Written by Right Side News
Few Americans have seen the inside of Indian Country and the FBI takes us inside.
Zero Tolerance: Our series on Indian Country looks at the legal approach toward drugs on reservations.
Nationwide, the FBI is responsible for investigating the most serious crimes within Indian Country and has investigative responsibilities on about 200 reservations. FBI.gov recently visited New Mexico for a firsthand look at how the Bureau and our partners fight crime on tribal lands.
Driving along a remote dirt road on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico recently, a rancher crested a ridge and noticed two animals intent on something in a nearby ditch. As he approached, one of the scavengers loped away—the other looked up, its mouth glistening with blood. The rancher guessed one of his sheep had been attacked, but he soon discovered something much different: the discarded body of a murder victim. It was going to be another busy day for our agents in Indian Country.
By law, the FBI is responsible for investigating the most serious crimes within Indian Country—homicide, child sexual assault, and violence against women among them. The numbers of such offenses are striking: approximately one out of every four violent crimes prosecuted federally by the Department of Justice occurs on Indian reservations.
Investigating crimes on native lands poses a unique challenge for FBI personnel and their law enforcement partners. Working in Indian Country, as we call it, often means operating in isolated, forbidding terrain where cultural differences abound. Some older Native American people, for example, do not speak English. Dwellings may lack electricity or running water. On many reservations there are few paved roads or marked streets. Agents might be called to a crime scene in the middle of the night 120 miles away and given these directions: “Go 10 miles off the main road, turn right at the pile of tires, and go up the hill.” In some areas, crime scenes are so remote that cell phones and police radios don’t work.
Investigators must also deal with the emotional strain of the work—the brutality and frequency of the crimes can take a toll.
“The work our people are doing on the reservations is truly front-line,” said Carol K.O. Lee, special agent in charge of our Albuquerque office. “Agents have to be independent and adaptable to get the job done, because even with the excellent help of our law enforcement partners like the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the territory is so vast you rarely have the resources you need.”
Nationwide, the FBI has investigative responsibilities for about 200 federally recognized Indian reservations. More than 100 agents in 19 of the Bureau’s 56 field offices work Indian Country matters full time—and we’ve represented federal law enforcement on tribal lands since the 1920s. In New Mexico, home to a portion of the Navajo Nation—the largest reservation in the country, occupying an area bigger than the state of West Virginia—agents investigate cases against a backdrop of majestic mesas and stark beauty.
The murdered man mentioned above was found eight miles from the nearest paved road, not far from the landmark Shiprock formation sacred to the Navajo people. “The victim went out drinking with a bunch of guys and ended up dead,” said Special Agent Mike Harrigan, who supervises an Indian Country squad. The body has been identified and the death has been ruled a homicide, Harrigan explained, and investigators are tracking down leads. He noted that if the rancher hadn’t happened by, or the body had been dumped a few feet further from the road, “there is a good chance the victim never would have been discovered. Unfortunately, killings like this are all too common in Indian Country.”
Despite the difficulties they face, the dedication and commitment of FBI personnel in Indian Country has helped make Native American communities safer, said Special Agent in Charge Lee. “We have a long way to go, but we are definitely making a difference.”
Ken Gonzales, New Mexico's U.S. Attorney, points out that there are "a lot of good things happening in Indian Country, a lot of efforts by our Native-American leaders to bring jobs to the reservations and to improve access to education."
But the state's top law enforcement officer is also painfully aware of the "gravity of violence" seen on Indian reservations. "It's a kind of brutality that I don't think a lot of people understand completely," he said. "It's really quite startling."
Homicides, child sexual assaults, and domestic violence against women are commonplace, Gonzales said. "It's widely known that Native American women suffer violent crime at a rate three and a half times greater than the national average. One third of all Native American women will be raped in their lifetimes. So these are serious issues."
