Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 2: Missing | Part 1)
AFTER LISSA WROTE TO CLARKE’S mother on June 2, 2012, she heard nothing. June passed. Then, July. In early August, Lissa drove to the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation, 150 miles northwest of Fargo, where she danced in her first sun dance, an annual religious ceremony that originated among tribes in the Great Plains. Before prison, Lissa never had any interest in traditional ways; it was after she got out that she became curious. Though her family was Catholic, they had not abandoned their ways entirely, and if a relative fell ill, they often asked medicine people to pray at the bedside. One day, while visiting an aunt in the hospital, Lissa met a Lakota man whom her mother had summoned to hold a ceremony. The man invited Lissa to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where he lived, and after that, Lissa made frequent trips. He taught her how to prepare for sun dance, how to pray, how to fashion a medicine pipe from red pipestone. One of Lissa’s uncles, who worked as a Native American commissioner for the city of Fargo, helped secure a small plot of municipal land on the outskirts of the city to erect a sweat lodge. Soon Lissa was attending several nights a week, bringing her son Micah along and arranging for inmates at her old halfway house to attend as well. After the sweat, they gathered in lawn chairs around a firepit, drank water, and ate sloppy joes. Now, wherever Lissa went, she was ready for ceremony. In her car, she kept a suitcase packed with tobacco, eagle feathers, medicine wheels, inserts for her moccasins, bitterroot for her throat when it got sore from singing, a knife, dresses she sewed herself—applying a skill she had gained in prison—and scalpels and hemp thread, which she used to pierce her shoulders under the skin, stitching to her body the feathers and medicine wheels that were torn from her during the sun dance. The dance lasted four days, through which Lissa consumed no food or water. Suffering, she was learning, could be a gift, and flesh the only thing that belonged to her, that she could give of her own body.
On August 11, 2012, the day Lissa returned to Fargo from Spirit Lake, Clarke’s mother, Jill Williams, replied. “I just need info,” she wrote. Perhaps Lissa could “ask around” on the reservation. She should be careful though, Jill warned: “Someone around there is responsible for KC’s disappearance and I don’t want to put anyone in danger.”
Lissa knew from Jill’s original plea that the last her son had been seen was at the trucking company offices where he worked, in a segment of the reservation called Mandaree. Fort Berthold had six segments, drawn up after the flood. White Shield made up the east segment, Twin Buttes the south, and Mandaree the west, while Four Bears, New Town, and Parshall spread from west to east across the north. On the twenty-fourth of August, a Friday, Lissa drove with Micah and Obie to White Shield and spent the night at her grandmother’s house. The next day, she continued to Mandaree. Across a bridge over the lake, the land scrunched like a dry blanket, where the flatness of the prairie gave way to badlands, to canyons cut by seasonal creeks. Red clouds hovered over the grass—dust devils, Lissa thought at first, but when she looked closer, she saw that they were the billowed wakes of trucks. There were roads where she had never seen roads before, curving through pasture like suburban culs-de-sac. Even the contours of the land had changed, cliffs cut, hills reshaped, as if giants had pressed their fingers into clay.
It was her first sight of the oil boom. She had heard about it from relatives—about a man who came by her grandmother’s house promising bonuses if Madeleine signed. That had been in 2007, while Lissa was in prison. The man happened to be Madeleine’s nephew, hired by an oil company called Dakota-3 to persuade his fellow tribal members to lease their mineral rights. By the time Lissa was paroled, every scrap of land on the reservation had been leased, and the first oil wells had been drilled.
The land Madeleine leased out was in Mandaree, across the lake from White Shield. It was a small share she had inherited from her father, Ben Young Bird, upon his death. Ben was Hidatsa. Before the flood, people crossed the Missouri freely by three bridges connecting towns on either side, but after the bridges were submerged, the distance became vast, irreconcilable. Arikara families moved to White Shield, Hidatsa families to Mandaree, and after that, Madeleine rarely saw many of her Young Bird relatives. Even when a bridge was rebuilt in 1955, connecting Four Bears to New Town, those living in the southernmost segments—White Shield, Twin Buttes, and Mandaree—crossed the reservation less often, the drive being one to three hours.
