Parents in Crow reservation death still seeking justice

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Courtesy of Cletus and Earline Cole

Cletus and Earline Cole hold a photo of their son, Steven Bearcrane-Cole, with his daughter, Precious.

Since the death of their son Steven Bearcrane-Cole on the Crow Indian Reservation in 2005, Cletus and Earline Cole have fought for the justice they feel their son deserves. They continue to believe that there was compelling evidence of murder, and that his death was never investigated properly by federal agents in charge of dealing with serious crimes on the reservation.

In 2009 they filed a lawsuit against the FBI alleging that “the FBI has a practice of knowingly providing less law enforcement services to Native Americans than non-Native Americans.” After a series of back-and-forth court cases and appeals that went as far as the U.S. Supreme Court, the Coles will get one last chance for their appeal to be heard in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Seattle, on Feb. 8.

Feb. 2, 2005, was supposed to have been Steven Bearcrane-Cole’s day off from work at the the Leachman Ranch east of Billings. It was an unseasonably warm and sunny day, with temperatures predicted to reach record highs.

Having gotten paid the day before, he just wanted to pay bills, relax with his family and spend time with his 3-year-old daughter, Precious. He told his family not to answer the phone if his employers called. But a call came in from an unfamiliar number and he took it. It was from fellow ranch hand Bobby Holcomb, who asked Bearcrane-Cole if he could come in and help bring in the horses.

“He couldn’t say no, not when it came to animals,” said his father, Cletus Cole. He said that his 23-year-old son had a cowboy’s work ethic, that his employers liked his patience with breaking horses, and that his skills were in high demand.

“He loved that life—moving horses, working bulls—he loved that freedom,” his father said. “He was out there working about every day, including weekends.”

Later that evening, around 6:30, ranch foreman Roger Reitman would see Holcomb, alone, returning with the truck hauling the horse trailer. Bearcrane-Cole would show up later, riding bareback on a horse to the bunkhouse trailer where Holcomb was staying.

Shortly after Bearcrane-Cole entered the building, Reitman said, he heard a gunshot. Reitman went to the building to investigate and found Bearcrane-Cole lifeless on the floor. He’d been shot between the eyes by Holcomb in a death the coroner would rule a homicide.

Yellowstone County sheriff’s deputies showed up, but because the shooting happened on the Crow Indian Reservation, the FBI and eventually the Bureau of Indian Affairs police were brought in. All major crimes on the reservation fall under federal jurisdiction.

Bearcrane-Cole was a tribal member and Holcomb was white. As so often happens when Native Americans deal with the violent death of a loved one on the reservation, Bearcrane-Cole’s family would learn the wheels of justice turn slowly—if it all—when it came to FBI involvement regarding Indian reservation crime.

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It would take eight months for Bearcrane-Cole’s family to finally hear news regarding Steven’s case: Holcomb wasn’t going to be charged with any crime. His self-defense story would be accepted as the official account, despite much evidence against him and the coroner’s report ruling Bearcrane-Cole’s death a homicide.

“He didn’t even spend one night in jail for shooting Steve,” Bearcrane-Cole’s mother, Earline Cole, said of Holcomb. “Not one night.”

The family has vehemently disputed the self-defense case presented by the FBI. The FBI had said Holcomb shot Bearcrane-Cole after he attacked Holcomb with a knife. However, the knife in question was not only found to be sheathed—it was found underneath an extension cord Bearcrane-Cole fell on. Lawyers representing Bearcrane-Cole’s family would later refer to it as “the magic knife.”

Although the only witness was Holcomb, a major hole against his claims would’ve come from Reitman, who had called authorities to report the shooting. He said there was no knife on Bearcrane-Cole when he initially went to the bunkhouse, but when he returned a second time there was.

Ranch employee Cassandra Leachman had a sworn affidavit made regarding Rietman’s observations, which was given to the U.S. attorney and the FBI.

“We gave that affidavit to them and they never even bothered contacting us back,” Earline Cole said.

After the FBI finally told the family it wouldn’t be taking the case to court, the family began its own investigation, hoping to determine why a seemingly strong case wasn’t even considered for prosecution. They hired a private investigator to dig up other evidence and witness statements against Holcomb, turning up, among other things, a statement he’d made at a recent Christmas party, where he said he was a sniper and could kill someone and make it look like an accident.

“If this had gone to trial, he would’ve been guilty,” Earline Cole said.

“We were told to gather more information and we did,” lawyer Jean Bearcrane, Earline Cole’s sister, told Indian Country Today Media Network in 2011. “They still did nothing. How many non-Indian families have to do their own investigations and plead with the FBI to do its job?”

Earline Cole said, “When it happened to us, it was not right because we knew what they were saying about the case was not true. We live right out there, so it happened right next to our place.”

