Thursday, December 28, 2006

One Determined Heroine and Her Fall From Grace

PINE RIDGE, S.D. — Here in the poorest corner of the poorest Indian reservation in the country, Geraldine Blue Bird’s household was one of the worst off.

Then President Bill Clinton stopped by her home during his 1999 tour of the nation’s most impoverished places. Ms. Blue Bird, who lived on a disability check, was squeezing 28 adults and children, most of whom she had taken in from the streets, into a four-room shack with no plumbing and a pop-up camper out back. When word got out, donations poured in, and continued for years. Ms. Blue Bird even received a brand-new double-wide mobile home with four bedrooms.

But the woman who became a symbol of enduring, desperate poverty in the United States now bunks in a jail cell in Rapid City, some 90 miles to the northwest. In October, a federal jury convicted her of running a multimillion-dollar drug ring out of her double-wide. The ring supplied cocaine throughout the hills and valleys of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, which is the size of Connecticut.

Her arrest and conviction followed a two-year investigation by federal and tribal authorities that netted 16 people, including several of her relatives and “adopted” children. Ms. Blue Bird, who is 50 and suffers from congestive heart failure, is to be sentenced on Feb. 20. She faces up to life in prison.

The case has brought a sense on the Pine Ridge reservation that Ms. Blue Bird betrayed her people. After Mr. Clinton’s visit, her burst of fame made her a kind of ambassador for the Oglala Lakota Sioux tribe. She gave interviews in which she spoke of a need to rescue Lakota youth from drugs and gangs. She was recognized by Senator Tim Johnson, Democrat of South Dakota, as one of the nation’s Angels in Adoption. Until her arrest at a Rapid City motel on Dec. 21, 2005, she was raising money to open an orphanage.

Those in her neighborhood remember her sharing the donations she received, showering families with bags of children’s clothes. Their lingering question about her fall from grace: Why?

In an interview at the Rapid City jail where she has been held since she was arrested with several accomplices, a pound and a half of cocaine and a few guns, a weepy Ms. Blue Bird denied having been the leader of the drug ring, or even a part of it. She accused her biological son Colin Spotted Elk, 25, one of four people convicted with her, of running the gang.

“I knew he was doing it,” she said, “but he’s my son.”

Ms. Blue Bird, who plans an appeal, said support for her remained strong among the Lakota. But interviews in the village of Pine Ridge suggested otherwise.

On a reservation where some lack plumbing and electricity, the most generous speculated that Ms. Blue Bird’s actions could be traced to her intense poverty. They thought she had followed her son and others into the drug gang when the wads of cash they carried became too big a lure.

Others said she had become addicted to the attention she received as a result of her largess: when donations to her slowed to a trickle, she needed a way to continue doling out goods.

Still others could find no excuse at all.

Will Peters, who formerly represented Pine Ridge on the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, said she was “single-handedly responsible for ruining the lives of every young person involved” in the drug ring.

In Ms. Blue Bird’s forlorn neighborhood (known as the Igloo community because the 1940s-era cabins there came from an Army base in Igloo, S.D.), those who were once close to her are still shocked.

“We thought she was doing good,” said Marvin Richards, a cousin who lives down the road from her double-wide, now boarded up. “Around Christmastime, the family members would get new shoes, sacks of clothes. We really appreciated it.”

Three of Mr. Richards’s own nine children were caught up in the drug ring, he said. Sage, 21, pleaded guilty and has begun serving more than 11 years in prison. The only daughter, Marvella, 27, and another son, Rusty, 24, were convicted with Ms. Blue Bird, Mr. Spotted Elk and another man, Flint Thomas Red Feather, 35, whom Ms. Blue Bird raised. They all await sentencing.

Mr. Richards spoke as he looked into a house across the street from Ms. Blue Bird’s. It had belonged to his parents, and he was fixing it up for his daughter when she was arrested.

That house and the two next to it are empty now. Those who lived in them were all swept up in the drug arrests. (The children who lived with Ms. Blue Bird are with relatives, or in foster homes, “scattered to the four winds,” she said.) The street looks war-torn. The houses’ windows are broken or boarded up, and piles of clothes and debris are visible inside, through wide-open front doors.

Everyone in the neighborhood knew that the street was prone to trouble. On Dec. 10, 2005, 11 days before Ms. Blue Bird’s arrest, a 16-year-old was shot to death by a friend who was playing with a gun in Ms. Blue Bird’s mobile home.

Tribal authorities say the breakup of the Igloo ring has put a small dent in the drug problem on the reservation. Certainly in what is left of the Igloo community, “things are quiet now,” said Mr. Richards, who still plans to fix up his daughter’s house, for someone who might need it.