Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman's Search for Justice in Indian Country (Chapter 9: Sarah)
IN THE MONTHS LEADING UP to Shauna’s departure for Minneapolis, Lissa settled more deeply into her investigation. She had achieved a significant breakthrough: In March 2013, a week after Lissa and Percy mailed the flyers, Tex had canceled his partnership with James.
The flyers were indeed, as Percy described, everywhere: taped to the windows of reservation stores, tacked to telephone poles and to the bulletin boards that hung in post offices and schools. Lissa could not say with certainty what effect the flyers had, but the timing of Maheshu’s and Blackstone’s separation struck her as more than a coincidence. A week after Tex ended the partnership, Lissa received an email from Brian Baker, the man who had defended James and Sarah on Facebook, with whom she previously engaged as “Nadia Reinardy.” Brian had visited the website Percy stamped on all the flyers and wanted to know who was behind it. He had asked Jill, who said honestly that she didn’t know. She wasn’t “bold” enough to make a website like that, but Lissa was. It was Lissa, Jill told Brian, who composed many of the comments posted on the Facebook page. Brian forwarded his exchange with Jill to Lissa.
In fact, Lissa had been in touch with Brian since mid-February, not long after she and Jill stopped talking. “An acquaintance of mine”—Nadia Reinardy—“said you knew some things about the KC ordeal and that your ok to talk to…is this true?” she had written him. Her overture was strategic. It occurred to Lissa that her distance from Jill presented an opportunity to align herself with someone else, and so she had expressed to Brian sympathies for James and Sarah. When Brian forwarded her Jill’s emails accusing Lissa of publishing the website, Lissa denied responsibility. She explained to Brian that Jill had blocked her from the page due to their disagreement. On March 15, the day after Brian forwarded the emails, Lissa composed one to Sarah Creveling:
I know I’m probably the last person you would ever want to hear from, but this is Lissa and I would like to firstly say, that I’m sorry for jumping on the bandwagon with the others on the KC page and made some harsh comments about you when I didn’t even know both sides of the story. I sincerely would like to apologize to you and in making amends I truly would like to hear your side of the story so that I can set the record straight. My goal is to find KC. If you are interested, I believe I can help you also get the TRUTH out there instead of all this drama. I can’t even imagine how you are feeling. I think we can help each other out. I understand if you don’t feel too much trust in answering but I thought I would give it a try. Keep your chin up, cause this too, shall pass! 😉
Two mornings later, Sarah replied:
I can’t say how much I really appreciate you contacting me and apologizing for some of the things you’ve said….First off I know many people have quite the opinion about my husband and I and I know his past record sure doesn’t help. But the hardest thing for me is that I DON’T have a record! I have a speeding ticket, and people are just dragging us through the mud. It is hard to wake up every morning and check the page to see what terrible things have been said about me today….I tried reaching out to Jill many times, she never gave us the time a day and then turned around and hurt us. We have feelings to, we care about KC! I think about him everyday, and just think if only he would come back and set everyone straight.
I understand its human nature to want to put blame on something or someone. But…Some days I barely hold it together. I worry a lot that someone is going to show up at the house and hurt me. There are a lot of crazy’s out there. I just wish people would ask me questions or come to me before they jump to conclusions.
Sorry if I am writing a lot. Your just one of the few to actually ask me questions. I’m more than happy to talk to anyone about this, just no one seems to care. North Dakota is my home now, I have very few friends and family here, and now I hardly feel welcome.
Thanks again for taking the time to listen Lissa.
Lissa knew little about Sarah. In the photographs Jed had chosen for the flyer, she had blond hair, straight and dyed; small, shiny eyes; and bright white teeth. She was thin, athletic, dressed in sports tops and jeans. The Blackstone drivers Lissa spoke to had all mentioned how pretty she was, but beyond this, none seemed very fond of Sarah.
It was true she had no criminal record. The most incriminating thing Lissa could summon about her was the story KC’s grandfather told—how Sarah had cried to him on the phone and then hung up. The bawling hysterics, I mean, not laughing. A week after Robert Clarke died, Lissa had opened KC’s Blackstone email account by guessing his password and written to Sarah from his old address. “Surprise!” she had titled the email:
Doesn’t it bother you that my family is suffering over what you and James have done? have you no conscience? you and james run around acting like nothing has happened….you can pacify yourself with money for now but eventually you will lose everything. you think james is going down alone?….if he doesn’t kill you first…you’ll see. and you’ll be chased off the rez….my grandpa took his own life last week because of what you and james have done. there is one more soul lying on your shoulders but he is with me and you can’t touch us here…that phone call you got from rob when you went into hysterics and started crying and going crazy tells me you had somewhat of a conscience back then. hopefully you are able to clear it before its too late.
