Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 15: Trial | Part 2)
THE BLUEPRINT ON which the prosecutors built their story came from a collection of more than ninety thousand text messages, which the FBI agent, Eric Barker, had recovered from Delao’s and Henrikson’s phones, as well as the emails traded between Delao and Suckow in the months prior to the Carlile murder. Barker would later describe to me how he sorted the data, which had come to him in one file containing, in chronological order, every message the phones delivered or received. First, he deleted conversations he deemed unimportant to the case; then, he copied the remaining conversations into spreadsheets corresponding with each alleged crime. “These guys lived on their phones, so there was just a ton of data,” he told me. He read every message. “Not that I’m a control freak, but I wanted to know exactly what was in there, so that if I had to explain this on the stand, I could.”
In fact, Barker admitted, he was a bit of a control freak. A former chief lending officer, he had just spent four years investigating corruption in Texas when he arrived at the FBI office in Spokane and was immediately assigned the Henrikson case. His father had been a truck driver in the oil fields of Wyoming, where Barker was from, and as he read the messages, Barker recognized the industry language. It had not taken him long to realize that this language was a code.
“When you want to send out roust crew?” Delao had written to James one night. Roustabouts were the workers who cleaned up sites after a company finished drilling, but Delao was referring to Todd Bates, the hit man, and another accomplice whom James had solicited to kill an employee the next day. “Get a good night sleep,” Delao wrote Bates. “Tomorrow afternoon you start work.”
The messages Barker sorted were so dense with innuendo that even the authors sometimes confused legitimate work with violence. “Welder will meet me for orientation tomorrow,” Delao had updated James. “Should I send welders to the 1st job while I do work on the second?” These messages, Delao explained to the court, referred to their preparations for a hit. When Delao later texted James about an actual welding job, he wrote, “We need welders. Real welders.”
Ahmed spent days deciphering the messages, and if ever the meaning of one was unclear, he asked Delao to enlighten the jury. Most of the messages concerned the heroin deals, for which the criminals used a different code. “Chinese food” was China white heroin. “Virgin black girls,” black tar heroin. “Spanish brown sugar cake” meant heroin from Mexico. Delao answered as eagerly as ever, lapsing into long explanations. “He’s basically offering translation services from the hood to the privileged,” Lissa said.
It was impossible to overlook the importance of the messages. While the Carlile murder file was thick with evidence—a gun, bullets, handwritten notes, a body, the welding glove—the Clarke file was comparatively thin. There was no body, no DNA, no weapon, no proof that a murder had even occurred. Later, Barker would say that KC’s murder might have been impossible to prove were it not for two pieces of evidence he discovered among the text messages—first, an exchange between Delao and Suckow on July 31, 2012:
RD: When you’re bored, look up missing Blackstone driver on the computer.
TS: Sounds serious. Everything alright?
RD: It’s all cool.
TS: Good, don’t make me worry about u.
RD: Heck no. That incident was before my time and it’s a North Dakota mystery lol Just sharing info as it passes to me. Drivers are comfortable with me now and asking me if I knew that guy
TS: Good, I don’t like 2 b worried. Lol
The second piece of evidence was a photograph of KC’s gun. Suckow had sent the photo to Delao in early August, shortly after James met with Steve Gutknecht, the Bureau of Criminal Investigations agent in Williston, and Gutknecht mentioned to James that KC’s gun was missing. James contacted Delao, who asked Suckow about the gun. Suckow admitted he had taken it. At work the next day, Suckow placed the gun in a vise, cut it in half, wrapped the pieces in duct tape, and tossed them into a dumpster. He sent the photo to Delao to prove he destroyed the gun.
AFTER DELAO CAME Steve Kelly, Rick Arey, Judd Parker, Justin Beeson, George Dennis, Ryan Olness, Jed McClure, and Peyton Martin. None of the testimonies would seem as important as Suckow’s or Delao’s, but they had, altogether, an impressive effect, as if the witnesses had been drawn into the same centrifugal epic and now were emerging, their lives forever altered. In the story the government crafted, James was a lonely villain, weaving the web in which the witnesses had been trapped. It was a simpler story than the one Lissa believed. It was the story, I supposed, that prosecutors had to tell. Later, I would ask federal officials if they felt sympathy for some victims or perpetrators more than others. Ahmed said he felt most sorry for Clarke, whom he considered a truly innocent victim. Certainly no one deserved to die, Brian Cestnik added, but “they’re all con men, all conning each other.” The only outlier in this morass of deceit seemed to be the hit man. Several officials told me they felt most sorry for Suckow, who seemed more aware of his crimes than anyone and expressed the most remorse.
