Mille Lacs Ojibwe fighting violent offenders with banishment

Native Mob gang terrorizing Minnesota reservation

"They carved it on my face, my forearm, and my back," says St. John, who still picks gravel out of the scars five years later. "You can still see them today."

When Nickaboine's corpse was found, he marked the fourth teenager to turn up in the reservation's morgue in four months. Mille Lacs County has since charged two 20-year-old Ojibwe members with the murder, and the court proceedings are ongoing. Many speculate it was a gang-related murder, another tragedy in a community that has become all too accustomed to violence.

"If you had four drive-by shootings in Minneapolis in a two-month span, there'd be a huge outcry," says Mille Lacs County Sheriff Brent Lindgren. "We have four drive-by shootings in the Vineland district in a two-month period and it doesn't even make the local media."

Keith Reynolds was ordered to pay $4.2 million for his part in beating Cody St. John
courtesy of Mille Lacs Messnger
Keith Reynolds was ordered to pay $4.2 million for his part in beating Cody St. John
The reservation has become a dangerous place for residents like Marlene Poukka (top) and Irene Benjamin
Andy Mannix
The reservation has become a dangerous place for residents like Marlene Poukka (top) and Irene Benjamin

  

FOR BRETT LARSON, the gang problem officially arrived in 2006. That's when tribal police stopped trying to convince his staff at the Mille Lacs Messenger that it wasn't happening.

The small community newspaper was struggling to keep up with all the violent crime. The Messenger ran so many crime stories, Larson began to receive letters from readers complaining about how the coverage was squeezing out all the positive stories and creating a negative portrayal of life on the reservation.

"We are overwhelmed," says Larson. "We don't have the people or the resources or the time to cover some of this as well as we would like to."

No one could deny the gang problem anymore, but the community was woefully unprepared to deal with it. Federal law prohibited the tribal court from sentencing any offender to more than a fine and a year in jail. Mille Lacs County has jurisdiction over the reservation, but it's only a small part of its coverage area, and the surge in crime had spread resources too thin.

To give the county some relief, the sheriff's office hired a gang task force agent with a Department of Justice grant. The gang specialist's job was to identify and document the gang members in Mille Lacs County in order to establish the scope of the problem.

By 2008, the specialist had documented 486 gang members, most of them living on the reservation. In comparison, the neighboring Aitkin and Morrison counties had 37 and 59 documented gang members, respectively.

"That's a pretty significant population," says Lindgren. "And they're connected. They're connected to Cass Lake. They're connected to Little Earth."

The tribal government started holding town meetings, searching for ideas of how to handle the problem. That's when Rjay Brunkow, then the tribe's solicitor general, came to police with the idea to banish the worst offenders.

Brunkow and police defined the criteria for banishment: A repeat offender would be exiled for five years. If the convict maintained a clean record and gainful employment, the tribe would consider lifting the banishment. In the meantime, the banished member would still collect casino money every month as part of the tribe's revenue-sharing program with its members.

Though it seemed like a logical solution for the tribe, not everyone in the community was thrilled about the radical idea.

"Where are they gonna go?" says Lindgren. "They're still the same people. It's like sending our bad people to Wisconsin."

 

MARIA KEGG WAS beginning to worry.

Night was falling on the Indian reservation, and her 12-year-old son, Evan, had yet to return home. Kegg lived on a rough block, and it wasn't safe to walk around after the sun went down.

Kegg climbed into her minivan and drove in search of Evan. She made it just five houses down the street when she recognized a group of three men.

"Where is Evan?" she asked.

"Leave him be," one replied ominously. "He's all right."

Suddenly, Kegg was staring down the barrel of a loaded handgun, about to be the victim of a carjacking.

Without thinking, she jumped out the driver's-side door of the van and grabbed one of the men from behind. She recognized her human shield as a friend of Evan's. She eased him backward until she found a clean break to make a run for a neighbor's house.

She dashed into the house and collapsed on the floor, screaming to call 911. Police arrived moments later and the street became the scene of an armed standoff, with at least one shot fired.

"I was like, 'God, that gun is loaded, and they just had it right by my head,'" says Kegg. "I still think about it sometimes."

Ten days later, Kegg was called to testify at an emergency hearing in the Mille Lacs tribal court against the three assailants. As she sat on the witness stand, she trembled as she recounted the horrific tale of the night she was almost killed.

Next a tribal elder named Carol Sam took the witness stand. The same week Kegg was held at gunpoint, Sam had an almost identical experience. The same three men jumped in front of her car, one slamming his hands on her hood and forcing her to stop. The strangers surrounded the car, and one put a gun to her head. "I'm going to fucking kill you!" he screamed.

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