Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 12: Confessions | Part 2)
A SNOWSTORM WHIPPED across the northern prairie on the day that the Spokane detectives, Mark Burbridge and Brian Cestnik, arrived in North Dakota. It was fifty degrees below zero with wind chill. They had stayed the night at a hotel in Montana, where, by morning, their tires had frozen, thumping loudly for the first hour of their drive. The wind blew so hard that everything became white. Twice they had to stop in the road to wait for the snowy curtains to part, and when they came to Watford City, night had fallen, gas flares casting everything in orange.
The next morning, they ate eggs in the lobby of the hotel, empty but for an eighteen-year-old with a bad windburn who had worked his first shift in the oil fields that night. Then they drove north on the main street. “There were guys everywhere,” Cestnik would recall. “All the mom-and-pop stores were shut down, sold, and every business had to do with the oil field.” Wherever the detectives stopped, they asked after James and Sarah. Many people claimed to have heard of them, including a bartender who said when Cestnik mentioned Sarah, “Oh, you mean ‘Bentley’?” The woman knew Sarah from the gym and often spotted her driving an expensive car around town.
When they arrived at James and Sarah’s house at the north end of Watford City, they noted it was larger than other houses in the neighborhood, with gray siding and a wide porch with a view of the road. Cestnik knocked; a woman answered. Delao was inside, mildly surprised to see them. James and Sarah were not home, Delao said, but would return to the house in an hour. The detectives chatted briefly with Delao, and indeed, when they returned, two matching pickup trucks were parked side by side in the driveway.
Burbridge later described the encounter: “We went in the breezeway area, through the garage. I saw the Bentley sitting on flat tires. That’s one way to treat a car that beautiful. We knocked, and Sarah came to the door. She knew that we had been there already. She snarled at us, gave me the dirtiest look. She said, ‘You want my husband. I’m not going to talk to you,’ and stormed off. Didn’t even say, ‘Wait here.’ Nothing polite. I’d never met her before. She was extremely aggressive. It didn’t surprise me. I’m used to dealing with major, major bad guys. You don’t give her anything, because you don’t want her to read you. So it’s thirty seconds, forty seconds, and James comes to the door. It’s a screen door, and the inner door’s cracked. He was a big son of a bitch. I’m a big guy. I used to be a major weight lifter in college, and it was clear to me that he can move some weight. He benches five plus, probably. And he leaned out the door, and I introduced myself, and he slapped me on the shoulder. He said, ‘Hey, too bad you drove all that way. My attorney told me not to talk to you.’ That was the end of it. He shut the door in my face. I grew werewolf fangs. I wanted to rip that arm off that shoulder so bad. It was very clear to me at that point that he was my number one suspect.”
IF IT OCCURRED to Burbridge to connect the murder of Carlile with the disappearance of Kristopher Clarke, he soon forgot about it. He did not remember Darrik Trudell, the young Homeland Security agent, calling the morning after the murder, though Trudell insisted he did. Burbridge did remember Lissa’s calls—and remembered ignoring them. He would claim the first time he heard of Clarke was a week after Carlile was murdered, when Cestnik discovered the flyer. In any case, it was after Burbridge saw the flyer that he phoned the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigations. Steve Gutknecht was out of the office; Burbridge was told to call Trudell. He called but would not remember what they spoke about. Neither Burbridge nor Cestnik told Trudell when they went to Watford City. Clarke was not his case, Burbridge said—“We’re not searching for his evidence.”
None of the evidence Burbridge gathered pointed clearly at James. It was only a hunch, a mass of accusations, that placed James at the top of his suspect list—hardly a sure bet, since on January 10, 2014, new evidence pointed at someone else.
