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Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 15: Trial | Part 1)

A DATE FOR THE TRIAL of James Henrikson was set, and moved, and moved again. James pled guilty and then retracted his plea, claiming he had misunderstood the terms. By the summer of 2015, it was becoming clear he had no interest in leading authorities to KC, which left only Timothy Suckow, the hit man, and George Dennis, who drove James and Suckow to the burial area, to locate KC’s body in time for trial.

Darrik Trudell accompanied Suckow twice and George once into the badlands, but the men identified two different sites, roughly a mile apart. Trudell visited both sites dozens of times, accompanied by Steve Gutknecht and squads of officers. They brought dog teams and backhoes and marked spots with flags. “We had one spot where the canines hit,” Gutknecht later told me. “We dug the whole area by hand.” Trudell spotted a piece of paper and leapt excitedly into the hole—criminals often left trash behind—but it was only the label from his own shovel, worn off from all his digging.

The longer they searched, the more baffled they became. No one appeared more frustrated than Suckow, who had been confident in the beginning that he would find KC. “He could walk all day long,” Gutknecht said. “We had to take shifts just to follow him around. You could see him trying to remember. He’d look at the horizon, this way and that way. You don’t realize how big that country is until you’re out there, in it.”

 

On August 31, 2015, Aine Ahmed and Scott Jones, the assistant U.S. attorneys assigned to prosecute the case, met investigators to tour the area Suckow and George had identified. “We scoured it for everything,” Ahmed told me. “We found a sock. We found bones, a cow or something. It was a scary place. We got separated, and I was a little nervous, because you lose sense of direction.” Ahmed thought they might “get lucky and find a body” but soon realized how impossible this would be. The only other way they would find KC was now seeming to Ahmed equally impossible: “I wonder why James is such a cold-ass bastard that he won’t tell me where he buried him.”

When the trial was at last set for January 2016, Ahmed still hoped James would plead guilty. But as the date approached, it became even clearer that James had no interest in acknowledging his guilt, let alone ingratiating himself to the court. One morning, staff at the Spokane County Jail, where James was being held, spotted a rope woven from bedsheets dangling from a top-floor window. James was trying to escape.

 

THE AREA TO which Suckow and George led investigators was off the reservation, roughly twenty miles up the Little Missouri River from the spot Lissa had spent much of her time searching. Investigators refused to share the location with Lissa, but she figured it out anyway in the summer of 2015, when, one day, she was scrolling across the badlands on Google Earth and noticed an area that appeared to have once contained a pond. The pond had dried up, indicating that the soil would be easy to dig. Lissa realized she had once visited the area, after a man committed suicide there in 2013. It was a good place to not be found, she thought, carved by coulees and canyons and steep ravines. The following weekend, Lissa located the pond with some volunteers and, in the same area, noticed some freshly dug holes. Investigators had been searching there for KC.

 

One day in September, Lissa was at work when she glanced at her phone and saw six missed calls from an unknown number. The phone rang again; Lissa answered. The caller had a stern, formal manner. He refused to identify himself. He ordered Lissa to open Google Earth and acted annoyed when she told him she could not. “I wanted to say, ‘Who is this?’ but I was like, I’m not going to be overexcited,” Lissa told me a couple of days later. “So I said, ‘I just got off work.’ He said, ‘Well, can you get it on your phone?’ ‘No, I can’t. I’m talking to you.’ And he said, ‘I want to pinpoint the location of a body.’ I said, ‘You want to pinpoint the location of “a body”? Or do you want to pinpoint the location of KC’s body?’ I found it interesting that he would disconnect from KC as a human being. I wanted to make him say it. He said, ‘I want to pinpoint the location of KC’s body.’ I said, ‘Well if you let me dig in my car for a while, because I basically live out of my car and it’s a freaking mess, you could give me the GPS coordinates, and I’ll write the numbers down.” The man did not give her the coordinates, but he described the burial area to her over the phone. The next weekend, Lissa followed his directions with the help, again, of some volunteers. They located the spot the man spoke of and dug a hole. There was no sign of KC.

On the Tuesday after she returned to Fargo, the man called her again. Lissa and I talked that night. “He said, ‘You guys are walking right over him,’ ” she told me. “I think he has someone watching us.”

“Who?” I asked.

