Top headlines for the week

May 31, 2014 10:15 am  • 

View the most-read headlines from the week ending May 30.

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  • CODY, Wyo. — The man whose decapitated body was found in January in Park County has been identified as Juan Antonio Guerra Torres, a native of Guanajuato, Mexico.

    The last known address for Guerra Torres, 30, was in Clark, Wyo., which is some 10 miles from where the body was discovered.

    Guerra Torres’ body was found on Jan. 9 at 11:58 a.m., by a 40-year-old Cody resident who was hunting ducks in the area with his son. The body was on Little Sand Coulee Road about 1.5 miles west of Highway 294 east of Clark.

    He had been shot multiple times. The body was also decapitated and severely mutilated post mortem. He was missing the left arm at the shoulder.

    The investigation into the homicide continues with assistance from the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation, as well as the Cody and Powell Police Departments.

    Park County Sheriff’s detectives are asking residents who are familiar with Guerra Torres or who may have information that will assist in the investigation into his death, contact the sheriff’s office at 307-527-8700.

  • Jane Kelly received the news she was half-expecting to come but completely dreading.

    Her husband, Joe Kelly, who had been missing since April 14 was found by search crews in the Pryor Mountains on Wednesday. He had died of hypothermia.

    The news has left her heartbroken. Joe, 59, had retired from the state highway department last year and the two had plans to make the most of their newfound free time.

    On Thursday, Jane visited the funeral home to make arrangements for Joe’s body and spent much of her time on the phone as friends and family called or texted with messages of sympathy and support.

    They talked a lot about Joe. He was a tall, broad-shouldered man, who was “very loving, caring and generous.” Jane described him as a smart guy, which made his disappearance all the more troubling. And devastating.

    The search for her husband had been going since April 14, when Joe Kelly grabbed the keys to his Ford F-150 and left the house at 3:30 p.m. He had told Jane he wanted to go run errands and Jane told him to wait a minute and she’d join him. But five minutes later he was gone, she said.

    He gassed up his truck at a West End convenience store and then topped it off a few minutes later at a downtown gas station. A few days later, a motorist thought he had spotted Joe’s truck headed west toward Columbus on Interstate 90.

    And that was the last record they had of him.

    For more than a month, friends and family worked to keep Joe’s disappearance in the public eye, maintaining a Facebook page with information on Joe and his truck, and asking people to watch and call with tips.

    Joe’s brother hired a private investigator to help with the search. After the first day, Joe hadn’t used his credit card or accessed his bank account.

    After a week, Jane said she came to the realization that if Joe wasn’t trying to use his money, if he wasn’t trying to buy anything, “I knew he wasn’t able to.”

    At that point, she knew what the outcome would likely be.

    When Jane learned searchers had found Joe’s body Wednesday in the Pryors it wasn’t a surprise.

    “But it was kind of a surprise he went back to the same place,” she said.

    In early April, before he went missing, Joe had hopped in his truck one afternoon to go drive around south of town. Jane said at some point during the drive he got turned around and ended up in the Pryor Mountains.

    He eventually found his way out and made his way back to Billings, getting home at 1:30 a.m.

    After that, Jane and Joe made an appointment with a specialist. Although Joe was only 59, he was showing distressing signs of a rapid mental decline, Jane said.

    They were hopeful the specialist would provide them with answers and maybe even treatment options.

    But the appointment never happened. It was the day Joe was supposed to see the specialist that he disappeared.

    Crews found Joe about a half mile from his truck. It appears he got stuck and had tried to walk out. Jane said had he set out walking in the opposite direction, he would have found a home that was about a half mile from his truck.

    That was hard news to receive, she said. But it also confirmed that he wasn’t thinking straight after he disappeared. For now, she’s thankful Joe has found peace.

    “It’s kind of a relief to have it over,” Jane said. “The not knowing is very difficult.”

  • It’s not illegal to be homeless in Montana, nor to panhandle in Billings or quaff an adult beverage, in the right location.

    But as temperatures warm this spring, all three activities are increasingly in play downtown, and business and civic leaders have set a meeting to talk about ways to care for the people who need help while maintaining feelings of safety and welcome for residents, workers and downtown visitors.

    The meeting, hosted by the Downtown Billings Alliance, is set for 8 a.m. Wednesday in the Hart Albin Room at the Northern Hotel, 19 N. Broadway.

    “We are addressing a problem that probably isn’t homegrown,” said Tina Volek, Billings city administrator. “People from throughout the region are here because they are in transition, and they are aware that we have services, which attracts individuals.”

