In Oklahoma, killings of Native Americans raise questions

Mental illness among Indian residents often confronted by police not equipped to deal with problem

Melissa Goodblanket with a portrait of her family at her home in Clinton, Oklahoma, Feb. 13, 2016, with Ma-hi-vist in the rear of the photo.
Garett Fisbeck for Al Jazeera America

After family members of several Native Americans with mental illness asked authorities for help, their relatives were later killed by law enforcement. The scenario has played out in Custer County and elsewhere in Western Oklahoma at least three times in recent years. This is the first in a three-part series exploring the case of Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, an 18-year-old member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, shot by sheriff's deputies after his father called 911. Parts 2 and 3 can be found here.

Noami Barron burst out of her boyfriend Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket’s home and fell to her knees.

“They shot Bird!”

She started to throw up.

Mah-hi-vist, 18, whose name in English translates to Red Bird, has oppositional defiant disorder, a little-understood condition that he controlled with the help of therapy and medication. He’d been in the midst of a mental episode when his father, Wilbur Goodblanket, called 911, worried that his boy was going to hurt himself – but no one else.

The family wanted help from medical personnel and law enforcement calming down Mah-hi-vist. But it did not work out that way. Instead, lawmen shot and killed Red Bird. The young man’s tragic fate highlights a series of deadly Oklahoma incidents in which mentally ill Native Americans encountered law enforcement officers who, campaigners and relatives say, are not trained properly in how to deal with them.

That night Wilbur and Melissa Goodblanket, Mah-hi-vist’s mom, couldn’t believe what they heard.

“Is my son OK? Is he alive?” thought Melissa.

She jumped out of the red Dodge pickup truck where she was keeping warm with her husband and younger son and the family’s German shepherd. She wanted to take a coat to Barron, who was wearing just black stretch pants and a pink pullover on that freezing December night, Dec. 21, 2013, in Custer County, Oklahoma.

Lawmen order Melissa back into the pickup.

From inside the truck, parked in front of the home’s picture window twinkling with white Christmas lights, family members saw officers moving around inside the well-lit living room. They couldn’t see Bird.

Someone started wrapping the front yard in yellow tape. An officer tapped on the hood of the truck and motioned for the family to come out. “Sorry. Your son didn’t make it,” he said.

The Custer County district attorney later ruled the shooting a justifiable homicide.

The Goodblankets call it something else. “Murder,” Melissa said. “They murdered our son.”

At the funeral for Ma-hi-vist Goodblanket, his grandmother pays her last respects.
Courtesy Melissa Goodblanket

At a time law enforcement agencies are re-examining training procedures and policies and outfitting officers with body cameras to address questionable police shooting and in-custody deaths in urban areas like Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri, the Goodblankets believe their son’s death is a glaring example of inadequate training in rural Oklahoma law enforcement agencies that routinely encounter the mentally ill.

In their search for answers, the Goodblankets discovered their ordeal was not unique to Custer County, whose namesake, Gen. George Armstrong Custer, carried out the slaughter of a peaceful band of Cheyenne and Arapaho tribal members only 60 miles west of the Goodblanket home. Nor is it unique to Oklahoma, home to 39 federally recognized tribes.

Benjamin Whiteshield, 34, was in the midst of a delusional episode and convinced he was being followed when his grandmother and mother drove him to the Clinton Police Department on June 27, 2012. He had a condition that caused seizures, and he sometimes had a paranoid or delusional episode before one occurred, Sara Whiteshield, his sister, said. When he got out of the family’s vehicle, he had a wrench in his hand. A Clinton police officer shot him in the mouth. He later died.

Similar scenarios have played out elsewhere in western Oklahoma.

Ninety miles south of Clinton, in Lawton, Christina Tahhahwah, 37, was staying with her grandparents on Nov. 13, 2014, when her relatives called 911. She was bipolar and was in the middle of a mental episode, throwing objects around the house. Her family members wanted help getting her back on her medication and to a hospital for a medical assessment.

Police instead arrested her for trespassing and took her to jail, according to an account in The Lawton Constitution. On Nov. 14, she was found unresponsive in her cell. Family members attended a Lawton City Council meeting at which, they said, witnesses reported officers repeatedly used a stun gun on her after she refused to stop singing in jail. She died at a hospital on Nov. 17.