Gonzales said that since becoming U.S. Attorney in 2010, "I've put the work of Indian Country very high on my list of things to get done. I created a stand-alone section—we call it our Indian Country Crime Section—and we've stocked it with some of our best and brightest Assistant U.S. Attorneys. Their job is to do nothing but Indian Country work."
The prosecutors work closely with the FBI. "We maintain a very regular and open line of communication with the agents working in Indian Country," Gonzales said. "So it makes for a very good working relationship. The FBI has a very strong presence in many of these communities. They have been doing very difficult work, and doing it in a very good way, for many years. My office relies tremendously on their expertise."
Snow swirled in New Mexico’s high plains as Special Agent Mac McCaskill slowed his vehicle at the bottom of a hill on the Tohajiilee Reservation. He engaged the four-wheel drive before continuing slowly up the steep, bumpy track on his way to deliver a subpoena in a violent assault case.
McCaskill had driven an hour from Albuquerque on this 20-degree morning—typical of the distances that often separate agents from their cases in Indian Country—and now he was knocking on the door of a small wooden structure with one boarded-up window. On the hillside just beyond the dwelling sat a rusted trailer and an outhouse. A young woman holding an infant opened the door and told McCaskill the man he was looking for would be back later.
“On the reservation you can’t just call someone because many people don’t have a phone,” McCaskill said, explaining the challenges of investigating crimes in Indian Country. “Sometimes the best way to get anything done is to knock on doors.”
In the process of knocking on doors and talking to people, McCaskill and other agents working in Indian Country become not just law enforcement officers but advocates for justice and sometimes even role models. (See sidebar.)
A New Mexico native, McCaskill said his eyes were “wide open” when he took an assignment in Indian Country. “Still, it’s difficult to comprehend the conditions on the reservations and the kinds of crime we see here,” he explained. “People are living in really difficult circumstances.”
In Tohajiilee, a satellite reservation that is part of the Navajo Nation, many homes lack electricity and running water, and social ills such as alcoholism are rampant. These issues, along with the fact that there are only a handful of tribal police officers assigned to patrol a sprawling area of more than 120 square miles, contribute to a serious crime problem.
“There are terrible crimes that happen on the reservations that go virtually unnoticed by the world outside,” McCaskill said. “If they happened anywhere else, in Denver or in Dallas, it would be front-page news for a week.”
As a result, he said, “we are serving a community that isn’t used to getting much service.” Perhaps it’s not surprising then that women beaten by boyfriends or spouses, or children sexually assaulted by family members may believe a call to authorities will do little to help them.
McCaskill works hard to change that perception. He patiently explained to the young mother the importance of serving the subpoena—so that the witness will testify, which could help make sure the violent offender stays in jail and no longer poses a threat to the community.
“Our caseloads may be 75 percent sexual assaults against children,” McCaskill said later. “People ask me if it’s difficult emotionally to work these cases, and my answer is always, ‘How can you not work them?’ These are cases where on a very fundamental level you are able to make a difference in a victim’s life by taking an abuser out of the family. When I help a victim and get to know the family,” he added, “I may be one of the few positive influences that they’ve ever seen from outside the reservation.”
Stopping that cycle of violence on the reservation is “extremely rewarding,” McCaskill said. “We are helping people here.”
Paul Brusuelas, a tribal prosecutor for the Mescalero Apache Tribe in southern New Mexico, remembers when he was growing up on the reservation and very few young people had respect for law enforcement.
Today, things are different. “FBI agents, Assistant U.S. Attorneys, and investigators from the Bureau of Indian Affairs actually go into the schools and talk to the kids,” he said. “They talk to young adults and young parents and try to persuade them to go in the right direction.”
“I would say 98 percent of our crime here is fueled by alcohol,” Brusuelas said.
“The agents and officers give a lot of education to the youth on alcohol, drugs, and gang activity—just a lot of positive influence. The kids all know the officers by their names now. Going down the road you’ll see the little kids waving their hands at the officers.”
