Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 16: The Body)
THERE WERE TWO WEEKS REMAINING in the trial when Lissa left. I called her the night Tex Hall took the stand and again on the day of the verdict, but she did not answer. The jury convicted James Henrikson on all eleven counts, including both murders-for-hire, four attempted hits, and the conspiracy to distribute heroin. Later, the judge would hand him two life sentences—one for killing Doug Carlile and the other for Kristopher Clarke.
As I watched the trial alone, I had the strange sensation that Lissa was nowhere and everywhere at once. No attorney or witness mentioned her name, though signs of her glared out at me. The flyer appeared many times throughout the trial, the most essential prop in the story the government had crafted and a symbol of the ruin of Blackstone’s reputation, since it had forced James and Sarah to flee Fort Berthold and seek another front man in Carlile. This version of the story was true except on one point: According to prosecutors, it was Jed McClure, the investor, who acted alone to distribute the flyer—McClure who had been intent on forcing Blackstone off the reservation. And this was not the government’s only omission. When Scott Jones questioned Sarah Creveling about the “Facebook posting” suggesting Clarke’s body had been found, he was likely asking about a text message Lissa sent to Sarah in the summer of 2013. Indeed, a body had been found, but Lissa knew it was not KC’s; rather, it belonged to a rancher murdered on his property near Williston. Lissa had sent the message to see how Sarah would react, and in the days afterward, Sarah asked Lissa about the body multiple times, wondering if anyone identified it. Later, when I asked officials what made them believe Sarah knew about KC’s murder, they mentioned this moment when Sarah told James a body had been found, and James, in her words, “went pale and completely quiet.”
I suspected prosecutors left Lissa out of their story because they did not know the depth of her involvement. If Sarah or Jed mentioned her in interviews, each would have known only a small piece of the role Lissa played in the case. Trudell knew that Lissa had spoken frequently to Sarah, but none knew the extent of their communication. Even I found it difficult to define what Lissa had done. It was easier to say what might never have occurred had she not been involved in the case: James might not have been forced off the reservation; Carlile might not have been killed; KC’s murder might not have been solved; and Tex might have remained chairman of the tribe.
I also suspected that investigators left her out because they distrusted her. Aine Ahmed, the federal prosecutor, told me that after Suckow brought investigators to the burial area, they had tried to keep the site a secret, because, “We felt that if Yellow Bird or anyone else found the body, now we have issues with forensics. I just didn’t want a thousand people at that scene, looking for a body, when we had expended all those resources.”
Other investigators seemed suspicious of Lissa’s motives. “I want to be careful what I say,” Burbridge told me. “She’s a cop wannabe who forms theories based on theories without evidence, without any real knowledge of how bad guys work, and she can cause problems. You can get off on a tangent and get lost if you start going down some of those roads.” Even Mike Marchus, whom Lissa considered a friend, made clear to me that he did not reciprocate the feeling: “She’s a smart gal. I think she always wanted to be in law enforcement.” Police have a word for this—“We call them ‘holster sniffers.’ ” Before Lissa went to prison, Marchus told me, “I didn’t like dealing with her. She was a pain in the ass. Then, after she got out, I’d hear from her. Then I wouldn’t hear from her. I just always assumed she was going through that cycle, you know?” He meant that he assumed she was still using drugs and was surprised when I told him Lissa was sober.
When I recalled the conversation for Lissa, she told me that Marchus was playing down how friendly they once had been. She was more bothered that he thought she was still using. “Maybe it’s because these guys in law enforcement don’t often see addicts get sober?” I suggested.
“No,” she said. “I think it’s just easiest for them to think of us as throwaways. Being an addict is unsightly. It’s unattractive.”
Burbridge’s comment stayed longer with Lissa. No real knowledge of how bad guys work. “They’re so set on labeling people,” she told me. “I am the bad guy. They put this veil between themselves and what they project to believe is a bad guy.”
The investigator who had the clearest sense of her involvement in the Clarke case was Darrik Trudell. Though the Department of Homeland Security would not allow me to interview him on the record, I sensed Trudell was also wary of Lissa, if not confused by her. Lissa sensed his wariness too. “I’m not trying to put a feather in my hat,” she told me when I visited her after the trial. “But what if I didn’t call up to Washington and say, ‘You need to call Darrik’? What if I didn’t call Darrik and say, ‘You need to call up to Washington’? What if Darrik didn’t call them and say, ‘Hey, you need to ask about KC Clarke’? There were just so many things that could have happened that would have let these guys off. Tim Suckow could have gone down for the Carlile deal, kept his mouth shut, and all those people would be walking out in the free world, conjuring up their next con game on some other unsuspecting victim.”
Lissa and Trudell had recently spoken by phone. She congratulated him on the verdict and mentioned Tex Hall again, suggesting he was less of a victim than he had made himself seem. Trudell defended Tex, having no reason to believe Tex acted nefariously. This made Lissa angry with Trudell all over again.