    Emergency?

    “It’s just nuts,” Billings Fire Department Battalion Chief Boyd Vopel said of the six to 10 “man down” calls fielded by department first responders and AMR ambulance crews every day.

    According to Vopel, at least 90 percent of the calls aren’t emergencies, but simply a person sleeping or passed out from being drunk, huffing chemicals or using drugs.

    “It’s a drain on resources, and I don’t know what the solution is,” Vopel said. “When they respond to a man down (call), it takes them out of service to respond to what may be an actual emergency.”

    He said transients will often go to a pay phone and report chest pains. First responders will arrive and take the transient to a hospital, where the transient can get a bed and sleep for a few hours before getting kicked out. This happens as often as a couple of times a day, he said.

    “They know how to work the system,” Vopel said. “It’s hard on the guys. They come to work with the idea that they’re going to help the community.”

    “My members will be weighing in, because they are seeing (an increase in the problem) as well,” said Lisa Harmon, executive director of the Downtown Billings Alliance. “Over the last nine years, we’ve developed a lot of important strategies to make a significant impact,” including funding for a pair of downtown resource police officers, Tony Nichols and Matt Lennick, and educating residents that money they donate to many panhandlers goes not toward feeding their bellies, but feeding an addiction. “There are right and constructive ways of giving,” she said.

    Police Chief Rich St. John said new ideas are always appreciated.

    “We are in need of some solutions to help alleviate the number of intoxicated pedestrians and the transient problem that has inundated the downtown area the last couple of years,” the police chief said.

    The downtown contains “a centralized area” of social service providers, St. John noted, including the Crisis Center, the Hub, the Montana Rescue Mission and Billings’ two hospitals. “If we have contact with an intoxicated person, we are responsible for them,” St. John said. “Sometimes the Crisis Center is full and can’t take anybody. We need to find someplace to divert people and get people the help they need.”

    That place is not the traditional drunk tank, he said, since they’ve been deemed unconstitutional.

    “The closest thing is the Crisis Center,” St. John said. “We use them a lot, and they have been a godsend as an alternative to help mitigate problems.”

    St. John said quality of life concerns “are what make my telephone ring.”

    Ditto for Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder.

    “It does have an impact on our population at the jail,” Linder said.

    To deal with overcrowding, the Sheriff’s Office has put in place a pair of diversion programs, including a 24/7 sobriety program in which about 100 participants are monitored. “Those are people who could be sitting in jail, and they’re not,” Linder said.

    The Sheriff’s Labor Detail, which allows non-violent offenders to perform community service projects or work with local nonprofits, is another program used to divert people from spending time in jail, Linder said. People working in the detail get double credit for the time they work, meaning an eight-hour shift counts for two days of jail time.

    “Maybe they don’t need to be in jail,” Linder said, “but they did something they shouldn’t have. Obviously Billings is getting bigger. More officers are making more arrests; crime is up.”

    He said that discussions about jail space allocation “are ongoing. Overcrowding is a big problem.”

    Lt. Kevin Iffland, a Billings Police Department spokesman, said that inexpensive alcohol sold at some downtown locations increases the number of public intoxication cases. He said police are starting to keep more thorough statistics on the number of open container and public intoxication cases they’re seeing downtown.

    Iffland called the downtown resource officers “real go-getters, proactive officers, and it’s nice to have that in that position. (Downtown) business owners are in daily contact with the officers, and they’re always listening. … We want the officers to be proactive, making contact with transients on the street and theft suspects. They are our daily representative of the Police Department to those business owners. It’s a unique arrangement, since the Downtown Business Alliance picks up their salary.”

    Volek said one idea she plans to discuss during Wednesday’s meeting is an appeal for funding to further address downtown concerns to the Montana Health Foundation from the dissolution of Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Montana. “Mental health and substance abuse are clearly significant issues,” she said. Civic and business leaders are also considering a 2015 summit “to seek further solutions,” she said.

    “We will be talking about the elephant in the room,” Harmon said. “Our city will become more urban and more diverse, so we’ve got to get out ahead on this. I don’t know if we will, but we’ve got to try.”

  • Jessica Lynn Hicks, 33, and Alexis Lynn Nicholson, 14, passed away May 18, 2014.

    Jessie was born May 28, 1980, in Lander, Wyo., the daughter of Sherry Nordland and Eddie (Pete) Hicks. Alexis was born March 15, 2000, in Casper, Wyo., the daughter of Tim and Jessie (Hicks) Nicholson.

