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Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published July 15 2013

Woman pleads guilty in Fargo federal court in death of 2-year-old step-grandaughter

FARGO — In a sudden close to one part of the ongoing Spirit Lake Nation child protection drama, Hope Tomahawk Whiteshield pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court here Monday to felony child abuse and witness tampering in the death last month of her toddler step-granddaughter.

Each count carries a potential sentence of 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. Under terms of a plea agreement, the government will recommend a total prison sentence of 30 years on the two felony charges, while Whiteshield has agreed not to seek a sentence of less than 25 years.

U.S. District Judge Ralph Erickson accepted the plea agreement after he asked Whiteshield a series of questions to determine whether she understood her rights and the consequences of the pleas.

Erickson ordered a presentencing investigation and said a date for a sentencing hearing would be set later. He denied a request from Whiteshield’s federal public defender that she be allowed to live in a Mandan, N.D., halfway house until sentencing. She will remain a federal prisoner at the Grand Forks County Correctional Center, though Erikson said she could be transferred to a facility nearer her home if federal marshals authorize that.

Whiteshield, 32, first appeared in federal court in Grand Forks on June 20, a week and a day after she threw Laurynn down an embankment by the family’s home near St. Michael, N.D. According to the criminal complaint, she told investigators that she threw Laurynn and pushed Laurynn’s twin sister over the embankment and into a ditch because she “was getting depressed about having kids all the time.”

Laurynn would have turned 3 years old this Friday. She and her twin sister had been living in a Bismarck foster home for about two years until Spirit Lake authorities ordered them returned to the reservation in early May and placed with their grandfather, Freeman Whiteshield.

Hope Whiteshield lived in St. Michael on the reservation, with her husband, three of her biological children and a niece, and since May the twin sisters.

The safety of children on the reservation has been a major issue for the past year and a half following several instances of children reported killed, abused or sexually abused.

“This was an important step toward obtaining justice in this case,” U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon said after Monday’s court proceedings. “Given our commitment to protecting children at Spirit Lake, this was an important outcome for us.”

Family present

Roxanne Cavanaugh of Fort Totten, N.D., who identified herself as Hope Whiteshield’s aunt, was one of about five relatives or friends who were in court Monday.

“I wish she could have talked to us about it first,” Cavanaugh said, referring to the depression she believes her niece suffers from.

Under questioning from Judge Erickson, Whiteshield said she was an alcoholic but had been sober about eight months. She said her schooling ended after 11th grade. Richard Henderson, her public defender, told the court she understands the charges against her and the plea agreement and is capable of making decisions.

She confirmed the account contained in the criminal complaint of what happened on June 12, including her statements to the other children that they should not tell anyone what happened to Laurynn, the basis for the felony charge of witness tampering.

Jan Morley, the assistant U.S. attorney who has handled the case, read from the complaint prior to the judge’s accepting the plea agreement, referring to Laurynn by her initials.

Whiteshield, the prosecutor said, first caused Laurynn’s twin to fall down the embankment. The sister “landed on her back, got up and began to cry,” but was not seriously hurt.

“Whiteshield then picked up L.W. around L.W.’s waist and threw her down the embankment. … L.W. landed on her stomach and struck her head on the ground. After the fall, L.W. was breathing and her eyes were half open, but she did not move and made no sound.”

Whiteshield carried Laurynn inside, bathed her, dressed her in pajamas and put her to bed, Morley said. “L.W. remained nonresponsive throughout this time. Whiteshield did not seek medical attention for L.W.” and “instructed the children not to tell anybody, including Freeman, what happened to L.W.”

The twins’ grandfather went to check on them the next morning, June 13, and found Laurynn “cold and blue.” He drove with Hope to a neighbor’s house to call 911, and then returned to perform CPR on the child until medical personnel arrived.

Laurynn was pronounced dead at a hospital in Devils Lake. A medical examiner’s preliminary autopsy report said she died from blunt force trauma to the head, with other injuries that “would not be caused by the normal day-to-day activities of a child her age.”