WHITE SWAN, Yakama Indian Reservation — Even before this tiny town at the end of a two-lane highway became a backdrop to a rampage, a public-safety crisis had consumed it for more than a year.
Tribal leaders from Yakama Nation pleaded for more federal help to curb drug trafficking and property crime. And they denounced the Washington State Patrol’s 2016 decision to stop patrolling the 1,765-square-mile reservation — an area larger than the size of Rhode Island — due to liability concerns amid a shifting web of jurisdictions.
Then, on June 8, five people were killed in the arid hills west of White Swan, while many in the tribe were at a powwow and rodeo to commemorate the 1855 treaty that set the reservation’s boundaries.
It was the deadliest shooting in Washington last year. While the motives are still unknown, the challenges of White Swan and the Yakama Nation cast a lens on the tangled web of jurisdictional issues that plague Indian Country. Taken together, the problems have hindered investigations of cases ranging from murders to drugs to missing indigenous women.
For the Yakama Nation, the checkerboard of law-enforcement boundaries is particularly complex, leaving residents and officers alike to puzzle over which agency can arrest whom, and where, even as the rate of violent and property crimes spiked.
Tribal leaders have pushed Washington state to relinquish authority it claimed over the reservation almost 60 years ago. But they have found officials less than willing to let go of their legal authority, while simultaneously prohibiting troopers from patrolling the roads.
The result has been a sense of abandonment and frustration within the tribe. “We’re getting the worst of both sides,” said Ethan Jones, an attorney for the tribe.
In the months since the White Swan shooting, little has changed. The tribe said it still needs help bolstering its police ranks; one or two officers and sheriff’s deputies are often left to patrol vast expanses of the reservation.
And many relatives of the shooting victims are waiting to learn whether anyone will face justice in their loved ones’ deaths. Last week, eight months after the shootings, federal prosecutors filed a first-degree-murder charge against James Dean Cloud in the death of one victim, Dennis Overacker, but have not said whether more charges are coming in connection with the other deaths.
Cloud and his brother Donovan Cloud, both tribal members, have been held since June on federal kidnapping, carjacking and firearms counts related to the killings.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney, which is prosecuting the case because of the severity of the crime and the tribal status of the suspects, declined to comment. The shooting in White Swan, with fewer than 1,000 residents, has largely faded from the public spotlight.
“This area is rural,” said Yakima County Sheriff Robert Udell. “This is the kind of stuff you expect to hear in Baltimore, Chicago.”
In his one-room home in Wapato, Cyrus Dick Squeochs, a Vietnam War veteran and tribal member, waits for answers. His wife, Catherine Eneas Squeochs, was among the five killed. Federal authorities say that the suspects shot her and then took her vehicle. When it broke down nearby, they stole a vehicle from another home while holding a boy at gunpoint, according to court documents.
Dick Squeochs said his wife had repeatedly complained to authorities about theft and fears for her safety because of drug activity near Medicine Valley Road, where the shooting happened and where her family had lived for generations.
He wrestles with what he knows about the killings, and what he doesn’t. He knows from a private viewing at the time of her funeral that she was shot in the head. He has not learned more since then, and isn’t sure where to seek answers amid the complex web of law enforcement.
Dick Squeochs held back tears behind his glasses as he made breakfast one recent morning. “I’m a husband wanting to know what’s being done about my wife,” he said.
A map in the hallway of the tribe’s government building in Toppenish illustrates the complexity of jurisdictions within the reservation — jagged blocks of gray and white mark the Yakama topography, especially along the more populous eastern edge.
Each color defines where a tribal, federal or local police officer might make arrests and take over an investigation, a complex flow chart to navigate in a flash when legal, even life-or-death, consequences are at stake.
An emergency call from one property is handled by the Yakima County Sheriff. Meanwhile, a crime at a nearby property of a tribal member could be handled by tribal police or federal authorities, depending on whether or not the victim or suspect is Native American.
“It’s crazy,” said Robert Anderson, director of the University of Washington’s Native American Law Center. “There seems to be consensus on the ground that criminals do take advantage of the jurisdictional confusion.”
Crime statistics for the Yakama Nation are limited, but available figures show a spike in crimes reported to tribal and federal authorities from 2012 to 2017. Violent crime cases nearly doubled from 24 incidences to 45. Property crime, including burglaries, theft and arson cases, increased by about 75%.
Immediately after the June shooting, local authorities and victims’ relatives tied the mobile home where the gunfire erupted to drug trafficking, and Yakama leaders repeated their concerns about crime in White Swan.
Then August brought another startling crime with the killing of Gail Teo, a well-respected tribal member and florist, in her White Swan home. Authorities say a stranger broke in, stabbed and shot her.
Michael Anthony Davis, 26, was a newcomer to the area, said Tribal Council Vice Chairman Virgil Lewis. He pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and burglary, and is jailed while awaiting trial. Udell, the sheriff, said investigators believed Davis was on meth when he entered Teo’s home to steal from her.
“I think that was the final straw for everyone,” Udell said.
Tension and confusion
The underpinnings of the reservation’s complex jurisdictional landscape date to the decades that came after the tribe’s 1855 treaty. The U.S. Congress allowed white settlers to take ownership of land within reservation boundaries, setting the stage for the checkerboard that exists today.
