Floods. Poverty. Crime. All are a part of the Lodge Grass story in the past six months. But the town on the Crow Indian Reservation in eastern Montana is a comeback story in the making.
Here’s the full story from Billings Gazette reporter Susan Olp:
It’s been a long six months for Lodge Grass.
In May, floodwaters inundated the reservation town of about 500, turning it into a temporary island and swamping businesses, churches and houses.
A trio of crimes in the fall, including a triple homicide, was another punch to the town, turning the sleepy community into a fearful one.
Now tribal, local and law enforcement officials are working on changes to restore peace.
Cedric Black Eagle, chairman of the Crow Tribe, has more than a tribal leader’s interest in Lodge Grass. It’s where he grew up and where his parents live.
The Lodge Grass of Black Eagle’s youth was a different place. Back then, he said, the community had multiple grocery stores, cafes and restaurants, an appliance store, a hotel and a movie theater.
“And I think most of it was because the major highway, old 87, ran right through town,” Black Eagle said.
Once Interstate 90 was built, he said, businesses started drying up. It also didn’t help that retail centers in Sheridan, Wyo., and Billings drew shoppers away.
Now, a drive through town reveals single-wide trailers and houses, some with boarded-up windows, on tree-lined streets. Painted graffiti covers abandoned buildings. One grocery store serves the town, along with a few other businesses. A handful of churches dot residential areas.
The town has elementary, middle and high schools, which are on top of a hill. But there aren’t many job opportunities, and like other towns on the reservation, unemployment is high.
Lodge Grass is the only incorporated town on the Crow Reservation. That means that Henry Speelman is the only mayor out of the six towns on the reservation.
He took office two years ago, when the city was $50,000 in debt, owing taxes to the federal and state governments. That amount has been cut to $29,000, he said, and the goal is to pay it off.
He’d also like to see Lodge Grass re-establish a police department, which went away about 15 years ago.
“We used to have law enforcement, courts, everything here,” he said. “Now I want to bring it back.”
The town has been through a lot, Speelman said. It started with the May flooding that destroyed the Lodge Grass Post Office, briefly closed the IGA store and hit a couple of other stores and several houses.
Lodge Grass Creek, brimming with two weeks’ worth of rain, meets the Little Bighorn River south of Lodge Grass. Water began to back up on the lower portions of town, flooding Main Street.
Photos from the worst of the flooding revealed buildings turned into islands and surrounded by muddy water, which also covered roads and damaged bridges.
“They condemned the post office building and brought in a single-wide,” Speelman said. “They’re going to bring in a double-wide in the near future.”
Doug McCormick, owner of the Little Horn IGA, said water 8 to 10 inches deep inundated the store and filled the basement. A pump removed the water, only to have it seep in again from saturated ground.
“We were closed for 24 hours is all,” he said. “We actually got open after that. We had a mess for a while, but we were open.”
Business was down for a long time, McCormick said.
“People couldn’t get around, and the Red Cross was giving away free food, so they didn’t have to buy groceries,” he said.
Damage at the store totaled about $200,000, McCormick said. He said he’ll probably get less than $50,000 from his insurance company. “But we haven’t got a penny yet.”
Things didn’t get back to normal for about three months, he said.
It took a good month to two months for the ground to dry out, said Joe Lovato, public works manager. Not everything is back to normal, though, he said.
The First Indian Baptist Church is unusable. The building sustained damage from a 1978 flood, and floor joists weren’t properly repaired, he said.
An inspection after this spring’s flooding revealed rotting joists.
“The church moved its services to the school,” Lovato said.
Water receded, people returned, roads and bridges were repaired and life began to get back to normal.
Then, on Oct. 2, a wave of fear swept Lodge Grass. At a home 10 miles outside of Lodge Grass, 21-year-old Levon Driftwood, her 20-year-old boyfriend, Rueben Jefferson, and Driftwood’s 80-year-old grandmother, Gloria Sarah Goes Ahead Cummins, were found shot to death.
The suspect, Sheldon Bernard Chase, 22, Driftwood’s cousin and Cummins’ grandson, had fled the house, and authorities were still looking for him. Townspeople were warned to stay inside, and the school was locked down.
That caused fear because no one knew where Chase was, but they knew he had a gun, Speelman said.
“We had so much law enforcement in the area that first night, it looked like a ghost town,” he said.
Chase was arrested in Spokane, Wash. He awaits a federal trial set for Dec. 27.
The murders shook Lodge Grass. In such a small town, most people knew the victims or the suspect or both.
