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Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 6: The Flyer | Part 1)

THE STATE INVESTIGATION INTO THE disappearance of Kristopher Clarke had stalled. In January 2013, after Lissa returned from Washington, Jill received an email from Steve Gutknecht, the agent based in Williston. “Not much new,” he wrote. “I still work on this case daily….I get calls from people claiming to have seen KC all over the world but none ever pan out.” Meanwhile, Lissa was trying to reach Mike Marchus, the agent she knew in Minot. He seemed to be ignoring her calls, and when she texted him to arrange a meeting—to give him the documents she had collected from the courthouse in Oregon—he replied that it was not his case.

In February, Lissa gained company in Fargo—her brother Percy, who had sailed through the window of a pickup truck as it slid on a patch of ice. Percy had lost a kidney, his spleen, and a significant amount of blood. He spent a week in the Minot hospital before Lissa took him home and set him up in her bedroom. Percy could hardly walk, nor could he sleep, so he spent nights studying algebra from a textbook one of the boys had tossed on the floor, and picking tunes on an electric keyboard that stood beside the couch. Three times a day, Lissa came home from the shop to change his bandages. In the evenings, she made simple dinners—tuna sandwiches and avocados sliced in half—before going to work on the case.

 

She was beginning to assemble a list of workers who had come and gone from Blackstone, among them drivers who wrote to Jill with tips, as well as some whose names Rick Arey had mentioned to Lissa. In the months since Rick left Blackstone, there had been turnover, he said. James had hired a pusher to replace KC, and two investors had left the company. The first investor, Ryan Olness, was from Arizona; the second, Jed McClure, lived in Chicago. Both men were in their thirties and had met when Ryan ran a company that manufactured synthetic cannabinoids called “spice.” Ryan would claim he delivered “chemical” to Jed; Jed would deny ordering the drug. In any case, authorities had determined that spice was illegal, and Ryan was being criminally charged. When Jed met James through a mutual friend, he and Ryan decided to give the oil fields a try. As Jed explained in an email to Jill, James returned their initial investments but not their agreed-upon share of Blackstone’s profits. Jed planned on confronting James but was fearful of doing so in person. Ryan had spent several months working in the Blackstone office, and in the spring of 2012, he had fled North Dakota. Ryan was afraid James would “send someone after him,” Jed explained, and had asked that his contact information be removed from Blackstone records.

There was also an odd story involving two truck drivers who left Blackstone and then came back. George Dennis and Justin Beeson were their names. According to Rick, Justin was a “whiner,” a “spoiled brat,” and George “smoked too much pot.” Rick doubted either was capable of murder, but Lissa did not want to rule them out. It intrigued her that both George and Justin had left Blackstone around the same time as the investor from Arizona, Ryan Olness. She wondered why they left and why, later, they returned to work again for the company. George interested Lissa in particular, since his cousin was in touch with Jill. Three months before KC went missing, this cousin had traveled with George to Fort Berthold and observed that George was “really close to James.” George asked James to give the cousin a job, but “the day I talked to James to inform him of my abilities as a mechanic he asked me a question that gives me chills,” the cousin explained. “I am in the military and told him I have small arms experience. He asked me, ‘So that means you can kill people for me?’ He said it with a smirk which I took as a joke because I have never been asked that before.”

 

The strangest story of an employee quitting Blackstone involved a driver named Paul, who was friends with Rick. Paul had been a reliable driver, and unlike other men, he claimed James never cheated him. Still, after KC disappeared, something had not seemed right at Blackstone, Paul told Rick. Paul moved into a trailer behind the Maheshu shop with a new worker James had recruited named Robert Delao. Paul had no idea where Delao had come from, and he had a bad feeling about him. One day in the trailer, Paul was scrolling through Jill’s Facebook page when Delao entered and asked what Paul was doing. “Paul kind of got freaked out,” Rick said. “He closed his laptop and went to make a sandwich or something, and when he came back, his laptop was open. Delao had been looking at what Paul was looking at.” That night, Paul got drinks with James and Delao. “They were trying to feed him shots, and Paul was like, ‘No, I better not.’ He went home the next day. He called me. He was like, ‘I swear to God, I’m next.’ A week later, Delao calls. He says, ‘We’ve got all kinds of work. We need you to get back here.’ ” Paul did not go back.

One evening in February, Lissa called Paul. They did not speak for long. When Lissa asked about Robert Delao, Paul insisted he knew nothing more about the man.

The next day, after work, Lissa opened an Internet browser and entered “Robert Delao” in the search bar. Delao had no address, no phone number. It was as if he didn’t exist. She went to a public records site and entered his name again. Now she realized why Delao had so little information online. He had spent his life “in the system.”

His criminal record began in 1995 with a shooting in Spokane, Washington. He had been riding in the backseat of a car when a fellow passenger fired shots, injuring a member of an opposing gang. Delao had been twenty and belonged to the Sureños, a Latino prison gang that originated in Southern California. Three years later, he murdered a man and went to state prison for eight years. Shortly after his release in 2007, he and three other men held an elderly woman at gunpoint while attempting to burglarize her home. He faced twenty-four more years in state prison but served only three in a federal facility. Lissa found it interesting that Delao’s case was prosecuted by a U.S. attorney, while an accomplice’s case remained with the state. Delao testified against his accomplice, who in court stated that “Delao was a ‘good friend, old gang member, we go way back.’ ” The filing noted Delao had “cooperated” with the government, and for this “Mr. Delao received a safe harbor from all state prosecution.” In other words, he was a snitch.

