Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 13: Us Against the World | Part 1)
THE DECLINE IN THE PRICE of oil coincided with some unsettling events on Fort Berthold—first, the reappearance of Daniel Mossett, a thirty-two-year-old tribal member who had been missing for months when, on the morning of May 19, 2014, a fisherman noticed his body floating in the lake. In the following weeks, the price of oil would fall below a hundred dollars a barrel and keep falling. The state medical examiner would determine that Mossett died of suicide and exposure, though it was rumored he was found with a bag bungeed around his head, which suggested he had been murdered. Lissa had taken an interest in his case and suspected his death was at least more complicated than the autopsy made it seem. And so his became another unresolved story whose fragments drifted like orphans amid the boom, clinging to other unfinished stories or disappearing altogether.
His funeral was held at the community center in Twin Buttes, where Mossett was from. As mourners followed his casket to the cemetery, the procession stalled on the edge of town where two oil workers had stopped in the road chatting, oblivious to the line of cars. A mourner got out and spoke to them; the workers moved aside. Lissa at first felt angry with the workers, but then they took off their hats and bowed their heads, and the sight of this made her cry.
Tex Hall attended the funeral as well but left before Lissa could speak with him. Months earlier, news of another unsettling event had landed like a small bomb on the reservation—the murder of Doug Carlile.
For weeks after the murder, it had seemed that no one on the reservation except for Lissa and Tex knew of it. Then, in late January 2014, a federal court in Eastern Washington released a summary of interviews with investigators and witnesses regarding Carlile’s case. On page eight of the report, Tex’s name appeared. According to a detective, while Robert Delao worked for Tex’s company, Maheshu, a Spokane resident, Todd Bates, had often visited Delao on the reservation. During one of these visits, a Blackstone employee overheard Bates talking to James about a “job [that would] pay the same as the last job.” This employee “believed the last job was [Clarke], Henrikson’s operations manager who has been missing since February 2012.”
Lissa circulated the summary online as soon as it was released. Among the tribal members who read it was Damon Williams, a tall, boyish, bespectacled man who in 2008 had replaced Steve Kelly as attorney for the tribe. Williams printed the summary, marked it, and delivered it to the tribal council, recommending they suspend Tex for thirty days while they commissioned an independent investigation. The council voted against suspending the chairman but agreed to hire an investigator. Several days later, Williams flew to Missouri to meet a former U.S. attorney with expertise in corruption.
IT WAS EARLY February in 2014—shortly after the council meeting, ten months before I would meet Lissa for the first time—that news of the scandal burgeoning on the reservation reached me. It arrived as a single photograph on my Facebook feed: Tex Hall dressed in a Hawaiian shirt, standing and smiling with a group of people who appeared to have just finished eating. To his right was Tiffiany Johnson, the woman I knew to be his partner, and beside Tiffiany were two people I did not recognize—a tan, blond woman in a black tank top, her teeth strikingly white, and a white man with a bad sunburn, his pecs bulging under a T-shirt.
The photograph, taken in Hawaii over a year earlier, had been shared by a tribal member I knew, but the person who had originally posted the photograph was yet unfamiliar to me: Nadia Reinardy.
Over the following weeks, other tribal members I knew would repost the photograph. I would learn that the white man and woman were James Henrikson and Sarah Creveling, and when I looked up their names, sorting through the many articles that by then were emerging, I read, for the first time, about Kristopher Clarke.
Meanwhile, beneath the reposted photograph, comments by tribal members accrued:
I wonder if he is spending tribal money on his family’s outings?
He flies first class. I seen him on my flight.
Chairman with a snake tongue. Shove his helicopter up his ass.
he living a more than comfortable life when we ppl frm our tribe struggling to survive n homeless…im sure that trip could have put someone in a home
Or even in a hotel. I hear all the time how it feels to be from one of the richest tribes. I just say we are one of the poorest. Idk how dude can live with himself.
I tried calling Tex at the tribal office, but no one answered. So I called Mark Fox, the tribe’s tax director, with whom I had remained in touch since my first trip to the reservation three years earlier. “He’s trying to say he’s the victim, but people think he has his hands dirty,” Mark told me. Mark was unsure what to believe, but he did not feel sympathy for Tex. “If you make a choice to partner with somebody, and you find out they have a questionable background, most people cut their ties and run like hell, because you don’t want that to come back on your legitimate business.” Mark had been hearing rumors about Clarke’s disappearance for years and wondered about Tex’s connection to James. The rumors were eroding people’s trust in the chairman, Mark said, and he wondered if the Carlile murder was a tipping point: “Stories are going to come out. Anybody trying to put Tex on a pedestal better be careful, because that pedestal will be knocked out from under him, and he won’t ever get back on it again.”
