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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 second 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 1 and 3 can be found here.
A small group of Native Americans hoisted signs into the air on a searing hot Oklahoma day as the president's motorcade rolled on in the distance.
“Justice for Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket,” read one. It featured a reproduction of a wood lithograph of a placid, bespectacled young Native American man in braids.
Barack Obama was in Oklahoma on July 16, 2015, to visit the federal penitentiary in El Reno, west of Oklahoma City. In a bid to highlight criminal justice reform, he planned to talk to inmates there. The motorcade turned in to a maze of red-roof buildings a half mile or more down the road, barely visible to the 100 or so people gathered by a police barrier and a grassy pasture to witness this rare spectacle — a Democratic president in Oklahoma, a state with politics as deep red as the state’s signature dirt.
Melissa and Wilbur Goodblanket, Mah-hi-vist’s parents, made the hourlong drive to El Reno from their home in rural Custer County because they wanted to bring attention to the shooting by local sheriff’s deputies of their 18-year-old son, Mah-hi-vist, the young man on the sign.
But Obama was too far away to see the family’s signs.
Frustration has become a familiar feeling in the years since Mah-hi-vist died.
Mah-hi-vist, whose name in English translates to Red Bird, had oppositional defiant disorder, a little-understood condition that he controlled with the help of therapy and medication. He was in the midst of a mental episode, thrashing around the home and breaking windows, when Wilbur called 911, worried his boy was going to hurt himself.
The family wanted help from medical personnel and law enforcement calming down Mah-hi-vist. That’s not what they got.
Custer County Sheriff Bruce Peoples told reporters that on Dec. 21, 2013, Mah-hi-vist threw knives at sheriff’s deputies and Oklahoma highway patrolmen in the home before two deputies fired seven shots, including one to the back of Mah-hi-vist’s head. Peoples declined to discuss specifics in a phone call with an Al Jazeera America reporter in early February.
One deputy had to have a finger amputated after shooting his hand during a confrontation with the 6-foot-8, 230-pound Mah-hi-vist, Peoples said in multiple media reports.
An autopsy report showed Mah-hi-vist had a blood alcohol level of 0.1.
According to Melissa, Noami Barron — Mah-hi-vist’s girlfriend, who was by his side moments before his death — told the family members that night that he had calmed down by the time lawmen arrived. He was crying and asking for his parents when the officers entered the home, not confrontational and throwing knives. Barron could not be reached for comment.
The Goodblankets want the investigation reopened and believe the scales of justice tip too heavily toward law enforcement in close-knit Custer County.
Dennis Smith was the Custer County district attorney who, in April 2014, determined the shooting that night was justified. He made his decision based on an investigation by the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI), which assists small law enforcement agencies throughout the state, like Custer County, with death investigations. OSBI investigations are sealed under Oklahoma law.
Smith resigned from his top post, in which he oversaw five counties in western Oklahoma, including Custer County, after 12 years, in May 2014, the month after the ruling in the Goodblanket case. At the time, he told a local news outlet that budget woes depleted the core function of his job, “which is to protect the public, seek justice,” he said.
Reached at his private practice in Clinton, Smith said he made the right call in the Goodblanket case. “I feel confident the ruling we made was based on the evidence,” he said. The investigation was proper, he said, conducted by an outside state agency rather than the department whose officers fired the shots.
Peoples, the Custer County sheriff, agreed that the OSBI adds a layer of checks and balances to a law enforcement shooting investigation. “We’re not investigating ourselves. Someone else is,” he said.
The Goodblankets aren’t so sure the process is fair. Melissa pointed out that Smith worked for the OSBI and that the sheriff worked for years for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
Smith said he worked for the OSBI 30 years ago, in a post that had no bearing on the case. “I think that’s a self-serving statement,” he said. “I’ve known a lot of fine officers for years who worked their way up in the chain — highway patrolmen, federal officials. That’s no different than any other job. You aspire to get to the height of your profession.”
Peoples denied that any kind of good ol’ boy network is at play between the sheriff’s department and the district attorney’s office or other entities involved in the events that night. “We file cases. We give them cases to be filed, sometimes a dozen a day, sometimes none. That’s what they do — they represent us. If that’s good ol’ boy, I’m sorry. That’s the way it is,” he said.
Angela Marsee is the current district attorney for Custer County and was an assistant district attorney at the time the Goodblanket case was being considered. She declined to be interviewed for this report.
When the Goodblankets went to a local state lawmaker for help, they discovered he was Marsee’s father and the former mayor of the county seat, Arapaho, home to the Custer County jail and courthouse. He assured them that if his daughter was involved, the decision made was a fair one, Melissa said.
Smith said justice in Custer County is sound. “When you are a law enforcement officer, a prosecutor, even lawyers, you took an oath to do the best job you can and to follow the law. I feel 99 percent of them do. You’re going to find bad actors in every profession. I’m not saying it’s 100 percent, but fortunately, most of the ones I’ve had the occasion to work with were [good],” he said.
Mah-hi-vist’s family members aren’t the only ones who question the decision to justify the shooting death and would like to reopen or at least inspect the investigation files.
But a legislative attorney for the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, to which the Goodblankets belong, filed an open records request in August 2014 and could not get even basic public documents, like 911 calls and an incident report, from the Custer County District Attorney’s Office.
Nor could the Goodblankets or attorneys hired by the family, Melissa said. The family has not filed a wrongful death lawsuit. That deadline has passed, she said.
Al Jazeera America did not receive a response after making an open-records request for stun gun logs, 911 calls and an incident report related to the Goodblanket case at the Custer County Law Enforcement building Feb 14. Marsee denied a Feb. 8 request for a timeline, 911 calls and an incident report for the Goodblanket case, as well as one for the case of Benjamin Whiteshield, another mentally ill Native American shot in Custer County.
The family has other doubts. The mark of a knife lodged in a kitchen wall is horizontal. Wilbur wondered how his son could have thrown a knife sideways into a hard plaster wall.
The family has preserved these marks and other elements from the night their son died, convinced that the home is a crime scene.
“Shot to the back of the head? I don’t see you can explain that away,” said Rosemary Stephens, the editor-in-chief of The Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal Tribune, at its headquarters.
She watched Mah-hi-vist grow up. Her son also had oppositional defiant disorder, and she struggled to find answers and treatment for years. As a child, his gaze would go blank when he acted out in anger, breaking windows or confronting a teacher, she recalled. Like Mah-hi-vist, she said, her son didn’t seem fully there during his angry outburst. The only things that seemed to help him were the presence of his older brother and, later, military life. To this day, her son, now 29 and a twice-deployed Marine veteran, struggles with anger issues.
“I don’t know,” Stephens said. “It disturbs me. All these years, it’s bothered me. I do not feel the truth has come out. I feel Melissa and Wilbur’s account of what happened that evening is accurate.”