Detectives had submitted the welding glove found in the Carlile’s backyard for DNA analysis, and got a match: Timothy Suckow, a white male, fifty years old, with a record of burglary and assault. Burbridge had never heard of Suckow before. In a records search, he learned that Suckow lived with his wife on the east side of Spokane. Burbridge assigned officers to surveil the suspect’s house, and on the thirteenth of January, officers followed Suckow to the offices of a company that cleaned up hazardous waste, where Suckow worked, and arrested him in the parking lot. While Suckow was detained at the police station, officers searched his house, where they found twenty guns, several black balaclavas, and a single welding glove. Meanwhile, the detective whom Burbridge had assigned to locate the van learned it belonged to the same company for which Suckow worked. Detectives searched the van and, in a center console, found a handwritten list on college-ruled paper:
The appearance of a new suspect baffled Burbridge. In a month of interviews, no one had mentioned Suckow. None of the Carliles, nor Doug’s partners, nor Tex had heard of or recognized him. In photos taken upon his arrest, Suckow’s skin looked pale, his eyes sunken and dark. He had a shaved head and wide, muscular shoulders. Reporters suggested he was mentally ill, that he believed the world was coming to an imminent end, but no one could make sense of his involvement in the murder. Only one thing connected Suckow to the other suspects: James’s number was listed in his phone.
Now Burbridge faced the same dilemma Gutknecht and Trudell had encountered before. While it seemed obvious that James was connected to Carlile’s murder, the detective had hardly enough evidence to gain a warrant for James’s arrest, let alone charge him with a violent crime. In the middle of January, Burbridge called Trudell, who offered an idea: Federal agents could use the evidence they had gathered while investigating James for fraud to obtain a warrant to search James’s house. In December, a Blackstone employee had told Trudell that James had a gun safe, even though James’s prior felony convictions prohibited him from keeping firearms. Burbridge accepted Trudell’s offer, and on January 14, 2014, Trudell and his fellow agents executed the search warrant. As Sarah and James made their way home from Denver, officers raided their house, confiscating three handguns, two shotguns, and an AR-15. Over the following days, authorities monitored James, who fled to a Bismarck suburb where he stayed with Peyton Martin. On January 18, Trudell arrested him.
James did not “puke his guts on the table” as Burbridge had suggested to Delao he would. Rather, on the day of his arrest, James evaded Trudell’s questions. In a video recording of the interrogation, he would appear stiff, his voice a strange, bending whisper as if he were letting air out of a balloon. “I guess nothing really happened,” James offered. “There’s something on the Internet, and then everybody starts to hate you.” He changed the subject to Sarah.
“Let’s talk about Washington, how you hired someone to have a guy killed,” Trudell said.
James laughed. “No,” he said. He mentioned Sarah again.
“What are we talking about there?” asked Trudell.
“Murder. They’re going to take her out.”
Trudell sounded annoyed. “Tell me what you want, and let’s start there. You can’t say that the boogeyman is going to get her, and we call witness protection. You give us something actionable. Why would someone want to kill Sarah?”
James did not answer the question.
It did not take long for investigators to realize that the case depended on Robert Delao and Timothy Suckow, the suspect whose DNA had been found on the welding glove. In January, Suckow was assigned a public defender, and by early March, he agreed to meet prosecutors for a “free talk” in which he would tell the whole story of the Carlile murder. Unless he lied, nothing he said could be used against him in court.
Trudell flew to Spokane for the talk, but almost as soon as he arrived, the deal fell apart. State and federal prosecutors were jockeying for jurisdiction in the case. In the meantime, Suckow had asked if he could get a better deal if he confessed to another murder. For the first time, it occurred to investigators that perhaps Suckow had also killed Kristopher Clarke.
The day after the talk fell through, Burbridge and Cestnik visited Delao at his house in Spokane. They told him he still had a chance to “beat Suckow to the table” and offered to find him an attorney. Delao agreed, and on March 2, 2014, he met with federal agents and an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Washington.
The story Delao told on that day diverged from the one he had previously shared with Burbridge: In January 2012, when he called James looking for work, James had not, in fact, offered a job but rather asked Delao if he knew anyone who could beat a person up. Delao told James he would think about it. “The last thing I was trying to do is call my old friends, because I’d done this cooperation,” Delao explained to prosecutors. He worried his friends would kill him, but he wanted the job, so he called a former cellmate who suggested Suckow. Delao once had worked for Suckow, stripping asbestos from buildings, and gave him a call. Suckow sounded interested. James bought him a train ticket to Williston.