In this spectrum of guilt and innocence, I wondered where Sarah Creveling fit in. According to a report detailing the justification for James’s arrest, a few days after investigators raided James’s and Sarah’s house, Sarah and her lawyer called law enforcement and arranged a meeting with investigators in Minot. In this meeting, Sarah admitted she and James routinely defrauded their investors. She also admitted she had purchased, at her husband’s direction, most of the guns found in her home.
Every investigator had a theory about Sarah. One would tell me that he had been struck by her intelligence and could not help but wonder if she had been the mastermind behind it all. Another was certain of her innocence: “She was consistent with her story,” he told me. “I don’t know how many times we interviewed her. It was a lot, and her story didn’t waver.”
In the story Sarah told investigators, she had cast herself as another victim of her husband. She never had any reason to believe James murdered KC, and it was not until she was taken into protective custody that she realized he was capable of murder, she said. But while Sarah told a consistent story, there were parts of her account that confused investigators. A few months prior to the trial, the U.S. attorney of North Dakota had indicted Sarah for defrauding Blackstone investors, based on evidence Trudell and others collected. Although Sarah was the owner of Blackstone, and although she was responsible for keeping the books, in interviews she distanced herself from her company’s financial malfeasance. She raised suspicions in other ways, as well: Some Blackstone employees believed Sarah had known about the murders all along. According to Ryan Olness, the investor from Arizona, Sarah had asked him to speak to her in private shortly after KC disappeared, and she had acted so nervous that he felt certain she knew KC was murdered. Sarah denied the story. Nor did she remember meeting Suckow, but according to both Suckow and Olness, James and Sarah had driven Suckow to Williston the morning after the murder. James had forgotten to pay Suckow and called Olness, who took ten thousand dollars from his personal safe, stuffed the money in an empty Cheez-It box, and delivered it to James, Sarah, and Suckow in a pullout on the side of the road. Later, Sarah wrote two checks to reimburse Olness. “And she remembers none of this?” Mark Burbridge, the Spokane detective told me. “Come on. She spent probably two to three hours with Tim. He’s a dangerous, scary-looking guy. And you don’t remember that? My ass.”
When Sarah entered the courtroom on the thirteenth day of trial, she had the poise of a funeral-goer. She did not appear to walk so much as float, her hips moving slightly, her shoulders entirely motionless. She wore black flats, dark gray pants, and a long coat fitted to her slim figure. Her hair was dark at its roots, tied in a bun.
She noticed Lissa only after she had taken her seat on the witness stand. Her eyes flickered and looked away. She would not glance at James, who did not look at Sarah, either. Where, before, James had stared aggressively at every witness, now his face flushed, and he looked like he might cry—the only emotion I had seen him express in the days he had been on trial.
Sarah’s voice was sweet and firm.
“Did you ever ask the defendant about KC’s disappearance?” Scott Jones asked.
“Yes,” Sarah replied.
“How many times?”
“Maybe a handful.”
“On any of those occasions, did he have a physical response to the question?”
“Once. He went pale and completely quiet.”
“At some point in time, [did you see a] Facebook posting indicating that KC’s body might have been found?”
“Where were you?”
“In the vehicle with James.”
“Can you please describe his physical reaction?”
“He looked like he’d seen a ghost. He went completely white and started asking me questions.”
A half hour had passed when Jones showed Sarah a copy of the flyer. Suddenly, her still exterior cracked. She glanced at Lissa and began to cry. Lissa looked surprised. “Do you think she knows you made those flyers?” I murmured.
“No,” Lissa said. “She has no clue.”
The next morning, a defense attorney would suggest inconsistencies in her story, but Sarah would not soften under his questioning. She would correct his dates, his mixed-up facts. She would interrupt to clarify what he had asked. I would notice Lissa smiling, as if in approval of Sarah. She tore a sheet from her journal and composed a note. She was glad Sarah was safe, she wrote, and when we broke for lunch, I watched Lissa hand the note to a slender woman with curly gray hair, whom I recognized as Sarah’s mother. Later, when we returned to the courtroom, the woman bent to whisper in Lissa’s ear.
“What did she say?” I asked.
“She said, ‘Thank you,’ ” Lissa replied.