    Jessie and Alexis moved to Billings, in 2005 where Jessie attended MSU B, obtained a degree and became a mechanical engineer for Franz/Sweetheart Bakery. Alexis attended Lewis & Clark Middle School where she was an 8th grader this year.

    Family members left behind are: Pete and Jill Hicks of Cody, Wyo., Sherry and Mark Nordland of Asheville, N.C. Jessies' brothers and Alexis' uncles, Brian Hicks, Troy Glick, William Glick, Seth Edwards; and Jessies' sister and aunt to Alexis, Randi Hicks. Alexis' Dad, Tim Nicholson and Mandy Nicholson, brother Lane Nicholson, and sister Jacinda Nicholson, of Odessa, Texas, originally from Casper, Wyo. In addition, they left behind many other family members and close friends, many considered family.

    Services will be held May 30, at 11 a.m at Faith Chapel on Shiloh Rd. Broadwater entrance.

  • WATFORD CITY, N.D. — The tornado that touched down in a North Dakota oil worker camp, critically injuring a 15-year-old girl, has been rated an EF-2.

    A National Weather Service team was at the site Tuesday to assess the strength of the tornado that also injured eighth other people and and damaged or destroyed 15 trailers.

    The Fujita, or EF, scale measures tornadoes in strength on a 0-to-5 scale. 

    The twister touched down at 7:50 p.m. Monday just south of Watford City, about 50 miles southeast of Williston.

    Preliminary information suggests the tornado's winds reached 120 mph.

    The weather service says a second brief tornado possibly occurred in the area based on eyewitness accounts.

    The girl, who was from out of state and visiting and aunt and uncle, was flown to a Minot hospital.

    McKenzie County Emergency Manager Jerry Samuelson said early Tuesday that he didn't know the nature of her injuries. He said she was in an intensive-care unit but was expected to survive, he said. Trinity Health spokeswoman Mary Muhlbradt said the girl's family doesn't want details of her condition to be released.

    Eight other people were treated for lesser injuries at McKenzie County Memorial Hospital in Watford City. The American Red Cross said eight residents spent the night at a shelter at the Civic Center in Watford City and that several families were among those displaced.

    Plywood and other debris was scattered across several hundred square feet at the site Tuesday morning. Four trailers and a couple of other prefabricated buildings were still standing.

    It was cool and rainy at the site and there was little activity. A heavily damaged truck was flipped over on the highway and several other abandoned vehicles were nearby. Road signs were flattened and tumbleweeds pushed up against some electrical wires.

    Don Dailey, who lives in a camp about 200 yards from the one that was hit, said workers got a weather service tornado alert on their cellphones about the same time they saw the funnel coming down to the ground. He and others took cover behind a large piece of excavating equipment.

    National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Hamilton said two meteorologists and an emergency response specialist left Bismarck at daybreak Tuesday to survey the damage at the camp. He said the agency should be able to rate the tornado on the enhanced Fujita scale after getting a firsthand look.

    "The only pictures we've seen, we're seeing some trailers moved around," Hamilton said. "You can't really discern that much from pictures."

    It is likely that only one tornado touched down Monday night, although there were reports of several funnel clouds alongside baseball-sized hail, Hamilton said.

    More storms were moving through the region early Tuesday but the chance of more tornadoes was small, Hamilton said.

    Karen Holte, a volunteer at an American Red Cross shelter at Watford City's civic center, said the tornado descended so quickly that nobody had time to take shelter. Samuelson said all the injured had been inside their trailers.

    One of the injured workers, Tony Beyda, was among nine people who were spending the night at the shelter. He suffered a head wound and cuts on his arm.

    Beyda, who suffered a head wound and cuts on his arm, said he saw something flying toward him as the twister slammed into his home. He pulled back the bandage on his forehead to show how the skin had been stapled back onto his head.

    "It peeled it back pretty good," he said.

    Beyda thought his cat was killed when his home was destroyed, but was surprised to learn from Watford City's fire chief, Oscar Knudtson, that the cat and someone else's dog were found alive.

    Dan Yorgason, who lives in a neighboring camp, filmed the tornado from inside his truck.

    "There was literally nowhere to go," he said. "The tornado was coming down the hill along our only escape route. There was nowhere for us to go. It was crazy."

    William Bunkel, a trucker, was in Watford City when the storm hit. Bunkel, 38, said he had just moved his vehicle inside because of large hail when he spotted the funnel cloud in the distance. He estimated it stayed on the ground for about a minute.

