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|"IF TWO WHITE GIRLS HAD BEEN BUTCHERED, THERE WOULD'VE BEEN ARRESTS THAT NIGHT"
THE BRUTAL SLAYINGS OF TWO FRIENDS HAVE THEIR FAMILIES AND SOME INVESTIGATORS WONDERING
WHY THE GOVERNMENT HAS ABANDONED NATIVE AMERICAN WOMEN.
Byline: Katy McColl
The Little Bighorn Casino stands in the shadow of the battlefield where the Indians clobbered Custer. Its billboards promise fun!
food! and fortune!, yet the casino is deserted, since you can gamble pretty much anywhere in Montana these days. Inside,
banks of slot machines sound like 1,000 cell phones ringing. The Indian Health Service department is having its holiday
get-together here, and employees trickle in, carrying trays of sugar cookies. As they pass Naomi Costa on their way to the
party, a few of them give her elbow a squeeze.
Naomi, who works in the smoke shop downstairs, points to an article in People entitled "Searching for Dru." "When I read
this..." she says, her voice trailing off as her eyes tear up. The story, billed on the cover, is a four-page manifesto written by
three reporters about the frantic search for the blond ex-homecoming queen who went missing in North Dakota on Nov. 22,
2003 -- three days after Naomi's daughter Koren Diebert and Koren's friend LaFonda Big Leggins disappeared.
In North Dakota, 30 FBI agents have worked on the Dru case. A suspect has been arrested and charged. A benefit concert
raised $3,000 for Dru's family, and prosecutors said they could not keep up with all the media requests. Meanwhile, no one
outside of Montana picked up the story of Koren and LaFonda. According to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), the FBI has
assigned only one agent to the case. No federal warrant has been issued, and no murder charges have been filed.
Naomi says that on Nov. 18, she dropped Koren, 26, and LaFonda, 23, off at a place called the Longhorn Saloon. "I always do
that because I don't want her drinking and driving," she explains. The Longhorn -- a nondescript dance hall on the outside,
reminiscent of The Accused on the inside -- is located just beyond the Crow reservation boundary, in Hardin, Mont. Hardin is a
three-motel town where businesses used to hang no dogs or indians signs in their windows. Koren and LaFonda's next stop
was a pool hall called Corner Pocket. That's where a fight broke out between Eugene Risingsun, 22, his two brothers, Moses,
19, and Randy, 17, and another guy.
Later that night, after all the bars were closed, LaFonda's friend Kathy Stops, 39, drove LaFonda to Koren's mom's house,
where the two women were staying. Kathy says that a car pulled up behind them carrying Koren and the Risingsun brothers,
who Koren sometimes hung out with even though some of her friends thought they were "bad news." Koren invited Kathy and
LaFonda to go for a ride with them, and LaFonda got in the car. Kathy decided to go home. That's the last time anyone saw
Koren and LaFonda alive.
Naomi says that when she reported her daughter missing, one of the officers she spoke to tried to comfort her by saying Koren
was "probably on drugs or with her boyfriend."
On Nov. 25, according to an affidavit filed by Crow tribal prosecutor Brad Stovall, Detective Harvey Dalton from the Big Horn
County sheriff's office called BIA investigators to request their presence for information he had on the missing women. A
witness had come forward who claimed that on Nov. 19, Eugene, Moses and Randy took LaFonda and Koren to Pussy Pond, a
party spot on the Crow reservation, and "beat them with a car jack and tire iron." A dozen cops and a dozen volunteers went
out that day and the next, but failed to find the women.
The following morning, a driver spotted Koren and LaFonda's bodies sticking out of the snow in a ditch along the road. It was
Thanksgiving. They'd been bludgeoned to death. "To the point," said the coroner, "that Koren's casket was closed."
Naomi identified Koren's body at the Bullis Mortuary, right next to the Longhorn. "They'd beat her so much I didn't recognize
her," she says through tears. "They said she died fighting. I wish they hadn't told me that."
Koren and LaFonda, like most Indian women, may have been victimized even before they were murdered. The streets of Crow
Agency, the administrative center of the 2.3-million-acre reservation, are lined with trailers and prefab homes. Some houses
have broken-down cars parked out front. Others have no phone. Many kids don't have winter coats to wear. When Peggy
White, who runs The Center Pole Foundation, the reservation's only nonprofit organization, gets a shipment of food, cars form
a line a mile down the road. As Kevin Old Coyote, who volunteers at Center Pole, says, "The reservation is like a third world
country inside the United States of America."
The history of forced sterilization has left many Native women distrustful of government health care. This creates a barrier to
detecting breast cancer, which Native Americans are more likely to die from than any other ethnic group. And even though
Native women get cervical cancer less often than white women, the odds are greater that they will die from the disease. Native
Americans are also 1.5 times more likely to get AIDS than whites, yet the federal government spends almost twice as much per
capita on health care for prisoners as it does for Native Americans.
Koren was 19 when she got pregnant and dropped out of high school, but she earned her GED while raising her daughter.
Koren also looked after her friend LaFonda, who'd lived in five different foster homes, like a big sister. Though Koren had her
own place, she spent so much time with her mom she might as well have still lived at home.
It's Crow custom for grandparents to raise their oldest grandchild as their own. Though it would be more accurate to say
grandmothers, since Native women -- strong, proud, delightfully self-effacing -- are twice as likely as white women to be single
moms. Many do it on less than $15,800 a year -- the U.S. median annual income. Naomi, whose only other daughter, Lynette,
died six years ago in a car accident, was already raising Lynette's three kids. Now she's raising Koren's daughter, too.
