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Sierra’s Story

line A murderous rage: The story of Darryl Headbird and Sierra Goodman
Originally published in the Star Tribune by Larry Oakes
April 24, 2004

Darryl Headbird remembers getting a good grip on the bat and adjusting his stance. He stood next to the bed in the darkened room. His father’s eyes were closed. Darryl could hear his rhythmic breathing and see his chest rise and fall. Darryl, 14, raised the bat above his head. But a sudden twinge of concern stopped him. What if he doesn’t die after the first swing?

He lowered the bat and thought. Then he tiptoed out of the little house where he lived with his father on the Leech Lake Indian Reservation.

The night was black; it was well after midnight on May 25, 2001. Darryl whistled their chained dog over to where he stood and patted its head. The nameless brown dog lay down at his feet in the dark.

Darryl took a step back and swung the bat. The sound of the dog’s skull splintering reminded him of the noise a cracker makes when bitten, he said later. More significant to him, though, was the way the dog collapsed and died without a whimper. He dragged the warm, limp carcass through the back yard and heaved it into the brush. Then he walked back into the house, bat in hand.

The Leech Lake Indian Reservation is a place of breathtaking natural beauty. Majestic stands of pine ring three of Minnesota’s largest lakes.

Tourists come here to fish, hunt or snowmobile in a place where bald eagles soar above sugar-sand beaches.

But in the midst of this tremendous beauty, there is tremendous misery. Here, alarming numbers of Indian children are lost to alcohol, drugs, prison and violence. Leech Lake is not the only Minnesota tribe facing such problems. But lately the reservation has become an especially violent place, where murders — such as the beating death of blind Cass Lake resident Louie Bisson in 2002 — are no longer surprising. The Leech Lake Reservation is, statistically, among the worst places in Minnesota to grow up.

Cass County, where most of the reservation’s people live, ranked last among 77 Minnesota counties in a 1999 government study that measured the health and safety of children. (Ten of Minnesota’s 87 counties were not ranked.)

In 2002, Cass County had the state’s highest percentage of children living in foster homes and other county-supervised care. Most of them were Indians from the reservation, taken away from their parents, or given up by them, because of abuse, neglect or delinquency.

In many cases, alcohol is a cause. Mothers damage their babies’ brains by drinking their way through pregnancy. Many of those babies are born with fetal alcohol syndrome, a brain defect that severely impairs judgment. Those babies often grow up to become neglectful or destructive parents themselves, and the cycle begins anew.

Mothers and fathers abandon their children, sometimes for a few days to go on a bender, sometimes for longer stretches when they’re sent away to prison.

Some of the children are taken in by relatives, often grandparents. Others are shuttled through a series of foster homes. And some more or less raise themselves.

Many of these neglected children have learning disabilities and behavior disorders. Some have mental illnesses that aren’t identified until they commit a serious crime. Many are physically or sexually abused. Starved for family, they find substitutes in gangs. Many abuse drugs and alcohol. A statewide study of ninth-graders in the mid-1990s found that Cass County had the highest rate of heavy drug and alcohol use and the highest rate of alcohol abuse within their families. The county also ranked first in numbers of people admitted to detoxification centers.

Police, prosecutors and judges in the county estimate that at least 90 percent of Indian offenders commit their crimes while drunk.

Death comes earlier here. In Minnesota, Indians’ average life expectancy is about eight years less than for the population as a whole.

The hopelessness has surfaced in a string of deaths, including the beating deaths of Bisson and a tourist, an arson that killed a young mother, a drug overdose that killed a teenage girl, the fatal shooting of a young father and the death of a teenage boy who was run over while lying on a highway — all in less than two years.

As a result of those six deaths, five other young people are in prison, one awaits sentencing and three await trial.

A year before this string began, hopelessness boiled over in another murder case involving two particularly troubled Ojibwe children — Darryl Headbird and Sierra Goodman.

Tract 33

Ernestine Morgan gave birth to Darryl Headbird on Sept. 23, 1986. Not long after — some say a few days, Morgan herself says a few months — she left, and Darryl rarely saw her after that. The boy’s father, Darryl Sr., didn’t think he could care for a baby, so he asked his mother for help.

