Two defendants were given lengthy federal prison sentences Wednesday in separate, back-to-back horrific crimes of violence against children last year that rattled residents of a Montana American Indian reservation and prompted tribal leaders to blame rampant drug use.
U.S. District Judge Brian Morris sentenced a woman from the Fort Peck Reservation to 20 years in prison for the murder of a 13-month-old who had been under her care. Less than two hours earlier, Morris handed down a 42-year prison term to a man who kidnapped and raped a 4-year-old girl on the reservation.
Tribal leaders said the crimes, which occurred within weeks of one another, were rooted in the rising scourge of methamphetamine use on the sparsely populated reservation in northeastern Montana near the U.S. border with Canada.
While the sentencings closed out two cases that put a spotlight on the problem, tribal officials have said drug use continues and that they lack the resources to deal with it.
Fort Peck is home to the Assiniboine and Sioux tribes and has a population of about 10,000 people.
In the murder case, prosecutors said Janelle Red Dog, 43, abused 13-month-old Kenzley Olson, used methamphetamine while the child was unconscious and when the girl stopped breathing, put her body in a duffel bag and threw it in a trash can.
Red Dog pleaded guilty in May to second-degree murder after acknowledging she hit Kenzley twice on April 18, 2016, in an attempt to quiet her.
The child died of multiple blunt force injuries, and an autopsy found she had numerous bruises from head to toe in various stages of healing, suggesting a pattern of continued physical abuse and neglect.
Red Dog had been caring for Kenzley for three to four weeks prior to her death, court records said. Tribal Chairman Floyd Azure has said Kenzley's mother was being held in the tribal jail when the girl died.
Red Dog's mother, Rhea Starr, said her daughter was caring for Kenzley because no one else would.
In the kidnapping case, John William Lieba II was accused of chasing down a 4-year-old girl, brutally raping her and leaving her for dead in an abandoned pickup in the middle of winter near the town of Wolf Point.
A jury convicted Lieba of kidnapping, aggravated sexual abuse of a child and assault resulting in serious injury on a minor. He faced up to life in prison.
He became a suspect almost immediately after the girl's Feb. 26, 2016, disappearance and was arrested a day later.
A friend of the victim testified at his trial that she watched Lieba snatch the 4-year-old girl after they'd been playing in a Wolf Point park. He was recognized by the mother of another girl he chased earlier the same night in the park but who got away, according to court records.
The victim was not found for two days, when a sheriff's deputy noticed her shoeless footprints in a patch of mud behind a fertilizer plant and discovered the girl — alive but traumatized — on a makeshift bed in the cab of an old pickup truck.
Bruises and burst blood vessels on her head and neck indicated Lieba had tried to strangle the girl, according to law enforcement officers and doctors who examined her.
The defendant's attorneys said Lieba had stopped taking his anti-psychotic medication prior to the kidnapping and could not remember the events.