Strikingly different portraits of Whiteclay clash during Liquor Commission hearing on beer sales

Strikingly different portraits of Whiteclay clash during Liquor Commission hearing on beer sales

Strikingly different portraits of the two-block strip of highway known as Whiteclay clashed in a state Capitol hearing room Thursday through nearly 10 hours of testimony before the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission.

Abram Neumann, and Bruce and Marsha BonFleur — three of Whiteclay's eight official residents — described a filthy, sometimes frightening place where drunkenness and violence among the street population goes virtually untreated by area law enforcement.

Marsha BonFleur recalled responding to screams from a woman who was being followed by six men she claimed had gang-raped her. Another time, she found a woman passed out along the street with her jeans around her ankles and her underwear below her knees.

But local officials and owners of Whiteclay's four beer stores portrayed the unincorporated village as little more than a rough-edged row of family-run businesses, where policing could improve, but is far from insufficient. 

"I think we have adequate law enforcement. In fact, probably a little better than that," said James Krotz, a county commissioner in Sheridan County, which includes Whiteclay.

Whiteclay beer and liquor store owners Daniel Behmer (from right), Doug Sanford, and Steve Sanford hear a protester yelling "stop liquid genocide" as they exit the building following 11 hours of testimony before the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission regarding beer sales in Whiteclay on Thursday at the Capitol. 

Adequacy of law enforcement is the central question being considered by the Liquor Commission's three-member board as it weighs whether to renew the beer stores' licenses to sell alcohol.

It's a portion of a much larger issue, both in terms of Whiteclay's broader impacts on the neighboring Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, as well as further legal challenges the beer store owners will face in coming months.

The stores sell millions of cans of beer each year, much of it to residents of Pine Ridge, where alcohol is banned.

Critics blame Whiteclay beer sales for a host of ills on the reservation, from rampant alcoholism to an epidemic of fetal alcohol syndrome. 

The Nebraska Attorney General's Office has also accused the beer stores of knowingly selling to bootleggers and other violations of state liquor law.

Hints of those issues emerged during Thursday's hearing, but it focused on whether the local sheriff's department and the Nebraska State Patrol offer the level of policing the four beer stores merit.

Liquor commissioners didn't make any immediate ruling, but Chairman Bob Batt of Omaha said they would review the "mountain of evidence" presented and reach a decision no later than May 2.

"This is a huge case," he said. "It's going to affect a lot of people one way or the other."

Any decision the commission makes will almost surely be appealed in court.

Andrew Snyder of Scottsbluff, attorney for the beer stores, has repeatedly argued the commission overstepped its legal authority by requiring the stores to reapply for their licenses, rather than have them automatically renewed before they expire April 30.

Last week, he accused Gov. Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson of waging a politically motivated campaign against the stores.

Batt called that claim "absolutely, 100 percent false." The governor has also denied it, noting the Liquor Commission is an independent agency not under his direct control.

Liquor Commission Executive Director Hobert Rupe presided over Thursday's hearing.

Testimony was guided by three attorneys: Snyder, Assistant Attorney General Milissa Johnson-Wiles and David Domina of Omaha, who represents five Sheridan County residents who are challenging the beer stores' licenses.

A crowd of about 150 spectators had dwindled to a few dozen by the time the final witnesses took the stand, around 8 p.m.

Sheriff Terry Robbins, a witness called by the beer stores, said his five deputies spend about 20 hours per week in Whiteclay, but rarely make arrests there and almost never for alcohol-related crimes.

Many times, he said, those visits are after the beer stores close for the night.

"We go and check for these people that may have had too much to drink, either passed out or asleep or whatever," Robbins said. "If they don’t need medical attention, we try to get them home.”

The last time the sheriff himself cited someone for carrying an open beer was about two years ago, he said: "When he wouldn’t pour it out.” 

Still, Robbins acknowledged his department struggles to keep its ranks full.

The county doubled his budget last year, which Krotz, the county commissioner, said was in large part to help attract additional deputies.

Robbins insisted that his department provides round-the-clock policing, even with only five deputies.

People who opposed the licenses said they've learned better.

“The times that I have called the police, they have done nothing to resolve the problems,” Neumann said.

As for the Liquor Commission, he said, “To be honest, I didn’t really feel that they would do anything of consequence.”

Neumann, 22, is a street minister for Whiteclay's Lakota Hope Ministry, which is run by the BonFleurs.

He described watching a man stagger from a van into one of the beer stores, Jumping Eagle Inn, and grasp repeatedly at what appeared to be change on the counter before staggering out with a bag of alcohol. Similar events happen regularly, he said.

Owners of all four beer stores denied ever selling alcohol to people who appear to be intoxicated, but said they sometimes have to shoo away drinkers who are loitering on their property.

"I tell them that it’s illegal there and they need to move," said Clay Brehmer, who owns State Line Liquor with his brother, Daniel.

The owners all said their relationships with local law enforcement are positive.

Tatewin Means, attorney general for Pine Ridge’s resident Oglala Lakota Tribe, described her relationship with Sheridan County's cops as “nonexistent collaboration."

Tribal members regularly complain about open possession of alcohol, sex trafficking and other issues that originate in Whiteclay, but she gets no help from Robbins' department the way she does from sheriffs across the state line in South Dakota.

“Families are coming to us because they’re getting no resolution from Nebraska law enforcement,” Means said.

John Maisch