Helen Headbird lived in a crackerbox house on Tract 33, a cluster of run-down government houses and mobile homes on the northern edge of Cass Lake. Tract 33, also known as Moccasin Flats, is home to a few hundred of Leech Lake’s most impoverished Indians.

It is not much of a place for a baby.

On Tract 33, it’s not uncommon to see an adult staggering at midday, teenagers passing a joint in plain sight, or a diapered toddler waddling unsupervised down the street. Gang members deal drugs and sometimes take shots at one another.

People sometimes settle scores by setting fire to their enemy’s house. The charred shells can stand for months.

Still, Helen knew her grandson was better off with her than with either parent.

Such family arrangements are common on the reservation, where nearly 5 percent of adults age 30 and older are caring for grandchildren, a rate seven times greater than for the state as a whole.

So for seven years, Darryl lived on Tract 33 with his grandmother. When Darryl was 7, his grandmother got sick, and he moved out to the country to live with his father. Darryl Sr.’s two-bedroom house was in a grove of aspen and hardwoods 10 miles north of Cass Lake. Young Darryl had acres of forest to play in, but he felt uncomfortable. The house was isolated. Things there felt strange.

His father had left his lumber-mill job after injuring his back, and he went on welfare. The emotional and mental problems that he had wrestled with for years grew worse.

Family members said Darryl Sr. suspected that the farmer across the road was poisoning their water. Darryl Sr. claimed that he was the real author of the script for the movie “Men in Black.” He refused to get a telephone because he feared wiretaps. He wrote long, rambling letters to judges and then-U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno.

Not long after young Darryl moved in, a Beltrami County judge looked at Darryl Sr.’s record of intimidation and threats against a former girlfriend, with whom he’d had a daughter, and ordered him to stay away from the little girl.

But no mother went to court to protect Darryl Jr. No judge heard how his dad once belt-whipped the boy for spilling coffee.

Photographs show that Darryl Sr. let garbage pile up in the kitchen. This attracted rats, which he poisoned. Darryl Jr. said he wasn’t allowed to join after-school activities. Stuck at home, he learned how to skin deer and put down rabid dogs. The boy said his father let him look at pornography, claiming that it would make him a man.

Sometimes Darryl Sr.’s mind seemed clearer, and he’d talk about the history of their family and tribe. One night, the boy remembers, his dad called him out onto the back porch to look at the stars as frogs chirped in the nearby swamp.

Darryl Sr. told him that those were the same stars their Indian ancestors had studied when they roamed freely through the north woods. Then came the invasion of white explorers, fur-traders, soldiers and missionaries. Eventually, the government forced the Ojibwe onto reservations.

Darryl’s ancestors were relegated to shacks in villages such as Cass Lake, Ball Club and Inger. They existed on low-wage jobs or government handouts. The federal government prohibited their religious practices and sent their children to distant, English-language boarding schools.

The Ojibwe culture was systematically dismantled. The new culture offered a way to forget — alcohol. Alcohol wreaked havoc on generations of Indian families.

For the Headbirds, its legacy can be found in the Prince of Peace Cemetery north of Cass Lake. Many Headbirds lie there, in graves mounded in the Indian tradition. Most died prematurely, sometimes violently, and alcohol was usually a factor.

Darryl’s uncle, Randy Headbird Sr., died in 1993 at age 42 after slitting his wrists in the back of a squad car. An alcoholic, he was being taken to the Cass County jail for cutting his girlfriend with a knife while drunk.

Darryl’s cousin, Brenton Headbird, died at 14. The death certificate says he killed himself by running in front of a car.

Another burial mound belongs to Darryl’s aunt, Patricia Headbird. She died at 47 from lung cancer and chronic hepatitis after years of struggling with alcoholism.

And a small mound marks the grave of Darryl’s brother, Ronald. He was a year old when he died in 1986. He was run over by his parents’ car in their driveway on Tract 33, three weeks before Darryl was born. His parents told police the car slipped into neutral and rolled while children played in it.

Hearing voices

When Darryl was 12, he found a way to escape, if only in his imagination: His father bought a box of horror movies at a rummage sale, and the boy watched “Halloween” and “Dracula” and others over and over again.