    "We saw it form, come out of the sky, hit the ground and go back up into the clouds," he said.

    Bunkel took photos of the twister and estimated that it remained on the ground for nearly a minute. He said he couldn't see any debris.

    "It was a little bit too far away. We just saw the clouds and the rotation," he said.

    Besides large hail and the tornado, the storm also produced heavy rain and high winds, said Adam Jones, meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

    "We heard there were three touchdowns. But we haven't heard if that's three separate tornadoes or the same tornado touching down three different times," Jones said.

    The oil boom has brought tens of thousands of people into the area looking for work. Many live in hastily assembled trailer parks, also known as man camps, housing pre-fabricated structures that resemble military barracks. Some companies rent blocks of hotel rooms for employees to live in, and some workers sleep in their cars or even tents.

    Housing developments are constantly popping up, but they are not keeping pace with demand and oil money has pushed rents to among the highest in the nation: A simple one bedroom apartment in Williston can easily cost $2,000 per month in rent. Even a spot to park a trailer can cost more than $800 per month.

  • A married couple who are considering closing their antique business of 30-plus years because they’re tired of dealing with belligerent drunks. A businessman whose clients feel unsafe coming to his downtown office. Transients who came to Billings specifically to “party” for a week or two. 

    These were just a few of the dozens of anecdotes shared Wednesday morning at a community meeting held by the Downtown Billings Alliance to talk about the growing issues of public intoxication and transience in downtown Billings.

    More than a hundred people — residents, city officials, business owners, service providers and other stakeholders — attended the two-hour meeting at the Northern Hotel. One by one they stood, introduced themselves and spoke briefly of their concerns, their love of downtown Billings and possible solutions.

    Lisa Harmon, executive director of the Downtown Billings Alliance, moderated the discussion, and after those in the audience had their say, City Manager Tina Volek, Billings Police Chief Rich St. John, City Attorney Brent Brooks, Downtown Resource Officers Tony Nichols and Matt Lennick and Mayor Tom Hanel each shared the perspectives on the matter and some possible solutions.

    Alexandra and Mike Gregory, who have owned Oxford Antiques on Montana Avenue since 1981, said they are considering closing their business because dealing with drunks has become too problematic.

    “When we hear of antique shops talking about closing because of the problems, that’s pretty sad,” Hanel said. 

    One spot

    According to Lennick and Nichols, the data shows a year-to-year upward trend in drunken and disorderly disturbances and open container violations — particularly in one area of town.

    In 2013, police responded to 698 drunken and disorderly disturbances within a 500-foot radius of the intersection of 27th Street North and Sixth Avenue North, Lennick said, holding up a map marked with dots for each of the disturbances. 

    This year, they’ve already responded to 407 drunken and disorderly calls in the same area.

    Last year, police responded to a total of 1,015 calls for service in the same radius. As of Tuesday, they had 909 calls for service in the same area this year, Lennick said.

    The department wrote 335 open container citations last year. This year, that number has already hit 401 citations. “So, it’s a problem,” Lennick said.

    Since he started his work week, Lennick said he’s met three new transients who told him they came to Billings specifically to “party.”

    “And all three of them told me they are not homeless,” he said. “They do have residences somewhere else in the state but they chose to come here to Billings for a week, maybe two weeks, to party.”

    Buying downtown

    The two officers have also started tracking the sources of the alcohol involved in open container violations. 

    They found that 49 percent of the sales could be traced to the Downtown Conoco, 2701 Sixth Ave. N. The place of purchase of booze in 24 percent of the citations was undetermined, 16 percent could be tracked to the Monte Carlo Casino, 2814 First Ave. N., and the remaining 11 percent was purchased at six other locations downtown.

    “That shows me that we have some locations in town that are contributing to this problem,” Lennick said. “And either (they) need to be dealt with as a cooperative effort in town, or I guess we’ll probably go to the Department of Revenue (which regulates liquor licensing) and see how they can help us.”

    Management at other stores downtown — the Holiday store, 2620 Sixth Ave. N.; Albertsons, 611 N. 27th St.; and the Zip Trip, 1046 N. 27th Street — have stopped selling single containers of cheap beer with higher alcohol content often associated with the public intoxication problems in Billings.

    “Unfortunately (those businesses) are still dealing with the same problem, but they’re not getting the revenue,” Lennick said.

    Downtown Conoco owner Jim Murphy said he was at the meeting, but declined to comment Wednesday afternoon.