Driftwood and Jefferson left behind two young children. Cummins was the matriarch of a close-knit family, and the community was in mourning.
One month later, Conrad Lee Walks Jr., 21, of Crow Agency, was fatally stabbed on Nov. 2 in Lodge Grass. The FBI has released few details of that homicide.
But the second violent act in a month boosted fear in the town.
Then, on Nov. 9, Carlos Sanchez Jr. and an underage girl, who were wanted in a shooting in Wyoming, fled in a truck to Lodge Grass. The victim in the shooting 9 miles north of Worland was treated and released.
But the town of Lodge Grass was locked down while the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs police and Big Horn County Sheriff’s deputies looked for Sanchez.
Speelman got word that a person driving a truck with Wyoming plates was in town and that the man was armed. Some gunshots were heard on the north side of town, he said.
Law enforcement arrested the man and the girl.
John Small, principal of Lodge Grass High and the school district’s interim superintendent, said on that day he was unaware anything was going on.
The school was preparing for parent-teacher conferences that night and students had been dismissed at 2 p.m.
“One of the staff members who was en route to Crow Agency about this time called and said, ‘Gee whiz, there’s a bunch of cop cars headed towards Lodge Grass. What’s going on?’ ” Small said.
He went out and heard sirens as they neared town. He called the police and was told to lock down the school with whatever staff and students remained on campus.
Small said the crime has affected the people of Lodge Grass.
“Our community is saddened that these situations occurred, but everyone is saying this is not representative of us and they’re just surprised, saddened that it did occur here,” he said.
He also called the events an eye-opener.
“We always read about it someplace else, but when it’s right here in your community, it’s a different deal,” he said.
Small doesn’t think the students are traumatized in the same way as the adults. He said they’re resilient.
“They’ve rebounded a lot quicker than the adults,” he said.
Speelman believes the recent violence has moved the town’s residents in another way.
“A lot of people started attending church more, started praying for the community and the people involved,” he said.
As to whether the recent crime shows a trend, Eric Barnhart, FBI supervisor in Billings, doesn’t think so. When three incidents occur so close together, Barnhart said he begins to look at whether a common thread exists or new elements have been introduced.
“At this point, I can’t say there is,” he said. “It’s been, unfortunately, just a horrible period for that very small and close-knit community, to have three high-profile and tragic events go on in such a short period of time.”
Barnhart said the number of FBI agents assigned full-time to the Crow and Northern Cheyenne reservations will double from two to four by the end of the month. Boosting the number of agents was in the works, before the recent string of events.
“Our major priorities on the reservation are homicides, crimes against children and serious assaults,” Barnhart said. “And to better address those three areas, we just felt that we would need additional resources.”
The city of Lodge Grass, still grappling with a financial deficit, won’t open a police department soon. But Speelman wants to work more closely with Big Horn County, and with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which supplies police protection for the reservation.
He hopes for better coordination in the future. During the recent emergencies, he and other city officials weren’t always alerted to what was going on.
Speelman got a visit last week from Big Horn County Undersheriff Michael Fuss, who told Speelman to expect more frequent nighttime deputy patrols in town. That’s a departure from the past, Speelman said, when patrol cars never were seen in town.
Black Eagle said stretching BIA police resources is more difficult, with only six officers to cover the entire reservation.
“On any given night, there’s one police officer to cover the entire reservation of 2.4 million acres,” he said. “From Lodge Grass to Pryor it takes at least a good hour and a half to get there.”
Black Eagle hopes to set up meetings at the end of the month with the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., to talk about the lack of police resources on the Crow Reservation.
He also would like to secure a cooperative agreement with the Big Horn County Sheriff’s Office so the county and federal police departments can work together more smoothly. When it comes to law enforcement, jurisdiction is always a complex matter on the reservation.
To initiate a community conversation to help Lodge Grass, Black Eagle set up a meeting last Thursday night. Residents were invited, along with tribal and city officials and law enforcement representatives. About 60 people attended, and he hopes it’s just the first of many meetings.
Black Eagle would like to see the community set up a Neighborhood Watch program. He also said that if crime prevention starts in the neighborhood, it also involves the home.
“If your children are the ones creating the havoc and you’re not correcting it from home, it continues and grows into a social problem,” he said.
The Crow chairman knows that the people of Lodge Grass don’t feel as safe as they once did. He said he hopes that everyone coming together will be a start to getting life back to where it once was.
“We just want to be able to get the people to interact with us and to start coming up with different ideas and ways to make the community feel safer, to help rebuild the community in that way,” he said.