Lissa spoke on the phone to Sarah for the first time at the end of March. Sarah was polite, to the point. She shared her side of the story—that she cared about KC, that she tried to help Jill until Jill attacked her and James—and Lissa told Sarah about her falling out with Jill, though she did not offer details. It soon became clear to Lissa that Sarah was distressed and that the reason for her distress was the flyer. Sarah first heard about the flyer from acquaintances who received it via fax, before receiving her own fax at the Maheshu office. Sarah asked if Lissa knew who was behind the flyer. Lissa told Sarah she did not know but offered to help find out.
Lissa suggested Sarah begin by looking up the fax number she received the flyer from and tracing it to its origin. The number, it turned out, belonged to a veterinary clinic in New Town. This confused Sarah more. She had never been to that vet, she told Lissa, nor did she know anyone who worked there.
“I’m scared for you!” Lissa texted in reply. “Did you call the vet? Want me to?”
If Lissa didn’t mind, Sarah said. “I think thousands of faxes and letters have been sent now. People are calling and texting me from everywhere.” Sarah had been studying one of the flyers that she had received in the mail. It was “nice glossy thick paper, expensive,” she wrote. It looked professionally done. She wondered if she called around to print shops in the region, she might identify the one that processed the order.
“And what if it was done online?” Lissa replied. She suggested Sarah check the postmark on the flyers.
The flyers appeared to have been sent from Bismarck. Mailing them from Dickinson, Lissa now privately realized, had made no difference. She advised Sarah to mail herself a letter from Watford City to the Blackstone PO box in Minot. That way, Sarah would be able to confirm that all letters distributed to that part of the state were routed through the capital. Sarah did as Lissa advised.
A week later, Sarah drove to Minot and checked the Blackstone mailbox. The letter she had sent herself was there—postmarked in Bismarck, she told Lissa, which meant it would be difficult to trace the flyers to their origins. What was worse, Sarah had opened her mailbox to find it stuffed with hundreds of undeliverable flyers, many addressed to towns she had never heard of. “Makes me nervous now that everyone knows what I look like,” she texted Lissa. “That’s like literally half the state that has received them. This is a ton of money spent.”
Sarah was becoming more distraught. The morning after she went to Minot, Lissa texted, “Wake up! Because today is a great day and its gonna be better than yesterday!” It was late March, Easter weekend. Sarah was in Washington visiting family. She was close with her parents, she told Lissa, and thankful to leave the oil fields for a while. But some nights later, she called Lissa, upset again. Jill was attacking Sarah on Facebook.
Lissa had recommended that Sarah stop reading the page. “I know it must be hard,” she wrote one day, “but try to keep your own sanity. What does your husband think of Jill’s rants?”
“He’s learned to ignore them,” Sarah replied. “Says if she really wanted our help she would reach out to us, since she put us in the bad light. He tells me not to look on that page.”
“You should listen to him.”
“I know. It’s just so hard Lissa. I wish I could talk to every person who’s read that page, received or seen the letter. I just wish I could sit down with all of them and explain.”
Lissa had been waiting for an opening like this and now composed her message carefully. She wondered if Sarah would be willing to answer questions about the day KC disappeared. Did she remember what time he arrived at the office? How long did he stay? Did he speak to James? Did he mention that he “needed to tie up loose ends”?
Sarah answered eagerly. She could not remember what time KC arrived, exactly, but she believed it was in the late morning or early afternoon. She had seen him for only five minutes, when they talked about his plans to go to Oregon. “I honestly don’t know what he did after he left the office we were in,” she wrote to Lissa. “James said he said hi to him, talked about his grandpa’s health and drinking too much.” She couldn’t remember KC saying anything about “loose ends.”
“Did he have his truck with him when he arrived or when he left?” Lissa asked.
“Oh, that I don’t know,” Sarah replied. “I was never outside while he was there. I would assume he was in his truck.”
“And no calls after he left?”
“No calls that I know of!”
It was almost eleven o’clock. “Well I’m going to head to bed,” Sarah wrote. “Thanks for talk as always. I hope I didn’t keep you up too late. Have a good night:-)”
Over the following months, Lissa asked Sarah many questions about KC. Often, Lissa repeated these questions—whom did he talk to, what did he say—as if sorting a complex array of details, though what Sarah had witnessed was rather simple, and it became clear that Lissa was searching for inconsistencies in her account.
The story Sarah told did not vary, however: KC had come into the office, handed her his company credit card, and chatted for five minutes about his vacation plans. He had not wanted to take a vacation, but he had seemed tired and depressed, and at a company meeting prior to his disappearance, everyone decided he should take a break. When Sarah saw KC, he had been more upbeat, she said, looking forward to visiting his grandfather. Then he went outside, and Sarah never saw him again. James told her he had spoken to KC, but not for long, since “whenever James is at the office people swarm him asking questions.” She had tried calling KC in the weeks after that, as did James, but KC did not answer. When it seemed he was gone, Sarah canceled his paychecks.
