A couple admitted in U.S. District Court on Friday that they were responsible for the murder of a Lame Deer woman last summer, but details about what happened or what caused the victim’s death remain unclear.
Eugenia Ann Rowland, 42, of Pine Ridge, S.D., pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, which is killing with malice aforethought. She faces a maximum of life in prison and a $250,000 fine. Rowland had no plea agreement.
Co-defendant and common-law husband, Garrett Sidney Henderson Wadda, 35, a transient, pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact. He had a plea agreement. Wadda faces a maximum of 15 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
U.S. District Judge Susan Watters set sentencing for both defendants for Feb. 12.
Rowland and Wadda were charged in the death of 21-year-old Hanna Harris, a 2010 graduate of West High School in Billings, who had a 10-month-old son. Harris’ badly decomposed body was found on July 8, 2013, near the Lame Deer rodeo grounds on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.
A cause of death could not be determined because of the body’s decomposition, although “positional asphyxia” could not be ruled out, said prosecutor Lori Suek. Whether Harris had been sexually assaulted also could not be determined because of the decomposition.
Rowland admitted the three had been drinking over the Fourth of July. Responding to questions by her attorney, Robert Kelleher Jr., Rowland told the judge that she was drunk, there was a fight and that she and Wadda beat Harris.
“At some point and in some manner did that result in the death of Hanna Harris?” asked Kelleher.
“Yes,” Rowland responded.
Watters asked Rowland if she wanted to explain in her own words what happened.
“No, your honor,” Rowland said.
Wadda told the judge he knew Rowland had killed Harris and that he moved the body, destroying evidence, to keep Rowland from going to jail.
Wadda admitted using the car of Rowland’s son to move Harris’ body to near the Lame Deer rodeo grounds. Investigators later found Harris’ DNA on a seat cushion in the car.
Rowland had been expected to plead guilty on Wednesday but she changed her mind toward the end of a hearing. Rowland told Watters she wanted to go trial, which was set for Monday.
When Watters asked Rowland on Friday what had changed since Wednesday, Rowland said she remembered more of what had happened. “I had a part in it,” she said.
Had Rowland gone to trial, Wadda, under the conditions of his plea agreement, was to have testified that he knew Rowland killed Harris.
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In exchange, the government said it would seek to dismiss first-degree and second-degree murder and aggravated sexual assault charges initially filed against Wadda.
Wadda was offered the plea agreement, Suek said, because he “denied responsibility” for Harris’ death. “Wadda claimed that he did not know how Harris died, but remained steadfast in denying responsibility for her death,” she said.
If Wadda failed to comply with the agreement, the prosecution could have refiled charges.
In court records filed earlier this week, the prosecution said its evidence showed that Rowland awoke to screaming after blacking out from drinking and saw Wadda having sex with Harris. Harris was screaming that she was being raped. Rowland became “enraged and beat the victim, rendering her at a minimum unconscious,” Suek said.
On Friday, Suek’s description of evidence against Rowland omitted references to a sexual assault or to Harris being beaten.
The government had accused Rowland and Wadda of aiding and abetting each other in Harris’ murder.
Events leading up to Harris’ death began the night of July 3 when the trio began drinking and partying. Harris was last seen alive at about 1:30 a.m. on July 4 in video surveillance at the Cheyenne Depot, a Lame Deer convenience store. Harris was seen getting into her car and driving away. Rowland is seen on video getting into the front passenger seat, while investigators determined Wadda was in the back seat.
When Harris failed to return home on July 4, her parents reported her missing to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Wadda and Rowland told investigators in interviews between July 4 and 7 that they were drinking and partying with Harris and eventually ended up at a trailer on property belonging to Wadda’s aunt.
Rowland said she had no memory of what happened because she blacked out. She told investigators she was surprised and concerned the next morning when she saw Harris’ car still parked near the property.
The BIA notified the FBI about case on July 7. The next morning, investigators searching Wadda’s aunt’s property found one of Harris’ shoes under a trailer and a sash she had been wearing.
By then, Wadda and Rowland had gone to the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming to see Wadda’s relatives. Rowland then contacted law enforcement and said Wadda had told her he admitted moving Harris’ body.
Months later, in January, Rowland was staying in Rapid City, S.D., where she drank with a former sister-in-law.
The sister-in-law told investigators and testified to a grand jury that while drinking with Rowland, Rowland talked about Harris’ murder, Suek said in earlier court records.
The sister-in-law said Rowland told her that Rowland, Harris and Wadda were drinking, that Rowland passed out and she awoke to screaming. She found Wadda having sex with Harris, who was yelling she was being raped. Rowland told her sister-in-law she tried to help Harris, but Harris hit her, which made her mad. Then Rowland and Wadda beat Harris until she was unconscious, wrapped her body in a sheet and dragged her outside.