The flow of beer in Whiteclay must stop, the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission ordered Wednesday, an unprecedented move that sets the stage for a major court battle.
Commissioners voted 3-0 to deny licenses to all four beer stores in the alcohol-soaked outpost in northwest Nebraska, a bottle's toss from South Dakota's dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
"This is not a place that can exist any longer," commission Chairman Bob Batt of Omaha said after the vote. "This is not a place that can exist as a purveyor of alcohol at all."
Cheers erupted from those who packed a tiny hearing room at the State Office Building for the decision.
Former Oglala Lakota President Bryan Brewer and longtime Winnebago activist Frank LaMere, both in tears, embraced after the vote.
"We've never come this far," Brewer said. "I'm just so happy for our people."
A lawyer for the beer stores — which also face allegations from the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office of selling to bootleggers — said they will appeal the decision in Lancaster County District Court.
The stores may remain open through April 30, when their licenses expire. Attorney Andrew Snyder of Scottsbluff, who listened to the decision via conference call, said later that his clients will seek a judge's order to extend that until the appeal is resolved.
The owners of Arrowhead Inn, State Line Liquor, D&S Pioneer Service and Jumping Eagle Inn weren't present for Wednesday's vote.
Snyder repeated his claim that the state's actions against his clients are part of a politically motivated effort led by Gov. Pete Ricketts.
"I think the commissioners are wrong," Snyder said in a phone call.
State lawmakers applauded the Liquor Commission's decision later at the Capitol when Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, who watched Wednesday's vote, announced the result on the legislative floor.
"We have been poisoning a group of people for many years, and today a decision was made to end that," said Sen. Brewer, a member of Pine Ridge's resident Oglala Lakota Tribe whose legislative district includes Whiteclay.
Alcohol sales in the unincorporated village have been in question for months. The Liquor Commission ordered the beer stores to reapply for their licenses in November, citing concerns about law enforcement after a local official said Sheridan County "absolutely" lacked adequate resources to police the area.
Sheridan County, where Whiteclay is located, is patrolled by a sheriff's office with five full-time deputies.
Whiteclay has about eight official residents, but combined, its liquor stores sell millions of cans of beer each year, much of it to Oglala Lakota tribal members.
The tribe's top law enforcement official told liquor commissioners during an April 6 hearing that Whiteclay crime routinely spills over into Pine Ridge, and Nebraska authorities do little to help. A group of street ministers who live in Whiteclay testified about persistently dangerous, disgusting conditions there.
But aside from the single remark last fall by Sheridan County Commissioner Jack Andersen, local authorities have insisted they have the resources to maintain public safety.
The Liquor Commission rejected that argument in reaching Wednesday's decision.
Commissioner Bruce Bailey of Lincoln, his voice shaking, read a list of reasons he felt gave the commission authority to close the stores: the frequency of ambulance calls to Whiteclay and the stores themselves, "very moving" stories of debauchery and violence on the streets in Whiteclay, and a unanimous resolution by the Oglala Lakota Tribe's executive committee that the beer stores should be closed.
"Very honestly, their five officers cannot cover what needs to be done, let alone realize we're also covering a 35-mile-by-66-mile county," Bailey said of Sheridan County.
Snyder said Bailey's statement went beyond the issues the commission was supposed to consider in its decision and will only help with the stores' appeal.
"I appreciate his comments," Snyder said. "That’ll be useful to us."
In 2006, Snyder convinced the Nebraska Supreme Court to side against the Liquor Commission and grant a license to Arrowhead Inn owner Jason Schwarting, whose father owned the business before but lost his license because of a felony conviction.
David Domina, the Omaha lawyer representing five Sheridan County residents who protested the licenses this year, said he doesn't believe the 2006 result is likely to be repeated.
"The quantity and quality of evidence is dramatically different" in this case, he said.
Batt said commissioners "did this by the book" and expressed confidence their decision would hold up in court.
Even if the beer stores close, the federal government and state officials from Nebraska and South Dakota still must commit to addressing the systemic issues surrounding alcoholism on Pine Ridge, Batt said.
Some movement is already underway on that front.
The Legislature is expected to approve a new task force this year to address public health issues surrounding Whiteclay. Last week, a state-funded crew leveled a pair of decrepit buildings there and began cleaning up several exposed foundations. And a private group called Whiteclay Redo, whose organizers include local street minister Bruce BonFleur, is raising money to redevelop the area.
LaMere, whose own tribe is based nearly 400 miles from Pine Ridge, has fought nearly two decades to end Whiteclay beer sales and fix the problems on the neighboring reservation. He knows he's far from finished.
Still, LaMere relished Wednesday's victory.
He called it "perhaps the greatest day" in the history of relationships between Native American tribes and the state of Nebraska.
"We will celebrate briefly today."