Originally published July 18, 2015 on Al Jazeera America. Original archived here.
Photos by Kristina Barker.
Lissa Yellowbird-Chase shook a shovel-full of damp clay onto the banks of the Little Missouri River, all the while watching for signs: metal pins and plates, cigarette butts, jewelry, fabric, or bone.
“You just kind of shake it out, you don’t just pile it,” she said as the soil slipped off her shovel. “You end up with a finger or something in there then you’re destroying evidence.”
Somewhere underneath the mud and dirt, Lissa Yellowbird-Chase suspected that the final remains of Kristopher “KC” Clarke would be found. Killed in 2012 in the Bakken oil fields on the Fort Berthold Reservation in a murder-for-hire scheme, Clarke’s accused assassins await trial for the crime, but his body has never been found. Yellowbird-Chase and a handful of other volunteers, known as the Sahnish Scouts, have been searching for him ever since.
They’ve also been searching for others that have disappeared from the area:Joseph Lee, whose empty car, boots and socks were found in 2013; 74-year-old Ron Johnson, who vanished with his gold Cadillac Fleetwood after leaving the Four Bears Casino and Lodge in 2011; and Reachelle Smith, Yellowbird-Chase’s four-year-old neighbor that disappeared in 2006 from the town of Minot, North Dakota.
As Yellowbird-Chase dug her shovel into the wet ground, the tall grass bent and danced in the wind.
“Look at this,” said Yellowbird-Chase as she excitedly pushed down on a waterlogged piece of soil with the toe of her hiking boot. “It’s a distinctly different kind of dirt.”
The ground, she explained, was hard like concrete all around save for the one, damp area the Sahnish Scouts were digging up.
“Weird,” she said.
A volunteer brought up a shovel-full of clay and Yellowbird-Chase examined it.
“Centipede!” she exclaimed as she eyed the dirt. “Centipedes like bodies!”
With every shovel-full of soil, a possible clue, a deeper hole, and maybe one inch closer to Kristopher “KC” Clarke.
Every weekend, Lissa Yellowbird-Chase heads into the Bakken oil fields to search for missing people. There was Robin Fox, Duncan Templer, Aaron Pigeon, Eric Haider, Edward Stubbs, Keith Latham, and more. Some had happy endings, but most searches required a shovel.
“We are not a rescue,” she said. “We are a recovery.”
By day, Lissa Yellowbird-Chase is employed as a welder in Fargo, North Dakota and in a life not-so-long-ago, she worked as a tribal attorney with the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation. With long brown hair and a Bluetooth headset that never leaves her ear, Yellowbird-Chase is now better acquainted with clandestine graves than tribal codes, and is at her happiest with a shovel in hand instead of an acetylene torch.
Her laugh is comforting and her smile is bright, but in her unguarded moments there is the sense of a woman consigned to carry the sorrows of strangers: in the Bakken oil fields, someone has to speak for the murdered and missing. So far, Yellowbird-Chase is the only one who has applied for the job.
Nearly a decade ago the Bakken oil fields were discovered right smack in the middle of the Fort Berthold Reservation. Oil production went from just around five million barrels a year in North Dakota to nearly 40 million in the span of five years. In 2012 over 40 oil companies were active in the Peace Garden State, and between 2009 and 2014 nearly 100,000 workers made their way to the region from around the country. Most could be labeled as “transient”, as they move in, out, and around the region switching companies and crews whenever money or job temperament better suits them. The fluid nature of the industry makes it hard for authorities to keep track of who has moved to a different part of the state or region for work, who has left the oil patch all together to pursue lives unrelated to the Bakken, and who has legitimately gone missing.
There’s a complex system of criminal jurisdiction at play too. On the Fort Berthold Reservation, the Three Affiliated Tribes – the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara – have jurisdiction over tribal members, but no authority over non-Indians.
Earlier this year the Department of Justice announced the creation of the Bakken Organized Crime Strike Force to deal with everything from white-collar crimes to human and drug trafficking. In 2011 and 2012 murders, kidnappings, and traffic accidents in the region began to rise, transforming a tight-knit reservation community contained within an area just under half the size of Puerto Rico to an oil-stained metropolis spread across rolling hills and rugged badlands.
While the state’s tourism department characterizes North Dakota as the place of legendary journeys, its sprawling geography, remote locations, and isolated populations also offer fantastic locations to hide bodies.
Darkness, and Micah Pipeboy – Yellowbird-Chase’s 15-year-old-son – sat on the edge of the campground trying to set a two-by-four on fire. When the Sahnish Scouts are on the job they usually camp; on this trip they had forgotten firewood but were in desperate need of s’mores.
Where the sun had set, only a faint hue of orange and blue remained, and in the distance, flames shot up from oil pads pumping away in the night, standing out against the dark sky like string-lights draped across the horizon. Pipeboy balled up newspaper under the piece of wood, sprayed it down with lighter fluid, and flicked his lighter. The two-by-four caught fire and marshmallows were immediately placed in the flames.
“Here, crack one in half, this is yours, mom,” said Pipeboy, as he handed his mother a graham cracker. “Now you’ve got to bust out the Hershey’s.”
“Where’s that at?” replied Yellowbird-Chase as she hunted for the chocolate with a flashlight in one hand and a melted, skewered marshmallow in the other. “I need all the Hershey’s!”
Sahnish Scout volunteer Leslie Barret, a 48-year-old truck driver working in the oil fields pulled up a folding chair to the tiny fire, as did his girlfriend Tiffany Baxter. Their dog Meeko, a seven-year-old black German Shepard roamed the campground while Kalen Goodluck, a 21-year-old Mandan, Hidatsa, Navajo, and Tsimshian student from Bard College squished a melted marshmallow and a piece of chocolate between two graham crackers and eyed the puny blaze.