Madeleine had never seen her land before she leased it to the oil company. When she later heard that the leases were sold to a different company for a higher price than the one her nephew offered, she regretted having leased the land at all. Her check had been small. It had shouldered the weight of grocery and electricity bills, and then, as easily as it had come, it was gone. When Lissa heard her relatives brag, “We got oil on our rez,” she struggled to believe them. The boom had hardly touched White Shield. Mandaree was different, she knew, and still, Lissa had found it difficult to believe the rumors circulating on the reservation. Some Mandaree families, people said, were collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. “Are you serious about that?” she challenged her relatives. “When do Indians ever get their due?”
But now here it was: the boom. Lissa could not deny it. Roads, dust, trucks, rigs. And flares, too many to count, shooting from pits and tall metal pipes, the air shimmering with heat.
The road dipped into another canyon, the flares disappearing from sight. Here the land looked as it had before, broad and unmarked. She passed a pale-yellow house where an aunt and uncle lived and thought of stopping for a visit. Then, remembering why she had come, Lissa continued on.
Some miles past the canyon, the road forked west toward Watford City and south toward Mandaree Village. On a far corner were the trucking offices, larger than Lissa had expected. They were a metal building with few windows, a garage tacked to the side. Vehicles had lined up by what appeared to be a main entrance, and semitrucks were scattered in the yard. There were workers everywhere, most of them white, lying beneath trucks, climbing in and out of cabs. Lissa parked at the edge of the yard, hoping someone would notice her, but no one did. When a worker came near, she called out to him.
“Is this the place where KC Clarke used to work?” she said.
The worker stopped, looked. “Who?” he said.
“There was a kid that went missing out here. Is this the spot where he went missing?”
“I don’t know nothing about that,” the worker said.
He had an accent she couldn’t place. He had left his home a few months earlier, he explained, when the bank took his car and nearly his house. He had never heard of Kristopher Clarke. He made good money, though the cost of living on the reservation was high. In the beginning, he had rented a cot in a Quonset hut for $300 a week, but the cots were closely spaced, and whenever he rolled over he had found himself face-to-face with an “ugly son of a bitch” beside him. Now he slept in the cab of his truck, in the yard by the trucking “shop.” As it happened, the shop was owned by the chairman of the MHA Nation, the worker said. The chairman’s name was Tex Hall.
The day had cooled by the time Lissa said goodbye to the worker, the sun lower on a range of mountains past the west border of the reservation. She knew she should return to White Shield—her mother would be worried she was gone so long—but instead she drove toward Mandaree Village, beyond a cluster of houses and a blue water tower, to where the prairie opened toward the lake.
Lissa wondered if there had been a time when people called the lake a “reservoir.” She never heard her relatives use this word. “When the waters came” was how they described the flood, as if to remind themselves they had no choice in the matter. But to Lissa the lake meant something different. She knew the history, and still she loved the lake. When she was twelve years old, she had often gone fishing from the shore in Mandaree with her stepfather, Wayne White Eagle. Wayne was Lakota from Eagle Butte, a tall man, big-featured. In the early eighties, he had worked in New Town for the Indian Health Service, where he met Lissa’s mother, who was teaching at the tribal college. Wayne and Irene fell in love and, in 1983, they married.
