Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 4: The Great Mystery | Part 1)
THE DETECTIVES ASSIGNED TO THE Kristopher Clarke case worked in a three-story brick building on the edge of downtown Williston, seventy miles west of the reservation. On the bottom floor was the Williston Police Department; on the top, the McKenzie County Sheriff and the state Bureau of Criminal Investigations; and in the basement was a coffee room where officials from all departments met at eight-thirty each morning. They gathered at a table and passed around a stack of pawn tickets—computers, guns, watches, gold. If a ticket matched a theft, they had a case, and then they moved on to what had happened overnight. A man shot a urinal in a strip club. A woman had been raped. The calls came at all times of day. In 2012, the police department would field almost triple the calls it had received three years earlier, while detectives’ caseloads would double. Among these cases were some that languished for months: front-end loaders missing, the thieves long gone across state lines; city parks overtaken by roughnecks who, like wasps, constructed shelters under the bridges; sex workers insisting they were there on their own, though they seemed to have misplaced their IDs and the rooms they rented were in men’s names; and the case that had gone unsolved longest of them all: the disappearance of Clarke.
After the truck had been found in Williston in June, the case was assigned to a city detective, Ryan Zimmerman. He was the same age as Clarke, twenty-nine, bald, earnest, and relatively new to his job. From a storage closet repurposed as an office, Zimmerman phoned Clarke’s acquaintances. “KC is always out to have fun, but not the type of person to walk away from everything,” he noted in an interview with a childhood friend of KC’s. The detective paraphrased:
- KC is a very private, very outgoing person.
- KC break up with his ex-girlfriend was not the best, but it was not the worst.
- KC never got in trouble unless it was racing his bike on the street.
- KC Grandfather was his best friend.
- KC walking away from his pickup would not happen, let alone leaving it unlocked. That kid does not leave anything unlocked.
- He does know James HENDRICKSON and James is not good news.
By the middle of June, it became clear to Zimmerman that the city did not have jurisdiction in the case, so he passed it on to Steve Gutknecht, a Bureau of Criminal Investigations special agent. Gutknecht was older than Zimmerman by more than a decade—a serious man reputed among his colleagues for being a dogged investigator. Gutknecht had served long enough in the position to know how the oil boom was changing North Dakota. Prior to the boom, he had investigated five murder cases over his lifetime; since the boom arrived, in 2008, he had worked an average of one homicide every year.
Gutknecht approached the Clarke case as he had each one before it, sorting every shred of rumor, following every lead. The report he released in July contained thirty-nine points. “On June 15, 2012, S/A Gutknecht interviewed a confidential informant from the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation who had some theories as to what may have happened to CLARKE,” one point read. The informant told Gutknecht “it was possible that Blackstone Trucking, because of its political affiliation with Maheshu Trucking, which is run by the Tribal Chairman Tex Hall who has strong political power on the Fort Berthold Indian reservation, may have ordered the killing of CLARKE because of his attempt to take business away.” This same informant theorized, alternatively, that Tesha Fredericks, who owned Running Horse, had an ex-boyfriend who murdered KC out of jealousy. Gutknecht ruled this out quickly; querying the boyfriend’s name, he learned the man had been in jail at the time KC disappeared, having beaten another man nearly to death.
Among the tips Gutknecht collected in the report, a majority pointed at James Henrikson. This did not make James a “suspect”—as Gutknecht explained to Jill, they lacked evidence to prove a crime had been committed—but it did make James a “person of interest.” So, that July, Gutknecht called James, and on the first of August, James appeared at the police department for a voluntary interview.
Zimmerman watched a live recording of the interview from an office down the hall. Gutknecht and James entered a small, carpeted room furnished with a wastebasket, a table, and two chairs. “I’m just closing the door for privacy,” Gutknecht said. “You can leave anytime you want.”
James sat down on the front of a chair, his legs splayed as if ready to spring out of it. His eyes were shaded under the bill of a hat, his skin tan, his hair neatly cut. He wore new jeans and a T-shirt fitted tightly across his bulging chest. His voice was high and nasal, incongruous with his body, and he had a giddy, confident manner that seemed especially odd given the occasion.
