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Little Owl guilty on one count of theft

GRAND FORKS -- Mark Little Owl, former director of tribal social services for the Spirit Lake Nation, was convicted Friday on a charge of theft in North Dakota District Court in Grand Forks.

A jury found him not guilty on two other misdemeanor counts -- simple assault and deprivation of a minor -- also stemming from an Aug. 21, 2012, domestic disturbance at the Grand Forks apartment of his former wife.

District Judge Sonja Clapp set sentencing for Aug. 28 on the Class A misdemeanor.

Little Owl had been accused of striking Phyllis Roberts, his former wife, and physically and verbally abusing her in the presence of their two children, 3 and 6 years old at the time.

He also was accused of taking her cellphone.

That was charged initially as a felony but was reduced to a misdemeanor when the value of the phone was determined to be less than the $500 required for a felony charge.

Meredith Larson, the assistant state's attorney who prosecuted the case, said she respected the jury of three men and three women but was disappointed in the acquittals.

"These are difficult cases," she said after the verdicts were read. "I believe very strongly that there should have been guilty verdicts" on all counts. But "domestic violence happens behind closed doors, so there is only so much evidence I can present."

Patrick Rosenquist, who defended Little Owl, said he was "obviously pleased with the acquittals," but "I'm not completely happy with the outcome."

A decision on whether to appeal the theft conviction "will be up to Mr. Little Owl," he said.

In emotional testimony Thursday, Roberts described a confrontation with Little Owl that left her injured and in pain. She testified that at one point Little Owl threw their younger son from a bedroom when he tried to intervene, and that he used vulgar language in the boys' presence.

Little Owl denied it all.

The confrontation occurred immediately following a weekend that Little Owl, Roberts and their sons had spent together in Devils Lake and Fort Totten, which the defense portrayed as Little Owl's heartfelt effort to reunite the family. Little Owl and Roberts were married in 2005 but divorced in 2010.

He has custody of the older boy, she the younger.

Following that weekend of boating, movies and family dinners, Little Owl rejoined Roberts and the boys in Grand Forks after working in Fort Totten on Aug. 20. He drove back to Fort Totten the following day to work but returned to Roberts' apartment that evening.

At some point, he testified, he learned from one of his sons that Roberts had been dating another man. That made Little Owl "sad" and led to the argument with his ex-wife, he said, but he denied striking her or pushing her onto a coffee table. He suggested that Roberts was attempting to manipulate the system by telling lies.

Larson challenged the premise that Roberts was attempting to set Little Owl up, whether to gain full custody of both boys or to cause him grief.

She noted that two police officers had talked with Roberts, taken photographs and testified to the appearance of bruises and swelling. Also, a county social worker who interviewed Roberts testified that she didn't get the impression she was using the system to gain some benefit.

"Is it reasonable to believe that multiple professional agencies were tricked by Miss Roberts?" Larson asked the jury. "We all know that domestic violence happens behind closed doors. ... Who do we believe?"

Testimony had shown that Roberts had not wanted to go to the police but was persuaded to in part by the man she had been dating, Larson said.

"This isn't a case where Miss Roberts is so savvy about manipulating the system to railroad the defendant," Larson said.

'Devoted father'

Little Owl is "a devoted father" who would never endanger his children in the way Roberts alleged, Rosenquist said in his closing argument Friday.

He said he is "a man who has devoted his life to the betterment of his tribe and other tribes," including his decision last summer to "go into the quagmire" at Spirit Lake and try to resolve grave issues in the tribe's child protection system.

Little Owl, who holds a master's degree in social work from the University of North Dakota, had been director of a behavioral health program at his home reservation at Fort Berthold in west-central North Dakota. He signed a four-year contract with the Spirit Lake Tribe last summer, but the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs eventually took over child protection there. Little Owl continued to oversee some other social services until mounting criticism -- sparked in part by his personal legal difficulties -- led to his departure.

Little Owl, 35, is living in Fargo. He said he is not working now.