Murder of a Leader
Dreams, deals and a struggle for control of the Winnemucca Indian Colony
“They don’t know what kind of power I have. They’re messing with the wrong person. I’m going by the books, and you can’t go wrong with the books.”
—William Bills, acting chairman of the Winnemucca Indian Colony
February 23, 2000
Freezing rain mixed with the blood on the ground outside the building. It had rained all night.
In the morning, the rain turned to snow, while family members waited outside the Winnemucca Indian Colony tribal building for an ambulance.
Then they waited again, for hours, for the Bureau of Indian Affairs police to arrive from Carson City.
Tribal chairman Glenn Wasson’s body was soaked. He’d been found by his nephew, Leslie Smartt, just after 8 a.m. Smartt went looking for his uncle, who was also his boss, when he didn’t show up for work.
Smartt, 53, followed a set of footprints leading away from the body of the tribal chairman. But he didn’t see Wasson’s wounds or the source of the blood slowly washing into the ground.
“It gets to me sometimes,” Smartt said, remembering.
Usually the first one on the job, Wasson, 76, would often build a fire on the TeePee Smoke Shop construction site before his co-workers arrived.
Not on Feb. 23.
No one was at the site when Wasson’s grandson, Wilford Crutcher, 28, arrived. He, too, went looking for his co-workers. Crutcher found Smartt’s truck parked across from the tribal council building, where the Wasson lay.
“[Smartt] came to me and said, ‘There’s our partner over there,’ “ Crutcher said. “I seen Glenn on the ground.”
An ambulance arrived, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs was called. Hours later, investigators arrived from Carson City.
“We were just standing there in shock,” said Tana Wright, Crutcher’s wife. “We saw him lying there in a puddle of blood. It was in the snow … blood on the ground.”
It didn’t take the detectives long to nose around and make a report. The yellow crime scene tape was gone within hours of the murder.
“The tape was taken down the same day he was murdered,” Wright said. “[At first], they told us it was a natural death. I said, ‘He’s lying there in a puddle of blood, and you’re saying that’s a natural death?'”
Investigators confirmed that Wasson was the victim of a fatal stabbing. Law enforcement officials commonly use the “natural death” line to get onlookers to move along, said FBI special agent Daron W. Borst.
Though Wasson’s death
kicked off a struggle for colony control between two warring family factions that continues today, it didn’t make any headlines. Even in the Humboldt Sun, the daily paper in this small town two hours northeast of Reno, the death of Wasson—a tribal leader, World War II veteran and environmental and Western Shoshone activist—didn’t rate a mention until the Safe Trails Task Force called Wasson the “likely” victim of a homicide.
The STTF, made up of members of the FBI, the BIA Office of Law Enforcement Services and the Nevada Division of Investigation, still requests public assistance for the case.
“It’s a real strange deal,” said Wasson’s daughter, Diane Malcomb of Lapwai, Idaho. “We went to the press right away. But it’s taken so long to get this out to the rest of the world.”
Some Indians concluded that authorities didn’t care.
“It wasn’t an important thing [to law enforcement agencies],” said Thomas Magiera, who was elected to the colony’s council in a controversial October vote. “It has been true over the years [that] if the Indians keep their violence to themselves, there’s really not much [of a] problem. If they kill off the reservation, that’s another thing.”
Others said that Wasson’s unpopularity made it hard to care.
“The truth is that nobody liked him,” said one observer. “Everyone knew he was running the colony for his own family and their profit.”
No arrests have been made for Wasson’s murder. Plenty of theories float around. Smartt said his uncle began acting strangely after meeting with suppliers for the smoke shop.
“I wished I’d have known what they talked about,” Smartt said.
Wasson’s gold coin collection, stored at the colony, leads investigators in other directions. Many friends and family members knew about the coins, an estimated $200,000 worth of gold. It’s not clear what happened to the gold. But it disappeared from the tribal office shortly after Wasson’s death.
Others favor the BIA conspiracy theory. The federal government may have sanctioned Wasson’s murder because he wouldn’t play by their rules, said Wasson’s brother, Sharon Wasson. Another family member downplayed the remark: “Sharon hasn’t been the same since the murder.”
At the FBI office in Reno, investigator Jerry Hill said he couldn’t comment on the details of the case.
“It’s still an ongoing thing,” said Iola Swick of the BIA law enforcement division in Carson City.
It’s not that authorities don’t care about Wasson’s murder, FBI special agent Borst said from a Las Vegas office.
“They’ve gone all-out on this one,” Borst said of the STTF. “They’ve thrown everything they’ve got at it in terms of time and manpower.”
Officials offered no information on possible suspects.
But sorting out the stories of two families—both armed with lawyers and press releases—vying for control of the Winnemucca Indian Colony is tricky business. Reporters are told: “You don’t want to piss off the wrong person.”
