. He had dressed that day in a white button-down shirt, khaki pants, and hiking boots. “Can I get a DNA swab from you?” he said. “Won’t hurt, just a little DNA swab on the inside of your cheek.” Delao opened his mouth as Burbridge tore open a small package, leaned forward in his chair and, with the precision of a dentist, stuck a swab in Delao’s mouth. Burbridge placed the swab in a plastic bag.
“Did you shoot Doug?” Burbridge asked.
Delao straightened. “No, I had nothing to do with it.”
“I’ve got to tell you, I’m pretty sure James had everything to do with it.”
“You know, I know it sounds bad, I’m his friend, but I don’t think he did. I really don’t think he did.”
“Well there’s no doubt Doug’s involved in a whole ton of fraud back there,” said Burbridge. “Let me tell you how this works. You’ve been involved in big business before, involving dope and other stuff. The big guy threatens everyone below to keep their mouth shut no matter what, but guess who’s always the first one to talk.”
“Yeah, he puts everyone away,” said Delao.
“He puts everyone away. I’m letting you have a chance to get in front of this.”
“That’s why I’m telling you, honestly, I’m sure somebody is going to get caught, and you’ll see, my name is not in this.”
“Did he ever call you up and say, ‘Hey, I need this guy taken care of’?”
“No. No. No.”
“I got to tell you, you look scared to death.”
“Look what we’re talking about here!”
“Let’s talk about the missing guy. If James didn’t do it, who did?”
“I know something happened to him,” said Delao. “Obviously. I never got to meet him, but everyone said he was a real charismatic guy. Real happy. Like how I am normally. Right now, I’m a nervous wreck. But normally I’m happy. I’m smiling. I’m all charm. I was told he was the same way. Somebody like that doesn’t just disappear.”
“Did James ever talk about how mad he was at the guy?”
“No, that’s the thing. He told me they were friends, and he just went away. That was it. His wife says she doesn’t know anything.”
“Tell me about Sarah.”
“How can I put it? Sheltered. The way she’s described herself to me, she went to college. I believe it was something to do with hotels. And I know everything is in her name. I know that. Because she’s the one with decent credit.”
“Is she manipulative?”
“Of course. Yes. Like most females with charm, yes.”
“How did you guys meet?”
“The gym. When I first met James, obviously he’s on steroids, and he looked like he had his shit together. He works out, carries himself like he has millions, which he doesn’t. So when I first met him, I was impressed. I said, if I can pick this guy’s brain, I’ll have it made. I honestly thought that by hooking up with him, I could possibly have the things he said he had.”
“James talks a big time, but he’s not big time,” said Burbridge.
Delao nodded. “He’s a pussy.”
“He wants somebody dead, he knows somebody who knows dangerous people, right?”
“I know what you’re getting at, but look at this: I cooperated”—with federal investigators in 2010. “I put away seventeen people.”
“I’m aware of that,” Burbridge said. “I want to make something clear. I’m not after you. I’m after the truth, and if you’re caught up in my truth, I’m going to destroy you, but you want to be a friend and up-front, I’m willing to work with you.”
“I know you think I’m in the loop, and I’m not,” Delao said.
Burbridge leaned forward in his chair again, took off his glasses, rubbed his eyes, the movement so deliberate it appeared scripted. “I got to tell you, you look scared to death, my friend,” he said. “I’m not kidding you. I think you’re part of this. Minimum, James called and said, ‘I need help,’ and you hooked him up with somebody.”
“No. Like I said, no.”
“If that’s what happened, and now you’re like, ‘Holy shit, he really did it,’ you need to step forward on this and get yourself in front, because I guarantee you, I’m coming, and those people who did the shooting, they’re going to roll back on everybody. If we get James first, I guarantee you he’s going to shit his pants and puke his guts on the table for me when they start talking life and the death penalty.”
“I know. I know,” Delao said. “I’ve been through it, so I know.”
THE INTERVIEW WAS perhaps most remarkable for the way Delao spoke about the oil fields, particularly about Fort Berthold. Even in the wake of the Carlile murder, as the sad fate of his life was becoming clear, the reservation seemed to contain for him a promise that after all the mistakes he had made, he would be redeemed. “Opportunities like that don’t just come,” Delao told Burbridge. “My only experience in life, really, is working for Tex Hall. Let’s say I didn’t have the oil field. What would I do? Sell cars? North Dakota is the only place in our country right now where somebody like me can go and make big money.” His annual salary at Maheshu had been $75,000. Later, Delao would insist under questioning that when he called James in January 2012, two months after his own release from prison, he had not wanted to go back to selling drugs. He wanted to go to the reservation, he explained, to make “an honest living.”
In this respect, Delao was likely telling the truth, but the stories he would tell over the following months would lever open a gap between this truth and his ambitions. It would become obvious that Delao had found it harder than he expected to distance himself from crime. One could sense him trying in the way he described the oil fields: “You have these guys living in their trucks in the middle of nowhere. They’re fighting depression on a daily basis, and now you’re giving them six-figure salaries. So they’re creating a breed of people, walking around with these false egos. They’re causing problems. I wouldn’t raise my kids there.”
Whether or not Delao grasped the irony of his statements, it was obvious he had worked hard. He put in eighteen-hour days at Maheshu while also doing odd jobs at the chairman’s ranch. “I knew all his fucking horses by name,” Delao said. He considered Tex the gatekeeper to his own material success—a belief similar to the one that drew James and Sarah to Tex, and then drew the Carliles.