A mural at the Goodblanket home shows the meeting of Melissa and Wilbur Goodblanket, with their sons, Ma-hi-vist and Ahk-ta-na-hi on horseback.
Garett Fisbeck for Al Jazeera America

But it is with Ma-hi-vist and the story of his life that the Goodblankets are most concerned.

The Cheyenne name Mah-hi-vist means Red Bird. Red Bird was the name of Wilbur’s great-great grandfather, a Cheyenne warrior killed at 18 while trying to stave off U.S. troops who attacked a sleeping band of Indians at the Battle of the Washita in 1868. The Washita Battlefield National Historic Site is an hour’s drive west of the Goodblanket home.

As a child, Mah-hi-vist always wanted to wear his buckskin shirt and play with his bow and arrow. He insisted he grow his hair long, and his dad braided it. Mah-hi-vist loved horses and took a huge interest in anything about Native Americans on TV, watching the movie “Dances With Wolves” again and again, mesmerized.

When anger issues surfaced in grade school, seemingly out of nowhere, the Goodblankets said they were convinced Red Bird carried that anger into this life from the past, from his warrior namesake who had witnessed the slaughter of children, women and men.

But they also sought modern answers for the mysterious battles that seemed to rage in their little boy’s mind. Answers were hard to come by in rural Oklahoma.

While Oklahoma has the second-highest rate of adults with serious mental illness in the nation, it spends so little per capita on mental health that in 2015, only six states spent less per person.

In grade school, the family fought for an assessment to help Mah-hi-vist succeed in school and learned heir son had oppositional defiant disorder. the “Diagnostic and Statistic Manual of Mental Disorders,” published by the American Psychiatric Association, states those with the condition can be angry, irritable, argumentative and defiant and can exhibit symptoms alone or along with another mental health issue, like substance abuse or depression. It’s not known what causes the condition, though contributing factors may be environmental and inherited.

His parents transferred him to a private Christian school, where he excelled under one-on-one attention and a caring learning environment. But tuition was steep.

At public middle school in Clinton, Mah-hi-vist grew into a huge kid, often mistaken for someone much older. The principal called his mother in to talk for about her concerns with the boy’s braided hair, his love of the color red. Melissa, a massage therapist, would apologetically explain to her clients in Clinton that she had to take care of business at the school. Then she would explain to the principal that her son, Mah-hi-vist, wears his hair long because he is Native. He is not in a gang. His name means Red Bird. Red is his favorite color.

With his mental condition unchecked, trouble found him.

He got into a fistfight with his best friend. Afterward, he didn’t remember any of the details but felt extraordinarily embarrassed. The huge boy — always the tallest in his grade -— cried and wanted his parents to hold him. He didn’t understand what had happened.

“Mom, he said. “There’s something wrong.”

A painting by Ma-hi-vist Goodblanket at his home in Clinton.
Garett Fisbeck for Al Jazeera America

At 14, he spent three months in an in-patient program 100 miles away in Norman. His stay resulted in glowing reviews from Mah-hi-vist’s counselors and fresh understanding about what triggers episodes linked to his condition, like last-minute changes to a plan. Life normalized, though it didn’t come without struggle. Kicked out of a private high school for fighting, he finished at an alternative high school closer to home. 

He wrote his parents, educators and counselors a poem of thanks for graduation day, May 25, 2012:

With hurdles to jump
Challenges to face
Poor choices to conquer
I have Overcome

I am taking the walk
I made it through the DARKNESS
This is my chance
A 2012 graduate a year in advance
Ahead of my class
No regrets of life experiences endured
I step forward leaving the past in the past
I walk to receive the document earned
Excited for the future
Another page in my story turned
Not without gratitude to all of you
Friends, relatives, mom and dad, educators and counselors too …
A-ho, Wa-Do Thanks My hat is off to you.

In the fall of 2013, he fell in love with Barron.

Mah-hi-vist returned home for winter break after a semester of college at Haskell Indians University in Lawrence, Kansas. He planned to transfer to college in Weatherford, closer to home.