Who’s the wrong person? Hard to say.
“If journalists are having trouble with it, you can imagine the problems [investigators] are having,” Borst said.
“Had he lived 150 years
ago, you’d have known Glenn as a renegade chief,” said Magiera, a retired railroad worker. Though Magiera was elected to the Winnemucca Indian Colony tribal council and named chair in October, another faction within the colony fiercely contests Magiera’s position.
Magiera spoke for a minute about Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse.
“You see other renegade chiefs, who not only opposed the non-Indians, but they opposed their own leaders and fought for what they thought. Glenn did not go along with the majority of what the Indian people wanted, or the non-Indian people. He had his own agenda. And that’s what he pursued.”
The Shoshone leader traced his ancestry back to Chief Winnemucca’s granddaughter and a government land agent in the Nevada Territory, John Wasson.
As a teen, Glenn lied about his age to get in the U.S. Marines, said his brother, Sharon. In World War II, Wasson fought in the Pacific Theater. He received three Purple Hearts for fighting in Guam, Iwo Jima and Saipan.
Then he became another kind of warrior, fighting for the treaty rights of the Western Shoshone. In the 1960s, he marched for Indian rights in Washington, D.C. He had been involved in several protests at the Nevada Test Site, said Bob Fulkerson of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. Fulkerson remembered Wasson as a passionate speaker, who, as a military veteran, had “currency to speak out on [nuclear weapon] issues.”
In Susanville, Calif., Wasson helped to construct a senior center and educational facility, where Shoshone Indian children “who were falling behind in the white man’s schools” could receive tutoring, Sharon said.
“He never did work for himself, really,” Sharon said. “He was always helping somebody. That’s what a leader is.”
Others scoffed at this selfless portrait of the assassinated leader. Why was Glenn Wasson building anything in Susanville, when his job was to help those living in the Winnemucca Indian Colony?
The Wasson family had controlled the colony and its money for more than a decade without holding approved elections, charged William Bills, who said he’s the rightful acting colony chairman, not Magiera.
“[Wasson’s] family never did nothing for the colony,” Bills said. “I have the support of the 16 other families living on the colony. And I have the support of the community. They know all my family was born and raised here.”
What did Glenn Wasson want?
His last project was the building of a new smoke shop to generate income for the Winnemucca Indian Colony.
It had taken about a decade to save up more than $400,000 for the project. Wasson didn’t believe in taking money from the federal government.
“They lost out on a lot of money that could’ve helped them set up a tribal office,” said Robert Hunter, superintendent of the Western Nevada Agency of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. “It could have done some good, but on the other hand, you’ve got to respect their opinion on not wanting to take money from the federal government.”
Wasson believed the Indians needed to be self-sufficient and—in the case of the Shoshone—to care for Newe Sogobia, the Shoshone land that comprises most of Nevada.
“[He thought that] if the Winnemucca Indian Colony took any kind of grants or hand-outs, we’d be giving up our sovereignty,” explained Magiera, though he doesn’t exactly agree. “What sovereignty do we have? Only what the government gives us. It’s not something they couldn’t take away tomorrow.”
Months before Wasson’s death, Bills, then vice chairman of the colony’s council, challenged Wasson’s grip on the community.
Bills perhaps thought the colony would be better off diversifying its investments. During the summer of 1999, Bills had secured an agreement with Native American Productions to obtain financing for and to manage a sprung structure casino on 10 acres of Winnemucca Indian Colony land.
The agreement, signed in July 1999, called for profits to be divided, with 70 percent going to Mr. William Bills, Winnemucca Indian Colony, and 30 percent to Native American Productions.
The council wasn’t sure about the profit split. Would that 70 percent go to Bills? Or to the colony? Never answered, the question was eclipsed by an argument over the wisdom of building of a casino in Winnemucca. Well-financed gambling halls weren’t doing too well there. The council turned Bills’ proposal down. Bills stopped attending council meetings, Magiera said.
“The United States chose to leave these Indians where they were in the 19th century, because the white man could see no value in their lands. The government simply forgot about them and never got around to stealing their lands.”
—Raymond Yowell, Western Shoshone National Council, quoted in Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams: A Journey Into the Hidden Wars of the American West
Besides leading a
group of Shoshones and Paiutes in Winnemucca, Wasson spoke out repeatedly against taking money offered up by the federal government to settle the Treaty of Ruby Valley.
In 1863, the Western Shoshone Nation signed an agreement with the United States. This agreement, the Treaty of Ruby Valley, allowed safe passage of settlers through about 26 million acres of Shoshone land. It also allowed for a $5,000 annuity to the Shoshone to compensate for environmental damages.
The Shoshone received $5,000 worth of provisions and clothing when the treaty was signed. But no other annuity payments were received.