“It adds to the ambience,” joked Pipeboy as he watched the flames shrink.
In 2002 a Canadian Pacific freight train derailed in Minot, North Dakota, killing one person and injuring nearly a hundred more when the a cloud of anhydrous ammonia gas was released over the town. Two of Yellowbird-Chase’s children, Obidiah and Micah, were injured.
“We spent more time in the hospital than we did out of the hospital,” said Yellowbird-Chase. “My son Obidiah was having seizures after being exposed and he had nose bleeds and aneurisms. Micah had [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease]. His lungs were burnt and damaged by the spill.”
At the end of the first year, doctor visits began to take a toll: Yellowbird-Chase self-medicated, first with alcohol, then, drugs. Soon after she began selling to support her bills and her high, and after her first brush with the law, began selling again to pay for her legal defense. She got busted.
“That’s why I ended up in Fargo,” she said. “I made my way through the prison system, then I went to a halfway house and then I was on probation.”
The conviction has prevented her from getting licensed as a private investigator, and to pay her bills she works as a welder, but that hasn’t stopped her from being nosy in the name of justice. From tribal lawyer to unofficial gumshoe, Yellowbird-Chase has lived by a creed: be a voice for the voiceless. Which is how she learned about the disappearance of Kristopher “KC” Clarke.
When she was a lawyer, Yellowbird-Chase had a reputation for being fair and devoted to her clients, and both friends and family who had been following the Clarke case came to the conclusion that Yellowbird-Chase was the only person capable or willing to find him. She didn’t want to at first, but email after phone call after text message after email and Yellowbird-Chase finally took five minutes to read about Clarke. She had found her calling.
“I was like ‘Holy cow! This kid’s missing on the rez and he’s not a tribal member, he’s not even from North Dakota, he’s a non-Indian,” she said. “I started seeing all the issues right away.”
Missing persons reports on the reservation need to be filed with tribal police, but because tribal authorities have no jurisdiction over non-Indians like Clarke, either a state or federal agency would have to take the lead – IF the non-local, non-Indian is actually missing and not living in another part of the reservation or country.
She began asking questions, conducting interviews, making friends with Clarke’s friends and even people suspected in his murder. One lead turned into another. According to her sources, the men responsible for murdering Clarke could remember some basic geographic traits of where he was buried, but so much had changed due to flooding and construction over the years, they could no longer remember exactly where they had put his body. It was enough information for Yellowbird-Chase to start mapping and digging, and before long, word spread and others began contacting her.
“I’ll get a Facebook message or a phone call and they’ll say ‘hey, we have a missing person, can you help us?’” she said. “Normally what they say is law enforcement isn’t helping us very much.
Beyond difficulties discerning whether someone is actually murdered, missing, on the lam, or out of state, law enforcement cannot dedicate 24 hours a day to an individual. When hours, days, or weeks have elapsed, a supplement to the police like Yellowbird-Chase becomes crucial: Someone you can call, talk to, cry with, and rely on to do her best to find your missing loved one and put your anguish to rest. Since she began three years ago, the work has been steady.
Robin Fox disappeared from a bar and was later found dead on the Fort Berthold Reservation; Lissa Yellowbird-Chase helped organize searches. Eric Haider was found buried on the same construction sight he disappeared from three years earlier; Yellowbird-Chase worked with his family to uncover what happened to him. Phillip Krulish, a 22-year-old citizen of the Spirit Lake Nation was found after a helicopter search discovered his body; efforts were headed up by the young man’s family and the Sahnish Scouts. Kaylee Reed caught a bus from North Dakota to attend her grandmother’s funeral, but never arrived; a focused social media campaign spearheaded by Lissa Yellowbird-Chase helped turn the young woman up alive.
“The underdogs, the people that never get help: I like helping them,” said Yellowbird-Chase. “I am able to help carry that burden. For the people. No matter who they are.”
Yellowbird-Chase rested both hands on the handle of her shovel and dug the heels of her boots into the soft bank of the Little Missouri River. The hole was about three feet deep and the sun was on its way west and would be dropping long shadows on the badlands soon.
“If he were here, we should have hit him by now,” said Yellowbird-Chase as she looked down into the cold, wet soil.
Micah Pipeboy sat down on the riverbank. Kalen Goodluck and Leslie Barrett both stopped and stared down into the ground. It had been nearly six hours of digging and the Sahnish Scouts had come up empty handed.
“I get a little disappointed every once in a while but then I go look in a different spot,” said Yellowbird-Chase. “We still need to get ‘KC’ home and we’re still working to make sure that this kind of stuff don’t happen to other people.”
The volunteers agreed it was time for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cold tea, and more water, and Yellowbird-Chase took one last look at the hole they had dug and sighed – she would have to return later: if Kristopher Clarke was buried on the muddy banks of the river, rain and erosion might help expose his remains, or confirm that there was nothing there except for soft soil and the homes of a few centipedes.
“I know that we’re going to find ‘KC’ this year,” said Yellowbird-Chase. “I know that we will. I’m confident in that.”
He would have to wait till at least fall though, she admitted: there were 980,000 acres of reservation left to explore, and both Joseph Lee and Ron Johnson also needed to be found.
The wind blew, the tall grass bustled and whispered. A red-winged blackbird darted by. The Sahnish Scouts gathered their shovels and began the walk back to where their cars were parked.