Then on Dec. 21, 2013, on the longest night of the year and a freezing one, Mah-hi-vist had another episode, his first in years and the worst his family ever saw.

Sitting at a kitchen table at the family’s one-story brick home outside Clinton, the Goodblankets recounted that night.

As Melissa and Wilbur prepared to attend church, Mah-hi-vist, Barron and Ahk-ta-na-hi, the Goodblankets’ younger son, headed to Clinton in the family’s pickup for snacks. The plan, set the day before, had been for the three of them to hang out at home that night.

For Mah-hi-vist, last minute changes to an expected path of action triggered mental episodes. When Barron called Melissa and asked to be dropped off at her grandmother’s house in Weatherford, it wasn’t what he expected. He misunderstood his girlfriend’s intentions. He thought it meant she was leaving him, and he became intensely focused on that and upset.

As Mah-hi-vist, Barron and Ahk-ta-na-hi pulled up to the family home, Mah-hi-vist got out of the truck. “Please don’t take her,” he told his mother. Barron and Ahk-ta-na-hi followed him inside.

“Noami, please don’t go,” Mah-hi-vist pleaded. She did not know about his mental illness. “Please don’t go. Please don’t go,” he said again and again.

Wilburt Goodblanket, Ma-hi-vist Goodblanket’s father.
Garett Fisbeck for Al Jazeera America

Mah-hi-vist brushed by his dad, who saw a small bottle of alcohol in his son’s hand, and walked outside.

Melissa ran to the garage, got into her small sport utility vehicle and drove a few hundred feet down the driveway to meet him. His knuckle was bleeding, as though he had rammed his fist against a tree. She persuaded him to get into the car, and they drove back to the garage.

Melissa got out of the car and walked into the kitchen.

“He wants to talk to you,” she told her husband.

Wilbur went to talk to Mah-hi-vist in the garage. His son was hysterical, crying and shaking and saying he didn’t want to live anymore. Wilbur tried to calm him down and urged him to go inside and take care of his hand, eventually persuading him inside and to the sink.

Melissa knew her son was walking a line, a stumble away from a full-blown episode. She saw it in his eyes, which returned a blank stare. During past episodes, her son hadn’t listened to reason, as if he couldn’t hear or see anyone, not really. In the kitchen, though, he calmed down. He was himself again.

“Ahk-ta-na-hi, I’m sorry for scaring you,” he said to his brother, giving him a huge bear hug. “I love you.”

“I love you,” he told his father, embracing him too.

As Mah-hi-vist hugged his mother and told her how much he loved her, Wilbur left to drive a little more than 4 miles to nearby Clinton for cigarettes. 

Mah-hi-vist asked for Noami, who was in his bedroom. She walked into the kitchen. She didn’t run to him, and he possibly saw that as a sign of rejection. He became agitated, thrashing his arms and limbs — all 6 foot 8 of him — and walking inside and outside. He knocked over the Christmas tree and kicked a glass window out of a storm door leading to the garage. He shattered his big bedroom window.

Wilbur got a panicked call from his younger son.

“Dad, get home,” Ahk-ta-na-hi said. “I think he hurt himself this time.”

“What happened?” Wilbur thought. “He hurt himself this time?” He called Melissa and, crying, she begged him to come home. He drove as fast as he could on icy roads and dialed 911, worried his son was going to hurt himself. 

Wilbur attempted to summarize what was happening and give directions to a dispatcher, but he put the phone by his side to keep his son from breaking another window. “No, no, stop!” he shouted to Mah-hi-vist. Noami remained in the home, as did Melissa’s mom, who has dementia and lives in the family’s basement, but she remained downstairs as events unfolded.

The pulsing lights of an ambulance broke the darkness. Melissa felt relieved that paramedics could evaluate her son. Behind the ambulance, a Custer County deputy’s squad car arrived.

Wilbur introduced himself to the sheriff’s deputy. “I’m the dad,” he said. “He went around the house.”

The deputy didn’t ask what was going on. Mah-hi-vist was outside too and peeked his head out from the opposite side of the house. He walked into the garage and into the house, closing the door behind him.

