- Associated Press - Monday, May 5, 2014

SISSETON, S.D. (AP) - On Aug. 20, 2012, Chairman Robert Shepherd of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate wrote a letter to a federal judge in support of a friend accused of killing his own daughter.

A character reference, Shepherd called it then.

And maybe not the best decision he’s ever made, he has conceded since.

To the family of Shannon Sine, whose 2-year-old daughter, Aleeyah Cook, died seven months earlier as the result of a beating by her biological father, it was the worst kind of betrayal.

The man elected to represent their entire tribal nation had taken sides in a heinous crime. And unbelievably to Sine and her family, he had done so on tribal letterhead.

“It would be a detriment and loss to the community and his family if he were to be held in custody until his trial,” Shepherd wrote of the accused, Mario Contreras, in his letter to U.S. District Court Judge Charles Kornmann. “He has continually been in good standing as a community member and has always been a positive example as an employee, father, and veteran.”

Shepherd was describing a man who would be found guilty of murder less than a year later by a federal jury in Sioux Falls, a man who, though yet to be sentenced, faces a minimum imprisonment of at least 30 years.

The chairman’s letter still has people shaking their heads in tribal communities such as Long Hollow and Enemy Swim, Old Agency, Waubay and Sisseton in northeastern South Dakota. They can’t believe he wrote it. But more than that, they say his actions go to a larger concern in Indian Country - the favoritism and nepotism that has evolved in tribal governance since the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 swept away their more traditional norms and replaced it with the white man’s model.

Of course, malfeasance occurs at every level of government, tribal leaders are quick to point out. But they aren’t blind to how pronounced favoritism appears in the isolated microcosms that are the reservations.

In these poorest pockets of America, it isn’t unusual for jobs, housing and justice to be gained or lost depending on who rises to power as tribal president or council member.

“What the IRA did was centralize the power base and impose a real hard system of bureaucracy,” said Victor Douville, acting chairman of the Lakota Studies program at Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud reservation. “Under the IRA model, the tribal government has absolute power to do what it wants. You get injustices; one side takes sides over another. And as it is in places like Rosebud, the nepotism runs wild.”

Aleeyah Cook’s murder has pit one of the clans now ruling in Sisseton - the Gills - against Sine, her brother Shayne Cook and their other half-dozen or so family members.

Contreras‘ mother, Nadine, is a Gill. Another relative, Dustina Gill is a legislative liaison for the tribe who has worked in Shepherd’s office and for former tribal leaders.

According to court documents, the little girl’s parents never married, and her father had become involved in the child’s life only in the months leading up to her death.

Aleeyah had been staying in Contreras‘ rural Waubay home for five days when, on the morning of Jan. 9, 2012, he said he had left the girl on a stool in the kitchen to go check on another child. While away, he said he heard a thump and, racing back in, found his daughter on the floor groaning before going into a seizure.

Doctors who testified at his trial said the odds of such significant injuries to her brain from a fall were 1 in a million. Prosecutors argued that Contreras had a history of being tardy to his job in security at the Indian Health Service facility in Sisseton and became enraged when he couldn’t get the little girl to move fast enough.

Two days after the beating, a grieving Shannon Sine decided to remove her daughter from life support in the Fargo hospital where the child had been flown. In her agony, the young mother couldn’t have begun to know the hell that was about to confront her.

In their zeal to realize justice for Aleeyah, Sine and her brother say they ran into opposition and harassment from Contreras and his extended family members at every turn. Contreras and the Gills tried to stop the autopsy and were turned away, Shayne Cook said. They tried to keep two other children in the house the morning Aleeyah was beaten from being forensically interviewed, he added. They even wanted the girl’s body transported to their home community of Enemy Swim for burial but were denied that by the funeral home.

“Our lives have been hell, with no support, because of the Gills,” Shayne Cook, 34, said. “When someone loses a child, our people traditionally come together and support each other. But a child didn’t matter here. It was all about saving Mario.”

Dustina Gill, who serves as legislative liaison for the tribe and has been Shepherd’s administrative assistant, wouldn’t discuss the Cooks’ charges, except to say by email: “Because of numerous attacks, accusations and threats made to myself and family by Shane (sic) Cook and family, I am unsure if I would be the one to speak to you.”

But Contreras‘ younger brother, Sean, didn’t back away from the dispute.

Despite the jury verdict, he doesn’t believe his brother is guilty. Sean Contreras, 32, said prosecutors at initial hearings tried to suggest Aleeyah died of shaken baby syndrome, then inexplicably changed their contention later and called it blunt trauma. He questioned the reliability of a Ramsey County, Minn., coroner’s office that handled the autopsy. He also said that a 9-year-old boy in the house the morning Aleeyah was injured corroborated his brother’s story of what happened but was not called as a witness.

