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Judge: ‘Courage to change’ needed on WR Reservation
Gov. Matt Mead was among the speakers at early sessions at the Wind River Native American Conference. Photo by Christina George

Judge: Courage to change needed on Wind River Reservation

Aug 9, 2012 - By Christina George, Staff Writer

Drunken driving. Violent crimes. Sexual assaults.

These crimes and more came to mind when Nancy Freudenthal thought about cases she has presided over from the Wind River Indian Reservation.

"As a federal district judge, too often I see the problems facing the reservation," Freudenthal said.

In March, the judge and former Wyoming first lady was in Fremont County sentencing two Northern Arapaho men charged in the 2011 beating death of John Michael Crispin III.

This week, Freudenthal was one of seven who were part of a panel discussion at the three-day annual Wind River Native American Conference spearheaded by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Wyoming.

To a packed room at the Best Western Inn at Lander Wednesday afternoon, Freudenthal said Crispin was beaten to death with a baby car seat and dumbbells.

When she arrived in Lander for the hearing, Freudenthal said Crispin's father gave her a letter and a picture of his son. He asked the judge to look at them as well as photos of the crime scene before she made a decision about sentencing.

'Full of sorrow'

Freudenthal said she honored his request.

Reflecting on the day she sentenced the two to prison for five years and nine years, she said she remembered a courtroom "full of sorrow."

Often times, such cases are handled in federal courtrooms in Cheyenne.

Because the reservation falls under federal jurisdiction, serious crimes are handled by the FBI and later prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office.

Some, including U.S. Attorney Christopher "Kip" Crofts, are hoping to see more federal adjudication held in Lander so that witnesses, family members and others involved don't have to travel far to attend.

Crofts served as moderator for the hour-long session, which focused on the Tribal Law and Order Act and other issues on the reservation.

"Courage to change -- that, I think is my message, and it's long past due," Freudenthal told the 200-plus attendees.

She said the change would not happen from outside the community from forces such as legislation.

"Change has to come from the hearts and the minds from the people of this community," she added. "I am a strong believer that each of us individually can do something."

Affie Ellis was the next speaker. She is one of nine nationwide who serve on the Indian Law and Order Commission. The commission was created by the Tribal Law and Order Act, which was signed into law in July 2011 and aimed at making sure federal agencies are more accountable for serving Indian lands.

Ellis said there are three issues she sees on the reservation. First, she noted the crime-fighting surge on the Wind River and three other reservations that were considered to be the most dangerous in the U.S.

Ellis said the commission noticed the initiative produced a net increase in crime reporting on the local reservation.

After a New York Times article, "Brutal Crimes Grip a Reservation," was published, the commission traveled to the area to seek answers.

Ellis said community members said they felt safer because of the surge despite some cultural issues with some of the outside law enforcement officers.

FBI

Bob Evans, FBI supervisory senior resident agent, said in his 26 years with the agency, he has worked in seven offices, including two others that involved reservations. He said the Lander office has "outstanding resources" with six agents who are committed to the job.

Evans said there are plans to assign one agent with the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation to work on drugs and gang issues on the reservation.

FBI Special Agent in Charge James Yacone said the agency is taking a holistic approach to the crime on the reservation.

"We are not going to arrest our way out of this, and we know that," he said.

He said more than 90 percent of the cases handled by the Lander FBI division are crimes that occur on the reservation.

Bill LeCompte, who is a special agent with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Billings, Mont., said before the surge happened, there were seven officers patrolling the reservation.

"Unfortunately that was the norm," he said.

When the project got under way, he said officers from other entities such as forest services and Game and Fish had to be used while new officers were being trained.

He admitted there were issues with lack of cultural sensitivity, but eventually calls for service increased and residents began trusting the police.

LeCompte said the BIA is looking to hire six more officers, bringing the force's total up to 34.

After Wind River police officer Ted Thayer spoke about some of the challenges he sees with working with different types of officers, Jay Erickson, with the Drug Enforcement Agency, said a few words.

Erickson told the audience that prescription pills are emerging as the biggest challenge facing the local area, followed by marijuana and methamphetamines.