In March 2012, a few weeks after Suckow returned from North Dakota, Delao met him at a bar in Spokane: “I said, ‘So what did you think of North Dakota?’ What I wanted was, ‘Does James really have all the money he was talking about, and am I really going to be able to get a job out there?’ ” Suckow acted cagey with Delao and said he had done “more than he signed up for.”
That same March, James told Delao he had more work, so Delao took a train to Williston. The work was not what Delao had hoped. James asked him to locate a kilo of heroin, which they would press into pills imitating the prescription opiate Oxycontin. A kilo of heroin could produce twenty thousand pills, which could sell for more than a hundred dollars apiece. Delao struggled to find a source, and after two weeks, James “fired” him. But that June, James asked Delao to return. Ryan Olness, the Blackstone investor from Arizona, met Delao in Williston. George Dennis and Justin Beeson, two truck drivers for the company, joined them. They drove to a drilling site serviced by Trustland, the rival trucking company owned by the tribe’s former lawyer, Steve Kelly. On James’s orders, they vandalized storage tanks and opened valves, letting hundreds of barrels of oil spill out.
James never mentioned KC to Delao, though he often talked about wanting to kill other people—Steve Kelly, Ryan Olness, and Jed McClure, the investor who was suing James and Sarah. In July 2012, James made Delao a full-time employee at Blackstone. Delao’s primary task—locating a source of heroin—remained the same, and he reached out to a friend in Spokane, Todd Bates, who said he had a hookup in Chicago. Meanwhile, James was having problems with a truck driver and solicited Bates to kill him. That November, Bates traveled to Watford City four times, and each time he failed to kill the driver, James grew more frustrated with Delao. Finally, in January 2013, Delao, Bates, James, and Peyton Martin, Tex Hall’s stepdaughter, traveled to Chicago, where James purchased $20,000 worth of heroin. Their dealer was a former Vice Lord called “the Wiz.” James asked Bates to ask the Wiz to murder Jed McClure. The Wiz agreed to do it for $25,000. In February, he met Bates at the Chicago airport, where Bates gave him a down payment of $9,500. The Wiz took the money and ran.
Around the same time, oil companies began dropping contracts with Blackstone. As BEWARE flyers appeared on the reservation, drivers went to work for other water haulers. Tex was losing confidence in James and Sarah, but after he ended their business partnership, he allowed Delao to remain at Maheshu. Some believed Delao was James’s spy, but it was Peyton who “would tell James everything,” Delao explained. “Peyton was James’s inside guy. Anything that ever happens at Tex’s house, Peyton reports to James, so James is always one step ahead of Tex.” In fact, Delao rarely spoke to James, he said. “Tiffiany told me I wasn’t allowed to talk to him. It was because of the whole affair. She would constantly go through my phone to be sure I wasn’t talking to James or her daughter. When Homeland Security”—Darrik Trudell—“and Mr. Gutknecht came to Tex’s office to talk about the KC situation, I was rehearsed by Tiffiany Johnson. She said, ‘When law enforcement comes, one, you cannot mention my daughter. Two, anything negative about Tex, clam up.’ ” Without telling Tiffiany, Delao still met James now and then at the gym in Watford City, where they conferred about Peyton, Suckow, and eventually Carlile.
Delao told the story eagerly, betraying none of his earlier reluctance, and so, in April 2014, when Suckow made his own confession, prosecutors were struck by the difference in the two witnesses’ tones. In a recording of the confession, more than four hours long, it would be difficult to make out the hit man’s words, which conveyed an immeasurable sadness. Suckow appeared unusually small in the video, sunken into his red jumpsuit. He spoke slowly, rocking back and forth, rattling his stomach chains, and when he cried, he cast his eyes toward the ceiling, his bottom lip quivering uncontrollably.
Before Suckow had gone to North Dakota in 2012, he had never killed anyone, he explained. As he understood it, James had hired him to “take care of” Steve Kelly, the owner of the rival trucking company, so that “he could have the whole rez to himself.” Suckow had decided he would simply beat Kelly up. On February 21, 2012, he had taken the train to Williston, where James met him. They slept that night in Watford City. The next morning, James drove Suckow to Maheshu, and that was when James’s request changed. “He started telling me about KC,” Suckow said, “how he was threatening to leave the company and take some of the truckers with him. That’s when he asked me to kill him. I didn’t even think he was serious. When we got to the shop, he wanted to introduce me to everybody. I was like, I don’t know about that shit.
