HELENA — A 10-year-old lawsuit that says the FBI inadequately investigates crimes against Native Americans on Indian reservations is finally going to trial, after a federal judge this week rejected the FBI’s request to dismiss the case.
U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon of Helena ruled Thursday that the case has too many disputed facts to allow a summary judgment, so he’ll hold a bench trial on the suit brought by the family of Steven Bearcrane, who was shot and killed on the Crow Indian Reservation in 2005.
The family says the FBI accepted the killer’s argument that he acted in self-defense and didn’t properly investigate.
Trish Bangert, an attorney for Bearcrane’s family, said the family is pleased that details of the case will finally get a public hearing.
“All they’ve really wanted is for the FBI to do an unbiased investigation of Steven’s murder,” she said. “I think any parent would want that if their kid is killed. … We’ve taken informal steps to try to get the FBI to reopen the investigation, and they’ve just refused.”
Bearcrane’s parents, Earline and Cletus Cole, and his daughter, Precious Bearcrane, all of Billings, filed the suit in 2009. It alleged that the FBI and one of its agents, Matthew Oravec, did not provide adequate law-enforcement to them or other Native American residents on the Crow Reservation.
It said Oravec and the FBI “refused to do anything but the most cursory investigation” of Bearcrane’s murder and decided that the killer, a white man, had acted in self-defense, ignoring evidence to the contrary.
The lawsuit says the FBI has violated Native Americans’ right to equal protection under the law, by not providing adequate law enforcement.
“Refusal of federal agencies, such as defendant FBI, to provide the same law enforcement services to Native Americans as provided to non-Native Americans has played a major part in creating the serious crime problem in Indian Country,” the suit said.
The FBI agent, Oravec, has been dismissed as a defendant in the case. Through a series of rulings in federal courts, the case has been narrowed to the question of whether the Coles and their granddaughter are being improperly denied benefits related to the U.S. Crime Victims’ Rights Act.
Bangert said the decision that the killer acted in self-defense means Bearcrane is responsible for his own death, and therefore the family cannot receive any benefits from the state crime victim-assistance program.
But any award the family would receive from the program is minimal, she said, and that the suit is about the principal of Native Americans getting adequate, non-discriminatory law enforcement by federal officials on the reservations.
“The Bearcrane family is not asking for any money,” Bangert said. “They want a declaration that the FBI ran an inadequate investigation.”