“He’s right here,” Wilbur called out to the deputy, gesturing toward the door in the open garage.

Melissa walked out the front door at almost the same time her son went inside. Mah-hi-vist closed the front door and locked it behind her. The deputy continued to investigate with his flashlight.

Ahk-ta-na-hi, who had been hiding in a front yard treehouse, crept down the steps. The deputy whipped around and pointed a weapon at the boy. “No, that’s our son!” Melissa cried out.

“Get down! Get down!” the deputy yelled, his weapon drawn and pointed.

As Ahk-ta-na-hi struggled to walk down treehouse steps with his arms up, the family’s German shepherd, Sissy, darted around a corner, barking and barreling toward the deputy. Wilbur intercepted it by the collar.

“You better put that dog away or I’ll shoot it,” the deputy told the family.

As Wilbur gathered Sissy and put her in the truck, a second deputy walked up. “Get back,” he yelled at them. “Get back!”

“Why is he screaming? Why is he yelling?” Melissa wondered, confused.

Wilbur asked him if the family members could get into the truck and out of the cold. “Yeah,” the deputy said. “That’d be all right.”

The Goodblankets have left splattered blood on the wall of their home in the belief that it is part of a crime scene. They believe it is from a deputy who they say cut his hand on a broken window on the way into their home.
Garett Fisbeck for Al Jazeera America

Wilbur, Melissa and Ahk-ta-na-hi gathered inside the truck. Wilbur pulled it up in front of the picture window so they could see what was going on.

The deputies walked together to the broken window in Mah-hi-vist’s bedroom. The Goodblankets watched as one deputy yanked a curtain down. They entered the house but quickly went back outside.

As they approached the truck and walked toward an ambulance, Wilbur noticed one deputy was holding his hand. The second had his arm around the other’s shoulder.

As they passed the driver’s side of the pickup, one of the deputies yelled out to an EMT, “He about cut his fingers off!”

The Goodblankets watched as three Oklahoma Highway Patrol cars parked on the road. Wilbur counted five lawmen walking toward the house. Their weapons were drawn. “Don’t shoot my son!” Wilbur yelled.

“All he needs is an assessment,” Melissa cried out.

Four of the lawmen entered the home. In the truck, the blasting heater muffled sound from outside.

It was nearly 8 p.m. That’s when Barron burst out of the garage, screaming, “They shot Bird!”

Wilbur and Melissa Goodblanket with a photo of Ma-hi-vist Goodblanket, taken when he ran in the Sand Creek Massacre Spiritual Healing Run.
Garett Fisbeck for Al Jazeera America

Barron’s account, according to Melissa and Wilbur, was that Ma-hi-vist was crying and asking for his parents when law officers entered the house. She was sitting on his lap. She got up and walked toward the home’s side door that led to the garage, and Ma-hi-vist stood up and walked toward the officers. That’s when shots rang out.

Barron could not be reached for comment.

Mah-hi-vist’s body was taken out of the home on a stretcher and in a body bag at 6:30 a.m. Melissa asked to perform a ceremony and was told she could not see or touch her son.

As sunset neared and in freezing temperatures, the group laid hands on Red Bird’s body bag and prayed together for his journey to the other side, for his release.

Reached by phone in February, Custer County Sheriff George Peoples declined to discuss the details surrounding the events that night. So did Angela Marsee, the current Custer County district attorney, who was an assistant district attorney at the time.

Peoples has maintained in multiple media reports that Mah-hi-vist was throwing knives at deputies and that a struggle ensued, resulting in a deputy’s shooting his finger, which had to be amputated. An autopsy report showed Mah-hi-vist had a 0.1 percent blood alcohol level the night he died. Peoples told a reporter for the Clinton Daily News that a dispatcher received calls from the Goodblanket home that Mah-hi-vist was “drunk, armed with a knife, assaulting occupants in the house, kicking in the doors and breaking out the windows.”

“Deputy [Chance] Avery utilized a nonlethal Taser … It was ineffective,” Peoples told the newspaper. “While being attacked, Deputy Avery tried to hold off the 6-foot-8-inch Goodblanket with one hand while drawing and firing his weapon with the other, striking the suspect and also shooting his index finger on his left hand. At the exact same time, Deputy [Dillon] Mach fired numerous rounds, striking the suspect.”

