Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 6: The Flyer | Part 2)
LISSA AND JILL were speaking less and less. Before Christmas, they had often exchanged dozens of messages in a night; now, days passed without either reaching out. Even the messages they had exchanged before said altogether very little, containing few insights into Jill’s daily life and fewer into her past. Instead, Jill’s messages to Lissa grasped at friendship: “I don’t know what I’d do without u,” she texted. “U know how people have soul mates? To me u r my soul sister.” Lissa did not reply. A few days later, Jill wrote, “I love u more than words can say.” This time, Lissa wrote, “Love you guys!” and Jill replied, “Love you more!”
The kinship Lissa had felt with Jill was fading. “I would call, but I don’t feel like it,” Lissa wrote to Jill one night. Her son CJ had gotten in a fight and been arrested, and Lissa had visited him in jail:
During and after my visit I believe I have felt some of what you have felt. Pardon my directness. (You know how I roll.) This whole situation is NOT YOUR FAULT! Don’t you EVER take on guilt for “not doing enough,” or the shoulda, coulda, woulda’s! Now, regardless if KC is alive or dead forgive HIM! forgive YOURSELF for teaching him to behave that way and forgive him for coming up missing. Forgive him for not giving you the answers you seek. And mostly, forgive him for not displaying the same kind of love you showed him. And then…let him know you still love him no matter what happens….I love you Jill….and I know KC does too…Things were supposed to happen this way and just because we don’t understand why, doesn’t mean there wasn’t a justified larger plan of Gods.
At the beginning of their search, Lissa had reasoned that once KC was found, Jill would allow herself to grieve. But the longer KC was missing, the more Lissa doubted this. She had begun to wonder if Jill cared less about finding her son than about the company she had drawn in the wake of his disappearance. Seven thousand people now followed the Facebook page, and although Jill had never met most of them, some, like Lissa, had become friends. Lissa could imagine losing a child was lonely, and if all Jill needed was for people to listen, Lissa was glad to. But over time it had become harder for her to listen, their phone calls a litany of the suffering Jill endured—marriage problems, poor health, the defamation suit, bank accounts drained by legal fees, the silence of investigators, and above all, the smugness of James and Sarah, whom Jill believed could get away with murder. These injustices were not insignificant, but they struck Lissa as cries for pity, not help. This was what irked Lissa most: When Jill appealed to her Facebook followers, it seemed that she, not KC, was the victim of a crime.
“I’m sorry,” Rick told Lissa one day, “but you’ve got to take it easy on her. She lost her son. What would you do?” Rick thought he knew what Lissa would do. He figured she would kill James and go back to prison.
Lissa mostly kept her frustrations to herself until one morning in February, when Rick wrote her asking if KC was found. Lissa opened Facebook and saw that Jill had posted a plea for KC to call her, having received a tip that her son was spotted vacationing abroad with a girlfriend.
Rick thought this was absurd. “Great,” he told Lissa. “They’re in fucking Bora Bora drinking mai tais, and we’re all freaking out, and he’s not going to call because he’s had one too many mai tais? There’s no fucking way.” But Lissa was too angry to laugh. She posted a public comment on the Facebook page:
This is not a daytime drama! The footwork has been done. It has been turned over to the authorities. Believe me it is just a waiting period. The page is starting to look ridiculous and uncredible. This isn’t about us or how many “likes”…its about kc…lets keep a FOCUS here!
That night, Lissa received a private message from Jill: Why had she not written directly rather than embarrass Jill in front of her followers? The message fanned Lissa’s anger. “Please do not play the ‘victim’ card with me,” Lissa wrote. “I have seen why KC left and never looked back….In order to make any of this right you’re going to have to come clean with yourself.”
“Take a look in the mirror,” Jill replied. Lissa was in no place to criticize her, given what Jill knew about Lissa’s own past. “Once an addict, always addict behavior.”
“I don’t claim to be mother of the year,” Lissa wrote.
Jill blocked Lissa from the Facebook page. The day after their fight, Lissa tried not to think about the case. That night, she wrote to Rick, “Tell you what she will never find someone from that rez to put their neck on the line for her like I did.” Some mornings later, Lissa woke with an idea.
It involved Jed McClure, the Blackstone investor from Chicago who had written to Jill in the fall. Earlier that winter, Lissa had spoken to Jed. He had a formal manner, confident if a bit stilted. Lissa was not sure she could trust him, but she believed they shared a common goal—to force Blackstone off the reservation.
