Whiteclay beer stores mandated to close; lawyer to appeal
The flow of beer in Whiteclay must stop, the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission ordered Wednesday, an unprecedented move that sets the stage for a major court battle.
Commissioners voted 3-0 to deny licenses to all four beer stores in the alcohol-soaked outpost in northwest Nebraska, a bottle’s toss from South Dakota’s dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
“This is not a place that can exist any longer,” commission Chairman Bob Batt of Omaha said after the vote. “This is not a place that can exist as a purveyor of alcohol at all.”
Cheers erupted from those who packed a tiny hearing room at the State Office Building for the decision.
Former Oglala Lakota President Bryan Brewer and longtime Winnebago activist Frank LaMere, both in tears, embraced after the announcement.
“We’ve never come this far,” Brewer said. “I’m just so happy for our people.”
A lawyer for the beer stores — which also face allegations from the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office of selling to bootleggers — said they will appeal the decision in Lancaster County District Court.
The stores may remain open through April 30, when their current licenses expire. Attorney Andrew Snyder of Scottsbluff, who listened to the decision via conference call, said later that his clients will seek a judge’s order to extend that until the appeal is resolved.
The beer store owners weren’t present for Wednesday’s decision.
Snyder repeated his claim that the state’s actions against the beer stores are part of a politically motivated effort led by Gov. Pete Ricketts.
“I think the commissioners are wrong,” Snyder said.
Alcohol sales in Whiteclay have been in question for months. The Liquor Commission ordered the beer stores to reapply for their licenses in November, citing concerns about law enforcement after a local official said Sheridan County “absolutely” lacked adequate resources to police the area.
Whiteclay has about eight official residents, but combined, its liquor stores sell millions of cans of beer each year, much of it to members of Pine Ridge’s resident Oglala Lakota Tribe.
Sheridan County, where Whiteclay is located, is patrolled by a sheriff’s office with five full-time deputies.
The tribe’s top law enforcement official told liquor commissioners during an April 6 hearing that Whiteclay crime routinely spills over into Pine Ridge, and Nebraska authorities do little to help. And a group of street ministers who live in Whiteclay testified about persistently dangerous, disgusting conditions in the unincorporated village.
But aside from that single remark last fall by Sheridan County Commissioner Jack Andersen, local authorities have insisted they have the resources to maintain public safety.
The Liquor Commission rejected that argument in reaching Wednesday’s decision.
Commissioner Bruce Bailey of Lincoln, his voice shaking, read a list of reasons he felt gave the commission authority to close the stores: the frequency of ambulance calls to Whiteclay and the stores themselves, the “very moving” stories of debauchery and violence on the streets, and a unanimous resolution by the Oglala Lakota Tribe’s executive committee that the beer stores should be closed.
“Very honestly, their five officers cannot cover what needs to be done, let alone realize we’re also covering a 35-mile-by-66-mile county,” Bailey said.
Snyder said Bailey’s comments went beyond the issues the commission was supposed to consider in its decision and will only help with the stores’ appeal.
“I appreciate his comments,” Snyder said. “That’ll be useful to us.”