I was surprised by Mark’s bravado, given that he was part of the chairman’s administration. It was only months later, when Mark announced his bid for chairman, that I suspected some opportunism. But Mark was right. On August 28, 2014, the woman I knew then only as Nadia Reinardy once again posted the photograph of Tex vacationing in Hawaii, this time captioning it, “Vote Tex Hall if you want lies, embezzlement, and continued exploitation. Pictured left to right: James Henrikson, Sarah Creveling, and your majesty, king TEX!”
On September 11, five days prior to the primary election for chairman, the firm that the tribal attorney, Damon Williams, enlisted to investigate Tex sent a sixty-six-page report to the tribe. When the council refused to release the report, some hundred tribal members protested outside the chambers, among them Mark, until Judy Brugh, the councilwoman, unlocked the doors, let the protesters in, and gave them a copy. That evening, the protesters scanned the report and posted it on Facebook.
Much of the information the report contained was known or at least rumored on the reservation already, such as Tex’s partnership with Blackstone. But the report also contained some new findings. Allegedly, in the winter of 2012, Tex had authorized the tribe to hire Blackstone to spray roads with water to suppress dust. The job paid $500,000. Blackstone had been hired without the consent of the council, which, according to tribal law, should have solicited bids from Indian contractors before giving the job to non-Indians. Tex had never disclosed to the council that his own company profited from Blackstone. This appeared to be a conflict of interest, and it was not his first impropriety. In 2008, two years before Tex was elected chairman, he had worked as a consultant for an oil company called Spotted Hawk, soliciting leases from tribal members. Tex claimed the company owed him more than a million dollars, and after he became chairman in 2010, he had asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs to delay approval of a lease agreement between Spotted Hawk and the tribe. The Bureau delayed until August 2011. During that time, Tex tried and failed to win a settlement from Spotted Hawk. After the Bureau approved the lease, Tex continued to target the company, deriding Spotted Hawk in meetings with the Bureau and in council sessions. Such findings confirmed what some tribal members long suspected—Tex had tried to use his position as chairman to enrich himself.
While the report addressed some questions, it left many others unanswered: What was the nature of Tex’s relationship with James Henrikson? How was Tex connected, if at all, to the murders? And where was Kristopher Clarke?
On September 16, 2014, Tex lost the primary election. Mark Fox and Damon Williams, the tribal lawyer, won the most votes, advancing to the general election in November. That same September day, Sarah Creveling testified before a grand jury in Bismarck, Robert Delao was arrested, and the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Washington charged James Henrikson with eleven counts—among them, conspiring to distribute heroin and soliciting the murder-for-hire of five men, two of whom were murdered.
NO MEMORY OF the time I spent on the reservation is as clear to me as the night I returned that fall of 2014. It was October, cold. I crossed the border at dusk. Trucks crept toward a darker horizon, and soon everything was black except for the lights—the crawling red fenders, the flash of passing cars, the casino blinking larger than when I had left it, the flicker of grass fires I mistook for flares, the diamond beam of drilling rigs, and the moon that rose above it all, made orange by an invisible haze. The lights etched their brightness like sun scars on my eyes. In the morning, I would recognize the place again, but that night I felt unsettled, like a visitor in a vast, unknowable city.
In daylight, too, it was clear things had changed over the past year. Where before the highway had been marked with farmsteads, it had become an industrial corridor, with warehouses and stacks of pipe and, on a corner where the restaurant called the Scenic had stood alone, a new gas station and motel. One day, I stopped at the Scenic for lunch and found it full of white people like me. The inside was dingy and poorly lit, and when I looked out the window, which once had served a clear view of the lake, I noticed a new train depot and, arcing around it on a set of tracks, the matte-black tanks of an oil train.
If the place felt unfamiliar to me, I wondered how it felt to the thousands of tribal members who by then were returning home to vote in the November election. I had noticed that the casino, Better B’s, and the grocery stores in New Town were full of people dressed in city clothes. They had come from Cleveland, New York, Atlanta, Denver, Minneapolis, Rapid City, Albuquerque, Phoenix, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and reservations across the West and Midwest. Since the tribe lacked absentee voting, if you wanted to vote, you came home. More tribal members would come home for this election than any one before it—3,500 out of 8,000 eligible voters, the tribe estimated—and as I interviewed members about their decision to return, many said that although they did not live on the reservation, they worried about it. They lamented the crime brought by the boom, the oil spills, the “mismanagement.” When I asked one woman what concerned her most, she replied, “contamination.” In July, a wastewater pipeline had burst, spilling twenty-five thousand barrels of chemical brine into a creek near the water intake for Mandaree. The woman had recently moved her family to Bismarck and doubted she would live on the reservation again. Her mother had been displaced by the flood. “She always said, ‘I want to go home, but I can’t,’ ” the woman told me. “Sometimes I think, Are we going to be saying the same thing?”