He felt drawn to the macabre themes. He listened to heavy metal bands — Korn, Coal Chamber, Cradle of Filth. He read about vampirism and Satanism.

Like his father, he sometimes said things that struck people as odd. He talked to himself. He said he heard voices and saw balls of light fly out of people.

He toyed with the idea of suicide. Once, he said, he sat with the barrel of a gun in his mouth and his thumb on the trigger, and another time he picked up a handful of rat poison and stared at it, daring himself to swallow it.

He was artistic, but he found learning basic subjects slow and difficult. His school had a high percentage of children with learning disabilities. In 2002, 18 percent of Cass Lake-Bena High School’s students had learning disabilities severe enough to qualify them for special education services vs. 11 percent for the state as a whole.

Education officials say that with some of the kids, fetal alcohol damage is a factor. Some of Darryl’s relatives say they believe he was damaged in this way, too. They say Ernestine drank while she was pregnant, though she denies it.

At school, kids called Darryl “Satan’s son” and “freak.” But in 1999, at age 13, he met someone who liked him just the way he was.

He was at a roller rink in Bemidji, out on the floor, tripping and catching himself. A girl glided up to him. Like Darryl, she had dark hair and glasses. She, too, was Indian.

She took Darryl’s hands and skated backward, gracefully leading him. “Don’t look at your feet,” she says she told him. “Look at my eyes.”

Sierra Goodman had been in and out of foster homes since she was 2 months old, court records show. By the time she turned 16, she had lived with 20 families and had attended 13 schools, by her own count.

Many of the Leech Lake Reservation’s children bounce from foster home to foster home. More than 60 percent of children removed from Cass County homes are Indian, though Indians account for only 21 percent of the county’s children.

Every year on her birthday, Sierra said, she waited by the window, believing her mother would choose that day to come and get her. But she never did.

Sierra’s mother, Alice Whipple, drank while she was pregnant. When a pregnant woman drinks, the brain of her fetus can fail to develop properly.

Fetal alcohol syndrome and its related disorders can cause learning disabilities, hyperactivity and difficulty understanding cause and effect. Some medical research indicates that a large proportion of the young people in prison or juvenile detention have some form of fetal alcohol brain damage.

Studies suggest that it disproportionately afflicts Indian children. Leech Lake social workers estimate that 50 to 100 of the reservation’s 1,000 Indian families have children with this kind of brain damage — children such as Sierra, who has a diagnosis of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

Long before a psychologist put a name to her problem, Sierra attracted the attention of social workers.

When she was 7, Sierra and her sisters, 5-year-old Amber and 3-year-old Velvet, went to live with foster parents Eugene and Carol Campbell of Bemidji.

The Campbells said that Sierra was one of the most heartbreaking kids they had ever seen. She arrived at their house carrying all of her clothes in a half-full grocery sack. At first she seemed unable to bond or trust.

She responded to their kindness by regressing and insisting that Carol rock her to sleep each night. She said, “Mommy, I wish I could get inside of you.” The Campbells showered her with affection. They painted and carpeted her room in her favorite color — pink. Carol filled her closet with clothes — purple and pink dresses for church, and black patent leather shoes. They bought toys and games, including a cooking set that Sierra liked most of all.

The sisters bounced down the dock and jumped into the lake nearly every nice day all summer.

After a year and a half, the Campbells began to realize they were violating an unwritten rule of foster care: They had fallen in love with the girls. They petitioned the court to adopt Sierra, Amber and Velvet. Sierra was happy; by now, she considered the Campbells to be her mom and dad.

But the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe did not. The Campbells were white, and the filing of those papers stirred a hornet’s nest.

A 1978 law — the federal Indian Child Welfare Act — requires that Indian children be placed in Indian homes whenever possible to help preserve tribes and Indian culture.

While the Campbells said they agreed in principle with the law, they also knew that Leech Lake had a shortage of Indian foster families. None of the foster parents had been willing to care long-term for all three girls.