Their reasons were different. It bothered Lissa that a company owned by white people could profit so easily from Indian land. It bothered her more that, if the allegations were true, the company stole from its workers, dumped toxic frack water, and trafficked drugs. It bothered her especially that her own chairman was partnered with this company and profiting from it. Jed’s reason was simpler: money. He was prepared, he said, to “take over Blackstone.” He had been talking to a tribal member, a friend of Tex Hall’s, who wanted to enter the oil business. If the friend could convince Tex to partner with him instead of with James, Jed would invest. First, he needed the money James owed him—he had sued for it—and then he needed James out of the way. The deal sounded crooked to Lissa, who did not want Jed profiting off her land, either, but it seemed to her that if he had money to spend, she might convince him to put it to good use.
One night in late February, Lissa shared her idea with Jed: Perhaps they could make a flyer warning against James and Sarah and fax it to the companies that worked with Blackstone. Jed liked the idea and suggested they take it a step further: What if they printed copies of the flyer and sent a mass mailing? Jed would cover the expense if Lissa mailed them herself. Given that he was suing Blackstone, he did not want to risk having the flyers traced to him.
That week, Lissa sent Jed copies of the documents she had gathered in Oregon, noting James’s arrests in chronological order, which Jed listed on the flyer. At noon the following Monday, Jed sent Lissa a draft. BEWARE: CON-ARTISTS AND THIEVES, the flyer read at the top. In the center were headshots of Sarah and James, their teeth strikingly white, and then a list of their identifying characteristics. At the bottom of the page, Jed had composed a cautionary note: “James is very charismatic and charming. He may claim to have money in order to build confidence with vendors or companies to steal from them. James and Sarah may also have been involved in the disappearance of former Blackstone employee Kristopher D. Clarke (K.C.), but have refused to cooperate with the BCI. Consider them dangerous!”
“AWESOME!” Lissa texted from the welding shop. That evening, after she returned to the apartment, she studied the flyer again and noticed an error—Jed had spelled Sarah’s name wrong. “Sorry I’m such a critic. Just want it to b PERFECT,” she texted.
Lissa hardly slept as she waited for the flyers to arrive. Each night as her brother and kids slept in their bedrooms, Lissa sat awake, the apartment lit by the kitchen light and the cold, blue radiance of her computer screen. She glanced at Facebook—Jill had posted vaguely about their fight—and closed it. She reread Jed’s messages. His suit was not going well. Sarah claimed Blackstone had not yet made a profit. Jed suspected that this was a lie, that Sarah and James had hidden their profits elsewhere. They offered to settle for $50,000, far less than what Jed believed he was owed. James suggested they meet in Chicago to talk about it in person, but Lissa told Jed this was a bad idea. “That’s what KC did,” she warned.
Instead, Jed’s lawyers met with Tex Hall. Afterward, Jed told Lissa that Tex “denied all responsibility” for James’s failure to pay Jed. Her chairman’s rebuffs no longer surprised Lissa. In January, after she returned home from Washington, she had mailed a copy of James’s criminal records—all 450 pages—to the tribal office. She had not expected a reply, nor had she received one, but, curiously, a new affidavit had appeared in the defamation suit against Jill. It had been filed by Tex’s girlfriend, a tribal member named Tiffiany Johnson, who was apparently fed up with the calls and letters she and Tex had received regarding Blackstone. “I have had businesses and friends and family approach me too many times in regards to the allegations being made to James and Sarah,” she wrote. “I am afraid for James and Sarah’s safety as well as my own since we Tex/Maheshu Energy are being brought up. We are now being attacked by this Jill Williams via telephone. I am now not only fearful for James and Sarah but now fearful for my family and self as well. I really feel that this Facebook page is violating our rights and privacy.”
The affidavit was proof that Jill’s calls had, at least, reached Tex, and it was evidence that James and Sarah were as close to Tex as Lissa suspected. But while Lissa felt certain of this closeness, Tex denied it. On the last day of February, as Lissa was still waiting on the flyers to arrive, Jed asked a friend to fax the flyer to every oil-field company operating on the reservation. The fax to Maheshu included a summary of Robert Delao’s criminal record, which Lissa compiled for Jed, and a cover letter with a phone number for Delao’s probation officer. Several days later, Jed confronted Tex in a hallway of the tribal building. According to Jed, Tex tossed the flyer in the trash right in front of him. Tex claimed that he had met James only a few times, that his partnership was with Sarah—she owned Blackstone, not James—and that he hadn’t realized James and Sarah were connected because they did not share a last name.