Sarah knew KC had been miserable in Texas, heartbroken by his breakup with his girlfriend. “I actually never met her,” she wrote Lissa. “KC made her seem like she was so sweet and so nice. He always said he expected they would get back together.” About other employees, though, Sarah knew comparatively little. She knew Ryan Olness—the investor from Arizona who eventually fled the reservation—perhaps the best, since he had lived with her and James. “It was sort of strange,” Sarah wrote to Lissa. “He had all these big plans for ND like restaurants and roustabout and a million other things and nothing ever happened.” She knew the least about Robert Delao, the worker who arrived after KC disappeared—whom Lissa knew to be a snitch. When Blackstone left the reservation, Delao stayed behind to work for Tex at Maheshu. Delao still lived in Mandaree, while Sarah and James lived in Watford City, the town off the reservation where they relocated Blackstone. They rarely saw Delao anymore, Sarah said.
“If [Delao’s] such a bad person why are they not focusing on him too?” Lissa texted one day.
Sarah didn’t know: “I’ve wondered that too.”
“I mean cause he’s a convicted murderer.”
“He claims that info isn’t true, but I don’t know.”
“Between you and me I know it’s a fact. He did time for it. Lots of time.”
“What!?! Really, lots of time?”
“I never told ANYONE but you! I don’t see putting him out there like that cause he did his time and I heard he regretted it.”
“Wow, I won’t say anything. It’s not my place to. But still crazy.”
Lissa felt Sarah was being mostly honest with her—more honest, perhaps, than Lissa was being with Sarah—but she did not believe Sarah was above a lie. In late April, Jill claimed on Facebook that Sarah and James had been “kicked off the rez.” Lissa asked Sarah if this was true, but Sarah denied it. “We’re not working on the Rez by choice,” she wrote. “We had to shut down our business on the Rez because people were being so rude. Why is Jill so focused on us:-(…It’s crazy, it’s like she gets bored and just wants to get people going again.” Three weeks later, Lissa tried once more, this time mentioning she had heard a rumor that Sarah and James “got into it with Tex.” Sarah denied this, as well: “We are completely on good terms we just don’t have a company working with him anymore. People just think since Blackstone water doesn’t exist then something bad must have happened and it didn’t.”
The nature of Blackstone’s separation from Maheshu was one thing Lissa suspected Sarah was lying about. Another thing was Brian Baker, whom Lissa now believed was a pseudonym, just like Nadia Reinardy. Once, Sarah had lamented to Lissa about the posters, “It just doesn’t make since,” and Lissa thought, Sense, not since. Brian had made the same mistake. “Hey how’s Brian?” Lissa texted Sarah. “Now that I talk to you I never talk to him.” Sarah replied that he was busy but well and “happy that he got us two talking.” A few weeks later, Brian was back in touch.
Still, Lissa believed Sarah was beginning to trust her. One day in May, Lissa asked why James and KC used steroids. Sarah said she didn’t know, and Lissa replied, “White folks are funny! Ya’ll never really talk about the IMPORTANT things! Lol.” Her bluntness seemed to put Sarah at ease, and Sarah began to share more about herself: James was always working, she said—more than she was willing to work—and they had been spending more time apart. Sarah often left North Dakota to see friends in Arizona and California, or to visit her parents in Washington. Her father was a doctor; her mother, a wildlife biologist. “She’s obsessed with birds and animals,” Sarah wrote. “Every time we went on vacation as kids, the first thing my mom would do was buy a bird book so she could identify everything while we were there. Even with plants and trees, like which ones you could eat. And which ones you could use if you touched stinging nettles to make it stop hurting.” Sarah was twenty-six, a year older than Shauna. In college, she had studied hotel management.
Lissa was beginning to think Sarah was innocent in that she truly did not know what happened to KC, but other things perplexed Lissa. Could Sarah be guilty of the fraud Jed McClure, the investor, accused her of? And how could Sarah not wonder about James, with everything in his past?
Lissa often asked after James. “Same as always with him,” Sarah once replied. “Nothing stresses him out I swear and I’m always stressed over everything.”
“What does James say about all this?”
“I always ask him stuff after we talk, and he always says people will make whatever stories they can cause he says for some reason people always want to tear him down. Then he apologizes to me for having a record because he knows how sad this all makes me. It kills me that people claim to hate me or think I’m a bad person. I always tell him as long as he’s honest to me I’ll stay by his side, but I NEED honesty.”
“I understand his point,” Lissa replied, but had Sarah never at least wondered? “I mean for real you can’t tell me it hasn’t crossed your mind.”