No one had objected to the girls’ prolonged stay at the Campbells until the Campbells wanted to make it permanent. When the tribe objected, the county took the girls away. But when the girls proved too difficult for the next two foster families, the county sent them back to the Campbells.

In May 1993, the court ruled that the Campbells could adopt the girls, but the tribe appealed. The legal battle that ensued continued for nearly two years. Indian bands and adoption professionals across the nation watched closely. The girls were, once again, removed from the Campbells’ home.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals sided with the Campbells, but the state Supreme Court overturned the ruling. That became the last word; the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case. By then the Campbells had remortgaged their house and spent $80,000 on attorneys.

Sierra, then 11, was devastated.

“We love them so much,” she vented in a letter to the state Supreme Court. “… You are mean, crude and evil like the devil.” Sierra, Amber and Velvet were placed with their aunt and uncle, Melvin and Audrey Goodman. The family moved to a split-level home on a hill outside Cass Lake.

Sierra was back in the homeland of her ancestors. But, she said, she didn’t feel at home.

Dark forces

Over the next three years, Sierra ran away seven times, trying to get back to the Campbells. Late one night, she sneaked out of the house, walked the 15 miles that separated them and pounded on their door at 5 a.m.

Gene and Carol held her close but explained that they either had to send her back or go to jail. As Gene walked her out to a patrol car, Sierra clung to him and sobbed.

Living with the Goodmans, Sierra grew more and more unhappy. She said she felt drawn by the darker forces she sensed in horror movies and heavy metal music.

She experimented with blood-letting. She read about Satanism. She told people she was angry with God.

She described how she tried several times to kill herself. Once, she said, she hung herself from a tree, only to get scared and regain her footing. Another time she climbed Cass Lake’s water tower but decided not to jump.

One night, she said, she piled sticks around the Goodman home, intending to burn the house down with them in it. But she couldn’t figure out how to get her sleeping sisters out without waking her uncle and aunt, so her plan fell apart.

The Goodmans asked authorities for help. At juvenile detention homes, in a hospital psych ward, in another foster home, Sierra, now on the antidepressant Prozac, insisted that all she wanted to do was go back to the Campbells.

In March 2000, the tribe, concluding that all other options had been exhausted, agreed. She and the Campbells had a joyful reunion.

But Sierra was no longer the little girl who wanted to be rocked to sleep. She was a teenager, angry, depressed and deeply troubled.

Once she met Darryl, they were inseparable. They dressed in black and brushed liquid paper onto their eyelids. They decided that they were vampires and shrank from garlic and the sun.

Although still children — Darryl was 13 and Sierra was 16 — they became lovers. Darryl wrote poems to her with a pen dipped in blood.

At school, students scattered and screamed when Sierra pulled out a vial of Darryl’s dried blood and sprinkled it over her lunch.

When the Campbells and some Headbird relatives grew alarmed and tried to limit the couple’s contact, the two decided they had had enough of the adults in their lives.

They planned to run away and start a community of devil-worshipping teens, they said later. But first they would kill Darryl’s father, Sierra’s foster parents and anyone else who tried to come between them.

“I have a murderous rage within me,” Sierra wrote to Darryl in red ink. “… Soon, my love, we shall take over the world.”

A strange dream

They chose Memorial Day weekend. The Campbells were out of town, and Sierra was staying with an aunt. Darryl, they decided, would kill his father and then ambush the Campbells upon their return.

Late that night, after killing his dog with the bat, Darryl decided that killing his father the same way would be too difficult. He put the bat away and waited for another chance.

In the morning, Darryl’s father remarked on the strange dream he had had. In his dream, he said, his copper-colored skin had turned gray.

Later that day, Darryl rode his bicycle to a friend’s house. No one was home. Inside, he said, he found a 12-gauge shotgun and shells. He sneaked them home.

Darryl later described what happened next:

That night, he crept up and put the muzzle of the Remington pump shotgun an inch or two away from his sleeping father’s head.

Heart pounding, he watched his father’s chest rise and fall. He held his breath and squeezed the trigger.

A quick flash lit his father’s face and a loud bang sounded, followed by a high-pitched ringing in Darryl’s ears and the sharp, expanding smell of burnt gunpowder.

