South Dakota sheriff retires from work after 28 years

By Melanie Brandert
Lake Andes, South Dakota (AP) March 2011

Former Charles Mix County Sheriff Ray Westendorf still has doubts about a case he deems the most puzzling of his career.

Nearly two decades after the case began, he’s still skeptical of the events surrounding two Lake Andes residents whose bodies were discovered three months after they were reported missing following a car accident.

Ruby Ann Bruguier, 18, and Arnold Archambeau, 20, were found a day apart in March 1993 after they were last seen walking away from a car accident in December 1992.

Both were discovered in a drainage ditch between Highway 281 and an abandoned railroad line, about 75 feet from the accident site.

Westendorf does not believe the two died from hypothermia or injuries from the accident. After the initial search turned up nothing, he recalled nice weather in January 1993, with very little snow or water in the ditch. Someone looking for a lost hubcap rode a horse in the area and saw nothing.

The FBI deemed the case closed in 1999 because nothing suggested foul play, according to The Associated Press.

“I believe they were placed in the ditch after they passed away someplace else,” Westendorf said. “I do know that they weren’t there in January.

“It’s pretty hard to prove somebody was murdered when you don’t have any evidence to prove it.”

Westendorf, who voluntarily ended a 28-year span as sheriff in early January, is one of several area sheriffs ending their careers in law enforcement.

Westendorf served in a county that has dealt with unique issues including tribal jurisdiction and higher crime rates often connected to alcohol and drug use. He also faced the challenge of responding to calls in a rural county that is larger than most east of the Missouri River in south central South Dakota.

Seated in the deputies’ office at a conference table with several handheld radios sitting on top of a cabinet behind him, he discussed his career recently with The Daily Republic. The silver-haired sheriff, who exudes a tough, no-nonsense demeanor, reveals moments of good-natured laughter.

Westendorf began his career in law enforcement at the time of his election. He had farmed for 10 years prior to that.

An incident involving his oldest son prompted him to run for sheriff. He said someone approached his son to ask about buying marijuana. The person mistakenly believed that some tobacco the Westendorfs had found growing along the Missouri River was marijuana. Westendorf’s son reported the incident to his grandparents, who reported it to then-Sheriff Ruben Huber. Westendorf said Huber did nothing about the attempted marijuana acquisition.

Westendorf then talked to a county commissioner, who said there was nothing he could do.

“I said, ‘I guess there’s something I can do about it… I’ll run for his job,” Westendorf said.

He was elected in 1982 and started work in February 1983, obtaining his training in Pierre. He had a deputy who previously worked under Huber and left three months to work for the state Highway Patrol. He also had one jailer and a dispatcher.

Westendorf faced a challenge in patrolling the large, California-shaped county. When he started, the sheriff’s office had law enforcement contracts with Geddes, Ravinia and Dante. He hired a deputy who lived in Platte.

He said federal aid that enabled the three towns to contract with the county ran out in the 1980s. The sheriff’s office now has a contract with Lake Andes and conducts random patrols in Dante, Geddes, Pickstown and Ravinia. Wagner and Platte have their own police departments.

One of his earliest serious crimes involved Bobby Soukup, who was shot in his bed when Joe Fields III broke into his family’s house in Wagner. Fields was convicted of first-degree manslaughter and is serving a life sentence in prison.

Fields was arrested quickly in that case. Westendorf recalled that the victim’s family awoke and found him in the house.

“They had beaten him severely with firewood,” he said.

A tribal officer found Fields in tribal housing and determined that his injuries were serious enough to be taken to the Wagner hospital instead of Indian Health Services, Westendorf said. Fields was arrested at the hospital.

Westendorf blamed alcohol and drugs for much of the violent crime that has occurred in the county. Two recent homicides involved the deaths of Louis Fast Horse in 2009 and Michael Costello in Wagner in 2008.

Data from the state Division of Criminal Investigation shows the county had the fourth-highest number of aggravated and simple assaults in the state and the highest in the Mitchell region in 2007.

Westendorf recalled dealing with the farm foreclosures of the ‘80s and the influx of methamphetamine in the ‘90s. The sheriff’s office belonged to a task force of area counties and a few meth labs were busted in Lake Andes, Ravinia and two near Wagner. Other drug cases involved a lot of marijuana and some ecstasy.

Westendorf spoke about working on a checker-board American Indian reservation where jurisdictional issues were constant. He showed a map where different colors show tribal trust land, tribal fee land and allotted land, mostly south of Highway 50.

“It’s all I’ve dealt with all my life,” he said. “It was a checker-board reservation when I started and it’s still a checker-board reservation.”

Enforcement of bench warrants was placed on hold in 1995 when a federal judge said the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation still existed in much of the county, according to The Associated Press.