“Yes I’ll be honest, I do ask what if…But I made him promise me NOTHING bad after all his past…and he promised…”
“What if it was just some accident that he can’t admit?! Like a fight that got outta hand? I mean, those two”—KC and James—“were messing with steroids!!!!”
“Honestly I never saw either of them really upset. They’re surprisingly both really happy people.”
Lissa tried one more angle: “Well between you and I,” she wrote, “I have heard stories about how demeaning and controlling he is towards you.”
“Really?” Sarah wrote. “I won’t say anything to him.” They fought over business, she said, over truck repair bills and employee troubles, “but nothing crazy.”
“Just don’t let anyone cut you down and make you feel like you’re not worthy cause you are. If you ever feel like he’s all you got don’t feel that way. Sounds like you have a lot of people who care! I’m one.”
“Thanks Lissa:-)!!! I’ll tell you one thing, I honestly hate business ha ha. James loves it and it’s what he does. But it’s hard for me cause everyone has problems or is mad all the time, and I just want things to be smooth.”
“I feel for you.”
“Talking with you has BEEN SO NICE!!! I definitely consider you a friend.”
“I worry bout you ya know? I know YOU didn’t do anything to KC! If I thought that I wouldn’t be talking to you. I just hope he’s found and all this bs goes away! Hope you keep in close contact with your folks so they don’t worry so much!”
“Oh I hope he’s found!!! And hopefully he’s just hiding from all of us. You know what someone told me the other day? They thought maybe KC was behind all these posters, met up with someone with a bunch of money who knew James from years ago.”
“Really?” Lissa replied. “Who has that much money to blow?”
IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE to discern Lissa’s true feelings toward Sarah from their messages, or, for that matter, Sarah’s feelings toward Lissa. Both seemed to be masterful liars—cheerily aware of being lied to, if unable to identify the lies the other told. “Do you ever speak with Nadia anymore?” Sarah wrote not long after Lissa asked about Brian. Lissa replied that she did not and changed the subject.
But between lies, their dialogue was strangely genuine. When Sarah spoke of her closeness with her parents, her frustration with James, or her sense of displacement in the oil fields, Lissa believed her; and Lissa’s concern for Sarah’s well-being was not all fakery, either. By the end of the spring, Lissa realized she cared for Sarah, as if all her pretending had made it so. They called or texted nearly every day. Lissa looked forward to their conversations and stayed on the phone as long as Sarah was willing. She believed Sarah had no one else to confide in. Once, Sarah described her parents as “really nice” people who think “everyone is good and the sky is blue and life is perfect.” Sarah had told them about the defamation suit she filed against Jill, she said, but she withheld almost everything else, doubting they would understand.
Lissa’s feelings toward Sarah were hardly an exoneration. Sarah still believed in James’s innocence, a state of denial that Lissa found maddeningly irresponsible. Later, Lissa would reflect, “It wasn’t so much that I thought Sarah was guilty but that maybe she knew more than she’s ever led anyone to believe.” Lissa often thought about Sarah’s call to Robert Clarke, when she cried into the phone: “It made Sarah sound like less of a sociopath than James. I mean, why would she start crying, other than the fact that she was probably adding things up on her own already, wondering how she could have gotten herself so involved in something? But she turned around and carried on. What did she think? This was all going to go away on its own? My guess is she thought there would be a reasonable explanation someday, and it just kept getting worse.”
Lissa could think of one more reason why Sarah would remain loyal to James: Lissa recognized in the way Sarah spoke of him the mentality of an abused woman—not physically abused, necessarily, but manipulated and controlled. The more Sarah came to trust Lissa, the more Lissa wondered if she could break Sarah’s trust in James. Friends of Sarah’s would later say how strange it was to them that someone so independent and smart ended up with a man like James. Lissa did not find it strange at all. People had said the same thing about her. “Put me in a room with twenty men, and you can be sure I’ll pick the abusive alcoholic,” she said.
Lissa knew how it was to be controlled, as acutely as she knew how to control. Once, when asked if she felt guilty for exploiting a mentality she knew so well—a mentality that, at one time in her life, had led her back to a man who tried to kill her—she said she did not. Lissa believed that although Sarah was controlled by James, Sarah was his “backbone.” James needed her clean record to register their companies, establish credit, and purchase equipment. Beyond that, Sarah was, in Lissa’s terms, “a perfect lieutenant.” None of James’s ventures had ever worked so well until he married Sarah: “I saw that James would be nothing without her, and I wanted to break him down any way I could,” Lissa said. “I wanted him to lose his business. I wanted him to lose all the power he had. I didn’t want to destroy Sarah, but in one sense I kind of had to, to get what I wanted. I kind of had to help her, in a tough love kind of way, to evolve. She was clueless. She couldn’t smell the danger that was right under her nose.”