Lissa didn’t know but had a feeling that whoever was calling was connected to George Dennis, the driver. Perhaps George had hired a private investigator to find KC so he could secure for himself a kinder sentence. “I said to him, ‘What if James had someone move the body? This guy’s not stupid. This is the only leverage Tim Suckow has for a plea deal. Tim’s only weapon is to lead him to the fucking body. So what if James took that away from him?’ It went back and forth. I said, ‘Who are you? What is your stake in the matter? If you really wanted him found, you would come out here and show me where he is.’ He said, ‘I can’t do that.’ ‘Why can’t you? Obviously you’ve been watching me, so you should know by now that I’m not going to tell who you are. That’s not what my interest is. I’m interested in recovering KC, so I can move on with my life.’ He said, ‘What do you need to know?’ I said, ‘Well, since you seem to know so much, people are stupid and always leave dirt right next to the burial spot. Am I looking for that as a landmark?’ That’s when I heard him talking to somebody. He said, ‘No. They scooped up the excess dirt, put it on a tarp, and threw it in the back of the truck.’ I kept asking questions, and I could tell he was turning his head. Either the person was there, or he was talking into another phone.”

 

Lissa returned to the burial area once more that September. She found a bedroll containing a battery charger, a map of South Dakota, a peanut can packed with freeze-dried broccoli, a Veterans Administration card, and a set of dentures, the pearly molars hardly worn. She found no sign of KC, and when the man called again, he sounded frustrated. That was the last Lissa heard from him.

I expected her to continue searching until winter, so I arranged to stay on the reservation through the fall. Lissa never came. She would not return my calls.

In early October, I went to the burial area alone. I drove along a bluff past a set of steep ravines that cut to the south, and then I turned north through a stretch of pasture toward a shallow draw. It was evening, the light low. I parked by an ephemeral creek and followed the old watermark to the bottom of the draw, where I sat for a while in the grass. It was cooler here. I had scared a coyote, who kept stopping and running and stopping to look back.

 

ONE NIGHT IN late October, I called Lissa, and she answered. Her life was a mess, she said. CJ and Micah had wrecked their cars, and then a man had backed into her own car, tore off the bumper, and fled. Lissa would have to miss work, but she had missed too much work already. She should have earned $37,000 that year, but she had taken off so much time to search that she would earn only $20,000. She owed $2,000 on a credit card and had bounced twelve checks in the same week. She longed for her grandchildren. Shauna had let Lissa see them again but still refused to speak to her. “I started thinking about all the birthdays I’ve missed,” Lissa told me. “How did I let it get this bad? I’m like, What am I going to do?” I said I wished I could think of something that would make her money fast. Lissa laughed. “I can think of some things, but I’m not going to do them.” After we hung up, I sent her a hundred dollars. She must have paid the debt, because she never mentioned it again.

 

A few days later, Lissa received a call from Dennis Banks, an Ojibwe elder and a leader of the American Indian Movement. His granddaughter, Rose Downwind, had gone missing from her home in northern Minnesota. He asked Lissa to organize a search.

The next weekend, I accompanied Lissa to Minnesota. She was doing better than when we had talked. She was spending more time with Obie, she said, who had moved back into the apartment. He had even joined her on a search in the late summer—they had camped at a state park not far from the burial area and spent most of their days walking the ridges above the ravine where the caller had insisted KC was buried. Lissa taught Obie how to identify the bones of deer and bighorn sheep. “He was more excited than Micah ever was,” Lissa told me. “He saw the beauty. I said, ‘Hey. Obie, this is where we’re from,’ because he’s always kind of denied his Native side. He seemed really impressed. He said, ‘Now I see why you do what you do.’ It was such a relief for me. I felt like crying, because I was like, It’s okay now.”

I talked to Obie a few weeks later. He told me that living with another family had made him realize his was not the only one with problems. He had seen his girlfriend fight with her parents and decided he no longer wanted to fight with his mother. He had agreed to go on a search because he knew it would make Lissa happy. “It wasn’t really searching. It was more of a bonding experience,” he said. “On our way there, I played a few songs that kind of make me remember all the resentment I had, because I held a lot for my mom, but I always wanted to be in a good relationship. I was trying to show her my feelings.

