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Federal and tribal authorities arrested 17 people on drug charges on Standing Rock reservation Tuesday morning, following a 14-month investigation that featured an unusual level of cooperation among federal and tribal prosecutors.

U.S. Attorney for North Dakota Tim Purdon said the cases of the 17 people weren’t necessarily related but all stemmed from the same investigation by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Justice Services. It was labeled “Operation Prairie Thunder.”

Besides the FBI and BIA, the U.S. Marshal’s Service, Homeland Security Investigations, Drug Enforcement Administration, Sioux County Sheriff’s Department and U.S. Parole and Pre-Trial Services also were involved in the investigation and arrests Tuesday morning on the reservation that straddles North Dakota and South Dakota.

Operation Prairie Thunder resulted in 10 people being charged in U.S. District Court in North Dakota, two people being charged in U.S. District Court in South Dakota and five people charged in Standing Rock Tribal Court.

The charges mostly involve possession or distribution of marijuana and prescription drugs. Purdon said he was somewhat surprised by the amount of prescription drug misuse alleged in the case. There has been talk of prescription drug abuse being a growing problem on reservations, and Operation Prairie Thunder seems to substantiate that, he said.

Purdon said the cooperation among his office and the offices of U.S. Attorney for South Dakota Brendan Johnson and Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Chief Prosecutor Grant Walker allowed for appropriate charges to be filed in the case. Purdon explained that had Walker’s office not been involved, five people charged in tribal court would have either faced felonies in federal court or would not have been charged at all since federal prosecutors would not have focused on the lower-level charges.

"The U.S. Attorney’s Office is committed to a strategy in Indian Country that is built on close cooperation between federal, state, local and tribal law enforcement agencies and prosecutors," Purdon said. "This cooperation has resulted in charges being filed, not just in federal court, but also in the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s own tribal court where appropriate. Cooperation like this means better law enforcement, better prosecutions and safer communities."

"These indictments illustrate the progress that is being made in Standing Rock and throughout Indian Country in South Dakota and North Dakota," Johnson said. "The success of this investigation was the result of close cooperation between dedicated professionals in numerous law enforcement agencies."

Walker said the cooperation allowed the tribe to participate directly in Operation Prairie Thunder.

"By being a partner in this operation, the Standing Rock Tribe is able, through the exercise of its own sovereignty, to make its own important contribution to the safety of its community," he said.

In another unusual move, U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Miller traveled to Standing Rock Reservation south of Mandan on Tuesday morning to hold first appearances for the 10 people charged in U.S. District Court in North Dakota.

"It's very, very rare" for a federal judge to travel to a reservation for court hearings, Purdon said. "I'm aware of it at least once in North Dakota, many, many years ago."

Purdon said his office coordinated with the federal court to have Miller go to Fort Yates for the hearing. Taking the court to the community gives the tribe an investment in the process and eliminates geography as an obstacle for defendants and others involved, he said. Such court hearings typically are held at a federal courthouse, such as the one in downtown Bismarck.

"They feel connected to it, and they are aware of what is going on," Purdon said about the advantage of taking the court to the reservation. "It shows that we’re all working together to try to improve public safety in Indian Country."

He said such efforts could be made again.

"We are always looking for ways to work together with tribal courts, federal courts, and state, local and tribal law enforcement," he said.

Acting Special Agent in Charge Richard D. Schwein of the FBI's Minneapolis field office, which includes North Dakota and South Dakota, called the arrests in Operation Prairie Thunder "a shining example of cooperative law enforcement efforts."

"Jurisdictional issues exist throughout Indian Country and working together with other federal, state and local agencies in a common goal is essential for Indian Country law enforcement," Bureau of Indian Affairs Special Agent in Charge Mario Redlegs said. "This Operation affirms to the people of Standing Rock that we are watching vigilantly and ensuring that they do have a safe place to live."

Reach reporter Jenny Michael at 250-8225 or jenny.michael@bismarcktribune.com.

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