“The FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Mescalero tribal officers and prosecutors work extremely well together,” he added. “We all keep in contact on a daily basis, and we all communicate well. Without the presence of the federal agencies here,” he said, “I think Mescalero would be in a world of hurt.”
Special Agent John Fortunato walked behind the abandoned house on the Zuni Reservation in western New Mexico and pointed out where Floyd Yuselew dug a grave to bury the friend he had murdered with an ax to the head.
The two had been drinking, and investigators believe the murder was committed because Yuselew thought his buddy had been flirting with his girlfriend.When tribal police and the FBI learned of the crime in March 2009, they found the victim still sitting in the chair where he had been killed months earlier. Because the house was unheated throughout the cold winter, the body—and the crime scene—had been perfectly preserved.
Uncertain what to do with the body, and not wishing to live in his house with a corpse, Yuselew and his girlfriend moved in with friends. Periodically, he returned to dig in the frozen backyard to make a grave. Later, Yuselew was afraid his girlfriend would turn him in for the murder when their relationship ended badly, so he called the Zuni police, told them about the body, and tried to pin the crime on her.
As unusual as the case may seem, in many ways it is a common Indian Country crime: a tragic killing successfully investigated and prosecuted thanks to the strong relationships between tribal authorities, the FBI, and federal prosecutors. Criminal jurisdiction in Indian Country is a complicated web of tribal, state, and federal rules. The sovereign status of many tribes precludes most states from exercising jurisdiction. Instead, that authority resides with the tribes, but only for non-felony offenses. It is the FBI’s responsibility to investigate major crimes such as murder, and tribal authorities rely on the muscle of the federal judicial system to prosecute those crimes to the fullest.
“By law these major crimes are federally prosecuted, and the FBI is the vehicle for getting them to federal court,” said Special Agent Mike Harrigan, who supervises a squad of Indian Country investigators. “But the successful investigation of such crimes isn’t just a Bureau role,” he added, “it is a tribal and Bureau partnership.”
“We have a close relationship with all the tribal police,” Fortunato said. “It would be difficult for us to do our jobs without that partnership, and they depend on us as well.” In the Yuselew case, for example, Fortunato called in the Bureau’s Evidence Response Team (ERT) to help work the crime scene.
Video: Special Agent Fortunato Describes FBI Experience
“When ERT processed the scene,” he explained, “there was a lot of blood and other evidence, like alcohol cans we were able to pull fingerprints from. The blood spatter and other evidence inside the house made it clear it was not the girlfriend who did the crime.”
In the end, Yuselew pled guilty to second-degree murder and is currently serving a 17-year sentence. The case is one of many senseless crimes Fortunato and his colleagues investigate in Indian Country. “We invariably see the bad side of things here,” he said. “We are constantly seeing tragedy, loss, and people who hurt family members. That is the hardest thing for me about working in Indian Country.”
Still, Fortunato is pleased that justice was served in the Yuselew case, and he believes in the goodness of the vast majority of Native Americans. “Anyone who has visited the Navajo and Zuni reservations and spent time here will tell you that most of the people are terrific, very friendly, and welcoming.”
- More information on the Yuselew case
The FBI plays a unique role in Indian Country, said Special Agent Mike Harrigan. “In other jurisdictions, the Bureau doesn’t generally work violent crimes the way we do in Indian Country. In other places in the U.S. we investigate selected instances of violent crimes, maybe if there is an interstate aspect, for example. But here in Indian Country we have exclusive federal jurisdiction, which makes us the primary investigators for homicides and sexual assaults—almost like first responders. In most other places, we just don’t have that federal authority.”
Criminal jurisdiction on tribal lands also varies depending on the reservation and the state in which it is located, Harrigan added. “Sometimes it’s Bureau of Indian Affairs investigators who have jurisdiction on behalf of the tribes. Here in New Mexico,” he said, “generally the tribes have their own police departments. They get funding from the federal government for law enforcement. The FBI works with their criminal investigators who are trained to federal standards.”