Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 2: Missing | Part 2)
IN THE EARLIEST messages she traded with Jill, Lissa was brash, boastful: “I can show you everything,” she wrote when she first invited Jill to the reservation, adding, “Before I was an addict full time, I was a tribal attorney for some years.” It was true Lissa had worked as a licensed advocate in tribal court, where she represented defendants, often relatives, in hearings before a judge. She was particularly emphatic about her familial bond to Fort Berthold. Once, when Jill mentioned that she had heard James was “in good” with Tex, Lissa replied, “Nobody is in good with Tex Hall. Not even me, and I’m related.”
Still, her claim to the reservation was more delicate than she made it seem. While it was likely, as Lissa had first written to Jill, that she was related to most members of her tribe, and while blood conferred on her a right of access to the reservation that Jill lacked, it did not make Lissa any privier to the sort of information they sought. In truth, her home had changed radically in her absence, in ways that even her relatives who had remained there did not fully understand. Although the boom brought more jobs to Fort Berthold than there had been before, few tribal members worked in the oil fields, and fewer owned businesses. Lissa could think of only one relative who had taken a job on the rigs. That was her brother Percy Chase.
Percy and Lissa shared a father, but as far as Lissa was concerned, calling him her “half brother” was a “white thing.” A brother was just a brother, no halves about it.
She had met Percy when he was a toddler. He had been too young to remember her, and it was not until their father died in the winter of 2007, and Lissa’s name appeared in the obituary, that Percy realized he had an older sister. Lissa had been in prison, unable to attend the funeral, but she heard her brother was looking for her and found him on Facebook when she got out. They met in New Town. After that, they called each other on the phone, and whenever Lissa came to the reservation, she visited Percy. He was skinny, shy, twitchy with nervous energy. He had grown up between the reservation, often in the care of an aunt in Mandaree, and Yakima, Washington, where his mother lived. His upbringing had been “isolated,” as Percy put it. He had preferred to be alone, drawing in his bedroom or playing in the coulees near his aunt’s house. Not until he finished high school had he found a group of friends. They were Native and Latino men from cities in Washington State who often came to the reservation with drugs. They liked Percy. His shyness made him good at keeping secrets, and among them, Percy felt that he belonged.
By the time Lissa connected with her brother, he had distanced himself from that life. Percy was going to sun dance, and he earned good money on oil rigs. Then, not long after Lissa found him, he quit.
He had been working on a rig in Mandaree, not far from his family land, and although the badlands were familiar to him, the site had looked the same as all the others where he had worked—the same motor house and pump house, the same rig and pits and stacks—and in this sameness Percy had felt that he was nowhere and anywhere at once. He never told the other men on his crew where he was from. He did not think it mattered, since none of them stayed long. For two years, Percy had been a floor hand, assembling and disassembling rigs. He worked sixteen hours a day, all night if necessary, earning twenty-six dollars an hour, which, in the beginning, had seemed like a lot, but over time diminished in value. His back ached. Once, he fell carrying heavy material, and his supervisor asked him not to report his injury. This angered Percy: “I seen other young guys get hurt, and they try to make it the kids’ fault, when really he just didn’t know where to put his hands.” He had never been trained properly. “It’s almost like they were counting on us to get hurt,” Percy said.
It had not taken him long to realize how risky the work was, or how little he was paid given this risk. While mixing chemicals into a slurry called “mud” one day, Percy wondered what the chemicals were made of. That night, in a trailer where he often slept on-site, he skimmed the Material Safety Data Sheets. They were bound in a book thicker than anyone would ever read, he thought, and in it he learned that some of the chemicals he frequently handled were carcinogenic. He had never worn a mask or gloves.
