Lawsuit Against FBI Agent Can Go Forward
June 26, 2010
By the Associated Press
BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A federal judge has dismissed claims against most of the defendants in a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in investigating and prosecuting the deaths of Native Americans on the Crow Indian Reservation.
U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull ruled that the parents of one victim and the wife of another did not have standing to bring the lawsuit, which alleged federal officials violated their Fifth Amendment rights to equal protection and due process.
However, Cebull is allowing an equal protection claim against FBI special agent Matt Oravec to proceed.
"The circumstances of (Steven) Bearcrane's death - that it was ruled a homicide, that a non-Indian did the shooting, that the investigation was allegedly insufficient due to Oravec's discriminatory motives - allow the court to infer at this early stage of the proceedings that a claim is plausible," U.S. Magistrate Carolyn Ostby wrote.
Cebull accepted Ostby's recommendations and findings, agreeing that factual allegations create an inference that Oravec was "motivated by racial animus" in investigating the deaths of Steven Bearcrane-Cole and Robert Springfield.
Earline and Cletus Cole along with Veronica Springfield filed the lawsuit in February 2009. It had also named the FBI's Billings office, two other agents and the U.S. attorney's office in South Dakota, but Cebull's June 17 ruling dropped them from the suit.
The plaintiffs alleged that Oravec had been heard to say that female Native American victims of sexual assault "were asking for assault or words to that effect." They also claimed that Oravec tried to hinder crime investigations and that when the Coles visited FBI offices to ask about the investigation, Oravec attempted to intimidate Cletus Cole by taking him out of camera range and showing Cole his gun.
The Coles' son, Steven Bearcrane-Cole, was shot to death during a fight with Bobby Gene Holcombe on a ranch on the Crow reservation on Feb. 2, 2005, but the federal government declined to bring charges. In interviews with investigators, Holcombe said the shooting was self defense.
South Dakota prosecutors handled the case because an employee of the Montana U.S. attorney's office was related to Bearcrane-Cole.
Springfield's husband, Robert Springfield of Casper, Wyo., died on a bowhunting trip in the Bighorn Mountains. He was last seen in September 2004 and his remains were found in October 2005.
The lawsuit alleged that Springfield died under suspicious circumstances and that the FBI failed to investigate his disappearance.
Civil rights attorney Patricia Bangert of Denver said she will appeal Cebull's ruling on behalf of the plaintiffs. She disagreed with the judge's decision that the families did not have standing to bring the case because they had not been the subject of discriminatory law enforcement.
"That's offensive," she said. "They have suffered a real injury. They are crime victims."
Officials with the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office in South Dakota declined comment.