“He was fun,” James said when Gutknecht asked about KC. “Always happy. He worked pretty hard. We had him go on vacation, because he was pretty tired. We were like, ‘Hey, you’ve got to go on vacation, catch up on some rest, because you look like shit.’ But he did awesome with our company guys. Everyone loved him.” It wasn’t until after KC disappeared, James explained, that James heard KC had been planning to leave Blackstone. He heard it from a “company man”—a foreman who lived on drilling sites and oversaw the operations—who told him that Rick Arey had been approaching other company men to steal contracts from Blackstone for Running Horse. “I guess Rick and maybe KC had been trying to work for Running Horse for like four weeks,” James told Gutknecht. “We’ve been friends forever. I don’t see him doing that to me. I’ve given that kid probably fifty grand, easily. Meals and stuff like that.”
Gutknecht asked James about the day KC disappeared. The agent had heard that on the morning of February 22, KC had dropped by the Maheshu shop to turn in a company credit card. Had KC given this card to James?
“No, not to me,” James said.
“I don’t know.” James was talking faster now. “He didn’t tell me, not once, that he was leaving. I was always asking him if he was all right, and he was, like, so tired. He didn’t look good. I don’t know if he was drinking hard, partying.” Recently, James told Gutknecht, he had been talking to a guy named Johnny about it. Johnny thought maybe KC had gotten into drugs.
Had James any idea where KC’s gun had gone? Gutknecht asked.
James folded his arms, thought for a moment. “He always had it with him,” he said. “I don’t know what that was about.”
“So you don’t have anything to do with his disappearance?”
“No,” James said, laughing as if the question were preposterous.
“You guys never had a physical altercation?”
“Because I think something bad happened to him,” Gutknecht said.
“What if he shacked up with some girl?” James said. He had been talking to Johnny about this possibility, as well.
“Who is this Johnny you’ve been talking to?” Gutknecht asked.
“He’s out in Washington,” James replied. He couldn’t remember Johnny’s last name. “Johnny Donkey,” James always called him.
Gutknecht changed the subject. “When I talked to Rick, he said he had concocted a plan with KC to ‘bring Blackstone to its knees.’ ”
“What?” James said. “I don’t believe that for a second. KC would never do that to me. I love KC to death. There’s no way KC would do that to me. I’m probably one of his best friends, so I don’t see that happening.”
GUTKNECHT TOLD JILL Williams very little about his interview with James. He did not tell her, for example, that although James looked nothing like criminals Gutknecht typically encountered, James had bragged like a criminal, extolling his past crimes while denying the one now in question. Once, James told the agent, he had lost millions of dollars in a marijuana bust. “I felt like he was making stuff up as he went along,” Gutknecht later would recall. One thing remained clear to the agent: “Henrikson was the only one with a motive. In my career, as soon as you see a guy with a motive, that’s usually who it turns out to be. It’s not like storybooks or movies where there’s some type of surprise.”
Among the few things the agent shared with Jill was the fact that both James and his wife, Sarah Creveling, refused to take a polygraph test. Their refusal confounded Jill. Sarah had been eager to help in the beginning, and her distress at KC’s disappearance had seemed genuine, but since then, Sarah’s attention had waned. She wrote less often to Jill, and in this silence, Jill had grown suspicious.
The tips Jill received on Facebook hardened her suspicion, as did her and Lissa’s conversations with Rick Arey. Rick said that when he first met James, he was “fucking charmed by the guy.” James did not look like any man Rick had known in the oil fields before. His hair was carefully combed, and instead of canvas pants and old sweatshirts, which most men wore on the job, James worked in T-shirts and a puffy vest no matter the weather. “I’m not gay,” Rick said, “but this guy is a pretty good-looking dude. He makes you feel good when you’re around him. He’s somebody you want to like you.”