There were many reasons why Percy quit the job, but one incident rattled him in particular. They had been “tripping pipe,” feeding one steel tube after another into the wellbore as the drill bit ground into the earth, when the bit broke. His crew’s response was routine: They removed the pipes and set them on a rack in sets of three, each one called a “stand.” It was the derrickman’s job to secure the stand, but now and then, he dropped one. “If a guy messes up,” Percy recalled, “the other guys call him a worm”—an amateur. One day, the derrickman dropped a stand, and Percy called him a worm: “He didn’t like that, and so he comes down and blames me. I’m like, ‘So what? You lost a stand. It happens all the time.’ We get into a squabble, and the driller comes in and breaks it up and then just leaves me to clean up the mess. My driller, who’s supposed to have my back. You know what I mean? What if I got my head cut off? Would they just leave me there, put me in a ditch and say hush hush? You start hearing these stories where they obviously don’t care about you. ‘Don’t rush, take your time,’ they say, but when it comes down to it, they’re screaming at you to get it done.”
Lissa was the first person to whom Percy admitted how disposable he had felt, how easily he could have disappeared. “It used to eat away at me, Sis,” he said, “but money is power, right? Sometimes I think nobody on the rez would have cared. As long as they’re getting lease checks and driving nice cars, nobody would have believed me.”
Lissa believed Percy. The news was plastered with oil workers’ deaths: On May 10, 2011, a fifty-two-year-old man named Joseph Kronberg had been electrocuted at his work site. Four months later, a well west of the reservation exploded, killing two men and injuring others. In 2012, North Dakota became the most dangerous state to labor in, its workers dying at a rate four times the national average. The first worker to die on Fort Berthold had been Dustin Bergsing, a twenty-one-year-old father from Montana who was monitoring a Marathon Oil well in Mandaree when, in January 2012, he was found slumped on a catwalk, asphyxiated. An inspector who worked for Marathon told investigators he had been concerned by gas emissions at the site and had notified the company multiple times. Marathon had done nothing. That May, when another worker was similarly poisoned but survived, Marathon fired the inspector.
It seemed to Lissa that the oil fields contained endless ways for a person to disappear. Had KC died in an accident at work, a hasty cover-up, his body stuffed in a borehole? Or had he been murdered, his killer guided by a vague motive of the sort that had been suggested to Jill? Drugs seemed possible to Lissa, if only because she was familiar with them, though among the tips Jill received on Facebook, another motive had emerged as more likely than the rest.
The tip had come from a man named Rick Arey, a roughneck from Wyoming who knew KC at Blackstone. Rick, thirty-four years old, had worked in the oil fields since he was twenty-one and arrived in North Dakota in 2008, not long after the boom began. In 2010, he moved to the same campground in Van Hook where, the following year, KC lived with James and Sarah, the owners of Blackstone. James recruited Rick to Blackstone, where Rick hustled contracts to deliver water to drilling sites and haul away toxic fluid after the wells had been fracked. Rick and KC worked side by side. Often, they hung out at the casino bar or at the house KC moved to in December, where, one night, KC made them pasta with Alfredo sauce for dinner. When KC mentioned he was planning to leave Blackstone, taking with him to a new trucking company many of the contracts he had personally arranged, Rick decided to go along.
By the end of September, Lissa and Jill spoke so often that their conversations lost their beginnings and ends. Jill could talk for hours, straying from her missing son to other dark corners of her life. Lissa did not stop Jill. Sometimes, she put the phone down, fixed dinner, and let Jill go on alone. The only thing Lissa felt certain of was that KC was dead. One day, she told Jill that she would soon make another trip to the reservation. “You think you would be interested in accompanying me?” she wrote. “You as his mother would ‘know’ once you traced some of his footsteps. I could help you with that.” Jill agreed on the condition that she bring guns for protection. “That’s fine,” Lissa said. “Just keep them to yourself. I’m a felon. I’m not going back to the clink because of you.”
ON THE MORNING of October 6, 2012, Lissa met Jill, Rick, and Percy in a parking lot on the main street of New Town. The day was bright and cold. Jill had driven from Washington the day before and spent the night in a hotel near Williston, as far from the reservation as she could manage. She was short, with pale, translucent skin and the air of someone younger than her age. She had arrived with Rick, who drove up from Wyoming, where he had been living since he shattered his femur in a drunk driving accident months earlier. Rick was blue-eyed, chubby, leaning on a cane. Lissa liked him immediately.
