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Sunday, March 17, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Brutal 1980 Murder Raises Racial Tensions -- Indians Say Bail, Long Delay Before Arrest Are Evidence Of Prejudice

Knight-Ridder Newspapers

MOBRIDGE, S.D. - In tiny Mobridge, South Dakota, the unraveling of a murder mystery threatens to divide the community along racial lines. Sixteen years ago, Candace Rough Surface, a young Native-American woman, was raped and killed, her body found outside town. One of the two white men accused of the crime is from a prominent, well-liked family.

Few in this South Dakota town seem able to escape the controversy. Even the local Catholic priest, the Rev. Richard Ortmeier, whose given Native-American name is Chasing Cloud, hasn't

managed to stay neutral.

It all started with the unsolved murder of Candace Rough Surface. In 1980, the 18-year-old Lakota woman was beaten, raped, shot to death, then chained behind a pickup truck, dragged through a field and dumped by the Missouri River. For more than 15 years, no arrest was made.

But last October, the mystery began to unravel when charges were brought against two white men: James Stroh and Nicholas Scherr, a member of a well-liked Mobridge family and brother of former Olympics wrestlers Bill and Jim Scherr.

Today, the case threatens to divide the races here, the way the Missouri River splits the mostly white farming town from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

It took a messy divorce and testimony by Stroh, 30, Scherr's cousin, to give law officials the break they had sought for all those years.

Stroh had confided his part in the slaying to his wife. When the divorce grew contentious last fall, his mother-in-law contacted authorities and told them his secret.

Soon, Stroh was offered a deal: He would face reduced charges if he testified against Scherr, 31.

Authorities taped a telephone conversation between Scherr and Stroh, in which Scherr allegedly admitted complicity in the killing.

A night on the town

Until Stroh agreed to cooperate, not much was known about Candace Rough Surface's activities that summer night.

Candace was the second-youngest of 12 children. She was not interested in school, but was not afraid to work. She held paying jobs until her death. She got pregnant as a teenager and gave birth to a son, Homer Eagle, now 17.

Her family said she had gone to a bar, Joker's Wild, which catered to 18-year-olds - such as herself - who could then legally drink low-alcohol beer.

According to Stroh, Rough Surface approached him and other teen-age males drunk and looking for sex. The trio of teenagers - Rough Surface, Stroh and Scherr - went to a party in the trailer home of ranch hand Steve Sheldon north of Mobridge. Though Rough Surface rebuffed sexual advances at the party, the three left together in Scherr's pickup truck, according to Stroh.

Stroh said that Rough Surface, began threatening Scherr and hitting Stroh. He said Scherr drove into a nearby pasture and stopped the truck. Then, Stroh said, his cousin dragged her outside and began beating her.

Stroh said the two cousins took turns raping the terrified, whimpering woman before shooting her twice in the back and three times behind her right ear. Then, so as not to bloody the truck, they chained Rough Surface behind it and dragged her through a farm field to a Missouri River inlet, where they dumped her body.

The Missouri yields a secret

Nine months later, on May 19, 1981, Sheldon - the ranch hand and party host - came upon the skeletal remains of Rough Surface, exposed by the receding waters of the Missouri River.

Sheriff James Spiry said Scherr's name came up in the initial investigation. But he said authorities got sidetracked on another lead that turned out to be a dead end.

In exchange for his cooperation, Stroh faces a maximum 25 years in prison on charges of manslaughter and assault.

Scherr's attorney, Reed A. Rasmussen of Aberdeen, S.D., hinted that the defense will be built around weaknesses in Stroh's credibility. Under Rasmussen's questioning, Stroh admitted in the Nov. 6 hearing to memory lapses and drug and alcohol use starting at age 12.

Scherr was able to raise $200,000 bond and is now living in Mobridge and working as a diesel mechanic.

Shock on both sides

In Mobridge and even on the bordering reservation, Stroh's account of the crime provoked disbelief and shock.

