Brendan Johnson and Tim Purdon

Brendan Johnson, left, and Timothy Purdon, the U.S. Attorneys for South Dakota and North Dakota, respectively, listen to testimony about efforts by federal prosecutors in North Dakota to handle cases on reservations.

FBI Special Agent Chad Coulter came to North Dakota with a history of working drug cases. Teaming up with Bureau of Indian Affairs criminal investigator Gerald White, Assistant U.S. Attorney Gary Delorme and Standing Rock Sioux tribe chief prosecutor Grant Walker, Coulter formed a plan to fight prescription drug abuse and distribution on the Standing Rock Reservation.

The result was an unprecedented collaboration of state, tribal and local authorities, resulting in 17 arrests following a 15-month investigation dubbed Operation Prairie Thunder.

The investigation was one of several successful efforts by the North Dakota’s U.S. Attorney’s Office that assistant U.S. attorneys explained Thursday to members of the Department of Justice’s Native American Issues Subcommittee.

The subcommittee is made up of U.S. attorneys from around the country whose districts include parts of Indian Country. South Dakota U.S. Attorney Brendan Johnson chairs it and North Dakota U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon is the vice chairman. Purdon organized a subcommittee meeting to coincide with the Tribal Leaders Summit at the Bismarck Civic Center Exhibition Hall on Thursday.

Assistant U.S. attorneys from Purdon’s office talked about Operation Prairie Thunder, along with human trafficking and public corruption cases and an outreach effort by one prosecutor.

Mary Lou Leary, an acting assistant U.S. attorney general and director of the Office of Justice Programs, said the collaboration should be a model for other communities and tribes on how to work together for a greater good.

Coulter said he thought investigators could make more of an impact in prescription drug cases if they worked many of them over a long period of time rather than in a piecemeal fashion. He and White would collect information about cases from patrol officers and would talk to defendants in tribal court drug cases. They got Delorme and Walker, who also serves as a special assistant U.S. attorney for both North Dakota and South Dakota, together to discuss the cases.

The group discussed which cases should stay in tribal court, often to keep a young, first-time offender from having a felony record, and which ones should be charged in federal court. Once they decided which cases should go where, the group brought in more than 70 law enforcement officers from the FBI, BIA, the U.S. Marshal Service, the Sioux County Sheriff’s Department and the Metro Area Narcotics Task Force to simultaneously arrest all 17 defendants.

Child welfare, social services and public housing officials were informed about the arrests so they could take care of any related issues, such as children left without someone to care for them.

Purdon said he expected some backlash from the mass arrest operation but he has not heard one complaint. Instead, a Standing Rock Sioux tribal member stood up at the hearing and asked that the team make more arrests.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Rick Volk, FBI Special Agent Sterling Muller, victim-witness coordinator Beth Lang and victim specialist Paula Bosh talked about their efforts in the prosecution of a human trafficking, sexual abuse and drug conspiracy case centered on the Fort Berthold reservation. Volk said that case, which resulted in four people being convicted of a variety of charges in federal court, involved numerous young teenage victims.

The case was brought to his attention when parents got worried that their daughters or their daughters’ friends were going to a home where they were provided with alcohol and drugs and men there would have sex with the girls once they were intoxicated, Muller said. The parents also mentioned possible gang activities and gang markings. After a special forensic investigator did numerous interviews, two people were arrested. Two others were later indicted in the case.

Volk said the case had to be held together for 21 months before it was brought to trial. The victim coordinators and specialists had to support the victims and witnesses to get them to testify because they feared for their own safety. But, tribal, federal, state and local agencies and officials worked on providing them with help and support and to make sure that everything was in place for the trial, Volk said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Jan Morley talked about getting an anonymous tip about fraud and embezzlement in two programs on the Spirit Lake Sioux reservation that resulted in numerous public corruption cases. The tribal chairman allowed investigators to look through records in the Low Income Home Energy program and the Vocation Rehabilitation program after the tip came in, and investigators found enough information to get a subpoena for further information.

Through the investigation, seven people face charges involving defrauding the energy program, meant to help low-income residents heat their homes, and eight were charged for defrauding the vocational rehabilitation program, meant to help teach and get people with disabilities into new occupations.

Purdon said his office has established a white collar and public corruption team to prosecute such cases.

Delorme also talked about efforts he and Walker have made in the schools on the Standing Rock reservation. Delorme, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, said he always hoped to give back to the community if he reached his goal of working for the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He and Walker have talked to students and established relationships with them and have brought in speakers on subjects the students are dealing with. The Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s vice chairman, Mike Faith, said earlier in the day that the students have bonded with Delorme.

“That makes a heck of a difference,” he said.

Sign up for our Crime & Courts newsletter

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

Reach Jenny Michael at 701-250-8225 or jenny.michael@bismarcktribune.com.