Rick’s impression changed on the day James interviewed him for a job with Blackstone in the late fall of 2011. They met at Better B’s, a busy café on the main street of New Town, where James chose a table in the center of the room. “He was loud, like he wanted everyone to see him,” Rick recalled. “The waitress comes up, and he says, ‘Rick, get whatever you want,’ and he orders steak and eggs, three pancakes, a glass of water, and a cup of coffee. I’m watching him eat, and he’s cutting big chunks up and piling them into his mouth, and he’s chewing with his mouth open. He was a fucking slob. He had that vest on, and he was flexing his muscles. He didn’t eat half of his meal. He had four bites out of three pancakes. He might have finished the coffee. I’ll never forget it. Them pancakes were as big as dinner plates.”
The job James had offered Rick paid $1,500 a week, a bit more than roughnecking on oil rigs, which paid $28 an hour. For never having to climb a rig again, Rick thought the deal sounded good. In January 2012, not long after they moved into the Maheshu shop, Blackstone received a contract from the tribe to spray water on a road to suppress dust. Rick dispatched trucks for weeks, until a worker for another company spun out on the road and died. “Nobody got in trouble for it,” Rick said, “but we looked like jackasses, because every swinging dick knew who was watering the road. We were the ones making an ice rink.” Rick ordered the trucks off the job, but James ordered Rick to send the trucks back. “He wanted the image that Blackstone was successful, that we put people to work,” Rick said.
James was ruthless with money. Drillers paid truckers by the load, so the faster truckers hauled, the more money Blackstone made. It was not uncommon for truckers carrying contaminated water to open the valves of their tanks as they drove, letting fluid pour out, or to dump in remote corners of Fort Berthold to avoid having to drive to waste disposal sites located beyond the borders of the reservation. James encouraged this, and it bothered Rick, who had started his career as a roughneck in Wamsutter, Wyoming. BP, the company he worked for, had trained him not to spill. “I know they fucked up the Gulf of Mexico,” he said, “but in Wamsutter, a fucking drop of antifreeze was a spill. On the reservation, people don’t understand that. Hey, this is dirty Indian land. Fuck it. That’s the mentality. That’s James’s mentality.”
By the time Rick left Blackstone, he had been glad to never see James again. But was James capable of physical violence? Rick was not sure. He was even less sure about Sarah. Rick believed James relied on Sarah more than James let on. Sarah kept the books, made payments, and rode to drilling sites with James, who rarely went anywhere without her. If James seemed out of place in the oil fields, the impression they made together was even more startling. Sarah was tall, lithe, blond, with bleach-white teeth. It was her teeth that had made Rick distrust her: Sarah drank coffee through a straw.
Jill also had trouble believing that James or Sarah had killed KC, but their silence suggested to her that there was something they were not saying. One day in October 2012, Jill posted a public message naming James and Sarah on her Facebook page: Why wouldn’t they take a polygraph test? Why didn’t they write to her anymore or donate to her fund to find KC? Why didn’t they spread the word about his disappearance?
Neither James nor Sarah responded. A few days later, Jill asked her followers to send letters to the tribal council requesting a public hearing about Blackstone and their “refusal to cooperate” with investigators. She had heard the next year was an election year, she noted. “I’m sure that Tex, being a tribal bigwig, would certainly want to use his power to do good and wouldn’t want to dirty his good name covering for a piece of crap like James.” Tex did not respond, either. When Jill made a poster for her supporters to hang around North Dakota, at the bottom, she wrote, “As if the horror of my son being missing is not enough, I have had to deal with the fear of there being a possible danger to my own life from the people who are involved with the disappearance of my son.”
On October 19, Jill was served with a lawsuit. She had just left her house in a suburb south of Seattle when the papers landed in her yard. The complaint was brief, six pages in all. Jill photographed the pages and sent them to Lissa, who called Jill and read them aloud: “The defendant…regularly posts defaming statements….Defendant has accused the plaintiffs for causing or contributing to the disappearance of Kristopher D. Clarke….The Plaintiffs have cooperated with the police….[James Henrikson and Sarah Creveling] are not connected with the disappearance of Kristopher D. Clarke and have no knowledge of his whereabouts.”