The Coles said it was extremely difficult effort to obtain all the documents surrounding the case, especially those files from the FBI. “They did not want to give those files up,” Earline Cole said.

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Courtesy of Cletus and Earline Cole

A close-up of the photo of Bearcrane-Cole and his daughter, Precious.

Even with documents in hand, a lot of legalese and technical terms were difficult to decipher and the court system was hard to navigate.

“Why should parents have to read and figure out that stuff to find out what went wrong?” Earline Cole asked.

Among things they had to ask about were FBI statements contradicting the coroner’s report regarding the difference in “blood spatter,” a term referring to approximately how far a gun was fired from at the victim based on how far blood had flown from the exit wound.

“As a parent, that’s pretty painful to have to read that,” Earline Cole said.

They also found out that despite their nine-month wait to hear whether Holcomb would be prosecuted, the FBI had already decided against prosecuting the case within a month of their son’s death. In fact, they found out, FBI investigators hadn’t even taken initial photographs of the scene.

So, on behalf of Steven Bearcrane-Cole and the family of fellow Crow tribal member Robert Springfield—who also died under suspicious circumstances, in 2004—the Cole family decided to attempt to do something considered unprecedented in Indian country: in 2009 they filed a lawsuit against the FBI for essentially not doing its job and thereby violating their Fifth Amendment due-process rights.

The lawsuit said Matthew Oravec, the special agent in charge of investigating both reservation deaths, refused to do anything but the “most cursory investigation despite compelling facts” pointing toward foul play.

The lawsuit also claimed racial discrimination against Native Americans. According to a recent press release from Denver lawyer Patricia Bangert, a veteran civil rights attorney representing the Coles, Oravec allegedly said about Steven’s death, “It’s just another dead Indian.”

Besides being negligent in investigating Bearcrane-Cole’s case, the lawsuit said, the FBI “consistently closed cases involving Indian victims without adequate investigation, especially sexual and other assaults involving Indian children and women.”

A federal court ruling in 2010 removed several FBI agents and U.S. attorneys as defendants in the case, leaving Oravec as the sole defendant. In January 2012, the 9th U.S. Court of Appeals confirmed that the lawsuit could proceed against Oravec. His lawyers would claim he was “entitled to qualified immunity,” and therefor exempt from civil liability, and the FBI sought to have the case thrown out by the U.S. Supreme Court. But in 2013 the court ruled against them and said the lawsuit could proceed.

In 2014, the case came back to the U.S. District Court in Billings, before Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby in June 2014. Ostby ruled mostly in favor in Oravec, but room for an appeal was made when Ostby concluded, in reference to Bearcrane-Cole’s parents, that “the Court must consider whether a decedent has constitutional rights that may be violated from acts occurring after death.”

The appeal of the case of Earline Cole v. Matthew Oravec will be heard on Feb. 8 in Seattle. Bangert said in her statement about the appeal that “Government attorneys argue that Steven Bearcrane lost all of his rights—even to have a decent investigation of his death—when he was killed. … They argue that Steven’s family has no legal right to complain.”

In a larger sense, she said, the “case will decide whether Native Americans have a right to the same law enforcement services that non-Indians get, or whether they will continue to be forced to live in unsafe communities ignored or neglected by federal law enforcement agencies like the FBI.”

The official summary of the appeal says, “Earline and Cletus Cole and minor child, P.B., appeal the summary judgment in their action alleging that the FBI has a practice of knowingly providing less law enforcement services to Native Americans than non-Native Americans.”

“The government has all the money and lawyers they want to fight against us on behalf of the FBI—we don’t,” Cletus Cole said. On several occasions, he said, they had to sell some of their cows to pay for legal filings and travel expenses.

“They’re just trying so hard to fight it because they know they did wrong, and now they’re trying to keep it covered,” Earline Cole added. “But if they had just done their job, we wouldn’t even be in this situation.”

Although occasional glints of recollected pain seep through their eyes when speaking of their son, the Coles speak with a quiet, confident passion and humility concerning the circumstances of his death.

“It’s been a long road, it really has, and we’ve been up against a lot,” Earline Cole said. “When we started this, many people told us, ‘You can’t do it. You can’t sue the government like that!’ But you know what? Through everything that’s happened, God has been with us, and when one door is been shut, God would open another door.”

People they knew, who had experienced the unimaginable pain of losing young sons and daughters, told them while they were initially heartbroken or angry, they had learned to accept that nothing would be done and so they just let it go.

The Coles say they don’t want it to have to be that way.

“What we went through, and what other families have been through, we just hope what happens out of this court case is that no other families will have to suffer like that, and they would at least get the justice that they deserve,” Earline Cole said. “Everybody is entitled to it.”

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