By Richie Richards
Native Sun News Staff Writer
RAPID CITY - The trial of Trace O’Connell ended abruptly on the morning of Thursday, July 23 before the supporters of the American Horse School (AHS) could all file into the Performing Arts Center of Rapid City.
Promptly, as TV interviews were taking place just outside the Rapid City High School and activists were planning their next strategic move, inside the makeshift court room, defense attorney Michael Butler announced the defense would not present witness testimony and the defense rested.
This came much to the visible surprise of the AHS families in attendance as they looked around shocked; as according to opening statements, there was supposed to be 23 or more witnesses testifying. On day one, the city presented 12 witnesses.
On day two of the trial, the audience of nearly 75 persons got their first public glimpse of the accused; as O’Connell sat at the defense table, hands clinched in nervous anticipation while a dozen deputies stood guard in the four corners of the historic theater.
City Attorney, Joel Landeen, presented the state’s case on day one of the trial on Wednesday, July 22. The state offered testimony from 12 witnesses; 3 Rapid City Police Department (RCPD) detectives, 2 Phillip residents, 1 Civic Center staff member, 5 American Horse School students, and 1 AHS chaperone.
First on the stand for the state was Detective Elliot Harding, 7-year veteran of RCPD and first-year detective, who works on stolen vehicles and pursuits investigations. Harding testified to interviewing O’Connell on two occasions, as well as chaperones and students.
Harding testified O’Connell noticed the AHS students during the game and that “during the cancer survivor part, AHS were not standing” and that “he didn’t think it was right.” Throughout Harding’s testimony he made references to AHS students’ alleged non-standing during the National Anthem.
Harding testified, “Trace stated they should’ve shown respect during the National Anthem.”
According to Harding, O’Connell did not dispute beer could have been spilled at one point during the game and when asked by Justin Poor Bear who spilled beer, O’Connell replied, “Come up here and talk about it.” To which Poor Bear allegedly replied, “F**k you.”
Next on the stand was Detective Trevor Coleman, a 14-year veteran of RCPD with 2 of those years as a Juvenile Detective working on runaway investigations. It was Coleman who interviewed Justin Poor Bear’s son Brendon.
According to Coleman, Brendon identified O’Connell as the beer thrower and that he “saw some beer starting to fly” and recalled hearing “Go back to the rez!” at some point.
It was during the cross-examination of Brendon when defense attorney Michael Butler called American Horse School the “American People’s School” to which the AHS families snickered at the mishap.
Third on the stand was Detective Kathleen Phillips. She has been with RCPD for 9 years and a detective for 3 years working on sex crimes and child abuse cases. Phillips testified she interviewed Krianna Running Hawk who identified O’Connell, from a lineup, as the person who “spit beer out of his mouth,” referring to the moment when she was hit with beer, but did not actually see the beer being spat out.
Britt Miller, the first of two Phillip residents and in the suite on the evening of Jan. 24, testified next. Miller claimed on the stand that O’Connell is a friend of his older brother’s and that he is “like a brother figure to me.” During the trip to Phillip that day, he rode with O’Connell to Rapid City, who was driving the vehicle they were in.
Miller testified he had two drinks on the way to Rapid City that afternoon as did others in the vehicle. He spoke about the ride in and the group going to the Texas Road House for steak dinners and drinks before heading to check into the Rushmore Plaza Holiday Inn. They arrived at the Civic Center around 6 p.m. for the 7 o’clock game, according to Miller.
It was Miller who had the most interaction with the AHS students. According to his testimony, the family man and youth sports coach/referee with an adopted mixed-race daughter, said he has customers from the Pine Ridge Reservation and was actively interacting with the kids during the game. He testified O’Connell had no interaction with the kids.
At some point during the Rush Hockey game, he overheard O’Connell and “Brad talking about” being frustrated with the AHS students for not standing during the “Pink in the Rink Night” honoring and during the National Anthem.
“I seen Trace make a motion like a rope,” Miller testified and “beer was thrown over the crowd and into the back of the suite,” when O’Connell was celebrating a scored goal by the Rush Hockey team.
During cross examination, Miller stated the AHS students looked “shocked” and “didn’t know why they were leaving,” closing with, “I’m as far away from being a racist as possible.”