Since Koren and LaFonda's bodies were found on the reservation, the case automatically fell under the jurisdiction of the BIA.
Because the crime was labeled a homicide, the FBI was also notified and left to determine its level of involvement. Based on his
dealings with the FBI on Native crime investigations in the past, prosecutor Brad says he has very little faith that things are
going to move quickly. "This U.S. court does not serve Indians effectively," he claims. "The feds -- I have to be honest --
Anxious to "get the suspects off the streets," Brad entered a lesser charge of two counts of aggravated assault against Eugene
and Moses (no details have been released about Randy because he was a minor at the time of the alleged crime) and got a Crow
tribal court judge to issue warrants for their arrest. "The lesser charges were so we wouldn't double jeopardy the federal court's
efforts," explains Brad, who was still hopeful the feds would charge them with premeditated murder.
Moses and a "juvenile male" were picked up on Dec. 8 on the adjacent Northern Cheyenne Reservation. But the BIA can only
serve warrants within the borders of reservations, and neighboring Big Horn and Yellowstone counties don't honor tribal
warrants without an extradition agreement in place. So Eugene, who was rumored to be hanging out in bars in Billings,
remained at large. BIA agent Bob Pease says Eugene even called him at home and said, "You ruined my social life and I'm going
to get you for that."
Also in the tribal court's affidavit, the sheriff's department's witness -- who was moved out of state for her own safety -- says
that Eugene suspected LaFonda of "leaking information that he was dealing illegal drugs and that he wanted to take care of her,"
adding that Koren was beaten because she was trying to help her friend.
"Eugene was strung out on crank and a walking time bomb," Brad claims. Crank (methamphetamine) makes people violent and
paranoid. A user quoted in Time in 1998 called Billings the "crank capital of the universe."
Johnna Solage's living room in Hardin is best characterized by the 18-inch pink plastic Christmas tree on a shelf. Her little girls
are revved-up hot rods, running around and making pit stops where they jump up on your lap and kiss you. Johnna and her
friend Olivia Plain Bull, both 25, are exceedingly wholesome women with full cheeks and a kind of girly camaraderie. Like all of
Koren and LaFonda's friends, they are Sound of Music sweet. But they talk about stabbings, sterilization and husbands who
don't pay child support as though they're inured to them.
Olivia and Johnna, who haven't tried crank, estimate that half the Crow reservation has. "I think girls are more likely to get
hooked on it than guys because of the weight loss," Olivia says. Johnna adds that crank "makes you think you're physically
attractive." But what users, or "geekers," really look like, she explains, are "those worms from The Little Mermaid after Ursula
takes their souls away."
Lynn Tushka, 43, is so close to Koren's mother that, in the Crow way, Lynn and Koren were considered sisters. Lynn drinks
coffee in a casino/family restaurant in Hardin while describing a relationship she had with a man on crank. Lynn says he threw
her across the room, hit her with a barstool, dislocated both her shoulders and broke her collarbone. She uses her hands to
make a band around her eyes and temples like wraparound sunglasses. "This whole area on me was the color of that," she says,
pointing at the black plastic tape recorder on the table. "He was never like that before crank."
One day, when she came home early from her job at Taco John's, she says he started in on her again and she finally "snapped."
So she got out. Asked how many Crow women have been involved in abusive relationships, Lynn estimates 95 percent.
Nationwide, as many as 61 percent of Native women have been physically assaulted, and they are more likely to be raped than
black, white or Asian women. (The government's proposed 2004 budget to fight violence against Native women is less than last
The day their bodies were found, Koren and LaFonda had an appointment to look at houses in Billings, away from the
reservation's 85 percent unemployment rate. Koren's mom had even let some bills go to help her daughter pay for the deposit.
"Koren was all excited," remembers LaFonda's friend Kathy. Koren was also taking a correspondence course she couldn't
afford because she desperately wanted to be a veterinary assistant. In the meantime, she nursed stray dogs and gave puppies to
little girls to raise.
It's a Friday night and Kathy is back at the Longhorn shooting pool. Kathy, who has short red nails and a smattering of black
sequins on her T-shirt, belongs to an all-female billiards league and had been teaching LaFonda how to play. When Kathy's team
wins, a teammate says, "I think LaFonda helped us out." So they slap hands and yell, "To LaFonda!" Then Kathy and her friend
Ruta Lee ("like the original letter-turner on Wheel of Fortune") ask for a ride to the grocery store to pick up money from
Western Union. "We're each other's bodyguards," Kathy half jokes.
On the way back to the Longhorn, the women confide that they really are too scared to go anywhere alone. With Eugene on the
streets, Koren and LaFonda's friends, family and witnesses are terrified he'll come after them.
After six weeks on the loose, Eugene was finally picked up on suspicion of ripping a man's ear off in a convenience store in
Hardin, but was released. So the BIA chief of police asked to be sworn in as a Big Horn County reserve deputy and then
extradited Eugene back to the rez himself. At press time, Eugene and Moses both pleaded not guilty and were being held without
bond on aggravated-assault charges.
But tribal judges' sentences are limited by Congress to a max of one year in jail and a $5,000 fine. If the FBI doesn't pursue
capital charges with the U.S. attorney, whoever killed Koren and LaFonda could get away with murder.
"If two white girls had been butchered, the suspects would have been picked up and incarcerated that night," prosecutor Brad
argues. "The FBI would have been all over this case. The way the FBI is treating Indian crimes is a crime."
"We are not going to discuss a pending investigation," says Dan Vierthaler, the FBI supervisor for eastern Montana.
"We live in America," Naomi says. "We're supposed to be the natives around here. But they treat us like the lowest on the totem
pole. What kind of justice do we have?"