On March 8, 2013, Lissa drove Percy to a doctor’s appointment in Minot and then dropped by the police station for a scheduled meeting with the young Homeland Security agent, Darrik Trudell. She arrived at the station fifteen minutes early. “These fuckers always think we’re running on Indian time,” she later complained. “Hurry! Lol,” she texted Trudell as she paced the station lobby. It had changed little in the years since her arrests—scuffed linoleum floors, wooden pews snagged from either an old courtroom or a church, a drinking fountain set crookedly in the wall. A fixture by the door dispensed hand sanitizer, and when Mike Marchus, the Bureau of Criminal Investigations agent, appeared in the lobby, Lissa had taken a glob and rubbed it into her hands.
Mike sniffed, as Lissa would recall. “Been drinking much?” he said.
“No,” she replied dryly. “It’s hand sanitizer.”
She followed Mike through the station offices and into a small spare room where Trudell joined them. Trudell was in his early thirties. His face, soft and clean-shaven, looked to her like the face of a Boy Scout. She had googled Trudell weeks prior to their meeting and learned he had been a student of her mother’s at Minot State University. He was “a good student,” Irene had said when Lissa asked about him, “always respectful.” Irene had been surprised to hear Trudell was now “a cop.” After college, he had worked as a parole officer and then as an investigator for the U.S. Secret Service based in Philadelphia. When Lissa called him, Trudell had been in the Department of Homeland Security little more than a year.
She passed him the stack of courthouse documents and watched as he leafed through them. Finally, Trudell looked up. “We could’ve gotten these,” he said.
“I know,” Lissa replied. “But you didn’t.”
She blustered past his comment with other things on her mind. She was thinking again of the anonymous caller who told KC’s grandfather that KC was in Montana. If Trudell requested Robert Clarke’s phone records, she thought he might identify the caller, whom she suspected was James. She promised to send Trudell Robert’s phone number and the recording of their visit, and she had a new lead on “the drug angle” from the investor, Jed McClure. Recently Jed had told Lissa that the friend who introduced him to James had first-hand knowledge of James’s efforts to copy prescription opiates. Unfortunately, the friend was unwilling to speak to Trudell, and Lissa was beginning to wonder if drugs, alone, made a weak case. She believed Trudell would have better luck pursing a RICO case, as she had explained to Mike Marchus already, by classifying Blackstone as a “corrupt organization” for its swindling of investors and employees. If Jed was correct in his suspicion that James and Sarah were concealing Blackstone assets, both might be guilty of fraud.
Trudell did not sound convinced. The suit Jed had filed was civil. Trudell needed evidence of a crime, but he promised to call Jed anyway.
Four days after Lissa’s meeting with Trudell, she arrived home from work to find two cardboard boxes taking up the kitchen. Percy was on the couch, looking stronger.
“What’s this?” he said. “You getting bodies sent here, Sis?”
“No,” Lissa said. “But I’m putting you to work.”
WHEN PERCY WOKE the next morning, he staggered to the kitchen table, donned a pair of blue latex gloves, and lifted a handful of flyers from a box. There were five thousand in all, stamped and pre-addressed to the governor, every legislator in the state, and most homes and businesses in the oil-field region, including the reservation. Percy recognized many of the addressees. He imagined his friends and relatives opening the envelopes and studying the flyers, but in his daydreams, the recipients tossed the mailings without much thought. The flyers were a waste of time—too “old school,” Percy believed. Still, he felt he owed his sister, and although it hurt him to move, he liked having something to do.
According to Lissa’s instructions, he was to mark the front of every mailing with a stamp she had specially ordered—a website address—which would direct recipients to an online database where they could read more about the case and peruse original documents; and he was to wear gloves whenever handling the flyers so that no one could trace his fingerprints. Lissa had decided that they would mail the flyers from Dickinson, a town south of the reservation. Blackstone was the return address, so any failed deliveries would end up in the company PO box.
For three days, Percy rose after Lissa left for the welding shop. He worked at the kitchen table, which was cluttered with papers and dirty plates and baggies of loose-leaf tea, as the boys wandered in and out. Sometimes CJ or Micah sat and helped, but more often Percy was left alone, the apartment silent except for the heavy steps of a woman upstairs and the jingling of keys in the hallway.
Percy finished on a Friday. That afternoon, Lissa loaded the envelopes into totes, and together they set off for Dickinson. The day was overcast and dry. Lissa was in a good mood. Later, they both would laugh as they told the story: How Percy assumed they would carry the flyers inside and deposit them with the postmaster. How Lissa had said this was a terrible idea, and, instead, they had donned fresh pairs of latex gloves and stuffed all twenty thousand through the drive-through slot. How long this had taken. How cars had lined up behind them. How, when the slot filled, Lissa had reached in with her arm to pack the flyers down. How a man started honking—they let him through—and when at last he fit his own letter into the slot, he yelled in their direction, “What the fuck are you guys doing?”
