Critics cite violence in town near Indian reservation

AP News
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Posted: Jun 07, 2016 5:45 PM
Critics cite violence in town near Indian reservation

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Advocates who want to end beer sales in a tiny Nebraska town are once again urging state alcohol regulators to intervene, citing numerous reports of violence in the tiny village that borders South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The group on Tuesday presented the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission with a dispatch log from the Sheridan County sheriff's office of incidents in the town of Whiteclay in April. They include reports of fires, drunken drivers, assaults with cars and baseball bats, rocks thrown at a car, and a van speeding out of Whiteclay at 90 mph.

Whiteclay sold the equivalent of 3.5 million cans of beer last year despite having only a dozen full-time residents. Some members of the Oglala Sioux Tribe blame the town for the dry reservation's social problems, including high rates of fetal alcohol syndrome, but little has changed over the last several decades.

"The state of Nebraska either needs to provide adequate law enforcement or needs to make the decision to not renew the licenses or revoke the licenses" of the town's four beer stores, said John Maisch, a former Oklahoma alcohol regulator who produced a documentary on Whiteclay.

Maisch noted that state law requires commissioners to consider 10 factors before approving a license, including the adequacy of law enforcement, sanitary conditions around the establishments and whether a business' operations run afoul of the public interest.

He also pointed to the law enforcement response times in Whiteclay, which is 22 miles north of the sheriff's office in Rushville.

In one instance, a deputy arrived in Whiteclay 35 minutes after a reported fight involving five to seven men, but found nothing at the scene. Another time, the dispatch log shows deputies took 44 minutes to respond to an assault call, only to have the victim recant the claim.

A phone message for Sheridan County Sheriff Terry Robbins wasn't immediately returned.

The meeting at the State Office Building in Lincoln featured a heated exchange between Maisch and Commission Chairman Bob Batt. Maisch has criticized the commission for not enforcing the law in Whiteclay, an allegation Batt denies.

On Tuesday, Batt said Maisch was "out of order" when he noted out loud that Batt appeared agitated. Batt accused Maisch of grandstanding and noted that Maisch — who grew up in Nebraska but lives in Oklahoma — has no personal stake in Whiteclay. Maisch has called the situation a "humanitarian crisis" that state and local officials are ignoring.

"You have no standing in this matter," Batt said.

"I think your actions have been disgraceful," Maisch replied. "You have abdicated your responsibility as chairman of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission."

In a later interview, Batt said a commission vote to revoke a beer store's license could be challenged in court, and if the decision is overturned, the establishment could collect damages from the state.

"If the district court overturns it, you're just wasting taxpayer money," Batt said. "Why would you do that?"

Hobert Rupe, the commission's executive director, said Nebraska courts are more inclined to uphold a license revocation when the decision comes from local governments rather than the state. Counties can cancel licenses or file a complaint with the state commission when a license comes up for renewal, Rupe said.

Dennis Carlson, a retired attorney from Lincoln who stumbled on Whiteclay while on vacation with his wife, told commissioners he was shocked by the "lawlessness" he witnessed in the town. On the afternoon he visited, he said he saw at least seven people passed out along the highway.

"We don't allow this in Lincoln. Why is it OK in Whiteclay?" said Carlson, of Lincoln.

Frank LaMere of South Sioux City, who has fought for decades to shutter the beer stores, said he's optimistic that the town's condition will improve. Last month, advocates hosted a conference in Whiteclay as part of a larger effort to address alcoholism on and around the reservation.

"I see change on the horizon," said LaMere, a member of the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska. "It's closer to us than it has ever been."