And then, silence.

After a day, Darryl recalled, the body had started to smell. He washed it with bleach, talking to it as he worked, and covered it with a tarp. Then he blew the corpse a kiss, got on his bike and pedaled to Bemidji.

Sierra sneaked out of her aunt’s house, and she and Darryl spent the night at her foster parents’ home. In the morning, they decided they wouldn’t wait for the Campbells to come back; they would run away.

Sierra packed a special razor for bloodletting, a red devil toy, a black cape and a red and black velvet gown.

They hitchhiked to Darryl’s house. He lifted the tarp to show Sierra his father’s body.

Darryl stuffed some clothes into a backpack along with five CDs, a pocket-sized skull and two hunting knives. They then set off on foot down the highway toward Cass Lake.

Meanwhile, Gene and Carol Campbell had returned to find Sierra missing. They set out separately — Carol in her van, Gene in his truck — to look for her. Carol was driving behind Gene when they came upon the pair trudging up the road.

Darryl hugged Sierra as if to say goodbye, slipping her a knife and whispering instructions in her ear.

All four recalled what happened next:

Darryl said he knew where to aim — his dad once told him the most effective places to stick a knife if he ever had to kill someone.

As Gene walked up to Sierra, Darryl stepped behind him and plunged the knife into the base of Gene’s neck.

Carol screamed. Gene was stunned, but he saw the blood spurting, and from his days as a military medic he knew that he had only seconds to act. He slid his forefinger and thumb inside the wound, found the sliced artery, and pinched it shut.

He said: “Darryl, you don’t have to do this.” But Darryl was looking at Sierra. The terror in her eyes told him she wasn’t going to do her part — she was not going to kill her foster mother.

Carol ran to the van. Darryl bounded after her. Run, Carol! Gene remembers yelling as he tried to block Darryl, who pushed past.

But the van was locked.

Carol ran on down the highway, Darryl at her heels. Both Sierra and Gene saw him grin as he raised the knife.

With the second stab, Carol felt everything below her shoulders become dead weight. Gritty pavement rose and smacked her in the face.

I can’t move! she shouted. Gene rammed his body into Darryl’s and then fell on top of Carol. He expected to die there with his wife.

But a car was approaching.

Gene looked up and said: Darryl, if you stay here, you’re going to get caught! Take my truck and go!

Darryl and Sierra ran to the truck and sped away, Sierra at the wheel.

Still their daughter

The doctors said Gene and Carol were lucky to be alive. She spent two months in a hospital, healing and learning to use a wheelchair. The knife had severed her spinal cord, paralyzing her below the shoulders. Gene underwent three surgeries.

They knew that Darryl and Sierra had been picked up almost right away.

But even as Carol and Gene recovered, they wanted Sierra back. In their hearts, they said, she was still their daughter.

Just days after getting out of the hospital, Gene pushed Carol’s wheelchair into a juvenile detention center in Bemidji, where Sierra was being held. All three of them cried.

Sierra begged their forgiveness. They hugged her. Gene said: You are our daughter. We love you. They told authorities that she needed help, not prison. They said she always would have a home with them.

Darryl and Sierra were certified to stand trial as adults, but there were no trials. Both pleaded guilty, Darryl to murder and assault, Sierra to aiding Darryl in the assaults on the Campbells and to helping him escape.

Court-appointed psychiatrists concluded that Darryl suffered from schizoaffective disorder. This fairly rare mental illness has symptoms of both schizophrenia and a mood disorder — depression, in Darryl’s case.

Fetal alcohol brain damage and schizoaffective disorder can produce similar behaviors. But Darryl was never tested for fetal alcohol damage. This wasn’t unusual. A 1998 task force warned that fetal alcohol damage is a major hidden cause of crime and dysfunction in the state. But few juvenile offenders in Minnesota are screened for the disorder.

Beltrami County Attorney Tim Faver said he felt sorry for Darryl, but he also felt obligated to get him off the streets.

Sierra was a different story. Faver came to believe that with the right kind of help, she would no longer be a threat.