 
While jurisdictional issues regarding tribal land sold to the U.S. government in 1894 were being debated in federal courts in the mid- to late ‘90s, red zones dictated where tribal and federal government had jurisdiction on the Yankton Sioux Reservation. White zones were designated as state and county government control.

Westendorf said deputies had to ensure where a crime took place and relied on maps to know where those areas were located.

“We even had BIA and my officer ride together so that we could save time,” he said.

The injunction that barred criminal arrests of tribal members in red zones was lifted in December 1999, according to AP. That area included Wagner, Pickstown and Lake Andes.

Even though the county seat was in the red zone, Westendorf said he still held prisoners in the county jail and court proceedings still occurred at the courthouse.

But he encountered one complication. Westendorf told AP in June 1999 that when Indian inmates made knives in jail or showed up for sentencing with drugs in their possession, the county had to call tribal police so they could press charges.

Scott Podhradsky, former Charles Mix County attorney, called criminal jurisdiction a nightmare in September 1999.

“You just cannot have a checker-board reservation, where (on) one side of the street the tribe and federal government have jurisdiction, and on the other side the state has jurisdiction,” he said.

Lifting the injunction forced tribal officers and the FBI to relinquish their jurisdiction over American Indians who committed crimes in the disputed area, AP said.

As a result, that created a backlog of warrants for Westendorf’s office, which now had broader jurisdiction. He said they started making arrests when those warrants were served.

Several tribal members alleged they were being targeted when an influx of arrests occurred in the following weeks as that backlog was whittled down.

“We weren’t targeting anybody other than criminals,” he said. “One misconception that always bugged me was they said, ‘Yeah, they’re profiling. They’re just picking up Indians.’

“When you’re driving down the road and you see a traffic violation . you don’t know who is driving the car until you stop it.”

Any tribal protests that occurred because of the arrests or other issues at the county courthouse required Westendorf to seek the assistance of extra law enforcement officers to maintain order. The protests were peaceful, he said.

One exception occurred when more than 25 Yankton Sioux tribal members were arrested in April 2008 for misdemeanor disorderly conduct and public nuisance after protesting a large hog farm being built by Iowa-based Long View Farms near Marty.

Westendorf said staying on top of current trends has been a central philosophy. Westendorf cited the use of Tasers – a tool in which he is a firm believer. He said Tasers have a better effect than pulling a gun.

“If you put that red dot on somebody and holler, ‘Taser,’ you usually don’t have to deploy them because they really don’t want to get tased,” Westendorf said. “It keeps a lot of people from fighting.”

One project Westendorf would have liked to accomplish is having school resource officers in the schools. But school officials decided they didn’t want to take part.

“Seeing the need and having the money to fund it were two different things,” he said. “If a person had an open checkbook, things would be easier.”

Westendorf cited examples of technological advances in law enforcement, including video cameras and improved radio systems in vehicles and a pen containing a recording and video device. Officers can obtain photos of robbery or burglary suspects because businesses now have alarm systems and video cameras in front of gas pumps in which photos can be printed.

During his tenure, a 911 dispatch system was installed in 1994, followed by enhanced 911 with a grant obtained by former Chief Deputy Jim Chaney.

“A lot of things have changed that made law enforcement easier or harder, depending how you look at it,” he said. “We did the best we could with what we had.”

Jeff Lanning, state Highway Patrol sergeant in charge of the Mitchell squad, first worked with Westendorf as a trooper stationed in the Armour and Lake Andes areas from 1986 to 1993. Over the years, they worked together on accidents, homicides, pursuits and drug investigations, among other cases.

Lanning praised Westendorf for how he handled complicated tribal jurisdiction issues and for being a well-connected sheriff who knew who to contact to get things done.

“He has had a very distinguished career down there,” Lanning said. “He knows his communities. He gets along real well with the people down there with the diverse backgrounds that you have.”

Lanning was among several law enforcement officers who attended a retirement party on Dec. 17 for Westendorf in Lake Andes.

Lanning said Westendorf will be remembered as a man who was dedicated to his job.

“He was working right in the trenches with us when things needed to be done,” he said.

Aside from wearing a badge, Westendorf took a different public safety role. He served as a driver for the local ambulance service when the service was shorthanded.

Though Westendorf decided not to run for re-election last year, he filed as an independent candidate for Sanborn County sheriff last fall. He ran against incumbent Tom Fridley, who defeated him.

Westendorf, who filed because he planned to move to that area to be closer to his grandchildren, said he didn’t expect to win the race.

He will move to Woonsocket this spring and was checking into job prospects before he left office.

The outgoing sheriff said he will miss working with his employees and the residents he was sworn to serve.




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