Leslie Ironroad was 20 years old when she moved from one side of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in the Dakotas to the other — the town of McLaughlin, S.D., home to one gas station, one diner and her friend, Rhea Archambault. She roomed in Archambault's spare bedroom.
"I make star quilts, so she was helping me make patterns," Archambault said recently, sitting at her dining room table. "She was just a nice little girl."
One night four years ago, Ironroad left the house to go to a party a few miles away. Early the next morning, she called Archambault's brother in tears asking to be picked up.
"She said, 'Can [you] go get Rhea to come get me 'cause these guys are going to fight me,'" Archambault said. "And so he said, 'Well where you at?' And she was just crying and hangs up."
Leslie never made it home.
When Archambault found her friend in a Bismarck, N.D. hospital, she was black and blue.
"'I said, 'Leslie, what happened?.' She said, 'Rhea, is that you? Turn the lights on, I can't see.' But the lights in the room were on. She said, 'Rhea, I was raped,' and she was just squeezing my hand," Archambault recalled.
Archambault called the Bureau of Indian Affairs police, a small department in charge of all law enforcement on the reservation. A few days later an officer arrived in the hospital room, and Leslie scratched out a statement on a tablet laid across her stomach.
Ironroad told the officer how she was raped and said that the men locked her in a bathroom, where she swallowed diabetes pills she found in the cabinet, hoping that if she was unconscious the men would leave her alone. The next morning, someone found her on the bathroom floor and called an ambulance.
A week later, Ironroad was dead — and so was the investigation. None of the authorities who could have investigated what happened to Leslie Ironroad did — not the Bureau of Indian Affairs, nor the FBI, nor anybody else.
People who know the men who likely attacked her say they were never even questioned.
Archambault couldn't believe nothing came of Ironroad's report.
"She named all the people that were there, the ones that were hitting her, the ones that were fighting her, she named everybody — what more else?" Archambault asked.
Unreported, Uninvestigated and Unprosecuted
This case was not an isolated incident. NPR spoke with at least a dozen people on Standing Rock — rape counselors, doctors, tribal leaders and victims — people who were either assaulted or know women who were in cases where no charges were filed.
The story of what happened to Ironroad, and more importantly what happened to the investigation of her death, is a window into what is happening on Native American reservations across the country. Cases like hers are going unreported, uninvestigated and unprosecuted, according to tribal officials.
The Justice Department found that one in three Native American women will be raped in her lifetime. In many cases, on rural reservations like Standing Rock, NPR found that there aren't enough police to investigate sexual assaults, and few of the cases are prosecuted.
On Standing Rock, there's one person in charge of law enforcement: Bureau of Indian Affairs police Chief Gerald White.
"I consider any sexual assault a serious problem. I mean, we don't take them lightly," White said at the police headquarters on the reservation. "Every sexual assault that is reported to us — we investigate them to the fullest."
When asked what happened in the Ironroad case, White responded, "I looked back and there was nothing that could substantiate that happening. I'm sure she passed away, but as far as her being involved as a victim of sexual assault, I couldn't find anything to support that ... You know, if a person doesn't report, then how can we investigate it, if we don't know about it?"
Overwhelmed and Overworked
Although Ironroad did report her attack to a BIA officer in her hospital room, authorities did not conduct an investigation. Through records, interviews with officials at the hospital, the state medical examiner's office and the police department, and conversations with more than a dozen people familiar with Ironroad's case, NPR learned the officer in her hospital room was BIA police officer Doug Wilkinson.
Officer Wilkinson resigned from the Standing Rock police department two months ago. NPR tracked him down in the small town of Little Eagle, S.D. In a phone conversation, he confirmed the basic details of the story.
Wilkenson said a lot of sexual assault cases like Ironroad's are never investigated. He said he was too overwhelmed and overworked to keep up with the number of calls for rape, sexual assault and child abuse he received each week.
When it came to federal prosecutors, he admitted, "We all knew they only take the ones with a confession ... We were forced to triage our cases."
Wilkenson has now joined a ministry and says he hopes to help survivors through preaching.
"I felt like I was standing in the middle of the river trying to hold back the flood," he says, describing his decade as a federal police officer.
On Standing Rock, there are five BIA officers for a territory the size of Connecticut. On this and other reservations, police are stretched thin and often can't or won't make arrests.