The Goodblankets maintain that Avery sliced his finger on a window at the home and question not only the account of a struggle but also whether Avery was in the home at all. The Goodblankets said they did not tell a dispatcher that their son was drunk or armed but have been unable to get copies of 911 calls they made from Custer County.

The Custer County district attorney in 2014 ruled the death a justifiable homicide.

Melissa Goodblanket
Garett Fisbeck for Al Jazeera America
Damage from a shot fired during the incident remains on the Goodblankets’ kitchen counter.
Garett Fisbeck for Al Jazeera America

Melissa said she can’t and won’t stop looking for justice for her son.

Avery and Mach later received accolades from the law enforcement community for the bravery they displayed. The Oklahoma-based Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes, to which Wilbur and his sons belong, condemned the police’s actions in the killings of Mah-hi-vist and Benjamin Whiteshield, the man in the midst of a paranoid episode who sought help from Clinton police in 2012, only to be shot and killed by an officer. David Crabtree, the Clinton police chief, did not return a call seeking comment.

Full-time deputies, like all other Oklahoma peace officers, are required to complete hundreds of hours of academy training before they begin their duties, with an additional 24 hours of training per year to maintain credentials. A tiny fraction of that time is dedicated to mental health issues.

Peoples says his six deputies fill shifts 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There’s not much time to sit in class. There’s no money to staff crisis intervention officers, who undergo extensive training in dealing with mentally ill subjects. Departments in large cities like Oklahoma City and Tulsa have this kind of team, a luxury, but not in Custer County or elsewhere in rural Oklahoma.

“Welcome to the real world,” Peoples said. “I don’t have money for the deputies to go chase down who’s cutting fences, driving in crops, dumping trash, stealing cattle, domestics … We do all of that. We barely have enough people, and a lot of times don’t have enough people to respond to those needs.”

On a recent day, the Custer County jail, capacity 128, is at 114. Peoples calls it “a mental health holding facility … My jail is full of mentally ill. It’s unbelievable.”

Ray McNair, the executive director of the Oklahoma Sheriffs Association, acknowledges there is room for improvement when it comes to training rural deputies on best practices for mental health calls.

“What would be fantastic across the state of Oklahoma is if every department has a particular set of deputies or police officers that receive specific training for those particular incidents and they were the ones that were called to those particular cases,” he said.

Dennis Smith, the Custer County district attorney who ruled Mah-hi-vist’s death a justifiable homicide, defended his decision as fair and based on the facts but felt better training would help prevent heartbreaking scenarios from occurring in the first place.

“It all comes out in the end,” he said. “People make choices, and unfortunately, when those choices are made, sometimes they have terrible consequences. I do think mental health has been neglected in the state. It has been for years. Every deadly force case involving law enforcement stands on its own merits. Could [more training] have helped? Certainly it could have helped.”

The curriculum for law officers’ continuing education in Oklahoma changes slightly year to year, depending on law enforcement trends, McNair said. Now there is a focus on diversity training and de-escalation tactics, he said, after controversial police killings in Ferguson and elsewhere.

Peoples said de-escalation is nothing new. “De-escalation, it’s something we practice every day,” he said. “We rarely have to go inside a house. It’s something we do all the time. That’s regular basic police work there.”

The Goodblankets disagree. Custer County deputies needlessly escalated the events that led to their son’s death, the couple said, from the moment each deputy stepped foot on the property.

Melissa said the thought that sharing Mah-hi-vist’s story could bring about positive changes in mental health training for rural agencies or help in any way to prevent needless killings of mentally ill people is what keeps going and what keeps her family together in the face of at times overwhelming grief.

“I grew up around the church, but I have a deeper understanding of spirituality than that,” she said. “As a child, my mother always told me, ‘You always tell the truth. The truth may hurt, but always tell the truth.’ And that’s all that we want. We want the truth to be told. Because we’re supposed to be able to call on people to assist us. Not to call on people to come and murder our children. And it’s happening all over the country. It has to stop. The taking of lives has to stop.”

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