They did not linger for long on the street. They boarded Lissa’s olive minivan, which she had purchased when the little blue car died, and headed west—past a Jack & Jill grocery, a post office and a liquor store, past towering grain bins and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, past the oil-company offices erected on the city outskirts, past billboards advertising RAPID HOT FLOW, LLC: WE’LL MAKE YOUR FRAC’N WATER HOTTER!, past the river and casino and tribal headquarters, past flames licking from pits and pipes and pump jacks nodding their steely heads—to where they turned south, drove through coulees and wider canyons, and came to Bear Den, where Percy had lived years ago with his aunt.
It was a likelier place than most to hide a body, being not far from the Maheshu shop and the only area within miles that wasn’t trampled or dug up by industry.
By the road was the yellow house Lissa had passed on her recent drive and, higher on the hill, an old clapboard where her father had grown up, carried from the bottomlands and since abandoned. There was a bridge near the lower house and a creek flowing under it, widening toward the east and emptying into a narrow bay, and a faint two-track along the creek that passed through a gate by a cottonwood tree. Where a slope rose to form the north bank of the canyon, the two-track faded into a trail along a fence, through bluestem and cactus and coneflowers shriveled on their stalks. The grass was thicker by the creek. Trucks echoed in the canyon. Then the trail departed from the water, ascending a bank through sagebrush and the hardened stacks of cow dung, to a cliff overlooking the marshy tendril of the lake. Blackbirds perched on the bones of flooded trees, and ducks drifted along the edges of the bay. The sound of the road vanished, and there was only the rattle of insects, the croak of frogs, the fat shadows of catfish drifting in the amber stillness of the creek.
Rick had not made it far from the car, while Percy, turtled in a hoodie, had wandered out of view.
As Lissa and Jill walked, the sun rose higher and the sagebrush glistened in the autumn light. Later, Lissa would say that it was as if the reservation had expanded around them. The lake widened. The coulees deepened. The grass thickened to fill disturbances in the land. And as the space in which her son had been lost grew, Jill seemed to shrink inside it. In a photograph Lissa took that day, Jill would appear blurry and overexposed, staring into the camera. The nylon jacket was tied around her waist, and the wind was blowing her long, red hair, and her lips were parted, and her hands were clasped in loose fists. “If KC ever shows up, I’ll give him a piece of my mind,” Lissa would remember Jill saying.
“I don’t think he’s going to show up, Jill,” Lissa replied, and Jill began to cry.
THAT OCTOBER MARKED two years since Lissa had been hit by the truck, a year since she had returned to work. She had not gone back to the laundry. Rather, through a vocational rehabilitation program, she enrolled in welding school, where the owner of the school hired her to his company. The company merged with another, TrueNorth Steel, and Lissa was sent to a shop not far from her apartment. It was tall and airy, cold on autumn mornings. She wore thick gray coveralls, a hard hat, safety glasses, and her hair pulled into a ponytail. The building was divided into four separate bays, and Lissa was assigned to the fourth. The projects were smaller there—ducts, handrails, simple frames—though it was not long before she transferred to the first bay, where she made structural pieces for bridges and a hospital in Fargo. She liked the work—the measuring and cutting, the punching of holes and blasting off of rust. She liked the firework smell that filled the bay and the way the whole building rocked with sound, with clanking metal and whining saws and the rumble of carts on the floor.
As the work became routine, and then familiar, Lissa retreated into her daydreams. She could not stop thinking about KC. While the vastness of the reservation had seemed to empty his mother out, Lissa had felt charged up as they searched. She had taken Jill everywhere KC might have been—the casino, the Maheshu shop, the street in Williston where his truck had been found. In Bear Den, they had traced the contours above the creek, and everything they noticed Lissa documented with her camera: a patch of grass marked with pink paint; the track of an excavator cutting through sagebrush; a wide ravine cluttered with oak; a juniper; a scrap of tarp; a meandering creek, the banks silted and green; the clavicle of a cow; and among signs more difficult to discern, a mark in the mud by an animal or a boot, a beaver stick that from a distance resembled bone, and a wheel rim stuck in a tree, hung there by either a person or a flood.
