LINCOLN — Activists on Wednesday pointed to the death of a woman last month as further reason to end beer sales in the notorious border town of Whiteclay, Nebraska.
Sherry Wounded Foot, 50, was found beaten and unconscious behind a building in town Aug. 5, said John Maisch, a documentary filmmaker and former liquor regulator.
She died of her injuries Aug. 17 at the Pine Ridge Indian Health Service Hospital.
No arrests have been made in her death, Maisch said.
“This isn’t an isolated incident,” Frank LaMere, a Native American activist from South Sioux City, Nebraska, said at Wednesday’s meeting of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. He recalled three other people who died in the late 1990s after suffering apparent beatings in and around Whiteclay. The slayings of Ronald Hard Heart and Wilson Black Elk spurred national attention to Whiteclay.
“Their deaths can all be attributed to the sale of alcohol from Whiteclay to the dry Pine Ridge Reservation,” LaMere said.
A woman at Sheridan County Sheriff Terry Robbins’ office referred questions to the county attorney.
Asked about Wounded Foot, Sheridan County Attorney Jamian Simmons said local authorities are investigating a death that may be connected with Whiteclay.
However, Simmons refused to identify the deceased while the investigation was ongoing.
She said the county sheriff’s office and the Nebraska State Patrol are leading the investigation, which also involves the Rapid City, South Dakota, police and officials with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Earlier Wednesday, Maisch questioned why officials have not provided any information about Wounded Foot’s death to the public.
“If a lady is beaten within an inch of her life anywhere else in Nebraska, and if a suspect hasn’t been arrested, law enforcement would contact the press to warn the public that a suspect is still at large, or to request the public’s assistance in acquiring credible information that could lead to the arrest of a suspect,” he said.
Maisch, LaMere and others said the situation reinforces the need for the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission to revoke the alcohol licenses of the town’s four beer stores.
The stores sell nearly 4 million cans of beer each year, largely to residents of the Pine Ridge Reservation across the border in South Dakota. Whiteclay lies within walking distance of the Lakota reservation, where alcoholism is rampant and fetal alcohol syndrome is estimated to affect one in four babies.
Whiteclay is an unincorporated village of about a dozen residents and has no local police. Law enforcement is provided by the Sheridan County sheriff, based 22 miles away in Rushville, Nebraska.
But Maisch said the lack of adequate law enforcement should be reason to revoke the beer store licenses.
He said Wounded Foot’s death “reinforces our previous assertions that Whiteclay is a lawless place fueled by the unregulated sale of beer.”
Commission Executive Director Hobert Rupe said the agency has an investigation pending into the four Whiteclay alcohol licenses.
He said agency staff did an audit of the licenses last fall and concluded that “it might show some issues.”
Information from the audit was turned over to Attorney General Doug Peterson’s office for possible enforcement action in late spring.
The office has not filed anything yet.
Suzanne Gage, a spokeswoman for the attorney general, declined to comment on the status of the investigation.
Rupe told members of the activist group that the commission can only act based on evidence of violations provided by law enforcement.
Whiteclay poses an “incredible challenge” for investigating potential violations, he said. Area residents tend to be wary of outsiders and reluctant to talk with authorities.
Rupe also noted that the commission is charged with enforcing liquor law violations, not other illegal behavior.
Correction: Hobert Rupe's name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.