 

“When we got there my mom was making sure I had a good place to sleep. She kept asking, ‘Are you hungry? Are you thirsty?’ I said, ‘No, Mom, I’m fine. I’m just happy I’m here,’ and she’d be like, ‘I’m so happy you came.’ Then she started telling me everything about KC. We were walking, and I was sliding down all these hills. This one spot I slid into, when I moved these trees open, I swear to God it was the most amazing moment ever. It was a clear sky, and the sun was pointing at me, and so when I moved these trees, the sun came through. I said, ‘Mom, I feel so good. I feel like if we just kept doing this, we would get somewhere.’ I said, ‘What if we did find him? Are you going to stop?’ and she said, ‘No, I’m going to keep coming out.’ We talked about getting a place out on her land, building a microhome, farming and whatnot.”

After they returned to Fargo, Obie told me, it had seemed his mother paid more attention to him. One weekend afternoon, when he still had not woken, she burst into his room with a drum, wailing an Indian song.

 

THE TRIAL TESTIMONY began on January 29, 2016, in Richland, Washington, two hours south of Spokane. A flat, residential city with no downtown to speak of, Richland’s most defining feature was a seven-story concrete cube that served as the federal courthouse. The building had been secured for the occasion. The morning I arrived, before Suckow took the stand, officers searched the perimeter for bombs, and I passed two security checkpoints on my way to the courtroom, which was guarded by a U.S. marshal. The man, kindly but stone-faced, let me through into a bright, cavernous room where the judge presided from the far end. He was flanked on his left by the witness stand and on his right by the court reporter. The jurors were arranged in rows against a wall to his left, and facing the jury from a table in the center of the room were the assistant U.S. attorneys, Aine Ahmed and Scott Jones, dressed in similar black suits. At the end of the table sat Darrik Trudell and an FBI agent, Eric Barker, and at the table to their left was James Henrikson, his feet chained to the floor, hands and torso free. He was smaller than I had expected, pale but not sickly, with cropped hair and mild features that lent him the look of a cocky schoolboy. He had the gestures of one, too, twirling a pencil and taking notes, leaning casually toward his counsel to whisper in their ears. He was better dressed than both his lawyers, in a lavender button-down shirt and a fitted gray jacket.

 

Suckow entered the room, crossed from left to right, paused for a guard to undo his handcuffs. A deputy read the oath, and Suckow raised his right hand. Then he lowered himself to the witness stand, where the deputy poured him a glass of water. His head swayed back and forth. His gray hair was overgrown. He wore a white T-shirt, and loose jeans, and thick glasses with dark rims. He did not look at James, though James looked at him, eyes wide and hardly blinking.

Suckow told the story from beginning to end as he had on the day of his confession, answering each question as if lifting a heavy weight, pausing before he spoke. The details of his story remained the same, but his emphasis had shifted. Ahmed was less interested in Suckow’s guilt than in James’s, and moved quickly to establish that the witness would not have acted alone. Suckow had no reason to kill KC, nor even Carlile. In fact, he had never intended to kill either man, and when he realized James wanted him to kill Steve Kelly, the rival tribal businessman, Suckow had tried to talk James out of it, suggesting they “take care of his problem legally.” But James had seemed intent on murder. It was only after Suckow arrived in North Dakota that James had mentioned KC. As James drove Suckow to the shop the morning after Suckow arrived from Spokane, he told Suckow he was “upset about somebody” who was leaving the company and taking Blackstone drivers with him. James spent much of their drive on the phone. “All I remember is when he got off the phone on the way to the shop, he was mad,” Suckow recalled for Ahmed. “We were talking about KC prior to that, and when he got off the phone, that’s when he was like, ‘I want you to kill the guy.’ You know how people get mad sometimes—‘I’m going to kill you.’ That’s what I thought it was. But I wasn’t sure, you know?”

 

“Did you say anything to him?” Ahmed inquired.

“No. I was—I was stunned, really. I didn’t know what to say.”

“Did he at any point say, ‘Whoa, I just meant to beat him up, not to kill him?’ ”

“No.”

“[At] what point did you indicate that you agreed to do this?”

“Probably when we were standing in the shop is when I realized things were actually going to happen,” Suckow said.

Ahmed would later tell me that the night before the trial began, he had visited Suckow in his cell and found the witness curled in the fetal position on the floor. Ahmed knew Suckow took antidepressants, and when he asked the jail staff if they had treated the witness, they explained they did not have his medication. Ahmed demanded the staff call a doctor, who wrote a prescription that night. He worried the witness would be too ill to testify, but the next morning, Ahmed found Suckow upright, speaking again.