By the early 1860s, mining and trapping had already taken their toll on the land—and on the Shoshone way of life.
Author Rebecca Solnit described the damage in her book, Savage Dreams. White hunters with guns frightened off game animals. Mining was agitating river bottoms and mountain streams. Pine nut trees were cut for lumber and fuel. Seeds from bunch grass, a staple food for the Shoshone, became scarce, as livestock brought by settlers grazed on the grass as fast as it could sprout.
One hundred years later, Shoshone leaders demanded that the government settle up. By the 1960s, the promised annuity plus interest totaled some $4 billion dollars, reported Sierra Adare, in News from Indian Country. The demands went unheeded until 1979, when an Indian Claims Commission decision became final. The group, formed by the federal government to navigate Indian claims on land and treaty violations, ruled that a payment of more than $26 million to the Shoshones would settle the score. That figure represented the value of the land in 1872. The Shoshone received no land and no back annuity payments.
The settlement was never accepted. The money, now more than $121 million, remains in trust for the Shoshone. The issue of whether to take the money, hold out for a better offer or make no concessions still divides families, friends and colonies.
“The Western Shoshone feud quietly churns through the dozen remote reservations and urban Indian colonies of Northern Nevada, where most of the tribe’s 5,062 enrolled members live,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter James Rainey in a story last year. “A grassroots group backing the cash payments threatens to remove from office the tribal leaders who have blocked distribution. Blood relatives have stopped talking to each other about the issue.”
Resistance is wearing thin.
One group of cooperative Shoshone leaders urged U.S. Senator Harry Reid, D-Nev., to pursue legislation in 2000 that would distribute $20,000 to each Shoshone member and put $1.2 million in a fund for education. The bill floundered in committee, but Reid’s office said the senator intends to re-introduce it this year.
“We’re well aware that there’s mixed feelings among the tribes,” said David Cherry, a Reid spokesman. “We’re not looking to get in the middle of members of the tribes. But this money has been waiting for them for some time.”
Winnemucca from California in 1996 to be with his dying father, Ermon Bills, an enrolled member of the colony. Ermon Bills had lived in California for decades. During that time, he’d married a Filipino woman with a son, William Gutierrez, Jr.
Ermon adopted the boy and had his own name put on the birth certificate. William Gutierrez became William Bills in 1975 at the age of 16, according to copies of the amended birth certificate now in the possession of members of the Wasson family.
In Winnemucca, colony members had assumed William Bills was Ermon’s natural son. Bills soon won the friendship of many in the community.
“He is a very likeable person,” Magiera said. Council member Tom Wasson, Glenn’s nephew, called Bills, “part Colgate smile, part Jerry’s kids.”
But a few months after Bills’ failed casino bid, Glenn Wasson announced he’d found out that Bills wasn’t Shoshone or Paiute. He was 100 percent Filipino.
Bills didn’t argue with the findings. He said the council asked him to come from California to help.
“I was adopted, and they accepted me,” Bills said.
But for Wasson, blood wasn’t just a big issue. It was the only issue.
On Feb. 12, 2000, Wasson told the council that Bills didn’t meet the requirements for membership in the colony, let alone a position on the council. The leaders planned to talk about it at their next meeting on March 11.
Ten days later, Glenn Wasson was dead.
On Feb. 25, the Bureau of Indian Affairs acting superintendent Norma Moyle recognized Bills as acting chairman. In less than a week, Bills wrote a letter to two council members, suspending their privileges to vote or spend money in the colony account.
Bills said members of the council were writing checks to purchase personal items, like a CD player and a car purchased from Internet Motors in Reno.
“They bought a Daewoo,” observed one of Bills’ legal advisers.
On March 3, BIA superintendent Robert Hunter confirmed that the agency recognized Bills as acting chairman.
“I recognized four members of their tribal council,” Hunter reflected. “I have no power to determine who the chairman is, but I did recognize [Bills] as acting chairman at one point.”
The first week of March, Bills also sold some dirt. A bill of sale shows that 5,000 yards of top soil was sold to Myco Construction Company for 50 cents a yard. Magiera noted that the soil was removed from the area around the tribal council building, the scene of a crime not even two weeks old.
Bills said he was getting rid of an eyesore filled with old cars and oil drums.
“Did you ever see it out there?” he asked.
The March 11 meeting was nearly a riot. Before its end, two factions had formed. One faction formed around Bills, operating as “acting chairman.” The other was comprised of remaining council members and relatives of the Wassons.
Bills moved into the colony office and took over the smoke shop. The remaining members of the council held meetings in Susanville, where several members of the Wasson family lived. By May, the BIA had declared the council “dysfunctional.” The federal agency wouldn’t deal with the Wassons or recognize the decisions they made.
“There are a lot of theories on what happened out there,” BIA superintendent Hunter said.
