Violent crime in ‘Indian Country’ gets little coverage

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By Carol A. Clark

Elvira Charley, 32, shot three of her six children dead on New Year’s Day 2002. The Navajo woman drank alcohol throughout the previous day and night, and had intended to kill herself but instead turned the rifle on her 9-, 10- and 11-year olds. They were lying in bed inside her trailer on the Navajo Reservation in Arizona.

“She had three younger kids she did not shoot,” said Assistant Special Agent in Charge Terry Wade during the FBI Citizens’ Academy April 22. “She received six consecutive life sentences.”

Nevertheless, when he asked the class for a show of hands, no one had heard of the case. Wade then discussed another, similar case – but this one involved a Caucasian mother, and participants were already familiar with the details.

Andrea Yates, 36, drowned her five young children in the bathtub of her Texas home on June 20, 2001. The media swarmed Houston. News staff reported live in front of her home and camped out at the courthouse. Their stories filled nightly news.

Photos of her four small sons and infant daughter appeared in newspapers, magazines and flashed across television screens. The media stayed with the Yates story throughout the ensuing trial, 2002 capital murder conviction, subsequent appeal and 2006 “not guilty by reason of insanity” verdict.

“Elvira Charley’s three kids were just as important as Andrea Yates’ kids and nobody knows about them,” Wade said. “There are violent crimes happening on reservations everyday – not that far from here – and no one hears about it.”

Wade briefed participants on other cases, one involving an uncle who molested his 10- and 4-year-old nieces on a reservation.

He described a small New Mexico pueblo full of rampant drinking, violence and pillaging – none of which the press has made much effort to report.

“Our agents were responding every week to cases even worse and it doesn’t get any press or just gets a small notice on page 2,” he said.

Reservations are notorious for closing ranks to outsiders and especially reporters, but Wade said that’s no excuse; it’s the media’s job to do more, he said, to obtain facts about these violent events and to report them.

“Things that happen in Albuquerque that are much less violent get much more coverage,” he said, “and the things happening in Indian Country are horrendous,” he said.

Wade explained that the term “Indian Country” is the official term as used in Title 18, Sec. 1151 of the U.S. Code to define all dependent Indian communities within the borders of the United States.

New Mexico has 22 recognized tribes and the fifth largest Native American population in the nation. An Office of Justice Programs report states that rape and sexual assault, aggravated assault, simple assault and robbery rates translate into one violent crime for every eight Native Americans age 12 or older, compared to one in 20 nationally.

In 1995, the Albuquerque bureau, in conjunction with the Navajo Nation Department of Law Enforcement, initiated a Safe Trails Task Force on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico.

This task force targets the homicide, child sexual abuse and gang problems on the Navajo Reservation.

Congress first focused on Indian Country’s growing violence in 2004. They passed a bill requiring the federal government to provide regular updates on the “alarmingly high rates of crime in Indian Country.”

In an April 21 article in Indian Country Today, Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said Congress has a “responsibility to act ... Crime rates on remote Reservations show an average 10 times higher in terms of overall crime than the rest of the nation.”

Congress adopted an amendment in this year’s budget that essentially provides another $200 million over five years to increase the BIA Public Safety and Justice account, which funds tribal law enforcement, tribal courts and detention centers, and increases funding for U.S. attorneys to prosecute crimes in Indian Country.

Another amendment adopted this year provides $99 million to fund the Methamphetamine Hot Spots program for 2009.

“Obviously, methamphetamine abuse has become a big problem on our reservations,” Thune said.

Methamphetamine began to hit area reservations during the last few years, Wade said, spiking violent crime substantially.

For information, see http://albuquerque.fbi. gov.

Editor’s note: Carol A. Clark is a participant in this year’s FBI Citizens’ Academy.