    Homeless vs. public inebriate

    Several people at the meeting, including Lennick, made a point of differentiating between those associated with the spike in public intoxication problems and the homeless and at-risk people seeking social services in downtown Billings at locations such as the HUB, 515 N. 27th St.; the Crisis Center, 740 N. 30th St.; and St. Vincent De Paul, 2601 Montana Ave.

    “Those aren’t the people that we’re having a problem with a lot,” Lennick said, adding that those people are typically seeking help. “But the people standing around the building and in and out of the building, those are the ones we’re dealing with.” 

    Other challenges

    Billings Police Chief St. John and City Attorney Brooks spoke about the legal limitations law enforcement officials face in dealing with public intoxication, panhandling and related issues.

    People can be cited for urinating in public or having open containers. People can also be warned for trespassing. If they re-trespass, they can be arrested.

    But, “it is not illegal to be homeless,” St. John said. “It is not illegal to sit on a corner and passively hold a sign up asking for money.”

    He discouraged people from giving money to panhandlers. “Don’t enable,” he said.

    Both the chief and city attorney also said that issuing citations for offenses like having an open container becomes a revolving problem because people simply don’t show up to pay the fines.

    “Chronic overcrowding” at the jail also poses a problem, Brooks said.

    “Who do you want to be in jail?” Brooks said. “Is it (those committing) the open container violations that are a huge problem or the person who is awaiting trial for deliberate homicide?”

    The jail has an official baseline capacity of 286 inmates, but routinely houses well over 400 people.

    Before crowding at the jail became such a big problem, $15,000-$20,000 month was spent keeping violators of city ordinances behind bars, St. John said.

    “And I will tell you, the downtown tenants were happy because (they were) out of sight, out of mind,” the chief said. “And we can do that again,” if room becomes available at the jail and people are willing to pay the expense.

    Brooks also attributed the increase in public intoxication and related problems to “the Bakken effect,” saying that some of the “worst of the worst” who can’t find work in that region make their way to Billings.

    Possible solutions

    Several community leaders offered possible solutions, including Mayor Hanel, who suggested putting some of the downtown-based social services aimed at the homeless and transient population under one roof at a location away from the city center.

    “They’re needed, but they’re in the wrong place,” he said, to a round of applause.

    Brooks also said that he is looking into possible statewide legislation or a city ordinance that would prohibit the sale of single cans or bottles of alcohol.

    Funding to address these problems is an issue, Volek said. She suggested there needs to be an effort to bring in money from the Montana Health Fund.

    “That is a fund that has resulted from the dissolution of the not-for-profit Blue Cross Blue Shield agency,” she said. “In the next several years, they will have in the neighborhood of $157 million and they have a board that is going to decide how that money is going to be spent.”

    She also proposed holding a summit on homelessness next January or February and bringing to town people from around the country who have been involved in successful efforts to deal with homelessness, public intoxication and similar issues.

    One such effort she and several other people discussed is Haven of Hope in San Antonio, which has about 80 programs aimed at addressing these issues through a “two-path system” that provides help to people who want it and sobering-up areas for people who don’t, as well as targeted law enforcement.

    Harmon, the executive director of the Downtown Billings Alliance, said there is no “silver bullet” that can address the transience and public intoxication problems Billings is facing. She called on business leaders and those involved in social services to work together to find and fund solutions.

    “You two need each other, and so we have the answer here,” she said.

  • A Billings woman accused of selling pounds of methamphetamine in the community will spend five years in federal prison.

    U.S. District Judge Susan Watters on Wednesday sentenced Hannah Bree Wood, 25, to the minimum mandatory term of five years, which was shorter than the initial guideline range of about seven years to nine years.

    Wood told the judge she had done more for the government than she was getting credit for, including incriminating herself, but was ready to move on with her life.

    Wood, and her co-defendant, Brandon Lee Touchette, who is awaiting sentencing, admitted selling drugs for Larry Green, a convicted drug dealer sentenced last year to more than 12 years in federal prison.

    Wood told investigators she had received meth and cocaine from Green for about four months beginning in February 2012. She came to the attention of law enforcement in June 2012 through a confidential informant who said Wood was selling pounds of meth.

    During a search of Wood’s trash, agents found a substance used to cut meth along with meth residue in plastic baggies. When officers executed a search warrant on Wood’s house in August 2012, they found 19 grams of meth in Wood’s purse and a .22 pistol.

    Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lahr recommended a low-end sentence and said Wood was responsible for at least two pounds of meth.

    Wood’s attorney, Lisa Bazant, also asked for the five-year sentence, saying Wood was an addict.

