New details in decade-old Whiteclay killings

Published  Monday, August 31, 2009

RAPID CITY, S.D. – The FBI has released new details in hopes of stirring up leads in the decade-old slayings of two American Indian men from South Dakota whose bodies were found near the Nebraska border.

No arrests have been made in the deaths of Wilson Black Elk Jr., 40, and Ronald Hard Heart, 39 – prompting repeated criticism by family members and activists who say authorities have not done enough to find the killers.

Bob Perry, supervisory senior resident agent with the FBI in Rapid City, said the false allegations and rumors have only hindered the investigation, which numerous agents and several outside agencies have reviewed.

The bodies of the Oglala men were found June 8, 1999, south of Pine Ridge near Whiteclay, Neb. The deaths triggered protest marches in Whiteclay to end beer sales to residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned.

In an effort to get people with knowledge of the crime talking, the FBI has released more details and reissued a poster offering up to a $50,000 reward for information that leads to a conviction. Previously, authorities have only said that the two died from blunt force trauma.

Perry said the two were killed by multiple blows to the head with a blunt object. He also told The Associated Press that agents had identified several suspects early on in the investigation, but they have refused to cooperate and have not been ruled out. Those three or four suspects are American Indian men with violent backgrounds who were in Whiteclay the last time Black Elk and Hard Heart were seen alive, Perry said.

Tips come in occasionally but nothing solid enough to take to a grand jury, he said.

“That’s what we’re looking for – people who have direct knowledge,” Perry said.

Among the new revelations, Perry said that the night Black Elk and Hard Heart were killed, they bought alcohol in Whiteclay and were either on their way back to Pine Ridge to drink it or had stopped along the way.

Physical evidence indicates they were killed late in the evening of June 6 or early in the morning of June 7, 1999, where they were found, Perry said.

That’s around the time there was an attempted break-in of at least one of the Whiteclay stores that involved two suspects, leading investigators to wonder if the same people were responsible, he said.

Perry said Black Elk suffered traumatic injuries to the neck and right temple, including a skull fracture, a fractured sternum and multiple rib fractures. Hard Heart also had skull fractures to the right side of his head and injuries to the left shoulder, he said.

The injuries indicate Black Elk and Hard Heart likely were attacked with an object such as a bat, bar or board, Perry said.

“You could make anything into a weapon,” he said, adding that nothing of the sort was ever found.

Tom Poor Bear, Black Elk’s half brother and Hard Heart’s cousin, said he’s not pleased with the investigation. He believes they were killed in Nebraska and their bodies moved.

Nebraska officials have not been helpful, more of a reward should be offered and the case has not been as much of a priority for the FBI as it should have been, he said.

“I feel that the evidence, the interviews that were turned over to the FBI and the leads they had, I felt it should have gone to a grand jury by now,” Poor Bear said.

“If it was two white people found in that area, there would have been 30 FBI agents,” he said.

Perry disputes the allegations.

He showed a reporter that the file for the Black Elk-Hard Heart case is approaching the size of that for the 1975 slaying of American Indian activist Annie Mae Aquash, for which one man was convicted in 2004 and two more await trial.

Nebraska law enforcement officials have cooperated and let federal investigators examine their equipment for DNA, and physical evidence all points to the men being killed where they were found, Perry said.

“We did dozens of interviews on those rumors,” he said. “Agents spent a lot of time following up those leads that went nowhere.”

That took time away from leads that might have panned out, Perry said.

“These rumors that circulate, be they anti-FBI or anti-government or anti-outside in general make it difficult to get people to talk to us,” he said, adding that FBI staffing is higher in South Dakota than elsewhere.

“The reason we do is because we care about crime in Indian Country.”

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