Tribe mourns deaths of three teenage girls; cause remains unknown

Tribe mourns deaths of three teenage girls; cause remains unknownBy CHRIS MERRILL Star-Tribune staff writer Friday, June 6, 2008 7:39 AM MDT RIVERTON -- Winter Rose Thomas had just graduated from the eighth grade -- and she was a good kid, a close relative said Thursday. She was learning the Arapaho language and was respectful to her grandmother, who had raised her since she was a baby. She was outgoing, attractive, took pride in her health and appearance, and sang beautifully at a recent sweat lodge ceremony. Winter Rose Thomas was one of three teenage girls found dead on the Wind River Indian Reservation Wednesday, in a rental home in the Beaver Creek housing development just south of here. The other two were Alexis Gardner and Alex Whiteplume, a tribal spokesman said. The girls were ages 13, 14 and 15, authorities said, and all three were members of the Northern Arapaho Tribe. "It's a very shocking and rude awakening," said Darrell Lonebear, whose sister, Debbie Jenkins, raised Winter Rose. "It has created a stir in this community, and there are a lot of questions. These were all good kids. We're angry about what happened, but who can we be angry at?" The FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Fremont County coroner's office were still investigating the incident Thursday, and the cause of death for the girls was still unknown, officials said. Results of the preliminary autopsies, which were performed Thursday morning at McKee Medical Center in Loveland, Colo., should be available today or Saturday. Friends, relatives and community members had heard several rumors about a possible teenage get-together that ended in tragedy, Lonebear said. But as of Thursday none of the relatives of the victims knew for sure what really happened. "There are a lot of young people out here, but there aren't any recreational facilities, or organizations or activities for them," Lonebear said. "We can finger-point and place blame, but that doesn't solve anything. What we need to recognize, here, is we need to pay attention to our children." Many of the houses in the Beaver Creak community are monitored by adults including Winter Rose's guardian, Jenkins, who have strict rules about behavior and what goes on inside their homes, Lonebear said. But other places, right nearby, are lacking the presence of responsible adults. Normal teenage peer pressure, and the drive to "fit in," can cause good kids to congregate in the unsupervised locations, he said, and they sometimes make bad decisions. The Beaver Creek housing development sits atop a sandy, nearly treeless, windswept hill -- with the new Wind River Casino just across the road. It is a tight cluster of single-story, pastel-colored homes amid a vast, rolling, high-desert meadow. Several of the rental homes have their windows boarded up, and the ground underfoot is sandy with tufts of cheatgrass and weeds, strewn with cardboard cups, wrappers and broken glass. The speed limit and stop signs around the development are painted over by graffiti, and many of the T-shaped laundry poles lean downhill, like trees in a stiff wind. On the same day the Northern Arapaho Tribe celebrated the Wind River Casino's grand opening -- and cars streamed in and out of its parking lot by the hundreds -- dozens of other cars, filled with friends and families of the bereaved, turned into the potholed entryway of the housing development, just to the south. At the casino's grand opening, representatives of the Northern Arapaho Business Council asked everyone present to pray for the victims' families, and they offered a prayer in the Arapaho language, said Jonathan Barela, spokesman for the tribe. "The Northern Arapaho Tribe is in mourning for the passing of these three young women," Barela said. "As we move forward, for the betterment of this tribe, their spirits will remain, and everything positive that this tribe does is made for those who have passed on, and is made for those who remain." Anthony Al Addison Sr., chairman of the Northern Arapaho Business Council, said the council extends its prayers and condolences for the families involved. "It is tragic what has happened," Addison said. "These young girls hadn't yet to see what life is all about. Our hearts go out to the families, their parents and grandparents, because this is something that is very hard to deal with." Reporter Chris Merrill can be reached at chris.merrill@trib.com or at (307) 267-6722. THIS ARTICLE WAS USED IN COPPERATION WITH THE CASPER STAR TRIBUNE WITH PERMISSION FROM CHRIS MERRILL. THIS ARTICLE, AND OTHERS ARE AVAILABLE AT: http://www.trib.com/