Activists say more action is needed to stem bootlegging, investigate slayings in Whiteclay

Activists say more action is needed to stem bootlegging, investigate slayings in Whiteclay

LINCOLN — Activists involved in shutting down beer sales in Whiteclay called on the state to do more to not only end bootlegging of alcohol in the area, but to investigate unsolved slayings in the unincorporated village.

Oklahoma attorney John Maisch, who produced a documentary on the alcohol-related problems linked to Whiteclay, called a recent legislative report on the village “wholly inadequate and tone deaf” to some bigger issues affecting the town.

Overall, he said, closing down the beer stores — which sold the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer a year to residents of a nearby Indian reservation that bans alcohol — was just “a first step.”

“It removed the most obvious location to purchase alcohol,” Maisch said. “Of course, we never did say that would stop all the problems.”

Maisch, as well as Native American activist Frank LaMere and Lincoln businessman Alan Jacobsen, called on the state to increase enforcement to stem purchases of alcohol in other nearby towns by bootleggers, and to form a “cold case” unit to look into unsolved slayings in Whiteclay.

LaMere, of South Sioux City, said there have been at least five unsolved killings in Whiteclay in the past two decades. He said he lacks faith in county investigators to solve them.

“Someone needs to step in,” he said. “We’ve got to have justice for these people.”

LaMere provided two letters he sent to Gov. Pete Ricketts, and Jacobsen provided a letter he sent to Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson about further investigation into the Whiteclay slayings. Officials from those offices did not respond immediately on Thursday afternoon.

Two slayings in 1999, of Whiteclay street people Wally Black Elk and Ronald Hard Heart, helped spark protests and first drew national attention to the beer sales in Whiteclay.

The killings were never solved, though an FBI website still offers a $50,000 reward for information.

More recently, in August 2016, Sherry Wounded Foot was found unconscious on the streets of Whiteclay and was taken to a Rapid City, South Dakota, hospital. She died 12 days later. Foul play was suspected, but no arrests have been made. Both LaMere and Jacobsen said that a cold case unit involving state and federal investigators should be called in.

As for bootlegging, Maisch said it’s apparent that liquor is being purchased in other towns near Whiteclay, then resold on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation — where alcohol is banned.

Last month, Oglala Sioux tribal police and federal authorities discovered a cache of water bottles during some arrests for supervised release violations. Bootleggers, a tribal press release said, were mixing vodka and rubbing alcohol and selling the bottles for $10 each.

While the tribe has a responsibility to bust bootleggers, Maisch said Nebraska also has an obligation to make sure that liquor stores in this state aren’t fueling the illegal sales.

Hobert Rupe, the executive director of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission, said liquor stores are required by law to document when someone buys more than 20 gallons of beer or alcohol at one time. But he said he cannot comment on efforts to enforce that requirement.

State Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks of Lincoln, who co-chaired a recent legislative task force on Whiteclay, said she is glad that others are also bringing forth ideas on how to improve Whiteclay. She did not comment about why the task force’s report, released Wednesday, did not include the suggestions made by the activists.

The task force’s charge, as outlined by the Legislature, was to focus on public health and economic development issues.

John Maisch