On my first morning back on the reservation, I met Mark Fox in his office. He was not as wiry as when I had last seen him, but he looked about the same in a pressed collared shirt and glasses. A new poster hung on his wall: Never underestimate the power of stupid people in a large group. “The gold rush mentality has hurt us greatly,” he said. “You know that T-shirt people wear sometimes? We treat this planet like we have another one to go to? Well, we treat this reservation like we have another one to go to.”
In the months since we had last spoken, Mark had cast himself as a populist and amassed a fervent following. He was campaigning on the promise to “slow the boom,” which seemed to resonate with voters. He believed the tribe should levy a higher tax on oil producers, and he promised to lobby the Department of Interior to grant drilling permits less hastily and to consider environmental impacts more seriously. If the tribe had been more prepared for the boom, Mark argued, it would not have put so many lives at risk or wasted so much money. The council had spent haphazardly on infrastructure to keep up with development and on glamorous projects that did little to serve people’s needs, he believed. Due in part to the rising rates of addiction, life expectancy on the reservation was fifty-seven, more than twenty years below the national average. Mark would allocate more money to law enforcement and drug treatment and make sure every tribal member had health insurance. “You think about, in the history of our people, how many of our ancestors died and bled and suffered to have what little we have left today,” he said. “Suffered for hundreds of years! And now, in a matter of a few short years, our people are leaving, giving up our land, moving away. How crazy is that? Why? I’ll be straight up. Greed. Money, money, money. That’s where Mark Fox is saying, Oh shit. We’re going to slow this down so that we’ll have somewhere to live.”
After I left his office, I wondered how realistic Mark was being. What was there to do after more than a thousand oil wells had been drilled—after the boom was practically done? Still, I had been struck by how Mark and other tribal members now spoke of the boom. Before, I had sensed a reticence to curse it—a fear, I supposed, of sounding ungrateful for their fortune. Now that reticence was gone. Many tribal members were still careful, and when I asked them about Tex Hall, they rolled their eyes or spoke to me in whispers. But the words they used—corruption, greed—made clear to me that something had tipped the scales to bring them home to vote. I believed that something was the Clarke and Carlile murders. People had come home to see how these crimes had happened, and what they saw unsettled them. What they saw gave them reason to admit their discontent.
IN PAST ELECTION years, the month prior to voting day had been somewhat uneventful, but in 2014, on account of contributions from wealthy families, as well as a sense among the electorate that the stakes, this time, were particularly high, October would seem a never-ending run of campaign dinners and debates. Mark Fox and Damon Williams each planned a dinner in every segment of the reservation and together would meet for four debates, in Bismarck, White Shield, New Town, and Fargo.
While there were no political parties on the reservation, there were other more nuanced divisions within the tribe that influenced how citizens cast their votes. The clearest division could be traced to 1870, when a Hidatsa band led by Crow Flies High left the reservation over a disagreement and settled farther west until 1894, when soldiers returned them to Fort Berthold. When the descendants of this band later voted in opposition to their tribe’s constitution under the Indian Reorganization Act, they became known as the “No’s.” After that, the IRA hardened divisions within the tribe between those who viewed the new system of governance as a step toward self-determination and those who saw it as a vessel for federal interest and would distrust any program the tribe administered. If the No’s now aligned with a candidate, it was with Damon Williams.
Still, there was little difference between the candidates’ platforms. Both claimed the tribe had lost control of the boom and promised to rein it in, and both blamed this loss on the chairman and councilmen, whom they believed the boom endowed with too much power. Among the solutions they proposed was constitutional reform. Ed Hall, the elderly man I had dined with on my first visit to the reservation, was already working on a blueprint for a new constitution. Damon had incorporated the plan into his platform, and Mark was suggesting similar changes. Since federal laws had undermined and displaced traditional ways of governance, tribal members had few ways to keep their council in check, nor did the constitution they adopted in 1936 offer a separation and balance of power. In 1975, when a new law allowed tribes to directly manage reservation services, many members saw this as a positive change, having long been victims of federal overstep or neglect. But others believed the act transferred a pattern of dependency fostered by federal agencies to the council while failing to restore or strengthen tribal institutions, lending councilmen unfair leverage over citizens. When Mark mentioned the problems with the constitution, he invoked The Lord of the Rings. “There’s too much centralization of power,” he told me. “People change when they put on that ring: Suddenly everyone’s coming to them, and they say, ‘This is cool. I’ve got all this power.’ ” Mark would be like the hobbit Frodo, he said, an unlikely hero who destroys the ring.
