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Blackfeet law enforcement angers some 4-16-07

BROWNING, Mont. (AP) - Tribal leaders who find law enforcement lacking on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation plan a public meeting Wednesday, and hope it will draw attention to what they describe as lawlessness and lingering questions about crimes.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs took control of reservation law enforcement four years ago, after charging the tribal police department was mismanaged.

Roger ``Sassie'' Running Crane, vice chairman of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, told the Great Falls Tribune the reservation ``has become a dumping ground for drugs. We have a number of assaults, sex crimes, spousal abuse, rapes and a lot of murders. And we never know if a crime has been investigated.''

Matt Pryor, chief of the BIA's law enforcement department in Billings, did not immediately return a call seeking comment Monday. Earlier his office told the Tribune he was unavailable for comment.

Crime flourishes because there appear to be no consequences, tribal attorney Sandra Watson said.

``The investigation takes a long time and it takes place a long way away,'' she said. ``So when anything bad happens, it seems as though the whole thing falls into a bottomless pit. Nobody knows what's going on.''

Running Crane said one problem is that many cases are dropped because BIA officers do not appear in court. BIA Police Chief Clifford Serawop said his officers try to appear for hearings, but are overwhelmed by crime on the reservation. ``Last week alone, we had 1,138 calls,'' Serawop said. ``And my officers responded to 700 or so of them.''

Eleven officers are responsible for patrolling 1.5 million acres of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation around the clock, which means that only one or two officers may be on duty at any one time, he said. Four new officers have been selected but not yet hired, Serawop said.

Councilman Rodney ``Fish'' Gervais said problems are compounded because many of the BIA officers are not from the reservation. ``When they get a call, they have to get out a map or stop at the gas station for directions,'' he said.

Crimes of concern include the January stabbing death of Zach Gervais, son of Blackfeet Treasurer Joe Gervais. The young man and his cousin, both 18, were accompanying a teenage girl to retrieve some of her possessions from a former boyfriend, Joe Gervais said.

``They heard screams and went into the house to help,'' he said. ``My son was stabbed in the back.''

A suspect arrested on tribal charges has been held pending results of a federal investigation, Serawop said. The FBI declined to comment.

Some residents of the reservation also are disturbed by the case of William J. Westwolf, 46, who apparently froze to death hours after his February release from jail in Browning.

``The BIA has refused to give us any information,'' said his brother, Arthur Westwolf. ``They even refused to let us see a video of him being released from jail at 2 a.m. that morning.''

Westwolf was known to be a drinker, but his family maintains he was sober -- although ill, medicated and disoriented -- when jailed.

``There has been no autopsy so we don't know how and when he died,'' Arthur Westwolf said.

``I think the BIA figured he was a street person and no one cared about him. We really had to push them to get any information.''

Vicky and Kenneth Hoyt were at home in Browning on March 18 when they got a call from their niece, who had heard on a police scanner that a corpse reportedly was in the home of their son. The Hoyts rushed to the scene and found BIA police in front of the house.

``I suspected the worst, that it was my son, so I took off running to the house,'' said Kenneth Hoyt. ``Three of them grabbed me, handcuffed me and threw me in the back of the police car. And I could see they had my wife on the ground over there. I couldn't get to her and she couldn't get to me.''

A friend intervened and the couple was allowed to leave. Their 24-year-old son, Kenneth, died that night. The Hoyts say they do not know whether someone killed him, or he took his own life. ``We haven't heard anything from the BIA or the FBI,'' Mrs. Hoyt said.

The FBI declined to discuss the case, referring calls to the U.S. attorney's office. Assistant U.S. Attorney Carl Rostad said there would be no comment about an ongoing investigation.

``Unlike the state system, since we're not a peacekeeping force, we can't lock someone up while we investigate,'' Rostad said. ``We have only a limited time to prosecute so we have to have an investigation completed before we can make an arrest. And that's not a very satisfactory system for people on a reservation who see a crime committed and want to see the person who committed it led away in chains immediately.''

Councilman Pat Thomas said he tried to review several complaints against BIA officers while he was the tribal chairman several years ago, but he was not allowed to enter the jail.

``I've been reporting drug houses, but I don't bother to report them anymore because nothing ever happens,'' Councilman Willie Sharp said.

Serawop said some drug houses have been raided, but he gave no specifics. One raid targeted the home of the council's Gervais.

``They broke down my door and busted my trailer,'' he said. ``But they found no drugs. We have drug houses that are well known all over town, but they went after me. I'm former law enforcement, I'm a tribal councilman and I have no police record. But they busted my door down to send me a message to take the heat off them.''

Serawop refused to discuss the case.