That same third week in December, Cestnik drove to Moses Lake, a town southwest of Spokane, where Elberta Carlile had gone to stay with her son after the murder. Seated in her son’s living room, Elberta described for Cestnik a day that past July when she had gone with her husband to the reservation. They had met a tribal member, whose family allotment they intended to lease, at Better B’s in New Town and then stopped at the Bureau of Indian Affairs office to place a bond—a requirement before their lease could be approved. “We were sitting there in the office, and there’s a poster up on the wall of James and Sarah,” Elberta told Cestnik. “I about fell over. I said, ‘Doug, look at this.’ There was something about criminal activity.”
Cestnik brought up a copy of the flyer on his phone and handed it to Elberta. He had found a link to it on the Internet a day earlier while searching for information about James. The word BEWARE was printed in large letters across the top. “Does that look familiar?” Cestnik asked. “Is that the one that was on the wall?”
“Yes,” said Elberta. “They’re saying a man disappeared and was never found, and it was after he had an argument with James over business and money. I’m saying, ‘Doug, do you realize? This man?’ And he goes, ‘We’ll talk about it when we get out of here.’ And I said, ‘What are we doing?’ I took the poster down so I could read it and keep it and have proof of it. Doug just told me, ‘I knew James had problems, but I didn’t know about this. I just wanted to give him a second chance in life.’ And I’m freaking out. We’d even stayed at their house on that trip. So we go back to the house, and I just want to ask them what’s going on, and I’m not sure if I should.”
“Did you ask them?”
“Yes, I did.”
“What did they say?”
“They just looked at each other. They didn’t hardly say anything. They said, ‘Well, part of that stuff is true.’ So when I got home, I started doing research, and I found out a lot of stuff that appeared to be true.”
Elberta spoke cautiously, constantly revising, fretfully wiping tears. She was a tall, strong-looking woman, with thin hair that fell to her waist. After she and Doug went home to Spokane, she explained, the land deal fell apart. Their lease was approved, but by September, they still had not found a loan to finance the drilling. One investor demanded she be repaid in full even though the drilling had not yet begun. Doug did not have the money. He worked constantly, but for reasons Elberta did not understand, the truck operation acquired few contracts. Bridgewater, Elberta said, never earned the Carliles a cent. Doug spent much of that fall in North Dakota, while Elberta, disturbed by the flyer, did not follow him. They spoke every day. Doug wanted to rent Tex’s shop, or at least park his trucks there, since he believed a relationship with Maheshu would lend Bridgewater, as it had Blackstone, an advantage on the reservation. James warned Doug not to reach out to Tex, but Doug ignored him. One day, as Elberta recalled, Doug phoned Maheshu. “And you know who answers? Robert Delao. So, Doug tells him, ‘I need to talk to Tex,’ and Robert says, ‘He’s not in right now.’ Doug wasn’t off the phone ten minutes, and he’s getting all these texts from James. James flew into this rage, and we didn’t get it. How did that happen? Then we got it: Delao was a spy.”
Delao entertained Doug’s inquiry anyway. They texted regularly, and each time, Delao promised he would show Tex a contract, but he never did. Delao even met Doug once in Watford City, in a parking lot outside a cell phone store, where they discussed another contract that also never materialized.
Doug called Tex again later in the fall. “This time we got ahold of Tex’s wife, girlfriend, whatever she is to him,” Elberta told Cestnik. “We needed Tex on our side, because he’s with the BIA and all that, but we knew he would either have nothing to do with us because we knew James or he would help us. So Doug told her, ‘I’m going to be doing work over there, and I’d like to rent your shop.’ She said, ‘What do you know about Bridgewater?’ And he thought, Oh my gosh, they know. So he said, ‘I started Bridgewater. I got in with some despicable people, I didn’t know what I was getting into, and I’m no longer part of that.’ All the sudden Tex comes on the phone, and he said, ‘Good thing you said that Doug, or I would have never spoken to you again. James embezzled $514,000 from me.’ Doug told him, ‘The strange thing is, last time I called your office, I got ahold of Robert Delao, and James started texting me.’ That’s when Tex realized Delao was a spy for James.”
Elberta believed Doug had been scared but would not admit it. Even after the incident in which James held him by the collar of his shirt, Doug had not been deterred. “James said he was going to take him out if he didn’t get out of the way,” Elberta explained, and yet she and her husband had continued to believe the deal would work out in their favor. Doug assured her that once they got a loan, he would pay off or buy out their investors. The Carliles were deeply religious and believed that if they prayed, God would reward them. Whenever Doug ignored James’s calls, James tried Elberta instead. Once, she texted James, “The Lord is in control. If God is for us, nobody can be against us.”
James did not have patience for their proselytizing. “You need to pull your weight. I will not carry you, Doug,” he texted one day.
“Someday grasshopper you will learn that friendship is worth more than money,” Doug replied.
“Nothing is worth more than money, only my relationship with God and my wife,” James wrote. “God, wife, money, friends.”
The Carliles had one more option. Through a broker, Doug had found an investor in Dallas, Texas, who had a record of funding oil and gas production in Oklahoma, Louisiana, and the Appalachian Basin. The investor thought the lease looked promising. An Exxon subsidiary had successfully drilled land surrounding the lease, and from seismic data the investor estimated that if KDE drilled into the Bakken, as well as into a deeper formation called Three Forks, their wells would produce up to thirty-five million barrels of oil. In early December, the investor negotiated an agreement with Doug. When Doug shared the news, Elberta told Cestnik, “We were sitting on the couch holding hands. He said, ‘I will know by Sunday about the money.’ ” Doug also told Elberta that he believed James was involved in criminal activity. After he got the money, Doug planned to go to the FBI.
“He never told you what he had on James?” Cestnik asked.
“No,” Elberta said and began to cry. “We had a lot going for us, because we had God going for us, but we didn’t have the money, and in this world, you have to have the money.”