LISSA ENCOURAGED THE comments Jill posted and, in some cases, drafted them herself. After they met on the reservation, Jill had made Lissa an administrator of the Facebook page, and Lissa often spent nights culling the messages, which had become too numerous for Jill to respond to on her own. Among them was an assortment of condolences and tips, many hopeful if far-fetched. A hotel clerk writing from Brownwood, Texas, said she had checked in a man who bore a resemblance to KC and later noticed he had registered under the name Christopher Clark. “Please note that I don’t know if it was for sure him,” she wrote. “I felt very odd telling you this because I don’t want to bring your hopes up. Also I am not supposed to release any guest info because I can get in trouble & lose my job. So please keep me anonymous!” Others speculated that KC was alive. An oil worker who had known him wrote, “It makes me sick to think something might have happened, and [I] pray he just needed to get away from it all, as he was very stressed and burnt out from the work the last time I saw him. I wish you and your family the best.”
Among the messages from people familiar with Blackstone, Lissa noticed a common thread. The worker who knew KC claimed to have stopped using the company’s services “due to various issues that made me question their integrity.” Others noted more specifically that Blackstone had underpaid them or that workers in the company had a history of making threats. One man had been working for a shop that serviced Blackstone trucks when a mechanic in the shop overheard a Blackstone employee brag “they were going to get someone to beat a guy up.” Another man writing under the name “John Doe” offered, “There is a lot of hearsay on the reservation and rumors are created out of thin air. So for what it’s worth…I heard that when KC went out to Blackstone that he was wanting to get paid for some work. The situation had gotten out of control and KC got beat up pretty bad.”
It occurred to Lissa, KC’s disappearance aside, that among workers at Blackstone there was an undercurrent of violence. She sensed it not only in the theories they shared but also in the fear their messages expressed. Everyone who wrote to the page asked to remain anonymous—afraid, it seemed, of some vague retribution.
One night, Lissa reread the defamation suit James and Sarah had filed against Jill. A final point most interested Lissa: “Plaintiffs have experienced a loss of business due to the Defendant’s action.” It appeared that comments Jill posted on Facebook had reached some of the companies that hired Blackstone. James and Sarah were seeking monetary damages. This worried Jill, who could not afford to pay for the company’s lost profits, let alone for a lawyer, but it gave Lissa an idea: If they could convince drillers to sever ties with Blackstone, then perhaps Tex would end his partnership, too. Blackstone would lose its tier-one status in bidding on contracts. It would have to leave the reservation.
“We need a strategy,” Lissa told Jill. “You know what I think? I think these guys built an empire around Tex, and the only way we’ll get inside is if we take it down, brick by fucking brick.”
LISSA CHOSE A pseudonym—Nadia Reinardy. She had made up the name in the nineties when she worked as a stripper during her first years out of college. She had liked how “Nadia” sounded—exotic, the way it rolled off the tongue—and “Reinardy” she had stolen from an old boyfriend, Tom Reinardy. A white guy. He had roomed with CJ’s father at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, and after they all graduated, Lissa had decided she got along better with Tom and followed him to Minneapolis. The relationship had not lasted. In Lissa’s telling, she wasn’t good enough for his family, and Tom tried to control her. After they broke up, Lissa worked as a security guard at Mystic Lake Casino, south of the Twin Cities, where she met the only man she would marry and, within fifteen months, divorce. It was around that time, 1993, that she met another man, OJ Pipeboy.
He was a friend of her stepbrother, Wayne White Eagle, Jr. When OJ’s brother threw a party in Minneapolis, Wayne invited Lissa along. Lissa was twenty-five, OJ eighteen. He had a ponytail, a baby face, a faint mustache like the stroke of a paintbrush. He had a thick neck and thick shoulders and thick arms and thick wrists. He had gold chains dripping down his chest, gold rings lacing his fingers, but it was his voice—a smoky radio voice—that attracted Lissa to OJ. It was his voice that made her fall in love.