WE ROOMED TOGETHER for a little over a week, until a friend joined Lissa from North Dakota, and I rented my own place. I don’t think I could have lasted another night with her, and I don’t think Lissa could have lasted with me, either. She was hardly sleeping. I had taken to shutting off the lights to see if she would go to bed, and still she would lie on the covers in her court clothes, scrolling through news long past midnight. Later, we would laugh about this—Lissa liked to mock my sleep habits, which she considered excessive and dogmatic—but, at the time, nothing seemed very humorous. As she had expected, the defense was undermining Delao’s credibility, calling for his impeachment, which could exclude his testimony from the jury’s consideration and result in a mistrial. Coincidentally, the judge was presiding at the same time over another case involving Delao: Years earlier, the witness had been accused by a defense team of giving false testimony to a jury regarding his involvement in the attempted robbery of an elderly woman. Two weeks into the Henrikson trial, the judge ruled Delao had, indeed, lied in the robbery case, but he chose not to inform the Henrikson jury of this ruling.
Ahmed was livid, especially when the Spokesman-Review printed an article before the Henrikson trial was over about Delao lying in that other case. “I’m not being critical of the judge,” he later told me. “I am being critical of the timing of it.”
At trial, the parties began to bicker, which Lissa took as a sign that the prosecutors were getting nervous. “I’m sorry, but I could do better than that,” she bragged to me one morning. I had begun to suspect the distrust was mutual. In the first week of trial, Lissa had gone looking for Jill on a lower floor of the courthouse when someone yelled her name. She had turned to find herself face-to-face with an agitated guard. She was not allowed on the floor, the guard had said, and Lissa complied, but it was the way the guard called her attention that rattled her: “He knew my name,” she told me—not “Lissa,” but “Yellow Bird.”
She had noticed other things, too—the way Trudell avoided her after their encounter in the hallway, the way the guards watched her whenever she went out to smoke. After Mark Burbridge, the Spokane detective, gave his testimony, we both saw him roll his eyes at her.
Then, one afternoon, as I rode with Lissa to her hotel, a cop trailed us most of the way. When we got to the room, I sat at the desk, turned on my recorder, and asked Lissa to repeat the story of the flyers. “So I came home to switch Percy’s bandages one day,” she said, “and he was like, ‘Sis, your packages are here,’ and I looked, and they were all piled up—” Lissa pulled a cigarette from her pocket and slid open the glass doors. “And I—” She stopped. “The fucking cops are here,” she said.
“What?” I rose to the doors.
“They’re taking my license number and shit.”
Indeed, a cop had parked behind her rental car—one of only two in the lot—and was pointing some sort of device at her license plate. He looked up at us and drove off.
Suddenly, Lissa was laughing, folding over, choking on her cigarette smoke.
“That’s some covert shit up in this bitch,” she said. “See him take off as soon as he seen me? That door surprised him. I looked right at him. He was sitting there behind that license plate.”
I watched Lissa. She was laughing still, her eyes blinking tears. She swallowed her breath, wiped her eyes. “That’s not my imagination, girl,” she said. “I’m telling you. That’s why I say, ‘Be alert. Don’t fuck around.’ Because nobody knows whose team you’re on. I’m perceived as an enemy of the state. I’m a threat.” Lissa pulled on her cigarette. She coughed, a loose rattle. “And it’s like, they don’t know what I’ve been through. I’m here because I have a right to be here. I know my rights. Try to tell me I can’t be here.” Her cigarette had gone out, and when she relit it, I noticed that her hand was trembling. “I’m telling you. I live like that all the time. All the time. All the time,” she said.
I NEVER FOUND out why the cop followed us. Lissa suspected it had to do with the trial, but as for who would have given him the order, she did not know. “I feel so far from home,” she told me. Three weeks into the trial, she bought a return flight to Fargo. I agreed to drive her to the airport, but when I called to make plans the evening before her departure, Lissa did not answer. At last, she called. I asked how her night was going. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she said. “I just need to get my ass home.”
She was smoking a cigarette when I found her the next morning. For a while, we drove in silence. Finally, she said, “I’ve been thinking, and I’m kind of at the point where maybe he’s better off if we leave his ass out there.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Do you remember when I was out there with Obie? There was this really steep incline, and my pelvis was hurting, so I couldn’t go down there, but I told Obie, ‘When you go down, it’s a drop, about sixty feet, and there are trees, and if you start going, those trees aren’t going to stop you.’ I told him, ‘If you start going, just drop back and grab those bushes.’ He didn’t believe me. He got maybe a quarter of the way down, and gravity started taking over. He did exactly like I told him. He grabbed those bushes. Then he kind of tumbled down some more, because gravity kept pulling him, and he ended up in this tiny grove, and there was an opening in the shrubs there. He landed on his feet. And he said, ‘Oh my God, Mom. I wish you could see this.’ He said, ‘You’re not going to believe how beautiful it looks from here.’ ”
“It is a beautiful place,” I said.
“That’s what I’m thinking. He’s buried in a beautiful place.”