“The chairman is only as powerful as his council lets him be,” Judy Brugh told me one day in her office. The most senior member of the council, she was dressed in an elegant wool sweater. “That’s where we went wrong,” she explained. “We let him have too much power. It’s sad, because he had a lot going for him.” She paused, as if wondering if she had meant it. “He’s a really good speaker,” she said.
I had dropped by tribal headquarters looking for Tex, but no one knew where he was. His press secretary would not return my messages, and when I went by her office, I found it locked and dark. I had asked another secretary, but she averted her eyes. It seemed Mark was the only one who had seen Tex recently—weeks earlier, at an event in Bismarck. Tex had told Mark he was doing “all right.” He had been in Arizona, where he and Tiffiany owned another house, and where Tex often went to play basketball.
I could think of one councilman who might lead me to the chairman, but when I found him at the Northern Lights building in New Town one day, he also shook his head. He was seated at a table in the lobby, at a celebration for a boy who had qualified to compete in the Indian National Finals Rodeo. The councilman was not in the mood to talk and suggested I interview his legislative assistant, a younger man who had previously worked for a senator. “I’m concerned about the shift we have to make in conscious thought from survival economics to long, sustaining economic planning,” the man said. “We do want to promote entrepreneurial endeavors. It’s unfortunate that money is just flowing by us. But our leaders should be stewards of it, rather than participants in it. I think you have to be a government official or a private citizen. There aren’t enough safeguards to be both.”
Another man dressed in coveralls emblazoned with the Petro-Hunt logo joined us at the table. “Where’s Tex at?” he said.
The councilman laughed. “Good question! He didn’t come to the last meeting. Is that a sore loser or not?”
“I think he’s embarrassed,” the man replied.
Later that day, I interviewed a woman at the table who asked not to be named. “It was foolish for Tex to think he could get away with it,” she said. “Three thousand to four thousand people get royalties, but everyone has to put up with the traffic, the crime, the violence. Then you see Tex’s helicopter flying by. We’ve always been oppressed by the government, but when it’s your own who do it to you; it’s a double slam. There’s a lot of anger. Tex is done. This is his legacy. This is what he has to live with, because people won’t remember the good things he did in the beginning of his run. People are only going to remember what he did in the end.”
Nearly everyone I interviewed implied that Tex had done something wrong, but what exactly he had done was unclear. Many seemed to believe he was involved in the murders or, at the very least, guilty by association, but there was no evidence that, aside from Lissa’s attempts to tell him, Tex had been aware of the violence, nor would such evidence emerge. The true nature of his relationship with James continued to elude me as well, and since I could not ask Tex myself, I had no way to confirm the rumors I heard. I had only what the public had—a copy of the report—which, apart from some email correspondence, contained little evidence. Tex’s most obvious mistake, aside from enriching an alleged murderer, was soliciting payment from an oil company while urging the Bureau to delay the same company’s drilling permit. Some tribal members were lobbying the Department of Justice to press charges, but when I asked a department spokesman if Tex was being investigated, he declined to comment, and when I asked a former U.S. attorney of North Dakota, he hedged. If it were his decision, he said, he would spend his limited resources on prosecuting the reservation’s lengthening roster of violent and sexual crimes.
I had taken to asking tribal members what crimes they believed the chairman committed; answers varied. Charles Hudson, the son of the woman whose house I stayed in and who had come from Portland, Oregon, to vote, said that while he hoped Tex would be prosecuted, he believed the crimes alleged in the report were “pedestrian.” What Tex did legally was more serious: By pushing the idea that the tribe could become “sovereign by the barrel,” he had threatened what was guaranteed to tribes by treaty. “He did that without attending to the fact that the federal government took things from Native people and will always owe something in return,” Hudson told me. “So to say ‘we don’t need appropriations’ I think is highly irresponsible”—especially when because of and in spite of the boom, the tribe was short on police, teachers, doctors, and basic infrastructure.
Some went further to suggest that Tex’s greatest sin was the boom itself. Indeed, it was Tex who had courted one of the first oil companies to lease reservation minerals; who lobbied Congress and federal agencies to rush the approval of drilling permits; who eschewed federal oversight when the tribe had few environmental codes of its own and limited means of enforcement; who bought a yacht before investing in public services. It was Tex who consorted with violent criminals. All this was true, so I understood the anger, though I also understood that the boom was not wholly his. Tex was not the only one who had gone door-to-door soliciting his relatives to lease land. “Think about it,” Mark Fox said. “The oil companies knew what the value of that land was when they paid fifty bucks an acre, but at some point in time, to get it done, a tribal member had to say, ‘I don’t give a fuck about the tribe. I care about myself. I’ll help you get that acreage. And when we flip it, we make millions.’ ”