A contentious hearing on the future of Whiteclay’s beer stores
For the first time in more than a century, a sustained effort to stem the tide of alcohol flowing out of Whiteclay began in earnest Thursday morning at a public hearing in the Nebraska state capitol.
For 11 hours inside Room 1525, a parade of witnesses testified for and against four beer stores that reside in the tiny northwest Nebraska village, which sold the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer in 2015 — almost all to Lakota residents of South Dakota’s nearby Pine Ridge Reservation.
Andrew Snyder of Scottsbluff, clad in black suit and burgundy tie, represented the beer store owners, maintaining that their businesses were above reproach, fit to sell alcohol and monitored by “adequate” law enforcement.
“I think everything went as expected,” the defense attorney said in a brief interview after the hearing. The beer stores are “going to keep operating,” he predicted.
But Winnebago tribal member Frank LaMere, who has spearheaded an effort to end Whiteclay alcohol sales for 22 years, saw it differently.
“The licenses will not be renewed. There’s no question,” he said after the hearing ended at 8:30 p.m.
LaMere’s grassroots movement caught fire after an Oct. 11 legislative hearing when Sheridan County Commissioner Jack Andersen told legislators: “We really need help with law enforcement.”
On Nov. 1, the state’s three-member Liquor Control Commission then denied the automatic renewal of the four beer store licenses, requiring owners to resubmit their liquor applications as part of an investigative process.
By the end of Thursday’s hearing, after listening to 16 testimonies, the commission’s Executive Director Hobert Rupe said the group would make its final decision about whether to renew or revoke the licenses on or before May 2.
By 9 a.m., nearly 120 people — lawyers, Lakota, Native activists, tribal chairmen, police, alcohol policy specialists, Sheridan County and Pine Ridge officials, Whiteclay residents and beer sellers — began filling the chairs of the stuffy, dimly lit capitol hearing room.
The four beer store owners and their partners sat front row in a hearing that would determine the fate of their livelihoods as business owners. Each wore jeans and a casual long-sleeve shirt and another a Harley Davidson jacket.
The first witness to take the stand was Oglala Sioux Tribe Attorney General Tatewin Means, the tribe’s chief law enforcement officer.
Time and again, the focus of the lengthy hearing was law enforcement — specifically whether Whiteclay was substantially underserved.
The attorney general’s message was clear: Nebraska law enforcement doesn’t help or communicate with the tribe like all other counties that surround the reservation, burdening her already overwhelmed justice department.
“Collaboration for how we can strategize law enforcement in Whiteclay has not happened,” she said.
Means said drunk-driving offenses are two of the most frequent crimes committed on the reservation, many of which occur on the one-mile stretch between Whiteclay and the village of Pine Ridge. The reservation, she added, already is short on police officers, often with just eight patrolling the 2-million-acre reservation.
After the hearing, Sheridan County Sheriff Terry Robbins said any lack of law enforcement communication is “her fault, not our fault.” Asked whether Whiteclay, which is 22 miles north of his Rushville office, has adequate law enforcement, the sheriff said “I looked up ‘adequate’ in the dictionary, and it says ‘enough.’ So, yeah, I guess so.”
The sheriff’s testimony came shortly after the lunch break when David Domina, Omaha attorney representing the citizen protestors, bore in with a series of hard-hitting questions. He accused Sheriff Robbins of sloppy record-keeping and a lackluster presence in Whiteclay.
Domina said the sheriff didn’t make a single arrest for a liquor offense for three years — from 2014 to 2016. The sheriff confirmed the allegation.
Asked if it is difficult to patrol one of the largest counties in Nebraska with just five officers, the sheriff replied: “Yes.”
Earlier, 22-year-old Abram Neumann, who works in Whiteclay’s Christian-based Lakota Hope ministry, was the second witness. In his two years as a Whiteclay resident, serving transient drinkers in the town by praying for them, breaking up fights and bandaging wounds, the young missionary said he’s called 911 just five times.
“The times that I have called the police, they have done nothing to solve the problems,” he said, citing a woman on the street having a diabetic seizure and emergency personnel never showed up.
Bruce and Marsha BonFleur, who run Lakota Hope, testified about their 13 years of ministering in the town.
“As I walk the streets of my neighborhood, I see loitering, panhandling, urinating and defecating,” Marsha BonFleur said. “Knowing the level of law enforcement where I live, would you be my neighbor? I think not.”
In an interview afterwards, Bruce BonFleur said the evidence presented in the hearing, if nothing else, simply proves problems in Whiteclay have been neglected too long.
“There seems to be a lot of contradictory statements by several Sheridan County officials,” he said. “That disturbs me.”
One of those officials, Sheridan County Commissioner James Krotz, testified the county recommended the renewal of the Whiteclay liquor licenses after a local hearing Jan. 10 found no evidence showing inadequate law enforcement.
But the county then approved a law enforcement budget of $701,490 for the current fiscal year — more than double what the sheriff spent the previous year.
Asked why, Krotz replied: “We perceive a need for more.”
By 8 p.m., the once-robust crowd had dwindled to just a few, including the final witnesses: the four beer store owners, each of whom praised law enforcement in the town.
The owners had little to say after the hearing. Clay Brehmer, owner of Stateline Liquor, said he was “just waiting for a decision.”
But Domina lingered afterwards, giving his take on the day’s proceedings. Whiteclay, he said, is a “profound embarrassment” to Nebraska.
“It’s a pernicious problem. I think of it as a boil that has deeply infected the face of Nebraska, and it needs to be drained.”