Allocating the Limited Resources
Fourteen years ago, Archie Fool Bear, who sits on the Standing Rock Tribal Council, was chief of the BIA police department on the reservation, heading a force three times as large as today's. Now, he says, tribe members are coming to him with terrible stories of rapes and crimes, even though he can no longer do anything about them.
"We know with that size of force, I know from experience, there are cases that are going to be sitting on the shelf or cases where people don't want to come forward because they have no confidence in law enforcement," he said.
Money for new officers can only come from one place: Washington, D.C. The Bureau of Indian Affairs' director Pat Ragsdale sits in his office just across the street from the White House grounds. Ragsdale says he knows cases may be falling through the cracks. He'd love to have more officers, he says, and expects the situation to improve with $16 million in new funding that the Bush administration has proposed, which would add about 50 new BIA police officers.
Spread among 200 tribal jurisdictions, 50 new officers comes out to well below one per tribe. Director Ragsdale says they plan to cluster the officers on reservations where they are needed the most.
On Standing Rock, getting an officer to respond to a call for help can mean waiting for days or even months. The reservation's only women's shelter is still waiting for police to come after someone cut all of their phone lines two months ago.
The shelter's director, Georgia Littleshield, can attest firsthand to the lack of police response. When her daughter's boyfriend, a non-native, broke her daughter's nose, her daughter filed a report and attached statements and photos from the doctors. But when Littlefield called special investigators the next morning, an officer told her that her injury was not considered a broken bone, but broken cartilage and that the case would not be prosecuted.
"This is a lawless land where people are making up their own laws because there's no justice being done," Littleshield said.
A study from the Justice Department found that Native American women are two and half times more likely to be raped than other women. The majority of victims said they were raped by men from outside the reservation, according to a victimization survey.
Many of those victims wind up at the Indian Health Service Center. When Ironroad arrived at the center, her injuries were so severe that doctors told the ambulance to take her two hours north to Bismarck.
The health center does not have rape kits to collect the vital DNA evidence needed to prosecute attackers. They are also inadequately staffed and cannot spare an exam room for the hour it takes to complete the rape examination.
For that, women must go to Bismarck, but most women don't want to go because they don't know how they will get back home.
Staff physician Jackie Quizno says she sees rape cases several times a month. When she and other doctors turn over their information to the BIA police and federal prosecutors on the women they see, she says nothing happens.
"I have only been involved in one court hearing where I was actually called to testify," Quizno said, who has worked at the center for more than five years.
A Federal Responsibility
Tribal leaders say the Justice Department ignores them, and one of the department's own former top officials agrees.
"Our committee was frequently met with indifference," said Thomas Heffelfinger, who until last year chaired the department's Indian Affairs Committee, which tried to get resources to Indian country. He said department officials "simply don't recognize the magnitude of the problem and the degree to which it is a federal responsibility."
Mary Beth Buchanan, acting director of the Justice Department's Office of Violence Against Women, disagrees. She says Indian sexual assaults are a priority, especially for U.S. attorneys.
"Most prosecutors in Indian country are very committed to assisting in the prosecution of these cases and are very sensitive to the problems associated with crime in Indian country," she countered, citing millions of dollars the department has funneled to a new pilot project to reduce violence and a new study that will examine the rate of sexual assaults on reservations.
However, actual figures are difficult to pin down. Justice officials and local U.S. attorneys say they can not provide the number of sexual assault cases they decline from Indian reservations or even the number of cases they take.
A 2004 study conducted by the department found that the number of suspects investigated by U.S. attorneys for crimes on Indian land declined 21 percent from 1997 to 2000.
On Standing Rock, where the bright green grass seems to stretch as far as the sky, women like Ironroad can live and die without any federal official taking notice.
The tribe's chairman, Ron His Horse Is Thunder, stood on the porch of his log cabin overlooking the plains where his people have lived for thousands of years.
"Rape amongst our people was one of those unheard of crimes, he said. "Not because people didn't talk about it, but at one point in time, it didn't occur."
That is no longer the case, and the chairman says that as long as the tribe must depend on the federal government to police and prosecute people on their own land, anyone who comes here may well be able to rape or assault women, like Leslie Ironroad, and get away with it.
"There's a word amongst our people," he said, pronouncing an Indian phrase. "Simply stated, that we are all related, but it's more than just me and my cousin being related. It means that anything that happens to the tribe or one its members will affect everybody."
Two weeks after NPR began requesting documents and interviewing officials, the Bureau of Indian Affairs reopened the investigation into Leslie Ironroad's death. Officials say the results are still pending.