A journalist investigating a suspicious death near the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation finds that his questions are more than just questions.
It’s been five years, almost to the day, since I first met Puerto Rican Rick, and the anniversary has brought with it a sense of guilt—though I don’t know whether I ought to feel guilty. I’ve tried, from time to time, to track him down since I saw him last, back in May 2008, just before I returned to the East Coast from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I’ve never succeeded. Rick left Pine Ridge around the same time I did. Unlike me, he didn’t leave willingly, and I’d like to ask him for his thoughts on how much my actions—my efforts to chase down a story on my first foray into serious reporting—contributed to him being forced to choose exile over execution for a murder he didn’t commit. Many of his friends and enemies from the time I knew him are now dead, a fate he’s managed to avoid as far as I know, though that’s no thanks to me. And because I never knew his full name, I find little to guide me in the many names by which I knew him—the Puerto Rican; Rico; Puerto Rico; Puerto Ric (pronounced “port-o-reek”); Rick Blank (“that’s because he’s always blank,” explained one local, “blank” being reservation-slang for “drunk”); though mostly Puerto Rican Rick.
Let me start with what I do know about Rick, which is, besides the few facts I gleaned from his friends and acquaintances, not a lot. At some point before 2008, Rick (who is, in fact, Puerto Rican) met an Oglala Lakota woman named Joann Two Dogs in Denver, Colorado. Joann was an occasional resident of her tribe’s reservation, Pine Ridge, a sprawl of dimpled prairie in southwestern South Dakota about the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. On one of her return trips to Pine Ridge, Joann brought Rick with her. Over time, their relationship soured. In the middle of nowhere, with no place to go and no friends to speak of, Rick drifted south, off the reservation, and into the border town of Whiteclay, Nebraska.
Whiteclay is a “town” only in the Western sense. Home to fewer than a dozen residents, it consists of a huddle of low-slung storefronts that line a dusty, two-lane state highway. Refuse, rarely (if ever) collected, accumulates in the ditches that run alongside the road—beer cans, a one-piece women’s swimsuit, sandwich wrappers, a dead dog. Whiteclay probably wouldn’t exist but for its proximity to the reservation and its largest town, also called Pine Ridge, which lies less than two miles north of the South Dakota line. The town’s largest source of income are four package stores that last year sold about 3.9 million cans of beer and malt liquor.
Pine Ridge is dry by law, but in practice, prohibition doesn’t go much further than the tribal code books. According to the tribe, whose storied past includes the exploits of Crazy Horse and the Massacre at Wounded Knee, one in four children born to its members suffers from alcohol-related developmental disorders, and life expectancy on the reservation, in large part thanks to alcoholism, is comparable to that of Haiti. Spend some time in Whiteclay watching cars shuttle between the package stores and the reservation, and it won’t take long to realize where a substantial amount of the alcohol comes from. A leech fastened to the reservation, Whiteclay bleeds the tribe of its money and injects disease.
Whiteclay’s is not entirely an export economy. The stores also sell beer to the Indians who make Whiteclay itself their watering hole and, at times, their home. The town’s notoriously rowdy bars were closed in the 1970s, so people now drink in the street, behind the package stores, and in abandoned houses at the edge of town, which double as crash pads. The local sheriff’s office covers an area five times the size of Los Angeles, and Whiteclay represents a fraction of one percent of the population it serves. The streets largely police themselves. When Puerto Rican Rick arrived in Whiteclay, he joined this scene, its only non-Indian as far as I know. Rick fell in with a group of Oglala Lakota, a couple named Frank Waters and June Two Bulls, and Frank’s cousin Mike Waters. This arrangement lasted for a time—nobody was quite sure how long it had been—until Mike turned up dead at the edge of town.
I moved to Pine Ridge after graduating college in 2007 to teach at a Jesuit high school for a year. Teaching is uncommonly difficult, and since I had aspirations toward journalism—I’d worked on high school and college newspapers—I figured taking up some reporting projects in my spare time was one way to keep the lows of teaching from getting to me. Fishing for potential stories, I found myself venturing over to Whiteclay. On Pine Ridge, people speak of the town with the kind of scorn usually reserved for the people or illnesses that have killed loved ones. It seemed like the kind of place that could serve as a window into the dark side of reservation life, a place people not from the area ought to hear about. When I started visiting Whiteclay, in the early spring of 2008, an angle presented itself. The town was filled with talk of the recent death of Mike Waters.