    Watters said Wood got into dealing to support her habit and agreed that she incriminated herself.

    “It’s not lost on the court,” she said. The minimum mandatory sentence, Watters added, was “a sufficient term to acknowledge the seriousness of the offense.”

  • The Park County, Wyo., Sheriff's Office has recovered the bodies of the two brothers who crashed their small single-engine aircraft earlier this month on the eastern slope of Howell Mountain, according to a press release.

    Using "long ropes," the search and rescue team rappelled down to the crash area and discovered the brothers' bodies still in their seats at around 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday.

    Taking off May 6 from Yellowstone Regional Airport in Cody, Wyo., the two brothers — 84-year-old Robert Zimmerman, of Huntsville, Ala., and 86-year-old Ward Zimmerman, of Seattle — planned on flying their 1963 Mooney aircraft over Yellowstone National Park to visit friends in Twin Falls, Idaho.

    From there, they were headed back to Seattle. But it was a destination they'd never reach. 

    After family members reported the two brothers missing, the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, an agency responsible for coordinating land-based federal search and rescue missions, was able to used archived radar data to partially track the flight path of Zimmerman’s aircraft.

    They tracked the plane to a point approximately 4.5 miles south of the North Fork Highway at the Buffalo Bill Boy Scout Camp. The location is southeast of an area known as Paradise Valley on the eastern slope of Howell Mountain, just outside Yellowstone National Park. 

    Search and Rescue located the plane May 12 by using a helicopter from Sky Aviation out of Worland, but dangerous avalanche conditions thwarted several attempts to reach the the plane.

    On May 13, the sheriff's office decided to call off further rescue attempts. "Due to the condition of the wreckage and harsh environmental conditions at the time, both brothers were presumed dead," the release stated.

    After noting conditions that were much improved when he flew over the site on Monday, Sheriff Scott Steward it was safe enough to send in a search team Tuesday.

    According to the release, five members of the search and rescue team roped down to the crash scene from a helicopter at approximately 7 a.m. on Tuesday, as ground conditions prevented the aircraft from landing. 

    When the team got to the wreckage, both brothers were discovered still in their seats.

    An examination of the crash site suggested that the plane wrecked into the mountain about 300 feet above the crash site, and then slid down. 

    "Although it appears as though they both died on impact, an exact cause of death is pending an autopsy," the release stated. 

    “It was unfortunate that we had to wait as long as we did to get the victims out, but I could not consciously send our folks in to the extremely dangerous avalanche situation that we were faced with," said Sheriff Scott Steward in the release. "The families understood our decision.” 

    The sheriff praised the rescue team's efforts. 

  • A mother and her three young children were transported to the hospital after the SUV in which they were traveling rolled into a ditch near the intersection of Old Hardin Road and Calamity Jane Boulevard.

    According to Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Justin Moran, the wreck occurred at about 10 p.m. on Saturday as the woman was traveling northbound on Calamity Jane Boulevard and "failed to negotiate a turn in the road." 

    She overcorrected to the left, into the southbound lane, then to right, back into the northbound lane, where the vehicle went off the road and into a ditch, rolling onto its top. 

    Emergency crews responded with two ambulances, two Montana Highway Patrol troopers, a sheriff's truck and a Lockwood fire engine.

    The mother and her three children were transported to St. Vincent Healthcare with what appeared to be non-life-threatening injuries. 

    Moran said that the children's father, who arrived after the crash, was unable to provide the children's dates of birth, but Moran speculated that none were older than 13.

    The road was partially blocked as a wrecker worked to remove the SUV from the ditch. 

    Alcohol is believed to be a factor, Moran said. But he said it's too early to tell what sort of citation would be given, as the investigation is ongoing.

  • Jay Littlewolf.

    Janet Wolfname.

    Teddy McMakin.

    Hansa Faye Burns.

    Robert McLean.

    Winfield S. Russell.

    Tim Lamewoman Sr.

    Diana McLean.

    The health of each of these people — or their loved ones — has been jeopardized by what they call a dysfunctional, inadequate and irresponsible Indian Health Service.

    It is a system in which they have little confidence. And, they want it fixed, but based on experience fear it never will be.

    Some of these men and women on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation were misdiagnosed; others suffered prolonged delays in receiving medical attention. Some were given the wrong dosage of medicine. Some had loved ones die before they got the appropriate care.

    Similar problems with IHS have been reported for decades throughout Montana's Indian reservations.

    Indians don't have to go to IHS for care. They can go to any health care provider who will see them, or IHS can refer them outside the system for specialty care.