There was no clue in this ensemble of obscurities, as inscrutable in form as in their relation to one another, but this was not the point of the photographs. What Jill had appeared to lose in hope, Lissa gained in purpose. Each detail seemed to her a piece of a larger riddle to which she had been fatefully drawn and now was determined to solve.
In the evenings, after Lissa returned from the welding shop, she opened Google Earth on her computer and panned across the badlands. The landscape was indeed vast and relentlessly featured, but it did not seem impossible that a body hidden there might be found. Lissa often called Rick, KC’s friend, on these evenings, and it was through their conversations that she gained a clearer sense of KC’s movements in the days preceding his disappearance.
According to Rick, KC had been plotting to leave Blackstone for weeks before he disappeared. Rick believed KC’s frustration began in December 2011, after the company cut ties with Steve Kelly, the tribal member who owned Trustland Oilfield Services, and relocated to the Maheshu shop. James’s decision to move was as Lissa suspected: He hated losing 80 percent of the money his trucks earned on each job to Kelly. By partnering with Maheshu, the fraction inverted: Blackstone earned 80 percent, while Tex Hall earned 20. Rick rarely saw the chairman. In the beginning, Tex was scarce around the shop, and then entirely absent. Rick heard he had fallen ill but never inquired further. Anyway, the arrangement proved lucrative. That they could name-drop the chairman did not hurt, nor did their willingness to work, as Rick liked to joke, “twenty-five hours a day.” James, who worked harder than anyone, expected KC and Rick to keep up, but he never paid them more for it.
One night in January 2012, KC and Rick were drinking at the casino when they spotted a tan, blond woman with eyeliner arcing toward her temples. As Rick put it, “KC’s head went sideways.” The woman, Tesha Fredericks, was a manager at the casino and a member of the MHA Nation. KC began hanging out with Tesha and often invited Rick along. She was building her own trucking company—Running Horse—and offered them jobs. KC and Rick decided not to tell James or Sarah until the move was final.
In February, they slept even less. They were working for Blackstone, still, while quietly arranging contracts for Tesha, hoping some of their clients at Blackstone would follow them to Running Horse. KC had begun to look unwell. He was not tall, but he was muscular and trim, with short brown hair and a shadow of a beard. He had an easy sense about him, a gaping smile that made him appear far from serious, so it struck Rick as odd when, one day, KC gave him a number for his grandfather, Robert Clarke, instructing Rick to call Robert if anything should happen to him.
James and Sarah noticed a change in KC, too. At a Blackstone meeting one day in the middle of February, they suggested he take a two-week vacation. The day his vacation was to begin, the twenty-second of February, was the last day Rick spoke to KC. They talked for thirty-eight minutes as KC drove to the Maheshu shop to turn in his company credit card and made tentative plans to meet Tesha in the evening at the casino. That afternoon, Tesha called Rick. “She goes, ‘KC won’t answer his phone,’ ” Rick recalled. “I call. Nothing. She says, ‘Rick, run out to Mandaree to see if KC’s truck is there.’ ”
The truck was gone. As Rick wandered the Maheshu lot, he noticed it was full of workers. Inside the offices, he found Sarah, who told him KC had been there just that morning, and James, who said KC had left for Oregon. This sounded possible to Rick, but something else James said bothered him: “James looks right at me and says, ‘Are you quitting, too?’ It threw me back. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He says, ‘I heard you’re quitting.’ I said, ‘I can’t get ahold of KC.’ He says, ‘Yeah, that son of a bitch. I’ve been trying to get ahold of him all day, too.’ ”
When Rick returned to New Town that afternoon, he called Tesha. She didn’t believe KC would leave without telling them, so the next morning, at Tesha’s request, Rick dropped by the house in Four Bears where KC lived with Judd Parker. Judd was in his forties, a “goofy guy,” as Rick put it, “cool, but real monotone.” They had met when they both worked for Steve Kelly at Trustland, and a few times they had hung out. Judd liked to talk, especially about the Grateful Dead, but on the morning Rick knocked on his door, Judd took Rick straight to KC’s bedroom. The door was open, the bed made. A pair of jeans and a T-shirt were laid out on the bedcover. Rick had never been inside the room, and its neatness surprised him. “Me, I stuff my clothes in a drawer and call it a day,” he said, “but all of his clothes were hanging in his closet. Even his jeans were on hangers. He had these Puma racer shoes. He loved them so much, he had two pairs. They were sitting next to these high-dollar vitamins—he was always eating healthy—and a couple Snap-on tool sets. I said, ‘Judd, do you know if KC’s toothbrush is here?’ Because wherever he was, he had a toothbrush. And his toothbrush was still there.”