Percy was embarrassed. “Oh man,” he said. “We probably look like a bunch of meth cases. Or terrorists. ‘Hey, look at those terrorists putting anthrax in envelopes.’ ”
When he and Lissa finished, their hands damp with sweat, they peeled off their gloves and threw them in the trash and then drove north to the reservation.
What struck Percy as paranoid at first—the gloves, the return address, the driving hundreds of miles to deposit the mail to fool the recipient with a postmark—in fact made some sense. Only a week earlier, when they had driven to Minot for his doctor’s appointment, they had hardly made it an hour out of Fargo when Lissa’s van swerved and bucked and came to rest on the highway shoulder. Lissa had gotten out to inspect the wheels. The bolts on one were loosened, the wheel nearly fallen off. They spent the night in Valley City and, the next morning, had the van towed to Fargo where they rented a car, continuing on to Minot. It was during their ride in the tow truck that Lindsay, Lissa’s daughter, called. She had been driving her own car, she explained, when a wheel had fallen off. Lindsay did not know what to make of the incident, but it did not seem a coincidence to her that her car lost a wheel only a day after her mother’s almost did. She suspected her mother was being targeted, perhaps due to her work on the case. “I’ll never fucking live with you again,” Lindsay told Lissa. She was moving out.
When Lissa and Percy returned to Fargo from mailing the flyers, Lissa walked the perimeter of her apartment building, the rows of parked cars. She felt unsettled, like she was being watched.
“Mom, I have a serious question for you,” Obie said when Lissa returned inside. “With the shit you’re doing, are we safe?”
“No,” Lissa replied, “so you should be alert.”
She had been cautious in the beginning—now she became more so. She installed blinds on the patio so that people could not see her when she went outside to smoke, and she was rarely spotted with her children on the streets and sidewalks that ran past the apartment; they staggered their departures and rode in separate cars. Lissa instructed the boys never to speak of her. If a stranger asked, “Is Lissa your mom?” they were to reply, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Micah accepted these measures stoically. It was harder to tell what Obie thought. He had become withdrawn in the months since Christmas. It seemed he wanted nothing to do with the case. “Hungry as hell bring something home to eat!” he wrote on his mother’s Facebook wall one weekend while she was gone. His anger was unpredictable. One Sunday, Lissa returned to Fargo and found the kitchen spotless, the dining chairs stacked artfully like a cairn in the center of the floor.
Then, one night, Obie lost his phone and asked Lissa to call it. She discovered it on her desk under a heap of papers. The caller, she noticed, was “Nadia.”
“Why does it say ‘Nadia’?” she asked.
“So that if anybody ever took me, they couldn’t find you,” Obie said. “I’d never want them to ruin what you’ve got going on.”
If Obie meant this as a reproach, Lissa did not notice. Later, she would recall the comment without a hint of guilt as the moment at which she knew her sons’ lives “had totally changed to accommodate the case.” Obie’s anger deepened her resolve. “I never want what happened between Jill and KC to happen between you and me,” she told him. But it seemed that her work on the case had only generated more tension—first with Shauna, now with Obie and Lindsay, and finally with Percy.
In April 2013, Percy returned to Fort Berthold and found work in New Town at the Northern Lights building, mopping floors and setting up tables for events. He did not go on another search with his sister. After he moved out, he and Lissa rarely spoke. Lissa would assume that her brother was scared—that the numbness he inhabited in the wake of his accident had lifted, revealing the true stakes of their involvement. But Percy denied this. It was true he was cautious and did not tell anyone about the flyers, but this had little to do with fear, he said. He figured, rather, that no one would believe him. When friends and relatives mentioned seeing the flyers, he found it easiest to say, “What do you think about that?” or, “Jeez, that’s too much,” as if he knew nothing about them. To Percy’s surprise, after he returned to the reservation, he saw the flyers everywhere he went, in the windows of main-street businesses and on the walls in tribal offices. One day, while getting gas at a station in Parshall, he discovered a flyer taped to the pump, and when he went inside, another was resting on the countertop.
“What do you think about that?” he said to the cashier.
“I see them in here all the time,” she replied, as Percy would recall. “You’d never know they’d killed a guy.”
Percy would later say that people had tried to kill him before—“over money, or something bad happens to someone’s relative, and someone says you did it. They don’t ask no questions. They don’t get to the bottom of it. They just come after you.” It wasn’t fear, he insisted, but drugs that made him draw away from his sister. “I was getting high again. So I quit hanging around her, out of respect.”