“I don’t think they got it right,” Contreras said of the verdict.

Ken Harty, head of child protection for the tribe, said his office was supposed to transport children in the home the morning Aleeyah was injured to Fargo to be forensically interviewed, and the Gill family “made a stink.”

Though that trip didn’t happen and an interviewer came from Denver instead to talk to the children, Harty said the Gills tried to wield their influence in a number of ways when it came to Aleeyah, whether it was trying to force him to ignore a judge’s court order earlier for placement of the child to the interviewing of the children.

“I think they really thought they could stop this from happening,” Harty said of the forensic interviews. “I think they still think they’ve got an awful lot of sway.”

Sean Contreras insisted that no one ever went to Harty’s office to confront him about Aleeyah, or protested the potential transportation of the children to Fargo.

“He could be getting it confused with something else,” Contreras said.

Shannon Sine, 32, and her brother said retaliation against their family began soon after Aleeyah’s death and hasn’t subsided.

At trial, Contreras‘ defense tried to paint Sine and her husband, Sam, as the potential abusers of Aleeyah.

Sine and her brother also are suspicious of surprise inspections of the Cooks’ tribal houses after Aleeyah’s death.

“We’d just gone through yearly inspections,” Shayne Cook said. “Then, a few weeks after Aleeyah’s death, all of a sudden, we’re getting popped with inspections again. It was all retaliation.”

Tribal housing director Floyd Kirk said a member of his staff was reprimanded for talking about housing inspections while at a gathering with Gill family members.

“We made sure she was disciplined,” Kirk said, adding, “though I don’t believe she did anything outside the scope of her work.”

Kirk said there had been numerous police calls to Sine’s home because of drinking and alcohol-related issues. It’s policy for the tribe to do inspections whenever such police reports are made, the housing director said.

Shayne Cook and his sister insist there was no such policy, and that the inspections were done only out of retribution.

It is true that she has struggled with alcohol since her daughter’s death, Sine said. An Army veteran who spent a year in Iraq in 2004, she has been dually diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and alcohol issues. She has traveled twice to a Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in St. Cloud, Minn., once last fall and again this past winter, for monthlong stays to address those diagnoses.

“She’s a veteran. She’s been through some serious stuff, both in Iraq and with her daughter,” her brother said. “And none of that means anything to our tribe.”

The ultimate insult was the chairman’s letter, the Cooks say. “That,” Shannon Sine said, “hurt the most.”

Chairman Shepherd said he simply was asked to write a character reference for Contreras, a man he had known 20 years. Tribal chairmen have written similar letters when asked in the past, he insisted. And there was nothing in his letter that spoke to Contreras‘ guilt or innocence, he said.

“Did I think I was taking one side over another? No,” Shepherd said. “I know better than to pit one family against another. That wasn’t my intent. It was simply telling the court that I didn’t think (Contreras‘) character would cause him to run. That’s it.”

The Cooks weren’t the only ones surprised by what the chairman wrote.

“I don’t know why he would write such a letter,” Kirk in the housing office said. “If he wrote it as Robert Shepherd, tribal chairman, that would be wrong.”

Harty said he doesn’t think Shepherd even knew what he was writing. “Dustina Gill is his secretary,” Harty said. “I think that’s why it was written.”

The Sisseton discussion sent shudders through other tribal communities in South Dakota and Nebraska, where former and current chairmen also questioned the wisdom of such a move.

Former Rosebud tribal chairman Rodney Bordeaux said he wrote character letters when he was in office, but never for someone charged with such a serious crime.

“I would never touch that with a 10-foot pole,” Bordeaux said of a request to write in support of someone charged with murder.

Roger Trudell, who is in his third four-year term as chairman of the Santee tribe in Nebraska, said he, too, has written character letters, but not for someone charged with such a serious crime.

“I think that’s wrong,” Trudell said. “There are serious crimes… that need to be adjudicated and need to go to court and let the court decide before I write some kind of character letter. You can’t do something that looks like you’re supporting one tribal member over another in such cases.”

Shannon Sine, her brother and family say they wish it was so on their reservation, too. But they understand all too painfully the favoritism and nepotism that too often rips families apart in Indian Country.

A month ago, they stood beside Aleeyah’s grave on family land northwest of Sisseton, grieving their loss as a drumbeat pulsed through the wind, and young voices sang an honoring song, and an old man sprinkled tobacco on a new stone set just that day for little Aleeyah.

It isn’t right, what his tribe has done to his family, Shayne Cook said as he put his arm around his sister’s shoulders and held her as she softly wept. Life on the reservation, he said, is difficult enough without this.

“Did I speak out of turn in doing what I did? Maybe,” Shepherd said later. “In hindsight, should I have done it? Maybe not.”

“I’ve learned from it,” he said before hanging up the phone. “I’m young.”

___

Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com

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