It was through Wayne that Lissa had first heard of Tex Hall—the chairman of her tribe whom the worker had mentioned. Tex had been Wayne’s best friend. They met in the nineties, when Wayne took a job at the school in Mandaree where Tex was principal. After that, Wayne and Tex sat together at basketball games and often stayed out until late at night. Wayne had a degree in Native American studies and knew quite a lot about Indian law and politics. When Tex ran for tribal chairman in 1998, Wayne campaigned on his behalf. As far as Lissa knew, her entire family had voted for Tex—a surprise, since although Tex was family, related to them through Madeleine, he identified as Hidatsa. Bloodlines had long blurred among the three tribes, but families still tossed insults across the lake. Some Arikara liked to point out that the Hidatsa were “mixed-blood”—part white—and thus untrustworthy, while some Hidatsa did not fail to mention that the Arikara had aided General Custer in the U.S. government’s battles with the Sioux. That a Lakota Sioux man had convinced an Arikara family in White Shield to vote for a Hidatsa from Mandaree struck Irene as extraordinarily funny. After Wayne died, in November 2011, she told the story at his funeral, and when she came to the punch line, Tex had laughed and laughed.
Lissa spoke at Wayne’s funeral as well, though her memory had been overtaken by a later funeral, for her uncle Chucky, who died three weeks after Wayne. Lissa hardly knew Tex. After he won the election for chairman in 1998, he had won again in 2002, and again in 2010. He served more terms as chairman than anyone in the tribe’s history. Had Lissa not been hit by a truck and bound to a wheelchair at the time of the past election, she would have voted for Tex. Irene spoke highly of him, and Wayne had liked to brag he was “a powerful man.” Lissa never bothered to ask Wayne what he meant.
She had little interest in politics, but she was surprised to hear the worker mention Tex’s name. Lissa had not realized Tex owned an oil-field company. She wondered if Tex even knew that a worker had gone missing from his shop. She decided she would give Tex a call; perhaps he could then pressure authorities to focus on the case.
The sun was setting, Lissa miles past Mandaree Village now. To the north a church appeared, tucked into a wooded swale. Lissa had come to this church many times as a child in the summertime, when the Catholic families of Fort Berthold sent their kids to bible camp. All the Yellow Birds had attended camp at Saint Anthony, including Lissa’s mother, Irene, who once ran away and hitched a ride home with the tribal judge. But Lissa had not minded camp. She had liked Brother Bernard, a scruffy white man with a ten o’clock shadow that left scratches on the cheeks of every Indian kid he hugged. Brother Bernard had made pancakes, and on hot afternoons let the campers ride in the bed of a truck out to the shore of the lake.
The camp looked as it had before, the dorms more crooked but upright. A gas flare hissed in a nearby field. The road to the church bent east, past a house where the priest lived, and dipped into a brushy creek, emerging at the entrance to a cemetery. Lissa’s father, Leroy Chase, was buried here. She found the graves difficult to make out, some marked with headstones or simple plaques and some with no markings at all. She searched until it became too dark to see. Her mother called: “Where are you?”
“Don’t worry,” Lissa replied.
AS LISSA CROSSED the lake back to the east side of the reservation that night, her phone rang again. It was Jill Williams, Clarke’s mother. Jill had a sweet-sounding voice as she shared with Lissa everything she knew. On the morning KC disappeared, he had left his rental house in the village of Four Bears and driven south to the shop where he worked in Mandaree. Indeed, Jill said, the shop belonged to the tribal chairman, Tex Hall, who owned a company called Maheshu Energy that was partnered with another company called Blackstone. Blackstone was owned by a husband and wife, James Henrikson and Sarah Creveling, who, like KC, were white and from Washington State. James and KC had met years earlier racing motorcycles and become friends. Then, in 2008, KC moved to Brownwood, Texas, to live with a girlfriend. He had been working at a car dealership when James found him one day in 2011. James had moved to Texas, as well, and had a masonry business there, but work was slow, and he had decided to leave for North Dakota to start a trucking service in the oil fields. He offered KC a job. KC was at first reluctant to leave Texas, but when he and his girlfriend broke up, he moved north. For several months, he lived in a trailer with James and Sarah in Van Hook, a town on the north shore of Lake Sakakawea, until he moved into the rental house that December. James had several trucks, which he subcontracted under a company owned by a tribal member named Steve Kelly. The arrangement had not lasted long. By Christmas, James, Sarah, and KC moved their trucks to Tex Hall’s shop in Mandaree. The work had been good—so good, Jill learned, that her son hardly slept. In February, James suggested KC take a vacation. On the morning of his first day off, KC drove to the shop, arriving around ten, and turned in his company credit card to Sarah, whom he told of his plan to visit his grandfather in Oregon. Then he disappeared.