“It was the morning,” Suckow continued. “When we went into the shop it was empty except some garbage, some cans, recycling in the corner. He was telling me, ‘I’ll bring KC back here, and you just put a choke hold on him.’ Even though I was a big guy, I didn’t feel very comfortable about—I’m not a fighter. I’m not very confident about my strength. And he told me he carries a gun. I said, ‘I’m not going to choke him out if he’s going to carry a gun.’ He said I could hit him with something. I looked around the shop, and all I could see was those floor jacks.”
Suckow looked up. His lip quivered. His chin furrowed. His voice rose and began to shake. “I went back over by the door. I still remember. I didn’t believe it was real. There was a part of me that just didn’t believe it. And I stood by the door.” Suckow began to cry. “I shook KC’s hand. I didn’t think—I didn’t think—” He stopped, looked around the table. “I’m really not violent,” he said.
PROSECUTORS SHARED THE story with Jill, leaving little out, and when Jill repeated the story to Lissa, they cried together on the phone. Suckow had known that KC was dead when his last hit “went soft,” he said. He had emptied a garbage can and removed a plastic bag, which he wrapped around his victim’s head, and pulled KC into a bathroom, where he left him while he mopped up the blood. When Suckow finished, he drove KC’s truck to Watford City and returned to Maheshu with James and George Dennis, the truck driver with whom James seemed close. They stuffed KC into a cardboard box, which Suckow sealed with masking tape, while George backed up his truck to the garage. They drove, again, to Watford City and south into the badlands, turning west on a dirt road. George parked at the head of a ravine, and James and Suckow continued on foot. The ground was wet and soft. Suckow dug a hole as deep as his chest. It had begun to snow when he returned to the truck, and the box, damp, broke when he lifted it. He carried KC like a child, cradled in his arms.
Lissa sensed relief in Jill, but it was tempered by the fact that her son’s body was still missing. The only evidence linking James to the first murder was circumstantial, one man’s word against another, and without proof that KC was dead, the likelihood that they could prosecute James for KC’s murder was alarmingly low.
In May 2014, investigators flew Suckow to North Dakota twice. Although he led them to what he believed was the burial area, he could not find KC’s body. Trudell said Suckow had made an honest effort. Later, investigators returned to the site with dog teams and backhoes, but they could not find a body, either.
Lissa traded fewer messages with Trudell that spring. When she asked him if he knew where Sarah had gone, he told her he did not. Lissa assumed, correctly, that Sarah had been taken into protective custody. She missed Sarah—or perhaps it was something else she missed. After Sarah’s silence, after James’s arrest, after Robert’s and Timothy’s confessions, Lissa was no longer the keeper of secrets, the one who knew more than anyone else.
In the beginning, she was grateful that James would be prosecuted, and when she heard that investigators were preparing for a trial, she was moved nearly to tears. “Thank you from the bottom of my heart,” she texted Trudell.
“No problem. Thanks,” he replied.
The fear she had felt leaving her apartment dissipated without her noticing. In the winter and spring of 2014, she spent fewer weekends on the reservation, and when she went home to the apartment after work, she often fell into a deep, uninterrupted sleep. She felt exhausted, sick, but there was also a certain darkness that enveloped her during this time. One afternoon, Lissa woke to find the apartment empty. She called for her children, but they had gone out. She drove to the grocery store and thought, as she wandered the aisles, that even the people she knew looked unfamiliar: “Everybody moved on without me. I got so wrapped up in this case, and when I looked up, everybody was gone.”
Lissa wondered if Shauna had been right—one addiction for another, the same person, only sober.
To feel unnecessary, cast off, made Lissa desperate, and she became strident, even boastful with investigators. Burbridge still did not return her calls and, once, when he accused her by email of leaking information to the press—falsely, it was Jill—Lissa replied angrily, “Focus on connecting James and his crew. I’ve been following this guy for nearly two years.”