The county sheriff who has jurisdiction over Whiteclay, Terry “Homer” Robbins, was willing to talk to me—press credentials, I found, aren’t necessary in northwestern Nebraska—but he declined to say anything about Mike’s death because lab reports on cause of death were still out. Finding the official channel silent, I turned to the streets of Whiteclay to try to find out what had happened. I heard rumors that Mike was killed, and that his killer was a man named Puerto Rican Rick. Rick was the last person Mike had been seen with. Locals had seen them drinking together before he died. Motive remained unclear.
The gas station attendant who had discovered Mike’s body, a man named either Corn Bean or Billy Bean depending on who you asked, took me to the spot, which was next to a six-foot-long, torso-wide cottonwood log and a small white cross on which was scrawled Mike’s name, date of death, and the word “Hollywood.” (Mike’s brother-in-law, Alex White Plume, told me “Hollywood” was a nickname he had earned hawking VHS tapes he’d borrowed from family members.)
“That’s where I found him,” Corn Bean told me, pointing to a patch of grass beside the cross. “His neck was broke. I couldn’t even see his head. It was tucked under him.”
This theory wasn’t new to me; others had told me that Rick had disposed of Mike by somehow breaking his neck. It struck me at the time as unusual, a scene from a spy flick, the secret agent snapping the security guard’s neck before infiltrating the arch-villain’s lair. There were no witnesses, and nobody had a clear sense of how Rick had managed this action hero move. This ought to have raised a red flag, but while I didn’t realize it at the time, I was more than a little willing to suspend my disbelief. I’m sure part of me wanted to be hot on the trail of a murderer—even to beat the police to nailing the guilty party to the wall. Besides, I had yet to hear any other theories explaining how Mike met his end.
I stuck around Whiteclay after talking to Corn Bean, hoping to talk to more locals about the case. I approached a group of men standing around drinking tall cans of Budweiser outside Jumping Eagle, a package store on the south end of town. I started to ask a tall, stately man with a graying ponytail whether he’d known Mike. He stopped me mid-sentence and told me to get out of his town, the other option being forced removal. I decided I preferred the former.
The sun was setting, casting a long purple shadow across the Western sky, as I walked to my car, which I had parked on the north side of town near the Pine Ridge border. It was still March, and cold, and the north side of Whiteclay was fairly empty. An unkempt man in a navy blue jacket slumped against a wall, kept company by two tall cans of Budweiser, a can of Hurricane malt liquor, and a feral dog sniffing at the pockets of his jacket. Across the street on a sagging covered porch, a couple men in work clothes, their long black hair streaming out from under the “Native Pride” baseball caps sold in the package stores, huddled wordlessly around beer cans, as if for warmth. I had seen this sad tableau vivant before. But in the half-light, with the crowd outside Jumping Eagle still in view, it took on a slightly menacing air. The men across the street didn’t look like trouble, but neither had the guy with the ponytail. I decided not to ask them about Mike. As I got close to my car, a small, fidgety man approached me, lurching across the street. A very drunk girl in short-shorts and a hooded sweatshirt was draped over his shoulder like a wounded soldier.
He called to me: “Hey, hey, you got any money?”
In the fading light, I could make out a scraggly, patchwork beard wrapped around the tawny skin of the man’s face and a head of dark, matted curls. His eyes scanned constantly, as if cataloging all possible routes of egress.
“No, no, no,” he said, sensing my wariness. “I’m not drunk. I’m just coming after having seen a truck accident lawyer, so I wouldn’t be under the influence. I just want to buy a sandwich for her.”
He nodded at the woman, whom he had just deposited on a nearby crate. She sat slumped forward, her head resting nearly in her lap. The reservation has a distinct accent, a singsong cadence—not unlike certain Irish dialects—with drawn-out vowels and an upswinging inflection that tends to make statements sound like questions. This man had an accent, but he didn’t have the Pine Ridge accent. I introduced myself and asked him what his name was. He hesitated.
“Carlo,” he said after a moment, his voice faltering. I got the sense Carlo probably wasn’t named Carlo. I asked him if he knew Mike. As soon as the name left my mouth, the man’s eyes widened and his face contorted. He started stammering.
“No, yeah. We were good friends, good friends. We worked together. Good friends, good friends.”
I asked him to elaborate.
“No story, no story,” he said. He collected the drunk girl, flashed me a worried look, and stumbled off.
