- Associated Press - Sunday, March 27, 2016

RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) - On a cool spring morning one Sunday in 2003, a beat-up brown van drove off the highway about a mile south of New Underwood, vaulted up an embankment and slammed down onto a driveway.

When paramedics arrived, they found a badly injured 11-year-old girl in the driver’s seat, the Rapid City Journal (https://bit.ly/1METsNi ) reported.

Her 13-year-old brother was also injured, as was her mother, 37-year-old Lori Ann Mestes, of Dupree, who authorities believe had been drinking cans of Budweiser during a two-hour trip from Pine Ridge while the girl drove. Mestes’ boyfriend, 37-year-old Paul Anthony Clifford, also of Dupree, died of blunt-force trauma. None of them wore seat belts, investigators said.

Mestes was later charged with second-degree manslaughter and allowing an unauthorized driver to operate a motor vehicle. A warrant was issued for her arrest.

But that warrant has never been served. Mestes, also known as Lori Ann Neiss, reportedly fled to the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. Pennington County authorities cannot arrest her there, and the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has refused to extradite her.

“She’s never been held accountable, and the victim’s family has never had justice,” said Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom.

The 13-year-old case has come to symbolize the distrust felt by western South Dakota tribal governments toward the white justice system in the region’s biggest population center, the Pennington County seat of Rapid City. None of the three tribal governments closest to Rapid City allows extradition of criminal suspects back to Pennington County.

That distrust was one thing on the minds of Pennington County officials who recently applied for $4.9 million in funding from the MacArthur Foundation to reduce the county’s jail population by 25 percent. Included in the application are a number of proposed initiatives to reduce the disproportionately high incarceration rate of Native Americans.

While working with area tribes on the initiatives, Sheriff Thom hopes to build a spirit of cooperation that might avert future problems like the stalemate over the Mestes case.

Thom compiled his department’s felony warrants in December 2013 and found that 28 percent of them - 72 out of 258 - were for Native American suspects believed to be residing on reservations.

Among those 72 cases, 39 had identifiable victims, and 18 of the victims were Native American.

“So my point is, Native Americans aren’t getting justice,” Thom said.

Whether greater cooperation between the white justice system in Rapid City and Native American tribes might ever lead to extradition agreements is unknown. Thom said he approaches the topic carefully.

“People get nervous when you start talking about extradition from reservations, in terms of sovereignty,” Thom said. “But I think it’s an acknowledgement of sovereignty. We’re saying that you are sovereign, so we have to ask you.”

Members of the grant planning committee in Pennington County visited with tribal leaders, elders and others on the Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Cheyenne River reservations while gathering information for the MacArthur grant application. The Journal was unable to reach any of those tribes’ leaders for this story.

But committee members, including Richie Richards, a staff writer at the Native Sun News and a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, are optimistic about the opportunity to forge improved relationships and improve life for Native Americans both in Rapid City and on the reservations.

“One of the key issues is that the criminality of the reservations, whether it’s Pine Ridge or Rosebud or wherever, and the criminality of Rapid City bleed back and forth into each other,” Richards said. “Either they’re committing a crime in Rapid City and running to the reservation, or running from crimes they committed on the reservation and coming up to Rapid City.”

Richards said committee members recognize how closely the fortunes of Rapid City and the reservations are tied, and their work on the grant application showed a new spirit of cooperation.

That was reflected in the application itself.

“Simply put, there is a long-standing distrust of non-native law enforcement and government,” the application says. “We have visited all three adjacent reservations and have seen a willingness to create positive changes.”

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Information from: Rapid City Journal, https://www.rapidcityjournal.com

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