    But, even that doesn't work.

    In most of those cases, the patient must pay the bill upfront and wait, often futilely, to be reimbursed by IHS. Members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe alone are owed more than $2 million by IHS, according to tribal officials. Those who can't afford to pay their bills wind up hounded by bill collectors.

    “That’s one of the biggest problems we have,” said Llevando “Cowboy” Fisher, president of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe. “One lady is going bankrupt because she can’t pay her bills.”

    The problems with the Billings Area IHS are so pervasive and have existed for so long that Montana’s Congressional delegation recently called for an investigation from the federal Government Accountability Office.

    On Tuesday, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, which is chaired by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, will hold a field hearing in Billings. Officials from reservations across the region have been invited to testify.

    The IHS is the principal federal health care provider and health advocate for American Indians and Alaska Natives and was created by treaty. The Billings Area IHS currently has a $226.4 million budget and serves about 70,000 Indians across Montana and Wyoming.

    The troubles throughout Montana’s IHS system are myriad, say those who have worked within the system, and turnover among leadership is constant. Anna Whiting Sorrell quit her job as director of the embattled Billings Area IHS after just 18 months, saying the challenges were too great.

    Critics also see the bureaucracy as a sweetheart jobs program where poor performers are moved around within the system, and sometimes promoted rather than fired. Some have also cited a lack of qualified staff and say licensing and credentialing of providers is questionable. Recruitment and retention are also a problem.

    Of all the agency's critics, however, patients seem the loudest. Some even say they're lucky to have survived their experience with IHS.

    Teddy McMakin is 78 and has been a diabetic since 1998. In March of last year, she went to the IHS’s Northern Cheyenne Community Health Center in Lame Deer for a routine blood draw. She was advised that her blood sugar was high. Medical staff increased her insulin — despite her protest.

    She went to bed that night and in the morning her sons could not wake her. Her blood sugar had dropped so low that she had fallen into a diabetic coma.

    “My mother wound up in a life-threatening situation,” said her daughter Clara Caufield. “If my brothers had not been here, Mom would have died.”

    Jay Littlewolf is another example. He said inadequate care at the Lame Deer IHS clinic compounded his problems with a diabetic ulcer on his right foot. The 54-year-old Busby man said that at one point he was told the remedy was to cut off his toes.

    Instead, he sought medical treatment in Billings.

    “I don’t like those comments when the podiatrist says he just wants to cut your toes off,” Littlewolf said. “I know there are alternatives. Common sense says that.”

    To date, he has spent $3,000 out of pocket and expects his total bill to exceed $20,000. He wants IHS to reimburse him — and pay the balance of the bill — but the agency has refused.

    “We are trained and born not to challenge the system,” Littlewolf said. “I’m not trying to challenge the system. I just want my bills paid. I wanted to save my toes, my foot, my leg, my life. All I want to do is mow my darn lawn.”

    Littlewolf has sought help from Tester, who is now pressing IHS to take care of Littlewolf’s medical bills.

    “Like too many other Native Americans, Jay is struggling due to a complex and drastically underfunded health care system,” Tester said.

    Hansa Faye Burns, 75, suffers from chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder, a progressive disease that makes it difficult to breathe. She is also diabetic. She has experienced four-hour waits to get medical attention and to get her prescriptions filled. And, that’s with an appointment.

    “I’m angry,” the feisty Burns said. “It’s like they don’t care, like you’re nothin’ sittin’ out there.”

    The horror stories go on:

    — Diana McLean said she was misdiagnosed after going to the emergency room in Lame Deer with a stomachache, nausea and diarrhea. She was advised to take Alka-Seltzer and Tums. After feeling worse, she went to Billings where she was hospitalized for five days with E. coli, a bacteria that can cause deadly kidney failure.

    “It’s not quality health care,” she said. “It’s whatever care.”

    She said a Billings doctor told her if they hadn’t gotten to her when they did, she would be dead. She owes at least $4,000 and is unable to pay. Her credit score has plummeted.

    — Winfield Russell went to the ER in Lame Deer because he couldn’t breathe. He was prescribed cough syrup and given an inhaler. He later was diagnosed in Billings with a serious case of pneumonia. He no longer relies on IHS, opting instead to purchase his own health insurance at roughly $300 a month.

    “I want better treatment,” Russell said. “I’m very fortunate. I can afford it.”

    With unemployment hovering at 90 percent on the reservation, however, most people cannot afford their own insurance.

