Lawsuit possible in Rush hockey game alleged racism incident

By Jim Stasiowski, Rapid City Journal 

Rapid City is among the defendants that may be sued in federal court by the Native American students who were the targets of alleged beer-spilling and racial taunts at a January hockey game in the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center.

A Minneapolis lawyer, Robert R. Hopper, has filed in the U.S. District Court of South Dakota a “pre-suit notice” alleging “atrocious behaviors” by some of the defendants at the Jan. 24 Rapid City Rush game.

But the lawyer for one of the defendants responded that the notice is “little more than a shakedown for money.”

State law requires that to sue a “public entity,” such as the city, over some incident, written notice must be given within 180 days of the incident. Thus, the deadline for giving the city written notice occurs this week.

Named as prospective defendants in the yet-to-be-filed suit are the city of Rapid City, which operates the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, in which the Rush play their games; Eagle Sales of the Black Hills, which leases the luxury box from which the beer-spilling and racial taunts reportedly came; Trace O’Connell, a Philip resident who has been charged with disorderly conduct in connection with the incident; and “other guests of Eagle Sales’ box suite” on the night of the game.

Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender on Saturday said he had “skimmed” the pre-suit notice and has scheduled an executive session at the Monday night Rapid City Council meeting for council members to discuss the possible lawsuit with legal counsel.

“I guess it wasn’t unexpected,” Allender said.

“It could very well be that the impact might be to elicit a settlement” from the defendants, he added. An attempt Saturday to reach an executive with Eagle Sales was unsuccessful.

O’Connell’s attorney in the disorderly conduct case, Michael J. Butler, responded in an email:

“The notice to bring a lawsuit against Rapid City, the Civic Center, Eagle Sales, my client, and others is little more than a shakedown for money, captioned as a lawsuit claiming racism. I am familiar with the investigation. This case is not about racism, but it is about a few who are advancing a personal agenda and using race to do it. The lawyer filing notice should take some time to inform himself of the investigation and do his homework. ”

The pre-suit notice lists as plaintiffs parents who are acting on behalf of the students. In a cover letter, Hopper refers to the plaintiffs as a “Putative Class of Native American Children.”

The pre-suit notice says the plaintiffs “and putative plaintiffs class (were) subjected to (1) an escalating series of racially derogatory comments; (2) foul language; (3) objects, including bottle caps and Frisbees, thrown at them; and (4) spitting, spraying and throwing of beer onto their clothing, in their hair, and on their faces.”

Some of those accusations are familiar, although the references to thrown bottle caps and Frisbees apparently are new.

The pre-suit notice said the “atrocious behaviors” were committed by “several adults … in a private suite … leased by the Civic Center to Eagle Sales of the Black Hills, Inc.”

Those actions, the notice says, “were allowed to perpetuate and were exasperated by the negligence of the Civic Center and its responsible agents and employees acting in their official capacity on behalf of the City.” In an email, Hopper said “exasperated” should have been “exacerbated,” and he explained that an auto-correct feature on his computer made the mistake.

The students, all from the American Horse School on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, were at the game as a reward for academic success. They were accompanied by adult chaperons. The group had 65 tickets to the game.

After a lengthy investigation, O’Connell was charged with disorderly conduct, a Class 2 misdemeanor. His trial is scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday this week in the Historic Theatre at Rapid City High School.

Police probe opened in Rush racism incident

By Tom Griffith, Rapid City Journal

Police opened an investigation Tuesday into a Saturday night incident in which a group of Native American students was reportedly subjected to beer baths and racial slurs while attending a Rapid City Rush hockey game.

Rapid City Police Lt. Mark Eisenbraun said his department had just opened an investigation into the matter Tuesday afternoon.

“It was just reported to me that we have had parents of the kids call in and give us information that will allow us to investigate this incident further,” Eisenbraun said. “So we have opened an investigation, and we thank the public for reporting criminal activity when they see it.”

Also Tuesday, a witness stepped forward with more information about the incident.

Andy Hollander, of Sturgis, a season ticket holder and longtime former supervisor of officials for USA Hockey, said he was 10 to 15 seats away from the American Horse School group from Allen, which had a total of 65 tickets for students and their chaperones. Hollander said the student group was one of the best-behaved he has seen in his years of attending games.

Hollander said he was too far away to hear what happened, but he saw two men in the skybox above the students “who seemed to be taking real pleasure in continuing the confrontation” with an adult member of the school group.

The group left before the game ended, leaving three empty rows. Hollander said the men in the skybox “seemed to gloat over what they had accomplished in chasing the student group from the game” and handed out a number of beers to other fans in what Hollander said appeared to be a “celebration.” He said several other people in the skybox “seemed extremely uncomfortable with what was going on.”

The group left before the end of the third period of a game that went into overtime and a shootout, with the Rush eventually losing to the Wichita Thunder 4-3.

“It was a very exciting finish, and they missed it,” Hollander said.

He hopes the men in the skybox will apologize publicly to the kids and be barred from attending future events at the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center, and he hopes the students will be brought back for another game and given a few perks.

Meanwhile, the Rushmore Plaza Civic Center’s director and the president of Eagle Sales said Tuesday they were devastated by the episode.

“Having been in the industry for 25 years, I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Craig Baltzer, executive director of the civic center. “I am amazed by what kind of idiots there are in the world.”

Eagle Sales of the Black Hills President Tom Helland called the incident “incredibly horrible.” Helland, a beer distributor, rents the arena suite from which one person, and possibly as many as three others, slung beer and racial epithets at the group of fourth- through eighth-graders from the school’s 21st Century Club, who were seated below.

“I feel terrible about it,” Helland said. “Unfortunately, we can’t change what happened. From what I gathered, it was one individual who did most of the inappropriate behavior. I don’t condone it and, if it was one of my employees, they’d no longer be employed.”

Helland, who was not at the Rush game, said one of his employees was in attendance, but neither that employee nor most of the other 20 people in the suite were aware of the incident. He said he had not yet been able to identify the offending individuals.

“We are cooperating with authorities, and we are working to get to the bottom of it,” Helland said. “I apologized to those children, those students who worked so hard to get to go to the game. And, it’s been devastating to me personally. I’m not used to getting beat up in social media. I even feel bad for the team, which had nothing to do with it whatsoever.”

Eisenbraun said it was too early to know what tack the probe would take. Earlier Tuesday, the police spokesman noted that Chief Karl Jegeris had been in conversations with civic center staff about the incident.

The episode comes just weeks before Rapid City voters go to the polls March 10 to decide the fate of the proposed $180 million expansion of the civic center. At a Tuesday morning coffee klatch at which the planned expansion was discussed, Payu Harris told attendees the incident made supporting the proposal problematic.

“I’m hearing words like ‘boycott,’” Harris said. “How do I go back (to other Native Americans) with that positive message” that they should vote for the civic center expansion?

Baltzer said the incident would undoubtedly lead to enhanced security at the civic center as well as additional training for staff.

Asked if the entire incident could be attributed to over-consumption of alcohol, Baltzer said he had no way of knowing if drinking contributed to such behavior.

“It’s hard to catch everything when there are 5,000 people in attendance,” he said, sighing. “I think it is possible they were mental midgets with the added courage of drinking, but I don’t know. I did get a report they were drinking beer, but I don’t know their stage of drunkenness.

“We do refuse admittance to people who are clearly too intoxicated. We do cut people off just like a bar, or we eject them, or there can be further action,” Baltzer added.

Calls seeking comment from American Horse School Principal Jodi Richards, one of the student chaperones at Saturday night’s game, were not immediately returned Tuesday.