On Sept. 25, 2001, the Campbells were at her side when Judge Terrance Holter sentenced Sierra to 22 years in prison. He stayed the sentence, placed her on probation for 20 years, and ordered her into treatment at Woodland Hills, a juvenile rehabilitation home in Duluth. He also ordered her to have no more contact with Darryl.

An aunt’s plan

Darryl’s mother had been little more than a shadowy figure in his life, but she showed up for his court appearances. So did his grandmother and a few other relatives.

His Aunt Tina couldn’t bear to think of such a young boy spending the next 30 years in prison. Confinement, she thought, would crush his soul. She had an idea she shared with other family members: At Darryl’s sentencing, she would sneak a gun into the courthouse and shoot him. Death would save him from decades of imprisonment.

But she never had the chance to carry out her plan. The day before Darryl’s sentencing, a judge ordered her into drug treatment. She had been convicted of trying to pass a forged prescription for OxyContin, a painkiller peddled illegally on the reservation.

On Nov. 6, 2001, Darryl was sentenced to 40 years in prison. With good behavior, he would serve almost 27 years.

In court, the judge granted him the right to speak. Darryl held an eagle feather that a relative had brought, to give him strength.

“I am sorry for the wrongs in my life that I cannot undo. I used to be a lovable boy,” he said. ” … I wish I could go back to those days when … people that I didn’t even know loved me for how cute I was. Now you fear me.”

As Darryl was led away in handcuffs, the deputy paused as they passed Darryl’s mother. In 15 years, she had almost never touched him. But now, as he was heading off to prison, she enveloped him in a hug.

‘You’ll always be mine’

A few months after Sierra arrived at Woodland Hills, two ministers drove her to a deserted picnic ground. She held a T-shirt that Darryl had painted for her. Once one of her most prized possessions, it featured satanic symbols, flames and skulls.

The ministers built a fire. While they prayed, Sierra held the shirt over the flames. It was a long time before she let go.

Even as it burned, Sierra said later, she felt the shirt speaking to her: “They’re deceiving you. You’ll always be mine.” She shivered.

During the year and a half Sierra lived at Woodland Hills, she underwent intensive therapy and continued high school classes. She graduated last May. A month later, Woodland Hills released her to a group home.

On July 28, Sierra, now 19, appeared in court once again — this time on a happier occasion. Carol, 64, and Gene, 49, were by her side. It took 10 brief minutes for their adoption petition to be granted. At long last, Sierra Goodman became Sierra Campbell.

“We’re hoping for a much better future,” Carol said, reaching up from her wheelchair to hug her daughter.

Sierra’s little sisters have not been as lucky. Cass County removed them from the Goodman home after hearing evidence of problems there. The Goodmans voluntarily gave up their parental rights to the girls. A judge sent Amber, 17, and Velvet, 15, to separate treatment facilities for troubled young people. The Goodmans did not respond to requests for interviews.

In prison

On Jan. 30, 2003, a guard escorted Darryl into the visitation room at the 115-year-old granite prison just outside of St. Cloud.

Barely 16, he was the second-youngest inmate in Minnesota’s adult prison system. He was already more than a year into his sentence. His visitor, a reporter, was his first.

He works on his GED, he said, and composes heavy-metal songs on his guitar. He paints pictures, mostly in blue and black. He reads the Satanic Bible and pinpricks tattoos of satanic symbols on his arms. He calls himself “D.” He fights and gets thrown into segregation. He lies on the cot in his 10-by-12-foot cell and stares up at a Britney Spears poster.

He has not heard from Sierra or tried to contact her. His mother has not written.

“Its almost as if my past life was all a dream,” he wrote later to the reporter. “I sometimes think that this place isn’t real. Like when I wake up in the morning. … but every morning, in that one moment before I remember, I truly wonder where I’m at. …

“And please try not to make me look like some type of monster.”

One hundred fifty miles to the north, on the Leech Lake Reservation, the pines whisper above Prince of Peace Cemetery. Another mound lies in the Headbird area. Someone has given it a stone border and stuck an eagle feather and an American flag, now faded, into the dirt.

A small metal marker reads: Darryl Kent Headbird Sr., 1959-2001.

Murdered by his second son, he is buried quite near his first son.

Original source


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