She did not speak with Steve Gutknecht, the Bureau of Criminal Investigations agent, and knew of his work on the case only through Jill. Then, in May, Lissa heard from a source on the reservation that Suckow was in the badlands. She mentioned this to Jill, who mentioned it to Gutknecht, who called Lissa the next day. He wanted to know how Lissa knew, but she would not tell him. “He thought someone in law enforcement was giving out the information,” she later recalled. “I said, ‘You know what, I’m going to tell you something. I’ve got eyes all over fucking Fort Berthold. Anytime shit goes down, I get a private message about it, or people call. I know what the fuck is going on.’ He said, ‘So you’re not going to cooperate?’ I said, ‘No.’ ” A few minutes later, Trudell texted Lissa, demanding that she call him. When she did, Lissa thought she could hear Gutknecht in the background. “I told Darrik, ‘Fuck Steve Gutknecht.’ Darrik was like, ‘Well, I figured you’d talk to me.’ I said, ‘You know what? Tell him I heard it from you. Tell him it was you.’ ”
That Lissa still received tips from people on the reservation was true. She traded messages regularly with Tex, though he seemed to evade her attempts to speak in person, and he rarely offered anything of substance, remarking mostly on the weather and on an occasional visit from investigators. Once, he told her to come by his house, but when she did, no one answered the door. She circled the house, knocking on windows, until at last Tiffiany came out holding, in Lissa’s words, “some homely little-ass dog.” Tiffiany told Lissa that Tex was not home and retreated inside.
In the spring, ice broke on the lake and lodged in the banks like shards of glass. Rain fell. The roads thawed and cracked.
Lissa’s joints ached. She wanted to sweat, to pray, and told this to her friend who lived in Sanish, Tiny Crows Heart, who said he would gather branches to build the lodge. Waylon, her cousin, said he would join, since he knew the songs, as would Micah, since he still went everywhere with his mother. They met at Tiny’s trailer one afternoon in May. A fire burned in a low, gray pit. Lissa changed into a cotton dress and knelt by the lodge Tiny had constructed. With a thumb and forefinger, she stripped sage from its stem, rolling the leaves between the palms of her hands and packing them into her pipe. Then she lit another plug of sage, placed it in an abalone shell, and smudged the pipe and herself. She spun once around before entering the lodge. It was so small that she curled her back to fit, and when she emerged, she was soaked, stinking of medicine.
Sanish is on a high cliff at the north end of the lake, where the river pinches to its narrowest point. The slope is steep at first and then fans out onto grassy bluffs some hundred feet above the water. Lissa walked out onto one of the bluffs and sat. Micah, Waylon, and another companion spread out behind her, while Tiny tended the fire. From where she rested, Lissa could see the blinking colors of the casino, the pickup trucks parked on the beach, the dim lights of oil workers camped in the trees, the gleaming white yacht on its fateful perch, and the shadows of boats drifting in toward the marina. Darkness came. Flares brightened on the horizon like tiny rising suns. Waylon had forgotten his star quilt, so Lissa had given him hers. Now, as her sweat cooled and stiffened her dress, a chill sank into her. She had only her pipe, which she held in her lap, and two horse skulls, which she had placed on the ground next to her. The moon rose and shimmered on the lake. Lissa tried to pray. She found that when she focused on the words to the songs, she forgot the cold, but then Micah called out to her, and the cold returned, throbbing.
“Mom, are you okay?” he said.
“Shhht,” she said, quieting him.
She thought of the sun dance. When dancers “entered the circle,” it was said, they should be prepared to die. Now, as Lissa shivered, she prayed for her children, for Shauna, for the murdered and missing, and as she prayed, she heard footsteps breaking across the grass behind her. She wanted to turn around, but she gripped her pipe and remained still. Suddenly, Lissa was no longer in her body but watching herself from a hillside above. She saw she was flanked by two gray horses. Or were they people? Now the horses were gone, and a man and a woman were standing in their place, the woman bent to whisper in her ear. We hear your prayers, the woman said.
LISSA HEARD A rattling breath and opened her eyes. Micah was curled on the ground beside her. He had draped a quilt over her legs, and when the sun rose, they hid themselves from the light, and when they woke on the second morning, they were nestled in the quilt. The colors of the casino still blinked. The trucks had not quit their groaning. And beneath the Sanish cliffs, a body floated in the lake. A fisherman spotted it from the beach.