The hit man was not their most important witness—Robert Delao was—but as Ahmed coaxed Suckow through his story, I wondered if he offered something Delao could not. Suckow did not tremble like he had during his confession, nor did he cry in the opening hours of testimony. He delivered his lines numbly, as if reading from a script, and it was only when he came to the murder that his voice cracked. His shoulders tensed. His mouth went slack. His tone crept into a high, whispered pitch, as if someone were clasping their hands around his neck. Through all this, James had no expression at all, tracing the shape of his right eyebrow with the pad of his index finger.

“Where was the defendant standing when you were striking Mr. Clarke in the head?” Ahmed asked.

 

“Five to six feet away,” Suckow said.

“At any point during your four strikes to KC Clarke’s head, did the defendant tell you to stop?”

“No.”

“What did he say?”

Suckow paused, remembering, “ ‘We need’…“ ‘we need to stop the bleeding on the floor,’ ” he finally said.

Although George Dennis drove them to the badlands that day, it was James who told George where to go. When they came to the ravine James had chosen, James and Suckow got out of the truck and fought their way through brush to the bottom. There, as Suckow dug, James did not offer help. They had not yet negotiated Suckow’s fee, and when James asked how much the job would cost him, Suckow replied, “Twenty thousand dollars.”

“What was his reaction?” Ahmed asked.

“He choked and said, ‘Twenty thousand dollars?’ ” Suckow answered. “And I, uh—I turned around, and I looked at him, and I said, ‘It’s first-degree murder. It’s the death penalty.’ I said, ‘Do me a favor. Don’t shoot me in the back while I’m digging this hole.’ ”

That night, George drove them to the cabins, where Suckow changed his clothes, and to Williston, where they parked KC’s truck on a random street. From the truck, Suckow removed a cell phone and a money clip, which he would destroy, and a handgun, which he would keep. He found a pair of dirty shorts, which he sprayed with WD-40 and used to erase his fingerprints. He left the keys in the ignition, “hoping some kid would steal the truck.” Then he rode with George and James to a gas station, where he filled two jerricans, and to a well site where George worked. There, in a barren lot, Suckow burned the evidence.

In court the next day, Suckow still on the witness stand, Ahmed asked the judge for an exhibit to be admitted and, stepping toward a cart stocked with evidence, lifted a clear plastic bag containing several tiny objects. “Mr. Suckow, if you could step over here with me,” Ahmed said.

 

Suckow rose stiffly from the stand.

“Do you see this item?” Ahmed placed the bag beneath a projector.

“It looks like cardboard,” Suckow said when Ahmed pointed to an object. Then: “a loop from a hoodie”; “grommets from the tarp”; “loops from the top of my boots”; “the top button of my Carhartts”; and, at last, the remains of a money clip.

By the third day of trial, Suckow was exhausted, and when a tall, flappable defense attorney, Mark Vovos, questioned him, Suckow answered impatiently. Vovos was from Spokane and once had won a case against Ahmed, but he stumbled to discredit the witness, who now seemed utterly unwilling to defend himself. As Vovos rattled off Suckow’s past crimes—a vehicle stolen in California in 1989; another stolen in New Mexico; a car chase that ended with Suckow lying in roadside weeds, clutching a pistol—Suckow acknowledged each one gravely, and when Vovos noted that Suckow once had claimed he “hated cops” and threatened to kill one, Suckow admitted to this, too.

Vovos doubted that Suckow never intended to murder Clarke or Carlile—Suckow said he hoped to burglarize and frighten the older man, not kill him—but even this line of questioning fell flat.

“Was he scared?” Vovos asked about Carlile.

“Probably as much as I was,” Suckow replied.

“So you panicked.”

“Yes, I did.”

“And you fired.”

“Yes, I did.”

“You didn’t mean to kill him.”

“I didn’t want to.”

“Was your memory good?” Vovos asked.

This time, Suckow did not pause: “It haunts me every day.”

 

FOR THE FIRST week of testimony, I shared a room with Lissa in a large, empty chain hotel. She took the bed closest to the hallway; I took the one near a set of glass doors that led outside to a parking lot. Every morning, Lissa would rise an hour before trial, open the doors, and smoke a cigarette. Then she would shower, wash and comb her hair, and put on a pair of black pants and a cotton blouse, which she had purchased for the occasion. I had never seen her dress so nicely and was surprised when she emerged from the bathroom that first morning. She did not eat breakfast. She drank coffee and lit another cigarette, which she smoked in her car with the window down, waiting for me to come.