Lissa listened carefully to Rick, fitting together each piece of the story as he handed it to her. Rick did not return to Blackstone, he said, but he called James once, who told him KC had a habit of running off. As KC requested, Rick also called his grandfather, Robert Clarke. The first time Rick called, Robert had no idea where KC had gone, but a few weeks later, Rick called again. This time, Robert had received a message from someone who said he knew KC was alive, at work on a remote location in Montana. KC did not want to be contacted, the caller said. Rick asked Robert who the caller was, but Robert told him that the caller had not identified himself.
Lissa assembled a list of names—James, Sarah, Tesha Fredericks, Robert Clarke, Judd Parker. She had tried to reach Judd several times, and when at last he answered his phone one evening, he told Lissa he was glad she had called.
One day in February, Judd said, he had come home from work and found a beer can propped in a tree at the end of the driveway. KC had been target practicing. Judd thought this odd, but not as odd as what happened early the next morning, when a woman knocked on his door. “I’d say it was nine o’clock,” Judd recalled, “and this girl is like, ‘Is KC here?’ I said, ‘No.’ She’s like, ‘He’s missing.’ She was adamant. ‘I know he’s missing.’ ” Judd recognized the woman as Tesha, the owner of Running Horse, but before he could ask what the matter was, he said, “she turned around and booked. So I called James. Not instantly. I sat there thinking of that beer can in the tree. So I called James. I said, ‘Is KC around?’ He said, ‘No, he went to his grandfather’s, I think.’ ”
Judd did not speak to James for a while after that. He did not see Tesha again, either. Rick dropped by; they looked in KC’s room. When weeks passed and KC still had not appeared, Judd tried to file a missing person report. According to Judd, the sheriff told him—incorrectly—that only a relative could file a report, so Judd called his roommate’s ex-girlfriend in Brownwood, whose mother was allowed to file. In May, when Jill called Judd, he was rude to her: “I said, ‘Your son’s been missing for three months, and you haven’t bothered to call me. No one’s bothered to call. Do you know how frustrating that is? I have a roommate that disappears, and it’s like no one cares. The only people that care are an old girlfriend in Texas and a grandfather who thinks he’s somewhere else.’ ” Judd felt bad for saying it and was kinder to Jill after that.
But something about James had bothered Judd, and one night Judd called him again: “I said, ‘Hey, KC’s nowhere around. Do you have any idea where he’s at? I mean, aren’t you his best friend?’ He’s like, ‘You know, I’m not really his best friend. I don’t really know KC that good.’ I said, ‘Really? I thought you guys had known each other for a long time.’ I thought it was interesting to hear him say that, knowing how they were. At least a few times I’d talked to KC about motorcycles and racing and James and stuff. James had known him a long time. So it wasn’t too much longer after that, I called James again. I just struck up a conversation. ‘Things are going all right?’ He said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got some work.’ And I said, ‘Man, I heard that KC was going to damn take some of your business and go to Running Horse.’ And he said, ‘I know, can you believe my best friend would do that to me?’ My best friend. He probably remembered, too. He probably wished he would have caught himself. I thought, Really, your best friend? That was the last time I talked to him.”