FBI: 3-year-old witnessed triple slaying in Mont.

October 6, 2011 - 10:20 PM

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A 3-year-old child witnessed the killing of three people in a remote area of Montana's Crow Indian Reservation and named a family member as the shooter, according to an FBI affidavit.

Sheldon Bernard Chase, 22, was captured in Washington state Wednesday after a multi-state manhunt and made an initial appearance before a judge Thursday. He's accused of killing his grandmother, cousin and cousin's boyfriend at their rural home on Tuesday.

Dressed in a yellow jumpsuit and wearing leg shackles, Chase gave yes and no answers to a series of questions from U.S. Magistrate Cynthia Imbrogno on Thursday, and asked to be returned to Montana as soon as possible.

The violence inside a prominent Crow family known for its adherence to traditional tribal values has roiled the reservation south of Billings. An FBI affidavit filed in the criminal complaint against Chase offers new insight into what happened.

Chase suffers from mental illness, according to authorities and those who know him. The affidavit said Chase had stopped taking his medications prior to the shootings, although it does not specify when or what the medications were.

A day before the shootings, he left his mother's house on North Dakota's Fort Berthold Reservation taking with him a "Sitting Bull commemorative gun," according to the affidavit.

Shortly before noon Tuesday, Chase's 21-year-old cousin, Levon Driftwood, sent a text saying Chase had made it to the Crow Reservation, where he had been attending college and living with extended family in a small cluster of houses about 10 miles outside Lodge Grass.

The matriarch of the tight-knit clan, Gloria Cummins, had suffered a stroke several years ago and was cared for by Driftwood. Driftwood and boyfriend Ruben Jefferson had two-year-old and three-year-old sons, and the affidavit indicates two children were home when Chase arrived.

Within minutes, a fight ensued between Chase and Driftwood's boyfriend, Rueben Jefferson. Chase shot Jefferson, Cummins and Driftwood, and was seen by a neighbor driving away from Cummins' house at 12:10 p.m., according to the affidavit.

"During an interview of one child, age 3 years, he disclosed Chase and RCJ (Jefferson) were fighting and Chase shot RCJ. The child further stated Chase also shot GSC (Cummins) and LFD (Driftwood)," the affidavit stated.

Jefferson's body was found outside the house by FBI and Bureau of Indian Affairs agents who responded to the scene. The bodies of Cummins and Driftwood were inside, and all three had gunshot wounds to the head or face. Authorities allege Chase used a high-powered hunting rifle in the killings.

Chase's former employer described him as acting erratically in the past, when he was said to cycle on and off medications for mental illness.

"When he was on his medications, he was a nice guy. When he came off them, he would just keep wandering around and around," said Doug McCormick, owner of the Little Horn IGA, a supermarket where Chase stocked groceries part time. "He was a different duck."

McCormick said he did not know what medications Chase was taking or what illness he suffered from. He said he did not have direct knowledge of when Chase was taking medications but that it was discussed among his employees.

Authorities so far have offered scant details of Chase's mental health history. The priest at the Catholic church in Lodge Grass that Chase frequented, Father Jim Antoine, said Chase had witnessed a traumatic event as a teenager that left him "haunted."

Others in the community have described Chase as a loner who spoke infrequently but was always well-dressed and had a close relationship with Cummins and other family members.

His capture Wednesday afternoon in Spokane followed a manhunt that stretched from the rugged Crow countryside across much of the northern U.S. Chase was arrested without incident near the Spokane Valley Mall, more than 600 miles west of Lodge Grass, by a team of federal and local law enforcement officers.

Frank Harrill, FBI supervisor in Spokane, said agents learned that Chase was in the Spokane area and converged on the scene. He declined to reveal how agents got their information.

Chase was being held on three counts of first-degree murder, and his bail hearing will be held after he is returned to Montana. He faces life in prison if convicted.

Schools on reservations in southeastern Montana and western North Dakota were closed and residents stayed indoors for safety during the search.

Eric Barnhart, FBI supervisor in Billings, said investigators were still trying to piece together what led to the shooting.

"At this point, we still don't know," he said following Chase's capture. "With some history of mental illness, that's an X factor."

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Geranios reported from Spokane.