 

Lissa forwarded a news article about the armed robbery to Jill. Then she sent it to Paul, the former Blackstone driver.

“Wow!” he replied.

“Oh and there’s more,” Lissa wrote. “Murders, theft. Guy spent most of his life locked up. What does he do at Blackstone?”

“He is basically running the damn company for James.”

“Like a manager?”

“He is in control. He only answers to James.”

Minutes passed before a new message appeared on Lissa’s phone: “Never mention his name on Facebook,” Paul wrote. “I don’t want this news to be linked to me. No one else on that KC page even knows of his existence.” He added, “When was his last offense date?”

Delao had been arrested in 2009 for dealing heroin, around the same time he was cooperating with federal prosecutors.

“Wow,” Paul wrote again. “Please understand that I am worried only for my family. I just don’t want this fool trying anything stupid.”

“I understand,” Lissa replied. “I really do. I won’t reveal anything.” That night, she wrote to Jill, “DO NOT MENTION TO ANYONE WHAT I JUST SHOWED OR TOLD YOU.”

 

On other evenings, as Percy lay bandaged on the couch and the boys drifted in and out of the apartment, Lissa studied the documents she had collected at the courthouse in Oregon. James’s criminal record was thinner than Delao’s. It began in 1999 when James was twenty years old. His first wife, with whom he lived in Bend, reported a domestic assault, and not long afterward, she filed for divorce. Several months later, she alleged that James entered her house and raped her. Both charges were dismissed, and that was the last time he was accused of violent crime. In 2000, he stole steroids from a veterinary clinic and a trailer from a construction site. Eight years later, he was arrested for growing 542 marijuana plants in a barn behind his house.

Lissa was less interested in the crimes James committed than in the way he went about committing them. He was brazen, stealing in broad daylight and lying about it to police. The barn where he grew marijuana was on the corner of two main roads. He had been discovered when he threatened a worker’s dog; the worker had complained to his own mother, who told a friend, who called the police. It was as if James thought, The more obvious the crime, the better. The fact that KC had disappeared in the middle of the day no longer struck Lissa as odd, nor did the stories James told to explain KC’s disappearance. James, she now realized, often told stories that drew on truth but were altogether bizarre. When caught stealing the steroids, he had claimed to be looking for a vaccine for his sister’s horse, when neither he nor his sisters had horses, police learned. The story he told about the trailer he stole was similarly unconvincing: He claimed to have purchased it with cash in a grocery store parking lot, not realizing that his dealer had stolen it.

The documents contained other odd details. In 2010, an ex-girlfriend reported to police that James wrote “obsessive” letters to her from jail. He “bought her roses on a daily basis” while they were dating and was “obsessed with money,” she said. Another document noted that James had a habit of mentioning people whom his friends suspected did not exist. When questioned by police about his marijuana farm, James mentioned that a man named “Aaron” was in charge, but when police questioned Nathaniel Lancaster, a friend who had, in fact, helped James on the farm, Lancaster said Aaron was “just a made-up person that Henrikson tells people about to take some of the pressure off of him.”

 

According to police reports, Lancaster had met James through a mutual friend with whom they raced motorcycles. Lissa suspected Lancaster knew KC, and one night she dialed his number, which she found in a report. Lancaster answered by text message. Lissa asked if he still spoke to James. “No,” he wrote. “I steer very clear of him.”

“Good! That’s probably why you’re still alive!” Lissa replied. “I wanna talk to you about James. I’m a tribal member where KC came up missing. Just want anything I can get my hands on to find KC’s body.”

“Well I value my life as well,” Lancaster wrote.

“Do you know KC?”

“Yes I raced with him and James.”

“Who was Aaron?”

“Aaron was fake.”

“I see. Do you know Robert Delao?”

“Sounds familiar.”

“Gang banger. Snitch. Murderer.”

“Nope…Never heard of that guy but that’s kinda scary.”

Lissa asked if she could call him the next night. Lancaster agreed, but when Lissa tried to reach him, he did not answer, and when she tried him again some weeks later, she found that his number had been changed.

With each dead end she encountered, Lissa was growing more frustrated. Then, one day, Mike Marchus, the Bureau of Criminal Investigations agent in Minot, called her back.

He told her there was an agent in the Department of Homeland Security who worked with him in the Minot office. The agent was young, looking for new cases, and noticed on Mike’s desk the criminal record Lissa had given him in December. James’s drug charges intrigued the young agent, who had called Steve Gutknecht in Williston, offering to use his federal authority to acquire James’s phone records. The agent’s name was Darrik Trudell. Mike gave Lissa his number.

 

The night Lissa first spoke to Trudell, she relayed their conversation to Rick: “The DHS guy sounded pretty aggressive and excited. Told me to call or text anytime with updates.” She had shared with Trudell everything she knew without giving away names of her sources. She told him about the truckers whose wages James allegedly skimmed and the investors whose assets he never returned. She told him about the men who left Blackstone fearing for their lives and the rumors that James was selling drugs. Trudell was mainly interested in the drugs, since in the documents Lissa had given Marchus, there was a suggestion that James had once tried to purchase a chemical used in copying prescription opiates. If investigators could arrest James for a drug violation, Trudell reasoned, then they had a better chance of gathering the evidence necessary to charge him with murder.

The week after Lissa called Trudell, federal agents subpoenaed phone records for James and several of his associates. Trudell called Lissa with the news. “My job is done,” she later wrote to Rick. It would take investigators twelve weeks to interpret the records. Then, “It’s a wrap. Just a matter of time now so hopefully they find KC!”

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