More than 100 years later, in the 1960s, Washington became one of only a handful of states to opt into a federal law allowing the state to assume authority over many cases once handled by federal or tribal officials.
As the decades scrolled forward, the law came under criticism for creating an overly complicated system.
In January 2014, Gov. Jay Inslee, flanked by a half-dozen Yakama Nation Tribal Council members during a signing ceremony, declared the state’s intent to cede some of its authority back to the federal government and tribe. The proclamation, initially approved by the BIA, appeared to say the state would limit its jurisdiction to cases where both suspects and victims were not Native American.
But Inslee quickly sought to clarify, fueling tensions and confusion. In a letter to BIA, he said his intent all along had been to keep jurisdiction if either the suspect or victim was not Native American — a broader mix of cases.
The Obama administration rejected the clarification. Trump administration officials and a Yakima County Superior Court judge have since sided with Inslee. The tribe is appealing the ruling.
The distinction is important on a reservation of 30,000 residents where just one in five are Native American, just more than one in 10 are white, and 60% are Hispanic.
“One less player”
Amid the disagreement, the Washington State Patrol (WSP) suspended its patrols in April 2016 on more than 50 miles of Highway 97 and other routes through the reservation.
WSP feared the liability if, for example, a trooper pulled over a drunken driver who is Native American, and therefore couldn’t make an arrest, said Capt. Shane Nelson. If that driver were released and got in an accident down the road, he said, the department could be faulted for allowing the driver to remain behind the wheel.
“If they leave, what’s the liability?” he said. “To ensure we don’t get into that situation, we are choosing not to be proactive.”
But State Patrol data shows the vast majority of its calls have involved drivers who aren’t Native. In more than 6,500 calls for service since 2016, WSP had jurisdiction in nearly three-quarters of them.
Lewis said WSP has used liability as an excuse in deciding not to patrol. “Their sworn duty is to protect the residents,” he said.
Both Udell, the Yakima sheriff, and Yakama Nation Police Lt. Jeff Chumley said the State Patrol’s absence on the roads has taken a toll. Highway 97, which runs north and south through a string of Yakama communities, has become a “speedway,” Chumley said, and law enforcement’s presence reservation-wide has diminished.
“It’s one less player on the field to help control some of this crime,” Chumley said.
Unlike state troopers, Yakima sheriff’s deputies still patrol the reservation. Beginning in 2012, the department’s deputies began receiving federal certifications that allow them to detain any suspects, allowing for a seamless transition.
After several years of wrestling with the decision, WSP began applying for the federal certifications in December, starting a long process of background checks and special training. Until the certifications are granted, troopers will continue to respond to calls but won’t patrol.
Federal red tape, meanwhile, has contributed to keeping the tribe from filling the void quicker with more officers.
BIA prohibits recruits from riding in patrol cars with certified officers also because of liability concerns, even though the ride-along time could help new officers with training, Lewis said.
Since 2016, the tribal police force has lingered at around 30 officers who split numerous shifts over the course of a week, according to the Yakama Tribal Police and federal data. “That’s not enough,” Lewis said.
“My friend is dying”
On a recent winter night in White Swan, house lights dotted the darkened countryside where the June shootings happened, known as Medicine Valley. A group of boys gathered at a town skatepark in the cold, while a tribal police truck and a sheriff’s deputy vehicle rolled past the Cougar Den, a gas station and the brightest lit spot in town.
The FBI has said little about what happened on that Saturday afternoon, but what is known from court documents, a 911 call and news reporting is that John Cagle, 59, and Michelle Starnes, 51, were found shot to death in their mobile home, as was Catherine Eneas Squeochs, 49. Thomas Hernandez, a 36-year-old from White Swan, was found shot to death outside.
A fifth victim, Dennis Overacker, a 61-year-old grandfather and owner of a Yakima towing company, was shot in his truck.
According to a 911 call, three other people, including a woman and her baby, had been in the truck with Overacker and survived the shooting. In the call, the woman said a bullet struck her shoulder but the baby was unharmed.
The truck sped down a dirt road toward the nearest hospital as she spoke to authorities and held Overacker’s neck. “I think my friend is dying,” she said.
In addition to the murder charge filed against James Dean Cloud last week, the brothers await trial on kidnapping, which carries up to a life sentence, and other charges related to their attempt to flee from the mobile home. Their defense attorneys have not responded to requests for comment.
The sheriff said he expects additional murder charges will eventually be filed. He attributes the wait to a slower-paced federal system.
Cyrus Dick Squeochs says he isn’t so sure.
In his wife’s final weeks, she had relapsed into an addiction that had resulted in the couple’s separation, and Dick Squeochs said he was focused on his own recovery.
When she was well, she had picked roots, berries and other traditional foods in the area, Dick Squeochs said.
Sitting in a wood-frame chair at the center of his home, Dick Squeochs remains in mourning, which he described as a time for tribal members in grief to keep “quiet and still.”
But, he said, maybe it’s also time for him to find the prosecutor in Yakima, the city just beyond the reservation border, to try to find out more about his wife’s case.
“I’d like to see something done about this,” he said.