Trial opens in Spirit Lake child deaths
FARGO — Twenty-seven months after the brutal abuse and killing of two young siblings at their home on the Spirit Lake Sioux Indian reservation, Valentino “Tino” James Bagola goes on trial in U.S. District Court in Fargo today facing four felony counts of murder.
The violent deaths of two of its youngest and most vulnerable members traumatized the Spirit Lake Nation and fueled allegations from within and without that the tribe faced an epidemic of child abuse and had systematically failed to deal with the crisis.
Tribal, state and federal authorities responded, including a Bureau of Indian Affairs takeover of the tribe’s child protection services.
But criticism mounted as a federal whistleblower filed report after report of suspected abuse he and others charged had been ignored or even enabled by tribal officials, police and prosecutors.
That debate continues to roil the reservation and fuel a tribal leadership struggle.
Destiny Jane Shaw-DuBois, 9, and her 6-year-old brother, Travis Lee DuBois Jr., had been reported missing by their father, Travis DuBois.
Their mother, Mena Shaw, who was separated from DuBois Sr., arrived at their father’s house in St. Michael, N.D., to look for them on May 21, 2011.
She found their lifeless bodies, beaten and bloody, beneath a mattress. They apparently had been dead several days, slain by a knife or other cutting weapon.
Witnesses described a horrific scene, with areas covered with blood, some of it in pools.
In a bedroom, according to one witness, small bloody handprints were found on a wall, a couple of feet above the floor.
Another of Shaw’s children, a 4-year-old boy, was found in the house, apparently unharmed.
Travis DuBois Sr. was arrested the same day and later pleaded guilty to public intoxication and reckless endangerment, but he was never charged in the children’s deaths.
He is listed as a government witness in the case against Bagola. So is Mena Shaw.
Bagola, 20, also of St. Michael, was arrested on July 21, 2012, or 14 months after the bodies were found. Federal authorities, who have jurisdiction in felony cases on Indian land, arrested him in Grand Forks, N.D. where he was being held on unrelated charges.
The arrest came six days after a Forum Communications special report in which tribal members and others said they were frustrated and pleading for answers.
Federal authorities insisted in that report their investigation had not stalled.
“We’ve been working very hard on this case since the day it happened,” U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon said at the time. He said he understood the frustration felt by the people of Spirit Lake, but “a great deal of forensic evidence has been gathered” and some of that evidence was still being processed. The FBI and BIA also had conducted numerous interviews, he said.
Bagola is accused of killing Destiny between May 18 and 21, 2011, and, in a separate count, killing her “while perpetrating or attempting to perpetrate the crimes of aggravated sexual abuse, sexual abuse and child abuse.”
Bagola is accused of killing Travis Jr. and additionally killing him “while perpetrating or attempting to perpetrate the crime of child abuse.”
He has pleaded not guilty to all counts. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of life in prison. He is represented by federal public defenders.
Trial initially was set to begin on Sept. 25, 2012, in Grand Forks but was delayed first to April of this year and then rescheduled for today in Fargo.
Such extensions are common in federal murder cases.
Selection of a jury from a pool of 38 is expected to take up a good portion of this first week.
The government has provided the court with a list of 57 witnesses it expects to call, including 11 FBI special agents and five FBI laboratory technicians.
It estimates that presentation of its case will take two to three weeks.
The defense list of 43 witnesses includes the FBI agents.
The defense expects to need three to four days, according to minutes of a trial status conference held before District Judge Ralph Erickson on Friday.
Over the past several months, defense attorneys have moved to suppress several pieces of potential evidence, including DNA and palm print evidence and statements Bagola allegedly made to FBI investigators while he was being held on other charges in the Grand Forks County Correctional Center.
Erickson has denied the motions, ruling Bagola was properly advised of his rights during the three jailhouse interviews.
Bagola’s federal public defenders also sought to limit the number of photographs that may be shown depicting the scene where the children’s bodies were found, as well as photos taken of the children’s bodies and photos made during their autopsies.
Erickson on Friday authorized prosecutors to use seven of 13 proposed photos of the children and similarly reduced numbers of autopsy photos.
In his order, the judge cited duplication in the government’s photos and indicated he wanted to spare jurors “unnecessary trauma.”
The government wanted to show photographs of Destiny and Travis during its opening statement, but Erickson denied that on Friday.
He also ordered, at the request of the defense, that non-family government witnesses not refer to Travis as “Baby Travis.”