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Suspect in Spirit Lake toddler death to stay in federal custody

GRAND FORKS -- Hope Whiteshield, charged in the June 12 death of a Spirit Lake Nation toddler, will remain in federal custody pending trial, a judge ruled Wednesday after hearing testimony about a criminal record that includes a half-dozen previous cases involving child neglect and endangerment.

The court also heard inconclusive testimony concerning whether Whiteshield's background was investigated by Spirit Lake Tribal Social Services prior to the May placement of Laurynn Whiteshield and her twin sister with Freeman Whiteshield, the girls' grandfather and Hope's husband.

Hope Whiteshield, 31, of St. Michael, is charged with willfully inflicting serious bodily injury on Laurynn, 2 years and 11 months old, by throwing her down an embankment near her home June 12. She has been held under federal warrant in the Grand Forks County Correctional Center since her arrest last week.

At a detention hearing Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Grand Forks, Richard Henderson, the federal public defender appointed to represent Whiteshield, asked Magistrate Judge Alice Senechal to allow his client to stay with an aunt and uncle who live near St. Michael pending further court proceedings.

Henderson said the court could add conditions, including an order against any use of alcohol or drugs, substance testing and a chemical evaluation, having no contact with prospective witnesses and imposition of a curfew.

Alternatively, the court could place Whiteshield in a community re-entry facility, he said, or have her submit to electronic monitoring.

But Janice Morley, an assistant U.S. attorney prosecuting the case, countered that the nature of the crime, "a crime of violence against a child," and Whiteshield's criminal record argue for keeping her in custody. Also, in such a close community as Spirit Lake, Whiteshield inevitably would encounter witnesses who will be called to testify at trial, including children.

Records show abuse

Morley led Joseph Vetsch, Spirit Lake tribal prosecutor, through an examination of Whiteshield's record in tribal court, including a half-dozen cases between 2005 and 2009 involving charges of child abuse, endangerment and abandonment, public intoxication and malicious mischief. In some of those cases, charges were reduced; in others, Whiteshield failed to appear in court after pleading not guilty, Vetsch said.

In one case, in July 2009, "a concerned family member" contacted police and said that Whiteshield had left her two children with another Spirit Lake family for nine months or more, spending most of that time in Montana, Vetsch said.

In 2005, Whiteshield was charged with child abuse and neglect after her 2-year-old child was found wandering alone on a reservation road. When Whiteshield was contacted by police, she "sounded intoxicated" and said she couldn't come to the police station to get her child because she didn't have a ride. The charge was negotiated to one of reckless endangerment, which Vetsch said was worded about the same as the abuse and neglect charge.

In her detention ruling, Senechal said she couldn't consider assigning White-shield to a re-entry facility because there are now no openings for females at such area facilities. Asked by Henderson whether that option could be revisited if an opening occurs, Senechal said it could.

Background check?

Morley asked Vetsch whether Spirit Lake Tribal Social Services had reviewed Hope Whiteshield's background, including her criminal history, before placing the twin sisters in her home, and whether it was determined that it was "an appropriate home" for such a placement.

Vetsch replied that "if they followed standard protocol, that's what they would have done," but he did not know.

Henderson later suggested that Tribal Social Services had investigated Whiteshield's background, were aware of her record "and apparently concluded" her home was "appropriate" for the placement.

"That may not have been the right conclusion," he said, but it could support his recommendation that she be allowed to reside with her aunt and uncle, with conditions, pending further proceedings.

In response, Morley said no testimony had shown that a thorough background check had taken place. Vetsch, she said, had testified that such an investigation should have been made, but he did not know whether it had been done.

The sisters had been in a foster home in Bismarck for about two years until they were brought back to Spirit Lake by Tribal Court order and placed with their grandfather and his wife.

As Spirit Lake Tribal Social Services struggled to fix problems with its child protection services last year, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs on Oct. 1 took control of some child protection programs. Some services, including a foster care program funded by the federal government and channeled through the state, remained with Tribal Social Services.

In recent months, tribal officials have not responded to repeated requests for information about how they are dealing with the child protection issue.

Investigator's account

During testimony Wednesday to determine whether Whiteshield should continue in federal custody awaiting trial, Morley asked FBI Special Agent Michael Meyer about the investigation conducted by the FBI and BIA after they learned of Laurynn's death.

Essentially repeating statements he made in an affidavit attached to the criminal complaint filed on Friday, he recounted interviews with Whiteshield and several witnesses, including children who told of Whiteshield throwing Laurynn and pushing her sister down an embankment.

He said the children told of Hope saying they couldn't tell anyone what had happened.

In a second interview with Hope lasting about two hours, she admitted throwing and pushing the girls, he said.

The other children who were at the home at the time are receiving or are scheduled to receive counseling, Meyer said.