Whiteclay

Whiteclay, on a quiet Tuesday in July, after its four beer stores were ordered closed.

A 6-year-old girl died last weekend in the third alcohol-related fatal crash south of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation since beer sales ended in Whiteclay four months ago.

Christina Roubideaux, two other children and three adults were in a minivan that flipped and rolled Saturday evening along a gravel road between Chadron and the reservation town of Oglala, South Dakota.

All six people in the van were injured. Roubideaux died the next day at a Denver hospital. The driver, 32-year-old Kimberly Eagle Bull, was arrested on suspicion of motor-vehicle homicide and DUI, the Nebraska State Patrol said in a news release Wednesday.

The crash comes as the Nebraska Supreme Court mulls whether beer sales should restart in Whiteclay, a tiny outpost along the South Dakota state line that has long served alcohol to the Oglala Lakota people of Pine Ridge. Alcohol is banned on the reservation.

When Nebraska liquor regulators ordered all four Whiteclay beer stores to close in April, opponents of the decision warned it would lead Pine Ridge residents to drive even farther to buy alcohol, endangering themselves and others on area roads.

"We know that with the closing of the stores, the folks are going to travel to get their alcohol," Rushville Mayor Chris Heiser said Wednesday.

At this point, it's impossible to tell whether recent deaths represent a true uptick in fatal wrecks.

"I still think it's too soon," said Sheridan County Attorney Jamian Simmons, whose county includes Whiteclay.

Simmons believes this summer's fatal crashes are the most she's seen in that area in such a brief period of time, she said. But that doesn't mean it's a trend that will continue.

Activists who fought to end Whiteclay beer sales argue the recent crashes are no different or more frequent than roadway deaths from before the stores closed.

"The fact is that every life lost to an alcohol-related traffic fatality is one too many, but these fatalities occur throughout Nebraska all the time," said John Maisch, a former Oklahoma liquor regulator and lawyer who filmed a documentary about Whiteclay beer sales.

In addition to Saturday's wreck in Dawes County, authorities in Sheridan County believe alcohol contributed to two deadly crashes this summer between Whiteclay and Rushville, which has seen its own beer sales surge since Whiteclay's stores closed.

On July 2, 49-year-old Troylin Pourier rolled a pickup on Nebraska 87, the main highway running south from the reservation. Pourier, who had a blood-alcohol content three times the legal limit, died of her injuries three days later at Rapid City Regional Hospital.

Tests from another deadly crash Aug. 17 show the driver's blood-alcohol content was 0.283 percent, more than three times the legal limit.

Francis Ray Rencountre, 46, was taking a county road back to Pine Ridge after apparently buying beer in Rushville when he rolled his SUV, killing him and injuring a passenger.

And the group of people injured in a nonfatal crash May 4 also appear to have stocked up in Rushville before driving into a ditch along Nebraska 87, Simmons said.

Rescue workers and lawmen arrived to find the driver, Pamelyn Rose Watson, 38, unconscious at the wheel while still buckled in, and a nearly empty bottle of vodka tucked beneath the front passenger seat, according to court documents.

A nurse later reported that Watson's blood-alcohol content tested in the "high .300s."

The drivers in all three Sheridan County wrecks were from Pine Ridge, as was the driver in Saturday's crash in Dawes County.

Maisch noted Pine Ridge residents were dying on Nebraska roads in alcohol-involved crashes before Whiteclay's beer stores closed.

A man from the reservation town of Wounded Knee is accused of driving drunk in a March crash on Nebraska 87 that killed 21-year-old Michael Hawk of Pine Ridge.

And in February 2016, 34-year-old Kerry Peters of Pine Ridge rolled her SUV and died on Slim Buttes Road, the same gravel road where the minivan crashed Saturday.

If anything, Maisch said, Nebraska law enforcement should be cracking down on drunk driving and performing more compliance checks at liquor stores to ensure they aren't selling to intoxicated people. 

Heiser, the Rushville mayor, said he believes closing the Whiteclay stores has already resulted in preventable roadway deaths. However, he acknowledged the decision has "slowed down the violence" in Whiteclay itself.

It's unclear where Eagle Bull was headed Saturday with a minivan full of adults and children.

"That's probably a million-dollar question that needs to be answered," Heiser said. "Is it because the stores closed in Whiteclay in this particular incident? I don't know."

Alan Jacobsen of Lincoln, another activist who supported ending Whiteclay beer sales, recounted an exchange he had with some people in Sheridan County while trying to recruit local residents to formally protest the beer stores' liquor licenses.

A woman asked if Jacobsen would come to her funeral if she was killed by a drunk driver from Pine Ridge.

Jacobsen countered with a question of his own: "How many funerals have all of you gone to in Pine Ridge because of Whiteclay beer sales?"

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @zachami.

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