It was Don Carley, of the Steakhouse Restaurant in Phillip, who was the customer of Eagle Sales of the Black Hills that received the free tickets for the Rush Hockey game that night. He testified after Miller. Carley was a reluctant witness on the stand who largely claimed to have not seen anything.
Carley wanted to “bring good customers” when he received his yearly tickets to the Rush Hockey game. Though protective of his customers’ reputations on the stand, Carley did admit his son Dylan did drink in the car ride to Rapid City that day.
Pricilla Dominguez, Guest Services/Premium Seating Manager at the Civic Center, testified her job is largely as a “goodwill ambassador” at the events. She testified Carley was “reluctant to give names” of the people in the suite in the days following the Jan. 24 incident, but eventually offered up O’Connell’s name as the “person responsible.”
O’Connell admitted to Dominguez over the phone that “Yes, beer did go flying,” that night and offered an apology to her for his actions. This was the only apology throughout the whole ordeal.
Next on the stand were the 5 students from the American Horse School; Brendon Poor Bear, 10, Taylor Snowball, 15, Kyra Jackson, 13, Krianna Running Hawk, 14, and Makayla Ghost Bear, 13.
Brendon testified, “I saw beer being spilled onto the kids” and seen his father, Justin Poor Bear, saying, “Who is f’ing spilling beer on these kids?” towards the suite above. Brendon testified he did not have beer spilled on him.
Taylor testified she was one of the students who interacted with the men in the suite. She was asked from above, “Are you thirsty?” as they held an aluminum beer bottle over her head. Taylor did get beer splashed on her during the game, “enough to get my sweater wet.”
When asked if Taylor heard any of the men from Phillip telling them to cheer louder cause they are from the reservation, she replied, “I heard them say that.”
Kyra Jackson testified she was on her third trip to a Rush Hockey game with the 21st Century program from American Horse. In her strong witness testimony, she said “When the rush scored they got hyped and spit and spilled beer on us,” shortly after, she put her sweater hood over her head to prevent getting beer on her.
Jackson claims she heard, “Go back to the f’ing reservation.”
Krianna Running Hawk testified she was seated next to Consuelo Means during the game. When asked by Landeen if the men in the suite appeared drunk, she replied, “Yes, they did.” Running Hawk was one of the students that had beer on her.
When asked how it felt to have beer thrown on her, Running Hawk said, “It felt racist. Some people think they are better than us. It kind of made me feel bad.” It was during cross examination that Running Hawk said after being confronted by Justin Poor Bear, the men in the suite, “tried to fight him.”
The last student to testify was Makayla Ghost Bear. She testified she heard, “You’re Indians, you should be louder” when cheering. According to her testimony, she got “about a cup or so” of splashed beer on her “clothes, back, and hair.” Ghost Bear said she heard, “You should go back to the rez. You don’t belong here.”
During her interview with a detective, Ghost Bear said the men looked, “drunkish, saddish, puppetish” at the game; referring to their physical appearance.
Last on the stand for the state was Head Chaperone Consuelo Means. She is a reading teacher in the middle school at AHS. She testified it was 50 total students and 7 chaperones on the “incentive trip.”
During her testimony, Means claims all the students stood during the National Anthem and during the “Pink in the Rink Night” honoring, saying “We stood for the whole thing,” and that before the trip she “encouraged students to wear pink” because they knew there was a cancer awareness event at the game.
It was Consuelo who went to look for security and staff from the Civic Center when the Eagle Sales suite partying got out of control. On the stand, she tearfully explained her decision to gather the children and leave the game. She identified the person as O’Connell she seen tilting an aluminum bottle over one of the kids and spilling beer on her. She identified O’Connell as the person who said, “Go back to the rez.”
After Means testified, the city rested its case, with the exclusion of many witness testimonies including Justin Poor Bear; much to the surprise of many family members of AHS.
On day two of the trial, defense attorney Michael Butler rested.
In closing arguments, city attorney Joel Landeen asked the question, “Who would you believe?” referring to the group of adults and children who were sober and the group of men that had been drinking for several hours at the time of the unlawful incident. Butler argued O’Connell should not be held responsible for the actions of the group.
Magistrate Judge Eric Strawn was very adamant in his statement about going over every note on the 23 pages he had taken, every piece of evidence, all the statements, when preparing his opinion and verdict. The verdict will be announced in 3-4 weeks, according to Strawn.