RAPID CITY, S.D. (AP) — Donald DuBray is a drinker. He lives on the streets of Rapid City and drinks with people he calls family.
As night fell on a recent Thursday, he sat on playground equipment intended for preschoolers in Rapid City’s expansive Memorial Park, a garden spot of the city by day but a haven for trouble at night. Five people were with him, and their collective breath filled the cool evening air with the sour aroma of alcohol.
Nearby, the cool and clear water of Rapid Creek swept along. In secluded spots here and there along the banks, other drinkers settled in for the night under blankets and carpet remnants.
In the daytime and in groups, the homeless and those who congregate regularly in the park are relatively safe. “I find other Lakota people down here,” DuBray said, “and we take care of each other.”
Also safe, so far, are people who just go to the park during daylight hours to get some fresh air, walk their dogs, ride their bikes, cast a line for trout or just appreciate the beauty of this creekside park.
But if alone after dark, anyone in the park or along the bike path by the creek can become a target for thugs whose attacks seem especially frequent this year, with the victims almost exclusively those who drink or dwell in the park at night.
All the drunkenness and violence happen just a few hundred yards from downtown Rapid City, where Main Street Square, a host of restaurants and bars, and numerous shops and stores form one of the city’s major draws for tourists and local families. Memorial Park is the city’s most prominent downtown park, and significant money has been spent recently to redo the pond, add a modern playground for children, and create new pathways.
But guns, knives and baseball bats become part of the park at night, with those weapons being used in six known violent incidents at Memorial Park since June. Additionally, a man was found dead of hypothermia in March near a corner of the park at Fifth and Omaha streets.
Although the numbers look bad, especially in late September and early October, Capt. James Johns of the Rapid City Police Department said in interviews that the violence in the park and along Rapid Creek is not new.
“I don’t think it’s gotten worse over the last couple of months,” Johns told the Rapid City Journal ( ). “The people who choose to (live there) are going to make themselves victims.”
In Johns’ view, the recent increase in reported crimes is due to a higher number of people who have come forward to report the violence. “I think a lot of crime is underreported in Rapid City,” he said.
DuBray said he has been living on the streets for four years and described himself as a 34-year-old Army veteran. He wore a red bandanna on his head in honor of the color favored by Charles Quiver, 49, who was beaten to death Sept. 23 with a baseball bat just a few blocks northeast of Memorial Park near the intersection of North and North First streets.
The slaying remains unsolved, as does the late September killing in which Edward Lowry, 56, of Rapid City was found dead in a pool of blood just two blocks east of Memorial Park.
Some of DuBray’s actual relatives who were in town for this months’ Black Hills Pow Wow want to move him into an apartment far from Memorial Park. If that happens, he said he’d still walk to the creek’s banks to find his friends and drink.
“I don’t like drinking by myself,” he said.
Johns said DuBray’s story is not uncommon, that other creekside residents whose family members helped them find regular shelter ended up “choosing to live at the creek.”
On the other side of the creek Thursday night from DuBray’s group was Kevin Big Eagle, 37, who said he only recently came back to the streets after suffering an elbow injury and losing a roofing job. With his elbow feeling better, he hopes to get the job back this week and rent a motel room.
At dusk Thursday, Big Eagle was pedaling a mountain bike on the path that parallels the creek, with a camouflage backpack on his shoulders and a satchel hanging from a handlebar. He planned to sleep outdoors with several other people.
A powerfully built man, Big Eagle said he tries to protect his own adopted family and various loners while riding along the creek. His posture is ever-alert, his manner aggressive. He has to be proactive to avoid being victimized.
“You see the Native Americans around here, we’ve got black eyes and busted noses,” he said.
He doesn’t know exactly why the perpetrators do it. Sometimes they steal things, like the shoes off the feet of the people they assault. Big Eagle thinks the real motivation might be psychological.
“To make themselves feel better, maybe? I don’t know,” Big Eagle said. “They go and brag to their buddies, ‘Guess what I did to this guy?'”
It’s unclear who is committing the assaults. Some of the street people call it “Native on Native” crime. DuBray blamed a roving gang of young white men.
