Hitting close to home (Wyoming)
By JARED MILLER
Star-Tribune staff writer
ETHETE -- The day of the bust, a helicopter chopped the 80-degree air above the Wind River Indian Reservation, and teams of police moved across the reservation like phantoms.
“I seen helicopters, and I know the only time there are helicopters is when they're going to drug bust,” said Tashina Medicine Cloud, a 19-year-old Northern Arapaho who lives south of Riverton.
By week's end, 43 people had been swept up in Wyoming's biggest-ever drug bust. If convicted, they face years of federal incarceration for running a mafia-style methamphetamine ring that targeted the reservation because of perceived loopholes in law enforcement.
A similar bust a year ago netted two dozen suspects, including a tribal judge, but the latest crackdown still came as a shock to many.
Ethete resident Millie Friday scoffed when she heard rumors about another bust. “Usually, they do one big thing and that's it,” Friday said.
The sense of awe grew when the U.S. attorney for Wyoming released a list of suspects, including several common reservation names and some from Riverton, Casper, Pavillion, other states and Mexico. Ten suspects were still at large.
“It's surprising to see and hear who all is in there,” said Maryjane Goggles, a Shoshone who attended a meth awareness conference last week in Ethete. “Maybe one is your relative or your next-door neighbor or an acquaintance.”
A week after the bust, reservation residents were still grappling with the implications for the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone people at Wind River.
For many, the bust more fully revealed the scope of meth addiction on the reservation. Others couldn't see beyond the grief of losing loved ones in the police crackdown.
The most optimistic hoped the bust is the spark that eventually will drive meth from the central Wyoming reservation. Others were trying to adjust to the weight of another evil heaped on the backs of the Arapaho and Shoshone people.
The bust is just one more black eye for the reservation, they said.
“When they know it's cooled off, the (drug dealers) will come back,” said Cassie Oldman, an elderly Arapaho who lives in the Beaver Creek housing project just south of Riverton. “It's like a worm crawling back into an apple.”
An emerging problem
Until about 2000, meth was nearly unheard of on the reservation. Alcohol, long the bane of the Arapaho and Shoshone, seemed the drug of choice.
Fremont Counseling Service in Riverton and Lander reported about 15 meth-addicted clients in 2000. Today, the number is around 100, and meth users far outnumber those who seek treatment strictly for alcoholism, said Becky Parker, recovery services manager in Riverton.
The nonprofit counseling service also sees more clients with mental problems linked to meth-related losses of family and pregnancies. Also on the rise is the number of children who suffer because their mothers ingested meth during pregnancy, Parker said.
The tribes run two limited programs for addicts. Fremont County, where most of the reservation is located, has no inpatient treatment centers.
Meth users smoke, snort or inject the drug for a high that can last all day. The highly addictive stimulant can cause extreme paranoia, delusional thinking and violence when the high begins to crash. Long-term use can lead to brain damage and death, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
How it worked
The drug gang at Wind River trafficked in a nearly pure form of meth manufactured in “super labs” probably located near the U.S.-Mexico border.
Authorities are clear that the drug gang targeted the reservation because of loopholes in law enforcement jurisdictions that granted a level of immunity to the dealers.
The dealers established a meth pipeline and funneled the drug from Mexico to the reservation, police say. Some believe Mexican men sought out and married American Indian women and exploited ties to their families to further shield their operation.
“The Native American girls are easily lured in by Mexican men who flash a little money,” said Diane Yellowplume, a Sioux from South Dakota who raises 11 children and foster children at Beaver Creek.
Authorities think the drug gang was selling about 7 pounds of meth a month. That's about 15,872 “hits,” with a street value of around $430,000, they said.
“We see people on meth every day,” said 13-year-old Malia Means, a ninth-grader at Wyoming Indian High School. “You know that they are on it. They're twitching, and their eyes are all weird.”
It was hard to find anyone who was not pleased that the alleged drug gang is out of business. Even those with relatives caught up in the mix were loath to say the crackdown was wrong.
Shawn-tey Brown's three cousins were arrested in the sting. The Arapaho woman is sad for her relatives but encouraged that law enforcement is taking meth seriously, she said.
“Our reservation was going downhill,” said Brown, a mother of four who said she dated a man who hid his meth use from her for months.
Yellowplume said she's ecstatic about the arrests, but she still knows of one drug dealer living in her neighborhood. “I feel they need to do more (busts) to get the point across,” Yellowplume said.
Goggles, the Shoshone woman who attended the meth conference, said the authorities should make an example out of drug dealers.
“Us old people, we're scared,” said Goggles, 67. “If they give them stiffer fines, stiffer jail terms, maybe they'll wake up to realize what they are doing.”
Federal authorities have promised just that.
“If you choose to target the citizens of the reservation and the citizens of Wyoming to distribute meth, Wyoming law enforcement will target you,” warned U.S. Attorney Matthew Mead the day the bust was made public.
The message may be sinking in. Drug dealers caught in last year's bust and their families were mostly stoic at initial court appearances. After the recent bust, tears flowed freely in the courtroom, Wind River Police Chief Doug Noseep said.
“I think that after this round, people will finally realize that if you want to go into that business, there's probably going to be some consequences,” Noseep said.
Children were terrified
Not everyone at Wind River was cheering the bust.
Valorie Means, whose uncle was indicted after the raids, said no amount of police action will strip meth from the reservation. Meanwhile, families continue to lose mothers and fathers who are accused of dealing and using meth.
“I thought it was wrong for them to come here and take families apart,” said Means, a 22-year-old Arapaho who lives at Beaver Creek.
Craig Oldman, a 20-year-old Arapaho from Beaver Creek, said the bust was terrifying for children who witnessed the police helicopter and armed officers barging into homes, arresting family members. And he doubts that all those arrested were the big-time drug dealers they are being made out to be.
“Drug dealers,” Oldman said, “they have all these cars and money. These guys they arrested, they didn't have nothing.”
Several tribal members criticized what they perceive as inequities in punishments doled out in Fremont County drug crimes. Goggles and others noted that while tribal members received long prison for involvement with the first drug ring, former Sheriff Dave King, a non-Indian, was sentenced to probation after stealing cocaine from an evidence locker in 2001.
Medicine Cloud, the 19-year-old from Beaver Creek, said drug arrests make the tribes look bad.
“We're supposed to be good people,” she said, referring to her tribe's core spiritual believes.
Gov. Dave Freudenthal, in a speech last week, warned against painting meth addiction as a problem of the Wind River reservation alone. “It is a state problem and a national problem,” he said.
What the future holds
Cassie Oldman, who uses a wheelchair and raises her four young grandchildren, blames widespread poverty on the reservation for the appeal of meth. She said tribal members snort, smoke and inject the drug to escape a life that's “hard enough” without the pitfalls of meth.
“I've seen a lot of kids do real good, and then in a year they are hit real hard with this drug and you don't even recognize them,” Oldman said.
And while meth seems to be hurting young adults the most right now, she predicted that the youngest Indian children will pay the heftiest price.
Motioning toward a group of bare-footed youngsters toddling through sagebrush in her yard, Oldman said: “Look at all these little kids. If the leaders don't do nothing about meth, what's going to happen to all of them? Will they go down the same path?”
Reach reporter Jared Miller at (307) 632-1244 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.