His mother was Sisseton Wahpeton Sioux from the Lake Traverse Reservation in South Dakota, his father Lakota Sioux from Pine Ridge, but OJ grew up in the center of Minneapolis, in the only urban public housing project in the country that gave preference to Native families. Although federal programs to relocate Native Americans to cities had ended in 1972, the fraction of Native Americans who lived in urban areas had kept growing. By the nineties, roughly half lived in cities, and Minneapolis had more urban Indians than any city in the nation. Lissa had aunts and uncles who moved there, cousins who were born there. The American Indian Movement, or AIM, began in Minneapolis in the sixties when Clyde Bellecourt and other Movement founders organized neighborhood patrols to protect residents from police brutality. Due, in part, to the efforts of AIM, Minneapolis had Indian health clinics and community centers, as well as Little Earth, the housing complex where OJ’s grandmother was among the first tenants. None of these resources made up for the fact that OJ grew up poor. His father, a medicine man, was always on the road and had girlfriends all over the country. His mother drank. OJ mostly took care of himself, waiting in line each morning at the Little Earth gym for cereal and a carton of milk. There were two things he remembered clearly from childhood: how often he fought with other kids and how hungry he had felt.
By the time Lissa met OJ, he had more money than most Indians she knew. At the age of thirteen, he had fled Little Earth and gone to live with a woman named Linda who worked as an aide in his middle school. Linda was a member of the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, the wealthiest tribe in the nation thanks to its casino, Mystic Lake, and earned tens of thousands of dollars in payments from her tribe each month. The years OJ lived with Linda were the happiest of his life. They went on walks, gardened, hunted, fished, and tapped and boiled maple syrup. Then, when OJ was fifteen, he got in trouble, and Linda kicked him out. She gave him an option to come back, but by then OJ was supporting himself, earning, he claimed, $2,200 a day.
He had met a Vice Lord, a member of a black Chicago gang that had territory in South Minneapolis. The city had Native gangs, as well—raggedy kids who roamed Little Earth, scrapping it out with rivals—but it was the black gangs OJ admired, with their gold chains and expensive cars. The Vice Lord was a cousin of his sister’s boyfriend and took OJ under his wing. When OJ met Lissa, he had begun dealing on his own, copping his drugs from Vice Lords and selling them at Mystic Lake.
He had heard about Lissa from her brother Wayne—how smart she was, how she was trained in law enforcement and had a college degree—but Lissa was not what OJ had expected. She could talk smarter than anyone he knew and still sound like she came from the streets. She was pretty, too, with perfect skin and long, curly hair. OJ wanted Lissa because “everybody wanted her,” he would say. He wasn’t sure if he was attracted to her himself, but he knew that other men thought she was beautiful, and when she paid him attention, it made OJ feel good.
In 1995, Lissa moved with Shauna and CJ into a house in St. Paul, where she found a job assisting homeless families. That year, OJ called her, looking for a place to stay. One day, in lieu of rent, he gave her a baggie of cocaine.
It was around that time that Lissa asked OJ to call her Nadia Reinardy. After that, everyone they hung out with in the Twin Cities knew her by this name. Nad, OJ called her. Nadicus.
She would assume other names throughout her life, each one an escape from the shadows that trailed her, but Nadia was a different sort of name. Nadia was the shadow that trailed her, more ruthless and clever than Lissa had ever been. Where Lissa was loving and compassionate, Nadia was vindictive and petty. Where Lissa played by the rules, Nadia went behind everybody’s back. It was as Nadia that Lissa became an addict. Now when she remembered that time of her life, she marveled at how easily she had moved between her halves, like an actress in a one-woman play, inhabiting a role and then another. She supposed this should not have surprised her. She had long walked a line that separated cop from criminal. She believed in this line, in its thinness. She believed everyone had inside themselves the capacity for evil and for good.