The police have made one arrest in the six incidents. After reports of gunshots and a man brandishing a firearm on June 17 near the Memorial Park band shell, Christopher Firethunder, a 39-year-old Native American, was arrested on suspicion of possession of a loaded firearm while intoxicated, concealing a firearm without a permit and possession of a firearm by a violent offender.
Johns is convinced the violence is mostly Native American on Native American. “The numbers of those assaults is much higher than any other category we see,” he said.
One common tale is that a group of white men, known as Juggalos, is responsible for beating up Native Americans in the park. Johns said police often hear that such a group exists, but he added, “There has never been a substantiated report of white kids attacking … people on the bike path” in the park.
Police have to deal with the crime and the drinking, but to Johns, the situation is one the community should face up to.
“The real problem is, there is a significant transient, homeless population that we do not deal with in a successful manner,” he said. “Why, as citizens, do we allow this problem to continue in Rapid City?”
The police, he said, “take a zero-tolerance approach to people drinking, but that doesn’t solve the issue.”
A drunk may end up in jail or in the local detoxification center, but upon release the next day, he or she will return to the park, Johns said.
At the suggestion that authorities simply leave alone the people who choose that life, Johns said, “That’s tempting, but to say that is a failure” to solve the problem. Then he asked: “How do you break that cycle?”
While the identity of the attackers remains mysterious, Big Eagle said there’s no mystery why so many street people congregate in and around Memorial Park.
He described it as a hub of foot traffic between the liquor store at Prairie Market just to the east, the liquor store at Family Thrift just to the southwest and the allure of restrooms and free computer and Internet use at the Rapid City Public Library five blocks to the south.
Another favorite spot of the alcohol-addicted homeless is a convenience store about a mile northeast of Memorial Park on East North Street. DuBray said a number of street people go there for what they describe as “roll call,” an early morning gathering at which money is pooled to buy booze.
Asked about the “roll call,” Johns immediately recited the address of the convenience store and said the operator had to hire “extra security” because of the crush of customers.
With so many street people walking through Memorial Park en route to their destinations, it’s a natural gathering point and a place to find friends.
The park also acts like a funnel to deliver prey to attackers. The Firethunder incident in June was the first in the recent string of violence, according to police reports. It was followed by:
—A near-fatal stabbing of a man at the band shell on July 16;
—A blockade of a bicyclist by three men, including one showing a knife, who rifled through the bicyclist’s backpack and then ran when witnesses hollered at them on Sept. 24;
—A severe beating of a man who was found on the northeast side of Memorial Park’s main pedestrian bridge on Sept. 25;
—An attack that resulted in lacerations to the face and head of a man found in the band shell bathroom on Sept. 30;
—And a beating and robbing of a man on the north side of the park near the initial block of New York Street on Oct. 5.
Prior to all of that, the body of Webster Allen Two Hawk, 55, was found March 3 leaning against utility boxes near Fifth and Omaha streets. Police said he died of hypothermia, and no foul play was suspected.
The violence has not stopped people from using the 27.5-acre park, which features the creek, a pond, vast green spaces, a recreational path and a children’s play area that was built last year. A wide pedestrian bridge over the creek connects the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center to the north with the promenade and downtown to the south.
About 6:15 p.m. Thursday, just before sunset, Alan Suhr walked through the park with 3-month-old Caspian strapped to his chest. Suhr lives in nearby apartments.
Asked if he worries while walking through the park, he said, “I mean, I don’t go out after dark generally, but we like the sunset walks. I try to be aware of what’s going on around me.”
He said he hasn’t seen any violence, then added, “I’m always aware and try to be conscious of my surroundings.”
Another man, Anthony Red Kettle, walked through the park at the same time Thursday on his way back from a mandatory appointment with the 24/7 Sobriety program. He has no fear of walking through the area during daylight hours, he said, but his eyes darted quickly around the park as the light faded.
“I wouldn’t walk through here at night,” he said.
Johns said people are safer if they are in groups rather than alone, and he added an endorsement for the general public: “I recommend everybody go out and enjoy the park system we have.”
But he also had a sobering observation of the reality of Memorial Park and the creekside path. In several of the recent incidents, the attackers used knives.
Johns nodded and said: “Everybody has a knife.”
Information from: Rapid City Journal,