The interaction piqued my curiosity, and I decided not to leave just yet. I went to State Line Liquor—a package store that, despite its name, doesn’t actually sell liquor—to ask the owner about Corn Bean’s story. He didn’t have much to say about it, but as I was leaving, I ran into a Whiteclay regular I had met before, Brett Long Soldier. Brett was a short, muscular Oglala Lakota with an acne-scarred face, a wispy black goatee, and a reputation toward violence, especially when drunk. Another package store owner had recently pulled a gun on him because he refused to leave the store. To me, Brett seemed friendly, but then I had never seen him at his drunkest.
On this particular evening, Brett had run out of money and been forced to sober up. With no reason to stay in town and nursing swollen knuckles from a fight he’d been in earlier, he asked for a ride home to Pine Ridge. We drove along Highway 407, the two-mile stretch of well-traveled highway that connects Whiteclay and the town of Pine Ridge, and I told him about Carlo.
“That’s the Puerto Rican,” he said. I told him how skittish the man had become when I brought up Mike Waters. Brett nodded knowingly. “The Puerto Rican killed him,” he said, matter-of-factly. “That’s why everyone’s after him.”
In my free time, I continued to ask around Whiteclay about Rick and his connection to Mike’s death. I went to visit Homer a couple more times over the next four or five weeks, but he was still waiting on Mike’s lab reports. Many people in Whiteclay shared Brett’s insistence that Rick was Mike’s killer, but equally many seemed surprised when I asked them about what I’d heard. As time passed, though, I found more and more locals believed Rick had killed Mike. I also found that they knew who I was in advance. I was the white guy, they’d say, asking around about the Puerto Rican who had killed Mike. At the time, I was relieved not to have to explain who I was. But in retrospect, I’ve come to suspect that I had created an echo chamber effect within Whiteclay. I generated a feedback loop, my questions reinforcing the story that Rick had killed Mike. Even among the cynical, the journalist’s information possesses a talismanic quality, and I was lending some authority to the rumor that Rick was a murderer, or at least that Mike had been murdered.
Sometimes I’d see Rick around, and I’d try to approach him. I felt like I needed his story if my reporting were ever going to turn into anything. As soon as he’d spot me, he would run away, sometimes literally sprinting in the opposite direction as if I were some kind of harbinger of doom, which I may well have been from his perspective. The first few times I saw him, he was with others. Gradually, though, he seemed to grow more and more isolated. I’d run into him, but he’d be alone, looking even more skittish than the last time I’d seen him.
In the wake of an April snowfall, about a month after I met “Carlo,” I ran into Brett Long Soldier outside State Line Liquor. He asked me if I wanted to go “cruising on the rez”—driving around Pine Ridge, often with beer in hand. I had the time, and I was eager to seize the opportunity to speak further with Brett about Mike and Rick. He took off his sweatshirt as he got into my car. On his bicep, a latticework of thick scar tissue cross-crossed a field of green ink. He had tried to erase a gang tattoo with a knife, he said. Brett spent the drive drinking a tall can of Hurricane malt liquor, which he ducked it under the seat whenever we passed tribal police cruisers. (I abstained.) We headed north, onto the reservation, passing the broken, snow-covered trailer homes that freckle the prairie. Conversation turned quickly to Rick.
“Puerto Ric’s like a dog in the dog house,” he said. Nobody would go near him, Brett told me, because of what he’d done. He described Rick’s status in terms that called to mind outlawry, a largely pre-Magna Carta punishment that entailed depriving a person of the benefits and protection of the law—in Rick’s case the frontier law that governs Whiteclay in the place of a regular and consistent police presence.
“He’s got his shit coming to him,” Brett volunteered. He reached a hand into the pocket of his sweatshirt and produced what looked like a whittling knife with masking tape wrapped around its handle.
“Everybody knows what he’s done,” he said.
I asked if it could have been an accident.
“They were blank, but wasn’t no accident,” he said, raising his voice. “I want to be there when it happens. Shit’s got me scared. Mike was one of us. That that could happen to him . . .”
He trailed off and looked out the window across the prairie, where islands of yellow grass were rising out of the melting snow.
“This is God’s country,” he said, wistfully. “Oglala Lakota country. The oldest land.” He took a sip of his Hurricane.
Not long after my cruise with Brett, Mike’s lab report came back. Homer told me I should talk to the local prosecutor, a deputy county attorney named Jamian Simmons. I met her in her office in Rushville, a town 20 miles south of Whiteclay. She had Mike’s file on her desk.
