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Woman charged in child's death at Spirit Lake

GRAND FORKS - A 31-year-old St. Michael woman appeared in U.S. District Court in Grand Forks on Thursday, charged with abuse or neglect of a child resulting in serious bodily injury in connection with the June 13 death of a Spirit Lake Nation toddler.

According to the criminal complaint, Hope Louise Tomahawk Whiteshield, the wife of the toddler's grandfather, threw the girl down an embankment by the family's home near St. Michael on the evening of June 12.

When she was asked why she had thrown the girl down the hill and then pushed the girl's twin sister over, Whiteshield replied, "like I was getting depressed," the complaint states.

Asked what she was depressed about, she responded that she "was getting depressed about having kids all the time."

The girl, a month shy of 3 years old, was found unresponsive the following day. She was taken to Mercy Hospital in Devils Lake, where she was pronounced dead.

In an affidavit in support of the criminal complaint, an FBI special agent stated that a Grand Forks medical examiner's provisional autopsy report listed the cause of death as blunt force trauma to the head.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Charles Miller Jr., presiding by video conferencing from Bismarck, scheduled a hearing for Monday to determine whether Whiteshield should be held in federal custody until further proceedings.

He said a preliminary hearing would be held within 14 days and that a public defender would be appointed for her.

The final charge against Whiteshield will be determined later by a federal grand jury, Miller said.

The arrest and charge followed several days of widespread and intense public discussion concerning what the FBI called a "mysterious death" at Spirit Lake, the latest chapter in a lengthy debate over child protection issues on the reservation.

Girls left foster home

According to the affidavit, the girl and her twin -- identified only as LW and MW -- had lived in a foster home in Bismarck for about two years until they were transferred by the Spirit Lake Tribal Court to their grandfather's home around May 7.

Freeman Whiteshield is married to Hope Whiteshield, who has three children and a niece, ages 12 to 2, who also were living in the St. Michael home.

The affidavit by FBI Special Agent Michael Meyer provides this account of the investigation:

On June 13, the Bureau of Indian Affairs at Fort Totten notified the FBI in Grand Forks that a child had died. FBI and BIA agents went to the home, where they interviewed the grandfather, who said he had left the home the previous day while his wife was outside with the children.

Freeman Whiteshield returned about 10 p.m. "and went in to LW and MW's bedroom. There he noticed MW was still awake and gave her a kiss. (He) then looked at LW, who appeared to be almost asleep."

The next morning, the grandfather was called to the girls' bedroom by his wife. He said LW "wouldn't get up." He administered CPR, but when the girl didn't awaken, he and his wife drove to a neighbor's home and called 911. They returned to the home and again tried to revive the girl until emergency personnel arrived.

The agents interviewed Hope Whiteshield, who said the children had been playing in the yard the previous evening. When they came in, she said, she bathed them and put them to bed. When she was unable to wake LW, who was "white and blue," she called for her husband to help.

Investigators asked Hope Whiteshield if LW had suffered any falls the previous day. She responded, "not that I know of." She attributed a scrape on the girl's face to having been pushed by her sister.

'Told us not to tell'

Investigators then interviewed Hope Whiteshield's children and another child who had been present, a 14-year-old identified as TT, who said Hope Whiteshield threw the girls down the hill, then watched as her children hit and kicked the girls.

"TT believed LW was alive because he could see her chest moving up and down, which he believed to be LW breathing. ... Hope told TT and the other juveniles not to tell anybody what happened, including (Freeman Whiteshield)."

TT's mother volunteered to talk with Hope Whiteshield's children. One told her, "My mom threw her" down a hill and LW was "knocked out." He also said, "She (Hope Whiteshield) told us not to tell."

He "explained that LW cried a little at first, but was then brought into the house," according to the affidavit. "She (LW) wouldn't talk for the rest of the night. In the morning she was like blue."

Interviewed in Fort Totten on Wednesday, Hope Whiteshield initially denied knowing what had caused the girl's injuries but admitted she had thrown LW and pushed the twin sister. She was "depressed," she told the investigators, "about having kids all the time."

She described taking the girl into the house and bathing both of the twins.

"LW remained unresponsive," according to the account attributed to Hope Whiteshield in the affidavit. "After laying LW and MW down, Hope did not go back into that room until the morning. ...

"When asked what she would say if she could speak to LW, Hope responded, 'I'm sorry.'"

Tribe statement

Authorities had been pressed this week by North Dakota's two U.S. senators and others to provide additional information about the case, especially with regard to how and why the twin girls were removed from a foster home and placed with their grandfather, whether adequate background checks were made, and what was happening with other children in the home following the death of one.

The Spirit Lake Tribe issued a news release late Thursday, expressing sadness at the death of a child but decrying how the tightly held investigation was "viewed negatively by media and congressional representatives."

The Tribal Council "appreciates the desire for transparency, but it will not jeopardize the investigation only to satisfy public curiosity," the statement read.

The council also objected that "some are using this tragedy to attack the tribe" and said it has "a demonstrated record of its commitment to improving social services programs."

Told of the tribe's statement, Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said he agreed there "has to be a full law enforcement investigation and that parts of that should be confidential. But we need to continue to do everything we can to protect children and make sure they are well taken care of, and we will continue to press everybody on that, whether it's the tribe, the BIA or anyone else."

Hoeven said he talked Thursday with Kevin Washburn, the Interior Department's assistant secretary for Indian affairs, "and told him I wanted to make sure that if there were other children involved, and there were, that they were safe. He assured me they are in BIA custody and in placement, and they are safe.

"I really pressed that with Washburn," Hoeven said. "You have to be doing what it takes to protect the children up there, and you have to start communicating. You have to show us."

Second case

The charge against Hope Whiteshield is the second criminal case in 12 months involving the death of a child at Spirit Lake, which has struggled with allegations of widespread child abuse and sex abuse and a badly flawed child protection system.

Valentino James "Tino" Bagola, 20, was charged in July 2012 with first-degree murder in the deaths of Destiny Jane Shaw, 9, and her brother, Travis Lee Dubois Jr., 6. Their bodies were found May 21, 2011, by their mother, Mena Shaw, beneath a mattress at the home she had once shared with the siblings' father.

In addition to two separate counts of first-degree murder, Bagola is charged with killing Destiny "while perpetrating or attempting to perpetrate the crimes of aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse and child abuse." A fourth count accuses him of killing Travis "while perpetrating or attempting to perpetrate the crime of child abuse."

Bagola has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He originally was scheduled to stand trial last fall, but the trial was continued first to April, then to Sept. 25.