Calling the murder of Rosella Wooden Thigh the most heinous crime he had ever seen, Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull on Thursday sentenced an Ashland man who helped burn her body to 15 years in prison.
"I don't believe 15 years is long enough, but that's the max," Cebull said in sentencing Reno James Runs Above.
Runs Above, 36, pleaded guilty in August to being an accessory after the fact in the May 5 murder of Wooden Thigh.
Cebull, his voice tight with anger, called the "gratuitous violence" to Wooden Thigh "beyond comprehension."
Runs Above faced about seven to nine years under the guidelines, but the judge increased the range after finding that his conduct was unusually cruel and degrading to Wooden Thigh.
Runs Above admitted that he saw Trinidad Quiroz shoot Wooden Thigh in a trailer house near Ashland on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation and that he helped get rid of her body by burning it and other evidence.
Quiroz, 37, of Ashland, committed suicide five days later, according to court records and testimony.
Quiroz's son and co-defendant, Shane Michael Sandcrane, 20, has pleaded not guilty to aiding and abetting first-degree murder. Sandcrane faces a mandatory life sentence if convicted.
Runs Above apologized to Wooden Thigh's family. "I didn't know he (Quiroz) was going to do that. I was scared at the time. I know I should have come forward and said something."
Eight members of Wooden Thigh's family attended the hearing. Wooden Thigh's brother, Joseph Weasel Bear, who reported his sister missing, asked the judge for the maximum 15-year sentence.
"For her to leave this world the way she did is painful," he said. Despite Wooden Thigh's struggle with alcohol, she was a loving mother, sister, aunt and grandmother, he said.
"I know these guys," Weasel Bear said of both defendants. "What they did to Rosella is unforgivable. We don't burn our people's body."
The investigation began May 12 when the Bureau of Indian Affairs got the report that Wooden Thigh was missing.
Investigators learned through interviews that Wooden Thigh was last seen with Runs Above. On the evening of May 5, Runs Above, Wooden Thigh, Quiroz and Sandcrane were drinking at a trailer house. As they drank, the men tired to persuade Wooden Thigh to have sex with all three of them, the prosecution said.
Wooden Thigh refused, and Quiroz got angry. Quiroz tried to kill her by attempting to break her neck. After the assault, Quiroz and Sandcrane left the trailer and returned a short time later. Quiroz had a handgun and shot Wooden Thigh in the head.
The men discussed different ways to dispose of the body and decided to burn it, along with furniture from the trailer, in a fire pit. The men burned all of the furniture and the carpet in the room where Wooden Thigh was shot. Witnesses said the fire burned for five days. The day after the shooting, Runs Above and the other men returned to the trailer with bleach to clean up blood from the shooting. They agreed to keep quiet about what happened.
FBI Special Agent Ernie Weyand testified that he had never seen a case where the destruction of evidence was so successful. The extreme temperature of the fire did not allow for the recovery of DNA evidence, he said. But some DNA evidence was found on hair debris and on the bumper of a car.
Cebull noted that before deciding to burn the body, the men put it on the hood of a car to transport it. The body fell off and they drove over it before putting it back on the hood. The men also burned Quiroz's car, kept the fire going in the fire pit and removed the ashes to destroy evidence.
Cebull questioned Runs Above's statement that he was afraid of Quiroz and described him as ruthless and mean. Six months before the murder, he said, Runs Above sold Quiroz a handgun for $100 so he could buy more alcohol. Quiroz used the handgun to shoot Wooden Thigh.