KC was close to his grandfather, Robert Clarke, who helped raise him. They spoke regularly, so when weeks passed without word from KC, Robert called the Mountrail County sheriff, stationed north of the reservation. “It’s not a crime to go missing,” the sheriff said. Men fled the oil fields all the time, and KC would probably show up. But on March 23, 2012, the sheriff received a different call from the mother of KC’s ex-girlfriend, who had reported him missing to the Brownwood Police Department. KC still leased a house in Texas and that month had failed to pay rent. A Mountrail County deputy filed an incident report. The next month, KC missed another rent payment.
His case languished. Jill, from whom KC had been estranged for years, did not learn her son was missing until months after he disappeared. Then, in June 2012, a detective in Brownwood received a call from a man who had discovered KC’s truck, a white Chevrolet Silverado, parked on a street in Williston, roughly an hour west of Fort Berthold. The man lived on the street and had seen the truck parked there for months. One day, he had approached out of curiosity and found a door unlocked. He located the registration, noted the owner’s name. He entered “Kristopher Clarke” in a records database and learned that KC had a DUI in Minot. A court date was scheduled; KC had not appeared. The man also came across a notice that KC had been reported missing. The notice listed a license plate matching the one on the truck and a phone number for the detective in Brownwood. The man called the detective. The detective called the Williston Police Department.
When officers searched the truck, they found latex gloves, an atlas, a water bottle half-drunk, a box of ammunition for a handgun, a Bible stuck with receipts and business cards, a pill bottle—empty, unmarked—invoices, employee lists, a set of needles and syringes, and a bottle of liquid labeled TESTOSTERONE. Jill had suspected her son used steroids, but the thing she considered most strange about the truck was not what was in it but what was not. Officers had found no wallet, no phone, and no handgun.
A few things confused Lissa about the story Jill told. First, for whom was KC working when he disappeared? If Tex Hall owned the shop as well as the company called Maheshu Energy, then what was Blackstone, the company supposedly owned by James and Sarah? That a company owned by white people had a base on Indian land was in itself unusual. There were laws discouraging this. In 1983, the tribe had passed an ordinance establishing a Tribal Employment Rights Office, known as TERO. The office, sanctioned by an exemption to federal civil rights law, made incentives for companies to give hiring preference to tribal members; and on tribal business owners, it conferred “tier one” status, granting them the right of first refusal of any contracts on the reservation. How, Lissa wondered, was Blackstone operating on Fort Berthold?
On the Monday after she visited the Maheshu shop, Lissa drove north again from White Shield, this time to the TERO office, a small building on the main drag in New Town. The office kept paperwork on every company doing business on the reservation. Lissa requested two files—Blackstone’s and Maheshu’s. The arrangement became immediately obvious to her. Maheshu was a shell, Blackstone its subcontractor. Blackstone paid 20 percent of its profits to Maheshu. By partnering with Tex Hall, James and Sarah had tier-one status and could bid on contracts normally reserved for companies owned by tribal members.
This brought Lissa to the second thing that confused her: If a worker had gone missing from Tex’s property, why had Tex not said something? One would think, as leader of the tribe, that he would at least show concern and try to get to the bottom of it.
“Have you talked to Tex himself about this?” Lissa messaged Jill one night after she returned to Fargo. In two years, Tex would be up for reelection, she explained. “This could have a big impact on his turnout if this were to be blown up in his face.”