    — Janet Wolfname’s 16-year-old son had a fever of 105 for nearly a month. IHS medical staff attributed it to a virus. By the time he was properly diagnosed, he had stage 3 cancer.

    “Because of the inability to adequately diagnose, the trust of individuals is gone,” Wolfname said. “There are stories across the board. He’s not the only one. You have people who don’t survive the situations and pass away before they get the referral.”

    — Tim Lamewoman Sr. said his wife, Gail, 49, died in July 2009. He said IHS referred for specialty care only after being diagnosed terminal.

    “I am angry and I am sad,” Lamewoman said. “We’ve lost patients to cancer. By the time they get to Billings and are opened up, they are too far gone. It’s genocide. It’s the killing of a group of people. They should be charged with wrongful death.”

    Though IHS is part of the trust responsibilities the U.S. government must provide under historic treaty agreements, the treaties are not being honored, said Lamewoman Sr., who practices law in the tribal court system.

    “Our treaty rights have been stolen,” he said. “They are not government entitlements.”

    Many other Northern Cheyenne are reluctant to share their experiences for fear of retaliation, even loss of employment.

    “I get it,” Tester said. “Until they know they can trust who they’re talking to … they’re going to be pretty cautious because health care is an important commodity.”

    It is not the first time the GAO has investigated IHS facilities. Over the past 10 years, the GAO has conducted more than 15 investigations of IHS, in response to requests or legislative mandates from Congress.

    The GAO is an independent, nonpartisan agency that works for Congress. Often called the “congressional watchdog,” GAO investigates how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars.

    Tester said he will stand by and let the GAO do its “thing,” but if he is not satisfied he could also ask for an audit from the Office of Inspector General in the U.S. Department of Justice.

    The request for a GAO investigation was triggered in part by the Crow Tribal Legislature. It voted unanimously in April to ask Montana’s congressional delegation to do everything necessary to investigate the Billings Area Office of the IHS.

    “Our people are having a tough time getting proper health care, just basic health care,” said Sen. Eric Birdinground, of the Crow Center Lodge District, who introduced the resolution. “For a lot of people, it’s a matter of life or limb.”

    Birdinground said he is increasingly concerned about the loss of services, including obstetrics and walk-in clinics, patients waiting in line at 7 a.m. hoping for a chance to see a health care provider, long delays and a perpetual lack of staff.

    “Nobody wants to work over here,” Birdinground said.

    He also questions whether the Billings Area IHS office has been mismanaged. The Crow Legislature’s call for an investigation coincides with the resignation of Whiting Sorrell in April.

    Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., has discussed the issue with the Crow Tribe and recently spoke before its Legislature. He has sent a letter to IHS Acting Director Yvette Roubideaux asking that she swiftly evaluate IHS administration in the Billings area.

    “My fear is that once the investigation is done, we will be in the same boat,” Birdinground said.

    Health care issues have long taken center stage in Montana’s Indian Country. In August 2012, Former U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., held a two-hour field hearing in the lobby of the Crow-Northern Cheyenne Hospital. The focus was primarily on the issues facing the hospital — funding, staffing, etc. — although it was clear those same issues existed throughout the system.

    Two years earlier, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services conducted a survey of the Crow-Northern Cheyenne Hospital and issued a 900-page report listing deficiencies and corrective actions.

    Many of those deficiencies still exist.

    Despite their own horror stories, Clara Caufield and Robert McLean are quick to defend some of those working in the IHS system.

    “There are some good, dedicated providers,” Caufield said. She’s the one whose mother nearly died from diabetic coma. “They are not all bad.”

    Many argue that at the root of some of the problems is a lack of money.

    Tester has cosponsored bipartisan legislation, the IHS Advance Appropriations Act of 2013, which amends the Indian Health Care Improvement Act to require new budget authority for IHS.

    The bill pre-funds IHS one year ahead. Because of the way the federal government works, agencies often aren't given money until after they've spent it. This bill would use the same budgeting process for IHS that is currently used for the VA.

    The change would allow the agency to strategically plan how to use its limited funds. But, there are many hurdles the bill must get over first.

    Tester acknowledges the IHS is underfunded. But, maintains that not all of the agency’s challenges are caused by a lack of money.

    He said he heard recently that one health care provider was seeing one patient a day, which he called “unacceptable.” If true, the senator said that person should be fired.

    “They’ve got to use that money to the best of their ability,” Tester said. “They have to at least attempt to meet the needs of the folks there on the ground. There is still a level of responsibility with the money they have to use it appropriately.”

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