"It makes a person think how bad white people hate Indians," said Morris Yellow, the victim's brother-in-law. "I'll go to my grave thinking that."

Kyle Jensen, a white man who knows Scherr, echoed the sentiments of many in town: "I couldn't believe it. I would have never guessed it in a million years."

Father Ortmeier became ensnared in the controversy on a recent Sunday, when he gave Scherr's mother his signature on a petition. The document asked for her son's release from jail pending the April 22 trial.

More than 100 townsfolk, most of them white, signed the petition, and it struck a raw nerve with Native Americans, who

saw a racial motive and what they call a "just-an-Indian" mentality at work behind the petition and talk in town that the case should be dropped because the murder happened so long ago.

"That's what really raised the ire of the Indian people," says Phyllis Young, the Lakota chairwoman of the Standing Rock Gaming Commission. "That's what we've been afraid of, because in South Dakota, it's all right to kill an Indian."

"If this was an Indian man, he'd be cooked by now," says Rob Renville, a Native American who is vocational-education counselor on the reservation.

Old attitudes run deep

One does not have to wander far off Main Street in Mobridge to find examples of the "just-an-Indian" mentality at work.

"These Indians, they kill each other all the time anyway," said a white shopkeeper during a recent interview. "If they don't, they get drunk and freeze to death. It's kind of an everyday thing." The shopkeeper feared having his name published, because his comments might drive away his Native-American customers.

In such an atmosphere, area Native Americans fear that justice will not be done, especially if an all-white jury is seated.

They formed a Justice For Candace Committee on the vast, 2.3 million-acre reservation, home to 6,200 mostly-Sioux Indians. In December, 300 people marched from the Rough Surface home in Kenel, S.D. to the murder site.

At one point, the group considered organizing a boycott of Mobridge's merchants. But the group decided they were too dependent on the town, the main commercial district in a 60-mile radius.

Alberta Rough Surface, now 71, the victim's mother, and other family members say they endorse the campaigns on Candace's behalf, but don't want to contribute to a deterioration in race relations.

"People in this town seem to think that just because somebody's Indian, they don't care about family," said Clara Rough Surface, the victim's older sister. "We're not trying to raise a ruckus. We just want justice for Candace."

The family wonders whether racist attitudes or local politics played a role in derailing the original investigation. They note that Stroh told several people about the killing, and that several other people in town attended the teenage drinking party that immediately preceded the murder.

Sheriff Spiry, who is white, believes Scherr is guilty. But he, too, fears the outcome may go another way.

"In the back of law enforcement's mind is, `Supposing they pull another O.J.?' " Spiry said, referring to the acquittal of O.J. Simpson by a mostly African-American jury.

"Then we'll see trouble," Spiry predicts.

Separate and unequal

The rift between the races is especially distressing to locals, because for years whites and Native Americans have shopped at the same stores, worked side by side and married one another.

But the races are not equal. Native Americans own few businesses and teach in none of the nontribal public schools, even those where most students are Lakota. Native Americans complain of being tailed like thieves in stores, of having trouble getting hired for jobs, and of second-class treatment in general.

Whites complain about entrenched alcoholism, crime and joblessness on the reservation. And those problems are unmistakable: Reservation unemployment is 60 percent, public drunkenness is easy to spot on the bleak streets of the reservation town of McLaughlin, and the majority of Walworth County Jail inmates are Native American.

Many whites in town worry about Scherr's chance to get a fair trial and are adamant in their defense of him.

"I don't think it's going to be a fair trial myself," said Tim Quenzer, a friend of Scherr. "Because of all the write-ups in the papers, everybody's got him convicted before he's even tried." Scherr's boss at Central Diesel Sales, Ronald Unterseher, was among those who signed the controversial petition.

"I signed that and I'd sign it again, because I think he's innocent," said Unterseher. When asked whether Scherr will get a fair trial, Unterseher smiled slightly and said: "Sure, O.J. got a fair trial."

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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