Over the following weeks, Lissa and Jill attempted to reach the chairman several times. Neither woman was successful. Once, Lissa spoke to a secretary in the tribal office who asked what a missing man had to do with Tex Hall. “He worked on our chairman’s property,” Lissa explained, adding, “I’m a relative—a tribal member.” The secretary said she would give Tex the message, but days passed, and Tex did not return the call.
One evening in late September 2012, Jill received a Facebook message from the wife of a Blackstone truck driver: “I seen that you are trying to reach Tex Hall. Good luck. When my husband was having problems with James he tried to reach Tex and never was able to reach him and then when he did get the chance to speak with him about James Tex didn’t want to hear it. James is his golden boy.”
Jill often received messages like this. Months earlier, she had created a Facebook page to solicit tips, amassing more than two thousand followers, and although most people who wrote had never met her son, many were familiar with Blackstone. In the time KC worked for the company, it had expanded into a successful operation, acquiring contracts with all the major drillers on the reservation and hiring dozens of full-time staff and drivers. In spite of this success, some employees disliked working for Blackstone. Many truck drivers complained to Jill about not being paid what they were owed, and some who knew KC had suggested that he, too, was dissatisfied. In fact, Jill had learned, KC was preparing to leave Blackstone. Jill wondered if this might explain his disappearance. Perhaps, she wrote to Lissa, KC knew “what really goes on” at the company. According to one rumor, Blackstone was a front for selling drugs.
“Now we are getting somewhere,” Lissa replied. “So there is dope involved? What kind? I know you don’t know me, but I have a history also. I’m not perfect. I’m clean now. About this dope. I know everyone in the dope game. Pretty much everyone.”
Jill did not know what kind. She had heard only that dealers hung around the Maheshu shop. She was fearful, she told Lissa—“I don’t know who to trust”—and had begun to lose confidence in even law enforcement. After police searched KC’s truck, a detective in Williston had made calls and collected statements, and the case had been assigned to an agent in the North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigations, who acquired KC’s phone and bank records. Neither showed any activity after February 22, 2012, the day KC disappeared. The agent had made no progress beyond this. He was hindered, he told Jill, by having no body, no evidence that a crime had been committed. It was as the sheriff had told KC’s grandfather: It’s not a crime to go missing. And even if it was a crime—even if police were to open a criminal investigation—Jill suspected the case was complicated by the fact of having occurred on a reservation. “There is a division between the tribal (Indian) police department and the county (white) police department, and a total lack of them being able to work together on any incident,” one woman wrote to Jill in a message that Jill forwarded to Lissa. “My mom has a flower shop there,” the woman continued. “She is white. She witnessed some Native Americans vandalizing her building so called the native police. They said ‘We can’t help you if you’re not an enrolled member of the tribe.’ So she called the county police, they said ‘We can’t help you because those kids are native.’…The natives stick together like gangs. Many crimes on this Indian Reservation never get reported to the police, especially if the crime is against a white person.”
Lissa knew that what the woman said was partly true. In 1978, a Supreme Court case, Oliphant v. Suquamish, had stripped tribes nationwide of their criminal jurisdiction over nonmembers. Now any crime committed on Fort Berthold by a nonmember against another nonmember was the province of the state, and crimes involving both members and nonmembers belonged to federal authorities. The Department of Justice had a poor record of pursuing even major crimes in which only tribal members were involved. In other words, the problem the woman described to Jill struck both ways. A white person could commit a crime on a reservation and get away with it as easily, if not more easily, than a Native person. And when both victim and perpetrator belonged to the tribe, the victim rarely saw justice.
It bothered Lissa that Tex would not respond to her messages. Still, she did not believe him capable of murder, and she worried the tips Jill received through Facebook had stoked an irrational fear of the reservation. It did not help that the oil fields already had a reputation for being lawless. “We had reporters saying it was the ‘Wild West,’ ” Lissa would say. “We had the cowboy and Indian thing going on. It wouldn’t have surprised me if she was thinking, There’s an arrow sticking out of my son’s back, and the Indians are responsible.”