 

She insisted we arrive early to listen in on the conversations between the parties. Each day, before trial began, the attorneys discussed information they agreed to exclude from questioning, such as the failed hits James allegedly solicited on Jill Williams, Tex Hall, Robert Delao, and James’s wife, Sarah Creveling.

It was on these mornings that Lissa mingled with other attendees. The courtroom was never full. A reporter from Spokane came now and then, as well as some locals who had followed the case. But apart from Lissa and me, the only regular attendees were the Carliles—and usually only Elberta, a kind, fretful woman who watched quietly from the row in front of ours. One day, Elberta asked Lissa about Jill, who had come but left after a few days. Lissa felt Jill was making excuses, claiming she did not have money to attend while in fact the Department of Justice would have covered her expenses, but she did not share this with Elberta.

Our presence was obvious. James cast frequent glances at Lissa. At first, he seemed not to know who she was, and then, one day, he began smiling at her. “It’s weird,” Lissa whispered to me. “It’s like I’m still talking to Sarah and he thinks we’re on the same team.” In fact, James was among few in the courtroom who acknowledged Lissa. Several times, federal officials turned to survey their audience, but only Trudell spoke to Lissa—once, in the hallway. I did not see their interaction. Later, Lissa told me Trudell had seemed surprised that she would miss work for the trial and had asked how long she intended to stay. She told him she would leave after Tex Hall testified. Trudell abruptly ended the conversation.

 

I sensed Lissa was frustrated with Trudell, though she was more frustrated with Jill, who, by the end of Suckow’s testimony, still had not appeared. One morning, Jill called while Lissa and I were out getting coffee. “You know, if it’s any comfort, Timothy really seems remorseful,” Lissa said.

“I know,” said Jill.

“It’s like they found the perfect vulnerable adult to carry out their mission.”

“I know,” Jill said again. “It just makes me hate James and Robert more.”

For a while we sat in the café parking lot as Jill sobbed quietly into the phone. Lissa asked Jill when she was coming back. Jill said she did not know.

“You need to be here, Jill,” Lissa said.

“I know,” Jill said. “I know.”

Lissa wanted Jill to find closure in attending the trial, but more than this, she believed Jill’s presence would send an important message. KC’s grandfather was dead. The only person who could sit in a courtroom with the murderers and remind them of the pain they had inflicted was Jill. Guilt, more than prison time, made criminals suffer, Lissa believed, and she resented Jill for letting them off the hook. She worried, too, what the jury saw. Did they think no one loved KC? Did they wonder if he had been less innocent than his story made him seem?

Lissa was losing confidence in the case. Each evening when we returned to the hotel, she opened the doors, lit a cigarette, and mulled over the day’s proceedings.

“It’s like they’re just going through the motions,” she complained one night. The prosecutors struck her as too assured, while their evidence in KC’s case was mostly circumstantial. That day, Ahmed had called Delao to the witness stand, and it had soon become clear that the case depended on his testimony. This made Lissa nervous, since Delao was an easy target. The defense could list his crimes, including a murder, and say that he had cooperated with the government before, that he “knew how to play the game.” They could cast him as an opportunist, talking his way in and out of his own mistakes. Certainly, Delao had a knack for telling people what they wanted to hear. In front of the jury, he assumed the bearing of a beloved high school teacher, gesticulating with his hands, defining his terms, pausing to be sure his audience understood.

 

In certain ways, Delao reminded Lissa of herself. He was smart, charming. She believed him when he said that he had gone to North Dakota in hope of escaping a life of crime. “This is where the criminal justice system fails people,” she said. “He gets out of prison, hears James is doing good. He just wanted to be legit, on top. It was the dream. I can do this without going to prison. But James already decided what his function was going to be because of his past. He exploited Robert just like he exploited Timothy. I can see why the state continues to make deals with Robert. They owe him. They’ve shortchanged him from the beginning. I would guess he comes from a single-parent, migratory family and all the bullshit that comes with it. And he’s been in the system most of his life, but he’s never been rehabbed. He’s never had a fair shake.”

Lissa dragged on her cigarette and shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. Her sympathy extended only so far. Delao did not seem as remorseful as Suckow. “I think he’s too fucking happy about this shit. Did you see the way James looked at me?”

I had. Not long after Delao entered the room, James had locked eyes with Lissa for a length of time that seemed more than accidental.

Lissa stamped out her cigarette, pleased with herself. “Remember I told him, ‘Aren’t you worried Robert’s going to snitch on you?’ ” She smiled. “I was thinking, I told you this day was going to come.”

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