October 27, 2000
In the fall, the council members, minus Bills, said they wanted to hold their annual election, as dictated by the colony’s constitution.
Election committee member Tana Wright, 31, had dinner cooking at her Winnemucca home across the street from the tribal council office. She took her kids, ages 12 and 13, across the street to help with preparations for the elections.
One problem. The “dysfunctional” council didn’t have keys to the tribal office. No problem. They made a hole in the door and broke in, or, as described by Bills: “They hammered in the door with a sledgehammer—talk about a criminal mindset.”
Wright said she wasn’t prepared for the fracas when Kevin Dick, a colony employee loyal to Bills, showed up. And when the BIA and police from the Humboldt County Sheriff’s office arrived, things really got out of hand, she said.
“I wasn’t sure what went wrong,” Wright said. “When [the police] came up, this Kevin Dick was pointing people out. He pointed me out and Sharon [Wasson] and Tommy [Wasson]. I was about ready to flip.
“We’re the ones who called the cops. We thought they were there for us, and then we were getting arrested. I was, like, freaking out. I’ve never been arrested before.”
Those arrested on Oct. 27 included Wright and her husband, Wilford Crutcher, and Glenn Wasson’s 77-year-old brother, Sharon, and nephew, Tom Wasson. The four say they were held for 36 hours without bail. They have filed claims against the BIA for wrongful arrest, seeking $50,000 in damages apiece.
Again, no comment from the BIA.
“We’re still talking to the victims,” Swick said.
Though the Wassons say that the BIA had vetoed having elections on colony ground, the elections continued as planned at a different location.
Magiera was elected to the council and appointed as chair.
Though this vote of enrolled members supported the Wasson family, it didn’t mean much to Bills’ supporters. An election not held on colony ground doesn’t count, Bills’ supporters said. And Bills wasn’t budging.
Colony resident Lovelle Brown said that Bills has worked to improve life for those living at the colony. She’s fiercely loyal to Bills and said she “lives in fear” of those who oppose Bills’ leadership.
The issue of colony enrollment has long been one of the biggest dividing factors in Winnemucca.
The colony has fewer than 100 voting members on its rolls. And not many of these members live in Winnemucca. Some live in Fallon, Fernley, Reno and Susanville. The majority of those who voted in October’s election voted by absentee ballot.
Most of those living on colony land aren’t enrolled members. Even some who were born in Winnemucca are actually members of other tribes or colonies at Fort McDermitt, Duck Valley or in Lovelock. The colony’s constitution allows only descendents of the original 1916 roll to become members—and only those who’ve not received money or land from another colony need apply. That excludes almost everyone.
Bills and Magiera agree on one thing. The rules need to change.
Magiera said he’d be willing to give people the choice. But to become enrolled as Winnemucca members, they’d have to give up membership elsewhere. Since most colonies are more lucrative than the “poor little Winnemucca Indian Colony,” Magiera doubted many would accept the offer.
Bills said the changes have already begun. And, in Winnemucca, his leadership simply isn’t opposed.
“They don’t know what kind of power I have,” Bills said, speaking via phone from the tribal office in late December. “They’re messing with the wrong person. I’m going by the books, and you can’t go wrong with the books.”
These days, the fate of
the colony is in the hands of the courts.
At stake are the colony bank account, the smoke shop, the keys to the tribal office and the lives of dozens of families living in Winnemucca.
Bills controlled all of the above as of early January.
The BIA’s Hunter said that no one from the colony has asked for assistance. And suddenly they’ve decided it’s not the BIA’s job to intervene.
Chief U.S. District Judge Howard McKibben questioned BIA intervention in a December federal hearing. McKibben told the sparring factions to work out their differences before another hearing in mid-January.
After the hearing, the BIA took back the “dysfunctional” designation. The federal agency doesn’t have the authority to intervene in “internal tribal issues,” wrote Western Regional Director Wayne Nordwall in a Dec. 20 letter addressed to Sharon Wasson.
Hunter said the agency doesn’t need to “recognize” leaders unless they seek to do business with the agency.
“We’re not dealing with anyone on the Winnemucca Indian Colony right now,” Robert Hunter said in early January.
Magiera said his goal is merely to restore peace to the Winnemucca Indian Colony.
As for the Ruby Valley treaty money, Magiera isn’t holding his breath. But he’s not averse to seeing some money flow in to help the people.
“I think it’s getting our share of something,” Magiera said. “[People] are living in shacks, when we do have a share of something coming in from the treaty. From what I understand, we’re not giving up anything we didn’t lose 150 years ago.”
Glenn Wasson’s daughter, Diane Malcomb, mourns her father—and the lost legacy.
"It’s one thing to lose somebody," Malcomb said. "It’s another thing to lose the whole dream."