“Darrik thinks I have an agenda,” she told me. “Of course I have an agenda, but Darrik is so young and green that he can’t even understand it. This is a spiritual journey for me. This is beyond Darrik’s comprehension. He made this clear in Washington, when he asked, ‘You’re missing work and losing pay? Why?’ You have no soul, Darrik. You can’t put this kind of shit on paper. He may be well trained by the book, but when it comes to spirit or compassion, he’s a flunky. A lot of Indians say, ‘That’s a white thing. They’re not really taught from birth how to have these experiences.’ Maybe something drastic will have to happen, something like I went through with Shauna, or with prison, but one day, the fucking light’s going to go off, and he’ll be like, ‘That’s why. I get it.’ ”
Lissa was getting worked up. “He’s got his feather. I don’t know why he’s worried about me. I must be pretty goddamn important. God, I’d just like to meet that fucker at the bar,” she said. “Yup, you got your ass kicked by a fat little Indian chick.”
A week later, when I called Lissa, she had forgiven Trudell. “If it wasn’t for him, this case would still be sitting on Gutknecht’s desk,” she said. “My goal was to get justice for KC, and if it weren’t for Darrik, I would have never gotten that. What I wanted to happen happened. I’ve got to give him a little chicken feather for that. He did listen. He did take the time to meet with me. All that Tex Hall bullshit aside, I think he should get credit, because one person out of all these people listened. Just because somebody doesn’t have a badge doesn’t mean their story’s not worth listening to.”
IN JUNE 2016, after receiving federal permission, Trudell invited Lissa and Rick Arey into the badlands to give them a tour of the burial area to which Suckow and George Dennis had led him. The Clarke case was officially closed, but Trudell suspected Lissa would want to keep on searching even after investigators had given up.
Lissa accepted the offer. Indeed, she was not done looking for KC, she decided. She chose not to tell Trudell that she had already seen the area, and she invited me along. One weekend, she picked me up in Bismarck, and together we drove west into the badlands.
We met Trudell and Rick at a pull-off past a gate, climbed into Trudell’s dark SUV, and headed north. The grass was high and gone to seed. Trudell was wearing hiking boots, jeans, a gray T-shirt, and wraparound sunglasses. He kept sighing, as if he wanted to get the day over with as quickly as he could.
We came to a bend in the road, and Trudell pointed out a window to a small, desiccated pond. When he first asked Suckow to look at a map and identify the burial site, Suckow had chosen this pond as a landmark, but when agents brought the hit man into the badlands, Suckow had led them farther south, to the bottom of a ravine. Now Trudell showed us this ravine, dense with brush.
“Did he say anything about it being relatively flat until he got to that ravine?” Lissa asked. Her face was darkening, crinkling in the dry sun.
“Yeah,” said Trudell. “It was flat, and he walked through some brush, and then he dropped down, and it just opened up, and he said, ‘This is the perfect spot.’ He’d never been out there before. That’s why I think it’s so odd that we can’t find it. I mean, how can they just walk off the road, and we can’t find that body? It’s so frustrating.”
“So, you’re sure KC’s out here?” Rick said. “Like, he’s within a thousand feet?”
“I wouldn’t say a thousand feet,” Trudell said. “But I’m confident he’s along this pass somewhere.”
Trudell also wanted to show Lissa the site George had identified, so we returned south, parked, and followed him on foot down another ravine, steeper and less wooded. “George said he turned the truck around,” Trudell explained. “He saw them go behind a juniper, and that’s when he lost sight of them. It’s behind here.” He pointed to a tree. Trudell approached the tree, looked at the ground, and paused. At the base was a large hole. For a moment, Trudell seemed confused. Then he looked at Lissa. “How did you know it was here?” Lissa shrugged; Trudell sighed. Now he really seemed ready to go. “You know,” he said, “sometimes I was like, Why did I get involved with this? But I just knew from the beginning when I heard about the case from Mike Marchus that there was something to it. Everybody knew James did it. Everybody knew. It was just, How do you prove it? That’s what piqued my curiosity, the challenge of not letting him get away with it. I knew there were frustrating times, because I took the phone calls. ‘You’re moving so slow. Aren’t you guys going to do anything?’ And I told you guys, it takes time. If it had been easy, it would have been done a long time ago.”
“Dude,” Rick said. He was wearing a fisherman’s hat and a T-shirt scrawled with the words VIVA LA REVOLUCIÓN. “Everything that James chose not to feel in this life is going to hit him like a fucking ton of bricks in the next one. But knowing James is where he’s supposed to be, and KC is here, I will sleep at night.”
Trudell nodded. “You guys did a great job keeping it on the forefront.” He glanced at Lissa again. “Those posters were brilliant.”
“Look what we got in the end,” said Rick. “The justice system worked.”
“It took a while to get there,” said Trudell.
“A long-ass haul,” Lissa said.
WE STAYED THE night, Lissa, Rick, and I, in a man camp that had emptied out since the bust. It cost ninety dollars to rent a trailer for a night. Rick, who had driven up from Wyoming, fell asleep early, while Lissa and I returned to the burial area.
We drove with the windows down, letting in the cool, damp evening air and mosquitoes that bounced on the inside of the windshield. We parked a mile past the gate, and I followed Lissa on foot. Her steps were clumsy, quick. She hadn’t taken her medication that day, and her mind leapt across the landscape. “Is that spearmint?” I heard her say. And: “Some of these paths are growing over.” And: “Did you know a lot of Indians used to drive out here? My uncle Dennis came to hunt. I think with the oil they quit coming around.”
I stumbled after her. Thunderheads had gathered on the northern horizon. The wild turnips were blooming.