According to his toxicology report, Mike died of “acute alcohol intoxication.” In other words, Mike drank himself to death. In death, as in life, his spinal column remained perfectly intact. I spotted a police photo in the file. It showed Mike lying where he died, next to the cottonwood log by the abandoned house. He was a short man, wearing jeans, a flannel shirt, and work boots, a black bandana tied around his head. His hair was short and dark, his face unshaven. Corn Bean had been wrong about the placement of Mike’s head—its angle relative to his body looked perfectly normal—though, to be fair, it had been dark when he found Mike’s body.
I wasn’t entirely surprised at the news. It explained why all the stories in Whiteclay didn’t add up, and why my reporting there hadn’t given me a clear sense of what had killed Mike. Needless to say, it probably had nothing to do with Rick.
Later that day, I stopped by Whiteclay. I hadn’t seen Rick in some time, and I was starting to get worried that I’d turn a corner at one of the abandoned houses at the edge of Whiteclay and find him lying in a patch of grass stained a deep shade of red. Like Wild West towns of yore, Whiteclay’s law is the law of vigilante justice. The town only accounts for 0.002% of Sheridan County’s population, but even if local law enforcement had the resources to police the place round the clock, a deep hostility toward police would pose a significant barrier. The frosty relations between the Pine Ridge residents and police reach at least as far back as the 1970s firefights between militant American Indian Movement activists and state and federal law enforcement. For better and for worse, people in Whiteclay prefer to police themselves.
Rounding the abandoned clapboard house in front of which Mike had died, I didn’t find Rick’s body. Instead I found Rick’s old friends Frank Waters—Mike’s cousin—and June Two Bulls, a kind and affable pair whose alcoholism had left them looking decades older than their forty-odd years. I had met them several times before, and interestingly, they alone seemed to believe that Rick had nothing to do with Mike’s death. I told them what I had learned from the prosecutor, and they nodded, unsurprised. They had been right about Rick, I told them. It didn’t much matter, June said. Puerto Rican Rick would soon go back to being plain old “Rick”—he was leaving for Puerto Rico in the next couple of days. He needed to get out of town, they said, and although he hadn’t said why, I got the feeling that I knew. He was going to hitch rides to Denver first, then on, somehow, to Puerto Rico.
“He’ll float there,” June offered with a chuckle, the wrinkles in her face deepening as she smiled.
Just days before I left the reservation for good, I ran into Brett. He said, not without a hint of pride in his voice, that Rick had left because he knew Whiteclay had it out for him. Rick had chosen exile over execution, a hitched ride out of town over Brett’s whittling knife. Brett seemed unmoved by what Jamian Simmons had told me. Rick had it coming to him, Brett maintained.
I’m certain that some people in Whiteclay believed that Rick had killed Mike before I showed up. Brett and others had trotted out this theory before I’d started asking questions. But, from what I saw, Rick’s position within the community changed over the course of my inquiries.
A journalist’s inquiries risk harming reputations, what Cassio in Othello calls “the immortal part of myself.” But to tell stories you have to hear stories; you can only start with what you’re told. And you can’t try to confirm what you’re told—to winnow a source’s more likely and plausible claims from the more dubious—without asking questions. Asking questions gives new voice and authority to what you’ve already heard. Yet for as much as a bruised reputation might cause someone to feel like his or her life is over, it’s usually not literally over. In Rick’s case, it could have been.
Even now, though, I can’t say what I should have done differently in Whiteclay. I might have been less naive about the unlikely accounts of Mike’s death. I might have leaned harder on local officials to tell me what they knew earlier on. I might have taken more time to feel out the town before I started asking questions.
I’d like to think that Rick would tell me, if I could find him, that my role in his exile was minimal, but what I’d like to think is not what I believe is most likely. While I don’t think I acted unethically, I feel guilty all the same. Meanwhile, Brett Long Soldier died late last year, at 38, and Joann Two Dogs, who first brought Rick to Pine Ridge, died the year before. June Two Bulls was very sick when I knew her—doctors had told her that her cirrhosis was nearly terminal as of 2008—but I haven’t read anything about her in the obituaries. I’ll probably never find Rick.
The story I’ve told is about journalism, but it’s also about Whiteclay, an American abjection, a place where poverty and disregard feed disease and where death comes often. If there’s a lesson in my experience, it’s that when journalists tell stories of life in hard places, it’s worth treading lightly at first, to feel the place out. A question that might seem innocent elsewhere could state more than one means it to. Rick chose exile over death. It would be nice to know I hadn’t helped force that choice on him.