WAGNER, S.D. — Since the death of a 2-year-old girl in Laurie Cournoyer’s rural Wagner home in July, the Yankton Sioux Tribe and Charles Mix County law enforcement have cracked down on the methamphetamine use that might have contributed to the toddler’s death.
The tribe passed a meth code that tightens penalties for use of the drug on Indian land, and tribal employees are being drug-tested more aggressively than in the past.
The Charles Mix County State’s Attorney’s office has indicted more than 20 people on methamphetamine charges since July.
The aggressive enforcement, particularly by the Wagner Police Department’s drug enforcement officer, has forced drug dealers to work harder to avoid capture, Charles Mix County Chief Sheriff’s deputy Mike DeNeui said.
“The people who were deep in the game in July are changing things around, because we’ve locked a lot of them up,” DeNeui said.
But officials say there’s more work to do. The drug problem is far reaching, as evidenced by the conviction of former Wagner Police Chief Jim Chaney for failing to report his girlfriend’s meth use.
Cournoyer’s indictment last week for allegedly using meth in jail is another sign of how pervasive the drug problem is for the county, State’s Attorney Pam Hein said.
“That she was able to get it into the jail, that’s something that we’re very concerned about,” Hein said.
The case that brought the meth problem into focus remains open.
Laurie Cournoyer, 29, and her husband Taylor, 22, were indicted this summer for child abuse and failure to report the death of a child.
Laurie Cournoyer called 911 to report the girl’s death July 4, nearly two days after the child had died. Court documents allege the Cournoyers continued to use meth, prescription painkillers and marijuana after learning of the death.
The Cournoyers had been the girl’s caretakers since early 2012, and Laurie Cournoyer is related to the child.
An 11-year-old boy has been charged in the death, which was ruled a homicide. The charges have not been released because he is a juvenile.
Taylor Cournoyer pleaded guilty last week to drug possession and maintaining a place for the use or sale of drugs. As a habitual offender, he could get up to 25 years in prison at sentencing next month.
Chaney lost his job as Wagner’s police chief and was sentenced to community service for his offense, which came to light within weeks of the Cournoyers’ arrests.
In the wake of the girl’s death, members of the tribal community and others throughout the region reacted harshly to what many had seen as a long-standing drug problem.
Protesters stood outside the Charles Mix County Courthouse in Lake Andes during the Cournoyers’ initial court appearances, demanding justice. Tribal officials organized a walk in the girl’s memory and pledged to tackle the pervasive drug problem.
It later came out that the tribe failed for two years to spend more than $400,000 in federal grants earmarked for addressing the drug problem. The money was designated in part for a meth officer who never was hired.
A tribal meth program eventually was established but stopped abruptly when the tribe failed to earn an extension of the three-year grant. The tribe also rejected a proposed meth code last fall that would have given tribal authorities wider latitude to investigate and prosecute drug cases.
The conversation has changed since the girl’s death, according to Yankton Sioux Tribal Chairman Thurman Cournoyer.
“The biggest change I’ve seen is in people’s attitudes,” the chairman said. “People are getting more and more riled up about the problem.”
The tribe passed a methamphetamine code last Tuesday during a reservation-wide vote. It increases penalties for possession and makes ingestion or the use of meth in the presence of children offenses punishable in tribal court.
A previous attempt to pass a meth code was marked by controversy and concerns about wording, Chairman Cournoyer said. The tribe also hopes to use a separate set of grant funds, awarded in 2010, to hire a meth officer.
There have been “a few applications,” received for that post, the chairman said.
A memorandum of understanding between local and tribal law enforcement hasn’t materialized, however. Such an agreement would free up Charles Mix County sheriff’s deputies and Wagner Police Department officers to investigate crimes on tribal land more easily and assist the Bureau of Indian Affairs officers who have jurisdiction over those lands.
Thurman Cournoyer said such an agreement remains a sticking point for many members of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, which has sovereignty within a patchwork of trust land in Charles Mix County.
“People are still pretty leery” about the jurisdictional issues, the chairman said.
Even so, Hein said, there has been more progress in the past few months than there had been in years.
“It’s finally to the point that we’re all sitting down at the table,” she said. “We’ve come farther along than we’ve ever come before.”
Opening lines of communication is a huge step, Sheriff Randy Thaler said.
“There have been some poor relations between the tribe and the county in the past, but all we can do is work on it,” he said.
The most recent meth charge for Laurie Cournoyer threatens to cool relations between the sheriff’s office and the state’s attorney’s office, however.
Hein is concerned about how the charge came to her attention. A community member called her office Sept. 24 — five days after the incident — to report that Cournoyer and two other women had used meth in jail. Hein’s office requested the internal reports, and the case went to a grand jury Oct. 16.
Hein said the issue of communication with the jail, along with security inside the walls, must be addressed.
“It’s an ongoing concern for us,” she said.
Thaler said the incident is more of a misunderstanding than a miscommunication. Before submitting a report to the prosecutor in the event of a positive drug test inside the jail, he said, his office waits for a confirmation test from the Division of Criminal Investigation’s crime lab in Pierre.
The report would have gone to Hein’s office after the test results arrived, he said.
Thaler said he’s removed needles from the jail since the incident as a safeguard against inmates using drugs. Inmates with diabetes previously had used them, he said.
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com