Nation & World

Rising tensions and community members' worries: FBI investigating after 5 shot dead on Yakama Indian Reservation

This is the view down the road from Saturday's crime scene on the Yakama Indian Reservation. Since the shooting deaths of five people, two men have been indicted on charges of carjacking and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence. (Hal Bernton/Seattle Times/TNS)
This is the view down the road from Saturday's crime scene on the Yakama Indian Reservation. Since the shooting deaths of five people, two men have been indicted on charges of carjacking and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence. (Hal Bernton/Seattle Times/TNS)

WHITE SWAN, Yakama Indian Reservation — On Saturday, Thomas Hernandez walked out of his house and got into a vehicle that had pulled up outside, then went on a short drive through the sagebrush scrub lands of the of the reservation where he spent most of his life.

Hernandez, 36, ended up at a trailer at the end of a long driveway on a remote stretch of Medicine Valley Road. There he would die by gunfire, along with three other people. The body of a fifth person, also shot, would be found in a truck more than 10 miles away.

In addition to Hernandez, the Yakima County Coroner has identified the dead as Dennis Overacker, 61; Michelle Starnes, 51; Catherine Eneas-Squeochs, 49, and John Cagle, 59.

Four people are now in custody. Two of them, James Dean Cloud, 35, and Donovan Quinn Carter Cloud, 32, were indicted Tuesday on charges of carjacking and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence. The other two, a man and a woman, are in tribal custody and have not been charged in federal court.

Many details of what happened — and why — remain unclear. The FBI, which investigates the most serious crimes on the reservation, has not released information.

Shannon Teo, Hernandez’s longtime partner, felt uneasy as he left their home that day after changing from shorts to long pants. “That was the last I ever saw of him — he was at the wrong place at the wrong time,” Teo said.

Hernandez’s life — and death — may offer some clues as to what happened.

Family and neighbors say that his death was part of a broader cycle of violence in a community that has been buffeted by other killings, drugs and an epidemic of burglaries. In recent years, residents have been on high alert, keeping firearms close by in their homes. And after the events of Saturday, tensions have escalated.

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Earlier this week, one man who lived in a home near the scene of the trailer shootings held a firearm close by his side as he met a reporter at his front gate. He demanded to be left alone and offered a warning: “Next time, we shoot first, and ask questions later.”

Other residents appeared eager to talk about unwelcome changes in this part of the Yakama reservation, which includes the community of White Swan. Outlying roads run through arid stretches of sagebrush as well as lush expanses of irrigated mint, wheat and potatoes in view of the glorious snow-capped volcano of Mount Adams.

“You used to be able to go away and leave your door open, and be free about everything,” said Marie Sutterlict, who lives with her husband, Gene, less than mile from the trailer where four people were killed. They said their unpaved stretch of Medicine Valley Road used to have sparse traffic, and the few drivers who did pass usually were familiar.

Sutterlict said that the road is now a lot busier. Within the past year, there has been a lot of late-night traffic appearing to be headed to and from the trailer, which they feared might be involved in drug trafficking.

Drugs had been part of Hernandez’s life. He had struggled with methamphetamine use, according to Teo and Hernandez’s mother, Mary Olney, and in the past — but not recently — had bought drugs at the trailer where he was killed.

They both said he “was no gangster” and didn’t steal to support his habit.

A search of state public court records found only one accusation of criminal conduct: In May of this year, he was charged with burglary and theft of a motor vehicle in Yakima Superior Court, and records indicated the case was unresolved.

Teo and Olney said Hernandez made a living fixing cars, working in the woods and at other odd jobs, and tried hard to stay out of serious trouble in a community where trouble has been easy to find. In 2018, the Yakama Nation Tribal Council declared a “public safety crisis” in a resolution that singled out “rampant crime” in White Swan.

Through these turbulent times, family members recall Hernandez was always willing to lend a hand, whether it be using his mechanic skills to repair a friend’s car for free or helping his aunt with yard work.

“Everybody will tell you. My son is a gentle giant,” Olney said. “He didn’t run around causing problems everywhere.”

Hernandez’s family, however, had been scarred by past violence.

Family members say that as a youth, he was very close to his cousin, Donavan Culps, who would later have a child with a tribal woman, Felina Blanch Metsker.

Metsker disappeared in 2016, and federal prosecutors, in a May 2 news release, announced that George Skylar Cloud, of White Swan, had been convicted of her murder and received a life sentence. Joseph Harrington, the U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington, said that Cloud, 22, had mistakenly believed that Metsker was going to tell law enforcement about a shooting and carjacking he had been involved in, so he and another man shot Metsker in the head and buried her in a remote location.

By the time of Cloud’s conviction, Hernandez’s cousin, Culps, was serving 35 years in prison after pleading guilty in January to murdering a Spokane pot-shop worker who refused to sell him marijuana in September 2017, according to the Spokesman-Review newspaper.

However, in an interview, Culps alluded to a reporter and told a detective that he fatally stabbed another member of the Cloud family — Neil Cloud — who he believed was also involved in killing Metsker, the mother of his child.

Culps and another man, George Skyhawk Thompson, were indicted for Neil Cloud’s homicide in April 2018. Thompson pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and aiding and abetting in January and is awaiting sentencing. He told prosecutors and Culps dragged Neil Cloud from a car and stabbed him repeatedly, then buried the body. Culps has pleaded not guilty in federal court to charges of first-degree murder and aiding and abetting.

Corlene Woodward, Culps’ mother, said that her son and Metsker had separated after the birth of their child. But they had remained close, and that he was hard hit by her abduction and death.

Culps’ confessing to Neil Cloud’s murder appeared to cast a shadow on Hernandez’s life.

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Hernandez was worried that other members of the Cloud family might want revenge, according to Teo. He feared he might be a target because of his close childhood relationship with Culps, and repeatedly expressed those concerns as recently as several weeks ago.

James Dean Cloud has a long history of run-ins with the law. In 2010, he pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to a burglary and in which he stole two handguns from a home in White Swan. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison as an armed career criminal. However, in 2016, after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down portions of the Armed Career Criminal Act as unconstitutional, Cloud petitioned the court for resentencing. In September 2016, he was released to a halfway house, according to court records.

Two months later, he was arrested driving a stolen vehicle following a police chase in which speeds exceeded 100 mph, according to records. In 2017, he was sentenced to three months in custody and supervised release. Last year, noting that the 35-year-old Cloud was pursuing his GED and was following his probation officer’s instructions, the court dropped his supervision.

A document filed Tuesday in federal court, justifying a judge’s decision to have James Cloud shackled in the courtroom, notes that he has a “serious history of escape attempts, obstruction of and flight from law enforcement.”

In an interview with the Yakima Herald-Republic, Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell, whose office also is involved in the investigation, said drugs likely were a factor in the trailer killings, but that there may be more to the crimes and that investigators are looking into other possibly connected incidents. He cautioned that he wasn’t sure of the relationship between those involved in the recent homicides and those involved in Metsker’s death.

As the investigation continues, the people who loved Hernandez have been grieving and planning a funeral, and are wary of what lies ahead.

Teo seems doubtful that the shocking body count from the weekend will contribute to much change.

“People are going to do what they want. Drugs are going to be out there. There’s going to be good and bad,” she said. “I think the violence has gotten a lot worse.”

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(Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.)

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