On June 16, seven members of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians appeared before U.S. District Court Judge James Rosenbaum in Minneapolis, where they had come to plead guilty in connection with the biggest cocaine bust in the history of the isolated and crime-plagued northern Minnesota reservation.
After the defendants formally confessed to their roles in the drug ring, it seemed the long-running case, which ensnared a total of 33 Red Lakers and one Mexican national, would come to an end without a single trial or, for that matter, any consequential disclosure of the evidence.
All that changed when Judge Rosenbaum refused to accept a plea bargain from one defendant, Ramon Charles Sayers. Under questioning from the judge, Sayers, a 33-year old ninth-grade dropout and convenience-store clerk known on the reservation as “Razor,” admitted he arranged cocaine deals over the phone, which was the basis of a reduced charge to which he attempted to plead guilty.
But when Rosenbaum asked Sayers to identify his supplier, the defendant balked. At that, the judge rejected the plea deal and ordered Sayers to stand trial. On Thursday morning, after three days of testimony, a 12-member jury convicted Sayers on two drug-conspiracy counts, the most serious of which carries a minimum 10-year prison sentence and a maximum of life.
Vivid portrait of drug trade
While Sayers never took the stand, secretly recorded telephone conversations and testimony from his fellow defendants created a vivid portrait of the burgeoning crack trade at Red Lake, a trade in which dealers operated with near impunity and, sometimes, with the assistance of tribal police.
Among those swept up in the investigation were two former tribal police officers, Herbert May and Robert Jeffrey Van Wert. Earlier this month, May and Van Wert pleaded guilty to using a telephone to facilitate a drug deal, a felony charge that carries a maximum of four years in prison. Both officers admitted under oath that they tipped drug dealer Gary Lee Strong to the existence of investigations. Van Wert also testified that Strong paid him $300 in cash for alerting him to a pending warrant.
The officers’ pleas confirmed long-running suspicions at Red Lake that tribal police have, at least on occasion, protected drug dealers on the reservation. In a 2006 article in The New York Times, one former investigator for the Red Lake police complained that dispatchers “would narc out” police when they were planning raids.
Another former investigator told the Times that tribal officials, including Floyd “Buck” Jourdain, the tribal chairman, pressured police to drop drug investigations that involved relatives and friends. (Jourdain, who has denied the allegation, did not return calls for this story).
But it isn’t just the Red Lake police department whose reputation was sullied by the recent court proceedings. Others defendants in the case come from some of Red Lake’s most prominent families. Two adult children of the tribal treasurer have already pleaded guilty, as did sons of a former Red Lake court administrator and the band’s cultural director.
Star witness was investigation target
As it happened, the government’s star witness in the Sayers case was also the chief target of its investigation: Gary Strong, also known as “Baby Gar.” According to his own testimony, Strong started dealing at Red Lake shortly after his discharge from the United States Air Force in 2004. Strong said another defendant, Austin “Rooster” Head, introduced him to the fundamentals of the business. After several months, Strong struck out on his own.
Unlike other defendants who described themselves as either addicts or heavy users, Strong testified that he became involved strictly for the money. He said he sold mostly crack, rather than powder cocaine, “because it sells faster.”
By 2006, Strong had emerged as a major source on the reservation, investing an average of about $22,000 per week to supply a flourishing operation he ran out of the home of his mother, Mavis Strong. He had little trouble recruiting friends and relatives to help out. “My friends seen what I had,” Strong said. Asked to elaborate, Strong responded with a single word: Money.
On August 10, 2006, Dana Alphonse Oliver, who acted as a courier for Strong, was arrested after driving to Minneapolis to pick up a kilogram of cocaine (roughly 2.2 pounds) from an illegal immigrant named Augustin Martinez-Miranda. In an indication of how brazenly Strong conducted his business, just one week later Strong was arrested after purchasing a second kilo from Martinez-Miranda on another trip to Minneapolis.
Charges led to becoming an informer
Facing charges that could have sent him to prison for life, Strong quickly became an FBI informer. He fingered numerous associates and participated in three “controlled buys” involving one of his on-reservation suppliers, Frederick Desjarlait. In a subsequent raid at the home of Desjarlait’s mother, federal agents seized two kilograms of cocaine from a safe. Desjarlait, who testified at the trial, previously pleaded guilty to a 10-years-to-life conspiracy charge.
In one of the more stunning revelations of the trial, Strong admitted that after his arrest and subsequent agreement to cooperate with the FBI, he resumed selling cocaine. Dulce Foster, an attorney for Ramon Sayers, cited Strong’s double dealing as a reason to distrust Strong’s claims to have been involved in drug transactions with Sayers. “Gary Strong is a dishonest man,” Foster told the jury.
Foster pointed out that Strong told FBI agent Robert Woldt that he didn’t do business with the Sayers family, allegedly because of his rivalry with Craig Sayers, Ramon’s brother, over a woman. On cross examination, Foster asked Strong, “Mr. Strong, did you ever tell anyone that if you went down, you’d take the Sayers’ family with you?”
Foster also highlighted the lack of evidence about any direct communications between Strong and Ramon Sayers. Over a two-month period, the FBI recorded approximately 5,000 calls on Strong’s two phones lines, many of them involving drug transactions. In those recordings, Strong and Sayers never spoke to each other.
Conversations with Strong associate
But while the wiretaps didn’t establish a clear connection between the two men, they included a series of frank drug-related conversations between Sayers and Marida “Missy” Seki, who sold cocaine for Gary Strong. In those exchanges, Seki, who testified that she was a heavy crack smoker at the time, arranged to purchase cocaine from Sayers on occasions where Strong was out of town or “ran dry.” Some of the purchases were made on credit, she testified; others with cash or food stamps.
With Sayers’ conviction, all 33 cases involving Red Lakers have been resolved. The government dismissed the charges against one defendant, Loretta Kingbird. Twenty-six other defendants — including kingpin Gary strong — were convicted of a conspiracy charge that carries a minimum sentence of 10 years in prison. The remaining six defendants pleaded to the so-called “telephone charge” and face up to four years.
On the reservation, the legacy of Red Lake’s biggest drug case remains unsettled. Since the first wave of mass arrests in 2006, most of the defendants, including Gary Strong and Ramon Sayers, have remained free on bond. They will likely remain free until sentencing, which is not expected until fall or early winter.
Relief, sadness, sympathy and fear
For Red Lakers, the case elicits a complex mixture of relief, sadness, sympathy and fear. Because so many families are involved — and because of concerns about violent retribution — many will only discuss the matter with a promise of anonymity.
“We’re all somehow related to each other, and all of us have someone in our extended family mixed up in this,” said one elder.
“I know some of the people who were arrested. I like them. They are nice people. And you can’t hate people who you watched grow up. And I hate to run the name of Red Lake in the mud. But this stuff [crack] has just taken over and you wouldn’t believe the people who are using. There are grandmas that are hooked.”
“It’s just very sad,” she added. “But I still believe this is a good place to live. It’s still possible to have a good life here. Otherwise, I wouldn’t stay here.”
For others, that conclusion is less certain.
One former tribal official, who also asked not to be named, said he despaired over the extent of the continuing drug problem on the reservation and the seeming inability of the tribe to address it.
“Even after this, we see dealers that haven’t been touched. The trafficking still goes on. It’s just not as open as it used to be,” he said, adding: “My own grandsons are probably headed down that road and I can’t do a damn thing about it.”
Mike Mosedale, who has written for City Pages and newspapers in Connecticut, Wisconsin and California, reports on the environment, Indian affairs and other topics.