ONE DAY IN early November, Lissa made herself a Facebook account under the name Nadia Reinardy. That she should become Nadia again made sense to her. She believed the skills she acquired as a criminal might help her in solving a crime. She knew what fit within state jurisdiction and what constituted a federal case, and she could inhabit the psyche of a criminal: Already, she recognized in James’s behavior some tactics she had used herself. When she searched for him on the Internet, she found him associated with multiple spellings of his last name—Henrikson, Henderson, Henricksen, and Hennikson. Lissa believed James had caused this confusion intentionally, since more names made a person harder to trace. Rick had mentioned that James had a criminal record, and indeed, one evening, when Lissa typed “James Henrikson” into a records database, she came up with twenty-two pages of results. James had been arrested and charged with crimes ranging from sexual assault of an ex-wife—he had been married twice before Sarah—to theft and manufacturing drugs. Once, he had been arrested for growing marijuana and spent a year in prison. James was still on probation.
That night, Lissa logged in to her Nadia Reinardy Facebook account and posted James’s criminal record to Jill’s page. “Had to do it,” Lissa captioned her post. “I blew some cash just to prove a point but didn’t realize it would be this fruitful.”
A few days later, as Lissa was driving home from the welding shop, a song came on the radio by a band she liked, Evanescence. Lissa had never listened closely to the lyrics, but now they caught her—Isn’t something missing? Isn’t someone missing me?—and gave her an idea. Once, she had made a video for her uncle Chucky after his death by assembling a slideshow of images and setting it to a song. She decided to do the same for KC.
At home in the apartment that night, Lissa printed a few dozen photographs that Jill had sent her, trimmed them with scissors, and arranged them on the living room floor as she played the Evanescence song on repeat. Please, please forgive me, the singer crooned, and Lissa lifted an image of Jill in a hospital bed holding her newborn son. She chose another image of KC in a bathtub and a third of Jill holding his tiny body, pressing her lips to his forehead. Lissa surveyed the other photographs. There were more of KC as a baby and one when he was an older child, his hair darkened. Then he was an adult, posing with a motorcycle, and in the next photograph, he was in a hospital bed, the tube of a respirator curling from his mouth. It was a miracle, Jill had said, that KC survived the motorcycle accident. After he could walk again, he left Washington for Texas. Here, Lissa’s options thinned: KC in a bowling alley with his ex-girlfriend; signs reading NEBRASKA THE GOOD LIFE and WELCOME TO NORTH DAKOTA; sunsets over Lake Sakakawea; and, finally, James and Sarah.
Lissa worked through the night, left for the welding shop in the morning, and began again the following afternoon. It was a Saturday, the third of November, when she finished. She uploaded the video to YouTube under the name Nadia and sent Jill the link.
“I hope you like it. Was hard to pick and choose,” Lissa wrote.
It was “perfect,” Jill replied, thanking her.
“It’s Nadia! Not me. Lol.”
Lissa could not sleep. She wrote Jill at eleven that night, when the first comments appeared below the video, and again at eleven-thirty, when it had been viewed five hundred times. By one-thirty in the morning, Jill was asleep, but Lissa remained awake. She toggled between the video and Jill’s Facebook page, which seemed to blink every minute with new messages. Lissa read each one carefully, making note of those she would mention to Jill the next day.
When Lissa woke in the late afternoon, on Sunday, she was still at her desk. The apartment was quiet, her children gone out. She had received a text from a friend that there would be a ceremony at the sweat lodge in Fargo that evening.
She went into the bedroom and, from a mess of clothes strewn about the floor, chose a T-shirt and a long, cotton skirt. On the dresser, she found her pipe and a drum, which she wrapped in a beach towel and carried to the car. She drove west on Ninth Avenue and south on Forty-fifth Street, past the grocery store where she shopped, past soybean and sugar beet fields and the hard, square growth of new apartments, to where the city faded into storage lots. There, behind a low berm of earth, was the sweat lodge, and in a trough beside it, a set of mudstones smoldering on a bed of coals. A man tended the fire, raked the coals with a pitchfork. Other men and women had gathered. Lissa greeted them one by one. She lowered to her knees, unwrapped the pipe. Pressing a plug of sage into the bowl, she sang a quiet song. The others rose and formed a line, and Lissa rose, too. At the door to the lodge, she spun once around. Then she went inside.